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...

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,

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.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Damned If It Doesn't Work...

I purchased one of those aerate-as-you-pour wine doohickies the other day, I think under the premise that buying it would get me free shipping on a book I wanted to order. I am a cynic, but it was an extra-cheap price that day so I figured it couldn't hurt to try. I like the concept of decanting only what goes into your glass, since as a single person that's the only amount I usually need, and I like the concept of instant decanting since my patience is generally stretched to its limit by the time I get home from work in need of a glass of wine. Now, the marketing campaign is full of lies, including the idea that decanting always makes wine taste better (I'm not going to get into a wine-snob rant, but let's just say there's a reason I didn't pull one of the bottles from my cellar that has been aging and is ready to drink when I went to test this thing...), but the product itself is pretty cool. I decided to use the 2007 Catena Malbec that we all loved at our first Sommelier Smackdown for my taste test, knowing that it is indeed a bit tight when you first open it.
This definitely wouldn't be the doohicky for people who are obsessed with the aesthetics of the wine experience. (You know those people... The ones who refuse to drink screw-cap wines because pulling the cork out of the bottle is so fundamentally important to their enjoyment of the wine? Or am I the only one who has met those people? They're truly obnoxious...) The reason for this is that the doohicky makes a ridiculous gurgling noise while aerating the wine as you pour. This is, of course, how it gets the job done, but it still sounds rather odd... Anyway, I tried a side-by-side comparison of aerated vs. straight-from-the-bottle:Can't you just see the difference? No? I can't either... But I could definitely taste the difference. It's that exact same beautiful thing that happens when you decant a tight wine. All of a sudden it can open up on your palate and you get the whole flavor profile and lovely finish, rather than having all of that truncated by tannins. I totally love this wine even more now. Thumbs up.

Sommelier Smackdown!

On Thursday night I met up with R, Kathy, and Ben for another Sommelier Smackdown. Much like last time, it was totally and completely awesome. I think the overall level of the food at the first one R and I attended with Joe may have been a tad higher, but the best course this time was absolutely amazing, and the cheese course was both educational and delicious. Rather than repeating the rules, I'll dive right in. Ian was our chef again, but his theme this time around (he likes themes) was "Adam Ostrofsky," because Adam (the guy on the left in both pictures below) had written the menu and was doing the bulk of the prep in place of Ian's regular assistant.
Our sommeliers were again named Kate and Mike... Kate Moore from L'Espelier was back as the returning champion, and the challenger was Michael Meagher from BOKX 109.
The menu this time was three "real" courses followed by a cheese course, apparently because Adam forgot to write a fourth course and because Ian hates to make dessert:
First up was the salad of beets, shaved fennel, parsley, mint, and duck confit with a ricotta dressing.
This was pretty darn good, though I wish there was a way to enjoy the flavor of beets without your entire dish turning hot pink... The flavors really came together when you put together a bite featuring a bit of everything, and you can't go wrong with duck confit as far as I'm concerned. Kate paired this with a 2008 Château Pesquié Terrasses Rose. This was an absolutely beautiful dry Rhône rose, made with Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah. If you know me, then you know that it's basically cheating to serve me Rhône wines in a wine-pairing competition. This was fantastic with pretty much every bite of the salad. Michael went with a Pierre Sparr Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rose, which I thought was a pretty lame pairing. A couple of my friends thought it was too sweet, and we all agreed that it did nothing for the dish. I get the idea of cutting the fat from the duck with something sparkling, but this was a really boring wine that had no business being served with this salad. Apparently it's all matter of taste, though, and Kate just edged out Michael in this course 16-10. Next up was the controversial course of bass and salmon ceviche wtih green apple and smoked salt.The smoked salt was a really odd choice, since it made the salmon taste almost as if it weren't fresh. For R and Kathy, Kate's wine pairing just accentuated this off-putting fishy-ness and made the dish almost inedible. Once I got past the mental block of that smoked salt, though, and tried a few bites where the crisp apple balanced the fish, I really enjoyed this dish. Kate's pairing was a 2006 Côtes du Jura "Les Sarres" Chardonnay, aged in steel for bright lemon and apple flavors, while Michael went with a 2008 Santorini Assyrtiko from Greece. I thought Kate's wine went quite well with the lemon and apple in the ceviche. It wasn't a home run, but I thought Michael's wine was undrinkably sweet, so there wasn't really any competition in my book. As I mentioned, though, a couple of my friends thought Kate's wine destroyed the dish, so Michael got their votes... as well as most other people's, as he took this course 18-8. Next up was the course that we couldn't stop talking about afterward: Brussels sprout and lardon risotto with grilled Merguez sausage:
Holy crap. This was ridiculously awesome. I am indifferent to risotto, and all four of us had previously been indifferent to sausage as well... but not any more. The Risotto was delicious, and was the perfect partner for the mind-blowingly delicious Merguez. (Speaking of which, replicating this dish at home has shot to the top of my "To Do" list...) Adam came around to dish up what was left of the risotto after people had finished their plated portion, and seemed really proud of how much everyone loved his dish., which was sweet. Kate cheated again by serving a Rhône, this time a mostly-Syrah 2006 Domaine Des Remizieres Crozes-Hermitage. Yummy. Michael went with a 2004 Cascina Roera San Martino Barbera D'asti. I was probably going to prefer Kate's no matter what, but I thought Michael's wine was sort of gross. I think this was due to a hint of tobacco on the nose that I just couldn't get past (I may love wines that smell like manure and wet hay, but I can't seem to get past either raisin or tobacco on the nose...), as well as the fact that I'm not a huge fan of acidic reds. Again, it's a matter of taste... (As Ben reminded us, a good wine pairing is a lot like porn: You know it when you see it...) Michael secured half of the votes from our foursome, and Kate again won a close one, 15-11. Finally, the cheese course:
None of us were super-excited about this one going in, but a little cheese called Robiola changed all that... It looks sort of like Brie, so you think it's going to be boring, but it SO isn't... Mmm... Robiola... All three cheese were actually pretty awesome. There was a Bayley Hazen Blue from Vermont, a truffled pecorino, and that beautiful Robiola. Strong cheeses can be a tough pairing because they coat your tongue in fat and can make a lot of lovely wines taste nasty and bitter. Both of our sommeliers chose dessert wines to counter this problem, which I am learning lately is sort of genius. Kate chose a Burmester White Porto, while Michael went with a 2007 Pacific Rim Vin de Glacière (which is a late-harvest Riesling from Washington). I have never been a fan of white port, and Kate's wine choice was no exception, but I could see what she was going for... I guess. Michael's pairing, on the other hand, was absolutely effing fantastic with all three cheeses. Brilliant. Ben, Kathy, and I each ended up taking home a bottle, with plans to pair it with Robiola cheese we would all be buying in the near future... The three cheeses were so very different from one another, so it was cool to see one wine work perfectly with all of them. Michael annihilated Kate in this course 21-5. Thus, it was a tie in number of courses won, but Michael won big on the courses he won, so he took home the overall win by virtue of total number of votes, 60-44. He'll be back next month to take on a new challenger, and we all plan to be there, too. This post out of the way, I'm going to go have some Robiola for lunch...UPDATE: Above is the Robiola I picked up at Russo's on Saturday. That's how oozy and awesome it is straight out of the fridge. Things get even more awesome as it comes up to room temperature. So. Effing. Good. This is my new favorite cheese. Go buy some. Seriously. You can thank me later...

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Plan

So, I've been pondering the fact that this blog is more "Rico, Pedro, and Charley are Awesome!" plus a little "The Endless Suffering of a Bucs Fan" than it is "Emily's Culinary Adventures." Last May I posted about a couple recipes from restaurant cookbooks that I tried that weekend, and it was some of the most fun I've had putting a post together. I have a pretty massive cookbook collection, in fact, and countless post-its scattered throughout those books marking recipes that I want to try "someday." Well, my friends, someday officially begins... next weekend. With the exception of times when I can't cook for whatever reason (travel, surgery, kitchen flood...), I plan to pull out one of my awesome cookbooks every other weekend and give a recipe (or two?) a go. Further, I will think of this as training. I've gotten out of practice with recipe-following. I like to use them as inspiration and just sort of do my thing (making an Emily-style version of any given recipe), and I often lack the patience to pay attention to detail, especially if I'm in the proverbial weeds. But I need to get back into practice and hone my detail-paying-attention-to skills if I'm going to conquer a recipe from this bad boy:
by the end of the year. Thus, the plan: Fortnightly testing of (hopefully) kick-ass recipes from my cookbook collection, building towards an end game of pulling off a Heston Blumenthal recipe from The Big Fat Duck Cookbook before the end of the year. It sits in a position of honor atop my bookcase, the pride of my collection, mocking me with its beauty and complexity (I think the simplest recipe has a mere 5 pages of three-columns-of-small-text-per-page instructions), but I plan to show it who's boss... (even if the answer to that question will inevitably be "Mr. Blumenthal"...)