Cheese, Fruit, Random Thoughts, Salad, Science, Vegetables

Brilliant disguise.

There is something inherently fascinating about things that are not what they appear to be. Throughout history, people have engaged in masquerades, discarding their true identities in favor of new ones, even if only temporarily. Insects and reptiles and sea creatures assume other colors and forms to deceive predators; in a sophisticated double ruse, the viceroy and monarch butterflies resemble each other, with each posing as its distasteful counterpart. Objects sometimes even pose as other objects. The National Palace Museum in Taipei maintains on permanent display two pieces of sculpture – one, a slab of jasper, the “Meat-Shaped Stone,” rendered as red-cooked pork belly; the other, a chunk of jadeite carved into a head of Chinese cabbage – that perfectly mimic pieces of food, so perfectly one cannot help but circle the display case, nose to the glass, squinting at the detail, marveling at the success of the deception. The Meat-Shaped Stone in particular is uncanny, having wholly abandoned the hard qualities of rock and in favor of the wobbly, fatty qualities of braised pork, down to the tiny follicle pores on the glazed rind.

Meat-Shaped Stone

Even actual food sometimes masquerades as other food, or even as inedible matter. There’s a certain fetish in modernist cuisine for trompe l’oeil cooking, things that fool the eye. Faux “caviar” tasting nothing like fish eggs is probably the most common deception, but you also will encounter near-perfect facsimiles of garden topsoil made from dried chicory, roots, and tubers at restaurants like Manresa and Noma, or kaolin-shelled potatoes resembling hot stones at Mugaritz. This fascination with culinary mimicry extends to more quotidian foods like cake, which appears in the guise of whole jack o’lanterns, Barbies, and the revolting “kitty litter cake,” in which Tootsie Rolls stand in for cat feces and serving the cake in a genuine cat litter box is considered the pièce de résistance of presentation. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could eat anything designed to look like someone took a shit in a box, but judging from the online popularity of the cake I seem to be in the minority. The height of bacon-sausage gonzo-ness a few years ago yielded grandiose projects like entire football stadiums crafted from summer sausage, blocks of cheese, and crackers. Now, Wisconsin girls love to party with sausage and dairy products, but there’s a point at which fashioning snacks into architectural wonders starts to take on a clown college quality.

A philosophical inquiry into the nature of mimicry deserves its own discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the food. For example, the flesh of a tomato looks like raw ahi. And a mozzarella ball is the same shape as a tomato. Can the tomato become a convincing ahi tartare? Can the mozzarella ball become a tomato?

Caprese salad

The inspiration for this dish is Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit,” one of the most famous trompe l’oeil foods and an homage to the medieval craft of disguising meat-based items as realistic-looking fruit. Blumenthal fashions foie gras mousse into a sphere and dips it in a mandarin gel, yielding an eerily realistic facsimile of a mandarin orange, down to the orange-peel texture. Rather than coating a meat base with the tomato gel, I thought mozzarella would be a better pairing. Taking it one step further, burrata is even more delicious and is soft enough to accommodate an injection of basil pesto. The resulting dish looks like a small tomato, but tastes like a caprese salad.

IMG_8030On the left, the real thing. On the right, the impostor.

A note: store-bought burrata is notoriously expensive and never nearly as fresh as it should be, so make your own if you can or don’t bother spending the extra money on burrata. Just buy fresh mozzarella instead. Due to the presence of rennet, burrata will continue to firm up over time as the enzyme sets the dairy proteins in the cream filling. There is nothing you can do to stop this process short of eating the burrata before it totally sets.

Burrata

I don’t recall where I learned this recipe, but it’s a pretty bog-standard recipe for burrata. Temperature control is pretty important to a good finished product so be sure to use an accurate digital thermometer.

1000 ml whole milk
1/4 tsp calcium chloride
2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tsp liquid rennet
water
1 tsp salt
60 ml heavy cream

Combine the calcium chloride and the milk; whisk thoroughly to dissolve. Then dissolve the citric acid in about 1/4 c cold water and whisk into the milk over low heat. Bring to 88F-90F, stirring constantly.

Mix the rennet with a couple tablespoons of water (precise quantities are not terribly important) and add to the warmed milk. Stir several turns around the pot with a wooden spoon, and then let stand for about 10-15 minutes until the milk has set and pulls away slightly from the edge of the pot. Do not agitate or disturb at all during the setting process or your mozzarella will not form.

Once set, slice into 1″ cubes with a sharp knife. Bring the pot back up to 105F-108F, stirring gently with a silicone spatula to even out the temperature as the liquid heats. The curds should mostly lump together and fall to the bottom of the pot; some bits, ricotta curd-like, will float on top. Once the pot reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes, continuing to stir gently from time to time.

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Strain out the curd, as much as you can, with a skimmer, into a fine mesh strainer. Strain out the remaining bits through another mesh strainer and add to the rest of the curd. Remove about 25% of the curd to a small bowl and combine with 1/4 tsp salt and the heavy cream. Set aside.

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Divide the curd into eight equal portions. Perform the following steps on each portion, start to finish, before moving on to the next one. Place in a microwave-safe bowl, microwave on high for about 45 seconds, and, using a wooden spoon, press against the side of the bowl to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt on the curd and knead on a ceramic plate, folding over itself and kneading as you would bread, until it is smooth.

Press into a circle with slightly thinner edges; add 1/8 of the creamed curd and gather up like a purse. Place in a square of clingfilm and twist to tie. Set in a muffin/cupcake tin to maintain the shape. Repeat until all the curd and filling are used.

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Pesto alla Farina

I can’t take credit for this pesto method; it’s my guess at the delicious pesto alla genovese I enjoyed at Farina in San Francisco a few years ago. Whereas a traditional basil pesto is made by pounding basil leaves to a paste with oil before incorporating cheese and pine nuts, in this case the pine nuts and olive oil are emulsified first with blanched garlic to form a thick, creamy base; the basil is then spun into the mix until it yields a bright green, smooth paste.

2 garlic cloves
100g pine nuts
125 ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian (grassy but not peppery)
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano
3 c basil
Sea salt

Blanch the garlic in simmering water for one minute. Drain.

Combine the pine nuts and olive oil in a blender and process until smooth. Add the blanched garlic and cheese and process again. Then add the basil; process until smooth. Season with salt as necessary.

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Tomato gel

This is a simple gel based on gelatin, which melts in the mouth. If using the tomato leaves freaks you out, you don’t need them. They just add a little bit of fresh tomato taste to the gel (and are not poisonous in the amounts you would typically use). The beetroot powder helps deepen the color intensity of the tomato gel but, again, is not essential.

1 kg ripe red tomatoes
salt
2 tbsp tomato paste (double concentrated)
4 tomato leaves
1/4 tsp beetroot powder
20g gelatin leaves

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh. Place the pulp and any accumulated juice in a strainer and allow the juice to drip out. Blend the juice with the flesh in a vitaprep and set aside for an hour to allow the solids to float up. Skim them off. This will not be a totally clear liquid as one would obtain through agar or gelatin clarification, but rather a more turbid juice; too clear, and it will not be opaque enough for the finished dish.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cold water and squeeze out. Measure out 250g of the juice and combine with the beetroot powder, tomato paste, and hydrated gelatin. Heat until well blended and then cool to about 50F. The gel should be somewhat thick but not set.

To assemble:

Unwrap a burrata sphere and inject the center, through the top, with the pesto. Fill the grooves with pesto as well and place in the freezer on a wax-paper lined plate or sheet pan for 15 minutes, with a skewer vertically through the center.

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Dip the spheres in the tomato gel, holding by the skewer. Return to the wax paper and re-freeze. Repeat twice (you probably will need three or four dips in the gel to achieve the right appearance). If the dipped cheese sticks to the wax paper, use a spoon to lift it off the paper so the tomato gel doesn’t come loose.

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Serve with bread and olive oil; refrigerate “tomatoes” if not using immediately.

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Tomato tartare

Tuna tartare, usually made with ahi, has become somewhat cliché. It’s always formed in a ring mold with mimosa eggs or raw quail egg yolk, “Asian-ized” with sesame oil, soy, and some kind of citrus, or tossed with avocado and served on pita chips. Guy Fieri serves it in tacos at the same Times Square restaurant Pete Wells reviewed, in a blistering takedown, two years ago. Guy Fieri. I rest my case.

It’s more interesting to make a tomato salad that looks like a tuna tartare. A spherified yellow tomato purée stands in for a raw egg yolk; the compressed tomato is a dead ringer for diced tuna, punctuated with onion, mustard, and herbs. When you pierce the sphere, it will run, just like the yolk. If you don’t want to make the spherified tomato, just skip it. Capers or diced pickled vegetables are also perfectly cromulent additions to this salad.

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500g large yellow tomatoes
500g large red tomatoes
1 tbsp shiro shoyu (white soy)
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
sodium alginate .8%
calcium chloride .5%
small white onion
small bunch chives
smal bunch tarragon
2 tsp dijon mustard (I used an espelette mustard)
2 tbsp olive oil
black pepper
edible flowers and additional herbs if desired
salt
piment d’espelette

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh, leaving only the exterior flesh. Reserve the pulp, interior flesh, and any accumulated juice.

Combine the vinegar and shoyu. Pack the trimmed red tomato flesh in a vacuum bag, in a single layer, and add the vinegar mixture. Vacuum. Set aside. Note: if you do not have the means to vacuum pack your tomato dice, the tomato will not firm up, as it would under vacuum, and the dice will not remain very distinct. If you do have access to calcium chloride, you can set the tomato halves in a .1% solution for 30 minutes and then dice as specified below.

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Place the trimmed yellow tomato, plus any juice drained from the pulp and interior flesh, in a container and weigh out 250g into a blender. Add 2g alginate, 1/2 tsp salt, and blitz until fully dispersed. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

Blend together the calcium chloride and water (5g per 1000g water; scale down if you like). Drop the alginate/tomato blend by a small scoop or dosing spoon into the calcium bath and set for about 30-45 seconds, until the exterior skin has formed but the spheres are still wobbly. Drain with a perforated spoon and place in a plain water bath.

Finely dice the vacuum packed red tomato. Finely dice the white onion. Whisk together the mustard, oil, and 1 tbsp each minced tarragon and chive. Stir in the tomato and onion dice. Note: again, if you do not have access to the means to vacuum your tomatoes, you can try leaving the dice in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for about an hour. The liquid will drip out. This will not substantially improve the firmness of the tomatoes but it will make them less liquid.

Plate the tomato mixture and add the yellow tomato “yolk.” Garnish with herbs, flowers, and espelette.

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Beans, Beef, Cheese, Grains, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

American Beauty.

I recently took some grief on Facebook for posting a photo of a sausage, potato, and cabbage supper – specifically, the bratwurst from a couple weeks ago. To quote my critic: “Funny … if I made medisterpølse with rødkål and brasekartofler, I probably wouldn’t post it,” followed by the smiley face icon that is universal internet shorthand for “I’m just sayin.” In other words, barely a step up from unwrapping and snapping a photo of Lunchables. I guess some Danes are all uppity about Noma and Geranium and Formel B these days, what with being the epicenter of modern microcuisine and all. That’s fine. It doesn’t change the basic fact that great house made sausage is one of the most delicious things you can eat.

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary,” preened Angela Hayes in American Beauty, without a clue what ordinariness means. There’s an idea among some food people that familiar foods are categorically ordinary – declassé, and “unhealthy.” It’s a little like people who move to Manhattan or Los Angeles and try to erase all vestiges of their midwestern upbringing in favor of a more sophisticated mien. A recent discussion of the merits/demerits of the KFC Double Down was a virtual clinic on the taxonomy of food snobs. In the “Fancier than Thou” category (and overlapping with “My Body Is a Temple”), were dramatic statements like “Buying food from chain restaurants is cultural destruction” and “We’re eating the values that go with the food.” From “Ill Informed Know-It-All” (overlapping with “Fancier Than Thou”), came declarations like “The Guardian [news] is in the vanguard of pimping ‘American Casual Dining’ to its sheep-like, trend-obsessed readers. … The middle classses are now gorging on the same food marketed as ‘hipster’ and ‘gourmet.'” Everyone has encountered “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” in at least one of its many guises, including “I don’t eat it if it’s not organic” and “I don’t have celiac disease but gluten is as evil as vaccination,” especially if said gluten takes the form of supermarket white bread or mass-produced pasta, not grains hand-threshed by seed-saving heirloom farmers with Master’s degrees in pre-revolutionary French history. I’m not defending the Double Down, you understand, but if I pound out two organic chicken breasts, bread them using fresh crumbs from homebaked bread, fry them in the rendered fat from ibérico bacon strips and bind the sandwich together with Fontina Val d’Aosta, is the result any less caloric? Comparatively speaking, is this sandwich or the Double Down more or less the supposed culinary equivalent of knocking over the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the name of religious fanaticism?

food snob taxonomy

Interestingly, you can get a pass from the food snobs if the foods of your childhood happen to be “ethnic” – and accordingly out of the ordinary – by American standards. Packaged ramen, for example, was basically the lowest form of college poverty shame food in the US until David Chang declared in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach that, as a kid, he totally would eat the uncooked brick of ramen for a snack, whereupon it became a cheeky sort of treat. (Full disclosure: Yours truly did this as well as a kid, and the desk drawers in my bedroom were always littered with broken ramen crumbs.) This kind of fetishism is its own kind of food snobbery, and one with a hideously ethnocentric and sometimes even racist component, but that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s deal with the idea that “traditional American” food, if that’s even a meaningful concept, can be extraordinary and is not something to run from in embarrassment.

Knackwurst and Cheddarwurst

Cheddarwurst is a Wisconsin thing. If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve had it, and if you haven’t had it, you probably aren’t from Wisconsin. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a smoked sausage with Cheddar cheese. Cheddarwurst horrifies food snobs because, despite combining two delicious foods in one compact, tubular package, its most readily available representation is from the likes of Hillshire Farms, a dreaded manufacturer of processed foods. And you won’t find cheddarwurst anywhere in Germany, so get out your Food Snob Taxonomy and shade in the intersection of “Fancier Than Thou” and “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” the bright annatto hue of melted American cheese. Crayola Yellow-Orange will do nicely. You can hand it over to the authenticity police when they come to haul you away.

As a Wisconsin girl, I found cheddarwurst a matter of great interest in my youth. I always assumed some sort of high-pressure cheese squirting device was involved in its manufacture. Now, as an experienced sausagemaker, I know the truth is probably far simpler – a stabilized cheese is mixed into the sausage meat before stuffing. Because cheddarwurst is an emulsified sausage – typically based on knackwurst – the melted cheese will not leach into the sausage and disappear, as it might with looser-structured sausages like the bratwurst. Instead, it merely resides, melted, in little pockets until someone bites or cuts through those pockets (or until the sausage cools and the cheese regains its integrity). The sausage meat should be deep pink from curing and smoking, and should virtually explode with juice as you bite through the skin. A little sausage erudition: the reason knackwurst, cheddarwurst, and similar emulsified sausages are snappy and juicy is the water within. When the sausages are heated, the water expands within the casing. The contents of the casing are literally under pressure. You’re welcome.

If you want knackwurst instead of cheddarwurst, just leave out the cheese. I recommend going half and half, making about 3 lbs each knackwurst and cheddarwurst. You must use some form of stabilized cheese to make this or risk greasy pools of orange cheese fat when you heat the sausages. I have provided a recipe for the stabilized cheese I used in this sausage.

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1150g beef chuck (with interior fat)
780g pork shoulder (with fat cap)
220g pork belly
40g salt
5g TCM
7g paprika
4g mace
2g ground coriander
13g black pepper
2g smoked garlic powder
large pinch cloves
120g nonfat dry milk
220g ice water
250g processed cheese (see Extra: Processed Cheese elsewhere on this site)
hog casings

Cube all the meats and fat and freeze until firm but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients. Set aside. Soak the hog casings in ice water for 30 minutes; rinse three times under running water. Hold in ice water until ready to use.

Toss the frozen meats with about half the dry seasonings. Grind through a medium die into a large metal mixer bowl. Immediately toss well with the remaining dry ingredients and incorporate thoroughly by hand. Then add the ice water and mix well to emulsify, increasing mixer speed from low to medium-high. Do not overmix to avoid breakage. The mixture must be ice cold when you add the water. It will become somewhat loose when you first pour in the water but will firm up somewhat as the water is incorporated. Cook a test quenelle and add more salt or other seasonings as necessary.

Before emulsifying.

Before emulsifying.

Once emulsified.

Once emulsified.

Dice the cheese about 1/4″. By hand, stir it into the emulsified sausage, distributing as evenly as possible.

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Fill a sausage stuffer and load on the soaked and rinsed hog casings. Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Place in a single layer on a sheet pan and dry in the refrigerator 12-24 hours. Turn over and dry the other side another 12-24 hours.

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Drape the links over a rotisserie skewer or similar and smoke over hardwood for about 2 hours at 88C/190F to an internal temperature of about 71C/160F. Try to avoid letting the individual links touch or you will have to reposition them to ensure even smoking.

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Depending on the size of your links, this may take somewhat longer. Do not allow the smoker to heat over 120C/250F and watch it carefully if it reaches temperatures over 100C/212F or your sausages may burst or leak during smoking.

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Brown in an oiled pan over low heat, or grill indirectly over coals, before serving.

Red beans and rice, auf Deutsch

Why auf Deutsch? Well, red beans and rice are traditionally made with tasso, andouille, or other Louisiana cured, pickled, or smoked pork products, and I’m using the knackwurst made above. I don’t want the authenticity police on my back, so let’s call it German-influenced Creole, or Creole-influenced German.

In keeping with the Creole aspect of the dish, I used a Louisiana popcorn rice, bred for its nutty, buttery flavor. After learning of Sean Brock’s method of preparing Carolina Gold, which he has served to great effect at Husk in a dish called Charleston Ice Cream, I tried it out with the Louisiana rice, aging the rice in sealed containers for a year with bay leaves from our garden, and parboiling the finished product before finishing in a low oven, with butter. The results are spectacular, even if you don’t age the rice first with bay. Try it on its own before adding the red beans and sausage.

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For the beans:

2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 whole head garlic
1/2 lb dried red kidney beans

For the broth:

3 stalks celery
1 medium yellow onion
2 serrano chiles or one very hot jalepeño, seeded and stemmed
1 cubanelle pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp rendered bacon fat
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 1/2 c smoked chicken stock or pork stock

For the rice:

1 1/2 c Louisiana popcorn rice
6 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 branches parsley
3 tbsp butter

To finish:

2 knackwurst, from above
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
Tabasco
pickled ramps
3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
chives, sliced thinly
assorted herbs and flowers: chive blossom, dianthus, oxalis, thyme, woodruff, sorrel, pea tendrils, anything growing at the moment that is edible and sounds good to you

Cover the kidney beans in water to cover plus three inches, with 1 tsp salt. Cover and stand 12 hours.

Combine the kidney beans with about 6 c water, bay leaves, halved garlic head, thyme, and 1 tsp salt, and cook for about 8 minutes at 15 psi in a pressure cooker (25 minutes if you do not soak). After releasing pressure, drain well and set aside in a colander.

Finely dice (1/4″) each of the celery, onion, and serrano chile. Thinly slice the garlic. Roast the cubanelle over an open flame and place in a sealed bag to steam off the skin. Dice finely, removing the seeds. Sweat the vegetables in bacon fat over low heat, seasoning with a little salt. Add the spices and dried thyme, and saute a minute to bring out the aromas. Add the bay leaves and thyme, and the stock. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the drained beans. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add white pepper, salt, and Tabasco to taste.

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Meanwhile, cook the rice. 200F oven. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and 1 tbsp salt. When it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir to prevent sticking. Maintain heat at a low boil for 15 minutes and drain, discarding the herbs. Spread on a sheet pan in a thin, even layer. [At this point, if you are preparing for later service, chill it down immediately in the freezer, cover with clingfilm once completely cold, and refrigerate until 30 minutes before service.] Stud with the butter and the remaining bay leaves. Bake another 18 minutes and stir.

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Cook the knackwurst over low heat until the sausage is taut and plump. Slice each into four pieces. Ladle the beans and broth in the bottom of a bowl, add a mound of rice, garnish with the sausage and the various herbs and flowers.

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Beef, Brassicas, Cheese, Offal, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Soup, Vegetables

Cheeky.

One of the most interesting aspects of social networking is its potential to unintentionally reveal the truth about the self, the person behind the crafted public image. Along these lines, a surprisingly large number of self-described “foodies” – the kind of people who TiVo Food Network and would throw their panties at Michael Symon if he turned up in a local supermarket – evidently find certain foods too scary to eat. “I love ya Chef but sweetbreads I don’t think so……LOL!” goes one recent zinger on Facebook. “Ewwww….tongue!” says another. You can’t beat it for wit.

You already know about my low tolerance for this infantile attitude toward food. This goes back a long time. The summer after graduating from law school, I went to Spain and Portugal with some friends, a trip that reached its nadir one night in Seville when, nerves frayed from two weeks of hairpin turns in a packed Peugeot, sweaty nights in a series of hostels without air conditioning, and a couple of travel companions who displayed a surprising lack of dietary sang-froid, we got into an argument at the restaurant. Sitting beside the Guadalquivir and surveying the platters landing at tables around us, one travel companion complained that nothing on the menu was edible because all the seafood and poultry came head-on and bone-in.

“Just … order it,” I gritted tightly. “That’s how it comes in Spain.”

“Well, it’s gross,” she shot back. “I don’t eat food with the heads on. I don’t care where we are.”

“We’re not in Roseville, Brenda*. Shrimp has heads. Chicken has bones. There is no goddamn boneless chicken ranch.”

At this point there was a great scraping of metal on concrete as Brenda pushed back her chair, stood up, and threw her napkin down on the table. “You – are – such – a – @$%&^*@ – $#@&$!” she shouted, storming off and attracting the full attention of the other diners, who I’m pretty sure got the gist of her outburst even if they didn’t speak English. Good times, good times.

Looking back, I probably could’ve been nicer about it. For example, if I were trying to ease someone into the idea of eating offal today, I’d serve them braised cheeks. They’re basically like any other cut of meat but better, with all the flavor concentrated in one small disc, bathed in a glossy sauce. The plentiful collagen in the cheeks – heavily exercised by all that chewing – accounts for the sauce’s body.

Iberico pork cheeks.

Cheeks aren’t always the easiest cut to find, but I encourage you to look around, because they’re well worth the hunt. If you’ve got access to a market that caters to a Latino clientele, you might find them, as they’re a favored cut (and I’ve heard that Wal-Marts with well-stocked meat departments sometimes carry them in the freezer section, so give that a shot – it may be the only time I ever endorse stopping into the Wal-Mart). If you can’t find cheeks, substitute shank, shoulder (in the case of pork), or short rib (in the case of beef). Don’t substitute pork belly; it’s a lot fattier than the cheek, and you’ll wind up with a greasy braise. And don’t substitute hog jowl; it resembles the belly more than the cheek.

Pork cheeks, celeriac pancake, apple

If you subscribe to the textural variation school of cooking – and I do – you will want something firm or crisp to accompany the cheeks, since they’re falling-apart tender and saucy. A celeriac-potato rösti-like cake makes a great accompaniment. Relieve the richness of the cheeks with a fresh apple salad. If you have leftover cheeks, enjoy them with toast points, cornichons, and mustard for lunch.

I used ibérico cheeks and highly recommend them; they had an intensely meaty, nutty flavor that I haven’t encountered in any other type of pork. If you’d like to try them, Iberico USA carries them. The long braising process in the flavorful liquid makes up for a lot of the shortcomings of conventional pork, though, so don’t hesitate to make this dish if you can’t spring for the ibérico cheeks. Keep the cooking temperature low, as near to 180F as you can, to ensure tenderness rather than stringiness. The intention of long cooking at low temperatures is to break the collagen down into gelatin, which then bathes the meat’s muscle fibers. Although it may seem that braised meats cannot become dry, this is untrue; the fibers in the cheek, like those in other heavily-exercised parts of the animal, are long and will become tough, dry, and unpleasantly stringy if they lose too much moisture. If that happens, you can notice the stringiness even when the meat is adequately coated in sauce. So don’t be tempted to cook at a higher temperature, and always be careful when reheating.

One last thing: in a conventional braise, the meat is browned first to develop rich, savory flavors via the Maillard reaction. I dispensed with this step because the cheeks are quite small and I wanted to reduce the possibility that the meat would toughen up. It turns out not to be necessary.

Oh, actually, one last last thing: the ibérico cheeks came in a pretty large Cryovac package and, when thawed, gave up a few cups of blood. I saved the blood, which smelled sweet and clean, and not slaughterhouse-y in that way that factory-farmed (CAFO) pork smells. I’ll be making blood sausage with that in the future, so watch for the post.

2 lb pork cheeks, cleaned of silverskin if necessary
one large onion, peeled and diced
two carrots, scraped and coarsely chopped
two stalks celery, coarsely chopped
16 oz ale
1 1/2 quart veal stock (substitute white beef stock or chicken stock)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp grated fresh horseradish root
bouquet garni

2 granny smith apples
lemon juice
chives, minced

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Add the vegetables and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the ale and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half. This step is necessary to reduce the booziness of the beer.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Stir in the mustard and horseradish; place the pork cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

After removing the cheeks

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Heat through.

Prepare a brunoise of the granny smith apples and toss with a little lemon juice to prevent browning. Then combine with the chives.

Serve the cheeks with celeriac rösti wedges and the apple-herb salad.

Iberico cheek, celeriac rosti, mustard, celeriac purée.

For the celeriac rösti:

This isn’t strictly a rösti, which classically features just potatoes and butter. It just sort of resembles one.

1/2 celeriac root, washed and peeled (use a knife to peel, not a peeler)
1/2 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 medium yellow onions, minced
1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp ground celery seed
pinch of cayenne or espelette pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
kosher salt to taste, at least 1 tsp and probably more
black pepper
celery salt to finish
vegetable oil and butter

Oven 425F on broil. Set the rack in the middle position of the oven.

Place a 12″ skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, flour, celery seed, cayenne, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet.

Shred the celeriac in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Toss with about 1/2 tsp lemon juice to prevent browning (try not to use more or it will be sour). Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes and celeriac to the egg mixture and stir well to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1 tbsp each butter and oil to the pan. Swirl the pan once the butter foams to coat the sides about 1″ up. Add the entire mixture and distribute evenly throughout the pan, patting to compress somewhat. Cook until the underside is golden brown and pulls away slightly from the sides; transfer to the broiler.

Cook until the top is golden brown. Remove,cool slightly, and transfer to a cutting board. Slice into wedges. Season with a grind of black pepper and a little celery salt.

Golden brown cake.

Beef cheek, ricotta dumpling, cauliflower soup

Certain cuts of beef taste to me like “generic meat.” Beef tenderloin, for example – I’ve never really understood the great love of filet mignon (although I imagine it corresponds with the fear of offal). Or the round – there’s nothing really wrong with it, but I’ve had a lot of roast beef made from the round, which tastes to me like AnyMeat. It could be the reason why I’ve never been able to get excited about deli roast beef sandwiches.

Beef cheek, though? You’ll never mistake that for anything other than beef. Along with the deckle and the short rib, it is one of the three cuts that deliver the most intense beef flavor per bite. The dish below – beef cheeks with dumplings and a creamy cauliflower soup, garnished with flash-fried cauliflower florets – is pretty rich, and a small-portions kind of thing. If you have fresh truffle, now is the time to use it.

You’ll have leftover beef cheek and braising reduction; you can shred up the cheeks in the reduction and toss it with tagliatelle or pappardelle.

For the beef cheek:

1 1/2 lb beef cheeks, cleaned of the most obvious gristle and silverskin
medium onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
bouquet garni (leek w/bay leaf, thyme, parsley)
2 c dry red wine
1 quart white beef stock or veal stock

180F/82C oven.

Place a heavy, lidded pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil. Sear the beef cheeks on all sides until deep brown (a couple of minutes per side). Remove to a plate. Add the vegetables to the pan and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the wine and scrape up the fond. Lower the heat and reduce by about half.

Add the stock and aromatics; return to simmer. Return the beef cheeks in the pot. Cover with parchment paper and then the lid; place in the oven. Alternatively, reduce the heat to the lowest setting and maintain just shy of a simmer. You may not achieve equivalent results on the stove since a consistently low heat is harder to achieve.

Braise 10-12 hours in the oven or about 5-6 hours on the stove. Check stove from time to time to ensure that the braise is not boiling.

When fork-tender, remove cheeks to a container. Strain the braising liquid through chinois over the cheeks to cover. Chill overnight (this step is not strictly necessary but it will make the fat easier to remove).

Remove cold fat layer from the top of the container. Return the braising liquid to a pan and reduce over low heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and return the cheeks to the pan. Gently heat through.

Serve with the cauliflower soup, flash fried cauliflower florets, and the dumplings. If you have fresh white truffle (or black), slice a little bit over the top.

Beef cheek, cauliflower, ricotta dumpling

Cauliflower soup

2/3 lb cauliflower florets and stems, sliced 1/4″
2 1/2 c white veal stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar (to taste)
5 tbsp butter
2/3 c heavy cream
salt and white pepper

To prepare sous vide:

Bag the cauliflower with the salt and 1 tbsp butter. Vacuum seal and drop into a circulator at 183F/84C for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a simmer with the bay and thyme.

Remove herbs. Transfer both cauliflower and stock to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

To prepare conventionally:

Bring the stock to a simmer with the thyme and bay leaf and, when add the cauliflower. Simmer until tender, about 8 minutes; do not continue to simmer beyond that point. Remove herbs.

Transfer to a vitaprep. Blitz until smooth and add the cream; blitz again until smooth. Add the butter; blitz again. If necessary, strain through a chinois. Season with salt, pepper, and vinegar.

For the dumplings:

1/2 lb whole milk ricotta
1 egg, beaten
between 3-5 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
minced assorted herbs – thyme, chives, tarragon, parsley

Combine the beaten egg with the minced herbs, salt, and the ricotta. Incorporate well. Spread out on a flat surface and sprinkle flour evenly over the surface; working quickly, fold the ricotta/egg mixture over itself again and again, using a bench scraper or knife to incorporate the flour into the ricotta, to form a small square. Transfer it back into a bowl and let it rest (you can rest it in the refrigerator for up to a day at this point, tightly covered).

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a simmer and, using a small scoop or two spoons, drop balls or quenelles of dumpling dough about 3/4″ into the simmering water. When the dumplings float, let them simmer for about a minute. Remove from the water with a skimmer and drain briefly on a clean kitchen towel.

With a cauliflower soup.

*names have been changed to protect the food-cowardly.

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Cheese, Italian, Random Thoughts, Science

It’s easy being cheesy.

One of the worst feelings from a cook’s standpoint is the realization that you’re missing an ingredient you were sure you had. It’s happened to us all – you go to prepare a mise en place and discover you left eggs off your shopping list, or could have sworn you had celery left over from making stock, but were mistaken. In our house, it’s usually lemons. My husband makes great iced tea, heavy on the lemons, and is notorious for using the last three or four lemons in the refrigerator in the process. At these times, I envy my brother and his wife, who live in Los Angeles and have a giant, ever-bearing lemon tree right outside the kitchen window. I can’t say I normally envy anyone who lives in Los Angeles, but I make exceptions.

Ricotta used to be the great missing ingredient. In June, when the courgette plants were putting out dozens of blossoms a week, we’d come home from work every day eager to stuff them with ricotta, only to remember that we had none. Summer peaches from the farmstand called for a squeeze of lemon, a shred of mint, and a spoonful of ricotta, except we almost always had to leave off the ricotta. In winter, gnocchi invariably were made with potato, not ricotta. One day, I realized that we were depriving ourselves unnecessarily. With a quart or two of milk from the 7-11 next door and a little vinegar, we could have fresh ricotta in less than half an hour.

Soft, mildly tangy, and sweet, true ricotta is one of the ultimate examples of frugal cuisine. During cheesemaking, an enzymatic or chemical coagulant such as rennet combines with casein and other milk proteins to form curds. The remaining liquid, called whey, is drained off, and the curds are pressed to make cheese or used immediately as fresh cheese. Although the curds contain most of the milk’s proteins and fats, some remain in the whey, and to extract these, Italian cheesemakers make ricotta. Ricotta means “re-cooked,” and ricotta represents the second use of the milk – a use for the whey that separates from the curds. Traditionally, the whey would be left to ferment and become acidic, and then heated. The acid and heat together cause the protein strands in the whey to unravel and link together, forming clumps or curds. Once again, the liquid is drained off, and the remaining soft white curd – ricotta – is used fresh or salted and pressed to make a firm cheese – ricotta salata – suitable for crumbling or grating.

Because whey contains relatively little milk protein, true ricotta-making is a low yield process. In the United States, most of the whey from the cheesemaking process is dehydrated and used in food processing to add certain milk proteins to baked goods and other products, in animal feed, and in dietary supplements. For this reason, consumer demand for ricotta far exceeds the amount of whey available for ricotta-making. Americans consume about 13 ounces of ricotta per capita per year, and although that might not seem like much, it’s about 250 million pounds for the United States as a whole. Production of this quantity of ricotta would require at least 2 billion gallons (about 8 billion liters) of whey. So supermarket-brand “ricotta” generally is made entirely from milk, or a combination of milk and whey, and is not as much a frugal product as it is a creamy, delicious one. Rather than acidifying the milk through fermentation, most ricotta is made with citric acid or distilled white vinegar, which – in addition to being much faster and safer than overnight fermentation – lends a clean-tasting mild sourness to the cheese. Milk plus vinegar? You can make it at home.

Ricotta offers some of the same qualities as the fresh cheeses it resembles, such as the Indian classic paneer, the Mexican queso fresco, and farmer’s cheese. Because acid-coagulated cheeses comprise firm clumps of tightly bound milk protein, they do not melt when heated but just dry out. Have you ever tried to melt paneer or ricotta? You can’t. They may shed water, leaving behind an even drier curd, but they won’t melt, so don’t try. When cooking with ricotta (as in a squash blossom filling, or a ricotta pie), keep it moist by combining the ricotta with beaten egg so the egg proteins bind with the liquid in the ricotta to form something almost akin to a custard that holds the ricotta in place. Or dollop it on top of pizza (see recipe below), and bake just long enough to warm it through. Take advantage of its mild richness in gnocchi or cavatelli (also see below). In summer, don’t bother cooking it at all – fresh ricotta makes the perfect addition to a salad of peaches, zucchini, raw beets, and other vegetables. Lemon or lime zest and a pinch of salt bring out its sweet qualities.

Summer salad of peaches, zucchini, fresh ricotta, lemon.

Ricotta

You can try making this with sheep’s milk, if you can find it. Citric acid is typical of Italian ricotta production, but can be slightly more difficult to find in the United States than vinegar. If you’d like to try the citric acid method, look in the kosher foods section of the supermarket for “sour salt.”

2 quarts (1.9 liters) milk, preferably not ultra-pasteurized
4 tbsp distilled white vinegar OR 1/2 tsp citric acid (sour salt)
½ tsp kosher salt

You also will need a thermometer accurate under 200F/93C; a colander; and butter muslin, cheesecloth, or paper towels.

Line your colander with paper towels, cheesecloth (a double or triple thickness), or butter muslin.

Combine the milk, salt, and vinegar or citric acid in a clean saucepot. Clip the thermometer on the side of the pot.

Heat slowly to at least 165F/74C but not more than 180F/82C. Don’t walk away – once milk starts to heat, it can become too hot quickly. Stir gently but often with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to prevent milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.

As the temperature increases, curds will begin to form. At first these will seem just like grainy white bits, but eventually, as nearly all the protein clumps, the curds will separate from the whey, leaving behind a fairly clear, slightly greenish-yellow fluid. Don’t worry if you don’t notice curds below 165F – once it starts to curd, it curds quickly. During this time, as you wait for the milk to curdle, keep the temperature stable – don’t let it keep increasing above 180F. Reduce heat if necessary. Once the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat, take the pan off the heat, and allow to sit for about 5-10 minutes to let the curds come together. Don’t stir too vigorously.

Using a skimmer or a slotted spoon, gently scoop off the curds. Spoon into the lined colander. Leave the whey behind. If you like, you can drink it (but it will be quite sour) – that greenish-yellow cast is the essential vitamin riboflavin. Don’t try to use it again to make true ricotta – it won’t work.

Leave the ricotta to drain. You should have about 2 cups (just under a pound). After about 20-30 minutes, the curds will be thick but soft and creamy. If you want to use the ricotta for a baked good, or in gnocchi, let it drain overnight. In such cases, I recommend changing the lining in the colander and, for the driest possible ricotta, weighting the towel- or cheesecloth-wrapped ricotta with a heavy can to press down on the solids.

Ricotta, after an hour.

Note: If you have access to true whey from cheesemaking, you can use it to make ricotta by this method. Expect a far lower yield (generally about 1/2 cup of cheese per gallon of whey).

Cavatelli or gnocchi

As with any other gnocchi, the key to light ricotta dumplings is to work in as little flour as possible. To accomplish this, the ricotta should be barely moist and a little crumbly by the time you incorporate the other ingredients, or you will wind up using a lot of flour. Eggs bind together the ricotta and flour. Precise measurements will get you in trouble here – you should rely on feel and appearance to guide you.

“00” flour is low protein and, accordingly, develops less gluten upon kneading. If you can find it, use it. Otherwise, all-purpose flour is fine.

16 ounces ricotta (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 tbsp kosher or sea salt
1 egg and 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
roughly 1 c “00” flour, or all-purpose, more or less

Combine the ricotta and salt and place in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Twist the cheesecloth to cover the ricotta. Place a weight such as a heavy can, on top and refrigerate, covered, for up to two days. Discard the liquid.

Set water to boil.

Turn the ricotta into a clean bowl and add the olive oil and eggs. Combine well. Spread the flour in an even pile on a clean wooden board and place the ricotta mixture in the center of the flour. Pile half the flour from the sides onto the top of the ricotta and, using a bench scraper, cut the flour in (as one would for biscuits), scraping from beneath the ricotta and bringing it to the top, and repeating. The dough will come together but will be sticky. Sprinkle in a little more flour and knead lightly.

When you reach the point that the dough holds together and is no longer sticky or tacky, divide it into four pieces and roll each out into a long log about 3/4″ in diameter. The more quickly you roll and the less pressure you apply, the easier this will be. Using the bench scraper, cut each roll into 1/2″ pieces.

To form cavatelli, roll each gnoccho toward you on a lightly floured cutting board with your index and middle fingertips, pressing down lightly as you roll. Alternatively, roll using the tines of a fork, pressing down slightly as you reach the tip of the tines.

Cavatelli.

Cook the gnocchi or cavatelli immediately in simmering salted water. Once they float, remove with a slotted spoon. Sauce as desired – tomato sauce with cheese, meat ragù, and sage brown butter are among the many excellent choices. To freeze uncooked excess gnocchi, spread in a single layer on a sheet pan (preferably lined with a silpat). Freeze until solid and then scoop into a plastic bag.

Ricotta cavatelli, beef short rib, veal stock reduction, Parmigiano-Reggiano

For sage brown butter:
1/2 c plus several additional tablespoons unsalted butter
24 sage leaves
juice of 1/4 lemon
sea salt
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat 1/2 c unsalted butter in a small saucepan; when foamy, add sage leaves and fry until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and continue cooking butter until nutty and deep golden brown; add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of sea salt. Drizzle the brown butter over the gnocchi and garnish with fried sage and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Optional: To brown the gnocchi, place a skillet over medium heat and add a small knob of butter; when brown and bubbling, add gnocchi to the pan and fry, turning once when golden.

Flatbread, ricotta, red onion confit

Makes 2 14-inch flatbreads:

Basic dough for flatbread [adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum, The Bread Bible]

1/2 lb all-purpose flour
1 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2/3 c water 90F
1 tbsp olive oil
cornmeal, as needed

Combine all the dry ingredients except the salt in a bowl, whisking well. Add the salt and whisk well. Form a well and add the water. Stir until just combined – the dough will be ragged and floury. Form a rough ball.

Place the olive oil in a larger bowl. Add the dough and coat well. Cover tightly and rise for about 90 mins in a proofing box or from 8-48 hours in the refrigerator. If refrigerated, remove the dough and rest for an hour at room temperature before proceeding.

600F oven or as close as possible. Preheat with a pizza stone or unglazed terracotta tiles.

Punch down the dough and divide into six balls. Stretch each ball into a flat disk. Allow to rest, covered, for about 30 minutes.

Sprinkle pizza peel with cornmeal and place crust on peel. Load onto baking stone or tiles. Parbake the crust in the heated oven for about 3-4 minutes until just firm but not golden. Remove and cool slightly. Top as follows.

For the topping:

1/4 lb pancetta or unsmoked bacon, thinly sliced [the photo below depicts house-made unsmoked bacon]
1/4 lb fresh ricotta
1 lb red onions (2 large), peeled and sliced thinly pole to pole
olive oil
salt and pepper
handful flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Place a large saute pan over medium heat. When hot, add the pancetta or bacon slices and cook until completely cooked through but not deeply browned. Remove to a rack or paper towels to drain. Note: you can make this a vegetarian flatbread by leaving off the bacon/pancetta; just increase the amount of olive oil in the next step.

Add 1 tbsp olive oil if necessary and the onions to the pan. Season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat slightly and stir the onions to coat well with oil. Allow to cook undisturbed until onions begin to color, about 20 minutes. Stir the onions and continue cooking until onions are deep golden brown. Set aside.

Brush the parbaked crust with olive oil and season with pepper. Arrange an thin layer of onions over all. Distribute pancetta slices and dollops of ricotta cheese over onions. Bake for 5 minutes until crust is golden.

Garnish with chopped parsley and sea salt. Slice and serve.

Flatbread, ricotta, red onion confit (foreground).

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Cheese, Holidays, Soup

Erratum – FYI to Blog Subscribers

Hey y’all! This is just an erratum for subscribers.

In my last post, Packers Packers Packers, the recipe for Beer cheddar soup contains an error. The recipe calls for 2 cups of stock or water. It should call for one cup.

The correction already appears in the online edition but will not appear in the version e-mailed to subscribers. I apologize for the error.

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Cheese, Holidays, Pork Products, Soup

Packers. Packers. Packers.

Last week, I received this question from a reader:

“It’s only 16 days and 2 hours until the Super Bowl…Super Bowl recipe time?”

Normally, I like to respond to reader questions in the Answers section, but I’ll take this question up front this year. Why? Because my Packers are in the Super Bowl! I don’t like to brag, but Wisconsin women are likely both to profess interest in the game and to possess serious knowledge of the sport, so don’t act so surprised.

I’m not going to present you with recipes for fussy tenderloin canapés or sushi. This Superbowl could not be more steeped in tradition – Packers and Steelers? Green Bay and Pittsburgh? Titletown, USA and the Steel City? It calls for traditional foods. Start off with warming cups of beer cheddar soup, a Wisconsin classic, using two of my home state’s best-known products. Move on to fiery crispy sriracha wings – and don’t be put off by the multiple steps. You’re just brining the wings first to keep them moist before coating in a light batter and frying, and if you want to skip the brining you can. Finish off with bratwurst-flavored meatball sliders, which admittedly have a stupid but descriptive name, and provide the flavor of bratwurst in a cute little meatball sandwich.

Enjoy the game! Go Pack go!

Beer cheddar soup

It may surprise you to learn this, but the Wisconsin lowbrow classic, beer cheese soup, relies on sound food science principles for its smooth texture. When you place a crouton and grated cheese on top of onion soup and melt it, the cheese becomes stringy, but when you whisk that same cheese into a béchamel sauce and then add a slightly acidic liquid – like beer – before heating the soup, it becomes smooth. Why is that?

Cheeses that are neither extremely moist nor very crumbly tend to become stringy when melted because the casein (a type of dairy protein) strands become linked to each other by calcium ions in the presence of heat. Starch – as in flour or cornstarch – coats the casein strands and interferes with their ability to link with the calcium ions. In addition, the acid in beer or wine (or lemon juice or vinegar) interferes with the action of calcium, preventing it from connecting to the casein, a key reason why fondue is so smooth. Finally, large quantities of liquid keep the particles far apart, reducing their tendency to link. The tendency to stringiness is far less pronounced in crumblier cheese, so select an aged, crumbly Cheddar (which also packs better flavor). How will you know if your cheese is prone to stringiness? Try to break off a piece. If it breaks easily into a crumbly chunk, you have a crumbly cheese. If it is rubbery and flexible, it’s string-town.

one medium onion, small dice
one small leek, white and light green only, washed well and diced
one carrot, peeled and small dice
one stalk celery, peeled and small dice

4 tbsp Wondra or flour
7 tbsp butter, divided
3 c milk
1 tsp dry mustard
1 1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
a few dashes of hot sauce
1 large bay leaf
4-5 sprigs thyme, tied together
1 c chicken or vegetable stock, or water
1 bottle of beer, preferably not light beer
1/2 lb extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
optional: popped popcorn to garnish

Place a stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat and, when hot, add 2 tbsp butter. When the butter melts and begins to foam, add the carrots and lower the heat slightly, stirring. Cook until tender and then add the remainder of the vegetables. Continue to cook until the onion is translucent and the other vegetables are tender. Add the remaining butter to the pot and heat until it begins to foam.

Add the Wondra or flour to the pot and stir with a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring, for several minutes so the flour loses its raw taste. The mixture will be like a paste around the vegetables- it will not be liquid. Add the milk slowly, stirring constantly as it comes to a simmer. It will thicken as it simmers. Do not let the mixture boil, or it will become less thick.

Add the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, hot sauce, thyme, and bay leaf, and then add the beer and stock, and continue to stir to keep the mixture smooth. Once it comes to a simmer, keep the mixture at a simmer for about five minutes.

Whisk in the cheese, keeping the mixture at a simmer, until the cheese all is incorporated and the soup is smooth. If the mixture is too thick, feel free to thin out with a little more beer. Serve in small bowls or cups and garnish with popcorn.

Beer cheddar soup.

Crispy sriracha wings

Before we get started, I know someone’s going to ask, and the answer is no – you can’t bake these wings, at least not once they’re battered. If you want to bake the wings, dispense with the battering step, but I tell you – they’re not an everyday food, so you probably shouldn’t sweat eating a couple of them fried as nature intended.

The secret to crispy chicken is to fry at the right temperature, and to use cornstarch in the batter. Yes, cornstarch. If you’ve ever had Korean fried chicken, you know how crisp that fried chicken can get. This batter is half cornstarch and half all-purpose flour, because cornstarch on its own fries up too hard – obnoxiously hard. If you can find it, substitute potato starch (potato flour) for the all-purpose flour.

Use a frying thermometer and don’t overcrowd the frying vessel. If the oil temperature dips below about 330F/165C, your food will absorb oil and will become greasy. Fry in batches, and hold the fried wings on a rack set over a sheet pan.

2 lbs chicken wings, trimmed and divided into two pieces each, or purchase “buffalo wing” cut

Brine:
1 quarts plus 2 c ice water
2 c water
1/2 c salt
1/4 c sugar or 2 tbsp honey
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds

Batter:
1 c each all-purpose flour or potato starch, cornstarch, and filtered water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp hot (not smoked) paprika

1 gallon oil (I recommend grapeseed or canola)

Sauce:

1 tbsp water
3 tbsp sriracha hot sauce, more or less, depending on taste
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp celery salt

Cheese dip:

1/4 lb cow’s milk blue cheese, such as Maytag or Point Reyes
1 c sour cream
1 c mayonnaise, either prepared or from this mayonnaise recipe
1/2 tsp worcestershire sauce
salt and ground black pepper

celery sticks to serve

If you are pressed for time, you can dispense with the brine. Lightly salt the chicken wings before battering. Otherwise, combine all the brine ingredients except the 1 quarts + 2 c ice water in a small saucepot and bring to a simmer. Cool down with a handful of ice cubes and add to the remaining ice water in a very large stockpot or hotel pan. Add the chicken wings. Brine for about 2 hours.

Combine the cheese dip ingredients except the blue cheese, incorporating until smooth. Add the crumbled blue cheese and stir just to mix. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Pour the oil into a large vessel leaving at least 6″ of space at the top (preferably more, especially if the vessel is deep). Bring the oil to 350F/176C. Meanwhile, combine the batter ingredients in a large, wide bowl. If the batter seems too thick and somewhat paste-like, add a tbsp or so more water to loosen it up. Drain the wings and spread out on a rack lined with a paper towel to dry on both sides. Discard the towel (or towels – you may need a few to pat dry).

Prepare the butter sauce: Place all the sauce ingredients except the butter in a pan and bring just to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add the chunks of butter and swirl the pan until the butter melts and emulsifies. If necessary, turn the heat back on the lowest setting while swirling to warm just enough to continue to melt the butter.

Add the wings to the batter and toss to coat evenly. Add wings one at a time to oil, using a wooden spoon to keep them separate as they first enter to keep them from fusing.

Cook until golden brown and cooked through, about 4-6 minutes. Drain on a rack and repeat until you have cooked all the wings. Cool the wings slightly before tossing in the sauce – pour the sauce into a bowl and toss the cooked wings in the sauce. Depending on volume you’re preparing, send out some wings about 1/3 of the way through tossed in sauce and served with cheese dip and celery sticks.

Sriracha wings, Maytag blue cheese dip.

Bratball sliders

I don’t usually go in for stupid food names, but this one happens to be merely descriptive. In case you want to make something more substantial and less snacklike, you can turn these into bratburgers by forming patties instead of balls, and frying them as you would burgers. Just be sure to cook them all the way through – being pork, you can’t cook them to rare or medium rare.

I’m providing two methods – a ridiculously easy method, and a more time consuming one. Use the ground meats for the easy method, but buy from a responsible source such as a butcher whom you know grinds his/her own meat. To make things really, really easy, dispense with my spices altogether and pick up the Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning from Penzeys – a company which, by the way, is based in my very own home town, Brookfield, Wisconsin. In Packerland. If that doesn’t say something about destiny, I don’t know what does.

1.5 lbs ground pork or pork shoulder
1/2 lb ground veal or veal breast [note: if you can’t find ground veal, you can use all pork in this sandwich]

one medium onion, diced [note: omit if you are using the pre-made Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning]
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c panko

EITHER:
1 3/4 tsp Morton’s kosher or 1 1/4 tsp Diamond kosher salt
1 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp celery seed
– OR –
2 tbsp Penzeys Bratwurst Sausage Seasoning

about 18-24 soft potato dinner rolls or 8 burger buns
whole grain mustard or spicy brown mustard
pickled red onion

Easy way: combine all the seasonings with the eggs and panko. Remember that the seasoning already contains salt. Pour evenly on the ground meats. Combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning or salt and add more as necessary.

More difficult way: Obviously, you will be grinding the meat. Combine all the seasonings. Cut the pork and veal into about 3/4″ cubes and toss with the seasonings and diced onion. Spread the cubed meats and onion evenly on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.

Once the meat is firm but not solid frozen, grind the mixture using the coarse die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Pass it through again if you like a fine texture. Note – if you want to stuff these into casings at this point, consult my earlier post on sausages for instructions. You should add 1/4 tsp Prague Powder #1 (pink salt) to the seasoning mixture if you’re stuffing it. Combine the panko and egg and spread evenly over the ground product and combine quickly, tossing rather than mashing, until evenly distributed. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning and add more salt, nutmeg, white pepper, mustard, etc as necessary.

For sliders, form lightly into balls about 1 1/2″ in diameter. For bratburgers, form lightly into patties. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, film with oil. Fry the meatballs or burgers on one side until browned, and flip with a spatula. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook through completely. Don’t overcook them, though – they need to be moist.

Serve with spicy brown mustard or grain mustard, and pickled red onion, on dinner rolls or burger buns. Many Upper Midwesterners consider ketchup an abomination with brats, but I won’t judge.

Bratballs on dinner rolls. Mustard, pickled onion.

Imp ‘n’ Arn

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh – not to stay, anyway. I’ve connected through its fine airport several times and have passed through its southern suburbs on the way to Ohio on I-70. But I don’t know anything about Pittsburgh, other than its location, its association with several fine universities, and its close relationship to the steel industry. Recently, NPR ran a great story about Pittsburgh’s transformation from industrial city to tech center, and how this diversification has buffeted the city against the recession to some degree. Give it a listen – it’s a surprising story, if you used to think Pittsburgh = Rust Belt.

I do know one more thing about Pittsburgh, though. One of my brother’s college roommates, a great guy named Steve, was from Pittsburgh and from time to time, when my brother returned home on winter breaks from Cornell, he would occasionally refer to “Imp ‘n’ Arns,” usually with a Pittsburgher accent, especially if he and Steve were on the phone. It’s a shot and a beer, basically, so if you don’t have the Pittsburgh-specific raw materials, just have whatever.

12 ounces of Iron City beer
1 1/2 ounces of Imperial whiskey

Do the shot. Chase with the beer.

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Cheese, Random Thoughts, Sandwich

In praise of Borough Market.

Previously, on The Upstart Kitchen: yours truly and husband roast a heritage chicken and prepare confit tomatoes in the dark, using a wood-fired brick oven and a long stick, without burning down a 500 year-old property in the south of France. Good times.

One five-hour drive to Barcelona, one French air traffic control strike, and one exceptionally inconvenient rush-hour Tube strike later, we arrived in central London, ready to take in the excellent British culinary scene. That’s not actually why we went to London – we were meeting up with my dad and then I was going to sit a panel on international economic crime at Cambridge late in the week – but still and all. If you’ve not been to Britain in the past twenty years, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about. After all, it long ago established a reputation for humorously named mush like spotted dick, the gratuitous use of kidneys, and vegetables boiled beyond recognition. Well, that’s true. My first trips to Britain were memorable only in that I ate lots of jacket potatoes with butter because they were more appetizing than the alternative. My husband’s father, who was English until the day he died, apparently displayed great aptitude in the kitchen when Julia Child provided the inspiration, but was prone to boiling vegetables for days before serving and attempting to pass off kidneys as mushrooms in the steak pie – unsuccessfully, by the way, because, unlike mushrooms, kidneys taste like urine however long you soak them.

But times change, and Britain has changed. Welcome to the “Best of Britain” – the products that make hearty, wholesome, fresh-tasting synonymous with British food. In fairness, many of these items are nothing new. There’s British dairy – thick, faintly golden milk from Jersey, fine wheels of craft Stilton and Cheddar, Devon cream and delicate butter. For many years, if you knew where to look, you satisfied yourself with juicy, sage-scented Lincolnshire sausage and rich Melton Mowbray pork pies. In summer, the red currants, strawberries, and raspberries formed the basis for classic summer pudding and trifles. But in recent years, British pride in seasonal homegrown products has surged. The evidence abounds – fish pies lightly binding moist smoked haddock with garden peas and cream; proprietary bangers and buttery pureed potatoes; scotch eggs encased in venison sausage and encased in a light, crispy crumb.

Nowhere is this revival in more spectacular evidence than at Borough Market, on the southern bank of the Thames River in London. Borough has existed in its present location since 1756, after an act of Parliament declared it a public nuisance and mandated its closure. As a well-situated market by both London Bridge and the Thames, Borough plays host to a wholesale market every day, but its primary appeal for Londoners and tourists alike is the weekly public market on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On those days, a staggering variety of British produce, local heritage meat and poultry, and artisanal food products cater to the crowds of food crazies toting eco-friendly canvas bags in one hand while feasting with the other.

Late summer's bounty at Borough

Pheasant and hare hang to age outside a meat stall

Primo meat.

Every year, when I visit London, I do the circuit – late summer fruit to eat during the week; cold smoked haddock from the Orkneys, pint of cider, check out the seeds, why not a pork pie. The lineup changes somewhat from year to year, and although some of the change is down to consumer demand, other changes have provoked controversy. We’re seeing more prepared food, like grilled cheese sandwiches and Cumberland sausage, and less fresh product. In fact, a number of fruit and vegetable merchangs are suing the Borough Market trustees, claiming that the trustees are attempting to force them out, whereas the trustees counter that the addition of more prepared food stalls merely reflects the changes in consumer demand. Earlier, the proposed construction of the certain upgrades to Network Rail, partly in preparation for the 2012 Olympics in London and partly to ease existing congestion, led to concerns about the market’s viability.

But anyway – the market’s still around, and when we went in September – twice! – it was completely packed with happy gluttons. Fruit and veg stands, as well as the meat and fish guys, were all in evidence. If you’re in London at the end of a week, go to Borough.

Diver scallops, cooked à la minute.

Grilled cheese sandwich, à la Kappacasein

I know what you’re thinking – Really? A grilled cheese sandwich? All I can say is that you need to try this particular sandwich before getting all judgmental about my recipe choices. I recommend you go to Borough Market and have one from the Kappacasein stand (if you can resist the raclette potatoes), but airfare to London being what it is even in the low season, this is the next best thing.

Kappacasein doesn’t keep the makeup of their sandwiches any big secret. In fact, the ingredients are marked off on a chalkboard right in front of their stand. As with so many other things, technique makes a simple dish extraordinary. The Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar (perhaps from the shop right across the street) is grated into large shreds that melt evenly; the poilâne sourdough bread is just tart enough to be interesting, not overpowering; and the addition of browned onion, leek, and garlic add a note of sweetness and savor to the sandwich. Don’t stint on the butter. That would just be dumb, since the sandwich isn’t diet food in the first place.

I was excited to make this the other day when, on a walk with my husband through Washington, I stopped at Cowgirl Creamery and discovered they have Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar. You say you can’t get Neal’s Yard cheeses or artisanal poilâne where you are? Improvise, using the finest Cheddar and rustic, crusty bread you can manage. Even at the Safeway you can find fine loaves of crusty bread resembling pain de campagne and mature Cheddar from Vermont and Wisconsin.

Grilled cheese, à la Kappacasein

one loaf of poilâne or another rustic white sourdough like pain de campagne or a levain, not too sour, sliced 1/2″
6-8 oz mature Cheddar, such as Neal’s Yard Montgomery Cheddar or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
one small red onion, peeled and diced 1/4″
one leek, white and light green only, washed very well and diced 1/4″
one clove garlic, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
olive oil

Grate the cheese, using the large holes on a grater. Set aside.

Place a large sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. When hot, add a knob of butter and a little olive oil if necessary. Add the leeks and onion and sauté until golden and beginning to brown. Add the garlic and cook several minutes more, taking care that the garlic does not brown and become acrid. Remove from heat, cool, and when cool, toss with the grated cheese.

Leek and onion.

Butter each slice of bread on the outside only. Put about 1.5 to 2 oz grated cheese (a decent handful) between the slices to form sandwiches (buttered side out). Place a large skillet or griddle over medium heat and, when hot, add the sandwiches. Press down with a grill press if you have one; otherwise, press from time to time with a spatula. Flip the sandwiches over when deep golden brown and crisp on one side; repeat. [Note: if you have a sandwich press or panino grill, you can use that.] Any cheese that oozes or falls out of the sandwich onto the pan and turns bubbly and brown is good stuff; make sure to scoop it onto the sandwich.

To pretend you’re at Borough, wrap the sandwich in waxed paper and enjoy with a pint of cider. Otherwise, slice in half and enjoy with some pickles (and your beverage of choice).

Cheese bounty at Neal's Yard Dairy.

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