Thursday, December 16, 2010

Last Night: Farro, Tuscan Kale, Sweet Potatoes, Smoked Hock

Here's a tasty little diddy I wanted to throw out there just to show that we do in fact eat lots of vegetables in our house, and also to soften the blow of the impending series of duck posts that are coming next week. There is a little bit of pork in this dish, but it plays a minor role (sort of). I think it was a better dish with the pork, but this easily could have been made vegetarian. The meat, in this case a smoked hock, was braised to enrich a stock that I made for soup last week. As I was throwing dinner together last night, I saw it sitting there and I realized the hock's delicious destiny. I cooked some onion and some diced sweet potato in some olive oil. I let the potato brown a little after the onion sweat and then I added a bit of garlic and shallot. I warmed the hock up in the pot and then cut away the skin and the meat, diced it up, and tossed it back in. I added about a cup of water and splash of vinegar and then large pile of Tuscan kale. While that simmered away, I cooked some farrow. That's it. Dinner was served up quickly and the kid's devoured it. I think this could become a regular thing. I know it's just another variation on greens and pork, but this particular variation was great.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Belly Full of Bacon

I feel bad. I'm looking through this blog, and all I see is meat, which is unfortunate because that's not how my family and I eat. Sure we love pork, venison, fish, and (a little) beef, but we mostly eat beans and greens. One of my kid's favorite meals is beans and rice. Broiled mackerel with sticky brown rice and a homemade teriyaki sauce comes in at a close second. Third place would have to go to roasted beets served on a bed of beet greens with sardines. We love our oily fish in this house.

My sisters hate me. I could probably get my kids to eat a pound of raw oysters served over a huge salad with spaghetti and hot sauce if I told them too. My poor sisters have resorted to Fluffernutter sandwiches and chips twice a day. Occasionally my nieces will eat a few grapes or a baby carrot providing a brief respite from their near constant state of constipation, but for the most part, three of the four food groups are rarely represented on their plates.

The point being, my kids eat everything. We eat everything. Usually we have meat a couple nights a week. The rest of the time we subsist on veggies and grains. From the looks of my blog, you'd think Ted Nugent lived in the guest room. He doesn't. There are a couple of times a year, though, where Uncle Ted might want to stop by. I know he's a much bigger fan of beef and game than pork, but I think it's safe to say that bacon makes almost everyone happy. That's why last night, I started making 40 pounds of the stuff.

The last time I did this, I had just gotten Michael Ruhlman's book Charcuterie, which if you don't have it, I highly suggest clicking that link back there and picking it up, because today we'll be talking about bacon and pancetta, two of the easiest and most rewarding things to recreate from the book.

The most important ingredient in this process is, of course, pork belly; quality pork belly. I've noticed a huge difference between buying pork belly from the butchers in our meat packing district here in Chicago, and belly from sustainable sources. Nothing compares to Slash. That was the name of the first whole pig we bought from our good friends at Prospera Farm in Berlin, WI. The fat was delicate and ethereal. When the bacon was cooked, that soft white ribbon turned completely transparent when it hit the pan. It was magical.

This most recent batch is from Slagel Family Farms. The yet to open Butcher and Larder will be carrying their products in Chicago in the near future. The bellies are pretty incredible. Although these came without skin (which is is nearly required for making good beans in the future), the fat was still beautiful and there was a great deal of meat on these weighty pillows of pork. 

I pulled off a few "special" pieces of belly for other uses. I have two large chunks marinating in a spicy chipotle ancho rub which I will braise, sear, and use in tacos tomorrow. There are also a few choice pieces stashed in the freezer. If bacon is king, uncured belly is the porcelain faced prince of the kingdom and, on special occasions, he'll do just fine.

The haul below is going to hang out in the fridge for a week, then I'll rinse it, and hang it up to dry. When I do, I'll be sure to add those pics as well. There's nothing quite as satisfying as seeing several rolls of pancetta hanging in your own pantry. I already have several friends who will be directly benefiting from my efforts, and based on the interest, I'll probably be doing this whole thing again in another month.

What began as a way to pay for my own yearly bacon habit has turned into something far more sinister. I feel a little like a drug dealer. I buy the stuff wholesale, cut it up with my own flavors, break it out into much smaller portions, and sell it to my friends. Who knows, we'll probably end up sampling the goods when they drop by to pick up their stash. Come to think of it, this lifestyle could be a very dangerous to my health. In a year or two my cholesterol levels are going to be shot.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pickle-tini - Wisconsin's Finest

I was just browsing through my food porn folder on the hard drive (you know you have one too) when I stumbled across this beauty and was reminded of one of my favorite drinks of summer...or winter with the heat on high. The Pickle-tini on the rocks is one of the greatest drinks in my repertoire. It's a simple cocktail. In fact, I'm a big believer in simple cocktails. Here's my recipe for another little diddy I like to call Movie Night: take a rocks glass, add two or three cubes of ice, then grab a big ole bottle of bourbon and fill 'er up just enough so that you don't spill any on the couch when Cinderella starts. If your feeling fancy, add a splash of bitters. Go ahead, you deserve it. Be careful though, the name of this drink changes depending on either the size of you glass or number of cocktails you consume. If you aren't careful the Movie Night becomes a Brown Mumbler which quickly deteriorates into a Sleeping Daddy.

The Pickle-tini is a little more fancy. This drink originates in Wisconsin, as inferred by the rare ingredients found within: Fleischmann's Vodka and Milwaukee's Kosher Dills; a couple cubes, a couple long pours, a couple pickles, and splash of pickle brine (to complement/cover the fine flavor of the spirits). The version seen above was decidedly fancier. The pickles came from a friend's special super sour and spicy pickle batch and the vodka was just plain ole Stoli from the freezer. Some crackers and a hunk of ungodly orange Wisconsin cheddar and you are good to go. In fact, if you have two, you'll probably forget to eat dinner. I did. Maybe you can even come up with another name for the drink that doesn't have that wussy "tini" on the end.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Porcine Persuasion

A little more than a year ago I stumbled across Michael Ruhlman's technique for home-cured pancetta. If you didn't click on that link, go back and click on it. I'll wait. If that picture of the meat just dangling there doesn't have you salivating all over your keyboard then you are either a vegan or a moron...I suppose you could be both, in fact I'm pretty sure if you are a vegan then you're both. That photo had me so hyped up, I installed a bar in my pantry just so that I could see the same thing in my kitchen hanging there during the drying period.

Having just bought a pig from some friends, I decided to have a go at those ominous packages of belly at the bottom of the freezer. What proceeded over the next month was obscene and memories of this time are hazy and clouded by bacon grease. I must have purchased the bellies of more than six whole hogs (since mine were all gone I needed more, right?). I made several variations on the cure including everything from sweet ingredients (brown sugar, molasses, berries, crystallized ginger, maple syrup, and more) to savory ones (thyme, ancho chillies, cumin, bourbon, and so on.). You could smell the curing meat all over the house. Everyone who stopped by stood slack jawed at the ever expanding collection of belly hanging in the pantry and loaded in the freezer. The pictures that follow are only a sample of my indulgence.

I took these before things got really of hand. The two large sections hanging in front of the baking shelf ended up being two very different pancettas. I also roasted some of the belly many times over which resulted in a chewy and sticky kind of bacon which I sliced thick, cut into inch squares, and cooked slowly in a cast iron pan until totally brown. I covered those with chocolate and sprinkled them with grey salt. I served them at a party as a post-dessert and most people didn't realize until later that they weren't eating a tray of amazing caramels.

One of my other favorite dishes from this period was a creamy bowl of Anson Mills polenta with a couple thick sliced pieces of the homemade pancetta and a fresh fried farm egg. For breakfast. With beer. The kids had orange juice. It was a dark time for everyone.

Most foodies these days repeat the mantra, "Everything is better with bacon," and I suppose it is. But I have to say, there is a line. I jumped clear over that line for a while. I'm back now, but seeing that damn picture again on Ruhlman's blog, and not having bacon around the house, is absolutely killing me. Because once you've made your own, buying bacon at the store just feels wrong.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tartare To Die For

Several years back, my once hippie brother-in-law began hunting my in-laws 500 acre farm up north. What began casually for him has turned into an obsessive dance. Deer hunting was the gateway drug. He now bow hunts, stalks deer with a muzzle loader, and has developed a strong addiction to fly fishing. He's dragged his family all over North America in search of the perfect rack and trout that he doesn't eat. Yeah, I don't get that part either, but he assures me that most respectable fly fishermen don't eat their catch.

Over a couple of Wild Turkeys one late night at the farm, I told him that I would love a chance to practice my butchery skills on a couple of his kills in preparation for purchasing a whole hog and lamb (still haven't gotten there yet but I'm close). After fumbling through the first two, I've gotten pretty damn good at the process. My wife is also incredibly supportive. When I get the call that a kill has been made, and brought back to our processing facility (usually his heavily tarped garage) I'm quickly released of my fatherly duties, pack up my knives, and jump in the car.

One of the best parts of being the resident butcher is that he lets me process the way I want; Frenched Chops, tied roasts, never frozen tenderloin, venison sausage, etc. And if the season is good to him, he usually gives me a deer for my freezer.

This last Thanksgiving was the opening of rifle season in Wisconsin and my B-I-L brought in two doe. Since there was a number of family in attendance at the weekend's festivities, cuts were wrapped and prepped for delivery to the plate ASAP (see earlier post for the John Besh venison shoulder recipe). We prepared and ate a fair number of chops.
But one of the best things that we did was to take a couple of small pieces of tenderloin, age them in a bag for a day or so, and make some of the freshest tartare that I've ever had. Spiked with a splash of sherry, a bit of minced shallot, some fresh thyme, salt and pepper, we kept it simple and the results were spectacular. In no time the plate was licked clean.
I would have worked a little harder on the presentation and possibly even the photo, but hungry cocktail laden family members were approaching like zombies through the fog. I had to get out of the way. I nearly lost my drink.

Burger of the Year!

I may be jumping the gun here, but I figured that since December is fast approaching, and I recently stumbled across this pic in iPhoto, I thought I should throw a nomination out there for Burger of the Year. Now before you get all hot and bothered and go searching for the address of the place where this burger was born, forget about it. I made that burger. The bun was locally made, the produce was from tomato plants in the yard, the pickles were from a friend, the bacon was home cured from last year's pig (her name was Slash), and the fried egg (as well as the patty) was from a farmer friend of mine in Wisconsin. Yes, I met that cow, and so did my daughter. I'm still unclear as to whether she or I enjoyed the burger more. Needless to say, despite the fuzzy picture, you are looking at the best burger you'll never be able to eat. Unless you make it yourself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Eat Your Heart Out!

Alright, here's a perfect example of my food assholery. This weekend was Thanksgiving. We headed up north to spend time with the family (in-laws to be precise). During the course of the trip we consumed a large amount of food followed by a slightly larger amount of alcohol. We repeated this process daily. My brother-in-law hunts the 500 acres that Grandma and Grandpa's house sits on, so I also had the pleasure of butchering a couple deer (more on that later). It's safe to say that fun was had by all.

Since I did the majority of the cooking, it was my job to make the most of the ingredients on hand. The last evening I recreated a John Besh recipe that I found in an issue of Field and Stream laying around the house. Here are a few pics of my version:

The recipe is a rock solid venison stew. I added a few tablespoons of butter and a splash of red wine at the end. Other than that, modifications are not required. The editors do say that the turnip/potato mash is, "one of the bet things we've tried all year." I'm not sure I can get on board with that, they must not be eating very much. Trying to sell readers on the turnip mash in this recipe is a little like trying to sell someone a BMW because the cup holders are elegant and can still hold a 32oz beverage. I find the lack of cream in them an issue, plus, cooking the potatoes and the turnips at the same time produces a definite gap in doneness between the two roots. I digress.

As a precourser (I call it a precourse, because appetizer doesn't do it justice), my sister-in-law made these killer biscuits; heavenly little herbed pillows of buttermilky goodness. She topped them with a little chedder and served them warm from the oven before dinner.
I looked at these lovely little things that were beginning to get "oohs" and "ahhs" from the inebriated crowd growing around the island, and decided that they needed a little improving. Since we were out of beef stock for the deer recipe, earlier in the day threw together some fresh stock made from a beef heart that I had defrosted the day before. The stock was intense and could have been served as a consume. After simmering for an hour or more, I allowed the pot to cool slightly and then removed the heart to a cutting board. I sliced it thin and across the grain, and then returned the slices to the stock pot with the broth. I took a quarter cup of horseradish, half a cup of yogurt, a pinch of salt, and a turn or two of cracked pepper and mixed it together. I sliced the drop biscuits open and smeared a generous amount on the top. I ran to the fridge and grabbed a jar of Major Grey's Mango Chutney. I smeared about a teaspoon of the chutney on the bottom of what essentially was now a decadent roll, and then I laid a few slices of the heart in between with a pinch of kosher salt.
Now here's a word for squeamish readers when it comes to offal: deal with it or become a vegetarian. If you are of the meat eating persuasion, there's something morally wrong with you if you aren't open to a little (or a lot) of organ meat. How can someone justify killing a whole animal for a couple of burgers, a steak, and a sausage? It's ludicrous and selfish. I'll say one more thing in the topic here and that is this; Fergus Henderson is my hero. Heart tastes like filet when seared and roasted slightly, and like brisket (that hasn't had the shit cooked out) of it when simmered properly.

The resulting sandwich was nearly a main course. Several more cocktails wear consumed while noshing, and dinner had to be delayed by about 45 minutes. Here's what makes me an asshole, I nearly sabotaged a great dinner to make sandwiches that hid the brilliance of a perfect biscuit. What's more, this kind of thing happens nearly every time the in-laws get together. Whether it's my job to cook or not, I end up in the kitchen stealing the spotlight. I can't help myself, and it's starting to wear on my loved ones. Most of the people in my family don't even bother cooking anymore. They just head to Costco and return with tubs of food for mass consumption. When cooking is attempted it's always preambled by some long drawn out apology for the state of the meal. I have become judge, jury, and executioner for nearly every family meal. So far I have not figured out a way to climb down from that tree. I'm hoping this blog will help alleviate a bit of this apprehension. That's right, we're talking about blog as therapy...well, and recipes, and food news, and there will probably be a restaurant review on occasion too.

Eat well or not at all.