Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Salmon

Curried Salmon with Dhal

I knew I wanted to get rid of that last piece of salmon in the freezer, but I also knew I didn't have all the ingredients for the poached salmon recipe as it was written. Hmm.

For some reason I also had dhal on the brain. Now "dhal" means "split" in Sanskrit, and refers to any dried pulse that has been split in preparation or as consequence of drying. So dhal can be anything from chick pears to limas. In our household dhal generally means a 2-1 mix of masroor dhal (red lentils) to chana dhal (yellow split peas), with various seasonings. You're also supposed to add two raw green chilis, but not everyone can have the intestinal fortitude of those on the subcontinent and besides I thought too much heat would clobber the salmon. Two green chilis is a lot for two cups of anything.

So what ties together the Frenchy fish poaching fetish and the subcontinent savor? The answer is butter. Both cuisines literally drink the stuff. In this case, there is butter in the finishing sauce for the poaching liquid and butter added to the dhal just before serving. With some adjustments to the poaching recipe, the poached fish dish can be safely wed to the dhal.

In a convenients-sized pot, put 1/2 cup masroor dhal, 1/4 cup chana dhal, 1 tsp garlic, 1 tsp ginger, 1.5 tsp tumeric, and 2 tsp chicken soup base with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then park it on low heat and lid with convenient lid-like device. Everyone makes fun of me for using plates as lids, but truthfully they form a tighter seal than most lids that come with the cookware, and they double as serving vessels later, which goes along with my "less dishes=more fun" school of cookery.

Eyeball your salmon and figure out how many slices of onion you'll need to hold them off the surface of your frypan. What you're trying to do is create an elevated bed for the salmon to lay on so it's not sitting in poaching liquid. Arrange the oniony salmon bed in the frypan, then add enough white wine (I used cheap pinot, which was so acid I did not need to add lemon) to come halfway up the sides of the sliced onions. To the liquid add 1/2 tsp garam masala (plain jane supermarket curry powder is fine here), 2 chopped scallions, 2 chopped baby carrots (they were handy), and 1 chopped stalk of celery. Make sure the poaching liquid does not come near the tops of the onion. Your onion bed should be safely above the surface of the liquid.

Bring the poaching liquid to boil on high heat, then bring to low, place salmon skin-side down on the onions, ensuring the fish is above the liquid, and tightly cover the poaching vessel. Leave it for 10 minutes, enough time for me to make a confession.

I confess that I botched the poaching on the first pass. I was using processed Wal Mart salmon filets, which have no skin or much of anything else really. Sad skinny little suckers. Eleven minutes was far too long for such a fish, and the salmon was overdone. Thick, nice skin-on filets should take approximately 10 minutes, but for Wally World salmon or otherwise scrawny specimens next time I'll tune that down to about five minutes or less. In any case cook until the sides of the filet are opaque but the center is still translucent, and an instant-read thermometer reads 125 degrees when inserted in the thickest part of the fish. Using a spatula, remove the fish and onions to a plate and tent with foil.

Crank the heat up to medium-high and reduce the cooking liquid until it is almost dry, sort of a wet paste. Reduce the heat to medium or so and add 1 tblsp butter, swirling the butter until incorporated with the paste. Test the sauce and adjust flavorings, if necessary. If the wine you used isn't ridiculously tart like my bargain pinot was, add a splash of lemon juice for acidity. Something I might add to the sauce when I make this dish again is a little dollop of plain yogurt, I just think it'd be tasty with the salmon.

Check your dhal for doneness, then swirl in a tablespoon or two of butter and a few teaspoons of chopped cilantro or parsley. Discard onions, plate salmon topped with sauce and surround with dhal.

Dot the plate here and there with mint chutney, if you have any handy, or whatever Indian condiment you might have on hand. Speaking for me personally, I'm sort of addicted to the mysterious Swad "Punjabi mixed pickle". What is in there? It's a mystery. I honestly can't identify any of the objects in there, which as far as I'm concerned adds to the flavor. You never taste anything so hard as when you don't know what it is.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why Did the Chicken Salad Cross the Border?

Some days it's hard to get food requests out of people. After a bit of pondering and poking at the supplies, we finally had something. "How about some sort of southwest chicken salad?" Oh yeah, I could do that. I love chicken salad and I love mexican- why can't the two get together and have kids? It'd be like a burrito at a Jewish Delicatessen. "Oy vai- ai-ai-ai-ai!"

Dissassemble one baked chicken into a big non-reactive bowl. Store-bought rotisserie chicken works for this too.

Chop up an onion, a big handful of cilantro, 2 seeded chipotles. Toss in the bowl.

Grab a can of black beans, drain, put beans in bowl with 1/3 cup olive oil and 1/3 cup lime juice. I like sour things, so you might want less lime.

Core and cube 2 avocados, put in bowl, toss so that the acid in the lime covers the avocado or else they'll turn all brown and nasty.

Chop up a little bag of Fritos and toss in the bowl.

Salt to taste. Serve with lettuce of your choice. It would also be good in wraps or in some savory corn cake type object, like sopes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Curry from Story

A long time ago, my wife-then-girlfriend Monica asked if I knew of a green curry that had lima beans in it. She had eaten such a curry during a trip to Washington DC and loved it immensely. I was stumped. I knew that the Thais make a green curry. The color in a green curry- the Thai one, anyway- comes from cilantro, sometimes basil, and raw green chiles, making it arguably the hottest of the thai curries, at least the coconut-based ones. The Thais, though, generally do not have legume based-curries. The Indian curries do, but search as I may I could not find a green Indian curry. What if I made a Thai green curry based on lima beans? I shuttled various ingredients around and made a green curry with cashews and basil, centered around the lima beans and around raw red bell peppers added at the last moment. "How is it?" I asked. "It's good," Monica reported. "It's nothing like what I had in D.C., but it's good". Since the lima bean curry has become an institution in our household.

Splash of oil
8 garlic cloves
Thumb-sized knob of ginger
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup white wine
1 tblsp fish sauce
1 can coconut milk
.25-.5 can green curry
4 oz cashew halves
12 oz baby green lima beans
1 red bell pepper, chopped
Bunch basil leaves, chopped
Bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
Jasmine rice

A word about canned curry paste. I have no idea what the name of the brand is that I usually buy, but it has a tiny picture of a slightly forbidding looking oriental matron on the label. If you buy this brand and make it according to the directions on the can you will die. Well, maybe not die, but you will have a hard time eating the stuff unless you're from the same hell-planet that Madame Heat comes from. Half a can is the maximum for me, and most will probably be comfortable with .25 of a can for this recipe.

Get your jasmine rice going according to the package directions.

Heat the splash of oil in a wok until almost smoking. Saute the garlic and ginger until fragrant. Add the wine, lime juice, and fish sauce. Cook until reduced to the consistency of thick porridge. Crank the heat down to medium. Add the coconut milk, then dissolve the curry paste into the hot mixture. Reduce this until it is very thick. Add limas and allow to thaw if frozen, or to heat through if not. Add bell pepper and let it soften just a bit. Before serving, kill the heat and stir in the cilantro, basil, and cashews.

Serve with the jasmine rice.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hot Purple Sandwiches

One of our regular dinner guests is lactose-intolerant and does not eat red meat or pork. A lot of cooks I've known would resent this, but then again, a lot of technical folks I know also resent being challenged and/or working.

The said guest is now also trying to cut down on the amount of meat, period. A fresh challenge!

I just couldn't make myself do another Thai curry, so, well, my mind wandered. How about eggplant and roasted bell peppers? My wife hates grilled eggplant, so that means frying. This was starting to sound like a really good sandwich, but it needs a creamy component, which I intended to supply via melted manchego and softened creamed garlic. Baguette could serve double duty: sliced on the bias and broiled with olive oil and bruscetta for appetizer; sliced lengthwise and lightly toasted for serving with the sandwich stack ingredients. For the side dish I couldn't get my mind off the roasted broccoli I made from America's Test Kitchen:
I made this brocc a couple of days ago with zero expectations. It turned out to be the best single method of broccoli preparation I've seen. The vegetable does not actually need any seasoning with this method- the natural browning of the veg, with the salt and lemon, provides more than enough depth of flavor.

Anyway, eggplant sandwiches:

Put two big handfuls of whole garlic cloves in a pan with some oil or butter, put on low heat. Every time it looks like it's getting too brown, put in some white wine, stir, deglaze, let simmer again. Eventually the garlic will have the consistency of boiled potatoes and have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor. I imagined smashing them into a creamy spread but they looked so pretty that I served them as they were.

Grab a red bell pepper. Run the tip of your knife around the stem, then make a longitudinal cut all the way around. Split the sides, pull out the seed core, clean the insides of any hanging seeds or white rib matter. Halve the sides so you have quarters. Put on an oiled baking sheed cut side down and roast in a 350 degree oven until very soft.

Peel one medium-sized eggplant and slice 1/2" thick. You'll only be using slices wide enough to fit the width of your baguette. Too wide is A-OK. Salt both sides of the eggplant slices with coarse salt, put in bowl. The salt is going to draw off a lot of moisture, you'll be surprised by the amount that accumulates.

Slice the baguette lengthwise, then, using the heel of your hand, flatten the baguette. Cut it into pieces long enough to serve as rolls for the eggplant slices.

Slice some manchego cheese into some pieces that will melt well on your eggplant patties.

Prepare the fry prep line: one plate of flour, one bowl of beaten egg, one plate of bread crumbs. Dry the eggplant with paper towls, then flour-egg-breadcrumb the lot. Reserve on an elevated rack or on paper towels.

In a nice heavy pan, heat some olive oil on medium until shimmering. Fry the eggplant until golden brown on both sides. When frying the second side, put down the manchego so it gets just a little melty, barely translucent.

Toast your flattened baguette slices.

Plating: put down two slices toasted bread. On one side, stack roasted bell pepper and some fresh basil leaves. On the other side, put an eggplant/manchego patty. Put roasted broccoli in the middle, top with softened garlic cloves.

>>Chevre might be better on this than manchego. If you use chevre, don't try melting it on top of the eggplant or it'll turn into a runny mess. Apply it to the eggplant at plating time.
>>I didn't measure anything here because franky I didn't have a recipe. Sorry about that. If you have extra fried eggplant slices, freeze them for later or - I love this- smother in caper butter and serve as another appetizer with lemon slices.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Fishy Fishy Taste

Sort Of Anchoiade

The recipe for today is not one that everyone will be happy with. It might make some people run to the bathroom, just reading about it. For me, though, it's a pretty magical thing.

I'm fond of strong flavors. I like subtlety, yes, and well-thought out combinations. Chilled pea soup with mint. Vichysoisse with toasted leeks. Bernaise. These are fine things and I love cooking and eating them. Speaking for myself, though, I prefer the nuclear options, and anchoiade is one of them.

Chop 1 can anchovies with 5 cloves garlic, put in tiny bowl. Add 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 teaspoon red chili flakes, and enough extra-virgin olive oil to form into a paste. Mix it up. Let sit.

Cut half a thin banguette into slices approximately .25-.5" thick. Brush both sides with olive oil, then put on foil-lined baking sheet and broil until toasted. Turn the bread slices and repeat with the other side. Keep an eye on them because toasty brown turns to char very fast under a hot broiler.

Put .5 tsp anchovy mixture on each baguette slice. Use more anchovy mixture per slice depending on the design tolerances of your guests' taste buds.

To provide some relief, alternate this with another topping like bruschetta, chevre, or pseudorissa.

Monday, February 09, 2009


For a middle-Eastern themed dinner, with hummus, tsatsiki, smoked lamb, and baklava, I served something I called harissa which ultimately turned out to be nothing like harissa at all. Why did I call it that? The planners of the event (or someone close to them) asked for something involving roasted bell peppers, and after an internet search of "recipe red bell peppers roasted middle eastern", I got a recipe for something called red bell pepper harissa. Unfortunately for my middle eastern street cred, real harissa is made from roasted chiles and is beyond spicy. It's not something you eat by itself. I had no idea at the time how far off base I was, but though mild, my pseudorissa turned out quite good. In the words of Ian Tattersall, "Goodness, you've taken harissa and made it into something almost civilized". The pseudorissa has since become incredibly popular, and makes a regular appearance when I'm entertaining. It has the side benefit of being dirt simple.

4 red bell peppers
1 medium egggplant
1 tbls red pepper flakes
1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
A few squirts liquid smoke
A teensy bit of paprika
Extra extra virgin olive oil for lube
1 tbls salt

I'm not going to give a big lecture on picking out product here. Just one sentence: pick out only mid-size eggplants with green stems and taut skins.

Line two baking sheets with foil and generously lube with some extra virgin olive oil.

Cut a circle around the stems of the red bell peppers, then slice in half. Knock out the seed cores and any seeds sticking to the insides. Pull out the white ribs. Place the red bell pepper halves, cut side down, on one of the lined baking sheets.

Peel and slice the eggplant into 1/2" slices. Arrange on other baking sheet. If there's too much for one baking sheet, fit them in with the red bell peppers as best as you can.

Put both sheets in a 350 degree oven until the peppers are soft and the eggplant is shrunken and somewhat caramelized. If the peppers have a lot of char on them, pull the skins off, then put the roasted flesh in the bowl of a largish food processor. The eggplant will probably stick to the foil- gently scrape the eggplant into the bowl of the food processor. Add red pepper flakes, juice of 1 lemon, salt, squirts liquid smoke, and whir until smooth.

Pour out the puree into a bowl and add 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil. Stir until incorporated. We don't brutalize extra virgin olive oil in the food processor because the whirring sharp metal turns it bitter. Add a teensy bit of paprika if it's too orange- you'll need to do that if the red bell peppers weren't ripe enough. Chill the resulting concoction overnight. Remove, taste, and correct seasoning. It probably isn't salty enough. Salty flavors are muted when chilled.

Serve with the usual middle eastern suspects: falafel, pita, hummus, etc. It's not bad as a bruschetta topping, either.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Provisioning the Lone Male: Opa!

Continuing to provision the lone male, but this time greek style. I didn't feed myself pita, but went all out on the tsatsiki. Fats are not automatically metabolized into fat tissue when you eat them before sleeping. I remember some meathead telling me, "Carbs and protein in the morning, protein and fats in the evening". Now if only I could get ahold of some of them steroids!

Chicken Souvlaki

3 tablespoons (or more) lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic power
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt or chicken bouillon
Chicken breast
tsatsiki sauce, chopped feta, tomatoes, onions, pita

Put everything but the chicken in a zip-lock bag and smoosh it around to mix thoroughly. Put in chicken, get as much air out of the bag as you can, then smoosh around to make sure the marinade has good contact with the meat. Let sit for at least an hour, optimally overnight. Grill or broil. Preferably grill. Eat.

If you're being fancy, serve with tsatsiki sauce, chopped feta cheese, tomatoes, onions, and good pita.

Tsatsiki Sauce

16 oz sour cream
2-4 cloves garlic, mashed (I use a garlic press)
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper (about a teaspoon each)

In a perfect universe we’d use Turkish or Greek style plain yogurt instead of sour cream. Greek yogurt is basically plain yogurt with a lot of the moisture pressed out of it, but since you’d have to drive to, I don’t know, Kazakhstan to get some, we’ll use sour cream instead, which works fine.

Chop the cucumber into a couple of chunks. In food processor, whir cuke chunks until pureed. Drain cucumber mush in fine wire sieve or strainer, or use kitchen towels. Try and get as much water out of it as you can. Put strained cuke with the rest of ingredients in big bowl and mix until smooth. You can eat it now, but it gets better after a few hours in the fridge. Actually, it just continues to get better and better in the fridge.

This stuff can be eaten with just about anything from steak to falafel. It’s also a surprisingly good dip for potato chips.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cheddar at Kursk

This fondue started as an attempt on my part to break up the monotony of fondue. That's Fondue Neuchatel, the traditional mixture of swiss, gruyere, and kirsch that makes up the vast majority of fondue I cook and serve to others in my never-ending battle to make everyone around me obese. Now, let's get this straight, I love the Neuchatel formula, I think it's pretty much perfect, but for this occasion- Byron's birthday- I thought I should highlight his Southern heritage and make fondue more a la Americaine. Besides, his wife Carine's French and I honestly felt a little unsure of myself cooking the traditional Swiss mixture. I decided to go with a cheddar-beer fondue. A little bit of searching and I found the right proportions for a cheddar-stout mixture. Recipe in hand, I dropped by a convenient gourmet store on my way to Byron's house- European Gourmet, actually, off Brandon Blvd.

After selecting some choice weisswurst and some really tasty little dried sausages, I moved on to the cheddar. They had a seven-year old reserve Irish cheddar, of which I grabbed a pound. The English clerk/butcher/proprietress bobbed about in a wonderful blonde blur of Englishness. I actually could smell the moment she sank her knife into the grim white block. She did wonder what the hell I was using a pound of the stuff for.
"I'm making cheddar-stout fondue, actually"
"Have you the stout?"
"Er, no. Do you have Guinness?"
She snorted a little bit, as I had just asked for a Steel Reserve. Apparently, I was in for a stern correction.
After a brief bustle across the store, she offered me a clay vessel covered in cruel-looking Cyrillic lettering. Heavy steel clamps held a rubber stopper against its unadorned neck, as if in containment of radiation or djinn. Whoever made this thing had not seen fit to put a single word of English on any part of it. This was what a bottle of beer looked like in Mordor.
"Why doncha try this one, love?"
"What the hell is it?", I asked.
"Oh, it's beer. It's very nice. Imperial Stout."
I was beginning to suffer from what is commonly called consumption overload, stunned by all the wonderful things that were going in my big box. I didn't really examine the decision to take ownership of the dire stout. Certainly it must be nice, coming from the nice English lady, I thought dazedly. As I left the premises they offered to grill me some sausages. I've selectively deleted from my memory exactly how much money I spent in there that day.

At my friend's house I started assembling the fondue. The group in the dining room could talk to me over the counter, and I could join in the conversation. I always liked those counter things between kitchen and dining room for exactly this reason. I cut some cheddar, sampled it. "Dear God in heaven," I said to no one in particular. It was overwhelming. The stuff had more cheddar flavor in it than the combined yearly output of all Cheetos plants in North America. Somewhere Chester Cheetah was tapping a vein in anticipation. I hoped that the apple juice concentrate would mute some of that, or else it would just be too much. Somewhat tentatively, I opened the stout and poured out the amount needed for the fondue. In the glass the black liquid appeared completely opaque.
"Is that Worcestershire sauce?", Steve asked.
"Er. No. It's supposedly beer," I said, looking dubious. I held it up to a powerful track light. It became no less opaque. "It's from Russia," I tried to explain. I'm no great beer fan but I decided to try a taste. Urk. There's a reason I don't like beer. I handed it off to Steve, who is a genuine aficionado.
"Malt, " he said. "Chocolate. Something berry like. Complex. Mnh. Very dark."
"Dark as Stalin's soul. Does anyone have a laser pointer?" I wanted to check just how opaque it was, or if the light beam bent in its presence, which did not seem out of the question.
"What's it called?"
"I have no earthly clue" I passed him the bottle. Steve cackled. For all we knew, that bottle of stout was unique. Perhaps it was. Perhaps we had released Stalin's soul, liquified, bottled by Kruschev, as it were, to be delivered into our cheesy pot. I put my ear to the simmering mixture to see if I could hear show trials.

The final product was a desperate land war in the middle of Asia, a trenchline five thousand miles long. "It's like the Eastern Front in my mouth", I remember saying. The stout and the cheddar were just barely at violent, genocidal stalemate, broken only by hints of flavor from the substance dipped into it. Even the spicy dried sausages submerged themselves in this epic conflict. They were even Hungarian sausages, which made the metaphor a bit eerie. We all agreed that it was delicious, but had quite enough after a half dozen bites.

I've replaced the dipping substances in this recipe with the ones I liked the best. It was originally served with dried sausage, black bread, cauliflower, and apples.

Cheddar-Stout Fondue

lots of cauliflower florets
lots of broccolli florets

1 pound very good cheddar, aged at least 3 years, shredded. A food processor's shedder attachment is fondue's best friend.
2 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3/4 cup good dark stout
6 tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 green onion, sliced on the bias

Prepare veggies by boiling/steaming/roasting etc.

Toss shredded cheese with flour in large bowl. Heat stout, juice, and mustard until steaming. Gradually add cheese mixture, stirring constantly, until cheese is melted and the flour has thickened the mixture. Scatter green onions on surface of cheese to break up that brown color. Put pot on hot pad in the middle of the table. Dip veg in cheese and eat.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Provisioning the Lone Male: Lentil Pots

The wife is out for a week and it is time to cook. It's always time to cook, though, because I have chosen the role of cook in our household, but when the wife is not around the rules of the kitchen change significantly. This is primarily because the sink can only hold so many dirty dishes. It's a common design flaw of modern kitchens. Also, cooking for myself, I don't particularly care how balanced the dish is, whether it looks nice, or if I made it already this week. All that fru-fru goes right out the window. It has to taste OK, go together without too much thought, and by-and-large go by a few simple rules:

1) Will it make me a fat bastard? More to the point, will it make me more of a fat bastard than I already am? Since I lift big metal things recreationally, I should take in approximately 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. I'll aim for seventy grams per meal. The meal should also avoid crap carbs like potatoes and rice, and crap fats like shortening and margarine. It shouldn't have too much of either fats or carbs, no matter how high-quality, and preferably not too much of both at the same time. A lot of both at the same time is also known as a biscuit, or as I fondly call them, obesity tablets.

2) Can it be prepared and eaten using one item of cookware? Preferably a piece of cookware that is also simple to eat out of? This is to avoid covering every horizontal surface with dirty dishes that have to be maniacally cleaned in the last two hours before said wife's return. In the heat of the moment, I had once considered renting a pressure washer for this, but I know that if I did, the temptation would be too great to turn its formidable nozzle on every other soiled surface in the house: toilets, bathtub, litterbox, linens, etc. The results would take some explaining, a lot of flowers, possibly a lawyer and body armor.

3) Does it cost more than gas? I spend about five bucks a day on my commute, so that rules might not go for people that, say, bike.

Once you say "no" to all these questions, one of the perfect foods left is lentils. Fast cooking, tasty, macronutrients evenly split between protein, fiber, and carbs, there's nothing they can't do. We won't be seeing a lot of that today. Sorry to be such a tease. If you want to see saged lentil burgers on homemade brioche with chiles and chevre, you'll have to wait a bit. It's a good dish but it's not what we're after right now. For today, if you want to see cheap and easy lentil pots, you're set.

Sausage and Lentil Pot

½ package Jenny-O turkey breakfast sausage, diced.
½ cup lentils
1 onion, chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tsp sage
1 tsp cumin
1 cup broth, bouillon, or other seasoned liquid
1 tablespoon olive oil

A word about the turkey sausage. Jenny-O turkey sausage comes in tubes from Wal-mart for something like a buck fifty a pound. It’s easier to dice it while frozen. Wal-Mart has a random selection of ground turkey products that are usually pretty good, including this "italian flavor ground turkey product" that's pretty good and is a buck a pound. Strangely, the "italian flavor ground turkey product" is incredibly fiery- I mean thai hot- while the "mexican flavor ground turkey product" is fairly mild (and also tasy and, like its italian cousin, also a buck a pount, but totally unsuited to this recipe).

Brown the sausage in the olive oil until brown. Add onions, cook until translucent. Add everything else. Cover tightly, cook on low heat for an hour. Eat out of pot while reading Garth Ennis' Preacher.

Chicken and Lentil Pot

½ cup lentils
1 onion, chopped
1 chicken breast or chicken parts (approximately 14 oz)
1 tablespoon garam masala or other curry powder
1 carrot, chopped
1 cup cauliflower, chopped. Frozen is OK
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup broth, bouillon, or other seasoned liquid
1 tablespoon ghee or butter

Melt ghee in pot. Brown chicken in butter. It's OK if it's frozen. You just want the flavors from the browning, and the chicken will cook through while the lentils are cooking. Add onions and carrots, cook until onions are translucent. Add everything else. Cover and cook on low heat for 1 hour. Eat out of pot over Grant Morrison's Invisibles.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Fashionable Beef

As is commonly pointed out, 'a la mode' means "fashionable". What is not pointed out is, fashionable where? Sometimes an archaic 'a la mode' recipe will add a place name and a date, so you get a recipe that, when translated, is something like "Chicken that was really fashionable around 1832 in Amiens, you know, just in case you were interested".

Boeuf a la mode, aka French Pot Roast, is one of these animals, but is such a ubiquity that absolutely no French chef- no matter how megalomaniacal- can lay definitive claim to this particular marriage of beef and wine. The first time some guy called this particular pot roast 'a la mode' was around 1732, but this dish probably predates that date by a little bit. Not by too much, though, as pots and stoves were pretty rare things before the late Renaissance.

I call my boeuf a la mode "pot roast", because that's what it is, although I call it by its frenchy name when discussing with relatives and especially gramma. Households can be defensive about their signature pot roast. Telling a family member you are making pot roast is analagous to approaching the main heavy in a kung-fu movie and saying his kicking style looks pretty gay. If you say you're making Fashionable Beef, it makes it sort of funny and non-competitive, which is what food should be all about, like Aikido.

The recipe is an amalgamation of pressure cooker techniques, the recipe from Cook's Illustrated, and bits I've picked up from Alton Brown's Good Eats program. As a side note, Cook's Illustrated Best of 2008 is an incredible resource of cooking knowledge. Some parts- some very, very, small parts- should be discarded by the careful chef, such as peppering meat before browning (I've learned through experience that pepper burns too much at high heat), but by and large there is a lot of good information in there.

3-4 lb bone-in chuck roast. Try and find a chuck roast called "seven bone roast", if you can. The bone in it is shaped like a seven, hence the name.
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
Handful each of thyme, parsley, and a stick of rosemary
3 slices bacon
1.5 cups Malbec or Shiraz
1 8 oz package mushrooms, sliced (I was very lazy and got the pre-washed, pre-sliced ones)
1 tbls vinegar of your choice (I like balsamic)
1 tbls butter
1 tbls flour
Kosher salt
Black pepper

How much do you like fat? Figure out how much you want to cut from the roast and trim away. When you're done with your trimming, sprinkle the roast on all sides with some coarse-grained kosher salt. Let the meat sit at room temperature for an hour.

Brown the bacon in the pot of the pressure cooker. I'm using the pressure cooker for this recipe, but if you have a dutch oven that will work fine too. Even a big oven proof pan will work, so long as you have a nice tight fitting lid, which you can make out of some aluminum foil. Or you can use one of those roasting bag things, which I although I haven't used, I do have a friend who is quite fond of them and uses them to good effect.

Once your bacon has rendered out most of its fat, remove it and reserve. Working in batches if necessary, brown the beef on all sides in the delicious bacon fat, about 2 minutes per side. Reserve the browned beef on a convenient plate.

Throw in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Fry until the carrot is thinking about getting soft and the onions are translucent. Try not to let the garlic burn.

Dump in the wine, the reserved bacon, and herbage. Stir to remove the caramelization from the bottom of the pan. I always mean to tie the herbs in twine or kitchen cord before doing this but somehow never do. Don't fret if you don't, you can always fish out the woody bits later. But twine helps a lot, because then you can just pull out the bundle when you're done instead of picking at the sauce with a fork and cursing.

Add the reserved meat and any liquids that might have dripped out while it was sitting. Lid the vessel and set on high pressure for 45 minutes. Yes, that's a long time, but we're going for spoon tender here. If you're going with the dutch oven, lid the vessel and put in a 300 degree oven for 3 hours. Now, this temperature/time combination depends a lot on your oven and the vessel you're using. You could also simmer it on the stovetop, I suppose. When cooking is complete, pull the meat out as carefully as you can (it's going to want to come to bits), put on a platter and tent with foil. You know the meat is done when a probe can be inserted and removed from the meat with little or no resistance. Alternatively, get your finger around that little bone and see if it moves around easily inside the meat. Either way, if the answer is yes, your meat is cooked.

Time to contemplate the sauce liquid. Fish out the sorry remains of your herbage bundle. Put in the mushrooms and let it boil gently to cook the fungi and force them to release their liquid into the sauce. Taste the sauce. Ponder the sauce. Reach out with your feelings. This is a big part of the dish and it might need some tuning. In my case, I always over-salt things. I oversalted the roast when browning it, so the liquid was excessively salty, and this was even after the mushroom brigade made its entrance. Alright, no need to panic. Saltiness can be corrected with sweetness, to a certain extent. I added sugar teaspoon by teaspoon until the saltiness was negated, or at least translated into an oniony savor. The pressure cooker had taken the acid components right the hell out of the wine in the cooking liquid, so I added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar to freshen it up a bit. Once the flavors were right, I let it continue to gently boil and concentrate its flavors while I worked on thickeners.

It's roux time. In a decent-sized saucepan (enough for the liquid), melt the butter over low-medium heat, add the flour, and fry the resulting paste until light yellow in color. Slowly ladle the liquid into the roux. The liquid should thicken almost immediately. Stir until it's got a nice, gravy-like consistency. Taste and correct seasoning, if necessary. Pour the thickened sauce over the meat on its platter. Now is also a nice time to scatter some chopped parsley on the whole kit and kaboodle. It looks nice and adds some green-y flavor.

Traditionally this dish is served with boiled egg noodles, but in our household mashed potatoes and peas are awfully popular.

Love My Goat

Not too long ago, I entertained a group with a box of NY Strip steaks, a big bowl of salad, and some good baguette. We're not going to discuss grilling steaks here, because it's something much better cooks than I have addressed maybe a zillion times, and besides, a grilled NY Strip steak possibly has the highest gastronomic reward/work ratio of any food product and so should be made as often as possible. I mean, come on: apply coarse salt to both sides of a 1" strip steak, put 4" away from fire for 4-5 minutes per side, put on plate, eat. It's dirt simple but is one of the best things in the world. Compare this with something like ratatouille, which is a very good thing but is also three hours of your life spent frying vegetables. Anyway, meat. Mmm. The salad was a bit more interesting, but is so second nature that I forget it might not be second nature to other people.

It's rich enough to serve with the baguette by itself, but it also complements the steak nicely. The name for the recipe comes from a totally unrelated sweet red table wine that has a cartoon goat on the front of it, advising the shopper to "Love my goat". We're not sure why.

Goaty Love Salad

6 oz chevre (soft goat cheese)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 small red bell pepper, diced
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
1 teaspoon powdered chicken bouillon
1 teaspoon black pepper
A fairly large amount of prepared baby salad greens- you can get a big bin of the stuff at Sam's for five bucks or so. Maybe about 20 oz or so.

Combine the first 8 ingredients in the biggest salad bowl you have. Stir until it makes a tangy-smelling, thick brown mixture, with the chevre well-incorporated. Add the greens, and toss carefully. Mix the salad in with your hands. Those baby greens are way to delicate to go stirring with a big hard fork and spoon, and your hands can tell you more about the final texture of the dressed salad than a fork could.

You could add some bacon bits to this but it's not really necessary. If you do, though, omit the chicken bouillon, otherwise it's too salty, and I like salt.