Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pasta Bolognese

I'm going to be honest. Cooking meat can be weird. If you haven't spent much time with the stuff it can pose a serious challenge. It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I decided  I was ready to get over my meat-cooking phobia (and I have to say, I did it with a vengeance). I have to credit a good portion of that to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book. This book changed my life. That said, if you don't have time to thumb through all 543 pages of Whittingstall's blessed meat bible, I suggest starting with my recipe for Pasta Bolognese.

Every time I make this dish for company my guests always end up leaving with the recipe. Despite the constant repetition, I still make this dish a couple of times a month (a true testament to how easy and satisfying it is). As a side note, this recipe does take some time to cook (about five to six hours total). That said, you really don't have to watch it much as it practically cooks itself.


Serves 6

2 pounds of brisket, lightly salted and room temperature
2 yellow onions, diced
2 carrots, shredded
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 cups of red table wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
28-44 ounces can of San Marzano plum tomatoes
15 sprigs of fresh thyme (stems removed)
5 sprigs of fresh oregano (stems removed)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 small block of parmigiano reggiano
1 pound pappardelle noodles (fresh, if possible)
6 pieces of fatty bacon (optional)
A dash of balsamic vinegar
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Before beginning the sauce, the meat needs to be braised for 3-4 hours. Lucky for you this is really easy to do. First, preheat your oven to 230 degrees. If your using the bacon, dice the meat into very small pieces and begin to cook it in a dutch oven (lid off) over medium heat until slightly crisp. Next add in one diced onion. Lower the heat and let them sweat for about 10 minutes (if you're not using the bacon, go ahead and begin the recipe by sweating out the onions). You may be wondering why the bacon is optional, my reason for that is simply personal preference. Some people love the taste that the smokey bacon imparts on the sauce. Others favor it without. Personally, I make it both ways, depending on my mood and taste on any given day. I should also say that this recipe takes a few steps away from  that of a traditional bolognese sauce, so if you're a die-hard traditionalist, you may want to choose another recipe (although I promise that this one will blow your hair back).

While the onions are releasing their liquid, begin to tie your brisket. Place some thyme sprigs between the string and your brisket (be sure to use oven safe string). Place the tied brisket in with the onions, and remove from heat.

Add a cup of water to the meat and onion mixture you have. Wrap your dutch oven with aluminum foil and then set the heavy lid on top. Place the pot on the bottom third of your oven on a baking stone. Let cook for 3-4 hours. Check your meat every so often and replace water if it is evaporating too quickly (although I have never had this happen). I would again suggest buying an oven thermometer for oven cooking. It is the only way to truly monitor your oven's temperature.

Now, it's possible that you're wondering why I wouldn't suggest browning the meat first? In this case, the meat will become so broken down that it is really not necessary to brown first. Heston Blumenthal wrote a great article that demystifies browning that can be found here:

Once the brisket's 3-4 hours are up, take it out of the oven and remove the tie (discard the onions but strain the remaining braising liquid into a glass - there is yummy bacon flavor in there! Let your liquid sit before skimming the fat off the top). Shred the meat with 2 steak knives or a fork (the better way). Put the meat on a plate and set aside. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the dutch oven (don't wash it) and cook the other onion (diced) over medium heat until tender. Add the shredded carrots. Cook for a few minutes before adding the meat mixture back in. Cook for a few more minutes. Next, make a little well in the middle of the pan, clearing all the other ingredients. Add the tomato paste, placing it in the center of the well and letting it cook there for a few moments, stirring it delicately. When finished, mix the paste into the other ingredients. Now add the remaining braising liquid and let simmer for a moment before adding the wine. Turn the heat up to medium-high, and allow the wine to cook down to about half. Add the tomatoes (you may need more than a 28 ounce can, as sometimes I need an extra 16 ounces to have enough sauce - so use your best judgment here). Let this come to a roaring boil before turning down the heat medium-low. It will look soupy, but this will change as it cooks down. Add the herbs (chopped) and a generous pinch of salt. I like my sauce to have a lot of flavor, so I add  more herbs to it then stated here. Feel free to do the same. Incorporate your herbs little by little until you've found the balance that's right for you. The same goes for salt and pepper (which you will add later). The trick is to incorporate it in little by little, using your best judgment.

Let this mixture simmer for over an hour, stirring to prevent sticking. After about an hour, add the brown sugar and taste the mixture. If it still tastes too acidic, let it continue to cook down until you no longer taste any strong acidity (it should taste sweet and balanced). If you are losing to much liquid in your sauce, replace the lid (but turn down the heat a bit if you do so). The sauce should be very thick when finished (nothing like a traditional jarred sauce). As a trick, I use a potato masher to mash up my sauce every 20 minutes or so. It really helps to break everything down and leaves you with a hearty sauce. Getting a nice balance of salt and acidity is important in this recipe too. Add a dash of vinegar here and a pinch of salt there until you reach your desired result (note: you will definitely need some generous pinches of salt at this stage). When you have found that the sauce has a balanced flavor, remove from heat and add the cream. Stir to incorporate. Grate in a 1/4 cup of Parmigiano, also stirring to incorporate. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon over cooked noodles and garnish with more cheese and fresh basil.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Blackberry Jam

I love jam. So much so, I make a fresh jar every single week. It's such a wonderful way to take advantage of local and seasonal fruit (or to simply use up the fruits in your kitchen that are on the verge of turning). In this recipe traditional canning techniques are not utilized, so refrigerate and consume the jam within one week (I make mine in very small batches).  As well, feel free to use whatever berries happen to strike your fancy. I had a large basket of freshly picked blackberries at my disposal when I made my jam, so the choice for me was obvious. 

If you find yourself the owner of a large berry harvest, I suggest freezing your berries and saving them for use in pies and preserves (and all kinds of baking items really) during the winter. If stored properly, your fruit can last up to 6 months in your freezer. It's a perfect system for folks, like myself, who must have a nibble of peak-season berries on a daily basis.

Serves 4

1 pint/package fresh or frozen blackberries, rinsed and picked over (if fresh)
1 lemon, for the juice
1/2 cup sugar

In a medium saucepan combine blackberries, lemon juice and water. Stir ingredients and let sit for 30 minutes. Once the fruit has rested, boil over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and transfer the fruit to a jar (with an airtight lid). Keep in the refrigerator. Serve as is.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pork Shoulder

Nothing is more delicious than slow-roasted pork in mole sauce. Throw in some homemade tortillas and a fresh tomatillo sauce, and you're in for a meal that is bound to rival that  of even the best taco truck. Lucky for me, I bought a 3-pound piece of bone-in pork shoulder from Sea Breeze Farms today. To say the least, I could not get home fast enough to begin slow-roasting the living daylights out of it. After having reoccurring visions of mole this week, I jumped at the opportunity to throw together a simmering sauce of melted onions, cocoa, cinnamon, cloves and a whole orange.

I usually slow-roast my meat at 230 degrees for five hours before pulling it apart and boiling down the juices. This leaves one with ample time to not only prep the tortillas and tomatillo sauce, but also down about a half a bottle of wine.

If you have some pork shoulder, wine and spare time at your disposal, I highly recommend this simple meal (it is guaranteed to make your knees wobble with joy). You and your diners will thank me later. I promise.

6 servings

1 large onion, diced
3 pounds of pork shoulder, bone-in
2 small heads garlic, diced
2 black peppercorns
1 orange, cut in half
2 tablespoons salt
2 dried chiles, blended into powder (optional)
5 whole cloves, poked into the rind of the orange
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1/8 cup cocoa powder (not Dutch)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 cups water (more or less, water should come about 2 1/2 inches up the pot)
Salt to taste (season at the end of cooking)

If possible, rub the pork shoulder with a mixture of cocoa powder, cinnamon and a pinch of salt the night before you plan on cooking it.Tie the pork shoulder and hang it in your fridge (or, more likely, place it on a cooling rack that sits atop a square baking pan).

An hour and a half before you plan on cooking, take the pork shoulder out of the fridge and set aside so it can come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 230 degrees (I suggest getting an oven thermometer to make sure your oven temperature is correct). Put the onions in a heavy oven proof dish with a lid (I suggest a large dutch oven) and set on a burner over medium-low heat.

Sprinkle with 2 generous pinches of salt, and cook, stirring from time to time, for about 20 minutes, until the onions have released much of their liquid.

Remove from heat. Mix in the cinnamon, cocoa, a pinch of salt, peppercorns and the garlic cloves into the pot.

If using the chile, add the powder now, as well. Stir until all the ingredients are incorporated into the onion mixture. Add the orange (squeeze some of the juice into the pot before throwing the whole orange in), then place the pork shoulder into your oven proof dish. Add a cup of water. Cover with aluminum foil and place lid on top. Let the pork cook for 4-5 hours. Check the liquid level every so often. Add water if liquid is evaporating too quickly.

When the pork is done cooking, take the meat from the liquid and put it on a plate (remove tie). Discard orange and peppercorns from the liquid. Bring the liquid to a soft boil. Cook it down by half. While liquid simmers, pull the pork meat off the bone (should look like very thin strips). Add the meat to the liquid and cook down until it is quite thick.  Add brown sugar. Squeeze in some fresh lime juice. Salt to taste (don't be too cautious with the salt but don't go too nuts either!). Serve with homemade tortillas and tomatillo sauce.

Use the extended cook time to prep the tortillas. Recipe adapted from Everyday Mexican by Rick Bayless.

Makes 15 tortillas

1 3/4 cups powdered masa harina for tortillas (Maseca brand is widely available)
1 tablespoon toasted cumin seeds (hand ground) and 3 tablespoons honey

If using powdered masa harina, measure into bowl and add 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot tap water. Add cumin and honey. Mix with hand, kneading until thoroughly combined. Cover and let stand 15 minutes. If using fresh masa, scoop into bowl. Break up and knead a few times until smooth.

Set large griddle (one that stretches of 2 burners) or 2 skillets on stovetop. Set heat under one end of griddle (or one skillet) at medium. Set heat under other end (or other skillet) at medium-high.

Gently squeeze dough. If it is stiff (it probably will be), knead in water 1 or 2 teaspoons at a time until the dough feels like soft cookie dough—not stiff, but not sticky. Divide evenly into 15 pieces and roll each into a ball.

Gather 2 pieces of wax paper larger than tortilla press. Open press. Lay in one piece of wax paper. Lay dough ball in center. Gently mash. Top with second piece of wax paper. Close press. Press gently—enough to mash dough into 1/8-inch disc. Pull off top piece of wax paper. Set aside.

Place uncooked tortillas on the heated griddle. Cook 30 seconds on each side. Place cooked tortillas in a ceramic tortilla warmer.