Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Quest for Perfect Merguez

I should start by mentioning that when I said I would post these "every other week," what I meant was that I will post them whenever I feel like it, which will hopefully be at least every other week... Anyway, thanks to the last Sommelier Smackdown, I was hell-bent on making Merguez sausage at home. The night of the Smackdown I ordered a book that had been on my wish list for a long time: Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
This book is awesome. There are so many things I want to make, but I had to start with Merguez. This looked problematic at first, as I couldn't find natural sausage casing locally (not to mention pork fatback) and didn't want to wait for mail order, but the always-brilliant (and always-correct) R pointed me to Blood Farm, and suddenly I was in business. Here's the casing, soaking in preparation for use.
The lovely "small" 3-pound hunk of fatback I picked up was pretty awesome. I diced the 1/2 pound I needed for the recipe, then diced the rest to vacuum-pack and freeze for future sausage-making adventures. (I think Chorizo is next...) That knife on the right is my very favorite knife on the planet, by the way... (Thanks, Stanley!)Here we have the lamb, fatback, garlic, fresh oregano, spices, and chopped roasted red pepper,which I then tossed together and allowed to marinate in the fridge for a few hours while taking care of some other cooking...Then came the grinding with my handy-dandy KitchenAid meat grinding attachment... (Sorry the picture is a bit blurry. I was in the weeds...)The red wine and ice water are then added, and the mixture is beaten for about a minute to combine.I cooked up a test bite at this point, and it was awesome. All that was left to do now was toss it all in some casing, which was... easier said than done. I have the KitchenAid sausage stuffer attachment and, to put it kindly, that attachment is a jerk. Even following the book's instructions to grind into a bowl set over ice (as you can see I did in the grinding picture), it was impossible to get the meat cold enough to prevent the fat from gumming up the works. I could not for the life of me get any reasonable amount of meat out of the end of the damn tube. (I have no pictures of this, because my hands were covered in raw meat and I was filled with hostility...) I poked around on the interwebs and found that I was not alone in my suffering, and that several people suggested partially freezing your ground meat before using that blasted attachment... Sure enough, 30 minutes in the freezer (and working in batches while leaving the rest of the meat in the freezer) and the sausage stuffing attachment stopped being such an asshole. Behold, my (slightly ghetto) Merguez sausages:I got better as I went, and I think they'll look even better next time. Also, I feel that nothing says "classy" like purple and yellow IKEA bag clips to seal the ends... The sausage went into the fridge to rest and chill while I recovered from the exertion of making it... A couple hours and a glass of wine later, it was time to start the risotto... Yes, there had to be risotto. I don't think I'd ever actually made risotto before... Never had the inclination... But there was risotto at the Smackdown (Brussels Sprout, Roasted Onion, and Lardon Risotto, to be exact), so there would be risotto on my table as well. I went with an Asparagus Risotto recipe out of The Cafe Cookbook as a template, but modified almost all of that recipe (except rice and liquid) to try to replicate the Smackdown risotto... I roasted sweet onions onions in a 300°F oven until soft and very tender, blanched some sliced Brussels sprouts in salted water, and crisped up a few strips of insanely good bacon that I'd picked up at Blood Farm. (Seriously: Best. Bacon. Ever.) After sautéing the roasted onions in some butter, it was time to add the Arborio rice and get going...Adding warm chicken stock (sadly, not homemade for this adventure) one ladle at a time while stirring and stirring and stirring, I finally started to have something resembling risotto in my skillet... I dumped in the sprouts, bacon, and some awesome Parmesan, and it was good to go...Meanwhile, I roasted off the Merguez in a 375°F oven until they reached an internal temperature of 150°F...Then seared in a hot skillet to make them pretty:Mmmm... Merguez... (Yes, I see that the ends came open a bit... Geez, man... It was my first time. Get off my back...) All in all, things came together beautifully:(Not to mention deliciously...) The Merguez wasn't the same as we had at the Smackdown, so I think I'll keep playing with recipes until I find the perfect one, but my risotto was seriously delicious. Actually, so was the sausage. (Not the exact flavor I was going for doesn't actually mean less delicious in this case... just different.) My sausage was more bell-peppery than the ones at the Smackdown, and I think I'll do a recipe using harissa next time I attempt Merguez, but I honestly sort of loved that bell-peppery-ness, and would definitely make this again... For the record, I totally followed the recipe this time (for the sausage, at least... I couldn't find a recipe to follow for the risotto...) with the exception of the freezer trick that was necessary to get the job done. Can't wait to test out more of Mr. Ruhlman's totally awesome book... He is definitely one of my culinary heroes...

Bonus Bunnies!

This one's for you, Stanley... Just wanted to post a more positive update, focusing on the fact that Pedro loves Charley and Charley loves Pedro. These guys are killing me with the cuteness of their snuggles...
(Rico is still not on board, as you can sort of see in that last picture...) Charley was cracking me up on Saturday when I set my grocery bags on the ground. He could smell the kale, which was driving him crazy, but he has no front teeth so he can only gum at it until I cut it up for him... That didn't stop him from trying, though... He also did an impressive job flinging around the carrot tops that R left for him...And, finally, it was claw-trimming time again. Pedro disapproves.
Rico (censored for my more sensitive readers) was quietly plotting his revenge.And Charley, crazy-pants that he is, was a giant brat about the situation... The bonding seems to be back to heading in the right direction... I even witnessed some 3-bunny snuggles going on today... which was interrupted by Charley randomly clawing at Rico to pick a fight... Sigh.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Happiness is a Kick-Ass Butcher

Dear Blood Farm,

I think I love you.

Your name may be a bit odd but, then again, that may also be part of your inestimable charm.

I would be willing to pay a considerable sum for access to such beautiful, fresh, butchered-on-site meat and for the ridiculously wide selection you offer, but instead you choose to charge me even less than what the grocery store charges for their mass-produced dreck.

The fact that you not only carry pork fatback, but found me a "small" 3-pound chunk and gave it to me at no charge with the rest of my purchase? Blew my mind. Not to mention that you are the only place in town that could sell me the natural sausage casing I so desperately needed (along with the fatback and that lovely lamb shoulder) to make Merguez for the first time this weekend.

You provide every cut of meat I could ever desire, higher quality than I ever dare to hope for, and prices that make me glad I am getting a chest freezer for my basement next weekend so that I can stock up. (I do wish you were less than a 45-minute drive away, but I get it. You want to make me work for it.)

Have I mentioned that I think I love you? Because I do. I really, really do...

Love always,

Friday, January 29, 2010


So, you may have noticed that there have been fewer bunny posts around here lately. There's a reason for this, and it's not just that Stanley disapproves... The reason there have been fewer posts about my three good bunnies is that I only have one good bunny now, and his name is Pedro. I also have two bad bunnies named Charley (who is insane) and Rico (who is an asshole). After bonding got off to a good start, things hit a snag when Charley and Rico decided they just didn't want to make it work. Things started to go downhill with little scuffles that seemed minor enough, but then came the spraying. Oh, yes. The spraying. This? Was not cool. Rico and Charley couldn't be around each other for more than a minute or two before one of them was spraying the other, sometimes catching me or Pedro in the crossfire. I own a little home carpet steam-cleaner, and it is getting put to use on pretty much a daily basis. Everyone has been spending a lot more time locked in cages as a result, with Rico and Charley sometimes trading places since everyone gets along with Pedro. Here are Pedro and Charley freaking out together when I was cooking bacon last weekend:Everyone had brekky together this morning in and around the big cage:
(Charley likes to dive into the full containers, rather than settling for what I dish out for him. I allow this for a few minutes every morning because he is ridiculously cute...) Things have improved a bit now, as Charley seems to be done with spraying. Rico, on the other hand, continues to feel the need to mark his territory on the kitchen carpet. (Have I mentioned that I love my little steam-cleaner?) Since he seems to be the main trouble-maker at the moment, he is imprisoned in the small cage while Pedro and Charley hop around behaving themselves.(You can see that the small cage is where the hawk-proof food cave used to be. Caves are for good bunnies...) So, we still have a ways to go. The problem we're bumping into is the fact that Rico is a bully. When he bullies Pedro (as he does), Pedro just lies down and takes it or runs away, and Rico can then feel good about himself. When he tries to bully Charley in the same way, though, Charley tries to claw him to death (which is a bit of an over-reaction, really), and then Rico feels insecure and like he needs to bully Charley more aggressively and keep marking his territory. He doesn't understand that Charley is bigger, stronger, and crazier than him. Charley seems willing to be Rico's friend, and will hop up and touch noses with him, but as soon as Rico nips at him? It's on.
Sigh. Hopefully this is just a phase, and a short-lived one at that. I find these guys infinitely more charming when they're not forcing me to constantly clean my carpet...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Funky Brussels Sprouts

Part Two of my Sunday Cookbook Experiment this week was from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Elements of Taste by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky.Unlike Aquavit, I've cooked a few things out of this book over the years, a couple of which have become go-to dishes that I absolutely love. I enjoy the way the recipes are laid out, separating dishes out into the prep of each component, then giving plating instructions as well as "tasting notes" (which I think is a cool idea to apply to food instead of wine). There are apparently 14 elements of taste, and Sunday night's recipe came from the "Funky" section of the book. The authors write of the ingredients in this chapter "Clearly we are talking about a wide group of ingredients that are different in every respect except one: they are, for want of a better term, 'stinky.'" Heh. The recipe in question is Apple, Brussels Sprout, and Turnip Hash:
I've had this page marked for years, in part because I love Brussels sprouts and in part because the picture is so very very pretty. I had high hopes for the recipe, given my success in other areas of the book, but it was a bit odd. The proportions just seemed... off, especially given that the picture features 90% Brussels sprouts plus a bit of apple and turnip and features no visible bacon. The recipe called for 1/2 pound of Brussels sprouts, 2 Granny Smith apples, 1 "large" white turnip, and 8-10 slices of bacon. I wanted a double batch, but that didn't seem like enough sprouts, so I used 5 times the suggested amount of brussels sprouts, twice as much apple, only the one large turnip (you'll see why), and 16 slices of bacon (this is for 6 servings, but that is still a copious amount of bacon...), and ended up with something that had about the same amount of Brussels sprouts as it did apples and turnips... Hmm... Anyway, I blanched the sprouts before pan-searing in some butter:
Then seared the chopped apples in the same pan with bit more butter:No matter how high I crank the heat, I can never seem to get proper caramelization on apples before they start to get too soft for my liking... If anyone reading this has been successful in this endeavor, please let me know how in the comments. Meanwhile, I crisped up the ridiculous amount of bacon in the oven:These components were set aside,
and then the instructions got strange. Below is my solitary large turnip, diced and ready to be "simmered" in 1/2 cup of cider vinegar (double the recommended amount, since this was nominally a double-batch). I'm not sure how you "simmer" 3 cups of turnip in 1/4 cup or even 1/2 cup of vinegar... "Steam," maybe.. but "simmer"?I put a lid on the pan and went with the "steam" approach, and when the turnips started to soften I combined with the Brussels sprouts:After stirring in the apples and bacon, I tossed a pile of the hash onto a plate. (I don't think you can do a particularly awesome plating with a dish as intentionally rustic as "hash"... but I do need to get some better lighting in my kitchen for this picture-taking thing...)
Since this is a side dish, I decided to roast a pork loin to serve it on the side of. I rubbed the loin with a couple teaspoons of bacon fat and a hearty sprinkle of super-coarse sea salt, then tossed it into the oven during the last 20 minutes or so that the hash was cooking.I plated up a few slices with my hash, and it was (finally) dinner time.
So, this experiment was... interesting. The hash actually tastes fantastic. The saltiness of the bacon, sweetness of the apples, earthiness of the turnips, brightness of the vinegar, and "funkiness" of the Brussels sprouts are a beautiful combination. The hash was perfect with the pork loin, and I think the bacon fat rub on the loin before roasting was sort of brilliant and managed to enhance the pairing. In the end I think I would call this experiment a success. I'll probably play some more with the proportions in the future, but I definitely see this entering the repertoire throughout Brussels sprout season. And I still apparently suck at following recipes...

Sunday Cookbook Adventures: Marcus Samuelsson is a Liar

I'll be coming back with Part 2 of today's experiments when I prep dinner, but I thought I'd better get Part 1 out of the way now... Let me start off by saying that I had a lot of fun preparing this meal, and I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun if Marcus Samuelsson wasn't a lying liar, so in a way I guess I'm OK with his deception... but I can't go off on Alfred Portales for being a liar and then not call out Samuelsson for an even worse infraction. Portales at least gave the correct ingredient prep until the "toss all ingredients together" step (which, thanks to the presence of beets, turned everything hot pink, unlike his pretty picture...). Samuelsson, on the other hand, gave you instructions that from the first step could NEVER result in the food that is pictured in this recipe (and is shown repeatedly throughout the book, including on the effing cover). Speaking of which, the book in question today is Aquavit, which I think I've owned since it first came out in 2003.
I mention the date because I think it may be relevant to the situation... but I'll get to that in a second. I have a lot of post-its in this book, marking recipes that I've wanted to try for a long time but have never gotten around to for whatever reason, and the one I decided to try out first was Glazed Salmon with Wasabi Sabayon:Doesn't that look pretty? I love wasabi, but I think what drew me to the recipe beyond its inclusion was that beautiful potato pancake. Samuelsson refers you to page 186 for the recipe and, in case you think there was some mix-up, he shows us another picture of this lovely creation there. OK. Sweet. I can't wait to make this. Then you read the instructions... "Peel the potatoes and finely grate them on a box grater or the grating disc of a food processor." You're then supposed to combine the grated potatoes with "finely chopped" onion and an egg, before turning them into a big, thick, pancake (which I'm sure tastes great). Do you see any chopped onion in the pancake pictured below? Or any potato that could possibly have been grated on a box grater, for that matter?
I was going to make a batch as instructed just to prove my point, but I didn't really want to, so instead just behold, above, the book's picture next to a box grater (which is the same size grater that you would have in your food processor). Um... Yeah. Whatever, Marcus... I figured that my best bet if I wanted to make the pretty thing in the picture was to use my mandolin with its julienne slicer in place... and the results were sort of perfect.This, as you may be able to tell, is a $6 mandolin (which I got at the Lincoln City outlet malls when I was in college). (I've often pondered upgrading to a $100 nice one, but I have yet to encounter a task that my $6 version can't handle admirably well, so that's a difficult expense to justify...) I sliced up about 2/3 of an Idaho potato this way, thin-sliced and then rough-chopped a quarter of a sweet onion, then tossed all of that with a beaten egg and some salt and pepper. I placed a layer into the skillet (by the way, this is about 1/3 the amount that Samuelsson has you put in the skillet in his recipe) with a couple tablespoons of melted ghee:
I flipped the pancake after about 10 minutes when it was starting to get nice and toasty.
After cooking for 10 minutes longer, I put the pancake on a cooling rack over a baking sheet and threw it into a warm oven to wait until it was time to plate. Next up was the Wasabi Sabayon. This is a combination of egg yolks, white wine, lime juice, white wine vinegar, and wasabi powder. You whisk everything but the wasabi powder over a double-boiler for approximately forever, waiting for the mixture to become fluffy and thickened as the egg yolks cook,
then whisk in the wasabi and season to taste with salt.
I felt like the lime pretty much dominated this sauce, and that the wasabi (even when I added about 5 times as much as was called for) was barely perceptible, certainly not to the extent that it should be in the name of the dish. The good news, though, is that this is the exact texture I loved so much in the dipping sauce for my calamari at Nougatine, so now I know I have the skills and/or knowledge to make a Sriracha Sabayon for my next batch of calamari. I thought I would have to do something crazy to replicate that sauce, but in the end it's just a classic technique... Awesome. The glaze for the salmon wasn't exactly a glaze, given that it was 1/4 cup of lime juice mixed with just 2 tablespoons of the thick kecap manis and a little wasabi powder.
The consistency of this glaze is thus extremely thin and not something I would refer to as a glaze. Anyway, I forgot to take any pictures while cooking the salmon, but it used one of my favorite methods, which is to cook the salmon only from the skin side, leaving the skin super-crispy and the salmon a lovely medium-rare. I didn't have all of the same components as in the book's picture (in part because they aren't in the recipe), but here's what I ended up with:Not bad, eh? I wasn't particularly wowed by any single component of this dish, but it was actually really fantastic when it all came together, thanks in no small part to the kick-ass potato pancake that I made. There wasn't that much onion there, and there wasn't much visible in the pancake itself, but the slow cooking in the ghee allowed that flavor to season the entire toasty, delicious thing. It was the perfect accent to the sharp sabayon and soft, rich salmon. Yum. So... On to my reason for including the year the book was published. While I was cooking, I came up with this theory that The French Laundry Cookbook changed everything. Portales and Samuelsson lie to their readers because they think home cooks would be intimidated by a recipe that asked them to use a mandolin or whatever the situation actually called for, but they can't bring themselves to show a picture of the lame thing they're telling you to make rather than the pretty thing from their restaurant kitchen. As I've said before, The French Laundry Cookbook (thanks to both Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman) actually treats the home cook like somebody who can handle something complicated if that's what they went looking for. My theory fell apart when I realized that The French Laundry Cookbook came out in 1999... but I think perhaps it was just ahead of its time. It took a few years for word to spread, for home cooks to start cooking their way through it and embracing the idea that some things are really just worth that much time and effort, damn it. It may be a while before I come back to Aquavit for a recipe (given the lies and whatnot), but I'm glad I gave this one a try.