Sunday, May 25, 2008

Pork Chops Braised in Bock Beer

Happy Memorial Day to you other Americans out there. To everyone else, Happy Monday.

Back when I lived in Austin, one of my sisters was always experimenting with new ways of eating healthy, but they were always slightly odd ways. To her credit, she was the first person who introduced me to the idea of switching to whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, and the benefits of fiber. But she was also determined to cut all fat out of her diet, which led to some pretty odd substitutions and combinations. But she had no problem with sugar, and we would find it in some pretty surprising places. She would frequently bring something new to a family get-together, put it in the middle of the table, and after everyone had taken a taste she would say "Isn't that the best _____ in the world?"

And I would struggle with how to answer her. Often, the dish was actually pretty good. But I could never bring myself to say it was the best in the world, no matter how good it was, and my sister would get mad that I wouldn't say it. It's not that she really believed it was the best in the world, of course, but she did not understand why I couldn't go with the hyperbole and just say it was. But to me it was like lying, and as silly as it was, I could not say anything was the best in the world if I didn't believe it really was the best. When you add the fact that I have always been a relativist, and do not believe in the concept of best and worst, then you can see why I could never bring myself to say that anything was either the best or the worst of its kind in the world.

And then I braised some pork chops in beer. And they were THE BEST PORK CHOPS IN THE WORLD. The beer caramelized into a most savory crust and they were moist, succulent and tender and perfectly cooked. I made them a couple of weeks ago and I still can't get over how good they were.

I started with two beautiful bone-in chops purchased from the Apple Market. They were nice and thick - so thick I didn't think I could just pan-fry them and I didn't want to bake them. I figured a nice braise was in order. I looked up a few recipes in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and, being me, tweaked them a little until I got something that seemed like it would work.I started by covering the chops with a light sprinkling of flour, followed with a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Then I browned them on each side in oil and butter for about a minute and a half.

I needed some liquid in which to braise them, but I was hard pressed to think of anything that I had handy. It didn't seem worth opening a package of stock for the small amount that I would need; the same applied to taking some of my home-made chicken broth out of the freezer.

As I was standing at the open door of the fridge, my eye was caught by the remaining bottles of Shiner Bock standing like steadfast little soldiers at the back of the front shelf. Yes, it was from the six pack I bought last summer when I discovered them at Treasure Island. A beer every once in a while is more than enough for me.

Which is a good thing, because it was one of those moments where you just know it's going to work, and work beautifully. After the chops were browned I poured in about a fourth of the bottle of beer. To counteract potential bitterness, I added a scant teaspoon of honey to the liquid. I turned down the heat, covered it, and let it cook for 30 minutes.

I turned off the heat and uncovered the skillet with some trepidation. They looked fantastic, but would the chops be cooked enough? Would they be cooked too much? I inserted the thermometer to check, and they were just right. I felt all Goldilocks as I let them sit for a few minutes while I finished up my zucchini and artichoke pasta salad.And then I sat down, cut a piece, and put it into my mouth. Sheer heaven. The beer had caramelized into the flour, giving the chop a thin, light crunch with the first bite that melted into a pool of dark, smoky, slightly sweet flavor that swam through the rest of the pork as I continued to chew. Moist, tender, and flavorful all the way through. I savored each and every mouthful of that chop.

If, like me, you grew up in the era when fear of trichinosis led to the overcooked shoe-leather pork chop, you have to make these. They are the best pork chops in the world.
2 Bone-in Pork Chops, about 1-1/2" thick
1 Tbsp flour
2 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp butter
salt and pepper to taste
Shiner Bock (or any other) beer
1 tsp honey

Heat oil and butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Rinse chops and pat dry. Lay them out on butcher or parchment paper. Sprinkle flour over both chops, lift and sift off excess flour, then turn and lay the other side of the chop on the flour so both sides are evenly covered. Sprinkle top generously with salt and pepper, then lay seasoned side down in the skillet. Brown for about a minute and a half. Season tops with salt and pepper, turn, and brown other side for the same amount of time.

Pour the beer into the skillet, and then add the honey. Lower heat to medium, cover, and cook for thirty minutes. Remove from pan and let sit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, raise the heat over the liquid in the pan and let it cook for another five minutes or so, until it thickens. Pour over chops and enjoy.

Inspired by
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pineapple Upsidedown Upsidedown Cake

Today is Mary's birthday, and she has recently become allergic to chocolate. So I decided to make her a Pineapple Upsidedown Cake, because she had mentioned a fondness for it. I used to have a really good recipe, but I haven't used it since before I moved to Chicago from Austin and I haven't been able to find it. It's super easy and it always works, too.

Which is a shame, because the recipe I found online was a little bit of a disaster. Up there is how it looked when I took it out of the oven. Basically ok, but if you look closely at the edges you can see signs of potential trouble. But I decided to brave it out, and turned the cake out of the skillet onto a plate.
Where two-thirds of it stayed in the pan. Damn. So I grabbed a spatula and scraped it out and piled it on top of what was on the plate. Not terribly pretty, but still edible.

But how to get it from the plate to something in which I could bring it to Mary? A cake pan seemed like it might work, if I could somehow manage to slide the cake off the plate so it would stay right-side (upsidedown side) up:
From bad to worse. The cake stayed home; the pictures went with me so I could show her that I at least tried.

We had dinner at The Red Apple. One of the best deals in Chicago.

Happy Birthday Mary! I'll keep looking for that recipe.

Today is also Yamilett's birthday. Happy Birthday Yam!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Saturday in the Park with Bob

Yesterday was my birthday and what a lovely birthday weekend I'm having. Technically, it started on Wednesday night at my knitting class, when my students surprised me with two of my favorite things. Food:and Wine:The cupcakes are from Sensational Bites, a local bakery. Up there are Chocolate, Red Velvet, Raspberry Truffle, and Boston Creme, of recent fame. I had the Boston Creme, which was rich and pudding-y and delicious. I wanted to try them all, but that seemed excessive even for a birthday girl. It just gives me a reason to go there another time, to try another flavor.

The wine is an intriguing grenache from the Barossa Wine Region of Australia. I love the playfulness of the name. One of my students brought a bottle in for a little party we had last month (we do actually knit at knit class, honestly we do) and I got such a kick out of asking everyone if they wanted a little bitch. But the crowning moment was when another student, who came a little late, asked "Who brought the bitch?"

Apparently, the grenache grape is difficult to grow. I think that might be a little of the play on the name. But even though the name is catchy, the wine is actually very good. Not only did they bring a bottle for us to consume on Wednesday night, they brought me a bottle of my very own. There was also a bottle of something called Evil from the same company. Along with a bottle of Goats Do Roam, a South African wine which was also very good. I got to bring the rest of that bottle home with me too. Yes, I am one lucky knitting teacher.

I've taken off work Friday and Monday, so I had a lovely day on Friday. I did not set my alarm and slept until I woke up around 8:45. I took care of the necessary chores right away, like laundry and the dishes, then spent some time reorganizing my apartment and going through the humongous pile of clipped recipes and food-related articles that had accumulated over the past year. That took most of the day.

I also finished my market string bag so I could take it with me to the Green Market:The plan was for Bob to meet me at the Green Market yesterday morning, where we would roam around and buy some picnic goodies, then go eat at in the park. Since the Green Market starts every year on my birthday week, it has become something of a tradition for me to always go that first week. The pickings are usually a little slim because it's the beginning of the season, but I can usually count on some asparagus and spinach, and Nicholson Farms always has potatoes.

But the moment I got there I realized something was different. There was live music, a stage set up off to the side, and about a thousand people. Turns out it's the ten year anniversary of the market, and the Mayor was there and it was this big deal. I am happy that the market is so successful, but selfishly, I was annoyed that there were so many people in the way. The main thing I had wanted for our picnic was some bread, but the line was just too long:So I ran around and grabbed some purple asparagus, spinach, and potatoes while I waited for Bob. As soon as he got there I grabbed him and said "Let's get out of here." I think he wanted to check it out, but I was ready to go start our picnic.

Since I didn't get any bread at the market, we walked down Clark Street to the Big Apple, where we picked up a lovely loaf of french bread (I think it was Gonella) and a container of the most beautiful, fresh-looking cut up strawberries I've ever seen. From there we walked up Fullerton to Lincoln Park, where we sat in the gorgeous sunshine and watched the ducks and the people. It was beautiful. The trees are all fully in bloom and there are all kinds of lush green grasses growing. We passed a beautiful white-flowered tree (don't know what it is) and Bob agreed to pose next to it.And now for the food. You knew there was going to be food, didn't you? In the past, Bob and I have gotten in the habit of meeting for coffee, then walking along the park or the lake, then walking back toward home on Clark Street, stopping for breakfast at Anne Sather, the Melrose, or lately Frances Deli (until it closed for remodeling a couple of weeks ago). But with
winter being so damned crappy crappy crappy (oh, and did I mention crappy?) this year, Bob had the brilliant suggestion that, instead of heading back to a restaurant for brunch, we bring goodies with us and have a little picnic in the park or by the lake while the weather is so nice. I thought it was a great idea, and I love that we decided to kick it off on my birthday.

So even though we talked about just picking up picnic-type food while we were out, I couldn't stop thinking about picnic food, and wondering what kinds of things would be good to make. Something relatively easy to eat, that did not have to stay warm, where we could pick up stuff to accompany it so I didn't have to bring a whole lot of stuff with me.

Years and years ago when I was young (can you tell I just had a birthday?) we had a party at work. One of my co-workers brought home-made pimiento cheese and I just could not get over how good it was, especially compared to the store bought stuff I was used to. When I asked for the recipe, she just shrugged and wrote down a few ingredients, without measurements or anything, and said "Just mix it all together." I filed it away in my recipe box, but I never made it.

On Friday, when I was trying to come up with some ideas for our picnic, I did a little online searching and saw a suggestion for pimiento cheese. Seemed like the perfect thing. And maybe a little ham to go with it? I went down to Treasure Island for inspiration. I already had a goat cheddar cheese I bought at Pastoral last week, but I needed something orange to go with it. They had a beautiful Double Gloucester that I hoped would pair nicely with the cheddar. I wandered over to the deli, and the minute I got there I knew I wanted prosciutto, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it. The woman who helped me told me to get a honeydew melon and wrap it with the prosciutto. I thought that would complement the pimiento cheese quite nicely.

So I found what I hoped was a ripe melon and threw it in the cart. After I got home I cut open the melon (yay! It was ripe!), and started digging in with my melon baller. I grated up my cheeses, added the rest of the other ingredients and mixed that all up.

I waited until yesterday morning to wrap the prosciutto around the melon balls and secure them with toothpicks. I only had six slices of meat; each worked for three balls, so I had 18 wrapped melon balls. I put the unwrapped balls in the container, and then arranged the wrapped ones on top. I thought it looked pretty nice. By the time we got to the park and opened it up, the meat had kind of melted into the honeydew, and they were just perfect.I had put the cheese in a thermos container so it would stay cool. After our refreshing appetizers, I opened up the thermos. We pulled off chunks of the bread and slathered on the cheese. The bread was perfect - crusty and crisp on the outside, soft and fresh on the inside. The cheese had softened to just the right consistency. Sharp and tangy, with an indulgent overtone of green-olive-salty from the pimientos, it was just what I had hoped it would be. The bread and cheese together were smooth and luscious.
And the strawberries were the perfect dessert. They cut through the saltiness of the cheese and helped quench our thirst. I couldn't have asked for a more successful picnic. We walked back to my neighborhood, said our goodbyes, and Bob decided to walk home while I got ready to go in to the knit shop.

Where I got more cupcakes and some delicious Mexican cookies from Mary and Jessica, respectively. Mary of BertandFelix fame brought chips and salsa. It was nice, and very low key, which was what I wanted. We all got started on the Rosalie Skirt from the new Louisa Harding book, the store's first KAL project. There was quite a bit of cursing and starting overs around the table, but I think everyone had a good time. I know I did.

The evening ended with sushi at Kamehachi with a couple of knitting friends. The perfect end to a perfect day.

Even if it's not your birthday, I highly recommend a picnic in the park. Pimiento cheese is the perfect picnic food: it's incredibly easy to make, it travels well, and all you need to make it perfect is to stop and pick up a loaf of crusty french bread on the way to your destination.

And today is Andrew's birthday. Happy Birthday, Andrew!
Pimiento Cheese

Cheddar cheese (I used white goat cheddar)
Monterrey Jack or Mozzorella cheese (I used Double Gloucester since the cheddar was white)
- 8 ounces total. You can either use equal parts of both, or two parts cheddar to one part Jack
2-oz. jar pimientos, with juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
dash of cayenne
1/8 to 1/4 cup mayonnaise

Grate cheeses. Mix together with all other ingredients, starting with 1/8 cup of mayonnaise and adding more if needed. Chill before using. The longer it sits, the more the flavors blend.

Recipe basically adapted from my friend Cathy Best (whom I hadn't seen for years, and haven't seen again after reconnecting once a few years ago, how does that happen?)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Pasta with Italian Sausage, Asparagus and Zucchini

As you know, the Christmas before last my student Nicole gave me these lovely gifts I wrote about here. The peanut butter and green tea pear mints are long gone (the peanut butter has actually been replaced a couple of times), but the pasta has been hanging around waiting for me to find a good use for it. I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to make some kind of ragu to serve with the pasta, maybe something like the fabulous rabbit ragu served over pappardelle I had at Bice* at a publisher dinner several years ago.

I even bought the rabbit. I was going to ask them to cut it up for me at the Apple Market but it was frozen. The butcher said they could do it, but they would have to wait for it to defrost and I would have to pick it up later so I opted for whole and took it home and threw it in the freezer. (And you wonder why I am always complaining about how full my freezer is.) And there it stayed, because I had absolutely no idea how I was going to turn a whole rabbit into a stew. At one time I even invited Bob to dinner, thinking that would be the incentive for me to cook it up because I know he likes rabbit. But for some reason it didn't work out the first time we tried it, and then something happened the second time but I had already taken the rabbit out of the freezer (sorry Bob, I never told you about this) so I needed to cook it regardless.

The October '07 issue of Saveur was all about Chicago, and included a recipe for Sunday Gravy, a hearty tomato ragu that sounded like it might be a good vehicle in which to cook my rabbit. You basically roast the meat first, then braise it in a tomato-white wine sauce. It looked like exactly the preparation I had envisioned for my hearty little hare.

But I was unprepared for how much the rabbit looked like . . . a rabbit. It did not look like a chicken or turkey, the only other whole animals I have cooked in my kitchen. What should that matter? you might ask. Meat is meat, right? Well, yes and no. Meat is meat, but it is not put together the same way on each animal. I had no idea how to cut it up, and didn't think to look online until just now. It's not like I was expecting a delicate web of connective tissue to point the way to where and how I should be separating the carcass, but that is how I know where to go when I am cutting up a chicken.

But I managed to hack it up into four semi-recognizable pieces and I roasted them in the oven. And then I followed the recipe for the Sunday Gravy. But I was not happy with the results. I don't think it was the rabbit, although using that instead of pork, lamb and italian sausage had to make some difference. It was the sauce itself that was disappointing to me. It might have been the tomatoes. The sauce was more acidic than I was expecting, especially after being simmered for hours on the stovetop. Maybe I should have looked harder for a recipe that specifically called for rabbit.

I was disappointed enough with the dish that I decided to hold off on the Mother-in-Law's tongue. I have not given up on the rabbit, but I think next time I will be more patient, and have them cut it for me. I need to get more familiar with how the meat cooks before I tackle another whole one. And I definitely have to find a better sauce.

But every time I passed my pantry I would see that bag of pasta and think, "I've got to find something to do with that!" And then I realized one day a couple of weeks ago that I might have the right ingredients on hand to do justice to the pretty noodles.

One of the other things I had bought at the Apple Market was some home-made Sweet Italian Sausage. I also usually have some heavy cream on hand these days for ganache experimentation. I have been taking full advantage of asparagus season, as well as those beautiful baby zucchini that pop up right about now. Surely I could come up with some kind of sauce that would bring all of those flavors together?

I decided to try my hand at a white sauce. I usually avoid them because of all the cream and butter, but I had plenty of both on hand, including some really cool butter I will show you soon (and will truly seal my fate as a food snob/geek. But I don't care because it's that cool).

So I put my big pasta pot on one burner to start the water boiling and heated up about a tablespoon of olive oil in a big skillet on another burner. I took the Italian sausage out of its casing and started browning it, then added shallots and garlic. Once the sausage was browned I added a cup of heavy cream, added salt and pepper to taste, and left it to simmer so the cream would reduce. After about 20 minutes I added some blanched sliced zucchini and asparagus. I thought I was adding it about the time I would be starting the pasta because I didn't want the vegetables to cook too long, but it took the sauce longer to reduce than I thought it would so they cooked too long and started to get a little mushy by the time I put the pasta in the pot.

I was a little worried that I had hung onto the pasta too long for the colors to show up very much, but I was wrong:This picture doesn't really do it justice, but the colors were bright and fresh and really made the pasta look interesting. Once it was cooked up, I added a tablespoon of butter to my cream sauce and then poured the pasta into the skillet to let it mix up with the sauce. I chopped up some fresh parsley and some Nicoise olives I had left over from my Salade Nicoisette, and garnished the plate with those and some pre-grated pecorino cheese I bought at Treasure Island.

And it tasted pretty good, if I do say so myself. The main thing I would do differently next time is that I would wait even longer to add the zucchini and asparagus. They don't really need to cook so if they go in too soon they get too mushy. But the flavors were definitely there. The noodles are dense and chewy and the sausage stands up to the big pasta with just the right amount of flavor.
As it turns out, I'm glad I did not use the rabbit ragu with this pasta. The redness of the sauce would have covered up all of those beautiful lines of color.

I'm not going to post a recipe with this because I don't think I have perfected it yet. But if you want to re-create it, you couldn't go too far wrong if you use the same method I described up above. And if you ever see Mother-in-Law's Tongue pasta for sale anywhere, grab it. It's really fun!

*I was going to link to their website but it has the most godawful music playing on it. I wouldn't want to inflict that on anyone.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Caught in a Jam

A little while ago I bought a bag of Dole Frozen Strawberries on impulse at the grocery store. I admit it, I was lured in by the picture on the bag. Those strawberries looked so plump and sweet and juicy I was sure what was in the bag would be just the same. And it's not like I am easily fooled by seductive packaging. I was just really in the mood for strawberries and knew it was going to be a while before the local batch was fresh. They taste so good on top of my favorite (when I'm being healthy) snack of Stonyfield Farms organic fat-free vanilla yogurt. So I thought maybe frozen would work.

But I was wrong. They were not sweet at all. Even with sweetened French Vanilla yogurt, they were not sweet. What to do with them? Usually something like that would just sit in my refrigerator until it was too late to do anything even if I could think of something. But I am really trying not to waste any food, especially now when price and availability of food are such an issue right now.

So I threw them into a saucepan and added about 1/3 cup of sugar. I brought it to a boil, lowered the heat, covered the pan and left it to simmer. And within minutes was savoring the most intense strawberry aroma I believe has ever graced my apartment. Unfortunately, it was because the pan was boiling over. Fortunately, I did not leave it for too long because I wasn't sure what it was going to do. So I removed the lid, lowered the heat even further, and let it simmer for another hour or so.

And ended up with a rich syrupy strawberry jam, or jam-y strawberry syrup, whichever way you like. After the fact, I added some lemon juice, which really brightened it up. It was good with my yogurt (kind of a stir down from the top thing), delicious spread on toast with my eggs on Saturday morning, and simply divine with the whole wheat buttermilk biscuits I whipped up on Sunday. The biscuits were not bad on the first go 'round, but they could use some tweaking, after which I will happily share that recipe.

Quick Strawberry Jam

1 lb. package frozen strawberries, thawed, with juice (you could use fresh, but why?)
1/3 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Combine strawberries and sugar in 3-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil and immediately lower heat as low as it will go. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until strawberries have disintegrated and sauce has thickened. Stir in lemon juice.
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