Friday, January 29, 2010

Charcuterie in the middle of a storm

It's an El Nino year, the weather pattern that repeats every seven years and brings a lot of water to our otherwise dry coastal desert. The last storm went on for two weeks, with the water pouring down from the sky continuously, the roofs leaking, ponds and creeks overflowing, highways flooded, visibility zero or less, and driving a nightmare. Stay home and cook. I used the time to do more charcuterie.
This time I used lots of herbs and spices on both my duck legs confit and the bacon, with mixed results. The bacon cured for 6 days with sea salt, sugar, a dash of pink salt (sodium nitrite), torn bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, garlic, and black pepper, then slowly oven-roasted at 200 degrees (no smoking), developed a deep and interesting flavor. On the other hand, the same spices (minus sugar) made almost no difference for the duck legs.
After I cured the legs with salts and spices for about 24 hours, rinsed, dried, let rest for an hour at room temperature, then slowly cooked them in mixed duck and goose fat in a Dutch oven for a couple of hours, and then seared them over high heat in a skillet, the confit didn't taste much different from the previous batch made with just salt and pepper. The duck flavor and the salts overpower all the spices.

For smoked beef sausages I used 2/3 beef chuck and 1/3 pork belly, ground through a small die and seasoned with salt, pink salt, sugar, pepper, rosemary, juniper berries, and red wine. Stuffed in hog casing and tied into handsome rings, dried at room temperature for a couple of hours, then smoked in my water-smoker for two hours over apple wood chips. The sausages came out pretty dry, fully cooked, and tasting very meaty and savory.

They are good sliced thinly as a part of our late-night cheese and fruit board. I have also cut them into thick chunks and fried them with bacon and potatoes, and chopped them for a pasta with cauliflower and cavolo nero (drop them in hot water for a few seconds to loosen the casing, then peel it off).

The salted duck breasts hang dry-curing, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with kitchen string, in my outside laundry closet right now. The temperature in the 50-ies and the high humidity are perfect. I'll try them in one or two days.

Another storm is coming.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Artificial sunset (on the table)

My beautiful sunny California has been blanketed by fog for two weeks. We are not used to not getting any sunshine for so long, everyone was feeling low on energy. And confined: there is no reason to go anywhere on a weekend if all you will see is the same grey.

The last weekend's weather called for staying at home and cooking, and for some bright colors on the table. To make up for not seeing the sunset, I made a sunset colored salad with small purple, red, golden and white beets, roasted (unpeeled, untrimmed) at 375 degrees, in a dish with some water on the bottom, covered with foil, for about 40 minutes. When roasted this way, the beets leak very little juice, so the colors stay true. I still try to keep the purple beets in one corner of the dish, separated by some space from the rest. They do give off a little juice, and you don't need much of this juice to stain everything else. I also cut off the top of a head of garlic, wrapped it in foil, and roasted it alongside the beets. When the beets are cool, peel, quarter, mix with baby arugula, add roasted garlic, squeezed out of it's skin, dress with olive oil and red wine vinegar, sprinkle sel gris or sea salt on top.
For a chunky three-cabbage soup I sauteed celery, parsnip, onion and garlic, added one of my "bouillon cubes" (chicken stock that I freeze in square plastic containers), waited for it to melt, and brought to a boil. Then I added chopped Savoy cabbage, cavolo nero, and halved brussels sprouts, crumbled some dry herbs, and simmered until the cabbages were almost done. Added torn prosciutto slices, little dry pasta rings, adjusted the salt, waited for the pasta to cook (11 minutes), served the soup with a spoonful of Creme Fraiche.

For the main course, Ono steaks, pan-fried in half olive oil and half butter. The fish doesn't just turn a beautiful sunny golden color, but it's very Hawaiian flavor (and name) bring back the memories of warm sunny days.
Steamed Blue Lake beans (I know, I know, I overcooked the beans. Never again, I promise.) Sauteed chanterelle mushrooms.
I thinned Maui onions that are growing from seeds in a patio box and seem to like the fog very much, so the green onions on top are yet another Hawaiian reference.

The walnut bread is Jamie Oliver's basic bread recipe (halved; it still gave me more bread then we can eat - two medium loaves. Fortunately, it keeps well). I have mixed in two handfulls of walnut halves and pieces (and, as became clear at dinner, a couple of shell pieces too).

Baked at 500 degrees for about 15 minutes ( I sprayed some water in the oven before putting the bread in, to help with the crust), then at 375 degrees until baked through and the tap on the bottom gives a hollow sound.

This weekend it's raining, and we are told that a major Pacific winter storm is coming our way. We are all ready for a serious carwash. Stay home and cook again. Well, we made a brief trip to Napa, just for a glass of Champagne at Gloria Ferrer, and even saw something that we thought may have been a little sunshine between the clouds, for a moment. Then stay home and cook again.
I am making duck legs confit, smoking beef sausages, baking more walnut bread, curing bacon, and we are also planning a beef fondue + hot spiced wine, by the fireplace. We will survive the winter. The spring is near.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My 2009 in food

Every blog has to have lists. I'm catching up here.
This is the list of top ten things that happened to me food-wise in 2009.

1. Farmers Market. I have been a fan for a long time. This year I really got into a habit of going to the Farmers Market twice a week, if only to get out of the corporate environment (the office lunch break coincides with the last hour of the market, when all prices go down). As a result, about 95% of the fresh produce that I buy comes form the market. Even R., who would eat anything, recognizes the superior flavor of fruits and vegetables that were just picked this morning.

I still go to the grocery store for rice and toilette paper.

2. Gadget: charcoal smoker. I've been smoking fish, beef, pork ribs, and bacon. Sausages are next.

3. Curing meats. I have overcame my distrust of sodium nitrite and nitrate (I grew up with the nitrate scare; we used to peel 1/2 inch off our potatoes. Other scares included the Bermuda Triangle and the UFOs). Curing meats for flavor, storage, and smoking.

4. Food styling classes (Food Styling 101 and Everyday Food Styling) were completely enjoyable, and they changed my attitude. I want to be a food stylist when I grow up.

5. Food writing class didn't exactly make me a writer, but it removed some of the block; it also taught me that no recipe is much better than a bad recipe. And it was a lot of fun with good friends.

6. I got a new, serious camera for food photography, and am learning to set up the light. I also got an external flash as a birthday gift and I will be learning to use it in 2010.

7. The Maui and Molokai trip in August was rich in seafood experiences, restaurants, grilling on the beach, and all. I still owe my blog a detailed post.

I also tasted a coffee berry for the first time, and found it inexpectedly sweet and juicy. And I learned to love macadamia nuts: the texture I detested before comes from roasting them in peanut oil, for preservation. When dry-roasted, they are absolutely delicious.

8. New food and ingredients for 2009:
- persimmons (I ignored them for years thinking that they are too tannic; then a neighbor introduced me to Fuyu persimmons. I am beginning to mourn the passing of the persimmon season as much as I did figs)
- cavolo nero
- rapini
- pea shoots
- macadamia nuts
- More-Than-Gourmet demi-glace
- piopini and matsutake mushrooms
- almond meal

9. Learned to make:
- polenta
- duck confit
- bbq ribs
- steam vegetables in a microwave (Thanks, R.!)
- bacon

The second season of home-cured olives resulted in a huge over-production; I am still dealing with it.

10. Gadget: wine aerator. We first saw it used by a wine associate in Buena Vista vinery tasting room in Sonoma, where we went on one of the rainy days during the Christmas holidays. So I count it as 2009. I actually got mine in the first minutes of 2010, when I was allowed to open the gift box that my dear friends put under the tree with my name on it.

Instead of decaunting the wine for an hour, you just pour it through the chrystal filter that fluffs it up and mixes it with the air. This softens the tannis immediately.

And this foodie's New Year resolution?
Smoked sausages.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Food for skiers. Goulash soup.

Lake Tahoe is my love forever. In summer, the unbelievably blue color of the water, the clearest one can swim in, and the magical smell of tall pine trees in the sun are enough to make me happy. In winter… I am a skier, do I have to explain? I’ve been coming to some of my favorite Tahoe ski resorts for years, some seasons every weekend plus a few week days, when the snow report makes it impossible to go to the office.

Every mountain has its character, defined both by the terrain and people who work there. There is a place that has a famous ski school and offers lessons on advanced techniques and guided backcountry tours; another one is so enormously big that you can ski there for days and never do the same run twice; there is a mountain with the best fresh runs in the trees, and one where the lifties always play just the right kind of music.

However, all California ski resorts are missing one important thing: good food on the mountain. Skiing is a sport, and very energy-consuming one, if you do it right. It makes one hungry. And if you got hungry in the middle of the day on one of our mountains, the options are few:
- Go to one of the messy crowded slopeside “restaurants” and see if you can stand the look and smell of the fast-food-quality food on bent paper plates (and can afford it).
- Call it a day, and go to a restaurant in town, or back to the cabin and cook.
- If you brought sandwiches and were carrying them in your backpack, chances are that you fell a couple of times, or leaned on the back of the lift chair, or something. Then you and your buddies can get your sandwiches out and have some good fun comparing resulting shapes and counting pieces. But the sandwiches will be cold.

My solution so far has been: smashed and broken homemade ham and cheese sandwiches or beef pierogi from my backpack + paper cup of hot wine from a cafe.

A few days ago I found a blog post of my friend’s friend, posting from San Anton am Arlberg, a Tyrolean ski resort where my brother from and I like to meet and ski for one week every few years. We would stay in the village of Lech (San Anton covers two valleys and five villages, you can get from one to another by bus, or on skis and lifts – this takes some time and work). That blog post reminded me how we used to get on the lift next to our hotel in Lech in the morning and ski down the other side to Zurs. There we would enjoy some very long steep red pistes, some off-piste powder skiing, and by the lunchtime we would come to Seekopf, the ski foodie’s dream.

The restaurant sits in the middle of the mountain, overlooking Zurssee lake, lifts and ski trails; accessed by chairlift. It has a large patio and an extensive ski rack outside. Mostly Tyrolean traditional food is great, and you eat it from real plates, and drink your weissbier from a tall elegant glass, and your gluhwein from a cozy ceramic mug, while watching avalanches going down distant slopes.

Sausages rule the menu, of course. For soups (and the weather calls for a soup) they have Austrian goulashsuppe and an unlikely chili. (Californians should all go to Austria to sample chili and to learn how to make it. The best chili is not made from a can in a microwave, but is actually cooked using meat, beans, and peppers. )

Austrians adopted goulash from their Hungarian neighbors, who make it as a thick stew of beef and beef heart with a lot of paprika. In Austria, they left out the beef heart, and made goulash into a soup. Hot, fragrant, and filling, perfect lunch on a cold day.

My goulashsuppe is reverse-engineered from what I had in Zurs. I cooked it at home this time, but I wish I could get a bowl of it, or a decent chili, and a mug of hot wine, in any Tahoe ski resort, right next to the lift.

Hungarian paprika comes in hot and mild varieties. I am not very heat-tolerant, so I always use mild. That's just personal taste.

Goulash soup
4 large servings

2.5 lb beef chuck, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil + more if needed
1 large (28 oz) can whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
3 cups beef or chicken stock
2 tsp Hungarian paprika
1 tsp caraway seed
2 bay leaves, broken into a few pieces
4-5 dried oregano sprigs (1/2 tsp)
4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
salt, pepper

Optional garnish: 4 tsp creme fraiche, 4 sprigs of parsley

Brown the beef on all sides in a heavy large sautee pan with some oil over high heat.

Heat a little oil in a medium heavy pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until transparent. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add tomatoes, peppers and stock. Bring to a low simmer. Season with paprika, caraway, oregano, bay leaves, juniper berries, salt and pepper.

Reduce the heat to maintain the lowest simmer. Cook until the beef is very tender, about 2 hours.

Divide between bowls, garnish with creme fraiche and parsley. Serve with a mug of hot wine, or a glass of beer.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy New Year!

We are back from the snowy mountains, the most beautiful lake in the world, broken SUVs, laptops and ski gear, salsa dancing in front of the fireplace after a day of skiing, hot wine in a chalet in the middle of a slope, hot pool and a cold sauna, from racing down just groomed blue slopes and careful sliding between the trees on fluffy double-blacks, meeting old friends in a lift line, fun of driving on ice, New Year Eve fireworks on the pier, from the beauty of our New Year tree (traditionally recycled Christmas tree tossed away by the neighbors), our gift exchange and CB radio conversations. We are back to the valley.

One 10-lb goose stuffed with Granny Smith apples, a huge pot of buckwheat kasha with dried porcini mushrooms, a large bowl of beet salad, a seafood pasta, a half-head of Manchego cheese, 6 bottles of Champagne, a case of red wine, and two loaves of bread feed seven skiers (very light feeders, most of us, including two vegeterians) for three days. We actually had a hard time dealing with the leftovers.
I had removed the excess fat from the goose, seasoned it with salt and pepper inside and out, put four quartered apples in the cavity, tied its legs the best I could, placed it on its back in a roasting pan, and roasted it for 20 minutes at 500 degrees, and then for about 3 hours at 325 degrees.
The bird released a lot of fat. I carefully collected it and brought it back with me for the next confit.
The meat was all dark, very flavorful and juicy, and there was plenty of it. Even the neck made a good apres-ski snack for one of the heavy feeders in the party.