Tri-Tip Awakened & Aroused

August 28, 2012

A fome é o melhor tempero (Hunger is the best of the spices).
~Portuguese proverb

Fusion cuisine is said to blend the culinary traditions of two or more disparate cultures or regions, e.g., those timeless mélanges of Moorish-Spanish or Vietnamese-Chinese-French or Saracen-Sicilian-Italian or the Malay-Indian-Arab-Chinese-Spanish-Japanese origins of Filipino dishes.  Cookery melded, kitchens merged, and cooks intermingled to create hybrids that emerged as one or so food styles.  Despite current myths, fusion has ancient roots as humans have been sharing and expanding gastronomic traditions for centuries.  Much to the chagrin of the suffering vanquished, fusion has often been the result of invasion, conquest, occupation and settlement in society’s endless quest to seize distant lands and peoples, then impose and interbreed food cultures — altering culinary landscapes. 

Imperialism and colonialism have now morphed some. More an outcome of “globalization,” fusion has lost some punch, becoming almost banal given the blurring and overlapping of culinary borders and the decay of regional boundaries. The globalization of food production, while superficially providing many of the world’s cuisines now stifles local farms and crops, sterilizes the soil, renders the food system less sustainable, and often strips the land for grazing to enhance short term mega-agribusiness profits. This leads to ecological collapses, malnutrition in many nations, and the overfeeding/wasting of unbalanced foods in developed countries. The world is entering a long-term, politically destabilizing food crisis if we continue our ways. Much like marketing was in the later half of the last century, water and food insecurity will likely be the bane of this century.

Sadly, exploitation has become more subtle, yet more pervasive, making globalization almost synonymous with the imperialism of yore. The iconic faceless pith helmets of the old world now have been replaced by the often empty dark suits and ties that grace our boardrooms. Some corporations advocate a certain consumer culture, in which the usual goods, promoted by global marketing campaigns exploit basic material desires and create like lifestyles. Homogeneity and monoculture run rampant and diversity fades. So, all of us wear the same threads and eat the same grub. Other institutions have used a more directed thrust, rendering cuisine (and other goods) more efficient, caculable, and predictable, yet less healthy, as exemplified by the pandemic spread of dreary fast food chains across the globe. These monotonous fast food principles have come to dominate sectors of society. McDonaldization.

What have we wrought?

Back to the days. As early as 50,000 BCE humans used aromatic herbs and spices to flavor their food. In the ancient world, camel caravans trudged from Calcutta, Goa and the Orient to the spice markets in Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome. Traders eventually used ships which sailed along the Indian coast, past the Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia, and finally through the Red Sea into Egypt — always facing inclement seas, robbery, shipwrecks, and piracy. The immensely profitable spice trade was long cornered by Arabians until the 13th century, when Venice emerged as the primary trade port for spices bound for western and northern Europe, making the region extremely prosperous. Later, spices were commandeered and monopolized by the wayfaring Portuguese who first circumnavigated Africa and thus created an empire. Portuguese power began to wane until England and Holland came to the fore. The Dutch organized trading posts and took control of the spice trade until they were crippled in a seemingly endless war with England which ultimately gave the British control of spice cargoes via the British East India Company. Now, spice growers export their goods through houses and merchants.

Considered sacred by most Hindus, beef is considered taboo in many Indian states.  But, peoples of other religions and certain Hindu sects eat the red stuff. It can even be found on menus in southwestern states, such as Goa and Kerala. On California’s central coast though, once home to Spaniards and Mexicans and the “birthplace” of tri-tip, this cut is thought nearly sacrosanct.

A brief, roundabout ethnic and geographic journey from spice to meat to grill, but well worth the miles and the wait. The inspired aromatics and spry flavors of this tri-tip (or any such cut) are flat sublime.   

SOUTH ASIAN TRI-TIP

1 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
1 T green cardamom pods
1 T whole cloves
1 T mustard seeds
1 t cinnamon stick, broken

1 T turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper

2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 tri-tip steaks or roasts (1 1/2 to 2 1/2 lbs each)

Lemon curd, for basting (optional)

Heat the coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, mustard, and cinnamon in a medium heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring or shaking the pan occasionally, until they become aromatic and just lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool some, and then coarsely grind in a spice grinder or coffee mill devoted to the task. Transfer to a bowl with the turmeric and cayenne pepper and mix well.

Rub the meat with halved garlics then salt and pepper rather generously. Sprinkle the tri-tips with the spice mixture and rub in well. Strew minced ginger over the steaks and press into surface. Allow to stand in the fridge for about 2-4 hours. Make sure the meat reaches room temperature before grilling.

Prepare grill to medium high heat.

Grill the tri-tip for about 10 to 12 minutes per pound, turning every 6-8 minutes or so, until medium rare. Baste with lemon curd several times on both sides while grilling. Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks, the size of the ‘cue and the heat of the grill. The internal temperature should reach near 130 F. Because tri-tip is so lean, cooking beyond this point will render it tough.

Let stand for at least 15 minutes before carving. Consider serving with raita, a mesclun salad with fresh or roasted figs and vinaigrette along with warmed naan. Just a thought.

Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
~Marcel Proust

Another remembrance rekindled.  This time from La Table de Fès, an inauspicious restaurant morocain on la rue Sainte-Beuve in Paris’ 6eme arrondissement, festooned with a painted teal & white facade and a curtained, rather dark interior with woodwork and simple white clothed tables.  A room teeming with the aromas of intoxicating Moroccan spices.  The chicken tajine with preserved lemons, braised vegetables, and couscous there were beyond superlative, nearly peerless.   In this quaint haunt, the quirky plump proprietress took us on an engaging imaginary voyage over Moroccan landscapes by way of our plates.  While the 20eme is home to many north African immigrants and chez Omar is considered quite branché (“in”), fond memories of sublime food were born at La Table de Fès.  Not just a place, but a new way of seeing.

Little doubt that I will fail at replicating this enchanting dish, but here goes…

CHICKEN TAJINE WITH PRESERVED LEMONS & OLIVES

1 medium cinnamon stick, broken some
1 t whole black peppercorns
1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 t red pepper flakes

1/2 T turmeric
1/2 T paprika dulce or agridulce

3 T+ extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 C fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron
4-6 chicken leg-thigh quarters, trimmed of excess fat

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
2 preserved lemons (see below)
3/4 C green and red olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine

Toast cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom pods, and pepper flakes in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. Allow to reach room temperature, then in a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Place in a small bowl and add turmeric and paprika and mix well.

In a large baking dish or casserole, mix the oil, spices, garlic, ginger, cilantro, bay leaves and saffron. Add chicken, rubbing, massaging the marinade over all the pieces. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve marinade and bring to room temperature. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or tagine or large casserole over medium high heat add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put in chicken pieces until lightly brown on both sides, about 5 minutes each. Add onions and cook until translucent and just starting to lightly brown, about 4 minutes. Scoop out flesh and discard and then rinse the preserved lemons. Cut peel into strips and add to pan. Add reserved marinade, olives, currants, chicken stock, and wine. Cover and cook over medium heat until chicken is done, about 30-35 minutes. Discard bay leaf and taste to adjust seasoning.

Place chicken on a platter or individual plates. Spoon juices with the preserved lemon, olives, and onions over chicken and serve accompanied by plain couscous or couscous with apricots (see below).

Preserved Lemons

6 lemons, scrubbed and cleaned
3 C+ sea salt
Cold water

Fill the bottom of a large, hinged glass jar with 1 cup of salt. Slice off the end of each lemon.  Cut the lemons into quarters lengthwise twice, but do not slice all the way through, so the lemon remains intact on one end. Open up the lemon and pack copious amounts of salt inside. Arrange three of the lemons on top of the first layer of salt and then add a second cup of salt. Add the last three lemons and then pour in the last cup of salt on top of the lemons. Press down the fruit so the juices release and then fill the rest of the jar with water just until it covers the lemons. Tightly close the jar and store in a cool, dark place for at least one month until the lemon peel has softened. Occasionally turn the jar upside down and gently shake so the salt redistributes.

When ready to use, just remove the pulp and use the peel only. Make sure to rinse off the almost translucent peel to remove excess salt before adding to the dish. Preserved lemons can be stored for up to 4 months in the refrigerator.

Couscous with Apricots

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander, toasted & ground

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.
~Alice Walker

August is National Peach Month.

Prunus persica, a deciduous tree which bears an edible juicy fruit, was first cultivated in China several thousand years ago. Peach trees are considered the trees of life in their native land where peaches are symbols of immortality and unity. Peaches traveled west via the silk road to Persia, earning them their botanical name. Peaches belong to the genus Prunus which includes the cherry and plum, all from the Rosaceae family. Once discovered by Alexander the Great, they were introduced to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Romans referred to the peach as malum persicum (Persian apple), which later became the French pêche, which then morphed into the English word peach. Spanish explorers initially brought peaches from Asia to the New World as the fruit could be grown in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Columbus brought peach trees to America on his second and third voyages. The French introduced the fruit to Louisiana while the English imported them to Jamestown and Massachusetts colonies.

While there are over 700 varieties, the two basic types of cultivated peaches are clingstone (the flesh sticks to the stone) and freestone (the stone easily separates from the flesh). They can have yellow or white flesh, which is sweeter and less acidic than its more traditional golden counterpart. The downy skin of the peach is splotched with red hues and are usually round with a pointed end, but they can also be flat and disc-shaped. The donut peach, which is flat with rounded sides that draw in toward an indented center, like a doughnut without a hole, is a descendant of the flat Chinese peach.

Even though farmers’ markets are now flooded with this divine fruit, in a couple months a good peach will be hard to find as they are distinctly seasonal. These efficient reproducers are harvested in late summer and early fall because they tend to ripen simultaneously. Peaches are pruned after most of the other fruit crops are done since they can be injured if pruned too early. It is unusually difficult to ship this fruit as microbes like fungi and bacteria can invade the thin, permeable outer skin and feast on the sugars inside, causing decay. Bruising can occur while handling and travelling. Storage also creates issues with delicate peaches. Unlike apples which can be stored up to a year in a low oxygen controlled environment, finicky peaches have a much shortened lifespan.

So, get it while you can — make good of this narrow windowed season and buy these luscious local gems, sink your teeth into the sweet fuzz and let those ambrosial juices freely dribble down your chin. Grin knowingly, then repeat.

Peaches should be stored at room temperature as refrigeration curtails flavor and fragrance. They are climacteric, meaning they that have high respiration rates during ripening and emit large amounts of ethylene gas, so the fruit will continue ripening after harvest. A large peach has fewer than 70 calories, contains 3 grams of fiber, and is also a good source of vitamins A and C.

By now, it must be quite obvious that I love the far from banal rustic nature of crisps. Below is a peach version followed by a basic grilled peach recipe.  At the end is a simple concotion of chilled wine and peaches.

PEACH CRISP

5 large ripe peaches, pitted, peeled (or not) and sliced
Juice from 1 lemon

3 T all-purpose flour
1/4 C tightly packed brown sugar
1 T granulated sugar
1 T raw sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
Slight pinch of sea salt

1 1/4 C all purpose flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C granulated sugar
1/4 C raw sugar
1 1/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Toss the peaches in a large bowl with lemon juice. Add flour, sugars, vanilla and salt and gently stir to combine. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, sugars, and butter. Using a pastry blender or fingers, blend ingredients until coarse meal forms — soft, tender and workable.

Spread the peach filling in a medium baking dish or casserole and loosely sprinkle with the topping. Place the dish on a sheet tray and bake crisp 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Bake crisp until fruit is tender and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

GRILLED PEACHES

1/2 C honey
3 T Balsamic vinegar
1 t vanilla extract

6 firm, ripe peaches, pitted and halved

Crème fraîche or plain yogurt, for drizzling

Whisk  together honey, balsamic vinegar, and vanilla in small bowl.

Prepare barbecue grill to medium high. Brush fruit generously with some honey glaze. Grill (inner flesh side down first) until heated through, about 3 minutes on the first side and less on the other, depending on ripeness. The idea is to create nice markings on the fleshy inside, but to have the fruit retain its integrity. Arrange grilled halves, cut side up, on plates or platter, then immediately drizzle with some more honey glaze. Ladle crème fraîche or yogurt over the grilled fruit to your liking.

Pourboire:  try a classic Italian libation during the warm months.  First pit, then slice a few ripe fresh peaches, with or without the skin (your preference).  Drop the sliced peaches into a cold glass pitcher and pour in enough medium to full-bodied red wine to cover the fruit.  Allow to chill for a couple of hours or overnight in the refrigerator.  Pour the wine and peaches into glasses and serve.  Cin-cin!

Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
~Albert Einstein

Sometimes, culinary inspiration is gleaned from the bucket seat right next to you while musing and jawing about favored eats at beloved faraway lands. A sweetly absurd kind of waking moment, where creative osmosis just happens and a craving follows. Such was the case with fougasse this weekend while hurtling down a bleak stretch of the interstate. Thanks for that, and all else.

In ancient Rome, panis focacius was a flatbread baked in the ashes of a hearth (“focus” in Latin). The loaves later blossomed into a diverse range of breads spanning many borders that now include focaccia in Italy and fougasse in southern France (originally fogatza), as well as fouace or fouée in other régions. Almost a primitive form of pizza, fougasse is a luscious Provençal flatbread traditionally rolled into the form of a leaf or ear of wheat. Oddly, it is also the name for an antiquated, improvised land mine formed in a hollow filled with explosives and projectiles.

FOUGASSE AUX OLIVES ET HERBES

1 t yeast
1 t sugar
1 1/3 C warm, but not overly hot, water

4 1/2 C flour
1 t sea salt
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Cornmeal or flour, for dusting

Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and minced
2 T fresh thyme leaves, minced
1 T rosemary leaves, minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 500 F about 20 minutes before baking

Put the yeast and sugar in the bowl of a large stand up mixer which is fitted with a paddle. Stir in the warm water and allow to sit for about 10 minutes so the yeast blooms. There should be an opaque, bubbly surface on top of the water. Then, add the flour and salt, and right afterward the olive oil. Mix together, then knead for about 5 minutes on medium high, until a firm, dry dough develops.

Round the dough into a rough ball in the mixing bowl. Cover with a few damp paper towels and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

Once the dough has risen, uncover and press with your hands so the air bubbles are released. The dough should be rather dry and should not stick much to your fingers. Transfer it to a floured work surface. Flatten it with your hands into a thick disk and with a sharp knife, divide the disk into 5 equal wedges. Roll out each dough wedge into an 8″ x 5″ isosceles triangle about 1/4″ thick. Place each triangle on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and lightly dusted with cornmeal or flour. Make three lengthwise slashes in each triangle, as well as one smaller slash below the middle slash. Gently pull the dough apart so it gapes. Cover dough with a damp towel and again allow to rest, this time for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop up the olives and herbs. Uncover each dough piece, lightly brush with olive oil and then sprinkle with toppings, taking care to distribute them evenly and to avoid the gaps. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Pourboire: with fougasse, there are numerous variations on a theme, so consider studding or gracing the loaves with with whatever suits your fancy — other herbs, lardons, gorgonzola, roquefort, walnuts, pine nutes, sundried tomatoes, pesto, tapenade, citrus zest, coarse sea salt, anchovies, etc.

Fueled by scorching temperatures, a severe to extreme drought has settled over much of the continental United States. The most brutal heat wave in many decades, readings above 100 F have become commonplace. The Midwest is evolving into a dust bowl, while the Southwest and Rockies are becoming tinder boxes, and lakes and rivers across the South are withering up. More than half of all counties have been designated primary disaster areas this growing season. Almost four million acres of conservation land were opened by the Department of Agriculture for ranchers to use for haying and grazing. Crops and pasture lands throughout much of the country have taken more than a drubbing — they have simply become a debacle with little relief in sight. Somber days in the breadbasket as the drought has touched so many, so much.

Beat the heat fare should be trendy this cruel summer. A cooling concoction with infinite variations, raita is a traditional Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi condiment used as a salad, relish, spread, dip or side dish. Other versions include tomato, diced veggies, avocado, chutney, beet, masala, potato, sweet potato, onion, chile, chickpea, etc.  Although always finely mated with Indian dishes, versatile raita need not be relegated to south Asian eats.

RAITA

1 t cumin seeds, toaasted and ground
1 t coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 t black mustard seeds, toasted and ground

2 C plain Greek (strained) yogurt
1 t sugar
1/2 t crushed red pepper powder or flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2+ large fresh English cucumber, peeled and diced
1 C fresh mint leaves, chopped

In a heavy dry medium skillet, toast cumin, coriander and mustard seeds until just aromatic. Allow to cool and then grind the seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

Whisk together yogurt, sugar, red pepper, cumin, coriander, mustard, salt, black pepper, cucumber, and mint. Chill, covered, until ready to serve.

Pourboire: a brief word about measuring. Although baking demands precise measurements, savory cooking generally allows some laxity. So, unless you are as OCD as Ina Garten, just mete out ingredients with your eyes. Use that oversized 3 lbs of meat between your ears (and hippocampi) to judge and recall amounts — simply pour a carefully measured, even brightly hued, chosen spice into an open palm in order to ascertain the quantity of a teaspoon, tablespoon, cup or portion thereof and take note. Then, use that memory forward.

Global warming is too serious for the world any longer to ignore its danger or split into opposing factions on it.
~Tony Blair

Another sad example of how humankind has altered the ocean environment — exhausting the limits of an ecosystem’s endurance. The iconic coastal California mussel may be the casualty this time.

A recent study published in the journal Science predicts that by mid-century, western coastal waters will become sufficiently acidic to hinder shell formation by mussels, oysters and corals. These waters are particularly fecund because winds that blow surface water out to sea allow water laden with nutrients to swell near the shore. This upwelling renders those waters especially vulnerable to ocean acidification. Increased acidity levels develop in the waters as they absorb carbon dioxide which accelerate as trends of anthropogenic greenhouse gases continue to soar. Ocean acidification has been dubbed the osteoporosis of the seas.

What does this have to do with our cherished shellfish? As carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water, saturation levels of the mineral calcium carbonate, a critical building block for shells and skeletons, decreases. Undersaturation can reach perilous levels depriving these sea creatures of the basic component needed to develop and maintain their shells. According to these researchers (who were using optimistic models), by 2050 west coast seawater will no longer have sufficient saturation states to maintain adequate calcium carbonate levels. This places mussel populations at serious risk. This is indeed a dire finding given that mussels provide habitat, refuge, and food for some 300 other species.

A correlative finding was reached in a later study conducted at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Researchers there noted that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that climate scientists attribute to human activity have resulted in increased ocean acidification. This team focused on mussel larvae, which swim in the open ocean before settling down on the shoreline and attaching to reefs as adults. As with many other marine creatures, mussel larvae are more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Larvae were grown in the lab at present acid levels, levels projected for the end of the century if carbon dioxide emissions continue, and at levels which might be reached if emissions are reduced. The shells were measurably thinner and the mussels’ bodies smaller at projected acid levels.

Other researchers have sung the same refrain: if human actions continue unabated, oceans will continue to absorb rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide which causes ocean acidification whose corrosive effect ultimately threatens to decimate certain shellfish species.

Do we welcome such a sea change?

As always, follow the cleaning and culling ritual. Thoroughly scrub the mussels and rinse with several changes of cold water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards (the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell) cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance of the cooking process or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

MUSSELS & CHORIZO

1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 lbs mussels, cleaned
1 t fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 t fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/2 C dry white wine
1/2 C fish stock or clam juice
2 T unsalted butter

1 t fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Roughly ground black pepper
Sea salt

In large, heavy Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium and add chorizo, garlic and shallots. Sauté until shallots soften and become transparent, about 4-5 minutes. Add mussels, thyme, oregano and tomatoes. Stir well.

Add wine and stock to pan. Cover, and cook over medium heat until the mussels open, about 6-8 minutes. Uncover and simmer for a few minutes to reduce liquid by half. Add butter, and stir vigorously into the sauce.

Transfer mixture to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and pepper, and salt to taste. Serve with toasted or grilled slices of artisanal bread rubbed with fresh garlic cloves.