Monday, November 23, 2009

Stuffed Swiss chard

There is a traditional Russian dish of white cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice. As I looked at the colorful bunches of Swiss chard at the Farmers Market, I realized that the same technique would work with them, so I got a bunch.

Stuffed Swiss chard
Makes 8

8 large Swiss chard leaves (make sure that they are whole and not torn), stems trimmed
1.5 lb ground beef
1 cup cooked rice
2 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
salt, pepper
2 Tbsp oil (additional)
2 cups beef stock

Boil water in a large stockpot. Add the chard, cook about 2 minutes to soften. Refresh in ice water, drain carefully; set to a side.

Make the stuffing:
Heat the oil in a medium pan, add onions, cook, stirring, until soft and transparent. Add garlic, cook for 2 more minutes to soften. Let cool. Mix the ground beef, rice, onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. You can cook and taste a small piece to check the seasoning (I did).

Stuff and cook the leaves:
Place a leaf on a flat surface, with the more colorful upper side facing down. Put a small handful of stuffing on the leaf, closer to the stem side. Roll up the leaf, tucking in the sides, to make a closed envelope. Repeat with remaining leaves and stuffing.

In a large straight-sided sautee pan heat 2 Tbsp of oil over medium heat. Place the chard envelopes in the pan with the seam side facing down, and sear to seal. Turn over and sear the other side. Turn again (carefully, they are fragile!). Reduce heat to low, pour the stock over them, cover and simmer for about an hour, untill the stuffing is fully cooked. Transfer the stuffed leaves to plates, spoon the cooking liquid over them.

Here they are served with cauliflower and fried bacon chunks, of course. The Charcuterie book is becoming my new addiction, and the easiest and the most basic recipe for home-cured bacon is a winner. I now add wonderful, dense and meaty homemade bacon to everything.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lamb shanks: the ultimate comfort food

Braised lamb shanks are wonderful. To my taste, they are the best part of the animal. Both cooking and eating them is very soothing on a cold dark night. They get better the next day, so you can cook them tonight, reheat and eat them tomorrow, and you get two nights of comfort out of one dish.

The hardworking leg muscles develop a deep flavor. When cooked slowly with liquids and aromatic vegetables, the gelatinous connective tissues in the shanks melt and add to the body of the sauce. The shape is natural and beautiful. And one shank per person is a perfect serving size.

I like the Australian lamb shanks the best: they are in season just when we get the shortest days and the weather that requires braised meat for dinner. They did cross the ocean, and probably spent some time sitting in a warehouse and then in the store, but they got to my kitchen just in time anyway. I mean, I love California lamb too, but it's best when I think about grilling, not braising.

One can create endless combinations of vegetables, herbs, and spices for the lamb braise. I usually do a simple classic variation with onion, garlic (a lot!), rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, juniper berries and black pepper. Sometimes I would add oregano, parsley (leaves with the stalks and/or root), celery stalks or root, mushrooms, or canned whole tomatoes. This time I added selery, them, as an afterthought, I threw in a handfull of supermarket "baby" carrots. These packaged carrots are actually small carrot shapes machine-cut out of regular large carrots, and they don't add much flavor to the braise, but they are a nice color accent.

The liquids are cognac or brandy, red wine, and chicken stock (this time it was duck stock since I had so much of it). If you have lamb stock, it's even better (you roast a leg of lamb on the bone - don't through away the bone, it's your stock!).

Braised lamb shanks
Serve 2
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 lamb shanks, rinsed and dried with paper towels
kosher salt
1 large onion, peeled, cut in sections
1 head of garlic, split into cloves, unpeeled
2 celery stalks, cut into large pieces
10 baby carrots, or 1 large carrot cut into chunks
1 sprig rosemary
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
8 juniper berries
10-12 black peppercorns
1/4 cup cognac
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups chicken stock, or as needed

Select a deep, heavy pan with lid that would accomodate the shanks and have some room for vegetables left. Add olive oil to pan. Heat over medium high heat. Rub the lamb shanks with salt. Brown the shanks on all sides, turning with tongs or two forks, until evenly brown on all sides. Remove to a plate. Add half of the chopped vegetables to the bottom of the pan, return the shanks to pan on top of the vegetables, spread the remaining vegetables on top and around the meat. Add rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, juniper berries and peppercorns. Pour cognac and wine over the meat. Add enough stock to cover the meat by 2/3.

Reduce the heat to a lightest simmer, so that the surface of the liquid barely moves.
Cover the pot. Cook slowly for about 3 hours, or until the meat almost falls off the bones, turning carefully once or twice.

Remove the shanks, taking care not to disturb their shape (the meat is tender, and would separate from the bone and fall to pieces easily). Strain the braising liquid into a bowl, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours (or overnight). When the liquid is cool, the fat will float to the top and solidify. This makes it much easier for us, modern health freaks, to remove and discard it. A XIX'th century cookbook would recommend to give the fat to the children and the infirm.

The brasing vegetables have given all their life to the liquid, there is not much flavor left in them, so I usually discard all but a few good-looking pieces that I keep for decoration. I also take out all the garlic cloves and squeeze the soft flesh from them over the meat - it's still flavorful.

After removing the fat, reheat the liquid. It should be rich enough to serve as a sauce, but you can reduce it even more, if desired. Adjust the seasoning. Return the shanks to the sauce and reheat.

Serve with a lot of warm good bread to pick up the sauce, or over mushed potatoes or bean puree. Knives are not required, but a shellfish pick or a small fork comes in handy for picking out the marrow from the bones.

Australian Shiraz advisable.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting in shape for the holidays: duck two ways

I've been trying, not very successfully, to switch myself from "when summer?" mood into the holiday mood. When the days become short and cold, it doesn't make sense to weep over the sunshine gone before I get home and the last fig on the tree, it's time to enjoy long evenings by the fireplace and seriously high-fat slow cooking.

I’ve been craving a duck breast for a while. I checked local stores – special order; checked online – you can get a very fancy frozen duck breast (a choice of varieties) for about $15, but you’ll pay $30 for shipping. I want it, but not that badly. Then I figured that the easiest way to satisfy the craving would be to buy a frozen duck in Safeway, cut off the breast, and use the rest for soup and cooking fat. This may be not the best duck breast out there; in fact, it turned out very small; but it was available.

While the duck was thawing in the fridge, a book arrived in the mail, Charcuterie, by Ruhlman and Polcyn. An exciting book for the season, a soulful, engaging and precise description of cold meats, pates, sausages and confits. The only drawback is that it doesn’t have color photographs, but the charming hand-drawn illustrations by a Russian artist almost make up for this.

The duck, sage and roast garlic sausage from the book was just what I needed. I bought additional 8 duck legs in a Chinese grocery to supplement the two I already had, and set out to bone them. The book mentions that it’s labor-intensive, it doesn’t say exactly how much. I learned a lot about duck anatomy while removing all skin, bone and sinews from ten duck legs, which mostly consist of skin, bone, and sinews. The first one took me about 25 minutes. The last, three minutes. It’s much easier to bone the legs while they are partially frozen – the meat is stiff and the skin is not as slippery; you can separate them with your fingers, with very little help of a sharp boning knife. I got lots of bones for a stock, and fat and skin to render. I'll be making a confit next time!

As a result I had about 1 kilogram of duck meat, instead of 1.5 kilo that the recipe called for. I guess my legs were skinny.
I followed the recipe almost without making changes – not my usual style. The only two things that I changed were that I had to use pork belly since I couldn’t find fat back, so the sausage got some pork meat in it, and should probably be called duck and bacon sausage; I also used regular roasted garlic instead of steamed garlic recommended by the recipe – I already had roasted two heads of garlic before I got the book, and I love roasted garlic flavor anyway.

Keeping everything cold, I seasoned, ground, and stuffed the sausage in hog casing. I only got 1.7 kg of sausage instead of 2.2 kg in th recipe (skinny legs, and my old temperamental Porkert hand-grinder messed up some meat, as it usually does, before I managed to adjust it for a nice clean grind), so it was a good thing that I went light on the seasoning and fried and tasted a piece of meat before seasoning more. It still gave me 20 sausages (plus one 3-inch half-sausage at the end), because mine are a little short: not 6, but rather 4.5 – 5 inches.

The Saturday dinner was mixed duck: one duck sausage and one small half-breast per serving, with cauliflower, bok choy, and mushroom sauce.

I scored the skin on the duck breasts half way through, seasoned it with salt and white pepper, and cooked it over medium-low heat skin side down until the fat melted out and the skin crisped. Then turned them over and finished cooking over medium heat, until medium-done, or almost firm to the touch. The sausages were cooking in the same pan, it took them a few minutes longer to acheve an internal temperature of 150 degrees.

I then sauteed the mushrooms in the same pan, deglazed it with some white wine and duck stock, added sallots, reduced the sauce, and laddled it over the duck breasts.

Wine: Boeger Milagro 2006

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cabbage piroshki

These little Russian pastries are made with yeast dough and filled with almost anything, sweet or savory. My favorites are cabbage, cooked shredded beef, mushrooms with rice, apples, farmer's cheese. The sweet ones are served at tea time, and the savory piroshki go with a soup. You eat one as you would eat bread, or break it in halves and spoon a little soup in it. Then eat it anyway.

My grandma used to make them every weekend. She would get up at 4am, start the dough and make the filling. By the time I (4-6 years old I was when I lived at grandma's) was up, everything was ready, and I would have way too much fun "helping" in the kitchen, play with the dough, decorate the tops of piroshki with funny dough shapes, create braided, knotted and twisted buns out of the leftover dough, and may be even assemble a couple of wierd-shaped piroshki myself.

I make them average once a year, and every time I wonder why I don't do it more often. They are a lot of fun to make, and they require simplest ingredients. Perfect picnic food, by the way. Well, I don't have a large family to feed, and you cannot make just two. They keep for about a week in a plastic bag (or, grandma's way, in a covered enamelled pot), but I always make more than we can eat anyway.

I apologise for the picture quality, I was making pirishki and taking pictures with my well-floured left hand at the same time.

Cabbage Piroshki
makes 16

For the dough:
2 cups bread flour + more for dusting
1 tsp dry yeast
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 whole egg + 1 egg yolk (save the white for the egg wash)
1 cup warm water

For the filling:
1 small white cabbage, stem removed, finely chopped
3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

Egg wash:
1 egg white
1 Tbsp cold water

Make the dough:
In a large bowl mix the flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Make a well in the center, break in the eggs. Mix with a fork, incorporating flour from the sides. Add water in small portions, keep mixing, add more water or flour to make soft pliable dough. With floured hands, start kneading, folding the dough over itself. Knead for about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and doesn't stick to your hands. Form the dough into a ball on the bottom of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, put in a warm draught-free place to rise. When the dough doubles in size (in about an hour or two, depending on your conditions), fold it a few more times, knocking the air out of it, and let rise and double in size again.

Make the filling:
Pour 1 inch of water into a deep sautee pan. Add chopped cabbage. Bring to a boil over medium heat, season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat to low, simmer, stirring ocasionally, until the cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, let cool, fold in chopped eggs, adjust the seasoning.

Assemble and bake the piroshki:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a baking sheet and dust lightly with flour.
Flour your hands.
Place the dough on a floured surface, cut in half. Cover one half with plastic wrap, work with the other. Roll out the dough onto a log shape. Cut into 8 pieces. Touch each piece's cut surfaces to the floured surface to prevent sticking. Roll out a piece of dough to a circle with a rolling pin, then stretch it a little more with your hands. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of filling in the center. Fold and pinch the sides together.
Place the piroshok seam-side down on the baking sheet. Space the piroshki evenly, allow some room (1/2 inch or so) to expand. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling. Let the piroshki rest in a warm kitchen for 15-20 minutes.
Make the egg wash by whisking together egg white and water. Brush the tops of the piroshki, and in the oven they go. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the tops are golden.
Serve warm or at room temperature.

If you made too many, as I did, keep them in a closed plastic bag, and if they start to dry out anyway, wrap them in a paper towel, spray with a little water, and microwave for about 20 seconds.

And the market update:
It's definitely a fall market, going into winter now. Smallish. Rainy. The figs are out. Chanterelle mushrooms still smell good, but they are seriously overgrown. And it's the last of the heirloom tomatoes. Give me the summer back!

Monday, November 2, 2009

More fall market finds: pioppini mushrooms, brussels sprouts

Our poor San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge couldn't withstand the strain of traffic and weather, broke, and closed. This messed up the traffic everywhere in the Bay Area. My dear Golden Gate Bridge took some of the load. It took me almost three hours to get from work in Novato to my friend K's housewarming party in Belmont on Friday night. I had good music, beautiful views, and a Valencia orange tree in the passenger seat for a companion (the housewarming gift), so I cannot complain. Imagine, the rustling of the orange tree leaves next to you while you look at the sunset colors on Sausalito and Richardson Bay and listen to Peruvian bamboo flute, while driving up a steep grade in a car with the manual transmission at 2-3 mph in a heavy traffic of fancy European cars with desperate drivers inside, trying not to burn your clutch until you get to the tunnel (it's downhill from there). Postcard perfect, right?

But I wasn't going to drive back to Marin until they repaired the bridge and the traffic was back to normal. So we spent the weekend in R's place in San Carlos, and instead of Sunday Marin market it was San Mateo Saturday market this time.

San Mateo farmers market is on Saturday mornings in the faculty parking lot of the College of San Mateo campus. There is a 360 degrees view from the college, the campus is surrounded by Italian pines that smell wonderful in the sunshine, and the walks between the buildings are lined with olive trees.

I managed to walk past all these trees without picking a single olive (there are seven pounds waiting at home, remember?), and I'm very proud of myself.

The crowd in the market is completely different from Marin, and there are vendors that don't come to Marin, and they bring unique stuff. Like brussels sprouts on the stalk - I had seen them before, but R. hadn't, and he didn't recognize his favorite vegetable! I had to get a stalk as a fun Halloween bouquet, and it made a good lunch too. Sateed and paired with amazing Spanish sausages that taste meatier than meat, they require nothing else.

The mushroom people had all the regular organic farmed 'shrooms, plus porcini, plus pioppine mushrooms that I haven't tried before. Pioppinis grow in clusters, have off-white rubbery stalks and velvety brown caps. The mushroom people suggested slow cooking, like in a risotto. OK, risotto it is. With slow cooking, the mushrooms get soft and aromatic, with a wonderful sweet nutty flavor.

Usually I would use my homemade chicken stock for a risotto. We didn't have any in R.'s place, I used plain water, and it was fine.
Traditional pasmesan cheese for serving the risotto can overpower the delicate mushroom flavor, so I substituted romano cheese.

Served with chicken breasts sauteed with garlic, rosemary and lemon; white wine reduction.

Pioppini Mushroom Risotto
serves 2, with leftovers

3 Tbsp good olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 double handfool pioppini mushrooms, roots trimmed
salt, pepper
1 cup carnaroli (or arborio) rice
1 cup white wine
2 cups of chicken stock or water
2 Tbsp grated romano cheese

Heat the oil in a deep saute pan or a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic. Saute for 4-5 minutes or until transparent and smell wonderful.

Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the mushrooms release their juice, then cook some more to evaporate all the liquid. Add the rice. Stir for 2 minutes, try to get all the rice grains covered with oil. Add the white wine. Stir gently and constantly until all the wine is absorbed into the rice. Start adding the stock or water 1/2 cup at a time. Let the rice absorb the liquid, then taste for donness, if not yet done, add more liquid. Keep stirring every 1-2 minutes, making sure the rice doesn't stick to the pan.

When the rice is cooked, turn off the heat, fold in the grated cheese, let sit for a couple of minutes; serve.