Confectionery, Dessert, eggs, Fruit, Random Thoughts

It’s so cold in Alaska.

There’s a certain WTF quality of pre-1980s color photography that automatically makes the food of that era look gruesome. We’ve all seen the evidence. A certain percentage of the internet is devoted to the horrors of post-WWII cuisine, whether it’s the recipe cards of the 70s, cookbooks, or the horrors of gelatin. Many of these websites even mock retro food by actually preparing and eating it.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card collection.

The famed Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library.

It was only a matter of time, given the attention-whoring properties of the internet and the perpetual ironic stance a certain sector of the population has adopted, before people would express their ironic detachment by engaging directly with the object of their detachment and posting accounts of these amusing encounters on the internet. This is an interesting phenomenon, as it places the practitioner in proximate, intentional contact with the subject of derision and scorn, for the specific purpose of reinforcing and publicly expressing those feelings. It isn’t just interesting, it’s perverse – and ironic as well. I hate goat cheese, for example. To me it tastes like teabagging an unwashed goatherd. But you don’t see me ordering roasted beet and chèvre salads or digging into great oozing wedges of crottin to prove that point. I stay away from things I don’t like.

My husband is fond of relating a story from his boarding school days of a number of guys who, rallying around a shared disdain for heavy metal, would spend hours on end hanging out in each others’ rooms, listening to heavy metal, playing air guitar and throwing devil horns. I once heard a piece on NPR about a group of friends who took up bowling as a form of amusement based on a shared belief that bowling is a particularly gross relic of the Happy Days era. They would regularly visit bowling alleys, wear the shoes, roll the ball, drink the PBR, the whole thing. “That’s great and all,” the raconteur observed, “but when all is said and done, you’re actually bowling.” Point, game, match. Is it really worth walking into an elevator in a public building carrying a single bicycle wheel, wearing knickerbockers, a newsboy cap, and a curling, waxed handlebar mustache (this is a true story), just to make the point that anachronistic clothing looks kind of insane today?

When it comes to actually cooking and eating retro foods as part of an exercise in mockery, one of two possibilities exists. Either the cook cannot be trusted to make and serve something he or she truly believes is delicious, calling his or her judgment into question, or the cook secretly craves the food in question but is afraid to admit it for fear of losing valuable sophistication credentials. It’s got to be hard for the urbane foodie who aspires to know the origins and living conditions of every heirloom pig that ends up as chops in the market, and makes a point to know the difference between the foodways of Tuscany and Umbria, to admit to a fondness for hotdish, or the old-fashioned meat lasagne made with those ruffle-edged Creamettes noodles, or crock pot meatballs in barbecue sauce. Here’s the thing, though. Put those items on a table at your next party alongside some expensive locally sourced baby vegetables and see which one goes first. The answer may surprise you.

Baked Alaska “Egg”

Baked Alaska is one of those desserts you almost never see on menus, although it has made the rare appearance during the last few years on the menus of a certain type of restaurant, usually the kind that serves expensive versions of meatloaf and fried chicken. By the time I learned about it, when I was a kid riffling through my mother’s Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library in the mid 70s, it was already well on its way out of fashion, discarded as a midcentury relic in favor of pineapple upside-down cakes and crêpes Suzette. But the prospect of a baked dessert that somehow maintained a cold ice cream center was irresistible. To my six year-old conception of the world, it sounded like magic. “American Classics” card 15, “Individual Brownie Alaskas,” displayed a fetching mound of candy-pink peppermint ice cream atop a brownie layer, frosted with pillowy meringue tipped golden from the oven, a slight wedge removed as proof the inside remained frozen. “Seasonal Favorites” card 2, “Orange Baked Alaskas,” was even more glamorous, a hollowed-out orange capped in swirling meringue, encasing orange sherbet. “The first Baked Alaska was created at famous Delmonico’s restaurant in 1867 to honor the purchase of the new territory,” the card recites. How did they do it? Was it both hot and cold?

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

The beauty of the Baked Alaska.

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The easy way to make Baked Alaska is to buy a pint of ice cream, put it inside or atop something insulating (like a layer of cake), freeze it rock solid, frost it thickly with meringue and pop it in a ragingly hot oven. But then you’re left with all the egg yolks, and have to make pudding or something to use them up. Rather than doing that, why not use the egg yolks to make the ice cream for the Baked Alaska? And then make the entire thing look like an egg?

Assemble the Baked Alaskas by freezing a small sphere of passionfruit sorbet (the yolk) inside vanilla ice cream (the white) in spherical molds. Once frozen hard, place the spheres inside a baked meringue shell and top with piped-on meringue. Be absolutely sure there is no gap in the margin between the meringue shell and the meringue topping; you want to insulate the ice cream completely from the hot oven air. Bake at 500F/260C for about 2 minutes or just long enough to brown the meringue somewhat. This sounds an insanely hot oven temperature, but the goal is to blast the outside meringue so quickly the interior ice cream does not have time to heat up.

Ready to come out of the oven.

Ready to come out of the oven.

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Recipes for each component are below.

Rich vanilla ice cream

Usually, I prefer ice creams without egg; to me, the egg yolk lends its own flavor and competes unfavorably with the taste of the cream. But egg-enriched vanilla ice cream is a pretty good thing; it’s really more like a frozen crème anglaise. If using for Baked Alaska rather than just eating on its own, you must make this at least one day in advance and probably two.

1 1/4 c superfine sugar
2 tbsp bourbon smoked sugar
2 c heavy cream
1 1/4 c whole milk
1 vanilla bean, scraped
4 egg yolks, reserving whites for meringues below
scant 1/4 tsp smoked salt

Combine milk and cream. Separately, whisk together yolks, sugar, and salt until thick and lemony ribbons form.

Heat milk and cream with vanilla seeds and pod; bring to 180F and steep 10 mins. Strain.

Temper about 1 c milk/ with yolk/sugar mixture and whisk slowly back into the milk. Return to simmer. Cook custard to 180F until mixture coats back of spoon.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

Passionfruit sorbet

This is stupidly easy to make if you have access to a supermarket with a Latin foods section. Get yourself a bag of fruit pulp (Goya is the most commonly available brand) and spin it into sorbet.

Because fruit lacks the fat necessary to a good mouthfeel, I typically add gelatin to my sorbets. You don’t need much – this isn’t going to be a gelled pudding, after all – but the gelatin adds a little body and a slightly creamy consistency to the finished product.

1 14-ounce bag of Goya passionfruit pulp
3/4 c sugar
2/3 c water
2 leaves gelatin, silver strength

Bring the passionfruit pulp, sugar, and water to a simmer. Stir frequently to ensure the sugar has dissolved.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cool water and squeeze out. Whisk into the fruit base.

Cool in bain marie. Strain through fine chinois into ice cream maker. Process and then freeze hard.

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Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Vanilla ice cream encasing passionfruit sorbet spheres in a plastic mold.

Meringues

This dish uses meringues in two ways: as an insulating base for the ice cream center, and as a pillowy topping. Obviously, since meringue is not stiff enough in its uncooked form to support the weight of the frozen ice cream center, you must bake some meringues first and let them dry out. If you don’t want meringues for your base, you can bake génoise or something similar instead.

Prepare the meringue in two stages. Half the egg whites go into making meringue bases; the other half should be reserved in the refrigerator and beaten just before baking the Alaskas. While you can beat egg whites and hold them for a short time, they tend to weep liquid (syneresis) if held too long under refrigeration.

Baked meringue shells

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
75g each superfine (caster) sugar and powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

Oven 250F/120C.

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Combine the sugars in a bowl.

Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. Transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with a round tip.

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Pipe onto a silpat-lined baking sheet in rounds approximately the size of the ice cream balls, with a lip at the top to hold in the ice cream. Bake for one hour; then turn off the heat and allow them to rest in the oven with the door closed to dry. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Hold in a tightly sealed container with silica gel packs for up to a week. Do not refrigerate.

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Meringue topping

2 egg whites (75g)
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
35g superfine sugar

Allow the whites to reach room temperature or warm slightly by whisking in a warm (not hot) water bath. Add the cream of tartar. Whisk the egg whites using a balloon whisk or a stand mixer until soft peaks form; slowly add the sugar in increments, whipping the whites until they are firm and glossy but not dry. If you like, transfer with a silicone spatula to a pastry bag fitted with the tip of your choice. (this is optional; you may simply use a flat or offset spatula to apply the meringue instead).

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base.

Note that this meringue is fluffier and less sticky than the meringue for the cookie base as it contains far less sugar.

Note that the meringue topping will not be completely cooked because it will not reach a high enough overall temperature during the final baking. If salmonella or other pathogens are a problem for eggs in your area, consider using pasteurized egg whites instead.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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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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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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Fruit, Pork Products, preserving

Just peachy.

Now that we’ve comfortably settled into autumn, I can admit that I kind of hate summer. I don’t talk about this very much because people seem to consider it roughly equivalent to being a Communist or a baby-eater. Summer-dislike is a relatively new thing, just since I moved to the sweaty mid-Atlantic at the millenium. I grew up in Milwaukee, where, starting sometime late in spring every year, the local forecasts remind area residents that it’s “cooler by the lake,” and you can look forward to wearing shorts and drinking beer outside. In the Milwaukee of my childhood, and probably even today with climate change and all, you can count on daytime highs of 75 to maybe, maybe 85 degrees at the lakefront. You turn off the air conditioner and open the windows at night so you can hear the crickets. In Washington/Baltimore, you can count on stagnant 95 degree days like being smothered by sopping hot towels. Even at midnight, you can find yourself standing in the dark, soaked in sweat, mainlining Gatorade and begging for the sweet release of death.

Unlike the celebrated summer of the Great Lakes, the months between Memorial and Labor Day out east are good for two things only, which admittedly are pretty good. One is the beach, which is self-explanatory. The other is farm stands, with their array of limited-time-only goodies like sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, and stone fruit. Nothing against apples and oranges, of course, but they store so well that they’re available, and fine quality, all year. Try buying a decent peach in December, though. It doesn’t exist; the only available specimens were picked weeks earlier, rock-hard and barely golden, in another hemisphere, and soften into rosy-looking but cottony imitations of the real thing.

When peaches come into season, their partisans go crazy. In the classic Seinfeld episode “The Doodle,” Kramer extols the virtues of the Mackinaw peach, an elusive (and fictional) treat from Oregon available for only two weeks a year. “It’s like having a circus in your mouth!” Evidently, the Mackinaw peach has become a holy grail of peaches for many fruit enthusiasts; Google “mackinaw peach” for numerous accounts of disappointed peach fiends who go hunting only to be mocked and turned cruelly away. In too good to be true fashion, the Portland Food Group discussion about Mackinaw peaches devolved almost immediately into hostile foodie one-upmanship. If you thought PDX was all about laid back, flannel-wearing potheads, think again.

So don’t go looking for Mackinaw peaches, or annoy the PDX food community with well meaning questions about their seasonal treat. It doesn’t exist. And now that it’s a little late in the season, the remaining peaches in markets aren’t the juice gushers of mid-July and August. Don’t let them go to waste, though – pickle them. You won’t taste a more delicious combination than pickled peaches with any smoked meat. Brisket, pork shoulder, chicken, turkey, duck – all are vastly improved by the addition of the pickled peaches.

Pickle brine seems like a no-brainer to pour down the drain. Don’t do it! As is the case with boozy peaches, a lot of the peach flavor leaches out into the pickling liquid. Strain and keep it refrigerated for use in shrubs or cocktails like the Kentucky Pig & Peach. NB: the first dish I ever developed was an emulsion of dill pickle juice (Vlasic or Claussen) and butter. I was four years old. Pickle butter is the shit when you smear it on Triscuits.

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Smoked pork belly, chicharrón, pickled peach
In this dish, a smoked cured belly – basically bacon – serves as the foil to the sweet-tart peaches. If you like some kind of starch with your meats, grits or creamed corn are the way to go.

This dish has multiple components, each requiring multiple steps. If you can’t deal with all of them, you can get the gist of the flavor combination by making the pickled peaches, and then preparing the pork through the poaching phase. Slice, brown the fat side, and serve with pickled peaches on the side.

Start the pork at least two days and up to a week before service. You’ll cure overnight, then smoke and poach the next day. If you have time, weight the belly for a great firm texture and even thickness.

For the pork:

1 lb belly, trimmed of skin (reserve skin for chicharrón, below)
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp white pepper
peppercorns, thyme and bay

2 quarts chicken stock
1 inch chunk yellow rock sugar
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1/4 c usukuchi soy
1 head garlic, sliced along equator

1/4 c white wine vinegar (same as used in the peach pickle)
2 shallots, minced
1 c dry, floral white wine
2 c smoked pork stock (from braise)
bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
2″ section of licorice root
1 star anise
6 tbsp unsalted butter.

Combine the salt, sugar, and white pepper. Coat the belly evenly with the seasoning and place with peppercorns, thyme, and bay in a vessel just large enough to hold the belly. Cure under refrigeration, turning over after 12 hours. If you have extra time, cure up to 4 days and turn after each.

Rinse the cured belly and pat dry. Set up a smoking apparatus with charcoal and apple or hickory wood chunks (I use an offset smoker) and smoke the belly at 180F for 3 hours.

Combine the stock, sugar, thyme, soy, and the garlic. When it comes to a simmer, add the smoked belly. Simmer until just tender, about 2 hours. Remove the belly from the liquid; strain and set aside. If you have time, seal in a bag or wrap in clingfilm and chill down; then place in a small container, about the same size as the belly. Top with another container or cutting board and weight, refrigerated, at least four hours.

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For the reduction:

Prepare the reduction. Bring the shallot and vinegar to a simmer in a saucepot over medium low heat. When the vinegar has reduced to au sec, add the wine and reduce again to au sec. Add the stock, herbs, and spices and reduce by about 2/3. Strain through a chinois and mount with cold butter.

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To serve, cut the belly into 1×2″ rectangles. Score the fat on top and place, fat side down, in a hot pan over medium heat for 2 minutes. Transfer to a 250F oven for another 6 minutes. Serve the seared belly atop the reduction and the pickled peach purée, and serve with a chicharrón.

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For the chicharrón:

skin from pork belly
grapeseed or rice bran oil

Scrape as much fat as possible from the underside of the skin. Divide into several strips about 1″ wide.

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Place the skin in a sauce pot with water and bring to a boil. Boil for about an hour, until gelatinous and flexible. Add more water, if necessary, to keep the skins completely submerged during boiling.

Drain and, when cool, trim any remaining fat from the skins. Place on a silpat on a sheet pan and dry in a 160F convection oven for 2-4 hours (times will vary based on the thickness of the skin) until completely dry and glassy. Cool completely. Store in a tightly covered container – if you have a silica dehydrator pack, add it to the container. You can store these for a fairly long time, but with a silica pack, they may become too dry to puff well at some point, so try to use them within a month.

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To cook, bring a pot of grapeseed or rice bran oil to 360F. Break the skins into chips about 3/4″ square and add not more than two at a time to the oil. Using a spider, keep turning the chips as they puff. Once they have completely puffed, remove and drain on paper towels; salt and serve immediately.

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For the pickled peach:

2 lbs peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced into 12-16 slices each (depending on size)
1 c white wine vinegar (champagne is best)
1 c filtered water
1/2 c + 1 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
4 star anise
about 2 dozen Pondicherry (true red) peppercorns [Note: this is not the same as pink peppercorn; substitute black if unavailable]
4-6 dried jasmine flowers (elderflower is great also)

Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, spices, and flowers and bring just to a boil, ensuring the salt and sugar are dissolved.

Divide the peaches among mason jars and pour the pickling liquid evenly over them, distributing the spices and flowers. Chill down and store. The peaches will be mildly pickled after about 6 hours and are optimal at 2-7 days.

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As depicted in the photo, the peaches and their pickling liquid have been blended to a sauce. Blend all the peaches (sans spices or flowers) with enough pickling liquid to achieve a medium-bodied purée.

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Kentucky Pig & Peach

I developed this recipe to use up a bottle of bacon-flavored vodka a friend brought possibly as a hostess gift and possibly to razz me. That’s the “pig.” But during a recent visit to Kentucky’s MB Roland craft distillery, we picked up a bottle of Black Dog – basically white dog in which dark-fired (smoked) corn constitutes part of the mash. That kind of smoky white dog is even better in this drink, if you can get it.

Don’t use pickling brine from the first two days of pickling to make this drink; it won’t be peachy enough, and somewhat too sour. Whatever brine you don’t use to make this drink you can strain into a clean container and keep for months in your refrigerator.

Final note: as with most things, better ingredients = better cocktail. But it’s dumb to waste really top drawer booze on a mixed drink. Use something decent, like Maker’s Mark, but don’t use your single-barrel whiskies; save those for sipping.

For two cocktails:

1 1/2 oz vinegar from pickled peaches
2 oz bourbon
2 oz smoked white dog [MB Roland’s Black Dog] or bacon vodka
6 drops barrel-aged sorghum bitters
2 large ice cubes, plus extra

Stir all the ingredients besides the ice cubes. Place one large cube in each of two old-fashioned glasses. Strain the cocktail over ice and serve. A little sprig of mint would not be out of place.

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Brassicas, Fruit, Pork Products

The Personality Kid.

Fact: admitting to anything less than total adoration of certain foods will result in your ostracism as a “commie.” I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago after publicly declaring that bacon was overused and had become something of a cliché, not to mention a flavor crutch. And I’m probably about to learn it again by saying that, in my experience, pork chops are not always the best the pig has to offer. Next to bacon, perhaps no other part of the pork is as beloved as the chop. Indeed, pork chops and bacon are Homer Simpson’s “two favorite animals.” And in the classic Brady Bunch episode where Peter attempts to reinvent himself as a more exciting character, he Bogarts the name of that evening’s dinner: pork chops … and applesauce.

Before you refer me to the Committee on Un-American Affairs, let me just say that I’ve cooked and eaten some truly delicious pork chops, sure. Brined and smoked, wood-grilled with maple and lemon, or sliced off the bone, fried, and sandwiched within a bun with some slaw, pork chops can be terrific. The problem is that pork chops are unreliable kitchen companions. The blade and sirloin chops contain the most dark meat – usually a guarantee against drying out – but they’re hard to pan-fry because of the bones, never take a good brown crusty sear, and take better to braising. Even after braising, though, the weird bone pattern makes them a pain in the ass to eat. The rib and loin chops have the most manageable bone structure – a curved edge or T-bone, respectively – but the meat is usually very lean thanks to the “other white meat” fetish, and, if too thin, will dry out in the time it takes to get a decent sear.

Enter the ibérico pork chop. Since last fall, I’ve been working with various cuts of ibérico de bellota pork – the rich, sweet cuts of meat from black-footed pata negra pigs that forage acorns in western Spain. Wagshal’s Market provided me a pair of rib chops, which my husband regarded with enthusiasm. Out of one side of his mouth, he gritted the words “pork chops … and applesauce,” jaw firmly locked à la Peter Brady, the Personality Kid. He loves pork chops unconditionally. I knew what I had to do.

Pork chop comparison. Niman Ranch on the left (an admirable chop, but still); Iberico de bellota on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the ibérico pork chop makes up for the shortcomings of the conventional pork chop. It’s got the single bone curving along one side, which leaves you with a nice big eye of meat, and instead of being lean to the point of dryness, it’s got plenty of interior fat to keep things moist and flavorful.

“Pork chops and applesauce”

If you don’t have the ibérico pork chops, don’t worry … you can use a regular pork chop, but try to use one about 1″ thick or so to keep the meat juicy. For these purposes, select a rib chop; the blade chops (cut from near the shoulder), the loin chops (cut to include both loin and tenderloin), and the sirloin chops (cut from near the hipbone) all contain an interior bone or bones that divide the meat. Although I usually do recommend cooking meat on the bone for flavor and moisture, when pan-frying, the meat shrinks slightly, leaving only the bone in contact with the pan. With multiple interior bones, the meat never gets a really good sear. Save those kinds of chops for the broiler.

Cooking the sliced apples sous vide preserves their intense apple flavor. It is not necessary to do so. I have provided instructions for cooking both ways.

2 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced thinly
2 c apple lambic or hard cider
1 c pork stock or white veal stock
3 cloves garlic confit
about 12 oz red cabbage, thinly sliced (about 3/16″)
2 tbsp rendered pork fat or an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed
several thyme branches
fresh bay leaf
1/4 dry white wine
2 rib chops, preferably ibérico de bellota

For the applesauce:

If cooking sous vide, seal the apples in a bag with two thyme branches and a pinch of salt. Cook in a circulating water bath set to 183F/84C for 20 minutes. If cooking conventionally, proceed to the next step.

Heat 1 1/2 c of the apple lambic in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer. Reduce by 2/3. Add the stock and garlic confit and reduce again by half. If not cooking sous vide, add the apple slices and two branches of thyme, cover, and simmer until tender.

Remove the herbs. Transfer the reduction and the cooked apples to a vitaprep/blender and process to the desired consistency (for a smooth puree, you may need to add more water or stock).

For the cabbage:

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp of the pork fat or oil. Add the cabbage, bay leaf, and a couple of sprigs of thyme and sauté until just wilted. Add the white wine and toss; the cabbage should turn a bright magenta due to the wine’s acidity. Once the wine has evaporated, add 1/2 c apple lambic; reduce heat and continue to cook until completely tender. Season with salt.

For the pork chops:

Season well with salt on both sides. Place a skillet over high heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp pork fat or oil. Add the pork chops, searing on the fat edge first to render, and then on one side. Add the thyme branches to the rendered fat and baste. Turn over when golden on the bottom; reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, basting with the thyme oil, until about medium on the inside. Rest for five minutes before service.

Serve with the apple sauce and red cabbage; garnish with additional thyme and chives if you have them.

Pork chops, lambic-braised red cabbage, chunky applesauce.

*Thanks again to Wagshal’s Market and Iberico USA for the pork chops featured in this dish.

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Dessert, Fruit, Leftover Recycling

Pure guava.

[note to subscribers: an earlier version of this entry was posted in error]

We just returned from the Bahamas, which, despite their favorable tropical location, import over eighty percent of their food. The deep Caribbean waters surrounding the archipelago are stocked with grouper, snapper, crayfish, conch, and lobster, but nearly all the catch is frozen immediately and shipped elsewhere – principally to the United States – with only a small amount of the frozen product and an even smaller amount of the fesh catch reserved for consumption across the islands. A number of fruits are widely available – tangerines, coconut, guava – but the arid, sandy environment and perennial water shortages mean that most vegetables besides bell peppers are grown elsewhere. Local beer, however, is plentiful. On the way to the supermarket, when we stopped at Smithy’s Liquor Store for a mixed case of Kalik and Sands bottles, the proprietor mixed in a few cold ones and offered to crack open a couple “for the road.” No thanks, we demurred, apologizing that we had to drive another twenty miles on an unfamiliar road toward Wemyss. “It’s not like America, you know,” she chuckled. “Around here a lot of people like to drink a beer when they drive.”

Cold brews, in the refrigerator and not the car

Beer-drinking Bahamian drivers notwithstanding, we made it to our rented vacation home in one piece. It’s a really beautiful country, the Bahamas, and our remote island location – Long Island – is renowned for spectacular scenery. My husband had warned me, however, that our Bahamian destination was long on beachy natural beauty but short on fresh food. This did not come as a surprise – years ago, in a couple of essays about Caribbean foodways, Calvin Trillin described the disappointing and ironic absence of fresh meat and fish on that side of the Commonwealth. Having prepared myself to visit the Land of the Frozen Fish Filet, I wasn’t all that disturbed when our trip to the island’s largest supermarket presented mostly canned vegetables, Spam, and a freezer case of something called “aged mutton” that appeared to have been cut into squarish chunks with a circular saw and was as maroon-dark as venison. We took a pass on the frozen mutton but stocked up on frozen pork chops, local guava and pineapple jams, and citrus fruit, most of it imported from Florida.

Fine Bahamian jams

By the last night, we had eaten everything we brought or bought, except for the dregs of a couple jars of jam and a stick of butter. I hate wasting food, even on holiday. A few years ago, after a week in Guadeloupe, I was determined not to waste a pound of good French butter and brought it back to the States, frozen and wrapped it in several layers of foil and ziploc bags. OK, not exactly. It was frozen when we left the hotel. After an hour-long flight to San Juan and an extended mechanical delay – during which our bags sat on the tarmac in the August heat and we sat in the airport bar drinking Carib – the demi-sel from Bretagne took on the consistency of mayonnaise. Lesson learned: butter doesn’t travel and it is foolish to try.

This time, faced with the choice between a ruptured ziploc bag of melted butter and a forsaken stick of butter, I selected a third way – the way of the jam tart. In addition to the leftover butter, we also had a half-jar each of the guava jam and pineapple jam. I found whole wheat flour and sugar in the pantry at our rented house; after making a quick pâte brisée and pressing it into muffin tins (you have to improvise on holiday), I blind baked the shells and filled them with jam. Lesson learned: it pays to know how to make pastry.

Long Island, Bahamas

Our beach, between Wemyss and Simms

Bahamian jam tart

The inspiration for these tarts was the distinctively non-Bahamian linzertorte, a classic Austrian jam-filled pastry. Of course, linzertorte normally is filled with raspberry jam and I used tropical fruit jams. And I didn’t lattice the pastry because I didn’t feel like it. And I used whole wheat flour, because that’s what was in the pantry. OK, so it’s nothing like linzertorte, but the wheat flour added the same kind of nuttiness that hazelnuts usually contribute.

Feel free to substitute unbleached white flour or pastry flour for the whole wheat, although the wheaty flavor provides a savory, nutty counterpoint to the sweet jam. And use whatever jam you’re trying to use up.

1 c whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
4 oz (1 stick or 1/2 c) cold unsalted butter
ice water

1 c guava jam, pineapple jam, or any other tropical fruit jam

Sift together the dry ingredients. Cut in the cold butter using a pastry cutter or knives. When the mixture resembles large peas in flour, turn it out onto a clean surface and sprinkle a little ice water over all (start with about 1 tbsp, depending on humidity). Gather the dough together and incorporate the butter and water by pushing out onto the surface with the heel of your hand, gathering the dough, and repeating until it holds together (fraisage). If you don’t feel like doing this by hand, pulse the dry ingredients, butter, and a small amount of water in a food processor. Wrap in plastic and rest, refrigerated, for half an hour.

375F oven.

Divide dough into about a dozen equal pieces, roll out, and press into muffin tins. In lieu of rolling out, if you feel lazy, press each piece into a muffin tin cup. Prick the bottom of each tart shell with a fork and blind bake for about 12 minutes, until light golden.

Remove from the oven and add a heaping tablespoon of jam to each shell. Take care to keep the jam in the center of the shells and not at the edges so the tarts don’t stick to the pan. Return to the oven and bake until the crust is golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Rustic Bahamian guava tart

Rustic pineapple jam tart

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