Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Two Tastes of Family | Charcutepalooza, challenge no. 6

I am participating in Charcutepalooza, a year of meat which entails twelve monthly challenges to prepare dishes using various charcuterie techniques.  For more information about charcutepalooza, click here.  To read why I decided to partake in the meatmaking festivities, read my first post here.

THE FIRST TASTE: the apprentice challenge

Its funny how much you can learn, just by acknowledging the limits of your own knowledge.  I was born in New York City, a hot spot of culinary adventuring, to parents who took full advantage of all that the location had to offer.  To my inflated city girl ego, I was a worldly diner who knew everything there was to know about Italian food.  And then I met ken.  The first time he made me a real marinara was a revelation.  For some reason, entirely beyond me now, I had always thought that the type of  food served at red sauce pasta & pizza joints was somehow fake or americanized: the chop suey of Italian cuisine.  The slow cooked sauce ken made me was perfectly smooth, sweet, but far from cloyingly so.  It has since become a favorite of mine, perfect with meatballs over homemade orrecchiete.  Once I opened myself up to learning more about Italian food, I found ken and his family a wealth of information.  I learned about the timpano, a multi-day cooking production of Big Night fame.  Another dish I learned of, Italian greens and beans is so simple, and so satisfyingly rich and comforting, that I am sad just thinking of all the years I didn’t know of its existence.  Since then, I have come to associate this dish closely with ken’s family.  The first time we went to L.A. together, ken’s uncles welcomed me into their home, and served me this dish: tender cannelini beans with wilted dandelion greens, fresh from the farmers market.  Ken’s mom makes a more traditional version with escarole, a green I had never tasted before, but which has a bitterness I have since learned to love.  At a restaurant in Utica, the city where his family is from, we had a version so loaded down with pancetta and pepperoni that I had trouble recognizing it as the simple hearty, healthy dish I had first been introduced to.

Last fall, we had purchased a ton of fresh cranberry beans from Bodhitree, one of our favorite farms at the Union Square Greenmarket.  Most were eaten almost immediately, but we saved a quart of cooked beans in the freezer, planning on using them with the first greens of spring.  This past month, with greens finally abundant at the market, a half pound of leftover pork in the fridge, and a sausage making challenge on my mind, I decided it was finally time for me to come up with my own version of greens and beans.  Back at the Bodhitree farmstand, I hit my first hiccup: no escarole.  No worries, they recommended curly endive, another new vegetable to me, and one which worked beautifully.  It had the same bracing bitterness, but with a sturdier leaf which took a bit more time to become tender.
I am a fortunate girl in that I am often given very good advice.  A good friend of mine, who also happens to be a professionally trained chef, recommended using the kitchenaid sausage stuffer attachment with all its known imperfections, over my planned method: a pastry bag.  Unfortunately, I am also a very stubborn girl (there goes that ego again) and that is how I found myself alone in the kitchen, swearing at a pastry tip for being too damned short, while trying to thread three feet of hog casings onto it.  Suffice it to say, there are no pictures of the process.  It took about two hours before I finally had my first sausages, exactly three links of hot Italian (based on the recipe in Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie).  And now I also know why people don’t make sausage in half pound batches.
Regardless of the myriad inefficiencies in the making, these sausages were juicy, flavorful, and tasted great in greens and beans.
Greens and Beans with Italian Sausage
This dish is hearty enough to be a meal.  If there are unexpected diners, it can easily be stretched into a soup with the addition of water or stock (and salt to taste!).
½ lb hot Italian sausage
1 onion, chopped 

olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 bunch curly endive or other bitter leafy green, such as escarole, dandelion greens, washed and cut up.
1 quart cooked beans, preferably fresh, but fine if dried, or even canned 

parmesan for grating 
salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a large pot, saute the sausages until the skin is caramelized, and they are just cooked through.  Remove the sausages from the pot, being careful to leave behind as much of the fat as possible.  When they are cool enough to handle, slice them and set them aside.
2.  Add olive oil to the pan if there is not enough of the reserved sausage fat.  Add the onion and cook until sweated but not browned.  Then add the garlic and the bay leaf and saute for another couple of minutes, until the garlic is fragrant.
3.  Stir in the greens, and cook until wilted.  Add about a half cup of water, turn down the heat, cover the pot and let it cook until the greens are tender.  Feel free to add more water if it boils off before the greens are to your liking.  Once you are happy with the texture of your greens, remove the lid, and turn the heat up until most of the water has simmered off.
4.  Add the cooked beans, stirring gently to avoid smushing them.  
5.  Stir in the sausage slices, and let the whole thing simmer for a few minutes while the flavors blend together.
6.  Add salt, pepper, and grated parmesan to taste.
7.  Serve alongside parmesan for grating, for those who prefer a cheesier taste.

THE SECOND TASTE:  the charcutiere challenge

Since ken’s family was so well represented in this challenge, I didn’t want my own to feel left out. For the second part of the challenge: inventing my own poultry sausage, I drew inspiration from my parents.  Although my personal heritage is Chinese and Eastern European, my culinary background is much more complicated.  My dad did most of the cooking for us growing up, and has always loved to experiment with various cuisines from around the world.  A week of dining in their household could easily start with a simple pasta or risotto, followed later in the week by a Korean inspired braised short rib dish, and end with a Mexican grilled chicken taco feast with all the works.  A recent addition to his winter repertoire of braised dishes is a chicken tagine.  Although usually a staple of cold weather cooking, this dish and Moroccan food in general has been on my mind, because currently, my parents happen to be vacationing in Marrakesh.  Jealous of the food they must be enjoying, I decided to take the exotic flavors of a tagine and stuff them into a casing: a sausage perfect for summertime grilling.

Wanting to use some of the gorgeous preserved lemons I had in my fridge, a generous gift from a friend (the same friend, in fact, who wisely but unsuccessfully tried to guide me away from sausage stuffing via pastry bag), I chose to base my sausage on a preserved lemon and olive chicken tagine, for which many recipes exist online.
The largest impediment to the making of these sausages was the terrible heat wave we experienced here in the Northeast last week.  Sausage meat has to be kept exceptionally cold to keep the fat from separating.  Usually this requires keeping all the grinding equipment, bowls and meat in the freezer, something I am ashamed to say was not really an option for me.  They say confession is good for the soul, so at the risk that one of my concerned readers will be reporting me to the producers of Hoarders, I would like to show you all the inside of my freezer:
Yes, that is a bag falling out as I took this picture. My freezer is a deathtrap.
Clearly I have a problem.  There was zero possibility of fitting a bowl in.  I only managed to get the meat in by cycling out quarts of stock, and the grinder hardware, by wedging it between a bag of chicken carcasses and a tupperware full of duck fat.  As a safeguard against the oppressive heat, I ground my sausages (4 lbs this time around) in two batches, cleaning and rechilling all the equipment between each round.  Apparently the fat survived because these were some of the juiciest sausages I’ve ever eaten!

Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on the kitchenaid stuffer attachment in time to make these sausages so once again I had to make do with the pastry bag.  But this time, with some experience, and an extra set of hands (ken’s) to help out, the stuffing went much faster and with a lot less swearing.

Having issues with twisting links, and no kitchen twine on hand, I tied each link
off with extra casings.   It's not pretty but it worked!
We were just planning to eat these with regular pitas, but ken took it upon himself to find this recipe for Morrocan flat bread known as a batbout.  Batbouts are not baked, rather they are cooked on a stove top, making them ideal summer breads.  Although similar to pitas, these flat breads were a bit chewier because of their high semolina content.  
We ate the sausages gently grilled, with a tzatziki-like condiment of diced cucumber, greek yogurt, mint, garlic and lemon zest.  Even wrapped in the batbout, this was a messy meal, best eaten outdoors with those closest to you, who won’t mind you licking your fingers.
Chicken Tagine Sausage with Preserved Lemons and Olives
The base recipe for these sausages came, as always from Ruhlman and Polcyn, this time from their Chicken Sausage with Basil and Tomatoes recipe.  I wanted to use their meat to fat to salt ratio but discovered too late, that I had only half a pound of back fat in the freezer, a full pound less than they called for.  Still the sausages were sufficiently juicy and fatty, a fact I attribute to the quality of the chicken thighs.  I will write the proportions I used here, but more fat certainly won’t hurt.  Also, the spice amounts included are approximations.  Season, as always, according to your tastes.
3 ½ lbs chicken thighs, diced
½ lb back fat, diced
30 g salt (careful here as the preserved lemon and the olives add a fair amount of salt, especially if you, like me, forget to rinse the lemons before prepping them)
1 preserved lemon rind, rinsed and then minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp tumeric
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ cup green olives, diced
¼ cup red wine vinegar, chilled
¼ cup olive oil

1.  Combine all the ingredients except for the olives.
2.  Let the meat and seasonings sit for as long as overnight, in the fridge.
3.  Grind the meat according to the instructions in Charcuterie, being very careful to keep everything cold.
4.  Mix the ground meat using the paddle attachment on the mixer for a couple minutes, adding the vinegar, the olive oil, and lastly, the diced olives while mixing.  
5.  Fry up a small portion of the sausage to taste.  Adjust the seasonings accordingly.
6.  Stuff the sausages in hog casing.
7.  Grill the sausages gently and enjoy!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Springtime on a Plate

Not too long ago, my printmaking teacher said something quite humbling to me in response to a glib remark of mine: that current methods of art history education (requiring large amounts of rote memorization) were obsolete in the current age of google.  His response was that through reliance on technology we forfeit our abilities.  

In hindsight, it is unsurprising that someone who teaches printmaking would see the value of preserving skills many would consider obsolete.  The real question is why, as a student of printmaking, I didn’t instinctively feel the same way.  The truth is, that in a lot of ways, i do.  Take cooking for instance.  Almost all the cooking I do, practically speaking, is obsolete.  I could just as easily buy everything premade and packaged, ready to be microwaved.  But I choose to preserve my cooking abilities because I find it enriching.  And my teacher was absolutely correct about the effects of our reliance on search engines.  Since getting a smart phone and consequently always having googling capabilities at my fingertips, my memory, which has served me well in the past, is suffering.  I used to be able to ace exams that I crammed for the night before, vocab and grammar rules used to come easily to me when learning new language.  Now, those memory feats seem entirely unattainable.  One summer shy of thirty, I’m certainly not old enough to blame my age for my forgetfulness.  By always taking the easy way out: constantly checking wikipedia for facts, bookmarking information instead of retaining it, I have forfeited, i.e. actively surrendered my memorizing abilities.  

So what’s my point?  I’m not saying that I want to go live under a rock, eating termites, so I don’t lose my poking-sticks-in-logs-to catch-bugs skills.  Clearly no one person can be highly skilled at everything.  My point is that I need to be more aware of the payoff, or cost of convenience.  The decision of which skills I want to maintain, and which I am willing to relinquish must be made consciously and deliberately.  

In considering what other abilities I have put in danger of forfeit, it is clear to me that technology is not the only culprit.  Any voluntary relinquishment of a responsibility can effect a forfeiture.  Ken and I almost always cook together and the division of labor naturally gravitates towards our respective strengths.  I realized that over the years my comfort level with the tasks he usually assumes has fallen although I was perfect adept at them before we started seeing each other.  I would never give up cooking together.  Our ability to cook so well together (despite the fact that I am a recovering kitchen bully* with occasional relapses) is one of my favorite things about our relationship.  But I have decided that every so often I should cook an entire meal from conception through execution alone, just to maintain those skills which I would be loath  to lose.  

* years ago the nytimes published an article on kitchen bullies and my first thought on reading it, unhappily, was that it described me to a T.
My first solo meal was inspired by the early spring produce at the farmers market, and by this Hank Shaw blog post.  I was hoping to mimic his use of the season’s trifecta: ramps, fiddleheads and morels, but unfortunately, according to the folks at the greenmarket, the weather (constant rain, followed immediately by intense heat) ended our morel season early.  No worries, the fiddleheads and the ramps paired with a roast rack of lamb more than represented for the season.
I prepared the fiddleheads by trimming them and rubbing off their brown papery husk.  They were then pre-boiled for about five minutes in well salted water.
Usually we are so enamoured with ramps when they finally show themselves after a long winter, that we do as little as possible to them, opting for just a basic saute.  While I certainly enjoy them that way, I find two faults with our usual preparation.  First, the greens on top tend to cook much faster than the pink bulbs at the root-end, leaving either overcooked greens, or too crunchy bulbs.  Second, I find that merely sauteing the greens tend to leave them a little too fibrous and difficult to eat. For this meal, I chose to separate the two parts, and prepare each differently.
I made a sauce for the lamb by combining blanched and chopped ramp greens with greek yogurt and lemon zest.  This yielded way too much for one meal, but the leftover sauce, enhanced with an assertive addition of paprika and cayenne, made for a great chicken marinade the next day.
I sauteed the bulbs and the fiddleheads together and served them with crisped gnocchi.  (I have to confess that the gnocchi were in the freezer, and most likely made by ken).  Alongside a roasted coriander spiced rack of lamb, this dish was a lovely celebration of the spring.