Friday, January 30, 2009

Before it becomes bacon

I'm long overdue on the belly update, so sorry. We ate it a fortnight ago, anyway. Wish you could have been there. We had enough left over to eat it twice.

Here's how it ate: a bit on the salty side, but not terribly so. Underneath, a sweetness redolent of the cure (half salt, half sugar). The fat - and there was a goodly bit of it - did not melt into the plate as it did at the cute little Japanese restaurant in New York where I learned the high art of pork belly. OK, it did a little.

There's nothing to doing a belly. Few days in the brine, couple hours in the oven, done. Employing Fergus Henderson's trick of lining the bottom of the dish with onions, I sliced a fairly small one, chunked it into the pan, laid the belly on top. I should have done two onions. They were the cream of the dish, turning to caramel in the soak of cured fat that dripped from the would-be bacon.

We ate it in slices with green lentils. It was a meaty slab, moreso than I anticipated. You can't really tell until you cut into it. The meaty streaks tuck themselves into the white fat and don't come out until cooked. When cooked, what emerges is a softness that still has enough tooth to require knife and fork. (That Japanese belly went down with a spoon.) The meat is gorgeously tender and ferociously flavored. Once you get past the fact that you're eating the cut of gut, that you're tucking into chunks (versus slices) of bacon, you're stunned by how delicious it is. Belly relishes a deep glass of cabernet, by the way.

Of course, you shouldn't be. It's bacon, for goodness sake!

As I've said, I think, belly is pretty tame fare for Fergus. Next up - meaning, now occupying a spot in my brine buckets: ox tongue and pig's head. For the latter, it'll be a table of one, I fear.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'People' person

Judy Allen, of Tulsa People magazine, has found me. tulsapeople.

The easiest of tapas

Day 6: tortilla espagnola

When tapas became the new big thing - here, that is; in Spain, they'd been around since before the Moors, anyway - one of the easiest to learn and do was tortilla espagnola. It's an intriguing dish from the name on. I saw "tortilla," I thought burrito. Now, I have to think twice when I see the word.

Any proud kitchen will naturally stock the basis of Spanish tortilla: potato, egg and onion. In my early efforts, eggs played more of a role, probably because I was using the dish as dinner and felt inclined to up the ante on protein. But, in a well-prepared tortilla, eggs merely bind. The dish is largely a platform for thinly sliced potatoes and chopped onions.

And olive oil. The amount of oil that goes into a tortilla pan is beyond liberal. When you see it splashing up the sides of the pan, you're about right. I try to shoot for an amount that will be fully incorporated into the dish without rendering it completely slick, for the method of the tortilla requires the pan be upturned. Meaning, any oil residing will have to be collected - or lost, either in the kitchen sink (that's where I recommend doing your flipping) or all over the range.

I'm a cheater, at heart. I did it in school work and I do it with tortilla espagnola. Instead of inverting the half-cooked dish onto a plate and re-introducing it into saute pan to finish the other side, I toss it under the broiler until the cheese (again, cheating) begins to sizzle. It's just easier, and the fact that it ends up more like an Italian frittatta will be lost on everybody who isn't Iberian.

Cheese - good cheese, anyway - flaunts the purpose of the Seven-Day Adventurist plan, which is to save money without sacrificing taste in times of fiscal restraint. That said, go easy on the cheese, which you should anyway. And use the grana that you employed in the carbonara. The same grana that will appear in the next and last leg of the diet:

Day 7: risotto di giorno

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boar's head


I've now two brine buckets going - one in the fridge handling a cow's tongue, one in the garage managing a pig's head. The pig's head is the more daunting of the two, largely for its girth. I don't even know if it'll fit in the pot.

Johnny Phillips - Mr. Chalkboard, for those who may recall - brought the head over from a respectable butcher in Fayetteville. I plan to do them both honor with a salad, of sorts, that'll make use of the cheek, tongue and ear meat.

Stay tuned.

(I owed you one on the pork belly that sat for a week inbrined. Slow-roasted on a bed of onions with a mere splash of olive oil, I must say it was quite transcendental. And cheap. Feel free to substitute it in your own version of the Seven-Day Adventurist diet. Another episode of that coming soon …)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ghee whiz

Often I pull off the kitchen shelf a book of curries and more called
Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal, more for inspiration than for directions. I almost never have all of the goods to bring a Kerala dish into being, and so I fake it. Things I most often do without: curry leaves (nothing to do with the spice mix we call curry), ghee (essentially clarified butter) and coconut milk. There really is no substitute for the last, so my dish is less an improvisation than it is a wild departure.

For a Kaimal recipe I cooked last week, I needed three essential things: shrimp, curry leaves and coconut oil. The shrimp get a quick saute in the oil and then a toss with the leaves and a generous portion of salt and pepper. I like the pepper mixes of Mecca, on Brookside, and for the salt I used a pink Himalayan that Kelly bought me at Judy Allen's shop, also on Brookside, in the same block as Biga.

The salt was a birthday present. Allen stocks a salt bar with about a dozen kinds. The flavor differences are subtle. Most of the salts are gathered from the sea, the Himalayan from a salt deposit left over from an inland sea long since vanished.

But ... the oil.

Coconut oil - at least Laxmi's coconut oil - solidifies in cool air, turning a waxy white. I heated the bottle in a pan to bring it back to liquid.

"Do you have coconut oil?" I asked my man there.

"Yes. For cooking?"

What else?

He led me down a row of oddities I'd until now skipped over. It led with jars and jugs of yellow, fatty ghee, the foundation of any delicious Indian gravy. In jars, it looked pale and a bit clinical. Lots of oddball spices, jarred fruits, syrups and pastes of brilliant colors and mysterious uses. About halfway down, the oils began: avocado, mustard, peanut, sesame and so on. Then, with no warning, 'Hair Oil," popping off the shelf like a stepchild, an odd sort.

"Coconut oil," he said, grabbing a bottle. "See ... For cooking."

Indeed, "Ideal for Cooking," claimed the label. As if to suggest it would be less ideal but still suitable for some other use. I looked back at the hair oils, studied the labels, attempting to glean some measure of separation.

I sauteed the shrimp that night in about 3 tablespoons of the stuff. It gave the curry leaves a deeper sheen of green.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Swad is best brand

Day 5: Chicken curry

Day 5, and I'm trusting you still have a bit of chicken left in the fridge. If not, we'll go another route.

My man in India - actually, at a place called Laxmi: Spices of India, in a strip mall off of 41st Street - took an interest in my cooking a few years ago. On my first trip to Laxmi, I loaded up: basmati, bay leaf, chilies, beans, and about six pounds of spices.

"Cooking is good hobby," my man said. "The best hobby."

A curry is a hobby, since it's almost a sport. Or, at least a game. Each ingredient in the dish must go in at the right time, like substituting a power forward for a shooter. The foundation of vegetables - onions, garlic, sometimes ginger - must be well cooked before the masala (your spice mix) goes on. I'd say it's all in the timing, but that makes it sound like science, which it is and isn't. Curry is science with gray edges, let's say.

Use some leftover stock to form your sauce, which you can thicken with butter, yogurt or coconut milk. Add salt at the end, to be safe. Since your chicken is cooked, incorporate it in the last few minutes, merely to heat it through.

Coconut milk will take your curry to the sweet side. Tomatoes to the acidic. Cream to the velvety. Choose your strategy and implement your weaponry - paprika, chili powder, coriander, clove, turmeric, cumin - with restraint. Taste for balance. Stock up on containers before you go to Laxmi, otherwise you'll end up with opened bags all over the kitchen, leaking sensory goodness but otherwise dusting up the place. The man sells spices in bags, not little jars, but the value is unbeatable. I use old peanut and jam jars.

Oh, if you are indeed out of chicken, buy some chickpeas and go vegeterian. Chickpeas or eggplant. Or okra. Or whatever.

Day 6 ... Spanish tortilla.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pig

Day 4: pasta carbonara

One of my great finds of recent supermarket memory is the Arkansas bacon I buy at Reasor's. I don't know what makes it Arkansas, short of origin. It has a smokiness that sets it off, to be sure. And it's a more meaty, less fatty cut that's more like a loin than a belly. Like Canadian bacon.

I cook it in everything. It flavors our red beans and rice, our soups (like Day 2's potage) and is the cornerstone - along with John Wooley's henhouse eggs - of our spaghetti carbonara.

Four things go into carbonara, in spite of what you've eaten in restaurants: pasta, bacon, eggs, cheese. Traditionally, Romano cheese, though any grana is good. (I've even made do with stateside things like aged California Monterey Jack that Judy Allen sells in her spankin' new Brookside shop.)

Peas, cream, herbs, ham - NONE of this is the stuff of carbonara. Oh, but one more is: fresh-cracked black pepper. It's what sets the whole dish off, like a fuse beneath a rocket's behind.

I can't envision the Seven-Day Adventurist diet without carbonara. Three of its four ingredients wind up in other dishes. It's an Italian peasant dish that has lasted because it suits our basic desire for some essential flavors, and can be prepared however humble the pantry.

Po' folks never ate so well.

Day 5 ... chicken curry.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bean feed

Day 3: Red beans and rice

My family - and I mean my deep, extended family, the one that occupied small towns in Oklahoma that I've never seen and amn't likely to - has a long history in beans. To hear them discuss it, beans are a passion. But I don't get it. Not with the beans they eat.

I've eaten beans that have incited passion, at least in me. But, they were fresh, green, Spanish, flavored with bacon and onion and garlic, and coated in olive oil, the edges of them crisped by the quick, hot saute. They weren't soupy and they didn't give me gas. Oh, and there was Rioja to drink.

My family never ate their beans with rice, and this confuses me. We're a lot closer to New Orleans than we are New Haven, for one. Two, we ATE rice. Why not think to combine the two? Why leave all the fun for the Big N.O.? What do you need, beans, rice, bell pepper, onion, celery, sausage, ham, cayenne? Big Deal.

Go easy on the cayenne if you're cooking from a recipe. Monsieur Prudhomme's is a fiery bastard. I cut the cayenne in half (I cut the butter by the same amount when I make his etouffe). A solid red wine goes well with this dish, but not if it's too hot. So, careful.

You'll need a baguette for sopping. As for the rice, go with basmati or a short grain, something like a sushi rice, which you can buy in bulk. You'll be using both later on, so maybe buy both. Hell, it's rice. Buy a ton, it won't go bad. And what's left over you can throw at your daughter's wedding. Provided you have enough left over to marry her off with.

Day 4 … Carbonara.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Taking stock

Day 2: Potage

Your portfolio might be in the ditch but this is one stock that'll rally you in the short term. It is the backbone, quite literally, of the Seven-Day Adventurist plan.

John Phillips, late of Chiang-Mai and The Chalkboard, made us a delicious, fortifying potage high in the hills above Caunes-Minervois, in the little mountain house he'd bought in Castanviels. I will assume he used the sweet, tender onions of nearby Citou, if for no other reason than to instill the memory. (Whatever the state of his larder, it was the coldest January in 30 years and the season for Citou onions was likely long gone.)

The addition of chilies in John's potage took it out of the countryside and into, a bit, the Vietnamese soup stalls that he'd recently returned from, having taken the train across northern China to accompany an antiques trader named Ditmar, also of Caunes. But that is entirely another tale. It was spicy, not so terribly hot, a fitting addition with the fire blazing a few feet away.

"A Frenchman would never build a fire without a meal in mind," John once said. Wearing a T-shirt and in a fury, he fanned the flames with a billows he'd picked up at a flea market.

A potage - an old farmhouse dish - can be any combination of vegetables, generally flavored with ham or bacon, and pureed. What you're after is a thick, nearly unpourable, consistency. An onion is good, a carrot or two, cerely stalk, a small potato, and some kind of foundation. I prefer split peas. Fresh herbs add subtlety.

The key, though, is chicken stock. Whether you stewed your chicken of Day 1 (which left you with a pot of stock) or roasted it (which means you'll have to make one, with any leftover bones - cooked or raw - and the usual organics). Toasted slices of bread, crouton, and you're good to go.

I'd finish with cheese: a mountain choice of some kind, probably from the Jura. But I live in the heartland where there are cows but no cheese. Who am I to say whether $25 a pound, cave-aged Gruyere is worth it?

Day 3 … Beans and rice.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Skint

Day 1: Chicken, potatoes and salad

I managed to avoid a first round of layoffs but don't think I haven't been planning a spartan menu, just in case.

It all swirls around a chicken, probably a roast, but lately we've been enjoying a classic French treatment wherein the bird is stewed for an hour. It seems ridiculous, until you eat it. One thing it does is leave you a pot full of stock, which helps round out the Seven-Day Adventurist menu. One thing it doesn't is afford you crispy, seasoned skin to baste your chicken and delight your senses.

So, Day 1 is the bird. Do it on a Sunday and give thanks. Take your time, drink some wine. (More on that later.) The rest of the week, while delicious, will be less ... gustatory.

With the chicken, do potatoes, roast or mashed. Or rice, if you're mad about rice. Otherwise, hold off. Rice will have its day, and soon.

Shopping list:
One chicken (It's a bit pricier but I buy Smart brand. For now.)
Several russet or golden potatoes
Head of romaine (Get a big one, store it correctly in your crisper - in its plastic bag with a paper towel wrapped around it seems to do the trick - and it'll take you through the week, or close to it.)

Those are the basics. Any frills are up to you. A shallot or two in the pan of roast potatoes does wonders, and if you do mashed, you'll need at least butter and maybe dairy. (Though, following a trick by Richard Olney, we rely mostly on the cooking water to moisten the potatoes.)

For the salad, sky's the limit. Unless, of course, it's falling.

Day 2 ... soup.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A drink with no name

Friends who invent cocktails rank high in the fidelity department. These are friends that will have to go a long way to sour my devotion to them.

With the wives inside creating Wii avatars, Jeff and I took to the hot tub for a mid-winter, post dinner soak. The cold air was still blowing wood smoke from the nearby grill. Jeff handles his Hasty-Bake with aplomb, and the smoked chicken, pasta, bread and salad were settling in just fine, aided in no small part by Jeff's newest, no-name cocktail.

"It's one-and-a-half gin," Jeff said, "1 orange juice, 1 cranberry juice, half grenadine." He sipped. "It needs a name."

Since it had a slow, sweet, lingering knack to it, we went for something deep-South in feeling. "The Magnolia," he said.

But I found a Magnolia online. And then, online, I found iDrink, a mix-it-yourself cocktail nation. I entered the ingredients and, after a minute, a couple of dozen drinks fitting my profile came up. They were ranked, not by precision of ingredients but by success among drinkers who had tasted them. The top five:

Brian's Honey Getter, which sounded as if it had promise, Jeff calling his new concoction a "chick drink." But the proportions were off – more juice than gin – and it lacked the essential grenadine.

Gin Sunsplash relied on orange juice alone for its color. Perhaps a Gin Sunsetsplash might have gotten us there.

A Redheaded Rampage is 3 gin to 1 grenadine. Simply a shot, in name and ratio.

A real find, Juniper Hat Trickxcx calls for half-ounce each of gin, Becherovka and Borovicka, juniper-based liquors hailing from Czech and Slovak origins, respectively.

Forget the fifth. The fifth had us downing a bottle of gin and then wrestling the nearest at the bar. I won't distinguish it any further.

I plugged Jeff's second choice for a name into iDrink and it came up empty. Hence, below, The Sedaris, which is about as deep-South as a tankard of eiswein, but here you have it:

1.5 parts gin
1 part orange juice
1 part cranberry juice
.5 part grenadine

Shake over ice and strain into a cordial glass (or an old-school style – meaning small – martini glass).

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Point being

My 46th is days away and I was at the mirror taking stock. Age travels deceptively, like light moving through space.

Over the holidays, I let my beard run amok. It’s now a salt-and-pepper beard, with a little paprika thrown in. "Looks good, man," said a co-worker, humoring us both.

New Year’s Eve, my wife brought home a dozen Blue Point oysters, whose own beards had been trimmed. Her gift was a great sacrifice, for oysters do not agree with her. “A treat,” she called it, in this way that she has. Oysters don’t come easy in Oklahoma, not the kind that swim, anyway. That they're even available this far inland is a testament to all sorts of determination on the part of many, not leastly the oysters.

I don't eat enough of them to get very good with the knife, so opening a dozen is something of a task. I don a protective glove - a wool mitten, actually - and commandeer this wicked, curved blade that my father-in-law crafted and gave to me with three dozen Gulf oysters one spring. It is a little awkward getting into the hinge of the shell, but it feels good in my hand and so, once in awhile, I make do.

In fact, I've decided to make the New Year's oyster thing a tradition - to keep my hand in and my appetite whetted. I don't suspect one can lose a taste for oysters, but I don't want to tempt the fates by long bouts of omission. I drank this season's with a Pacific Rim Dry Reisling (first nine) and a Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc (last three). It took twice as long to open them as it did to eat them. Opening an oyster with the tip of a thick, sharp blade takes touch, the kind of touch that comes and goes with practice. On one particularly crafty beast whose hinge lie hidden under a craggy outcropping, I caught a glimpse of the small scar I've worn on my left hand since 14, at the top of that flap of surplus skin between the thumb and finger, where a linoleum blade that I lost control of zipped through the skin and out again, like a snake striking. It left an opening into which I could see weirdness: purple and orange vein and sinew, before the blood filled the gap.

A few years ago, Bodean Seafood, where we buy oysters when we buy them, sold me a dozen Wellfleet in a cute-as-heck little canvas bag. Wellfleet oysters in Oklahoma ... imagine it. I'll look for them next year.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Get in my belly

I woke up in 2009 with a bit of a bad head and a desire to caffeinate. On the way into the kitchen, I stopped at the shelves and retrieved The Balthazar Cookbook, remembering it had a nice recipe for cured pork belly. But it required a day’s marinating in a spice rub, and so I started for the iMac to scout options – then stopped, remembering Fergus.

“There’s nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves,” he wrote, he being Fergus Henderson, back from the grave. The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating offers pork belly four different ways:

1. Boiled and riding on a bed of lentils. (“Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all. With the rich and fatty belly you want quite dour lentils.”)
2. Brined and roasted. (The boiled version is likewise brined before cooking.)
3. In Duck Neck Terrine. (“I hope you have more luck in the United States in procuring duck necks with the skin on.”)
4. And finally smoked, for Bacon Knuckle and Pickled Cabbage, the latter getting a good ferment. (“Leave somewhere warmish for two weeks. It will produce lots of water and when you smell it, it will smell quite umpfy. This is all good.”)

His love of things pork – and I mean all things pork – is not all I admire about Fergus Henderson. Take a thing called “elevenses,” which, like a lot of things English, requires a bit of explanation but, once given, seems almost grade-school in its effort. As with elevenses – or, the tradition of staving off the pre-lunch hunger with a small snack of some sort. In Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail, there is a photo of a very satisfied-looking Fergus, pawing a glass of wine and contemplating a slice of cake, all in his goggle-like spectacles and second-hand cardigan. Elevenses.

Beyond Nose to Tail – a gorgeous piece of publishing that I paid way too much for and regret not one bit – is mostly a baker’s bible, the precursor Whole Beast having made off with the lion’s share of meat-cooking, -curing and -eating methods. Beyond has brilliant recipes for dense ice cream, cracking breads and thick, syrupy cakes. Nose to Tail has everything else.

Including pork belly. And a pork belly is a great excuse for another Fergus essential.

I love my brine bucket, more for what it represents than what’s actually in it, which most of the time is nothing. But the ham I cured in it left a memory that I can still taste – and hopefully the seven others who ate of it – and a success that is symbolized in the brine bucket. For the ham (actually a Boston butt), I bought a gallon pail of virgin plastic from Home Depot. For the belly, I’m employing a five-gallon squarish thing that fits better in the fridge. My dad gave it to me. It once held industrial chicken salad.

The belly came from Nam-Hai, an Asian market on Garnett Road, and cost less than a buck a pound. The brine was 2 cups sugar, 2 cups and a quarter salt, dozen or so juniper berries and peppercorns, three bay leaves. The belly will drink this up for 10 days. A lot longer than the overnight of the Balthazar belly, but this is Fergus of St. John in Clerkenwell, for whom I make concessions.

Happy new year, Fergus, wherever you are.