The Best Tomato Soup In The World

THE TOMATOES FROM MY garden slowly begin to trickle into my kitchen. Just a few barely ripe ones at first, the kind that are still a little green at the stem end.  I pick them out of excitement, now they need to sit on the counter for a day or two to fully ripen. Soon they are followed by deep red fully ripe tomatoes, enough to slow roast a tray of San Marzanos until they shrink and shrivel and get the tell tale taste of raisin and intense tomato. Continue reading →

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Octopus and Potato Salad with a Tomato Vinaigrette

I like the unexpected.  Especially when it is something new to me, or it tastes and sounds exotic but in reality it has a longstanding history—a marriage of flavors that is natural. Flavors tried and tested over time, in this case,  in towns all across Portugal.

Octopus is a food that falls into a category that not to many foods do—it is either flash cooked very quickly or it is stewed for a very long time. Both methods intended to render the octopus meltingly tender.  I have tried flash cooking octopus several times and either I am an idiot and just can’t get it right or my definition of tender is radically different from everyone else who uses the flash cooked method. Continue reading →

Small Batch Barbacoa Beef for Tacos

DSCF4507There is something about big hunks of meat cooked over long periods at low heat that appeals to us at a very basic level. Pit-cooking traditions like hog roasts, barbacoa, and luaus aren’t just barbecues — they’re celebrations. They conjure up visions of earthen pits and long buffet tables with folding chairs, all set up for a multitude of guests.

This kind of cooking takes judgement and practice, though, so unless you host these kinds of events on a regular basis, you’re more than likely cooking blind. After all, you probably aren’t buying a whole lamb or calf more than a couple times a year. It could take you a few years to get it right. Continue reading →

Mandarin Orange Cake

Mandarin Orange Cake   I am a last-minute baker — a procrasti-baker. As such, I am most likely going to make the least complicated sorts of desserts and baked goods. On the occasions I have my act together, I like to make cakes — and even then, I want them to fit my schedule. At one point, I believe, Mandarin Orange Cake — also known as “Dream Cake” or “Pig Pickin’ Cake” — was made from scratch. Continue reading →

Tips for Reading Recipes (& Chinese Style Honey Hoisin Sticky Ribs)

Chinese Style Sticky Ribs

Chef Leichte spun on the balls of his feet. A millisecond ago he was heading forward, and I was following him. Now we are face to face, and he pokes my chest with his finger. “Commit!” he says in a raised voice, his chef’s toque rising from his head and towering above me like the leaning Tower of Pisa. “Quit asking all these questions and cook! Commit to the recipe; if it fails, we will fix it, but realize you will probably learn more from your mistakes than if I coddle you through the process.” Continue reading →

Recipe Reclamation: Bringing Back Chopped Steak

While it might not be haute cuisine, chopped meat is surely economical, flavorful, and versatile. From meatballs to croquettes to tacos, it can do it all and can do it with ease. It is an uncomplicated ingredient, often interchangeable, and more often than not is a beacon signaling out comfort food to anyone within range.

Take for example chopped steak: it is nothing new. Salisbury steak for instance has been around since 1897. Named after a doctor, Dr. Salisbury, who created it. Salisbury was also a believer in a low-carb diet, fancy that. Continue reading →

The Troublemaker Blend 6

Meatball Po' BoyI was given an assignment and just like in high school I have blown it off.  I procrastinated.  In all actuality if this was school, the PR company my teacher, well, I failed with a big fat F.

Because my parents taught me right from wrong, I am going to complete my homework and turn it in.   It is the right thing to do.  I expect no mercy from the teacher.  None.

I crack open a bottle of wine and pour a glass.  What, that is what I would have done in high school,  just kidding mom and dad.  I never would have done that in high school.  I was more a Jack Daniels and Coke kid.  Did I just say that out loud? Continue reading →

Seasoning with Pork: Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

If my extended family’s eating habits are an indication as to what the preferred meat was on my grandparents and great grandparents farm then it is obvious to me I come from a long line of pork eaters. It’s not as if this matters or that I need some sort of familial approval for my love of the beast because I don’t.  I claim it as my heritage after all but I’ll just say it anyway for clarity, I…love…pork.

I love pork for its possibilities, its versatility, and most importantly, it’s flavor. From snout to hocks or bacon to ham there are more uses for the pig then any other animal I know and one of my favorite uses is as a seasoning.  My definition and what I mean by seasoning is not simply tossing a couple of strips of bacon in with the green beans and  calling it a day.  No, the pork isn’t there for a cameo but instead has an important supporting role, one in which it could be nominated for an award.

Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a good pork dinner, something like Edna Lewis’s Boiled Pork (think Pot eu Feu) really floats my boat but as I try to reduce the amount of animal protein I consume I often look to the example of Italian ragus or Asian dishes where animal protein, quite literally, plays second fiddle to the grains or noodles on the platter. The pork is there to enhance and flavor the dish. Sure this is done for economy, just like adding bread or oats to meatloaf, and who doesn’t like save a few bucks or at the very least feed more mouths for the same price. Not only that but if you buy less quantity then you can afford better quality, at least this has always been my way of thinking.

When it comes to pork quality matters. If you buy pork that is enhanced with sodium triphosphate, a common practice at big box stores, it won’t caramelize very well and honestly the pork tastes bland. It is done to help the meat retain moisture but they add it because the producers have made pork to lean. If you buy pork with a little higher fat content you don’t need the moisture retainer. Not only that but when pork is raised in a more sustainable fashion it just taste better. It taste better because of what the animals eat.  It is about the animals diet after all. I am all about how my food taste and if sustainability happens to be a byproduct then, wonderful. I mean when I bite into good pork it immediately transports me to my grandparents farm, sitting outside under a shade tree eating a farm dinner on a beautiful summer’s eve and it reminds me exactly how pork is supposed to taste.

Over the years I have had different fascinations with different types of cured pork. I mean the list of possibilities is big, you have bacon, ham, Tasso, Serrano, prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale all on top of any number of sausages. All used as seasonings and all just a few of the options that can confront you. The wonderful thing is there are many books that will teach you how to cure many of these products at home (Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie comes to mind) and many of the processes are surprisingly simple. In fact no special equipment is required other then a good sharp knife(which I don’t consider special equipment).

Polenta with Peas and Sausage (serves 6)

one recipe of Carlo Middione’s Polenta Facile

10 ounces pork tenderloin, sirloin or loin

4 to 5 ounces pancetta

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

a scrape or two of whole nutmeg

a handful of  parsley leaves

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 bay leaf

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup carrots, small dice

1/2 cup onion, small dice

1/2 cup white wine

2 cups pork stock or chicken stock

1 1/2 cups fresh peas or frozen

chopped chives and parsley

1. Lay your pork out onto a large cutting board. Cut the pork and pancetta into thin strips then into cubes. Spread the pork out so it is flat instead of in one big pile. It’s ok if it isn’t in one single layer you just don’t want a big pile. Place the palm of you hand, as shown in the picture, across the blade of the knife making sure to keep your fingers up and you hand flat. This will keep you from cutting your hand if the knife slips. So fingers up! What you are doing is creating a hinge of sorts because you want to keep the tip of the knife on the board and in doing so it lets you apply more cutting force. Run the knife through the pork several times and until you have minced it to a coarse mince.

2. Add the garlic cloves, parsley, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper and the nutmeg. Mince the seasonings into the pork until you have a fine mince. Add the red wine vinegar and knead it into the sausage. Ball up the sausage, put it in a bowl and let it get funky in the fridge for an hour or two.

3. Start the polenta. I let my polenta cook for almost three hours. I was using an heirloom corn I grew last year called Henry Moore. It took a long time to cook but it was creamy beyond my wildest expectations. So take your time with the polenta, cook any bitterness out of it and let it do its thing.

4. When the polenta is close to being finished start the sauce by placing a large 12 inch saute pan over medium high heat. When it is hot add a glug or two of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Brown the sausage. Once the sausage is brown remove it to a plate. Be careful not to burn the fond on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and carrots and cook them gently until they just begin to wilt.

5. Add the tomato paste, dried thyme, rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Stir until fragrant then add the white wine. Let the wine burn off the alcohol and then add the stock. Season and taste. Bring it to a boil and reduce it by half. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

6. Add the sausage and peas. Heat until the peas are warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add a tablespoon of chopped chives and parsley. Stir.

7. Spread the polenta on a platter, top with the peas and sausage, and serve.

Everyday Potatoes

This time of year potatoes are a shot glass full of sunshine, they are the break-up song I can’t stop listening to, they are my noodle, my rice, and my comfort. They are soothing in the way a pacifier is to a child and they get me through the edgy emotions of late winter.

They are one of those rare ingredients that selflessly put other ingredients on a pedestal. They make butter better and cheese cheesier and we all know potatoes are versatile by the vast number of ingredients you can pair with them.

You can bet come Sunday when I want something comforting for dinner, they will make an appearance at the table. Most of the time they aren’t fancy. Something simple will do. But on occasion they get dressed up and this is one of the many things I like about potatoes: they adapt to any occasion. They can even go solo and be the meal themselves.

Potato GalleteWhile I am not particular so much about potato dishes I am particular about my potatoes, really particular. But I didn’t become so until I grew them in my garden. Not until then did I understand what fresh, good potatoes were about. I grow fingerlings, purple, Irish cobblers, Kenebec, and Yukon golds. All are unique, and all have peculiarities the cook needs to understand.

Like which potatoes to use for which dishes: the Russet Burbank, for example, is perfect for mashed potatoes because, when cooked, the grains in the potato swell and separate, making for a light and fluffy mash. On the other hand, when you want to make a nice vinegary French herb potato salad, it is nice to have French fingerlings or Russian Bananas because the waxy make-up of the potato keeps them from falling to mush.

I have a film changing bag in which I store my potatoes. It is a relic from, yeah, the days of film but it is light-proof, which makes it great for storing potatoes. And this is where I get picky. I will use potatoes if they are just beginning to sprout but I won’t use them if I see any signs of green. Storing  potatoes in complete darkness keeps them from getting green. I know you can cut off the green but I also know different people have different reactions to the glycoalkaloids. This is the chemical in potatoes that causes stomach issues for some and, while the green isn’t the glycoalkaloids, it is a sign they are abundant. So I simply won’t use green potatoes.

I also like to keep the skin on. I think they add so much flavor and extra nutrients, but obviously this recipe-dependent. Because of this, once my potato stash from the garden runs dry I only buy organic potatoes. They have a higher turnover rate because they sprout and turn green while the conventional are sprayed with a sprout suppression spray. I know the organic potatoes are fresh, good potatoes because they just can’t hang out like the conventional.

Click here for the Potato Cake recipe.

 

Potato Tips:

1. If the pile of 10-pound potato bags at the store looks messy, it’s because I was digging to the bottom to find the bag of potatoes that has absorbed the least amount of sunlight.

2. Smell the potatoes. They should smell like good soil, not mold.

3. Squeeze the potatoes. They should be firm, with no give.

4. When making mashed potatoes, let the potatoes sit in the colander after having been drained and let them steam off any extra moisture. Then add the butter first and mash it in before any of the other ingredients. Let the starch absorb the fat.

5. If you are making potato salad, dress the potatoes while hot. If making a vinaigrette, add the vinegar and herbs first, then the oil.

6. Waxy potatoes like fingerlings or German butterballs make the best roasted potatoes.

7. Duck fat or lard might be the best choice of roasting fat, and will brown the potatoes deeply and create a crispy exterior with a creamy interior.

8. If you want to roast potatoes in butter start off by roasting the potatoes in canola oil, then during the last 15 minutes of roasting time, stir the butter into the hot potatoes and finish roasting them. This will keep the butter from burning.

9. If your potatoes have begun to sprout but aren’t green, bake them till tender. Then let them cool and store them in the fridge to make hash browns or rösti. About five potatoes makes a nice dinner-sized rösti for two. The baked potatoes will last about 5 days in the fridge.

Soul Mates

I spent the better part my early years learning to capture moments on film and to see as a photojournalist. Now I can’t escape seeing this way and I don’t want to either. The reality is I enjoy it. I can see things in a way most people can’t. I have a different view, my own view, of the world. One that comes in fractions of a second.

It may seem odd but I set my cameras down and walked away from photojournalism almost twenty years ago, nevertheless throughout those camera-less years I continue to see and continue to record. Now I do it with words.

On a daily basis decisive moments are captured and processed with my eyes. As a photographer, I continued to capture the moments. As a writer, however, I let the moments dissipate and simmer and roll around in my head.

bona fide farm

Over the years, decisive moments switched from concrete images or snippets to ethereal feelings that turn and juxtapose the lives and scenes in front of me into lead sentences and paragraphs. I found myself using words to capture what is suggested, but often unseen, in decisive moments

Words allow me to capture the things photographs can’t. Actually it is more like the words complete the photographs I always want to take. I am pretty sure this is the reason I gave up defining myself only as a photographer. No matter how hard I tried I could never complete the story as I saw it because the pictures I was seeing didn’t exist and couldn’t exist without words.

When these two parts finally came together the images I was seeing could finally be captured. I could get at the whole story and tell it in a way that felt complete.  continue reading Continue reading →

Scrapple

scrappleSort of a cross between mush and sausage scrapple has been called many things, including “everything but the squeal.” In other words it gets a bad rap. If you look at the ingredients list below you will find, first and foremost, it is nitrite free, sugar free, and gluten free.

It is true when it comes to pig parts scrapple could be anything but the squeal but then that is up to the person making the dish. As with most charcuterie you are dealing with head to tail anyway so it is not a big jump to figure it is going to use pork liver. You don’t have to use pork liver but without it I am not sure you get the real gist of what is going on with the flavor and texture of scrapple. Generally after the liver the parts used are usually very flavorful cuts that need picked after being cooked and therefore wouldn’t normally be used except maybe in stews. Things like the cheeks or the snout. Pork ribs were used here because they are the most readily available to the general public.

Spicy, crispy, creamy and chock full of whole grain goodness. Give it a go and you won’t be disappointed.

Makes one 8 x 4 x 3 loaf

1 lb. meaty pork short ribs

6 oz. pork liver, if you can’t find it add more pork ribs

1 small carrot, peeled and sliced

2 green onions

1/4 cup yellow onion, chopped

4 cups water

2 teaspoons dried sage, toasted

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/3 cup buckwheat flour

a healthy pinch ground clove

kosher salt

1. Place the ribs, liver, carrot, green onions, and onion into a sauce pan where they will fit snuggly. Cover with the water and add pinch of salt.

2. Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Skim any foam that rises to the surface.

3. Simmer, covered, until the ribs are fall apart tender. Probably 2 hours, maybe 3.

4. Remove the meat to a tray. Strain the stock and measure it out. Wash the sauce pan. You will need 1 1/4 cup of liquid. If you have more than 1 1/4 cup put the broth back into the sauce pan reduce the liquid over high heat. If you have less add water to make 1 1/4 cup.

5. Pick the meat from the rib bones. Place half the rib meat and the liver into a food processor and grind it till it is finely chopped. Chop the rest of the rib meat with a knife so it is coarse but not big chunks.

6. Add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, the broth and the spices to the sauce pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and while whisking add the cornmeal and buckwheat flour. Whisk until smooth.

7. The scrapple will thicken a lot at this point. Add the meat and mix it in while still cooking the scrapple. If it is really stiff you may want to add a tablespoon of water but don’t make it to thin.

8. Dump the mixture into a greased 8 x 4 x 3 loaf pan and smooth down the top with a rubber spatula. Push on it firmly with the spatula to get rid of air bubbles.

9. Place a piece of plastic wrap right on top of the scrapple and then wrap the pan. Place the scrapple in the fridge overnight.

10. When you are ready to fry it cut slices and either dredge it in cornmeal or flour. Shake off the excess and saute it in butter over medium to medium high heat until the exterior is crispy and brown on both side and the interior is hot. Serve

Note: excess scrapple can be frozen but when you go to fry it it won’t stay together in a nice block. It will not taste any different the shape is the only thing different.