Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Veal stew with vinegar and green beans

This dish is a takeoff on Marcella Hazan's lamb stew with vinegar and green beans. I made the substitution after buying humanely raised stewing veal from a nice man at the Roslindale farmer's market, and damned if it wasn't some of the best, most flavorful meat I've ever had. When I sauteed the onion, I threw in some lovely green garlic from the farm as well. Nutty brown rice was the perfect foil for the tangy, juicy meat.

1 pound fresh green beans
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 pounds stewing veal or lamb, cut into cubes
1 medium onion
salt and black pepper
1/2 cup good red wine vinegar

1. Snap the ends off the green beans, wash them in cold water and set aside. Chop the onion.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot on medium high and slip in as many pieces of meat as will fit loosely without crowding. Brown the meat deeply on all sides, then transfer to a plate and repeat.

3. When all the meat is browned and set aside, put the onion in the pot and cook, stirring, until it turns pale gold. Return the meat to the pot and add salt, pepper and the vinegar. Bring the vinegar to a brisk simmer for 30 seconds, turning the meat and scraping loose brown bits from the pan with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat down to cook at a slow simmer, add the green beans with a little more salt and pepper, and cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar.

4. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours until the meat is very tender, then serve. The juices in the pot should be sufficient, but if you find they are drying up, replenish with 2-3 T. water. At the end, the only liquid remaining in the pot should be the oil and natural cooking juices.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A better burger

When it comes to burgers, my mentor is Kenji Lopez-Alt, burger guru for Cook's Illustrated and the burger blog A Hamburger Today. In his quest to perfect burger science, Kenji estimates he's made 1,100 burgers over the last 2 1/2 years, averaging 1.2 burgers per day. His wife actually forced him to move apartments because the smell of burgers permeated the walls. Read Kenji's 10 tips on making a better burger here, the most important of which I've distilled into three:

1. Grind your own beef. Buying supermarket ground beef is a crapshoot. You don't know when it was ground, what part of the cow it came from, or how many different cows are in the package. What's more, it's typically overprocessed, leading to a dry, rubbery burger. You can ask your butcher to grind you meat, or you can do it easily enough with a food processor. When grinding your own meat, you take control of the flavor and fat content. In Cook's Illustrated, Kenji recommends a blend of sirloin tips and short rib for the ideal balance of fat and beefiness; he has also devised what he calls the Blue Label Blend of sirloin, brisket and oxtail.

2. Handle the burgers as little as possible. This runs counter to many people's practices, but working the meat causes proteins to cross-link like tiny strips of velcro, making the finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.* Kenji has found that the best and juiciest burgers result from grinding the meat directly onto a cold baking sheet, then gently coaxing it into loose patties without ever picking it up until just before cooking.

3. Salt meat only after patties are formed. Salt dissolves muscle proteins, turning the burgers from moist and tender to springy and sausage-like. The effect is dramatic, as you can see here. Of course, after you have formed your patties, salt and pepper them liberally just before cooking.

*You may be wondering at this point how you are going to add your favorite spice blend without working the meat. I used to believe that a good burger incorporated fresh herbs, garlic, etc. But once you begin grinding your own meat, you'll find that the beefy flavor shines on its own with embellishment. Kenji says: "Adding junk like onions, herbs, breadcrumbs, anything to your ground meat not only forces you to over-handle the mix, but it instantly relegates your burgers into the "meatloaf sandwich" category. If you absolutely must add junk to your burgers, mix it with the cubes of beef (but don't add the salt yet!) prior to grinding."

Without further ado, monkey's backyard burgers, guided by Kenji Lopez-Alt:

1. Put your food processor in the freezer. Cut 10 ounces of sirloin tips and 6 ounces of boneless short ribs (do not trim the fat) into 1-inch cubes, place on a baking sheet and freeze 15-25 minutes. During this time you can assemble fixings and get the fire lit.

2. Coarsely grind the meat in two batches, using about 15 pulses and redistributing the meat around the bowl as necessary to ensure it is evenly ground. Overturn the meat onto the cold baking sheet without touching it. Inspect the meat carefully, discarding any long strands of gristle or large chunks of hard meat or fat.

3. Gently separate the ground meat into three equal mounds. Without picking it up, shape each mound into a loose patty, leaving edges and surface ragged. Season the top of each patty generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. Flip patties with a spatula and season the other side.

4. Grill the burgers over direct heat about 4 minutes a side for medium rare. Brush sliced onions with olive oil and salt and grill those if you like (these will take longer than the meat). Add cheese to the burgers in the last minute of cooking, place onto buns and garnish as you like. I like greens, tomatoes when in season, grilled onions and Wicked Natural ketchup.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spaghetti carbonara

Spaghetti carbonara was my favorite food when I was little, and it's easy to see why. Cheesy pasta flecked with bacon is like ambrosia to little-kid palates, and probably yours as well. I highly recommend this dish for parents. Both you and your kids will love it, and it takes 20 minutes from start to finish. As you may know, the sauce comes from eggs, not cream.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking:

1. Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, cut 8 ounces of guanciale, pancetta or slab bacon into 1/4-inch slices. Smash and peel four garlic cloves. Grate 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano and 1/4 cup romano plus extra for serving. Finely dice 2 T. Italian flat-leaf parsley.

2. When the water is boiling, add a pound of spaghetti and cook al dente (about 9 minutes). While the pasta cooks, heat 3 T. olive oil over medium high and saute the garlic cloves until they are deep gold, then remove the cloves from the pan. Add the chopped meat and saute until its edges begin to crisp. Add 1/2 cup white wine to the pan, cook 1-2 more minutes and turn off the heat.

3. Crack two eggs into the large bowl you will use to serve the pasta. Beat lightly, then add the parsley, the two cheeses, salt and pepper and mix well. When the spaghetti is done, drain, add the the pasta to the bowl, and toss well. You may want to reserve a small amount of the cooking water to add in case the mixture is a bit dry. Now add the contents of the bacon pan to the bowl and toss once more. Serve with extra grated cheese and black pepper.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou)

This dish, which literally means "back-in-the-pot meat," is what Fuchsia Dunlop calls the most famous and profoundly loved of all the dishes of Sichuan. This combination of intensely flavored pork and fresh green vegetables is a source of great nostalgia for Sichuanese people living abroad, she says, and it often seems to be tied up with elderly people's childhood memories. It also happens to be a favorite of my friend Jesse, who is living in China for a year. So it's fitting that I used Jesse's present of fermented chilli bean paste for the first time to make hui guo rou.

Twice-cooked pork is so named because the pork is first boiled, then fried in a wok with seasonings. Sichuanese cooks use a cut of pork thigh that is split between fat and lean, with a layer of skin over the top. Dunlop suggests pork belly as a substitute, but I managed to find a cut of well-marbled skin-on pork at the best Chinese grocery in town, Ming's Supermarket in the South End. I have no idea whether it was thigh meat, as the label simply said "pork meat with skin," but it worked great. The amount of fat is gross while you're preparing it, but like with bacon, most of it oozes out during the wok-frying. Dunlop also substitutes leeks for the traditional green garlic, assuming it's hard to find, but green garlic is in season now and in abundance at the farmer's markets — get it while you can.

Jesse, I'll make this for you.

3/4 pound fresh, boneless pork belly with skin attached
6 stalks of green garlic
2 T. peanut oil
1 1/2 T. chilli bean paste
1 1/2 tsp. Sichuanese sweet bean paste
2 tsp. fermented black beans
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. white sugar

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pork, return to a boil, and simmer gently until just cooked, 20-25 minutes. Remove the meat and refrigerate for a couple hours or overnight to firm up the flesh. This makes it possible to slice it thinly without the fat and lean parts separating.

2. When the meat is cold, slice it thinly. Chop the green garlic diagonally at a steep angle into thin, 1 1/2 inch long pieces.

3. Heat the wok, then add the oil and pork pieces, stir-frying until the fat has melted out and they are toasty and slightly curved. Push the pork to one side of the wok and tip the chilli bean paste into the space you have created. Stir-fry for 30 seconds until the oil is richly red, then add the sweet bean paste and black beans and stir-fry another few seconds. Add the soy sauce and sugar, tossing well.

4. Add the green garlic and toss until it is just cooked. Turn onto a serving dish and eat immediately with lots of white rice.