Ragù Guancia

Apparently, Winter is never going to end, my lips are never going to stop chapping and peeling, my flourescent-white legs are never going to see warm sunlight,  and I am never going to have to think about wearing any garment that is more revealing than a down puffer coat that gives me the svelte figure of the Michelin Man. So I’m thinking why not just go all out Winter comfort food like slowly braised meat sauces enveloping homemade egg pasta and showered with a blizzard of parmesan cheese.

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My hands down favorite slow braised meat sauce is this pork cheek ragù. Made out of the flavorful little medallions of cheek in the middle of what southerners would call hog jowls (and when cured, what Italians call guanciale), pork cheeks are tough little morsel of flavor that slowly braise down into the richest, most lip smacking, pasta coating, clingy, delicious sauce. As when you make a good stock with the collagen filled parts of a chicken so that the stock is rich and silky without being fatty, pork cheeks break down with slow cooking to dissolve the tough protein and collagen into a sticky mahogany sauce.

Pork cheeks can be a little hard to track down in a regular supermarket meat case but they are definitely worth asking around for or ordering from a farmer or butcher. I can always find them at Eataly in Manhattan, and since they aren’t a super mainstream cut, they are pretty inexpensive. The sauce freezes really well so it’s not a bad idea to make a double batch when you have a chilly afternoon to spend indoors.

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Ragù Guancia

Olive oil

1 pound pork cheeks

I medium onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon harissa paste

½ cup red wine

1 -28 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes

1 large bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Unwrap the pork cheeks and completely dry them with a paper towel. I usually get pretty well-trimmed cheeks, but if you see lots of pieces of fat, trim the big chunks.

In a sauté pan or shallow soup pot, heat a splash of olive oil to a shimmer over medium heat. Carefully place the pork cheeks in a single layer in the oil. Salt and pepper, then flip them with tongs and salt and pepper again once the first side is golden brown. Once both sides of the pork are brown, take them out of the pan and set them aside.

Drain all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and lower the heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot to the oil and sauté over low-medium heat to soften them and remove any brown bits of fond from the bottom of the pan. Once the vegetables have softened, scrape them to the sides to make a space in the center of the pan. Add the tomato paste and harissa to the pan and let it sizzle for a minute or two, stirring gently to cook the pastes together. Stir the paste and vegetables together and add the wine. Bring it to a boil and stir to release any browned bits from the pan’s bottom. Cook until the smell of the wine mellows. Add the pork cheeks, can of tomatoes, bay leaf, and rosemary. Bring to a slow simmer.

Cover and lower the heat to very low, just enough to maintain a low simmer. Cook for at least and hour until you can easily break the pork cheeks up with a spoon. Once the meat is tender, remove the sauce from the heat. Remove the bay leaf and rosemary stem. With a pair of forks or a flat edged wooden spoon, crush the pork and tomatoes into coarse chunks. The sauce should be very thick and sticky.

Toss with pappardelle pasta or pour over parmesan-infused grits. With a vegetable peeler or coarse cheese grater, shave slivers of parmesan over the top.

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Starve a fever, feed a cold, and Hot and Sour Soup allergies?

I don’t know if it’s because of the unusually mild winter we’ve had this year, but we have been just sucker-punched by allergies this year. It’s just been non-stop sneezing, sniffling, congestion, and dark circles under puffy eyes for the last several weeks. My most irritating symptom has been that my right eyelids have been constantly twitching unless I take allergy meds, and Scott’s has been a nagging sore throat.

Chicken soup is a lot of people’s idea of the perfect anodyne for illness, but when we’re under the weather we both crave fortifyingly spicy Asian soups like Thai tom yum with lemongrass, Vietnamese pho with sriracha and chiles, or Chinese hot and sour soup with vinegar and white pepper. Hot and sour is especially good in the winter; maybe because it’s a bit thicker than the clear broths of tom yum and pho, it seems to stick to your ribs on a cold night. I have always had hot and sour as a first course soup in restaurants, but this home-made version is a meal in and of itself. I recommend eating it in your comfiest and least flattering pajamas.

This recipe might be a little intimidating at first because of the exotic ingredients, but it is really just pantry cooking. I get the dried mushrooms and lily buds at an Asian market and keep them all together in a container (they keep indefinitely) like an emergency hot and sour soup kit for next time I’m in need. Since you only need a few each time, a package of dried mushrooms will be enough to make a year’s worth of soup. Vinegar, soy sauce, and canned bamboo shoots are all things you’ll have in your pantry if you ever cook Chinese food.  And I buy a few thin-sliced lean pork chops, use one for the soup, and freeze the rest individually for next time. I always have eggs and chicken broth around so tofu is usually the only thing I need to buy fresh.

The dried shiitake mushrooms can often be found in regular supermarkets, so if you have trouble finding the wood ears and lily buds, just add a few more shiitake to the soup and skip the harder to find ingredients until you happen run across them. I love all of the elements of this soup, but the earthy meaty richness of the shiitake is an essential element to me.

Hot and Sour Soup

– 3 ounces lean pork, diced small, or ground pork

– Vegetable oil to fry pork, about 1 teaspoon

– 5 dried shiitake mushrooms

– 2 tablespoons dried wood ear mushrooms (also called black Chinese fungus)

– 8-10 dried lily buds (also called golden needles)

– Boiling water to rehydrate mushrooms and lily buds (about 2 cups)

–  1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots, drained and cut into strips

– 3 tablespoons rice vinegar

– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar

– 2 tablespoons soy sauce

– 4 ounces firm tofu, sliced into strips

– 2 tablespoons cornstarch

– 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

– 1 egg, beaten

– 1 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper (more or less, to taste)

– sliced scallions

Pour boiling water over the dried shiitake, wood ear mushrooms, and lily buds and allow them to rehydrate for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving about 1 cup of the water. Some shiitake mushrooms are a little gritty, so if you notice that sediment has settled to the bottom, strain it through a fine sieve or coffee filter.

Trim the tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms and then slice them into thin slivers. Cut the lily buds in half and pull them apart into long shreds. Set the mushrooms, lily buds, strips of bamboo shoots and tofu aside.

Measure and mix the vinegars and soy sauce into a small bowl or ramekin. Beat the egg in a small bowl too. Stir the cornstarch into the cooled reserved soaking water.

A note about the cornstarch: the thickness of the soup is a matter of personal preference. The thickness of the soup can adjusted but it’s a good idea to start small and work thicker a teaspoon at a time after the soup has simmered and thickened. I’ve given amounts for a lightly thickened soup. If you want to add more, mix a teaspoon of water at a time with a splash of cold water and stir it into the soup until it’s thick enough. If you have arrowroot, it is actually a better thickener for this application since it stands up to acid and heat better than cornstarch, but it’s less common, so I’ve called for cornstarch instead.


Once you have your mis-en-place in place (ha) fry the pork in about a teaspoon of oil in a wok or pot over medium high heat until it begins to brown. Lower the heat and add in the mushrooms, lily buds, tofu, bamboo shoots, and vinegar mixture. Stir in the chicken broth and bring everything to a simmer. Stir in the water and cornstarch mixture; as the soup returns to a simmer, the cornstarch will thicken it. Now is the time to decide if you want to thicken the soup a little more. If so, add the cornstarch slurry a teaspoon at a time, simmering between additions until it’s thick enough. Once you’re happy with the consistency, mix in the pungent white pepper.

With the soup at a low simmer, pour the egg in a thin stream into the soup while stirring everything in a circle. The egg will cook instantly, making white ribbons throughout the liquid (this is the same way you make an egg drop soup). Turn the heat off right away.

Ladle into big bowls and sprinkle thin slivers of scallions over the top.

“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.

Red Beans and Rice- Southern Food Challenge 4

Beans and rice, as I’ve mentioned before, have always been staples of my cooking rotation. Beans and rice of all kinds are my comfort foods. So when I started thinking about doing red beans and rice for this challenge, I had to think “now how do I write down a recipe for something I don’t even have to  think about cooking?” I remembered an episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown made red beans and rice with a twist I had never tried: it was seasoned with pickled pork instead of smoky andouille. I started looking around for recipes and began running across a lot of claims that pickled pork was actually a more traditional seasoning meat than smoked pork for red beans. I like pickles and I love pork, so I decided to shake my bean routine up a little and make my red beans and rice pickled instead of smoked.

 

 

Red Beans and Rice

serves about 8

 

1 pound of red beans, rinsed, soaked, and drained

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

8-10 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced

oil to saute’ the vegetables

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon of thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

hot sauce like Tabasco

12 ounces pickled pork*

2 quarts water

Salt and black pepper to taste

 

hot cooked rice (I used Rosematta, a chewy, smoky Indian red rice I got at Kalustyan’s in NYC)

 

 

Get all of your aromatics cut up and ready to go. Assemble the spices you will need and have your beans pre-soaked and drained.

In a large dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper and stir, cooking until they begin to soften, maybe 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic, thyme, and cayenne to the aromatic vegetables and stir until they begin to get fragrant.

Pour the beans into the pot and add the water, hot sauce, pickled pork, and bay leaves. Don’t add the salt until the beans are almost done; salt can keep beans from softening when they cook.

Simmer for at least an hour or until the beans have softened to your liking; salt to taste. I always think that the flavor of beans improves with a little time, so I recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the fridge overnight.

Serve in bowls with a scoop of hot rice and a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

 

 

Making red beans with pickled pork was more work up front than just buying good andouille, and I love the flavor of andouille so I can’t say I won’t ever go back to my old habits, but the pickled pork added a really interesting complexity and tang. It reminded me a little of Brunswick stew or bigos (a Polish stew made with game and sauerkraut). It is certainly worth a try.

 

 

*Pickled Pork

I did a combo recipe of Alton Brown’s Pickled Pork and a New Orleans Cuisine blog‘s version:

1 quart white vinegar

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup brown mustard seeds

3 bay leaves

4 dried serrano chiles

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander

1 tablespoon celery seed

10 cloves of garlic, peeled, whole

about a teaspoon hot sauce

2 tablespoons Kosher salt

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes

a cup of ice

Pour the vinegar and all of the rest of the ingredients except for the pork and ice into a pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes and then remove from the heat and cool; after it has cooled to room temperature, add the ice cubes.

Put the pork into a heavy 1 gallon ziplock back and put the whole bag in a bowl (this will keep any leakage contained!). Pour the cooled vinegar mixture and all of the spices over the pork, squeeze out as much air as you can and seal the bag. Put it in the refrigerator for three days. It will be ready to use after three days. I used about 1/3 of the pork in the red beans; the rest I removed from the brine, divided into containers and froze. It’s not pretty, but it sure is tasty!

 

Baby, it’s cold outside: Posole Roja

We had our first snow flurries of the season this morning. People keep telling me “Oh, this isn’t really cold yet” but when I walked down Washington Street, wrapped to the chin in a pashmina, long coat, boots and 3/4 length gloves, to New Hoboken Farm for some radishes and apples, it only took a couple of blocks for my face and ears to stop hurting and just go numb. I’m already deep into my wooliest winter wardrobe and am going to need a lot more layers if it gets any colder. And I’m not really sure what to do about my  lips. They won’t stop peeling. And my nose looks like Rudolph’s most of the time. If this isn’t cold, then I clearly have not developed the Life Skill set nor the wardrobe necessary to cope with actual cold weather.

One polar climate Life Skill I do have, however, is making soup. I put a couple of desultory afternoon’s worth of effort into what may be the ideal “cold, but not as cold as it’s gonna get” soup: Posole Roja. This Mexican winter soup is in the spirit of chili con carne, but without the weight. Hominy soaks up the rich spicy berry flavor of dried ancho chilis and savory garlicky pork stock like tiny dumplings; fresh cabbage, scallions, and radishes add a fresh crunch; and squeezing lime wedges into the steaming bowl of spicy broth is like taking an IV drip of sunshine straight to the veins.

Posole Roja

3 pounds of pork neck with bones

1 pound pork hock or shank, cut into thick slices

6 whole cloves garlic

about 1 tablespoon onion powder ( I have some  I got at Penzey’s and it has a nice sweet concentrated flavor)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

generous pinch Mexican oregano

6 dried ancho chiles

3 dried serrano chiles

1 large onion, chopped

water

salt

2 cans white hominy

Napa cabbage, cabbage, or lettuce, shredded

radishes, sliced thin

sliced scallions

lime wedges

This posole is made in two basic steps. The  first step is to make a pork stock and cook the pork. Rinse all the meat and put it into a large stock pot; add the garlic cloves, cumin, onion granules, and Mexican oregano. Cover with at least 2 quarts of water and bring up to a low boil. Lower to a simmer. There will be some gray foam that starts floating to the surface. Scoop that off as it shows up; it will gradually disappear. Alternately, if you won’t be able to keep a close eye on the stock making process, you can blanch the pork in boiling water for about ten minutes, then pour out the water, rinse the scum out of the pot and start over with the seasonings and water. I’m usually puttering around close by when I make stock, so I don’t bother with that step.  Simmer, maybe partially covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours, until the meat is so tender that the mere impact of your glance causes it to fall off the bone (or at least until fork-tender). Strain the meat and bones out of the stock and let everything cool down – I put the stock out on the fire escape for a couple of hours which was great because it was colder out there than inside the fridge and didn’t heat everything else up. I let everything chill separately overnight to make it easy to de-fat the stock and remove the meat from the bones.

OK, step two: bringing all the elements together. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over the dried chilis (take the stems off, leave the seeds) and soak them for a couple of hours, making sure they stay submerged, until they are rehydrated. Meanwhile, put the defatted stock back onto the heat. Taste to see if it needs to be reduced for a richer flavor and check the salt. Drain and rinse the hominy and pour it into the warm stock, along with the chopped onion. Put the softened chilis and soaking water into a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth red paste. Pass the chili paste through a sieve into the pot of stock; use a spatula or the back of a spoon to press as much of the paste through as you can. This step will keep the tough skins and seeds out of the soup. Add the shredded pork back into the soup and simmer everything together to get all of the flavors acquainted.

Once the flavors have become thoroughly acquainted and shown each other pictures of their children and become friends on Facebook, ladle it into bowls and bring it to the table. In the same spirit that a big bowl of fragrant ph is customized to the eater’s specifications, mix in the cabbage, radishes onions and lime in whatever amounts you desire.

I think this is the sort of thing that is great to make a big batch of and put half into a freezer bag for a wretchedly cold day when there isn’t time to go through the long (but not necessarily involved) process from scratch. Its flavor certainly improves after a night of mingling in the fridge.

I’m also pretty confident that this could be made over a couple days using a big crock pot. I don’t have a crock pot at the moment, but previous experience makes me think that if you make the stock  and soak the chilis to make the paste the first day, you could put everything back into the pot the next morning and come home to a pretty fabulous smelling house at the end of the day. Any of you slow cookers out there, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Another note- I got the pork at my local grocery store, but if pork neck and hocks are hard to find, using cubed pork shoulder or butt should be fine. I think that stocks made with bones and cuts like the hock that are rich with natural gelatin are substantially superior, but if it’s the difference between your making this soup or not, I’m not going to quibble. It will still be plenty good.


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.