Monday, April 30, 2012

Despite the price you might pay for a prosciutto truffle, there's no magic trick to making a dessert out of traditionally savory ingredients. I've been making bacon ice cream and toffee bacon longer than there have been food blogs, and people have been pouring maple syrup on their bacon a hell of a lot longer than that. Barbecue sauce and ketchup add significant amounts of sugar to savory meals; hams are glazed with brown sugar and pineapple rings; tagines are cooked with sweet dried fruit; deep-fried bits of chicken are tossed with sugar syrup, fruit, and stir-fried vegetables in a million food court kitchens. Carrot cake, zucchini bread, cheesecake, and candied sweet potatoes are all remnants of a time before the sweet-savory divide was so strictly formalized, a divide which will almost surely prove to be a brief historical anomaly.

You take an ingredient and you add sugar to it until it's sweet.

That's all there is to it.

Maybe that means you melt a broken-up Heath bar onto a cooked strip of bacon, maybe it means you shred carrot and added it to a spicecake batter, maybe it means you candy fennel bulbs in sugar syrup. Maybe you drizzle maple syrup on Cheetos, maybe you coat potato chips in chocolate.

So there's nothing intrinsically interesting in the thing, in the fact that you're having for dessert an ingredient usually associated with some other part of the meal. It's interesting when it works. When it becomes something good.

Red-eye gravy isn't red (or eyes) (or gravy, perhaps). It's a pan sauce made from country ham drippings and coffee, usually served with country ham and a biscuit, and it deserves its own post, some other time.

Panna cotta is thickened slightly sweetened cream. Traditionally the cream thickens itself after you've briefly cooked it with sugar, because cream in Italy traditionally had twice as much butterfat as American cream today does. But you won't find that cream in the US - nor, to be honest, in most of the world anymore - so it has long been thickened with gelatin, a product which became commercially available not long before that thick cream started disappearing. The texture is not the same as custard, which is thickened with egg, or as cornstarch-thickened pudding - nor is the flavor, since it isn't cooked as such, just heated up briefly to melt the gelatin. To make panna cotta you heat up cream (half and half if you want), add a little sugar, and add gelatin that you've dissolved in cold water - along with whatever flavorings you like.

So. Put those hands together.

Red eye gravy panna cotta
For red-eye gravy panna cotta, I steeped country ham and ground coffee in cream until it was noticeably salty - if I had blanched the ham first, I might have been able to steep it longer since there wouldn't be as much salt. Sweetened it with maple syrup and sorghum (which stands up to the other flavors better than maple does), added the gelatin, crumbled some meringue cookie on top to suggest a biscuit, and chilled it.

It tastes mainly of coffee, with a little bit of the porcine well-aged funk of the ham, and as much salt as you'd have in salted caramel such and such.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

smoked lamb forequarter

Friday night we had a hell of a dinner: smoked lamb sandwiches with two kinds of sauce, with sides of smoked macaroni and cheese (I won't go into a recipe: assemble your macaroni and cheese and "bake" it in the smoker instead of the oven) and eggplant.

Lamb forequarter

Lamb forequarter

After Easter, I snatched up an 8.5-lb lamb forequarter before the availability of lamb dwindled for another year. The forequarter is, well, what it sounds like: a big hunk from the front of the lamb, the shoulder with some attached ribs. It's a great, great cut for braising and other low-and-slow cooking methods, and I wish it were more often available. I salted it and rubbed it with smoked paprika and coriander, and left it uncovered in the fridge overnight.

I started the stovetop smoker on the stove, until the smoke had been going for a while, and then transferred it to the oven at 250 for eight hours. The resulting lamb was super tender, without falling apart on its own. Because it's a stovetop smoker, it wasn't as smoky as if I had a Weber or something, but so it goes.

My first encounter with smoked lamb was terrible. I was in Kentucky and looking forward to barbecue lamb, but as amazing as everything in the pit smelled from the parking lot, the lamb arriving swimming in a horrible sauce - I don't even remember anything about the sauce at this point except that it was bad enough we didn't finish our lunch, and strong enough that you couldn't tell the meat was lamb.

This lamb wasn't drowned in sauce; this lamb was fucking honored.

Skordalia; smoked lamb rib; pomegranate barbecue sauce

The sandwiches were very simple: slice of potato bread; skordalia; chopped lamb; red sauce; slice of potato bread.

I wanted both a white and a red sauce to suggest the white barbecue sauce of Alabama and the red barbecue sauce of, well, so many other places. But the white sauce is the Greek dip skordalia: garlic and ramp bulbs pureed (after blanching the raw garlic) with olive oil until emulsified, spiked with a little lemon juice and salt, and thickened with a little bit of mashed potato (very little).

The red sauce is closer to a traditional barbecue sauce: red bell peppers cooked in the smoker until cooked enough to peel, pureed with an equal quantity of tomato, with a bunch of pomegranate molasses to both sweeten it and make it noticeably tart. It's seasoned with an assortment of Middle Eastern spices - thyme, sumac, cumin, coriander, chile pepper, black pepper - but you don't want to go overboard with the spices, just like you don't want barbecue sauce to be noticeably herby. The spices are very much in the background compared to the pomegranate.
Brunch this morning:
Tarragon, shallot, lamb scrambled eggs; okra and eggplant paprikash
Breakfast is so often easiest to make with leftovers.  In this case I'd had a bunch of sauce left over from making goose leg paprikash, so earlier this week I had added it to sauteed okra and eggplant, and today had some of that as the side with scrambled eggs: eggs, half and half, butter, shallots, a bit of chopped leftover lamb (from a smoked forequarter which I will blog about soon), and lots of tarragon.

Tarragon is an herb I mean to use more often. Though only vaguely related to basil and mint - both families are in the same clade - it tastes like a very licoricey basil. Shallots are one of the best combinations I know of with it, but I want to play around more, maybe see how it works with Asian food, with pho, with a bahn mi. I'm going to see about growing it this summer if I can find a plant.

Bonus weekend coverage: last night dessert was key lime brulee, which was Caitlin's idea - key lime slices sprinkled with sugar and torched.

Key lime brulee

Thursday, April 26, 2012

morel daube glace

I've blogged about daube glace before. It's a New Orleans dish of braised beef thickened with gelatin (ideally from stock) and served cold like pate.

Marx Foods is doing a cook-off with their dried morel mushrooms, and I decided daube glace would work well, in part because it would make it easy to use the soaking liquid and maximize the morel flavor.

First off. There's a key ingredient here which you can create in one of two ways: cooked oxtail falling off the bone. You can braise the oxtail, saving and reducing the cooking liquid, and possibly adding gelatin to it. Or you can do what I did: cook the oxtail sous-vide. I left it in the vacuum-sealed plastic it came in (which does better with sous-vide than Zip-Loc bags do) and left it in a Crockpot full of water on Warm for 36 hours. After refrigerating it, this is what it looked like:

Oxtail, post-sous vide. Lots of gelatin.
Remember, I added nothing. As solid as that looks, with that giant strip of rendered gelatin? That is nothing but oxtail, with an incredible amount of gelatin rendered out of the bones and collagen during the long low-temperature cooking.

Now, as for morels. Morels are a wild mushroom with a fairly brief season and a good earthy flavor. They have to be cooked, because they're mildly toxic when raw. They're also kind of a pain in the ass. When I lived in Indiana, where people have been foraging for morels since long before the foraging revival, I first encountered morels at Whole Foods for $29/lb. (Mushrooms are light, of course, morels even more than most: a pound is a lot.) They were covered in dirt, and cleaning them (which you have to do hastily, so they don't have time to soak up water and become spongy) revealed a number of insects and grubs in that dirt.

One of the nice things about dried morels is not dealing with that.

The daube glace: while the morels soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, I removed the bones from the oxtail, chopped the meat, and added it, the gelatinous stock, chopped onions, brined green peppercorns, and a little salt. You could certainly add ramps or garlic, carrots, celery, tomato - I usually do, but wanted to focus on the morel flavor. The oxtail is really a vehicle for delivering morels here.

Once the morels were reconstituted, I roughly chopped them and added them and their soaking liquid, warmed everything up, and cooled it all down again in a Tupperware container. After refrigerating, this is what it looked like sliced:

Morel daube glace

Brined green peppercorns are one of my secret weapons lately. The Asian market by me sells them, and the flavor is so much deeper and more complicated than dried green peppercorns - herbal, citrusy, smelling a lot like lime zest. They add a little hit of bright flavor which contrasts with the richness of the morels and beef here.

My favorite way to serve daube glace is on hot fresh bread with a little butter, so that the daube glace starts to melt slightly as you eat it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I saw a message board thread recently in people were wondering why anyone would be dumb enough, lazy enough, to buy self-rising flour, and I thought, well, there's somebody who doesn't make biscuits.

Self-rising flour is flour that has already been mixed with baking powder or other leavening agents - it's not (this was a common misconception on the thread) the same thing as Bisquick or other baking mixes, which are only a step away from cake mix. If it differs at all from what you could prepare at home, it's on the leavening agents used.

But it scales, see.

It's easy to make sixteen biscuits with regular flour and baking powder. It's a lot harder to make three biscuits. And I double dog dare you to get the proportions of baking powder to flour correct when making one biscuit.

With self-rising flour - a batch of which you could make at home to divvy out as needed, though that's more expensive and no better than buying it at the store - here's how you make any number of biscuits:

Put some SR flour in a bowl, enough to make the number of biscuits you want.

Add fat - preferably warm melted animal fat - to the flour, mixing until it clumps up in pieces the size of peas.

Add just enough liquid - preferably buttermilk, but milk or water is fine - to make the dough stick together.

Bake it until it's a biscuit.

No measuring needed - not because it relies on expertise and familiarity, but because what matters is non-mathematical cues like clumping and cohesion.

Anyway. This blog started out with a post on making my own country ham. I've barely blogged about country ham since then!  Why?  Because I haven't seen fresh ham available for sale since, and no one up here sells country ham or really knows what it is.  But I recently bought some ham from Father's Country Hams.  I've bought a number of brands of ham over the years, and this is the mail-order source I most highly recommend.  The pricing is reasonable and transparent, you can get uncooked ham pre-sliced, and the hams are aged a minimum of eight months. Even if you live somewhere where you can get country ham, most of what's in the supermarket is aged less than three months (before going to market, anyway), and most of what's served at Hardee's, Cracker Barrel, etc., is aged less than a month.

It makes a big difference.  What I like best about country ham - other than its meaty texture compared to the squishiness of city ham - is the dry-cured funk, like you get from some bacon and from good dry-cured salami.  At three months it's barely there.

Ham biscuit; pineapple and ham glazed with maple
Breakfast - a ham biscuit (ground country ham added to the aforementioned biscuit process) and ham-and-maple pineapple: roast fresh pineapple chunks tossed with ground country ham at 400 for 15-20 minutes (in other words, put the pan in with the biscuit) and then finish on the stove by adding a little maple syrup and cooking until it glazes the pineapple.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

about three pounds

Ernest Hemingway made several contributions to the cocktail world, but I think this is my favorite:

Death in the Gulf Stream

We took MARMION in a howling no'theaster along with the, then, 4 year bride, a companion, and an insane steward, and pointed her down to Key West to get some receipts [recipes, moderners] from Hemingway for the cookery book. We fished the Gulf Stream by day, and ate and drank and talked half the night. Even by the second day we were withering slightly on the vine, and along with raw conch salad, listed in Volume I, we got Hemingway's other picker-upper, and liked it... 

Take a tall thin water tumbler [well, I used a rocks glass] and fill it with finely cracked ice. Lace this broken debris with four good purple splashes of Angostura, add the juice and crushed peel of one lime, and fill glass almost full with Holland gin [genever].  No sugar, no fancying.  It's strong, it's bitter -- but so is English ale strong and bitter.  We don't add sugar to ale, and we don't need sugar in a Death in the Gulf Stream -- or at least no more than 1 teaspoon.  Its tartness and its bitterness are its chief charm.

- Charles Baker, in Jigger, Beaker, and Glass: Drinking Around the World, on "Ernest Hemingway's Reviver, or Death in the Gulf Stream."
Caitlin's birthday dinner:

Braised lamb with eggplant, rice, mint, cilantro
I took the bone from Easter's de-boned leg of lamb and braised it with a little saffron until the meat fell off. This is that braised meat, with rich concentrated lamb stock and some Middle Eastern spices, over rice with eggplant wedges, mint, cilantro, and pomegranate molasses.

Monday, April 9, 2012

This isn't about cooking, but the Kindle edition of my novel Low Country is free for the next couple days.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The way things shook out this year, ramp season is, well, ramping up just as Lent winds down - and what better way to console yourself in your last week without meat than with the first of the year's fresh vegetables, and some of the finest vegetables around, at that?

I've talked about ramps before, but as a brief reminder: they're a wild member of the allium family (onions, garlic, etc) native to North America, and specifically to the general region of the Appalachians. Sometimes called wild onion, wild garlic, or wild leek, though not all vegetables going by those names are ramps. Etymologically related to the ramson of Europe, and probably named after it, but not the same plant. Not grown commercially, although it may be possible to grow them at home (I've read conflicting things, but traditional garden conditions wouldn't be conducive to growing ramps, which are usually found in wooded areas).


These ramps have been cleaned: plucked out of the ground, they have an outer skin surrounding the bulb which needs to be removed - the ramps you pick up in Whole Foods have probably already been cleaned.

They look a little like leeks with more leaf-like greens and a clove-like bulb. They taste more like garlic, but not quite - as I say every time, they're equally different from onions as garlic is, but more pungent when raw and sweeter when cooked. Like garlic, raw ramp bulbs can taste "hot." The greens are sweet like turnip greens, with a faint ramp flavor. They're also very fibrous, and can present a problem if you're trying to incorporate them into pasta dough like nettles (I just don't even bother trying anymore), or want to use them as raw salad greens.

They go especially well with eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, bacon. Ramp festivals traditionally feature ramps cooked in bacon fat, in combination with eggs and/or potatoes - this is how people in Appalachian regions have eaten ramps since long before the food blogging world was a thing.

A meat day meal:

Roast chicken stuffed with ramps; ramp greens; pepper relish
Roast chicken with chopped ramp bulbs and butter stuffed under the skin, accompanied by whole ramps blanched and then cooked in the pan drippings, and Stonewall Kitchen's pepper relish (a favorite of mine).

Deviled eggs, baked potato with duxelles
Seared deviled eggs (with ramps in the filling) and a baked potato with ramp-fennel duxelles. Duxelles are just minced mushrooms (you can use the Cuisinart) with as much liquid as possible squeezed out, cooked in butter until they cook down into a paste; traditionally they're cooked with shallots, I used ramps and fennel.