Archive for the ‘Basics’ Category
These days it’s practically cliché to rant about one’s love for bacon. What’s that t-shirt I’ve seen guys wearing? “I’m a vegetarian except for bacon” or “I put bacon on my bacon.” Yeah, yeah, we get it. Bacon is delicious. I love it, you love it, we all make fun of vegans for pretending there is anything even remotely equivalent in their root vegetables.
Of course I love bacon. It’s not like bacon is Hootie and the Blowfish and I’m in 5th grade, pretending to like “Hold My Hand” trying to get my first kiss. Liking bacon is kind of like asking someone if they like music or sex.. or breathing air.
So I decided to try my hand at making some porky heaven of my own. As usual, I grossly underestimated the amount of work that the process would require. It is a bit of a production so let me put the disclaimer out there that one needs about a month of empty fridge space, a smoking device of some sort, and of course, several pounds of fresh pork belly. And good luck finding a 5 lb slab at Whole Foods, I’ve tried more than once.
Luckily, I was able to talk one of my bosses into ordering me a whole slab of pork belly as well as the freedom help myself to the pantry. The production is a bit of a pain, but the process is pretty simple: Rub meat with a cure mixture and store it in the fridge. Once the liquid has been leached out and the meat nice and firm, soak in warm water to mellow out the saltiness. Finally, and if possible (this I highly recommend to give it that extra flavor and help break down the protein), smoke the cured belly for several hours.
I went about trying to put together one of the more basic recipes out of Micheal Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, using only salt and sugar. The pink salt he recommends is helpful in helping to keep the fat from becoming rancid, but his timeline of 5-7 days in the cure I found to be way off the mark and I gave up on the pink salt after the first week. Granted, this was my first attempt, but I ended up having to cure 11 lbs for a solid 4 weeks , and I could have let it go for longer.
You see, I started off following his method to the letter, weighing all of my ingredients, adding a bit of garlic and crushed peppercorns, but all the liquid that came out just melted my cure right off. After five days I checked the slab and found it swimming in its own liquids. So I re-cured using only salt and sugar, and this time elevating the slab on a wire rack to keep it relatively dry. Again, tons of liquid leached out, the cure mix was soaked. Essentially, I found that every 5-6 days I needed to pull the bacon out of the pan, change out the cure for a fresh rub and regularly check the slab for firmness.
My advice is to keep the slab elevated on a rack of some sort for the first couple weeks until most of the liquid has been removed and then bury it in the cure mix to finish it off and get that nice firmness you want. I also plan to try to work in 5 lbs batches instead of a whole 10 lb slab to help cure more evenly and hopefully more quickly.
Next the slab needs a bath in warm water for about an hour or two. This is a step that I didn’t take and ended up wishing I had. I rinsed the cure off, but the water bath would have gone a long way to mellowing out the overwhelming salty, sweet flavor. The pre-smoked bacon tasted ok, but once you served it with say, eggs, you realized how ridiculously salty the pork was. At this point you can freeze the bacon and it will keep for months or a couple weeks in the fridge, or…
Smoke that sucker. To me bacon isn’t really bacon without that smoky flavor and I found that a hot smoke helped breakdown the meat so that once sliced and in a pan, the bacon just melts in your mouth. I sliced mine to fit in my bullet (about 7 lbs) and smoked it for about 3 hours at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit tossing in soaked wood chips every 30-45 minutes. Keep in mind that in order for the smoke to stick to the meat, the belly needs to be dry, so taking the slab from the bath to the smoker is NOT a good idea. Dry the meat the best you can and let the meat cook under low heat for 30 minutes or so before adding the smoke chips. Ideally letting the slab air-dry for a couple days in the fridge would get you the best results.
Finally, and I know this is extremely tempting after all this effort, don’t slice into the belly right after it’s been smoked! Don’t get me wrong, those bites you slice off will be euphoric orgasims of smoky, salty, fatty porkiness, but then the belly is going to leak out all the juices and fat you’ve been working so hard to create. I sliced small bite off of mine, and almost wept when I saw the fat continue to ooze out 15 minutes later.
In the end, my bacon didn’t really taste like any bacon I’ve ever had before. Still not sure if that’s good or bad. It was however, unquestionably bacon. The salt hits you over the head and then an unexpected sweetness rounds out the flavor. I did get as much smokiness as I wanted, but the post-smoked bacon dissolves on your tongue much better than the pre-smoked slab. Like cotton candy bacon.. now there’s an idea. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the experiment. A new belly has already been ordered. Now it’s time to start all over again.
Harold McGee poops on any romantic sentiment you may have ever associated with cooking. All your warm nostalgia about grandma’s mashed potatoes and green bean casserole is silly and juvenile. Grow up. That beautiful pork chop your searing in your backyard, it’s a hot bed of chemical reactions; enzymes breaking down, protein strains reconfiguring. Do you really want to know exactly what has to happen in the production of most dairy ingredients? How about hot dogs? Mmmm, this biology tastes delicious.
McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, (recently republished after a 20 year update) is the definitive examination of the physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that occur in every aspect of the food we grow, prepare and eat today. And it is fantastic. Complete with molecule charts and drawings of cell structures, McGee is not a casual read or source for weeknight dinner ideas. But for anyone interested in becoming a better cook, and that includes those that can barely toast bread, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
It’s no secret I was a little disappointed with the the Great Lobster Bake of ‘09, but it was still a day spent sitting outside with friends, drinking Pimms and beers, and cracking open fresh seafood, so I have no right to complain. In fact, despite the cooking frustrations, looking at the foot tall pile of emptied shells and carcases I realized that there was still one more thing I could try my hand at making: lobster stock!
As excited as I get about making a proper dish or trying a new technique, lately I’ve really been getting amped up when given an opportunity to make a cooking staple from scratch that I can save andreuse as I see fit. And given how much stock I was able to make with the already cooked shells, I can’t recommend enough how fantastic it is take advantage of crafting up this wonderfully deceadant treat.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men / Go oft awry” – Robert Burns
As an amateur homecook there are certain levels of failure I’ve come to expect. I know that I’m going to butcher a fish filet here and there. I know any time I say we’re eating at 8pm, we’re probably not eating until 11. I know some flavor or texture is going to be missing which will compromise the intended design of a dish I’ve researched. I get that, it’s to be expected and my friends are well aware these shortcomings are part letting me take over a kitchen. God knows why they still let me take the reigns.
But one thing I have learned many times over, is to never, EVER trust an internet recipe. And yes, I’m well aware of the irony of a food blogger making that statement. Be skeptical. Trust no one. Don’t even trust me. And when you do drop your guard to see if someone can actually give you usable instructions, try it on yourself or a small group with cheap ingredients.
So when Sparkles and I decided we should rally our gang together for a good ol’ New England Lobster Fest, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking by ignoring my own advice. I figured doing a lobster bake would be interesting, fun and easier than individually boiling 8 lobsters. Fool that I am.
If you do want to steam a lobster(s) you need a lot of steam and pressure so that they will cook quickly and all the way through. Julia Child recommends putting a weight on the pot lid to pressure cook the lobster even faster. This is not a job for mild, half ass heat. If you’re still worried you may not have the right equipment just use the biggest pot you have, bring the water to a furious boil and add your lobsters (a couple at a time) head first to the water for 10-12 minutes depending on their size. Remove and cool.
The classic lobster bake, while frustrating, is still one of those indulgent events that does not fade quickly from memory. It’s an event that when done well is simply what I live for. When done poorly, it’s still an afternoon of friends, drinks and all the lobster you can eat. Tread delicately, but tread. What follows is a cautionary tail.
I’m on a bit of a streak right now. Four days I’ve been able to eat fried chicken wings, and the trend could continue depending on where I end up tonight. I’m proud of this fact. Sure, it’s not the most healthy diet, but given the excess of grillouts and bar hoping, and overall indulgent time of year, properly cooked wings are one of the best eats that this fine country has blessed the world with. Give them to me fried; give them to me grilled; dry, wet, hot, tangy, spicy. I don’t care, I will not tire, I will not submit. There’s just something so wonderfully primal about eating meat off the bone, licking your fingers, piling up the napkins and diving back for more.
However, I need two thing to maintain my wing obsession: crispy skin and ranch dressing. Without those variables I lose interest relatively quickly. Ranch is a personal preference of course, but why would anyone want wings without a crispy, flavorful skin to encase the juicy, internal wing? That said, I’ve been trying to tweek and figure out the best methods of making the wings I love at the house.
The basics of wing splitting and more after the jump..
I’ve been really holding back on putting together this post. Not because I don’t think it’s important as a technique or worth the effort, but because I just wanted to get it right. Like making your own pasta, filleting fish is not hard but it’s not easy either. It’s a skill that you have to build over time and with practice. Every different type of fish is a little different, sizes constantly vary and every time I think I have a solid handle on the skill, I still manage to butcher at least one size of a perfectly good fish. So I’m no pro yet, but I’ve done this enough to put together a decent (and somewhat lengthy) beginners post.
I would advise not to try learning this skill an hour before a big date or when expecting a lot of company. An important evening is usually better just buying the fillets or having your fish monger do the dirty work until you’re comfortable with the process.
Lately I’ve been riding a streak of failed plans and missed occasions. I really don’t try to follow any kind of schedule or make long term commitments usually; a random call or a coincidence meet usually dictates my adventures. But when I get a craving for some roasted baby chicken, or decide to put together a beer Olympiad cleverly disguised as “camping”, or any other number of anticipated events, it can be amazingly frustrating when debilitating viruses or crappy weather interferes on a semi-frequent basis. So Sunday was cornish hen day, come hell or high water.
What I thought I’d try given the size of these hens, was to grill them using two different methods for roasting a whole chicken. The first and more traditional is the whole roast method, thanksgiving style. Stuffing is certainly an option here and is much better suited for brining and long, slow cook times on low heat. Then there’s the butterflied and brick method. A little extra prep work cuts down the cooking time to half and ensures a more tasty, crispy skin. A lazy, hungover Sunday is a great excuse to try out both methods. I’ll try on touch on the differences in cooking method and gas vs. charcoal grills throughout the post.
I was so ready to cook up some cornish hens. I had a solid idea for a recipe, legwork had been done to double check different techniques and methods, and most importantly, I was just really craving whole grilled/roasted chicken. Alas, my little Hispanic supermarket owned by a family of Koreans and not in any way affiliated with even the smallest of established and credible supermarkets , cleverly conceals the “Sell By” date on a regular basis. As soon as I unwrapped the plastic from my prize hens, I knew something was wrong and thanks to Alton Brown, precatious paranoia about my poultry’s acceptability was on high. Roast cornish hen = dismal failure.
So I had to take another trip. While the Latin cashiers stared hatefully at my gringo-ass upon my return (this isn’t exactly the type of place you bother tyring to get a refund), this little market sells one thing better than any of the local chain shops: whole fish! A whole red snapper; clear, shiny eyes; clean ocean smell; preserved well in fresh ice. I was sure this time around I had a quality product.
The recipe I used isn’t anything too special, basically me just using what I had on hand that would pair well with white fish. The focus today is on crisping up your fish skin and breaking the long time tradition of leaving the mushy, unappetizing skin as the last morsel on your dinner plate. Fuck that. Would you go to KFC and remove the crispy, battered skin? Of course not, it’s the best part right?
Another glorious memorial day has come and gone, and summer has finally arrived. Ladies and Gents, grilling season is upon us!!
Lately I feel like chicken is starting to get a bad rap. Ok, fine, maybe not a bad rap (pork may win that contest right now), but it’s just not sexy anymore is it? Cheap, easy to find chicken just isn’t making the average food aficionado get excited. But why the hell not?! I’ve had some amazing roast chicken a few times in my life, the kind that’s finger smacking delicious you’d travel across town just to chow down on. Why the hell aren’t we trying to figure out how to make chicken like that before spending a fortune on fancy pants ingredients? It’s taken me a while to acknowledge this fact, but chicken really does deserve a spot on our food radar. How better to do that than by lighting up a hot grill and opening up a cold beer?
As per usual, I turn to my favorites: Childs, Pepin, Cook’s Illistrated to figure out how best to do a little BBQ. I was looking for insight into cooking cut up pieces as well as maximizing crispy skin texture. Cooks Ill. won out on this one because of the comprehensive breakdown of different chicken parts/grill methods. It also turned me onto a method I’ve been curious to try for a while now: brining. My friends, why do we not brine? Like the chicken this seems so unappreciated. What are we doing that makes us so busy that we cannot prep our meats an hour or two early by soaking them in a bath of salt water? Ok, fair enough, there are probably tons or reasons, but if someone came up to you and said that they had a magical way of seasoning, tenderizing and infusing moistness in your chicken, wouldn’t you want to take note? That’s right, a little salt water is magic.
Now I know I like to preach fundamentals and technique on a regular basis. Knife work in my opinion can make a lack luster home cooked meal look really sexy and help deliver that wow factor to complement your flavors. But also, and again this may just be me, it’s just fun cutting shit up! Sharp knife, good cutting board and fresh ingredients just make me happy in my kitchen. Almost more so than the actual cooking process itself. So take a little time out of your busy Memorial Day schedule and chop up your ingredients.
The thing is, if you fuck up, no worries! It’s not like you can’t cook/eat/savor your chopping failure. There’s a couple different ways of julienne your produce, but for today we’ll just cover making apple matchsticks with go fantastically tossed in a fresh salad or as a tasty garnish.