Pork Products, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Seafood, Soup

Land and sea.

When I was a kid, we ate most family meals at home. My mom worked – like most women today – and, every day upon coming home from the local junior high, she’d pull ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry and start making dinner Some nights, we’d have American classics like roast chicken, beef stew, or spaghetti with meat sauce. Other nights, we’d have favorite Taiwanese dishes like soy braised pork with boiled eggs, or steamed fish with black bean sauce. And once in a while, we went out.

There weren’t a lot of dining options in the western suburbs of Milwaukee in the 70s and 80s, short of pizza, burgers, and family-style restaurants. My favorite place was Marty’s Pizza, which turned out enormous pizzas in rectangular pans, cut into squares. I ate it with friends at birthday parties and after high school football games, and there was something about the shallow-crusted pie, with its sweetish sauce and nuggets of Italian sausage, overlaid with bubbling, browned mozzarella, that was irresistible. Part of the lure of Marty’s was the fact that my parents would never take us there, for reasons they never explained – a family feud, perhaps, or a grudge against Marty? If my family went out for pizza, it would be to Shakey’s – where buffet stations entreated us to “Take all you want, but please eat all you take.” Shakey’s – which no longer survives in Milwaukee but as I understand it can still be found in parts of the South and West, and inexplicably the Philippines – seemed exotic in its own way, as round pans bearing thin, crisp-crusted pies would empty and reappear on the buffet stand, alongside fried chicken and battered Mojo potato rounds. Shakey’s had a sort of Olde English theme going, corrupted by pizza-parlor checked tablecloths and player pianos, and from time to time you would notice a wooden sign on the wall, reading “Ye Olde Notice,” that would inform the customer of its check acceptance policy or the superior quality of the pizza.

Once in a while, my parents’ appetites for lobster and crab took us to Red Lobster. While they cracked open lobster claws to dip in drawn butter with lemon, I invariably dined on the clam chowder. I was a picky kid, and my parents – rather than wasting the $15.99 on a frighteningly large pile of snow crab legs I’d probably just push around the plate – went with the safe bet. Having eaten many a can of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder, I could be counted on to enjoy a cup of Red Lobster’s chowder and a baked potato, heavy on the sour cream and butter. At some point in the meal, I usually proclaimed the chowder to be “excellent” and called for a second cup, to be eaten with as many cellophane packets of oyster crackers as I could charm off the waiter.

Red Lobster’s chowder was of the roux-thickened variety, practically as thick as béchamel and with a tendency to congeal once it cooled. In fact, I think I used to amuse myself by standing the spoon up in the chowder and counting the seconds before it would fall to the side. And to be honest, I’m not totally sure it contained fresh clams (which in retrospect would be really strange for a seafood restaurant, but it’s Red Lobster, and it was long time ago). I was six years old, though, and it obviously didn’t matter to me. I went crazy for the diced potatoes, the cream, and the little green bits of parsley sprinkled over the top.

Chowders of all kinds – clam, lobster, corn, chicken – are still a favorite, although I let the potato do the thickening these days, and I always add some kind of cured pork product, like bacon or pancetta. As you know, I’m a big fan of the ibérico de bellota pork products from Iberico USA, and I recently got my hands on some panceta, smoked bacon from the belly.

Panceta de ibérico de bellota.

My husband persuaded me to fry up a few slices – “to sample the product in its pure form,” he reasoned. I’ve cured my own ibérico bacon, but this panceta, having been smoked as well as cured, tasted like a superhero version of regular bacon. More crispy fat, more sweet/smoky meat. Of course, as we ate nearly half the package, only a few slices remained. I decided to incorporate them into clam chowder. Unfortunately, the market was nearly out of clams – the dozen manila clams they could offer weren’t enough for chowder – so we went to Plan B. Oyster stew. We’re still in the cold-water months (the so-called “R” months), and the oysters are plump and sweet.

Why seafood and pork products? They’re a classic combination, an age-old way for coastal communities to stretch scarce meat products with plentiful ocean resources. Most fish and nearly all shellfish are low in fat, and the richness of pork not only adds flavor, but provides additional fat to enhance the flavors of the seafood. Think of shrimp and grits, chowder (of course), the many Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that combine seafood and pork, and the Portuguese classic porco à alentejana. Of course, with the passage of time and increasing affluence, the land/sea combination came to epitomize a certain type of rapacious consumption, far from its origins. The surf and turf available at most steakhouses is an exercise in excessive “luxury,” a parody of fine dining; the carpetbagger steak, a favorite of notorious glutton Diamond Jim Brady, is so over the top it terrifies even my husband. There’s no need to make a mockery of the concept, after all.

Oyster stew

It’s worth the effort to use live oysters in the shell, rather than pre-shucked oysters in liquor. Roasting whole oysters in a blazing hot oven will impart a little bit of a smoky taste to the shellfish, and the roasted whole oysters yield far more liquor as well. Besides, once roasted, the oyster is easy to shuck; in fact, you’ll know it’s ready to go when the top shell pops open. Be sure to strain through the finest mesh possible to remove any grit.

The panceta from Iberico USA is luxurious, fatty, and delicious, and as things go, it isn’t crazily expensive. The fat is especially nice for cooking the leeks and celery. You can use any good quality bacon, though; just be sure to buy a thick cut, and reserve the fat for cooking. You want that smoky taste throughout the stew.

about three dozen oysters, scrubbed under cold water and kept on ice
6 fresh or 2 dried bay leaves
about 12 sprigs thyme
1 c dry white wine, like Champagne
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, washed well
2 ribs celery, strings peeled
1/4 lb bacon, preferably of ibérico de bellota
1 c heavy cream
pepper to taste
3 additional sprigs fresh thyme, about 6 chives, and 1/4 c flat leaf parsley

Oven 500F/260C.

Split the leeks in half lengthwise and slice thinly (less than 1/8″). Slice the celery ribs thinly crosswise about 1/8″. Set aside separately.

Arrange the cleaned oysters in a single layer over the bay leaves and thyme in one or more large, heavy pans (like sauté pans or a heavy roasting pan). Divide the wine equally among the pans. Place the pans in the hot oven and roast just until the oyster shells open. Remove immediately from the oven and, with tongs, move the oysters to a plate to cool, pouring the oyster liquor into the roasting pan as you go.

Ready to roast.

Roasted, with bonus oyster crab

Pour the remaining oyster liquor through a fine filter (such as a mesh tea strainer or a chinois). Repeat, lining the chinois/strainer with a triple thickness of butter muslin or cheesecloth. When the oyster shells are just cool enough to handle, pop the top shell open with an oyster knife and cut the oyster free. Keep the oysters in the liquor. If you find oyster crabs (pictured above), eat them!

Dice the bacon about 1/4″. Place a large, heavy saucier over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced bacon to the pan. Saute until crisp and deep golden brown; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but about 1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat (reserving the rest for a future use). Add the leeks and reduce the heat; sweat until tender. Add the celery and cook about 2 minutes more. Remove from the pan.

Mmm, ibérico bacon.

Strain the oyster liquor once more through the chinois into the pan. Bring to a simmer and reduce to 2 c. Return the vegetables to the pan, then the cream. Bring back to the simmer ad add the oysters. Heat through.

Garnish with the diced fried bacon and the minced fresh herbs.

Oyster stew, panceta.

Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta for this dish.

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Pork Products, Potatoes, Random Thoughts, Salad

Give the people what they want.

When it comes to recipe development, one of the most difficult challenges is developing “new twists” on old favorites. Classics and traditional family dishes come freighted with expectations – mom’s pork chops, Uncle Joe’s macaroni and gravy. When you run up against these dishes, you’re fighting not just taste but memory and relationships.

Take potato salad, for example. Everyone has an idea what potato salad should be, and that idea usually is grounded in the summer picnics of childhood. For me, it’s boiled russet potatoes, diced up with onions, hard boiled egg, and celery, bound together with mayonnaise and a little dry mustard. The mayo was always Hellman’s, and the russets were invariably a little overcooked and started to crumble into the dressing if you stirred the salad too much. I didn’t love mayo as a kid, but I liked potatoes and could eat that salad every day in the summer. And we practically did – at picnics in Lake Park, cooking out pork chops and chicken legs on the patio, standing up at the kitchen counter when it was too hot to eat anything else.

But this was Milwaukee, and so there was another kind of potato salad as well. As a kid, I always considered it the “weird potato salad,” meant for adult palates. It was sweet and vinegar-sour, and the potato discs were greased with bacon fat and chunks of crisp fried bacon. Sometimes it contained flecks of pickle; other times, celery seed. We never ate it at home – we were squarely in the mayo camp – but over the years I found plenty of warm German potato salad nestled next to bratwurst or fried perch (on Fridays), or handed out in little paper cups with miniature spoons at the state fair.

Let’s say that, in the twenty-first century, you were going to try for the ultimate potato salad. What would that be? I put it out to the readers on Facebook:

“Tell me about your dream potato salad. Do you like mayonnaise or vinegar? Celery, eggs? Bacon, yes or no? Do you want something new and different, or something that takes you right back to picnics when you were a kid?”

As it turned out, most people wanted something that took them home. Mayonnaise, celery, vinegar, possibly some kind of pickle or eggs; Mom’s potato salad. After about a dozen comments, though, things got interesting. Someone mentioned smoked mustard. Then I said I had espelette mustard. Then someone else – knowing that I’ve been working with ibérico de bellota pork products – tossed out the words “ibérico bacon.” Game on!

Here’s what I decided. This new and improved potato salad would fuse both mayonnaise and bacon fat. I had some panceta, or smoked ibérico bacon, from Iberico USA, some of which I’d used the night before to make an oyster stew. The two remaining slices were just enough for this dish. Now, as I don’t believe in wasting ibérico fat – it tastes too good and it’s too hard to come by – I also decided to use the bacon fat from these two slices to make mayonnaise. Baconnaise. This is the deal with bacon fat-based mayonnaise, or baconnaise. You can’t use all bacon fat or it’s like trying to guzzle lard. I mean that literally; bacon fat solidifies to the consistency of custard under refrigeration, so you need to base your mayonnaise primarily on an unsaturated fat that won’t harden up. As delicious as warm bacon fat might be, there’s nothing grosser than the sensation of cold, greasy lard on your palate.

Here it is: the best potato salad you’ll ever eat. The baconnaise brings a subtle bacon taste to the salad, the bacon cubes add crispness, the pickle and capers lend a sour/salt quality, and the tarragon adds just a little sweetness. If you’re uncomfortable making your own mayonnaise, use a good-quality prepared mayonnaise like Hellman’s (see below). If you aren’t up to sending away for ibérico bacon, feel free to use any good quality bacon, thickly sliced. If cornichons aren’t available in your local market, use a small savory pickle. And one last thing: serve this salad cool but not cold, about 30 minutes out of the refrigerator at room temp, to bring out the flavor of the bacon and herbs.

THE FINEST POTATO SALAD IN THE WORLD

Serves about six to eight as part of a meal; may be doubled if necessary

1 lb (about one really large) Idaho® russet potato
4 tsp nonpareil capers
about 6 cornichons, drained of brine, or two 2″ long dill pickles
2 1/4″ thick slices of smoked bacon, frozen for about 30 minutes
1 shallot, minced
2 large eggs
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (I used Maille green peppercorn Dijon; any Dijon will do)
2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I used Champagne vinegar)
1/2 c sunflower oil or another neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola, or 1/2 c prepared mayonnaise
The reserved bacon fat from cooking the bacon, above
3 tbsp sour cream
about 8 chives, sliced into small thin rings
about 10 leaves tarragon, minced
Salt and pepper

Place the whole, unpeeled Idaho® potato in a saucepot and cover with water. Bring to a simmer, uncovered, over medium heat and then reduce to a simmer.

Meanwhile, place one of the eggs in a small saucepot and cover with water. Bring just to the boil and cover; turn off the heat. Allow the egg to sit, covered, in the hot water for 15 minutes. If you like, you also can cook the egg in the same water as the potato, as it simmers.

Remove the cooked egg from the water and rinse in cool water before shelling. Slice in half and carefully remove the yolk; set aside. Slice the egg white as thinly as possible.

Mince the shallot and the capers; dice the cornichons as finely as you can. Combine the three and add the sliced egg white.

Mmm, flavors.

Remove the bacon slices from the freezer and dice about 1/4″ or smaller. (The freezing simply solidifies the fat to make the bacon easier to dice). Place a small (8″) skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon cubes. Adjust heat if necessary to prevent burning. Stir on occasion, browning the bacon until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the shallot, caper, and cornichon. Leave the fat in the pan; you will use it to fortify the mayonnaise.

The Bacon of Glory

Cooking up bacon.

Combine the remaining raw egg and the white wine vinegar; add 1 tsp water and the mustard. Whisk well to emulsify. Dripping one drop at a time at first, and then a thin stream, add the oil very slowly, whisking continuously. If the mixture breaks, add a little (say 1 tsp) water and continue whisking.

**Note: If you don’t want to make mayonnaise, use about 2/3 c prepared mayonnaise; omit the sunflower oil, but whisk 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1 tbsp white wine vinegar into the mayonnaise before proceeding to the next step.**

Emulsifying.

Once the mayonnaise comes together, whisk in about 2-3 tbsp of the reserved bacon fat. Taste after 2 tbsp to make sure it’s not too bacon-fatty. As strange as that might sound – who doesn’t love more bacon? – the bacon flavor will intensify once you add it to the cooked bacon. You want to taste the potato and everything else in balance, so don’t go bacon crazy.

Whisking in the iberico fat.

Baconnaise.

Remove the potato from the simmering water when it is just tender, about 35-45 minutes depending on the size of the potato. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes and then peel.

Dice the potato about 1/2″ – the easiest way is to cut first into 1/2″ thick slices, and then to dice each slice. Add the potato to the bacon mixture, and add about 2 tbsp of chives and all the minced tarragon.

Add the sour cream and about 1/2 c of the baconnaise to start. Combine well. If you like a more mayonnaise-y salad, feel free to add a little more baconnaise. Season with salt if necessary (unlikely) and pepper to taste. Store the remaining baconnaise, which is great on sandwiches.

Finish by pushing the egg yolks through a sieve over the top of the potato salad and garnishing with the remaining chives. Enjoy this finest potato salad ever with something simple, like grilled chicken, or a nice Wisconsin brat. Note for summer consumption: keep this well-refrigerated or on ice, and chill leftovers within an hour of removing from the cold (if it’s 80F or less outside you probably can get away with chilling within two hours).

Sieving egg yolks.

THE FINEST POTATO SALAD IN THE WORLD.

*Note: This episode was brought to you by the letters I, P, and C (that’s the Idaho Potato Commission, who provided compensation for this recipe).

Special thanks to the people at Wagshal’s/Iberico USA for providing the panceta!

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Brassicas, Random Thoughts, Vegetables

Romanesco.

Recently, on the way home from the office, we stopped at the market to pick up a few things and wait out the traffic. You know how it is – you walk into the store thinking you’re just going to pick up a box of pasta, and the next thing you know, you’ve been sidetracked by the golden beets. On the way out of the produce section, I spotted something irresistible.

Romanesco cauliflower.

In the checkout lane, it was inevitable that someone would ask, because the vegetable in question is a headturner. A woman in the next aisle leaned over. “What is that?” she asked, turning it over.

“Ah,” I said. “That is romanesco. People always describe it as a cross between broccoli and cauliflower because of the color, but it’s not. It’s actually an old variety of cauliflower.”

Moments later, I heard the bagger ask the cashier about the romanesco. “Oh, that’s broccoflower,” he said. “It’s a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It tastes just like both!”

I’m not usually committed enough to being right that I need to be a total jerk, so I didn’t say anything. Some people, not so much. Years ago, in San Francisco, a casual chat with a total stranger at the Real Foods Market on Polk Street nearly came to blows when the woman in question insisted, beyond the point of obnoxiousness, that shallots were “scallions” and scallions were “leeks.” Oh, and for the record, she was the one who cocked her fist, not me. But enough about that. Actually, romanesco – a cauliflower variety sometimes described as a type of broccoli and infrequently even described as a cabbage – isn’t a cross. It’s just a variety of cauliflower which, like cauliflower and cabbage, is a type of Brassica oleracea. The conical spire pattern that characterizes the romanesco has been described as a striking natural illustration of the fractal – a recursive geometric pattern – although the romanesco’s spires don’t continue endlessly. Look closer at each the bumps on each spire – each one looks like a miniature of the larger ones. It’s one of the most beautiful vegetables.

Don’t be intimidated by the romanesco’s appearance. You can cook it just as you would any other cauliflower, although you should take into account its chartreuse cast and gothic appearance if the aesthetics of the dish are important. As with all brassicas, it shouldn’t be overcooked or it turns to mush and smells cabbage-y. Conversely, if you have no romanesco, try any of these recipes with cauliflower.

Romanesco, crispy capers, lemon

A little like the classic bagna càuda, this packs the punch of olive oil and anchovies. Unlike that Piedmontese dish, though, this features fried capers and lemon. The romanesco becomes sweet and caramel-y with its dip in the boiling oil.

one head romanesco cauliflower
1 1/2 tbsp capers, salt- or brine-packed
4 anchovies
2 c olive oil
one lemon
Salt
flat leaf parsley

Divide the romanesco head into its spires/florets. Cut the center core into chunks about the size of one of the smaller spires, if you like. Coarsely chop the anchovies.

If necessary (only if using salt-packed capers), soak the capers, rinse, and repeat to remove excess salt. You can skip this step if using brine-packed capers.

Place a saucepot filled with oil over medium heat and, when hot (350F/177C), add the romanesco florets. Don’t crowd the pot; fry in batches. Fry until golden brown. The size of the florets will reduce by about 30-40% as they lose water during frying. Drain on paper towels over a rack.

After frying all the romanesco, fry the anchovies and capers until the blossoms open; this takes only about 20-30 seconds. Toss with the romanesco. Squeeze a lemon and sprinkle parsley over all. Season lightly with salt if necessary (the capers and anchovies are pretty salty; you may not need salt).

Romanesco, crispy capers, anchovies, lemon.

Romanesco, brown butter

Tip for the haters: brown butter makes any vegetable delicious. Case in point: my husband claims to dislike cauliflower, but the other night, he went back for seconds of romanesco cooked sous vide in brown butter. That may have had something to do with the house-cured bacon, braised whole and served with a marchand de vin– style bacon sauce, but I just want to remind anyone who’s still reading that he did NOT have to have seconds of the romanesco.

What makes brown butter and romanesco even better is a bit of pungency and acid to cut the richness. Try sage leaves, capers or a small amount of diced kimchi – yes, kimchi. Brown butter and kimchi taste amazing together. Substitute capers or a little diced kimchi for the sage leaf if you want to try something different.

one head romanesco cauliflower
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
4-6 sage leaves
1/2 lemon
sea salt

450F/232C oven.

Divide the romanesco into its spires/florets, or, if you like, slice it into 1/2″ thick steaks. Toss with oil and spread on a sheet pan. Roast until golden brown.

Place a small saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Watch as it melts and foams; as it turns golden brown and smells nutty, add the sage leaves and fry until crisp. Add about 1 tbsp of lemon juice to the butter and remove from heat. Toss with the romanesco and season with salt.

Instead of roasting, if you have an immersion circulator or another sous vide apparatus, set it to 185F/85C. Season the romanesco with salt and seal in a plastic bag. Cook for 25 minutes. Remove from immersion circulator. Toss with the brown butter before serving.

House cured bacon, bacon reduction, 85C romanesco, brown butter.

Romanesco, cocoa

I see you backing away in fear, but trust me – this is a well-known taste pairing. As the Khymos folks (or whatever the singular of folks is) have noted, they go really well together (TGRWT). I don’t know why, from a scientific standpoint. It seems that the bitterness and slight acidity of the chocolate balance the sweetness of the caramelized cauliflower, while the fruitiness/nuttiness of the chocolate bring out those qualities in the cauliflower. So both contrast and synergy appear to be at work.

This is the easiest dish I could conceive to introduce the pairing. Romanesco – caramelized by frying rather than roasting, which takes babysitting to avoid burning – gets a quick dusting in chocolate shavings. If you try and like it, let me know and I’ll post some recipes for more interesting dishes, like roasted cauliflower flan and cocoa tuiles.

one head romanesco cauliflower
2 c grapeseed oil
small bar of unsweetened chocolate OR unsweetened cocoa powder
sea salt, preferably something with texture like Maldon or Halen Môn

Divide the romanesco head into its spires/florets. Cut the center core into chunks about the size of one of the smaller spires, if you like.

Place a saucepot filled with oil over medium heat and, when hot (350F/177C), add the romanesco florets. Don’t crowd the pot; fry in batches. Fry until golden brown. The size of the florets will reduce by about 30-40% as they lose water during frying. Drain on paper towels over a rack.

After frying all the romanesco, season with sea salt. Shave the unsweetened chocolate over the romanesco with a microplane (for grating hard cheese). Alternatively, sift some unsweetened cocoa through a sieve over the fried romanesco.

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