Friday, August 16, 2013

The House of Cooking Part 6: Straight to the Heart, and You're Stew Late

I've recently been watching a lot of cooking shows. It started with Master Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and other reality based cooking shows, but at the suggestion of D, I started watching Good Eats with Alton Brown.
Besides his terrifying resemblance to a friend of mine, Alton Brown has managed to not only give me many of the tools and techniques I previously lacked, but has also helped me understand WHY many of those techniques are used, and when they should be used. He delves into the science of cooking and in a few short weeks I have been able to substantially improve the quality of what I make, as well as reduce the amount of time, effort and money that goes into my cooking.
As a direct result of his influence I've been searching for ingredients, meats in particular, that I can cook with that do not cost an arm and a leg. I've been fishing for mackerel which in Halifax is completely free. No license required and no limit on how many you can catch. The fish is delicious, if bony, and one of the best fish you can eat nutritionally speaking. Similarly, squid is another amazing food to be able to catch and I had no idea previously how readily available it is not a ston's throw from my house. Okay, I've not successfully caught a squid yet, but I did get to watch a few old timers haul in a couple dozen of the things in the span of a couple of hours and they were generous enough to let me take a few home. It's a joy to cook with.
However, as much as I might like I cannot fish every day. So I still have to hit the grocery store from time to time and in my house, meat is definitely on the menu. D and I typically shop for our vegetables at the 50% off rack, and if you have one at your store this is a great way to save money but can also force you to be inventive with your cooking. Many of our weekly meal plans are informed by what we find on sale here. But meat at 50% off is both difficult to find and likely well past its prime.
However, every time we shop for meat I get suckered in by deals on steak, or roast, or chicken thighs or the like -all the traditional stuff- but it still costs a huge amount of money. Every week I pass by the things most people will never touch, the off cuts, the bits full of connective tissue or the tough hard working muscles that are easily cooked too dry or too tough to be palatable.
And then this week I saw beef heart.
A pound of meat for a dollar fifty? How could that possibly be a bad idea? Sure, I could readily imagine that as a hard working muscle it could cooked improperly be tough and nasty, or with a texture that makes the mouth go "ngyah!" But I've learned enough that I can make it work, haven't I? The short answer proved to be yes.
I picked up three packages, and then I went looking for recipes. Beef heart can be cooked in one of two ways, either short and hot, cooked no more than medium rare, or long and slow, stewed or braised. I opted for stew, since I've never really made a successfully delicious stew before. They've always turned out somewhat mediocre. I aimed to change that.
To successfully make my variation on beef heart stew, there are some basic principles you need to grasp. The first is the (mostly) French term "Mirepoix". I learned it from Alton Brown so credit where it's due. Mirepoix is often otherwise referred to as "the trinity" and is basically a collection of aromatic vegetables that when prepared properly inform the basic flavours of your recipe. Traditional mirepoix is celery, carrots and onion.
The second concept your have to understand is Sweating.
Sweating is a process by which the flavours if your mirepoix are released slowly, by cooking them over very low temperature with butter or oil and salt until the vegetables turn translucent and appear to be, well, sweating. Too high a temperature and they will caramelized or change colour, and this is an undesirable result. As Alton brown puts it, if you hear too much sizzling you're sauteeing, not sweating, and if you see brown, turn it down. I like to put my electric stove's element at 2 or 3 when sweating, as this seems to produce the desired result, but the pan you use and the oven you use can also have an effect on what temperature you select, so watch it carefully the first couple of times you do it.
Thirdly, deglazing. This is simple. After you've cooked something in your pan, you remove the food and deglaze it by adding liquid like stock or wine and scrub the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula to get all the good flavours that have stuck to the pan off, and then add this to your recipe.
Also, a note on salt: I have recently switched to kosher salt. I could go into the reasons but honestly, try it yourself and you will be amazed by the difference.
On to the recipe:

Things you will need:
An electric crock pot. I haven't tried this recipe with any other cooking vessel but there may be alternates.
A deep sided frying or sautée pan. I have one approx 15" in diameter and about 3 inches deep that works great. Should have steep sides.
Measuring cups and spoons, as much as I hate measuring a lot of people prefer to do so.
A wooden spoon or two.


For the Mirepoix:
3 stalks of celery, trimmed and sliced into thin crescents
3 or 4 carrots, cut in half and then into thin crescents
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large or 4 small potatoes, cut into small cubes
1-2 tbsp butter
1-2 tsp of kosher salt
1/2 cup of red wine for deglazing

Meat (initial prep):
1 lb of beef heart. Hopefully your grocery store does the cleaning for you and removes the majority of the veins and other connective tissues, otherwise you need to do this yourself. Cut the heart into strips and then into fine cubes
3/4 cups of flour
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp of kosher salt
2 tap of cumin
A dash of cayenne if you like
1 cup of red wine for deglazing

For the rest:
3 or 4 heads of baby bok choy, or possibly kale as a substitute if you prefer, chopped roughly
2 cups of stock, chicken or beef (I used chicken)
1-2 tbsp of Dijon mustard
A few splashes of Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco or Chipotle Tabasco sauce
1 1/2 tsp of instant coffee
1-2 tsp Black pepper
1-2 tsp Kosher salt

To make the recipe, add all the mirepoix ingredients into the deep sautée pan, set the temperature to low-ish, around 2 or 3 on an electric range, keeping your ear out for too much sizzle and if you hear it reduce the temperature. Sweat the veggies for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to move the vegetables into better contact with the heat.

While you are sweating the veggies, get a ziploc bag (I've referenced this product in other posts) and add the flour and spices to the bag listed under "for the meat" and then add the beef heart cubes to the bag. Seal the bag and toss the meat around to thoroughly coat the meat.

 When the veggies are nice and glossy, celery and onions translucent and the carrot cores showing some translucency, bump the heat up to about 6 for maybe 2 minutes then immediately transfer the contents of the pan to the crock pot. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of wine and add this to the crock pot as well.

Now to theme at. Add a tbsp of olive oil to the pan and let it heat for 1-2 minues, still on 6, then add the meat a handful at a time, tossing occasionally to brown the meat for 4-5 minutes. Add the meat to the crock pot, again deglazing with a cup of wine this time and again dump this in the crock pot. Add the rest of the ingredients listed to the crockpot and then set it for eight hours on low temp, stirring occasionally to keep the stew sticking to the sides and burning. Bob's yer uncle, you have now made a fantastic stew.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The House of Cooking Part 5: Bring Me the Head of the House of Cooking

I'm going to toot my own horn here for a moment: I make great pickles.Not like cucumber pickles, which I've never actually made (but the theory is effectively the same) but high acid pickled vegetables and sauces.

The reason I make great pickles is that I follow the recipe (for the most part) without deviation, because the secret to pickling is that for it to work the acidity levels need to be precise, the processing time in the canner needs to be precise (especially because I don't use a pressure canner) and every step you follow needs to be on the dot and crossed of the tees and spot on and kosher and rigid... etc.

And for someone who does not otherwise follow recipes very well, I'm surprised by how easy I find it to actually follow a pickle recipe.

The reason, I suppose, is in the repercussions. If I muck up a standard recipe, at worst I'm going to get some funky tasting food. If I muck up the acidity levels in a jar of pickled beans, I've got a botulism problem on my hands. I'd rather err on the side of not-botulism and stick to the recipe than wing it. Luckily enough, sticking to the recipe yields some great pickled products. My go-to recipe guides are the Bernardin Guide to Home Preserving and of course, the "Joy of Cooking".

Both are resources not only for pickling recipes for both low and high acid canning (I do high acid, since I have no pressure canner) but are great tools to figure out what NOT to do. This is a big one. The tips on how to avoid giving your family botulism are absolutely vital.

Now, having said that I follow the recipes to the letter is true, to a point, in that when it comes to the level of acid and salt required by the recipe, as well as the volume of vegetables used, etc, I do not deviate. However, when it comes to some of the ingredients I will occasionally play around a bit. Especially when it comes to non-vital ingredients like spices.

For example, D hates waste, and there are so many recipes that use tomatoes that say to peel and core and seed the tomatoes first. Why? You've just wasted half the tomato. For my recent spate of cooking, I used the whole tomato and threw caution to the winds. Net result: 6 jars of salsa, 12 jars of some VERY nice if spicy chili sauce, and 6 jars of plain jane tomato sauce, no embellishment. I used a total of about 60 tomatoes to make that, plus sundry ingredients. Not a single one was peeled or seeded or cored.

For the chili sauce mentioned above, I used Bernardin's recipe for Hot 'n' Sweet Chili sauce, but when I tripled the recipe (I bought tomatoes in bulk) and the end result was 4 1/2 cups of sugar as a required component, I said screw that and cut out 1 1/2 cups of sugar and still felt like I should have cut out more. Frankly, I don't care if it's spread over 12 jars, that's a fuck tonne of sugar and I don't need to give myself or anyone else diabetes.

I also used jalapenos instead of hot peppers, and I did not seed them. For anyone who knows nothing about hot peppers, leaving the seeds in increases the spiciness of the dish to an exponential degree, regardless of the dish. I also omitted the pears the sauce called for (though not on purpose, as I just plain forgot to do them up... 24 tomatoes, 18 jalapeno peppers, 3 onions, 3 red peppers, 6 peaches, 3 apples all finely chopped... so I forgot the pears, sue me) The end result was a sweet but spicy, flavour packed sauce that I think I will be enjoying for a couple of years, given it will be too spicy for D and I can only consume so much chili sauce on my own.

The point is that if you understand how to balance the acidity of the brine to the ingredients used, you can play with some of the core ingredients themselves and still come up with a lovely pickle. You can also create a disaster, taste wise. Be careful when using cider vinegar as even though it contains the right acidity level (5%) it is dramatically sweeter than white vinegar, more so than you would think possible, especially if not balanced against the correct level of pickling salt. If you like sweet pickles, that's great. I don't like sweet pickles, and in an attempt to make pickled carrots one session I ended up with carrots that tasted like candy... something my extended family enjoyed just fine but that I can only stomach the smallest portion of. It was a mixed success, and I learned a lesson about how to be careful with playing around with a recipe, but ultimately I still created a successful preserve because regardless of taste I had the right level of acid to ensure that bacteria growth would not occur, and processed the pickles in the canner to ensure their longevity.

So my recommendation, and this is coming from someone who has unequivocally, regardless of my own personal opinion of what I have produced, received nothing but thumbs up commendations from anyone who has tried my pickles, is to start with one recipe for pickles that speaks to you, and follow it precisely. Figure out the timing on your canner. It takes about an hour to heat up, but if you leave it boiling too long, you'll lose volume to steam and may not be able to fully submerge your jars if you lose too much water. You also have to time your recipe so that it's ready to drop into the jars just after your canner comes to a boil, but not before (you don't want your mix to cool before you can get it in the canner) and all of this comes down to learning the timing, practice, and probably a few failures. So start simple, basic, but choose a recipe you think you'll like the results of and then make as big a batch as you can stomach making. 8-12 jars is a nice number, as this allows you to keep some for personal consumption and also share some with friends to hear them say how good it is.

My personal favourite is pickled garlic, but I will warn you in advance that unless you want to spend literally four hours peeling garlic cloves to produce 5 jars of pickled garlic, find a source of pre-peeled cloves you can use. I have a fairly efficient method of peeling garlic and I still spent 6 hours peeling 30 heads of garlic and pickling them. I will devour the results once they are cured a bit, but if my supplier hadn't been out of the pre-peeled cloves I wanted I would have saved myself 3 1/2 hours of mind numbing labour.

Having made in my time pickled garlic, salsa, chili sauce, tomato sauce, pickled beets, mustard beans, dilled beans, pickled carrots, and other pickles, the thing I enjoy about canning isn't necessarily in the process. It's time consuming, sometimes boring, often hot and frustrating and makes you wish you could cut a corner here and there. No, the enjoyment lies in knowing that a few weeks from when all that bullshit is done, when you have forgotten how much your hands ache from all that chopping and first crack open one of those jars and feel the tang of vinegar at the back of your nose, when the waft of other flavours and spices follows in its wake until your mouth waters for the smallest taste, and you know that regardless of the effort you went to what you are about to taste is something wholly created by you. And it's made from science you in most circumstances barely understand, and from a love for creating something that not only tastes great but can last a good long time and be shared with friends and family without worrying about when it may go bad, or rotten.

And if you have the right group of friends, properly motivated, get together and do your canning together. Everybody pick a recipe and then swap jars with each other. Spend a day at it, drink wine (sometimes a required ingredient depending on the recipe, so stock up), talk about your kids or your lawn or your job, or whatever. Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman interested in canning, it's a better experience with a group of people of similar inclination. Although all my canning has been done solitary, that's more a comment on me as a person than on canning as a hobby or an experience.

The most important thing is to enjoy, relax, and anticipate what you'll be creating. It's a fun experience, when all's said and done.

A quick list of essential tools: 
Recipe guides (regardless of publisher, these are NECESSARY)
Water Bath Canner
Large Stock pot
Canning funnel
Magnetic lid probe (that sounds dirty, but it's a wand with a magnet at the end that let's you snag hot snap lids out of a pot without singing your fingers.)
Mason jars, and lots of them. For your first experience with canning, pick up two lots of 12 jars... I say this because once you make your first batch, you'll want to try something else.
Pickling spice
Coarse Salt
White vinegar (2x 4L jugs on hand is not insane):
Cheese cloth
Silicon Jar Gripper
Large and small measuring cups. Big glass cup a good idea, between 4-8 cups size, as well as the smaller 1/4- 1  cup sets.
Dill seed, mustard seed, whole cloves, black and green peppercorns... a selection of whole spices
Counter space: this is important because your newly prepped jars will need to rest for 24 hours before being moved to the pantry. Plan ahead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The House of Cooking Part 4: Become a House of Cooking in Just Three Easy Steps!

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are my days off work, and in addition to other chores it's when I get to do the majority of my cooking. Tuesday is also usually when our CSA box comes, but until it does the fridge often looks a little bare and empty, so sometimes coming up with something to make for D when she gets home from work on Tuesday is a challenge.

Still, it's an opportunity for me to be a little more inventive with my cooking. My opportunities to cook are rare, given that the rest of the week by the time I get home from work D has already prepared a lovely meal, and we all sit down to dinner and I get to try and eat my meal more quickly than my son can snatch it off my plate. It's a race I rarely win.

I honestly had no real ideas for today's lunch, however, D gave me a great idea and I ran with it. We had a prime rib steak in the freezer from one of our CSA meat deliveries, a zucchini in the fridge, and a couple of other odds and ends. With a couple of very good suggestions from D, I made the following recipe.

Jeremy's Quick Marinated Asian Inspired Steak and Zucchini Sandwiches with Home Fries

1 steak cut into strips (I used a prime rib we had, but any steak will do, or use two if you have 4 people to feed)
2 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried cayenne pepper flakes
1 tbsp prepared yellow mustard (or if you want, dijon... only used as an emulsifier)
1 zucchini, sliced
Several potatoes
2 Tbsp mayonnaise (or as my brother would demand, Miracle Whip, because it's better)
2 Tbsp ketchup (again, I personally cannot stand any ketchup but Heinz... but your choice)
A splash or two of chipotle tabasco sauce
Several Kaiser Buns

Start by marinating the meat. Combine the vinegar, olive oil, sesame oil, ginger, soy sauce, worcestershire, as much or as little salt and pepper as you desire, the pepper flakes and the yellow mustard in a Ziploc bag (I'm aiming to become Ziploc's schill) and smoosh (that's a word, mom) it up into a semi-homogeneous mix. Dump in the steak slices and seal the bag,then smoosh it again until the meat is thoroughly covered in sauce. Toss it in the fridge for an hour, turning it and smooshing it again once or twice.

Slice the zucchini into coins, as I did, or into lengthwise strips, as D suggested I do. Set aside.

Take the potatoes, cut them into whatever shape you like, cubes or fries or quarters... doesn't really matter. You're making fries. Place the potatoes on a greased baking sheet, throw some salt at them, and maybe drizzle a bit of olive oil over top. Preheat oven to 375 farenheit and put the potatoes in. Toss the fries about halfway through the process. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour.

Combine mayonnaise, ketchup, a little bit of salt and pepper and a little bit of chipotle tabasco (taking care to be judicious with the tabasco and consider the spice sensitivity of whomever you are cooking for) and mix them in a small bowl.

I use a George Foreman Grill to grill my veggies, typically, so following the directions for that device, grill the zucchini. If you don't have one, then take a frying pan and heat it to medium high heat, then sear the zucchini on both sides for maybe 5-7 minutes total. Then you can use the same pan for the meat.

When the meat is done marinating, throw a frying pan on the stove on medium high heat, add the steak strips to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, turning the meat with a pair of tongs about halfway through the cooking process.

Assemble sandwiches as you desire, adding any other condiments you might like. Serve sandwiches and fries together on plate. I spread the chipotle mayonnaise on both top and bottom halves of my buns, but not everyone will want to be that greedy.

As well, I feel like this recipe would go nicely with red onion, or even slices of orange. I'll have to try those another day and see how it is.