Bread Gratin

October 29, 2011

Acorns were good until bread was found.
~Francis Bacon

Monday was Food Day, a grassroots event sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest intended to enhance the food chain. Through education and even litigation, this nonprofit watchdog group has battled for accurate labeling, better nutrition, and safer eats for decades. This day underscored and celebrated food’s significance as an integral part of the human condition…for vitality, diversion and pleasure. It aimed to connect the dots between good food, health, supply and sustainability and suggested alternatives to the ever expanding fast food nation with such events as Eat Real, Eat In.

This year’s iteration actually returned after an extended hiatus. In 1975, the inaugural Food Day took place, although it only lasted only a couple of years due to a lack of funding. This time though, with an increased social awareness of locally grown, natural foods and nutritious diets, Food Day should become an annual reminder. Good grub that nourishes should be a staple.

Now I by no means suggest that you should have slaved at the stove, unshowered, unshaven, garbed in dreadlocks and hemp, preparing only purely organic vegan super fare. If so, fine. But, that kind of overwrought integrity may prove indigestible to some.

Food Day should be celebrated nearly everyday. Face it–our species must necessarily eat and drink almost daily. Why make the art of cooking and eating such unwholesome drudgery? Some one in four Americans dine on fast food daily while obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates continue to skyrocket. Fad diets have been roundly proven unsuccessful. Other societies that have emulated our diet have promptly fattened. I am no strict health food advocate, but creating a fine, hale meal whether savored alone, tête-à-tête or around a communal table has few rivals.

In honor of this day, here is some staff of life.

BREAD GRATIN

Unsalted butter, for dish

4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 slices artisanal bread, cut 1/2″ thick

2 C fontina and/or gruyère, freshly shredded

Parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Nutmeg, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Butter a deep baking dish on bottom and sides.

In a large bowl, beat eggs and yolks, then whisk in milk, cream, salt, and pepper. Add bread slices and allow to soak, turning occasionally, about 4-5 minutes. Layer half of the slices in the buttered baking dish and evenly strew 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère on top. Pour any of the remaining milk, cream and egg mixture over this first layer. Layer with the remaining bread slices and then 1 cup of the fontina and/or gruyère again. Then sprinkle with the grated parmigiano-reggiano and top with a tad of nutmeg.

Slip into oven and bake until the egg mixture is set and the top is golden, about 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Pourboire: should you feel a touch sly, you can slip in some sautéed mushrooms, pancetta lardons or Swiss chard between layers before baking. Also, always remember that nutmeg can be overwhelming, so be judicious when grating.

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Tea + Duck, et al.

October 20, 2011

Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.
~T’ien Yiheng

With due cause…tea is a cultural icon, a ritual, even the stuff of ceremony and likely the most beloved libation on earth for centuries—sating rich and poor alike.

Tea is made from processed and cured leaves and buds harvested from various cultivars of an evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis. The plant usually grows on plantations in tropical and sub-tropical regions at varying elevations. The cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for easy access, and only the 1-2″ tops of the mature plant, known as flushes, are plucked.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried promptly after picking. Leaf size and post-harvest processing, particularly fermentation, determines the type of tea. The word “fermentation” in tea speak refers to how much the leaves are allowed to undergo enzymatic oxidation during the drying process. The oxidation may be stopped by heat via pan frying or steaming before the leaves are completely dried.

The more ubiquitous tea types on the market are green, white, oolong and black. Green tea is withered with little oxidation and then heated to impart its unique flavor. A rather scarce commodity, white tea is made from silver fuzzed buds that are barely unfurled. It is unprocessed meaning that very little is done to the harvested leaf. Oolong is plucked and then laid out on withering racks in the sun which causes evaporation. The dried leaves are then tossed so the edges are bruised to allow partial oxidization. The leaves are fired to halt the oxidization process. Black teas are heavily oxidized and fully fermented making them deeply fragrant.

The Chinese character for tea is 茶, but pronounciations vary by region. One is , which derives from the Min Nan dialect while the other is chá, used by the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects.

Tea-smoking has a long culinary history in China. Originally, it was a means of preserving food, but later was strictly used to impart scents and flavors. This dish calls for a more robust black tea, Lapsang Souchong, whose fermented leaves are pressed into bamboo baskets and hung over smoky pine fires to infuse the tea with its notorious flavor. But, feel free to substitute another black, oolong or even green variety.

TEA-SMOKED DUCK BREASTS

2 (3/4 to 1 lb each) duck breasts, whole and boned, with skin on
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
Sea salt

Marinade
2 T Chinese rice wine (preferably Shaoxing)
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
1 t sesame oil
1/2 T honey
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into strips lengthwise

Peanut oil

Smoking Mixture
1/2 C dry Lapsang Souchong tea leaves
1/4 C packed brown sugar
1/4 C packed raw sugar (turbinado)
1/2 C dry rice
1 T Sichuan peppercorns
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
3 star anise

Toast peppercorns in a dry small heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking occasionally, until peppercorns are just fragrant, about 3-5 minutes. Allow to cool some, then coarsely grind in mortar and pestle or grinder.

Gently mix all of the tea smoking ingredients in a small bowl.

Pat the duck dry. Shallowly score the breasts in a diagonal pattern about 1/2″ apart, taking care to cut only into the fat and not into the meat. Season with the roasted, ground peppers and salt, massaging the mixture into the skin. Allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, whisk together the rice wine, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and honey. Add the scallions to this mixture and stir.

Place the duck either in a ziploc bag or tightly covered glass baking pan and cover with the marinade. Refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight and then transfer duck to a platter and bring to room temperature before proceeding. Discard marinade.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet or wok over medium high until nearly smoking. Sear the duck breasts on the skin side only until golden brown about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

To smoke the duck breasts, line a Dutch oven or wok by lining it with two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil, leaving an overhang. Wrap the top in foil as well for easy cleaning. Spread the smoking ingredients in the bottom of the Dutch oven or wok and place a steaming rack about one inch above the smoking mixture.

Set the uncovered Dutch oven or wok over high heat and cook until wisps of smoke emit from the smoking mixture. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the rack. Tightly cover and smoke duck breasts, about 8 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand, covered, and additional 8 minutes for medium rare. Carefully uncover as smoke and steam will billow out. Remove breasts to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil, and let stand for 10 minutes. Carve breasts across the grain in thin diagonal slices and serve.

Pourboire: with minor variations, this same technique of (1) marinading, (2) searing or steaming and (3) smoking can be used for a whole host of fin and feather, even swine.

Un Frisson: Poached Salmon

October 17, 2011

The journey not the arrival matters.
~T.S. Eliot

An old school angle of using moist heat to envelope this savory, pink friend.

Appearing in the ancient Roman cookbook, Apicius’s De re Coquinaria, poaching has been in kitchen parlance for centuries. But, not until the 17th century, when fire became more manageable, did the technique truly blossom into vogue. The French call this method frisson, which is a moment of intense excitement—a shiver, a shudder, a thrill [from the Old French friçon, a trembling, from the vulgar Latin *frictio (friction), a derivative from Latin frigēre, to be cold]. Not to be boiled aggressively, but gently slipped into and simmered in an oh so delicate aromatic liquescence.

A detour worth embracing, indulging.

POACHED SALMON

3/4 C shoyu
3/4 C water
1 T raw sugar (turbinado)
2 star anise
8 green peppercorns
2 dried guajillo or ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and halved
1 1/4 lb salmon fillet, cut into two portions

Bunch of scallions, trimmed and halved

Combine the soy sauce, water, sugar, star anise, pepper corns and chiles in a heavy, deep skillet. Raise the heat to medium high, and bring to a gentle boil.

Add the fish and enough liquid to completely cover the fish. Bring to a lively simmer. Poach until the salmon is just slightly opaque, about 10-12 minutes, turning once as the liquid becomes a glaze. Remove and discard the star anise, peppercorns and chiles.

Serve over jasmine rice, ladled with the sauce and garnished with the scallions.

CFS: A Hangover Cure?

October 7, 2011

His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.
~Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

That dreaded hangover. Lifelessly sprawled out after a lousy night’s sleep, and then finally dragging your sweaty dog ass out of bed with bleary red eyes and black circles, nasty dry mouth, throbbing head, sour stomach—dazed and groggy with bouts of delayed recall, piecing the night together awash in remorse. An unforgiving bathroom mirror makes quick note of the evening’s overindulgence. Water galore, aspirin, pepto, vitamins, a long shower, bananas, OJ, and some coffee STAT! Afterwards, greasy carbs and maybe some hair of the dog witch.

The sober medical term is veisalgia, from the Norwegian for “uneasiness following debauchery” (kveis) and the Greek for “pain” (algia). Toxic doses of alcohol often cause dehydration (one glass causes the body to expel 800-1,000 ml of water), promote secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, inhibit glutamine production (causing fatigue), reduce sodium and potassium levels (reducing nerve and muscle function), lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), produce cytokine release (causing headaches, nausea and lethargy), and enhance glycogen losses.

Outside of abstinence, there is likely no miracle remedy for the hangover. Yet, some foods provide comfort to the wounded and even allow the body to rebound some. To each person their own potion, though food does speed up metabolic rates helping to rid the body of booze more rapidly. One suggestion is to consume the grease bombs before imbibing. This coats the stomach and intestinal linings, which slows the rate at which the body absorbs alcohol.

CFS is an amalgam of fried meat and gravy long endeared in small town cafes and truck stops. Whether labeled chicken fried steak, country fried steak, or pan fried steak, it is a culinary orphan with origins unknown. Some say the dish is a variant of wiener schnitzel, others claim it is derived from Scottish collops, while some Texas haunts zealously lay claim to the actual birthplace. Whatever its roots, CFS does remain a portion of the official state meal of Oklahoma—a rather ignominious accolade.

CHICKEN FRIED STEAK

2 1/2 lbs cube steak (tenderized round steak)
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

2 C buttermilk
3 whole eggs, beaten
1 1/2 C all-purpose flour
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Canola oil, to cover pan
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/4 C all purpose flour
2 C whole milk
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Green onions, sliced lengthwise, for garnish

Preheat oven to 200 F

Season the steaks on both sides with the salt and pepper. Whisk together the buttermilk and eggs in a dish. Mix the flour and cayenne pepper in another dish. One by one, dredge each steak on both sides in the buttermilk/egg mixture. Next, place the meat on the plate of seasoned flour. Turn to coat thoroughly. Place the meat back into the buttermilk/egg mixture, turning to coat. Return to the flour and turn to coat. (Wet–>Dry, Wet–>Dry). Gently lay the coated steaks onto a waxed paper covered rimmed sheet pan and allow to rest for 10 minutes or so before frying.

Cover the bottom of a heavy, large skillet with canola oil, add crushed garlics and place over medium high. Once the oil begins to shimmer, remove and discard the garlics (do not burn them). Add the meat in batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook on both sides until edges look golden brown, around 2-2 1/2 minutes each side.

Once each batch is done, remove to a platter lined with paper towels. Once all the steak is done, place on wire rack placed over a rimmed sheet pan, and keep warm in the oven.

Pour the skillet grease into a pyrex pitcher. Without cleaning the pan, return it to the stove over medium low heat. Add 1/4 cup grease back to the pan and allow to heat.

Sprinkle 1/3 cup flour evenly over the grease. Using a whisk or wooden spoon, mix flour with grease, creating a golden brown paste (roux). If necessary, sprinkle in a little more flour and whisk to achieve desired consistency.

Whisking constantly, slowly pour in milk. Cook to thicken the gravy, stirring frequently. Add more milk if the gravy becomes overly thick. Salt and generously pepper, cooking until the gravy is smooth and thick, about for 5-10 minutes. Taste again, as underseasoned gravy is a sacrilege. Plate, ladle the gravy over the steaks, garnish with sliced green onions, and serve with smashed potatoes and a green (maybe even fried eggs).

Pourboire: some researchers opine that bacon combats the common hangover by boosting amine levels which clear the head. So, consider adding bacon lardons after removing the steaks, cook until crisp and remove to paper towels. The bacon fat forms a base for the gravy and the reserved lardons can be used as a garnish.

Ad Hominy

October 6, 2011

Nunca falta un pelo en la sopa (There’s always a fly in the soup).
~Mexican proverb

Served both whole and ground, hominy is simply corn kernels without the germ. In a process called nixtamalización, dried field corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution (often slaked lime) until the outer layers can be hulled. This yields slightly altered flavor and a different texture with enhanced aromas and tenderness. With Mesoamerican roots dating to circa 1500-1200 BCE, hominy is just another culinary extension of the maize culture that was birthed and flourished there.

The English “hominy” is derived from the word maize in the now extinct Powhatan tongue, a subgroup of Algonquin languages. A confederation of tribes, Powhatans lived in tidewater Virginia during pre-colonial days. As became the habit, white colonists rendered the native dialect dormant as well as nearly eradicating the tributary peoples. Eugenics at work.

When whole, hominy can be found in heavenly menudo (hominy and tripe soup) or pozole. It can also be ground coarsely to make hominy grits, or even finer into a dough to make masa for tortillas, tamales, empanadas, arepas y amigos.

Pozole is a classic pork stew with hominy and dried red chiles. A hearty, rich feast which bathes the senses. This recipe has an admitted shortcut. While using canned hominy may not be preferable—the time and effort that need be allotted to preparing the lime mixture, then cooking, cleaning, hulling, washing and deflowering the corn can be a touch daunting. My apologies to purists.

POZOLE ROJO

6 large, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
8 C water
3 C chicken broth
2 lbs boneless pork shoulder
3 lbs pork neck bones
1/2 t dried cumin seed, toasted, then ground
1 t dried oregano, crumbled

2 1/2 qts canned white hominy, well rinsed and drained

4 large dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and deveined
4 large dried guajillo chiles, stemmed seeded and deveined
2 C water

1 T sea salt

Corn tortillas
Canola or vegetable oil

Garnishes
Cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
White onion, finely chopped
Radishes, thinly sliced
Lime wedges

Corn tortillas
Canola or vegetable oil

In a large heavy kettle or Dutch oven bring water and broth just to a boil with sliced garlic and pork shoulder and neck bones. Skim surface and add oregano. Gently simmer pork, uncovered, until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add the hominy during the last 45 minutes.

While the pork is simmering, tear the chiles into larger pieces and toast in a heavy large skillet over medium heat, pressing them against the surface some. Once they blister turn and repeat. Boil in water, then soak for about 30 minutes. Drain, place in a blender or food processor and puree, slowly adding some water, until a paste forms. Strain and add to the simmering soup, stirring for awhile until incorporated. Season with salt.

Now while the pozole is simmering, work on the tortillas. First, stack and cut into wedges. Then, spread into a single layer, and cover lightly with a dry towel to keep from curling. Allow to dry or they will be greasy. In a heavy medium non-stick skillet heat 3/4″ oil until hot but not smoking and fry in batches, stirring occasionally, until lightly golden, about 30 seconds per side. Transfer tortilla wedges with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Once drained, carefully place in a bowl.

Remove the neck bones and shoulder from the broth. When cool enough, remove the meat from the neck bones and roughly shred all the meat from the shoulder. Return the meat to the pot. Again season with salt to taste.

Ladle the stew into large bowls and top with the garnishes of choice. Serve with the tortillas.