Monday, June 18, 2012

Playing with Pork...

Porchetta! What is it? A suckling pig being deboned, stuffed with aromatics and then slow roasted until delicous perfection that is rumored to have originated in the Lazio region in Italy and quickly spread with the aromatics changing from one region to the next. In Rome you'll find rosemary and garlic, in Umbria they use fennel and in Sardinia fresh myrtle leaves are the flavor of choice. To me, just the word itself sounds delicious and lately I've just been dreaming about it. So hence, the great Porchetta experiment began.

Before the experiment began I had to do some research to figure out my preferred cut of meat, cooking method and seasoning mixture.  To start with - what cut of meat would I use? There were a variety of methods on the internet using everything from a boneless pork loin (sometimes wrapped in a pork belly or bacon) to a bone-in shoulder to an entire pig. And while I admit I have been positively dying to do a pig roast it probably wouldn't be the best option for my smallish New York City kitchen. (umm...anybody with a big backyard dying to let me dig a firepit? Please?) So ultimately, I decided I'd use a bone in shoulder. I really like roasting meat on the bone for added flavor and moistness. Plus the shoulder has that lovely layer of fat and wouldn't require the addition of wrapping it in bacon making it simpler to prepare. The cuts of meat I had were also fairly even in thickness so I didn't have to tie them either. 

So how would I flavor my meat? Almost all recipes I looked at called for a pretty standard mix of garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage. I also added a small amount of chili flakes and a few tablespons of fennel seed that I lightly toasted in a dry pan along with 5 crushed juniper berries. None of this was measured - I guessed at most of the ratios and just let my nose tell me when enough was enough.  Instead of chopping everything I threw it in my food processor with some extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper and pulsed it to a coarse paste. I made several short but deep slits around the shoulder stuffing a small amount deep into the meat as well as shoving some of it under the skin as well. The rest got smeared all around the outside of the shoulder. This sat for about 30 minutes before going into the oven.

Next decision was the cooking method. Would I start it high and then decrease to low? The reverse? Tent it? Not tent it? Dutch oven? So many options. Again - I went with what was simple. The meat would go on a rimmed sheet pan and dry roast for about two and a half hours at 300 (perfect time for a nap on a Sunday afternoon). After the two hours, I added a cup of red wine and half a cup of water to the pan and  let it roast for another 3 hours. I basted every 30 minutes or so with the juices, occasionally having to add a bit more wine as the liquid evaporated. Then, when the meat was fork tender I increased the temperature to 450 for about 12 minutes to melt the rest of the fat and crisp up the skin. Many recipes that started the porchetta in a super hot oven also had the added note that you'll be cleaning your oven for days afterward. This method produced much less mess - which for me is great as I can't say I enjoy the prospect of 3 days with a can of easy off and brillo. Doesn't matter how good the meal was!

To go with the pork, I did some fairly traditional sides. I blanched a mixture of hearty greens (kale, dandelion and turnip greens) in salted water, then squeezed out the excess liquid.  I heated a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, 3 cloves of sliced garlic and a good amount of red pepper flakes. When the garlic was just starting to brown and get amazingly fragrant, in went the greens for a minute or two, then I added about a pound of fresh spinach and let that cook down with the rest of the greens (the spinach is much more delicate than kale and dandelion and would have probably disintegrated from the double cook). A bit of salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice before serving to brighten the whole thing up.

I also prepared some creamy white beans which are one of my favorite sides with roast meat of any sort. Instead of soaking the dried beans I just brought the water up to a boil and then let them simmer for about two hours (this was for one standard size grocery bag of beans).  When they were mostly soft, I drained them, put them back in the pot with chicken stock, 4 large cloves of garlic, one large sprig of rosemary chopped finely and lots of salt and pepper. As the beans cooked they continued to soak up liquid so I had to continually add chicken stock to get them to the proper consistency. By the time the pork was done, the beans were soft, garlicky and super creamy having produced their own velvety sauce. Actually - there was so much garlic in this meal that if there were a coven of vampires anywhere near Inwood they are most definitely and decidedly gone by now.

The only problem with this meal was that I had no idea how many people to expect.  It could have been 2 or 30. So I ended up with rather a large amount of food and some very overstuffed friends. One shoulder would have been enough - definitely didn't have to go with two. But I sent my guests home with doggie bags and will have plenty for leftovers this week. The fun part is that the meat itself will be pretty versatile - lending itself to leftovers such as chopped bbq pork sandwiches, pork & vegetable stir fry, possibly some fried rice and maybe even enchiladas! If I grow a curly tail by the end of this week you'll know why!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tackling Thai...

Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Culinarily speaking, my comfort zone is traditional Italian American food. This could be something ultra heavy like a lasagna or chicken rollatini or cannoli - or - it could be something like light a zuppa di pesce, lemon chicken or zabaglione with fresh fruit. (Ok, maybe zabalgione isn't exactly light but you get my drift...).

But every once in a while, I like to try something different. Last night was one of those nights. I had a friend coming over for dinner and we had decided on fish earlier in the day. Most of the time for this particular friend I'll make a simple grilled or poached halibut with a salad or green vegetable. This time I wanted something different. Part of my CSA share for the week included a good stock of basil and cilantro and the combination just screamed Thai at me.

So I researched a number of fish curries online finding some that were incredibly simple and some that were incredibly complex. I wanted a balance between the two and ended up coming up with something that worked even better than I thought it would! But first I had to gather my ingredients!

One of the major negatives about shopping in New York City is that the price of fish is astoundingly high. I went to one of my favorite mid-priced markets (no Whole Foods this time) and was perusing the counter to see what was fresh but wouldn't bust my wallet. The Chilean sea bass was as gorgeous as it is unsustainable and was a whopping $26.99 per pound (you can visit the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch here to learn about the best and worst choices for sustainable seafood). The pacific halibut was $22.99 per pound and wasn't as attractive as it should have been, looking slightly off white and a bit slimy.  And then I saw a big sign for "Boston Cod" for $8.99 per pound that apparently was line caught (at least that's what they told me) which makes it a much better option than fish harvested by trawl methods that are incredibly damaging to the environment.  Having finally made my selection I then proceeded to drive the fish monger crazy to find me a solid one pound piece that was of even thickness. I'm pretty sure he was glad to see me go after that...

I picked up a few other sundries and headed to the northern tip of the world (aka home) to begin my adventures.

I started by throwing about 1/2 cup of cilantro (stems and leaves) and 1/3 cup of basil into the food processor with one small onion, one garlic scape (you could substitute one clove of garlic here) and the rind of a whole lemon. To that mixture, I added 1 tablespoon cumin, 1 tablespoon turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne. If I had ginger I would have added that too but unfortunately I had none of either the fresh or dried variety. I processed that, scraping the bowl down a few times until I had a dry paste.

Meanwhile, I heated my cast iron skillet over medium heat (which is possibly the best gift my parents have ever given me...aside from the gift of life and my KitchenAid Mix Master that is...and of those two the higher value is extremely debatable...). To the skillet, I added about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil was hot I added about two rounded tablespoons of the spice paste mixture and let that cook for a minute or two. As the spices hit the hot oil the explosion of aroma in the kitchen was heady and intoxicating. Yes...we were definitely onto something here...

The fish (which I had cut into about 3" pieces) went into the pan and was cooked for about two minutes in just the spices and oil. Then I added 1 cup of lite coconut milk, 1/2 cup of chicken stock (you can also use vegetable stock, fish stock or clam juice here), lowered the heat to a simmer and let the fish cook through - about another 5 minutes or so. After, I removed the fish to a warm plate and added a few glugs of soy sauce and about a teaspoon or so of fish sauce to the liquid in the pan. Cranked the heat up to high and let it all reduce down to a beautiful velvet sauce for about 8 minutes. When the sauce was ready I added the fish back in just to heat through and immediately turned it off.

Servedwith steamed rice (I used brown basmati), fresh cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime for zing!

When we sat down I was admittedly nervous as I can be about trying something new - particularly on a person who...well...can be a bit picky about food to say the least. His clean plate at the end of it told me my worries were for naught! This recipe is definitely a keeper! Hmm...I wonder if I can somehow turn it into a ball? :)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Greens, Greens and Nothing But Greens!

"Greens, greens and nothing but greens" is a line sung by the Wicked Witch in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods". The first time I heard that line I was a High School freshman sitting in the school auditorium watching our spring production. Who knew that it would end up having some profound impact on my life!

It's now that gorgeous time of year where produce is at it's perfect peak and greens are everywhere! CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) bring local organic produce to our urban tables. Farmers Markets are overflowing with fruits and vegetables. Fresh herbs are everywhere and practically begging to be brought home! So it's only natural that we can hardly resist the urge to over indulge.

This year, I'm fortunate enough to be participating in a CSA through my office in partnership with Great Performances and Katchkie Farms (which incidentally runs the Sylvia Center - a fabulous nonprofit teaching NYC kids about eating healthy).  I purchased a half share but as my other half is currently out on maternity leave, I start the first few weeks with a full share! Exciting right? Except...that's a lot of veggies. There's only so much I can cook in an evening (even I have my limits folks) so the question arises what's the best way to store your vegetables so they last?

Well the answer depends on the vegetable. Some heartier varieties require little more than tossing them in your vegetable crisper (the turnips we got in this week's shipment for instance). But some require a bit more care. Here are some of my favorite storage methods to help keep your produce at it's peak.

Lettuce/Delicate Greens
I like to leave the leaves attached to the head until I'm ready to use them. But when I get home I give the lettuce a quick shake and a rinse to get rid of any bugs (organic means no pesticide which means pests can sneak in!). Then I wrap the whole head in a damp paper towel and place in a baggie but don't close it all the way. You want to allow it to have some breathing room!

Beets/Turnips and Other Hearty Roots
I find this technique works for anything that has both an edible root portion and leaves.
DON'T wash these items before storing. Remove the root portion leaving about an inch or two of stem. Place in a plastic bag and seal - squeezing out as much air as you can. Store in your crisper drawer and they'll stay good for about 3-4 weeks.  For the leaves - you can wrap these in damp paper towels and store in an open baggie just like the lettuce.

Hearty Greens (kale, cabbage, etc...)
DON'T wash before storing as water will increase spoilage time.  Place the leaves in a baggie (I like to chop mine so they're quicker to prepare and fit better in the baggie) and squeeze out as much air from the bag when sealing. It will keep in the fridge for about 5-7 days.

Delicate Herbs (Cilantro, Dill, Parsley etc...)
The best method for storing herbs that I've found is to wrap them in damp paper towels, place in a baggie and seal almost all the way. As long as they are wrapped in the damp paper they'll keep for the better part of a week!

Basil is one of the hardest herbs to keep fresh. The best method I've found is to place it in a glass of water with a plastic bag over the top and place in the fridge. But even that will only keep it good a day or so. The best way to keep basil if you need it long term is to freeze it.  For this method, you should pick the leaves from the stems, wash and dry them VERY well. Lay them flat on paper towels (i do this in a few layers of paper towel), place into a baggie and make sure it is sealed very very well. Lay the baggie flat in your freezer and remove the leaves as you need them. The color will not stay a vibrant green but the flavor will be nearly as good as fresh!

Surprisingly these vegetables do not keep long! (Well..maybe it's just surprising to me!) The best way to keep them is to wrap them in damp paper towel and place in a perforated baggie. These veggies need air circulation to stay fresh so the perforation is important (or just don't seal the bag).

Zucchini/Summer Squash
Similar to above but you can skip the damp paper towel on these. And be gentle! The flesh on these can bruise pretty easily.

The rule of thumb with fresh berries is don't wash them till you are ready to eat them! Place them on a paper towel in a tightly sealed container but try to consume them pretty quickly! If you need them longer - wash, dry and hull them (remove the green leaves and the inner white portion near the top), toss with a little bit of sugar and place in a baggie. These should be used within 1 year of freezing.

So I think that about covers everything I got in my CSA or at the Farmer's Market this week! Stay tuned throughout the summer for more tips! Happy Veggie Season everybody!