Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

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Many cultures have some version of a meatball in their cuisine: sweet and sour Swedish meatballs, lion head Chinese pork meatballs with cabbage, fish balls in Viet phò, albondigas in Mexico and Levantine kibbeh. Although it seems the odds were against it, I do not come from a culture of meatballs. Southerners will eat the living daylights out of a sausage ball or a meatloaf, but I can’t really say those qualify as meatballs and in a household that skewed toward vegetarian, we didn’t eat them at home anyway. They were not part of my kitchen vernacular.

When I learned to cook as an adult, I would occasionally dabble in meatball cookery, the odd broiled lamb and cherry meatball with saffron rice, spaghetti with meatballs every once in a while, but it just seemed like too much trouble to roll them all up, fry or bake them, and then mix them with the sauce. But then I cubed up some leftover meatloaf once and used it to make spaghetti sauce and I “got” it. I got the appeal of the Italian style meatball with sauce, seasoned, tender chunks of meat- not like a stew, not like ground meat. The meat was at once distinct from and at one with the sauce. I was in. I wanted more. So I set about making the best meatballs I could. And what it boiled down to was getting a technique I liked and layering a lot of complex flavor into the meatballs.

Braising them made a huge difference for me. No more extra cooking step, no more lopsided meatballs, with hard edges. Braising, they cooked beautifully and tenderly, exchanging their flavor with the sauces, rich but not greasy and much, much easier.

The real key for me though was in layering so much really good seasoning into the meat mixture that it was like a really glorious rich music chord- high notes of sweet tomato and fennel, sharp notes of capsicum and, deep down the mushroom and pecorino flavors, all seasonings that I pull from my pantry or refrigerator over and over to build these exciting and complex chords of flavor in the cooking.

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Harissa is a North African chile sauce. As far as I can tell, there is no a definitive formula for harissa; I’ve had harissa so hot I can only tolerate a few drops on my falafel sandwich and harissa that is thicker, made with some vegetables as the base instead of just peppers and spices. Each serves a purpose, but the second is a pantry staple that I always keep on hand to add a spicy earthy savoriness. It doesn’t  add much heat, maybe just a subconscious tingle to your taste buds, but it isn’t as sweet as tomato paste so I often use a combination or harissa and tomato paste to create a broader flavor profile. I keep a tube of DEA harissa in the refrigerator all the time.

 Another of my flavor must-haves is dried porcini mushrooms. A few dried porcini added to risotto or meat sauce or a vegetarian sautéed mushroom sauce just brings so much depth of earthy savory flavor. I soak them in hot water to rehydrate; after the mushrooms are removed, the water has a lot of flavor and usually gets added to the dish too.

 And finally, whether you are jarring your own homemade marinara sauce from farmers market tomatoes or you’ve found a  brand that  you love, a few jars of simple but flavorful tomato sauce are great to have on hand. I like a sauce with as few ingredients as possible, maybe a basic marinara or one with a little hit of capsicum heat. check the label though, a lot of commercial sauces have a lot of sugar, soybean oil, and other ingredients that don’t need to be there.

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Tomato Sauce Braised Meatballs

serves 6-8

1 pound Italian sausage (I use the spicy version)

1 pound ground beef chuck

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg

2 tablespoons dried porcini (rehydrated in boiling water and chopped fine)

1 tablespoon harissa

3 cloves garlic (minced or grated on a microplane)

1/4 cup minced onion

1 ounce finely grated pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/3 cup milk

1 jar marinara sauce

1 14 ounce can tomato sauce (unseasoned)

Mix the meats, bread crumbs, mushrooms, and seasonings gently in a large bowl. mix the milk, egg and any leftover porcini soaking liquid, and incorporate into the meat mixture.  Let the breadcrumbs soak up the milk and seasoning for about 10 minutes. Roll meatballs the size of  the circle made by the tip of your index finger against the top knuckle of your thumb. In a large sauté pan or stock pot, place the meatballs close to each other but not touching in a single layer in the bottom. Pour marinara and tomato sauce over them just to cover and bring to a simmer. As the first layer begins to get firm, add another layer and more sauce. Continue this process until all of the meatball mixture is used. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Higher heat can break up the meatballs and cause them to release more fat making a greasier sauce and a tougher drier meatball.

If there is a lot of fat rising to the top, skim it off. I have found that a coarser more handmade style of  sausage seems to be less fatty and I get less fat in my sauce, but a little of the seasoned sausage fat mixing into the sauce isn’t a bad thing in my opinion; you just don’t want it to be greasy. These meatballs are even better if made a day ahead, refrigerated in the sauce and then re-heated right before serving. Toss some of the sauce with pasta, pile a few meatballs on top, grate on some more pecorino and enjoy!

These meatballs also freeze in the sauce really well.

I have a meat grinder and grind the beef for the meatballs at home. If you want to do this too, choose a cut of beef that doesn’t have large pieces of fat or cartilage, cut it into 1 inch cubes, and grind it on the small or medium grinder die.

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Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).

Okra: the Prologue

Have you ever had a friend visit one of your favorite places – say, San Francisco or New York City – and spend all of their time in the worst areas – say Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square – and leave with a terrible impression of that place – crowded, over-priced terrible food, kitschy and touristy? It’s frustrating. While you know that there is so much more to San Francisco than Madame Tussaud’s and t-shirt shops, it can be hard to overcome that negative first impression, however unjustified.

That sums up my feelings about okra. One of my favorite vegetables, it has a terrible reputation based largely on misunderstanding and poor preparation. Is okra slimy? Well, yes and no. Depending on how it is handled and prepared, it can either look like a creature from Alien or it can be as silky and soothing as good stock. Can it be prickly and stringy? Yes, if you get mature, past-their-prime pods. But all of these are easily avoidable disasters.

So, if you’ll let me be your tour guide, I’ll try to give you a better second impression of okra.

Let’s start with choosing the best okra:

I remember when I was little, my mom handed me a tiny tender okra pod to taste straight from the garden; it was still warm, easy to bite and chew, tender and velvety. It was a perfect little ripe okra pod, bright green and pliable, probably about the size of my thumb now. I prefer cooked okra, but they should be edible when raw, not tough and sharply ridged.

As with most fruits and vegetables, there is a tremendous difference between “ripe” and “mature” okra. Ripeness is the peak of flavor and tenderness before the plant begins putting all of its energy into producing and protecting viable seeds.  Think about the difference between an English pea pod and a flat snow pea. The English pea shell has matured into a case to protect the peas (or seeds) inside while the snow pea is still juicy and tender, immature but ripe. Since okra is not eaten mainly for its seeds, I want the outside to be tender like the snow pea rather than the English pea.

Okra is a sensitive little thing, easily bruised by over-handling, so a good indication of freshness is whether the tips and ridges are blackened by much squeezing and tossing. If you buy okra in a farmers market or grocery store that serves an enthusiastic okra-eating demographic like Indians, West Africans, or East Asians, you will probably see shoppers standing beside the bin rifling through the pile feeling each individual pod in order to get only the best. If an okra pod has been passed over often enough so that it gets bruised like that, walk away. The experts have spoken.

If you come across a pristine pile, go ahead and start feeling up the produce. Gently pick up each bright green pod that looks to be about the right size (think a ladies thumb) and give a little squeeze to see if it feels spiny and rigid or tender and pliable. There will be a light fuzz on the outside and they shouldn’t feel dry or brittle. The tips should be intact and not black and battered looking, and a little bit of stem on the other end keeps them from drying out too quickly. As long as they are not damp, they will store for a few days in a bag in your crisper drawer.

There are two exceptions to the size and color rules: First, there is an okra variety called “cow horn” that is much larger than other varieties while still being ripe rather than mature. If a seller can assure you that the large variety you are looking at is indeed the cow horn type, go ahead and try it, but if they are uncertain, don’t bother buying their okra. There is too much risk that you’ll end up with something that tastes like balsa wood. And then there are some gorgeous bronze and burgundy varieties of okra (like the ones in the first picture)that I like to try when I find them. They are less common though, so I would stick with green until you get comfortable and then branch out to more exotic types.

Now, before I get into any discussion on preparation, let’s talk about slime. Like I said, okra can be really slimy, depending on how it is cooked and handled. But why?  What is it that turns a velvety little pod into something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon? In a word, fiber. Okra contains a soluble fiber charmingly known as “mucilage.” Some other foods that contain mucilage are aloe vera, nopal (or prickly pear cactus), kelp (or kombu), chia seeds, flax seeds, and oatmeal. And just like aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin, this type of fiber is very soothing on the inside. During his recovery from orthognathic surgery a few years ago, Scott had a reaction to anti-swelling steroids he was given that caused a lot of stomach pain. One of the few foods that he could swallow that soothed his stomach were homemade miso soup (made with kelp) and stewed okra. This soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and keeping the digestive system healthy as a probiotic.

While I may not be able to convince anyone to love okra based purely on its health benefits,  these benefits are information worth knowing. I do however think that I’ll be able to convince you to give it a second change based on it’s deliciousness and versatility, beginning in my next post. See you soon in Okra: Part I

The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Hummus is Yummus

Last night was my turn to host my book club. The host usually has snacks and wine and since most of us are either arriving from work or from handing children off to a spouse who has just walked in the door, most of try to go hearty with snacks since it is essentially supper. Typically, I had so many things keeping me busy that I didn’t get any prep done ahead of time and walked in the door with a bag full of groceries and wine at about 5:30 to see a herd of dust bunnies galloping down the hall, piles of mail and clutter everywhere, a full dishwasher, and a lot of cooking ahead of me.

Fortunately, the ladies of book club do not care a whit about my careless housekeeping, particularly if they are well fed, so I turned some MGMT on really loud, put my apron on, and cranked out my hummus recipe because it is so fast and easy and everyone loves it. With hummus in the bag, I got to work on a trio of crostini toppings – diced tomato and basil with olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with rosemary and a little cream, and this Parmesan spread from 101 Cookbooks that I mixed with chopped artichoke hearts. Kate arrived first and  helped me slice and toast my baguettes from the Antique Bakery (which still bakes all of its bread in an old coal oven) and open wine bottles. I have to admit I had worked up a little sweat getting everything done at the last minute, but our book club is always fun and worth the effort.

Having recipes like hummus that are easy to throw together are great if you like to have people over but don’t have a lot of time to prepare. I served mine with a platter of crudite – red pepper slices, cucumber spears, slender blanched green beans, and celery to balance the richer crostini toppings, but I often bake whole wheat pita wedges to make quick pita chips.

Hummus

– 1 – 19 ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained

– 2 cloves of garlic, chopped or microplaned

– 3 Tablespoons tahini

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 1 teaspoon ground cumin

– 1/2 teaspoon ground smoky chipotle

– about 2 tablespoons olive oil

– salt to taste

Note: because of the variety of textures in canned beans, I sometimes need more or less olive oil to get the texture I want. If, after blending, the texture seems stiff or dry, add a little more olive oil, or if it seems loose and soft, add a little less. Same thing with the salt- taste it before adding any because some canned beans are already salty.

In the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini prep), combine the beans, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and spices. Pulse the mixture until you like the texture- I prefer it pretty smooth but with a bit of chunky texture. Once you get the texture you want, taste it for salt and add the salt and olive oil. The olive oil and tahini make it creamy. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Keen as Mustard

After that last post for chili, some of y’all are probably rolling your eyes, nudging one another, and asking yourselves  “does she do EVERYTHING the most difficult way possible? I mean seriously, roast and grind the chiles that you freaking GREW YOURSELF and THEN chop the meat by hand? What is she, like a kitchen masochist?” The simple answer to that question would probably be “yes, sort of.” Just kidding.

I do enjoy the process (she says, not defensively at all). And I don’t really cook many elaborate things. I just like simple things to be really tasty and I like to understand what makes it so. And I’ve found over the years that some of the things that seem intimidating, like mayonnaise for example, aren’t that hard. Homemade mayonnaise takes 10 minutes to make and I’ve not yet had a batch break. So if you have the time and inclination to occasionally put in a bit of extra time, I think it’s worth the reward.

So, for things that seem like “why in the world would you make —– when you can buy it?”, I give you the biggest bang for your $2 and 5 minutes of kitchen time:

Homemade Coarse-grain Mustard

My basic recipe comes completely unedited or adapted from one of my favorite and most aspirational blogs,  Hunter Angler Gardener Cook by Hank Shaw. For simplicity, I’ll include the recipe as I made it here, but do spend some quality time wandering around his archives and you won’t be disappointed. His explanations of the chemical reaction that make “the magic” happen are especially helpful.

The nice thing about making your own mustard, other than it being dead simple and effortless, is its endless adaptability. I can’t wait to make some with apricot preserves, Belgian beer, black mustard seeds, smooth mustard powder, or balsamic vinegar. This one has a lot of heat, probably because I used really cold water, but a honey mustard with a bitter-sweet buckwheat honey sounds intriguing too.

Here are the basics:

makes about 1 cup

about 5 minutes active, 12 hours passive prep time

– 6 tablespoons mustard seeds

– 1/2 cup mustard powder

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 3 tablespoons vinegar (2 cider, 1 sherry)

– 1/2 cup very cold water

In a small coffee/spice grinder (or with a mortar and pestle) blitz the whole mustard seeds until they are about 3/4 cracked, but not powdered. Mix the mustard seeds, mustard powder and salt. Pour the vinegar and cold water over it and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a jar and refrigerate for 12 hours before consuming.

After I stood, gazing in disbelief at the jar as I put it in the fridge this morning at how ridiculously EASY it was to make, I let it sit and stew all day. Pulling it out for a taste tonight was the real litmus. And it is really good! Sinus-clearingly hot, fresh and spicy, it tastes like a chewy pretzel’s soul mate. I’m not making pretzels by the way. I buy those. What do you think I am, a glutton for punishment?

P.S.-

Since I had an extra 5 minutes after writing this post, I made another half batch of mustard:

Figgy Mustard

-3 tablespoons mustard seeds

-1/4 cup mustard powder

-1 teaspoon salt

-1 heaped tablespoon fig preserves

-2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

  -2 teaspoons fig balsamic vinegar

-1/4 cup room temperature water, to minimize the heat.

After sitting overnight, it is a lovely spicy/sweet mustard that will be perfect on some broiled smoked sausages.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Oh wow! What happened? Where am I? I must have fallen asleep there for a minute – I’m so embarrassed. I had the weirdest dream; I was on a beautiful island in the Caribbean and some people got married, and then my sister got married,  and there was an earthquake and a hurricane in New Jersey. Crazy! I have the most ridiculous dreams, like a combination of a Wes Anderson movie and a Dr. Seuss book. But I’m so sorry I dozed off right in the middle of our conversation. How long was I asleep, anyway? And what were we talking about?

Oh right, food. Southern food, wasn’t it?

So, what do you say we make some fried green tomatoes.

The Union Square Greenmarket is retracting, its seasonal pullback from the voluptuous abundance of summer produce into its leaner cold weather rendition. Tables covered with peaches and strawberries and heirloom tomatoes have been replaced by piles of winter squash, apples, pots of chrysanthemums, and the early cruciferous crops of the season. It’s a great time to get green tomatoes; earlier in the year, everyone is too desperate for the first juicy ripe tomato to pick any while they’re green, then we revel in the abundance of the season until we realize that it’s getting toward September and the end of tomato season and the urge to “enjoy them before they are gone” takes over. But now it’s time to strip the vines of the last tomatoes that won’t have time to ripen before the frost and enjoy the unique berry tang of the unripe fruit.

When it comes to frying vegetables, there are a few things I get a little strident about: first, I don’t like a tiny nugget of the vegetable buried in a heavy batter or breading. I love fried okra, but when I eat fried okra, I want to taste a lot of okra, enrobed in a gossamer -like crust, not a greasy chunk of dough with a miniscule piece of okra buried in its depths. Yeah, maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but you get my point.

Second, I don’t like the grittiness of cornmeal when I fry. It’s a personal preference, or course, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve face planted into the beach when I’m chewing my food. Corn, however, fries very nicely without some of the sogginess problems that can happen when frying something very watery in a flour dredge. If you’ve ever had fish and chips where the interior of the crust is gummy, it’s because the liquid in the fish released as the fish cooked and mixed with the flour in the batter before the flour had time to cook. Wheat flours, or flours that contain gluten get sticky and gummy when they absorb liquid. If you can control the temperature and moisture level of what you are cooking, this won’t be a problem, but for quick simple pan frying, gluten-free corn is easier to control. Corn has a nice flavor and crispness too, ideal in contrast to the tender fried vegetable inside. In order to use corn while not having that gritty crunchy feeling I dislike, I use corn flour, a ground corn that falls between a “meal” and “starch” grind. The fineness of corn flour’s texture enables it to cling easily and cook quickly.

Third, I very rarely go deeper than a pan fry. Deep frying is usually just too much trouble for me to do, especially considering that the only ventilation in my kitchen is a window next to the stove. Shallower pan frying is much easier to manage. It’s easier to adjust the temperature, control the mess, and clean up afterward. Generally, on the rare occasions I eat deep-fried food, I leave it in the hands of a competent professional. So, for fried food, I use my cast iron skillets and enough fat to come about halfway up the sides of whatever I’m frying, then turn it halfway to fry the other side.

Rather than share an actual recipe with specific measurements, I’m going to list the ingredients and general amounts I made, then explain the technique I use to fry green tomatoes. Rough measurements work best, because the amount of dredge and fat used is dependent on the amount of tomato to be fried.

Fried Green Tomatoes

4 medium green tomatoes

roughly-

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup corn flour

salt, pepper, cayenne to taste

1/4 cup each clarified butter and Spectrum shortening

Line up two shallow bowls (something like a pie plate works well) on the counter. Put the buttermilk in one and the seasoned corn flour in the other.

Slice the tomatoes into about 1/4 inch thick slices

Dip each slice into the bowl of buttermilk, shake it to get any big drips off and then into the corn flour dredge. I like to use chopsticks to flip the slices over to evenly coat each side. It keeps my fingers cleaner because I can never remember the whole “one hand for liquid, one hand for dry” technique. Tap the edge of the tomato slice to get any loose dredge off; the loose corn flour will just end up falling off into the hot fat and burning, kind of inevitable, but this will help minimize that problem.

When you have a pan-full ready, heat the skillet over medium-high until the fat begins to shimmer and the first wisps of smoke appear. While the first batch turns golden on the bottom side, start dipping and dredging the next batch. I use chopsticks again, or a small spatula to lift the edge and check the bottom. The green tomato skin on the edges will begin to lose some of its vibrant color and turn a more olive-green. Flip the tomatoes and cook the other side. Remove to a paper towel- lined plate to soak up any excess fat and quickly add the next batch to the pan.

A sprinkle of sea salt is a minimal final flourish to finish this simple dish. We ate it for brunch with grits and eggs, which is not a bad meal to which to awake.

“Good Job” Biscuits- Southern Food Challenge 7

Our nephew Luke is learning how to talk. He shows off his new words for us when they  Skype us from my in-law’s house – he says “strawberry” and “Dot” (Scott) and “tigers say GRRRRR”.  Allegedly, he has said “Christine,” although not when I’m around. He says “good job” because that’s what we all say when he does something we like. He gets a lot of “good jobs” and applause; he just beams at us beatifically while we congratulate him for, say, trying to use a spoon. We all think he’s pretty adorable.

Luke and his mom drove up to visit the grandparents one Friday night recently and Janice had her hot biscuits ready for his supper when he got there. He sat in his high chair (the throne) and Janice put a buttered biscuit on the tray in front of him. He too a bite, ate it up, looked up at her and said “good job!”

The biscuits I grew up with were not the archetypal “Southern” biscuit. I’m actually planning to talk about them in a separate post in order to better explain both types, but the main difference was in using oil rather than shortening, butter, or some other kind of solid fat . I’m more familiar and comfortable making biscuits from the recipe my mom taught me but I also love flaky crisp buttermilk biscuits, scones and other “pastry” style quick breads (and by “pastry”, I mean gently incorporating a solid fat into flour to make a light, flaky quick bread, in contrast to what I’ll call a “quick bread” method in which a liquid fat like oil is used to make a moist, soft and usually denser bread like fruit bread or tea bread). And in that respect, Janice’s “Good Job” biscuits are hard to beat. They are a light crisp biscuit with a buttery golden top and just a suggestion of buttermilk flavor, a nice little duvet for a pink curl of salty country ham to cuddle up in. I got some really nice country ham from Scott Hams in Kentucky. When you call them, Mrs. Scott answers the phone, takes your order, and is happy to answer any questions you might have about the hams her husband has been curing on their farm since 1965.

The only modifications I made to her recipe were, first, not using White Lily flour which cannot be had for love or money in New Jersey and for which I wasn’t prepared to wait until I could import a sack of it from southern climes and, second, I used Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening instead of Crisco. This choice harkens back to my upbringing; while I’m far less strict about my diet now than my mom was, I have retained an aversion to heavily altered “food-type products”. I just can’t do it. Not that a non-hydrogenated shortening is a health food – it just seems less weird to me. Anyway, that’s how I cook.

Good Job Biscuits

3 cups self-rising flour

1 tablespoon baking powder (I like Rumford Aluminum-free Baking Powder)

2 teaspoons confectioners sugar

1/2 cup shortening

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 450°

Mix the flour, baking soda and confectioners sugar. Cut the shortening in. I use a fork to blend in the shortening and really, the important thing to remember is to do as shoddy and unthorough a job of mixing the shortening into the flour as possible. Don’t try to make it all nice and even; it just makes the biscuits denser. Pour in the buttermilk and stir it in just enough to moisten the flour mixture. Using your hands, knead the dough a couple of times, just to get it to pull together into a ball. Again, this is a recipe that insists that you put your feet up and do as little as possible to the dough for best results. Put the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and gently pat out into a square about 1/2 inch thick.

I like to make my biscuits square. It alleviates the necessity of reforming and cutting the dough that circle cutters leave. Using a bench scraper or long knife blade, cut the dough into squares. Place slightly apart on a baking sheet or stone and bake for about 10 minutes until the tops are golden. Brush with melted butter. Serve hot.

Rice rice baby

I’ve been trying to make myself a welcomed and pleasant houseguest these past few weeks. I have a few techniques I try to use. I try to remember the “house guests and fish” rule, by not staying too long in one place. I make myself scarce when my hosts are busy. I try to be charming, an amusing conversationalist, a general pleasure to be around. I tidy up after myself, bring gifts of wine and cheese and cookies. And I cook.

I’ve been staying at Kristen’s house this week. She has two boys. As it turns out, teenaged boys can put away some groceries. It’s like a shop vac gets turned on in the kitchen, and thirty minutes later, they are hungry again. So the other night, I made a huge skillet of fried rice for a very appreciative audience. (That is a nice thing about cooking for teenaged boys- they are very enthusiastically appreciative). It’s quick and easy, a good way to use leftovers, and according to the boys, a crowd pleaser.

There are two important things to remember: first, start with cold rice, and second, don’t be afraid of high heat. Most other things in fried rice are negotiable. These are not, so no back talk. The reason for cold (and even a little dry) rice is that it holds up much better under the stirring and tossing. Fresh rice just gets mushy and beat up. And the high heat, which I think is one of the most important things to get comfortable with as a cook, cooks everything fast enough to get done before it starts getting mushy. Fresh rice and a tepid pan makes for a sodden greasy grease bomb and nobody wants that. You want glossy individual grains of rice, emollient but not saturated with sesame oil, lightly bound with a bit of just-cooked egg and studded with vegetables and shrimp, chicken, pork or sausage.

 

 

Fried Rice

Here is what I used :

5 or 6 cups of cold or room temperature long grain rice- leftover is perfect. Use your hands to gently separate the grains into a bowl, ready to pour into the wok

Oil (corn, canola, peanut etc.) to generously coat the bottom of the pan

Toasted sesame oil

1 clove garlic minced or crushed

1 tiny knob of ginger finely grated

3 or 4 scallions, sliced

A cup or two of cooked vegetables (I used a frozen mix of water chestnuts, baby corn, snow peas, mushrooms, and edamame, thawed and drained , but frozen peas work well too; whatever you like )

3 beaten eggs

Teriyaki chicken

Soy sauce, or

Salt to taste

White or cayenne pepper to taste

 

Fried rice takes minutes to make once you get started, so have everything ready to go when you turn the heat on. You will need a big flat bladed spatula and a big pan. (I use a wok at home, but used Kristen’s electric skillet on its highest setting this time). Get you large wok or skillet as screaming red rocket hot as you can and then pour the oil in, probably about a 3 to 1 ratio of regular oil to toasted sesame oil. As soon as it starts to shimmer, add the garlic and ginger. Keep it moving, stirring or shaking the pan. You’ll get that hit of fragrance and then it’s time for the vegetables and scallions to go in. Keep moving and tossing with one hand, and then scatter the rice across the whole of the pan’s surface so that it gets as much rice-to-hot-pan exposure as possible. It should be pretty noisy and hissy; that means it’s frying and not getting all steamy. Once the rice grains starts to look glossy and separate, scoop them up the sides of your pan, leaving an empty well in the center. If you are not using a non stick pan and it looks pretty dry, add a little more sesame oil to the middle. swirling it slightly to get it hot and distributed. Pour the beaten egg into the well and immediately begin folding the rice into the egg, gently stirring and folding to distribute the egg throughout the rice as it cooks. Turn the heat off as soon as the egg thickens. If you want to, toss in some chopped up meat, whatever you like. Get a fork and taste for seasoning. I personally like a few tablespoons of salty soy sauce stirred in instead of salt. White or cayenne pepper for those who wish it.

Fried rice is pretty negotiable, like I said, so use what you have or prefer. If you want to it vegetarian, just bump up the proportion of vegetables. If you aren’t cooking for teenaged boys, use less rice. And if you can find some Chinese sausage, that’s very good too. I’m hoping this one bought me at least a couple more days of houseguest goodwill.

 

Ad hoc cooking

On the flight home Tuesday from The Most Relaxing Vacation Ever, I was looking through my photos and recipe files on my Mac and apparently, I used to be a cook! Unless you dig back several months on this blog, you would never know, since most of what I’ve been doing here has been staring straight ahead with a glazed expression on my face in disbelief and horror that I have actually been relocated from California to New Jersey. That or gibbering about the dismal quality of kitchen in which I’ve been cobbling meals together for (can you believe it) the last three months.

I sat there on the plane, scrolling through the pictures of strawberry rhubarb tarts and bi bim bap, grilled strip steaks, orange-and-garlicky pork roasts with caramelized onions, pad thai and artichokes with clarified butter, creamy leek shiitake risotto and duck and andouille gumbo and lemon meringue pie and potato mushroom gratin and chili con carne….man, that looks GOOD! I wouldn’t mind making that bouillabaisse again! It was like that little flame in the back of my brain flickered for a second, reminding me that it is still there. I guess that’s what a good vacation will do for you.

And about that vacation. We were about 3 years overdue for one, what with extenuating circumstances, so when a very last-minute trip to Grand Cayman to chill, see some family, and celebrate our anniversary suddenly worked itself out, I took about 37 seconds to pack, shook the NJ dust off my feet and headed south to balmy breezes, silky warm aquamarine water, powdery gold sand, palm trees with iguanas lolling in their fronds, and a little tropical storm action thrown in the middle to keep me from getting too sunburned. I read books, basked in the sun, lying supine upon a beach chair as much as possible. It was blissful.

Did I mention the incandescently glowing equatorial sunsets?

And the gaudily brilliant blue water?

But, back to that little flicker in the back of my brain.

I’m still in boxes here, those mysteriously labelled boxes of small paper-wrapped lumps that contain, somewhere in their depths, all of the tools I’ve collected over the years. I am reluctant to do a full-scale unpacking yet, since there really isn’t anywhere clean to put things away until the work in the kitchen is finished, so I’ve been digging through and trying to find the absolute necessities as much as I can. It was a tearful reunion when my two small cast iron skillets surfaced, but a sieve or strainer has remained resolutely beyond reach, so when I decided to blanch  broccoli raab to saute´ with a pork roast and sweet potatoes, red peppers, and pearl onions, I improvised with a little green strawberry basket to stand in for the strainer. It didn’t actually work that well. It was a little flimsy. We did, at the end of the day, have steamed broccoli raab, which was a deliciously peppery counterpoint to the sweet potatoes and bell peppers.

 

Simple and good, I give you-

Pork Roast

1 boneless pork loin roast

oil

salt

black pepper

sage

paprika

1 onion

 

Preheat the oven to a blistering 450 F.

Using paper towels, thoroughly dry the surface of the meat.

Drizzle a spoonful of oil and coat the surface lightly.

Liberally season with salt, pepper, sage and paprika.

Slice the onion into thick rings and make a “rack” in the bottom of a cast iron skillet

or whatever suitably oven-proof dish that will hold the pork roast. Put the pork roast on top, fat side up.

Place in the hot oven for about 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 250 F and continue

to cook for about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes or until your thermometer reads about 150.

Allow the meat to sit, loosely covered for  10-15 minutes. Slice and serve.

Make a sandwich with the leftover pork and onions the next day.

 

I’m back in the saddle.