Tuesday, September 29, 2009

If I May Be So Braisin'

My father had a large repertoire of dishes that he prepared expertly.  One of these dishes was by far the most requested, his pot roast.  When family or friends were coming to visit, "Is Ray going to make his pot roast?" was the inevitable question.  Not a pot roast always HIS pot roast.  He was always more than happy to oblige. Now that Fall has arrived and a cool breeze is blowing, it's time to break out the Le Creuset and get braising.

Dad always pretty much followed a set game plan when tackling this dish.  I go a little more improvisational based on what the market has and what kind of mood I'm in.  There are a few key concepts in making a good pot roast or any braised dish for that matter.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Tough meat makes tender pot roast.  This is not the time to break the bank on the whole tenderloin.  Chuck makes a great pot roast.  The fat and connective tissue dissolve during the long cooking process ending up in a succulent finished product.
  2. Aromatics make the sauce.  You need a good collection of aromatic vegetables to cook along with the meat to make the cooking liquid very flavorful.  Remember the cooking liquid will be you final sauce.  A great mixture is carrots, onions, celery and garlic.  Leeks work great too.  If you are feeling a little wild, bacon or pancetta are great additions.
  3. To deglaze is devine.  Browning the meat and the aromatic vegetables will leave lots of very flavorful bits stuck to the bottom of your cooking vessel.  These are known as suqs or fond.  Adding a liquid to the pot and scraping these off is known as deglazing.  Some good liquids to use for deglazing are wine(my favorite), vinegar(old school and Dad's choice), or even apple cider.  I like to use a liquid that is a little on the acidic side to cut through the richness of the dish.
  4. Stock up.  You can make a great pot roast using water as you braising liquid, God knows Dad did, but I like to use a good stock.  Veal stock is the bomb here, but it is time consuming to make at home and hard to find in stores.  Home made beef or chicken stock work great as well.  If using store bought, be sure to get low sodium so you can control the seasoning level.  You don't have to use just stock, in fact it's better to mix things up a bit.  I use stock and wine, but stock and water works great as well.
  5. Veg out.  This tip is two fold.  You have to have patience making a pot roast, it may take 3-5 hours to get it perfect.  So rent "The Seven Samurai" from Netflix and pull up the comfy chair.  The second meaning is discard the vegetables that cooked with the meat when there is about one hour of cooking time left.  Those veg have given their all and there isn't much left to them at this point.  Throw in the vegetables that will accompany the dish now.  Carrots and pearl onions are classic.  Peas work really well as do mushrooms, but these you would add just before serving.
So in a more linear fashion, here is an attack plan for your pot roast.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat up vegetable oil in a dutch oven or other large cooking vessel with a lid.
Brown pot roast well on all sides.  Remove to platter.  Pour out most of the fat.
Sweat you aromatics in the pan until soft.
Deglaze pan
Put roast back in pan along with any juices that accumulated on the platter
Add braising liquid(s) until the liquid level is 1/3 to 2/3 of the way up the roast.
Bring to boil
Cover and place in oven
After one hour remove from oven and flip roast
Cook additional 1-2 hours checking on roast every 30 minutes.  Cook until a fork will go in fairly easy, but meets some resistance.
When the meat is at this point, strain the cooking liquid, retaining the cooking liquid.
Add the liquid back to the pot along with your new vegetables.
Cook until a fork easily goes into and comes out of the meat with no resistance.
Thicken cooking liquid with flour, a beurre manie(butter kneaded with flour, my preference) or corn starch mixed with water.
It's best to let the pot roast sit a few hours or even overnight before serving.
Serve with mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes or buttered noodles and a nice red wine.

It might take a try or two to get the procedure down, but it's so worth it.  Thanks Dad, still miss you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 3

Every obstacle possible was thrown in my way as I tried to make it to the last session of charcuterie class at the French Culinary Institute.  Just missing the bus, construction on the train tracks, and other wrenches were thrown my way as I hurried to Broadway and Grand.  I made it to the kitchen with just a few minutes to spare for the most interesting class yet.

First up was saucisson a l'ail, garlic sausage with pistachios.  A version of this makes its way onto just about every charcuterie plate.  We cubed up some pork butt and mixed it with TenderQuick(salt and nitrate mixture), sugar, black pepper, red wine(very cold) and garlic.  We chilled this down a bit before giving it a medium grind and mixing in the nuts.  This was put into a medium beef casing so it was a fairly fat sausage.  We pooled are sausages and they were put into a water bath to cook.

While are current project was simmering away, last weeks marque project, the foie gras terrine, was given a taste test.  OH MY GOD, it was good, very, very, good.  Getting elbow deep in duck liver was so worth it.

The garlic sausage was done by lunchtime, so they added an additional element to the meal.  They too were, very, very good.  They did pack a powerful garlic punch.  A pungency that would certainly preclude them from a first date menu. but would satisfy Francophiles everywhere.

Our last hands on challenge was bratwurst.  Bratwurst are emulsified sausage.  You have to make the meat and the fat play nice and mix together as making a mayonnaise or a vinaigrette.  After the ingredients goes through the grinder, they get to take a spin in a food processor with some crushed ice to make a smooth paste.  Before it could be stuffed in a casing, this mixture had to be cooled down.

While our bratwurst was cooling its heels, Chef Pascal announced he had a surprise, he would demo how to make blood sausage.  Making sausages in general is not the most genteel undertaking, but making blood sausage was a very messy process.  The kind of project you do in other people's kitchens.  The family story of Grandpa John unsuccessfully passing on his Polish blood sausage recipe was writ large in the aftermath of this undertaking.

All too soon, our bratwurst was cooked, our stations were cleaned, and goodbyes were said.  This was a very fun, but far too short of a class.  I think we need to reconvene next year to taste the prosciutto Chef Pascal made.  

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 2

Throughout the class, Dan Akroyd portraying Julia Child saying "Save the liver!" is on endless loop in my head.  In my hand in an entire lobe of foie gras I am painstakingly removing veins from, with my fingers.  It kind of like playing with the most expensive can of PlayDo ever.

Saturday's class brought us into the world of pates and terrines, mixtures of ground meat, fat, and various flavorings that are slowly cooked.  We would be making a country pate out of pork shoulder and a foie gras terrine out of well, foie gras.  Therefore, liver would be playing a starring role today, sans fava beans and a nice Chianti.

The country pate was up first.  We had to roughly chop some pork, some fat back and some pork liver to get the party started.  The tough part was removing the skin from the liver.  Sometimes, it came off without a fight, most often is hung on with a tenacious death grip.  All the above ingredients were put into a large bowl with salt, sugar, white pepper, garlic, some armagnac and some other spices.  All this was gently mixed together by hand.  Being elbow deep in ice cold liver was not something I am accustomed to doing so early on a Saturday morning.   This mixture was transferred to a caul fat lined terrine and cooked in a water bath until the internal temperature reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit.  This has to sit for a while to reach maximum flavor, so I don't know how it turned out yet.  This is not a class for the immediate gratification set.

We got a little break to taste last weeks ham(Yum!) and to watch Chef Pascal demo the making of a dry sausage.  Then it was on to the foie gras terrine.  Chef demoed how to clean the foie gras then it was our turn.  If you did not dwell on the fact that you were picking through some ducks' extra fatty liver, the task was fine.  It did not have a livery consistency, more like butter.  In fact, it even looked a lot like butter.  Butter that had veins running though it, but what the heck.  This was marinaded in salt, paprika, pepper, Sauternes, and Cognac.  We will have to wait until next Saturday to see how well this turned out.

In the interim, we got to taste our creations from last week.  The salami "Slim Jims" came out great.  The pancetta had a great flavor to it.  The duck confit was also a winner.  One of our classmates crisped up the skin on one of the legs for some extra tastiness.  He was very, very happy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Daniel Boulud Dinner at the James Beard House

"You win the award for having the hair style closest to James Beard!" exclaimed Chef Boulud.  "Thank you Chef" I some what sheepishly replied.  That's what I get for sitting underneath a photo of James Beard and being, how you say, folliclely challenged.

There was a bit of electricity in the air as I made my way to 167 West 12th Street in Manhattan on Monday.  Even though the entire pantheon of culinary deities have cooked there, there is something special about having Daniel Boulud stopping by and whipping up dinner.  Even some of the James Beard staffers, who have seen it all, eaten it all, had an excited glint in their eyes.

For those of you who do not know Chef Boulud, his is the typical immigrant story.  Young chef from Lyon, France, comes to America, is showered with every accolade available to a chef. builds restaurant empire.  Well, maybe it isn't the typical immigrant story, but you get my drift.

Dinner began with hors d'oeuvres in the backyard.  How I covet that backyard in the city, but I digress.  A fine champagne from Marc Hebrat got the diners into a festive mood.  An array of fine starters soon began arriving from the kitchen, the gazpacho and the tomato basil arancini being standouts.

We took our seats inside and dinner itself began in earnest.  The chef responsible for the course came out and said a few words about it while we hungrily devoured it.  With so many great restaurants in your empire, you also have a small villages population of chefs working for you.  In Daniel's case, a whole lot of really talented, creative chefs in your retinue.

In a dinner like this, it is often difficult to pick a favorite course.  I would have to choose the sweet corn agnolotti in this case.  It was just bursting with the concentrated flavors of summer.

Eventually, the man himself, Chef Boulud appeared at our table.  We had a very enjoyable time talking to the Chef about the dinner, his restaurants, and other culinary topics.  He was very gracious with his time with us because I found out later he had to go to another event later that same evening.

All too soon, we had licked the last morsel off our plates and had to consider the trip home.  We dragged our happily satiated selves to the PATH train back to NJ, relishing a magical night.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Taking the Cure: Charcuterie Class at the FCI Part 1

Charcuterie, the art of preserving meat was born out of necessity in the time before refrigeration.  Today we embrace it because it just tastes so darn good.  Any art that gave us bacon deserves further study.  To that end I returned to the French Culinary Institute for a three Saturday class.

It was deja vu all over again walking into the locker room at the French Culinary Institute.  I was even found my old locker free and waiting for my use.  I quickly donned my chef's uniform and was about to leave when I was besieged by requests for lessons on how to tie the neckerchief.  Once my satorial lesson was over,  I climbed the stairs back to the kitchen where I spent six months of Saturdays learning the basics of French cuisine.  This time, I was going to learn the intricacies of charcuterie.  The giant pig laying in front of the class left little doubt on the source of today's protein.

Chef Pascal would be our instructor in all things cured and aged.  He has quite the sense of humor.  Chef  had the class laughing even before roll was taken.  As we went around the class introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent that about 2/3 of the class was from NJ.  But average that in with a student flying in for the weekend classes from Canada, a woman here for a few months from the Philippines, and one student from Australia and you have quite the geographically diverse class!

Class soon began in earnest with Chef Pascal butchering the 210 pound star of our class, the pig he named Fifi.  In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Fifi was reduced to tenderloins, racks, bellies, and other primal cuts of pork.  Chef took that carcass apart with such skill and ease that Tony Soprano probably had Chef on speed dial.  Chef Pascal then demoed how to turn a pork butt into prosciutto.  Since the process takes about a year, we will not get to taste the one he made in class.  He did have some others at different stages of their aging, including one that was ready to eat.  It certainly was great tasting and I may have to take a trip back in a year to found out how ours came out.

We left the porcine world for a while to make some duck confit.  This time we got to join in the fun.  We had to make the cure mix and bone out two duck legs.  After a short cure they will be cooked in copious amounts of duck fat.  They will be kept in the fat as it cools and forms a covering over the duck meat.  In the old days this was done for food preservation as it will keep the duck meat for about six months.  Now, it is mostly done because it tastes so darn good.

Class was really rolling at a fast pace now.  We jumped right in making the cure to make pancetta, Italian bacon.  It differs from American bacon in that it is not smoked.  These will be ready next week, so I will have to dig up some good recipes to make with it.

Lastly, we made what Chef called Italian salami "Slim Jims".  These are just really thin salamis.  This was the most involved preparation of the day.  Both pork and beef had to be cut into cubes then ground. Spices were mixed into the meat along with some sugars.  The sugars were not to make the sausage sweet, it was a snack for the bacteria.  Yes, we wanted bacteria in our salami.  We would add a culture of a lacto bacillus to our salami and promote its growth.  This good bacteria would prevent the growth of bad bacteria.  It is sometimes left to chance to have this happen, but Chef doesn't like leaving things to chance.

Stuffing the meat into the casing proved a little challenging.  The casings would only fit on one of the stuffing machines, so we all had to wait in line for that one.  The act of stuffing it self was not as easy as it seemed and some mishaps did occur.  One casing burst with a sound so loud our ears were ringing!  Never would I have thought that a little artificial casing would blow up sounding like a gunshot.  

We have to finish up our salamis at home.  We had to let them ferment over night in the oven to get the good bacteria going.  We then have to let them hang out in a place that is 50-65 degrees for 4-5 days to dry.  They are sitting behind me right now in the wine refrigerator aging away.  It's going to be a long 4-5 days.                                                                                    

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pork, the Other Wait Meat

Now, before you all start shooting off e-mails about one of the most egregious typos ever, I intended to type the word wait. This may seem a weird play on words until you realize the most important ingredient in cooking a pork shoulder is patience.

Until Labor Day, I have never cooked a pork shoulder outdoors. I've cooked near everything else, but the pinnacle of outdoor cooking, the pork butt, had not yet graced my grill. Yes, I know that many BBQ purists will insist that you can't cook a proper pork butt on a gas grill, but us urban dwellers have to make do.

I started the process in the morning by giving my butt a good rub down. My pork butt that is. While I am usually a totally make it from scratch kind of guy, I discovered that Bone Suckin' Sauce Seasoning Rub really works well. It is probably cheaper to make it myself but I couldn't resist the siren song of that product. After liberally coating my butt, my pork butt, with the rub I let it have a nice six hour nap in the fridge while I indulged in the Ghost Hunters marathon on TV. Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures. I took the pork butt out of the fridge about an hour before it went on the grill to allow it to come up to room temperature.

The one drawback of using a gas grill in an endeavor like this is the lack of a smoky flavor in the meat. Some of the more deluxe models of grills have smoker boxes where you can throw in some wood chips of your choosing. In my case, I had a cheap metal box that you fill with soaked wood chips and place on a burner before you start the meat. You could also just wrap some wood chips up in aluminum foil, poke some holes in it, and place that on the burners. In no time at all, my grill was generating a nice oak smoke. So nice that E forced me to close all the windows in the condo. The pork butt was placed in the grill and cooked over a nice low 250 degree indirect heat.

E had seized control of the TV so no more Ghost Hunters for me as the meat gently cooked away for 3 1/4 hours. It was a smallish butt, only about 2 1/2 pounds, so that's why it cooked up so quick. No you see the need for patience when 3 1/4 hours is akin to microwaving the dish! I cooked it to an internal temperature of 185 degrees F.

I let the meat rest for a while and began to pull. Well, hack at with a knife was more accurate. I did get a beautiful smoke ring and the meat on the outside of the butt was falling apart. The internal meat still had some body so appropriate measures had to be taken. It did have a lovely flavor. The flavor was enhanced by a vinegary, Eastern North Carolina type BBQ sauce. I just feel that this type of sauce works best for my palate. Feel free to slather on your sauce of choice if you decide to play along at home.

A good Labor Day it was. I finally tackled pork butt on the grill. I have a few tricks in mind the next time I do this to make it more like a true BBQ butt. Now if I could get E to allow me to put a smoker out on the deck.....

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hi, Thanks for Coming! Do You Mind Cooking?

Our good friend L called and invited us to Connecticut for a Labor Day celebration. Having tired of living in a 200 square foot studio co-op and a desire to be closer to her family, L decamped from Manhattan to the greener shores of the Long Island Sound. Always up for a little trip, we readily agreed.

Not wanting to come empty handed I was struggling to think of something to make. L was not completely sure what she was going to be serving, so I settled on a dessert as the best course. I was wandering through the produce section of Whole Foods looking at all of summer's bounty when I spied the Meyer lemons. Meyer lemons are originally from China and are thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange. They do have a sweeter flavor and a tangerine scent about them so this may be true. I grabbed some lemons with the thought of making a tart.

So further thinking led to visions of people gathered around a bowl with spoons picking at the remains of what was a tart but did not quite survive the trip intact. A little web searching led me to a recipe for a Meyer lemon loaf with a Meyer lemon curd to go with it. Perfect , I thought , as I started to whip it up.The loaf and the curd came together without a hitch. Feeling brave, I tackled the tarte tatin again. This time it came out much improved.

E stayed up too late watching her beloved Cal Bear's football, so I made the trek to Connecticut myself. I did meet my friend JL at Grand Central and we took the train up north together. L met us at the train station and we drove to her house. After some chatting and some wine, it was time to prepare dinner. I heard L chirp up from the kitchen, "John, would you mind grilling the tenderloin and the shrimp?". "Sure L, no problem.", I replied heading out to the deck, tongs in hand. No matter how far I get from my kitchen another one always beckons.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Tarte Tatin Too Far

"Honey, you can make me one of those for my birthday" I heard E exclaim after watching Anne Burrell whip up a tarte tatin on The Food Network. Even though it required me to face my culinary nemesis, caramelizing sugar, I replied "Sure dear, no problem."

The day before her birthday, I went to grab "The Joy of Cooking" off the shelf as that would certainly have a recipe for a tarte tatin. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied "The Bouchon Cookbook". Still on a bit of a high after the dinner at Per Se, I grabbed it off the shelf. I paged through the stunning photography on my way to the index. Talk about food porn! This cookbook should be sold in a plain brown wrapper. Anyway, a quick scan of the index had me turning to the pages with the recipe.

The recipe wasn't that difficult, just a bit time consuming. The recipe for the pate brise was unusual, but it worked. You mixed half the flour with all the butter till it was combined. The rest of the flour was then added and mixed. A quarter cup of ice water was added and the dough was mixed until it just came together. Usually water is added gradually to take into account humidity, temperature and other variables. In this case, just chuck all the water in. Hey, it's Thomas Keller's recipe, I'm pretty sure he knows what he is doing. I divided the dough into two parts. I put one in the freezer for another project down the road, the other went into the fridge for the next day's tarte.

Many recipes for tarte tatin have you make the caramel first then add the apples. In this recipe, the sugar, butter and apples are added to the pan and a caramel is slowly achieved. I need to emphasize the slowly part. This step took about one hour. The recipe mentioned the length of this step, so I was prepared. It did not prepare me for how hard it would be to gauge the state of the caramelizing. With about three pounds of apples crammed into the pan, it was hard to judge what was going on in the bottom of the pan. Chef Keller stated that a dark amber color needs to be achieved before putting the tarte into the oven as the caramel would not get any darker. Wouldn't you know I took the caramelizing just a little too far. I picked up an apple and saw a very, very, very dark amber caramel staring back at me. Keeping my caramel batting average at 0, I messed up yet again.

I grabbed the dough from the fridge that I had already rolled out into a round and folded over twice as the recipe stated. As I tried to unfold it, the dough had glued itself firmly onto the plate. I tried to gently pry it off, but it just ripped. It ripped in a big way. BIG WAY. I had to re-roll out the dough, hoping that the extra work would not make the crust tough. I got the newly formed disk on top of the apples and popped it in the oven, hoping for the best.

I pulled it from the oven when the crust was nice and golden. I let it sit for 30 minutes before unmolding as the recipe said. I slid a knife around the perimeter and inverted the pan on a plate. About 1/3 of the tarte decided that it liked it much better in the pan than on this nice white plate and stayed behind. I muttered a few words, gee willekers not among them. I heard E on the phone with her mother, "No we haven't had the tarte tatin yet. I hear John swearing so something hasn't gone right."

I manged to piece things together pretty well. I cut off the best looking piece I could find to serve to E. A little vanilla ice cream goes a long way in prettying up things. We both took a bite and.....it was good. You could taste that the caramel was took dark, but E seemed to love it. She is not shy in expressing her opinions about my cooking, so I have to believe her. But all I could see was the caramel mocking me. One day caramel, one day!