Saturday, December 26, 2015

Pommes Anna for Christmas

There hasn't been much to celebrate this year at our house but we've put a brave face on it and gone through the motions anyway. For Christmas Day brunch, Ann decided some days ago that she wanted pommes Anna and so how could I refuse?

But seriously, you ever heard of doing pommes Anna for Christmas? Me either.

Ann's Snowman Christmas Tree

A Little Splash of Color

Playing Christmas Carols
It wasn't all sadness this year though. Ann managed to convince Carter to come play some Christmas carols at the piano with her. That's a pretty decent accomplishment given that he's a teenager that really wants nothing to do with parents.

Pommes Anna Takes Serious Quantities of Butter
Pommes Anna is one of the great classics of French cuisine, introduced to America largely by Julia Child. For anyone inclined to the kitchen, it really is quite a simple dish to make. I have made dozens and dozens of them in my life. In France, they actually sell copper pans specifically designed for making this dish, but really, any heavy bottomed round pan can work and this is a perfect excuse for me to pull out the old Griswold number 8 cast iron pan, made sometime in the 1930s.

Ready for the Oven
You can use about any potato for pommes Anna. I typically use russets because their high starch content helps the cake stick together. I sliced these by hand, though I often use a mandoline. The first layer is key: it will be your show side, so take your time and make the first layer look nice. After putting a good bit of melted butter in the bottom of the pan which should be on a low flame, I lay the first potato slice in the center and spiral my way out to the edge of the pan.

Between each layer, I pour over more melted butter and sprinkle on some kosher salt. After the first show layer, how you do the subsequent layers is fairly inconsequential. The real goal is to make the layers tight and even with as few gaps as possible, especially around the edges. The more edge contact with the side of the pan, the better and more solid your edge crust will be and that will help hold your potato cake together.

Out of the Oven
I use the bottom of a large pan to compress the potatoes into as flat a cake as I can before it goes into the oven and then again when I pull it out to uncover it. I cover the cake with foil and put it into a fairly hot oven, say 400F, for about 25-30 minutes. Then I will pull it out and check the doneness of the potatoes. If the potatoes are fairly soft, I will compress the cake again and then put it back in the oven uncovered this time until I see a good crust formed all the way up the sides, another 15 minutes or so. The top layer of potatoes will be starting to brown by this point.

Ready for Christmas Brunch
Let the cake cool for a minute and then pour off the butter from the pan. You'll need to hold the cake in the pan as you tilt it to drain the butter: a plate works well for this. Then invert the cake onto whatever serving plate or platter you're going to us. I decided on a cake stand, since the pommes Anna was the star of our brunch.

A Touch of Indulgence
It is now tradition that we have Champagne and caviar for Christmas, and so I got two different caviars for our brunch. I scrambled some eggs to go with our pommes Anna and we topped the eggs with caviar. It was a bright spot in our Christmas season.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pork Neck Udon

In planning for our Christmas break, I knew that despite being closed on Christmas Eve, I had to go into work to receive a couple of trucks in the morning. I hoped to be home by lunch time depending on when the trucks arrived and so I planned to make lunch for us.

A couple of $20 bills disbursed the week before along with a box of chocolates for one of the driver's wives ensured that my restaurant was the first stop that the drivers made in Winchester on Christmas Eve. Amazing how that little trick (and being nice to your drivers throughout the year) works when you really need it. So, I was out of work by 10:30 in the morning to head home for lunch.

A few days earlier, I decided that I wanted a big bowl of udon and I didn't think I would have any complaints from the family. As it turned out, Carter's waif of a girlfriend also ate with us and although she barely ate any, I'm not taking this as a bad sign. I'm guessing that she barely eats at all anyway. I wolfed my bowl like a starving thing.

Pork Neck and Shiitake Udon
Udon is all about two things: the broth and the noodles. I have no say in the noodles. I can only get one type, the ones from the Brooklyn factory that everyone on the East Coast uses. What I can control is the broth. I decided to go way far away from traditional Japanese broths and do a deep, rich pork broth in keeping with the winter weather. Several days before, I roasted some pork neck bones to the point of caramelization and then converted them to a super-rich pork stock. Once the stock was cooked, I picked and saved the neck meat for garnish for the noodles.

Christmas Eve on my way home, I stopped at the market for cilantro, green onions, shiitakes, and pickled mustard stems as garnishes for the udon. At home, I prepped all the garnishes while reheating the stock. Once the stock was warm, I seasoned it with a little agave nectar and a little fish sauce. Into the seasoned stock went the neck meat to rewarm and the shiitakes to cook for a minute. Then for each bowl, I dipped a quarter of the noodles into the broth to warm them and transferred them to a serving bowl. Over the top went broth containing the neck meat and shiitakes and I left it to each diner to garnish with mustard, green onions, and cilantro.

I was a very happy boy. My udon craving was satiated.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Hash

I was off early one night in the lead up to Christmas and Ann was home from her parents' house, so I brought home some pork chops and some mâche, a light and slightly nutty salad green. None of us are eating/eating well given the current circumstances with Ann's father, so I am making a conscious effort to at least get us all around the table when I can.

The pork chops I put in a hickory bark syrup brine for about a week before cooking. These I seared in a hot black steel pan and then finished for about five minutes in a 400F oven. A quarter cup of hickory bark (or maple) syrup and a tablespoon of salt to a gallon of water makes a fine brine. Hickory bark syrup is made locally by boiling shagbark hickory bark in water and then adding turbinado sugar which gives it a smoky flavor.

Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Hash and Mâche Salad
I have for years made a sweet potato hash from sweet potatoes, onions, slab bacon, and dried cranberries. Once all is cooked, I deglaze the pan with bourbon to add a woody, caramel note. I spied a sweet potato on the counter and turned it into this hash. Ann wasn't a big fan but I'm not surprised: she's one of those that has an issue with fruit in savory dishes. I find that it a wonderful accompaniment to pork or duck.

Bourbon-Flambéed Sweet Potato, Bacon, and Cranberry Hash

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

Yesterday was a Monday, my short paperwork and erranding day at work, and I was in high gear from 7am on to make it home by early afternoon to spend time with Ann. Dealing with her father's stroke has been wearing us both thin, her more than me, and she has been away a lot, so we just needed some us time. When it was clear that I would be getting home on the late side of lunch, I asked her if I could bring something home for lunch. By the time she suggested Thai, I was long gone from downtown where I could get some carryout Thai. She then asked if I could make pad thai at home. Fortunately, I was at the market where I could grab some fresh rice stick and tamarind.

It's been a long while since I have made pad thai or even eaten it. It's a dish that I love but don't ever order out. I have yet to find a Thai restaurant in these parts that makes this simple food cart food well. So I make it at home and although the prep takes a little while, the dish itself takes almost no time to make.

Ingredients for Pad Thai
The setup for this pad thai is as follows from the bowl of beaten egg clockwise: cilantro, pickled turnips, pad thai sauce in the sauce pan, lime wedges, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, fresh rice noodles, and shallots.

The first thing to do is to make the pad thai sauce, which I always make separately from the noodles because the palm sugar is difficult to dissolve if put directly into the pan with the noodles. The sauce is roughly equal portions of palm sugar and tamarind paste, a half portion of fish sauce, and a half portion of water.

Tamarind Pods
Tamarind paste is fairly easy to make. If you are working with a block of tamarind pulp, cut off a chunk and cover it with water. I find a little heat helps dissolve the pulp, so I put it in the microwave for a minute. I find it easier to work with tamarind pods than with block tamarind. As you can see above, the pods have a loose bark and then longs strings under that running along and through the pulp. Pull off the bark and pull out the strings, then break the pulp apart between the seeds. Cover with water, and warm. At this point, no matter whether you're working with block or whole tamarind, use a spoon to agitate the warmed tamarind, then work it through a sieve to separate the tamarind pulp/paste from any seeds and debris.

To start making pad thai, I like to caramelize my shallots and garlic and this time I added lime leaves for their haunting scent. I added spicy pickled turnips instead of red pepper for spice. This would be the point where I would have added shrimp and/or tofu if I were using them. Next come the rice noodles. After tossing them for a few seconds, I start adding the sauce in small additions along with more water as needed to steam-fry the noodles until they are just ready to eat. At the last second, I add the beaten egg and stir it in.

I garnished with lime wedges and cilantro. And usually I garnish with crushed peanuts, but I didn't have any. I serve it at the table with white pepper and fish sauce for those who want a little more in their noodles.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Salmon Burgers

Ann had mentioned liking salmon burgers at some point last week and as I buy a side of salmon each week to snack on after work, I decided to turn this week's salmon into salmon burgers for her. I'm no stranger to salmon burgers: they were on the lunch menu at the restaurant for a couple of years in the early days until I figured out that nobody comes to my restaurant for sandwiches. It's a shame for it's a great sandwich.

Salmon Burger
Making salmon burgers is pretty trivial. I took the pin bones out of a side of salmon and skinned it, then cut it into large dice. Into the food processor it went and I pulsed it until it was the consistency of burger. To this I added a bunch of a quarter cup of capers, a half teaspoon of salt, a quarter cup of whole grain mustard, and a big handful each of chopped fresh dill and sliced green onion. I pulsed it again a couple of times to mix everything and then formed it into bun-size patties. A couple of minutes per side in a hot pan and we were eating. These burgers really are great.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Sad Sunday

Life around our house has changed recently and painfully. Ann's father Bob suffered a massive stroke Sunday a week ago that has left him hospitalized and incapacitated. Dealing with all the emotions and issues has left us all trainwrecks, Ann most of all because she has borne the brunt of caring for her mother and staying with her father, wrangling with hospitals, doctors, and insurance providers. It is so new and still so raw that I'm not sure I can write about it; I'm merely going through the motions here at the keyboard.

This Sunday was the first time that I was able to go see him in the hospital in Fairfax. And we took Carter too, the Carter who had been asking to go during the week. He did some growing up on Sunday. Before we left, I insisted that we all eat breakfast, not knowing what the day would hold for us and when or if we would eat again.

Caramelized Onion and Pancetta Frittata with Cheddar
I rummaged the refrigerator and found a small piece of pancetta, an onion, some cheddar cheese, and some eggs. In no time, I had a caramelized onion and pancetta frittata in the oven. Carter and I ate it. Ann did not. I don't blame her. I was just going through the motions myself.

On the drive back home from Fairfax—we decided to leave before dark—we discussed dinner, no doubt mainly to take our minds off, however momentarily, the elephant in the room. Ann mentioned that she had taken some ground turkey out of the freezer. What to make with ground turkey? I've never worked with it before, but it behaves like most other lean ground meat.

We discussed a bunch of options: chili, meatballs, meatloaf, etc. But when things get rough for Italians, Italians go for pasta. Ann was pretty firm in her desire for meat sauce with pasta, so we stopped by the store on the way home and grabbed some tomatoes, some cream, and some pasta.


Rigatoni with Turkey Sauce
This meat sauce I make, while really good, is not a classic ragù alla bolognese which I made for years before settling in on making meat sauce the way I prefer it and that way I prefer it is more Southern, more akin to ragù alla napoletana. My meat sauce I usually make with cubed meat that cooks until it shreds on its own rather than with ground meat, but I am no stranger to ground meat sauce, which according to many authorities is the proper form of meat in a ragù. Ah whatever, this is my blog and my dinner and I'll do it however I please.

Here are my tricks for making meat sauce with ground meat:

Develop a great fond. Fond is a French word meaning many things but bottom most of all, and in a culinary context, the layer of brown bits accumulating on the bottom of a pan. In a heavy bottom pan, start by browning the meat. Once it is browned, remove 90 percent of the meat from the pan and continue cooking the remaining ten percent. Cook until all the water in the juices evaporates and a heavy fond appears on the bottom on the pan. The fond should not be burned but it should be thick and it should not scrape off readily.

Add the vegetables to the pan at this point. For a simple sauce like this one, I use only onion. For a more complex and more traditional bolognese, I use onions (or leeks), carrots, and celery. Add more oil if necessary; you can always take it back off the top of the sauce later as it simmers. Add some dried basil at this point. Basil is fairly oil soluble and it renders better flavor (says I) when it is cooked in the oil rather than in the water-based sauce. Cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until they are becoming translucent. Most of the fond will remain stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Deglaze the pan with a good shot of dry white wine. I am firmly of the opinion that meat sauce is better made with white wine than red wine. Scrape vigorously to get all the browned bits of fond off the pan and into the sauce.

Add a bit of tomato puree, maybe a couple cups per pound of meat, but remember, you are making meat sauce, not tomato sauce. Add a splash of heavy cream, say a half a cup per pound of meat. Many recipes call for milk. It's cream for me. I want the cream in the pan early on so that it caramelizes with long slow cooking. Add enough meat stock or water to just cover the meat: stock is naturally better but if you have built a good fond, you can get away with water if you have no stock.

Let it cook. Meat sauce takes a long time to mellow and caramelize and become that awesomeness that you seek. It takes a minimum of 90 minutes and four hours is better. Stir occasionally and be mindful of the liquid level. You want a sauce that is mostly meat with enough liquid to make it fluid. You may have to add more liquid as it cooks to keep it from scorching. Use a low flame, naturally.

Season towards the end and if it needs a splash more cream, splash it.

And that's it. It takes a long time to develop a good fond and an even longer time for the flavors to caramelize and coalesce into that luxuriousness called meat sauce. It's very simple but it requires a lot of patience.

And so we wolfed down big steaming bowls of rigatoni (Don't even go Bolognese on me and start talking about tagliatelle; I'm a thick-cut, no egg, dried pasta guy.). We were hungry after waiting for hours for the sauce to cook. And so we ate, but without a lot of joy. It was more going through the motions. What a sad Sunday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ribs with Chipotle Sauce

Ann has been throwing hints out about ribs for months, although not so much recently, and yesterday I decided that I had enough time to surprise her with them while she was out chaperoning Carter's choir. (Although in the end, I almost didn't get them done. Our oven sucks and sometimes it appears to come on but will not actually heat. Yesterday it did this and I didn't catch it for an hour. Nothing like being behind by an hour when it comes to slow-roasting something.)

Pork Spare Ribs with Chipotle Sauce

These are St. Louis spare ribs (ends trimmed into a nice even rack) which I like better than back ribs because they are meatier, larger, and tastier than the smaller back ribs cut from the loin. I cobbled together a rub of pimentón, garlic powder, oregano, cinnamon, salt, and pepper: stuff I found in the spice drawer.

After rubbing the ribs down, I put them on a sheet tray on top of slabs of onion and wrapped the whole in foil. About three hours later, they were tender and delicious. Not as good as if I had done them low and slow outside, but what do you want for the first of December?

I have a standby three-ingredient pork sauce that works like a charm: a can of San Marcos chipotle salsa, a bit of agave nectar, and rice vinegar to taste. It's wonderful, spicy, and awesome with pork if you need a sauce. These ribs did not need a sauce.