Sunday, June 1, 2014

What the other cowboys eat

We have been conditioned to see cowboys as the American staple, the white dudes with the ten gallons hats and all, herding cows through the wild west of the USA. But in reality, all that stuff was pretty much created by Mexican gauchos, chaps, hats, and all. And in real life, most cattle boys were fed beans, that most true American (and by that I mean truly the staple of the Americas) food.

There are still cowboys, dudes while truly live on the range, riding horses all day and rounding up herds, but they're not in North America, they are in the other hemisphere. In Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, there's a whole culture of ranchers and dedicated meat eaters that would make paleo devotes shed tears of joy.
welcome to Buenos Aires
As part of the immigrant culture of south America, Germans who settled there brought with them many of their dishes, and adapted them to local products, just like immigrants everywhere. Pork is not unknown in the south, but it's definitely a cattle culture, and beef is the main  flesh roasted, braised and cooked in all manners and fashion.

The dish known as matambre in Argentina can find it's origin with rouladen, a German dish brought over by immigrants after the war. Thanks to my friend Valentine for pointing that out to me. Of course, some of the ingredients have been adapted, and we'll be doing the same with our preparation.

traditional matambre
Matambre is a thin slab of meat that is flavored with a stuffing, rolled, tied, and cooked. It's that simple. Because the cooking method will be a slow cooking process, you want to use a cheap cut. In my case, I use flank steak, which are easy to obtain from my regular Asian grocery store butcher. Now, we're not talking about individual steaks here, but a good slab of a few pounds. The first part of the process involves using a long sharp knife and splitting it along the thickness. It's a tricky move, but work slowly and carefully and you'll be fine. What you want to do is get two slabs of about a half of an inch thick. Depending on the thickness of your cut, you may have to trim it further. Try to get two slabs of around the same size. Any extra trimming could then be used for other preparations.

my matambre
Once that your meat is ready, you'll need to consider your stuffing. I would advise to use long thin cuts of vegetable, like onion, carrots, celery, bell pepper, napa cabbage, or other hardy greens. Some mushrooms always go nicely, so be generous and put in big slices. Argentinians will throw in hard boiled eggs, Germans some pickles. Personally, I have put in pitted olives to great results. Whether you flavor the meat will depend on personal taste and cooking method. Once that you have your preparation ready, you will need to roll and tie it. That is an entire skill into itself, and well worth practicing. I would advise a long piece of kitchen twine and knots at regular intervals.

Whatever else you will do, start by browning you roll to give it a nice crust. A simple sprinkling of salt and pepper on the outside will help give the crust extra flavor, just don't overdo it. You just want to make sure that most of the external raw is nice and brown.

Once that this is done, take your rolls and put them in a large enough container (a casserole dish, roasting pan, cast iron frying pan, or other oven-proof dish) and cover. If you have no lid, then use your friendly tin foil. Stick in the oven at 300 f for about an hour a pound. At this point, you have a choice between dry heat or wet. I have done both, and I have found that a good tomato sauce really helps the cooking process.

dry roasted and delicious

Traditionally, matambre is eaten cold, or room temperature, as a sort of cold cut, but I cut it in slices and top some filler with it. It would go well with rice, bulgur, egg noodles, or orzo. You could also use it as a garnish in a home ramen soup, if you dry-cooked it. With a bit of extra vegetables, you can stretch the rolls to several people, all depending on the appetite.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

If it's not soy, can it be tofu?


And why would it not be?

As an omnivore, I have an open-minded view of most food. While I may well have a great disdain for certain meat-replacement products (if you make the choice to not eat meat, please go the whole mile and don't get "I can't believe it's not meat" products,) I am opened to meat substitutes. Unfortunately, this generally means tofu and other soy products, something that is as nutritious to me as are dairy products to someone who suffers from lactose intolerance (and there are more people who are allergic to soy than there are those allergic to dairy) which I have tried on several occasions, to disastrous results.

So soy being out of the question, what else is there? Pulses and mushrooms are your safest bets, but even those have their own limitations. So when I stumbled upon this recipe in one of my latest purchases, I just had to give it a try, to see if it was a good deal.

And it is.

Informally known as Shan tofu, as the product originates from the Shan people of Burma, it involved making a sort of tofu not with soy, but with chick pea flour. The best thing about this, besides the fact that it's not soy, is that it's easy to make at home and requires very little ingredients, and very little time to make. It's also great because it already comes with a lightly nutty flavor, and none of the grittiness of soy tofu, so it's a plus. However, it does not have tofu's flavor soaking characteristic, which I've never found to work anyways.

Anyways, here's the very simple process, illustrated by my very own kitchen. Thanks to my sous-chef Natasha for the assistance.

Take two cups of chick pea flour, two-and-a-half tea spoons of salt and two cups of water; put together in a bowl and  whisk it to a smooth consistency. Whether you use a hand whisk or an electric one doesn't really matter, as long as it's blended well and smooth, free of any clumps. Depending on your source flour, you may want to sift it to keep out the largest grit, but it's more a matter of texture at this point. Once that you are satisfied with the texture, leave it to rest a few minutes.

In a thick bottomed and fairly wide pot, bring four cups of water to a boil at high heat. A deep cast iron pan, well seasoned could do the job, but you may want something more neutral, so that you don't affect the taste. When your water is boiling, reduce to medium high, give the batter a few more whisks to wake it up and pour the lot into the water. It will froth at the beginning, that's fine, stir a little, then bring down to medium heat.
You will want to keep stirring, to keep the batter from sticking to the bottom (an enameled pot works wonders in this case) and to keep the consistency as homogenous as possible. You want to keep the action going anywhere from two to five minutes. You will feel the batter thickening, and pockets of steam will pop up, also a good sign. The longer the cooking time, the thicker the tofu. When you feel the it is the consistency that you want, pour the batter into a couple of greased bread loaf molds. I would recommend glass or ceramic, because it makes it easier to handle and demold when ready. The size of your container will also determine the texture, as the narrower mold, the ticker the tofu. Personally, I use a large casserole dish.
Once poured, even it out as best as you can, and leave to rest at least an hour at room temperature. You can use it at that point, or you can put it in the fridge to firm up more, covered with a plastic sheet, directly on the surface, to minimize the buildup of a crust.

So, now that you have this tofu, what to do with it? For one thing, you can use the firm tofu, cut in cubes, as your protein in soups or stir fry. You can also deep fry it, which will build a nice outer crust, sealing the smooth inner texture. These delicious cubes can then be consumed as just finger food (sauce optional, really) or they could be used in a curry, the fried crust preventing them from disintegrating. The texture of your tofu will guide you on how you will serve it. The shorter the cooking time, the creamier, so the they will very easily come apart in soups or when frying; when cooked longer, they get firmer and more tolerant to abuse. When deep-frying, the creamy one will have a nice crispy crust with a creamy center, while the firmer will turn into something akin the savory marshmallows; either are good. The Shan also thinly shave them and use them as noodles of sort.
Fried tofu, like savory marshmallows
So as you can see, in about ten minutes of work, say in the evening, you can prepare a good amount of versatile protein that is vegetarian and vegan friendly, that even carnivores will enjoy. Were you to get a bag of flour (about the same price as wheat flour) just for that purpose, you will be able to very cheaply supply your own protein, and pull a magic trick that will amaze your friends.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A bit of food porn

First off, let's look at some matambre

This was the very first attempt, where I simply slow-roasted it. Served with roasted vegetables on lettuce.

In this instance, I stewed it in chunky tomato sauce, on egg noodles and steamed green beans.

The latest iteration, slow-cooked in roasted tomato and garlic sauce. The sauce itself is pretty fantastic.

Homemade subs. I honestly do not recall what I put in them, but it was oriental in flavor.

Finally, today's breakfast, where the international man of cuisine strikes again: a mix of Southern Europe, with Northern Africa and South-East Asia. Shakshuka meets ratatouille, with fried Shan tofu. It's amazing stuff.

I am going to show how to prepare many of these and more in upcoming posts (I know I haven't been posting much,) as soon as I can decide with what to go with next!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Heart of the matter

Hello dear readers and welcome back to myself.

I have been exploring a lot of different things in my long absence, and I will endeavor to share my discoveries and experiments with with you. Some of my explorations have been new techniques, others new recipes; definitely new styles, and interesting new ingredients.

As a matter of fact, the inaugural return post with deal with something that was very trendy (tho now getting out of fashion) in cool cuisine, which is offal. Offal (which sounds like awful, and which most people with so-called civilized tastes will consider them so) are the odd bits of animal that are not easily thrown on a grill for a manly meal. Most of them are pretty much un-barbecueable, and so, not worth consideration. They are also in some way a source of shame, as they are not the sanitized steaks and roasts, anonymous pieces of flesh; they are the kidneys and tripes, oxtails and pork belly, trotters and tongues, and the subject of this entry, the hearts. 

They remind us civilized, modern people that the meat comes from a living beast, but also that for most of us, our families did not always have the monies to get the good stuff, so they had to get creative with the leftover bits. It's all good, since that such thrift gave us the wonders of cured meats and sausages, but the internal bit, with required more care and knowledge are just as delicious and interesting, common through the majority of human culture and cuisines. It totally falls into the nose-to-tale philosophy of chefs like Fergus Anderson.

Hearts are probably easier to find in ethnic grocery stores and good butcher shops. Locally I am more easily able to find pork hearts, but I found that my local grocery store also carries beef heart. Chicken hearts are some of the most commonly available odd bits in most grocery stores, but their size makes their preparation different, and thus, the subject of a different entry.

There is a significant difference in size between beef and pork hearts. If you want to try your hand on the cheap, I'd suggest pork, unless your dietary restrictions do not permit you so, then go for beef. Of course, if you can get your hands on lamb, veal or goat, then by all means use that, the principles are the same.

You'll notice that whichever kind you'll get is already partially trimmed and will have several cuts; this has to do with the food inspection agencies that will require those cuts to inspect the flesh for any sort of defect or parasites. In some ways, this will be handy for use when we'll be preparing the meat, in some others, it will be something of a burden. As much work as has been done, it still needs to be trimmed further. Here's Chris Cosentinoanother chef who became known for using offal is showing how to trim a beef's heart:

Of course, a pork heart is smaller, so doing these nice steak-like cuts are not realistic. Given the cuts in the organ, it's difficult (but not impossible) to use the organ whole, but for a first time, your best bet is to use them to separate it in easy to handle pieces. Do not throw away the trimming, as while they are not easily eaten, they should be kept aside to make a very flavorful stock.

Once that you have trimmed it all, start dicing your pieces in fairly equal portions and using a very sharp knife, a mezzaluna, or a meat grinder, chop it all to as small, fairly equal chunks as possible or desirable. My suggestion of choice at this point would be to mix that up with ground meat, a mix of beef and pork being a good choice to keep the right balance of flavor and moistness.

Another way would be to cut it into strips of equal sizes and pan fry them on high heat. A third, if you're feeling ambitious , would be to keep it whole and stuff it. The one very important thing to keep in mind about hearths is that it is lean, flavorful meat. The fat is trimmed  and lays entirely on the outside. Keeping in mind that fact, it has a deciding factor on the cooking method: either quick on high heat, or slow in a braise or stew. If your selection is super fresh, you could clean and chop it finely and serve it as a tartar, but it would be something that I would only recommend for beef or veal, maybe lamb, but not for "white meats," due to the higher chance of salmonella or other bacterial infections.

In upcoming posts, I will detail some of the methods that heart can be used according to the cooking methods. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Down the Big Easy

American cuisine is easy to laugh at; after all, what do most people across the world know about American cuisine but McD, fried chicken and bad takeout? The truth is that there is no such thing as an American cuisine, as the United States are a collection of different cultures and geographies, with different ethnic makeups and nutritional requirements.

Louisiana is a prime example of this trait: originally founded by the French, sold to the American colonies, then populated by Spaniards and African slaves, who formed what is Creole culture, while the Acadian refugees formed the Cajun country. Everybody intermingled reluctantly with local tribes, but survival demanded that they all learned from each other. The mix of cultures intermixed techniques and necessity, and a constant battering of heat and storms birthed blues and one of the most occult culture in the Americas.

If you were to ask what is the signature dish of Louisiana, the majority would claim gumbo their relief, tho jambalaya is a close second. Creole/cajun cuisine has been described as hard to pull off, and I'd lay the blame at the cajun roux, which a mixture of flour cooked in butter until it is a hair's breath from burning. That is certainly a skill that could be well-worth developing, but I've decided to skip that lesson for now and just move on to make a delicious and hearty dish that never fails to please.

The first thing that you have to consider when you make gumbo is what your thickener will be; that is the purpose of the roux after all. You have in fact three other options: onions, tomatoes and okra. I will tend to use all three myself, both for flavor as for what they bring to the mix.

Start with a couple of good white onions that have been either thinly sliced or finely chopped, either works. You are going to poach them in a good quantity of fairly neutral fat; basic vegetable oil or ghee works fine. Add some chopped celery and a bell pepper or two (one green, and one red or yellow, for variety) and stir, getting it to soften. If you are going to use okra, this is the time to add it in. Its better to use pre-cut frozen stuff, it just makes things easier. Stir until soft, then add garlic to taste. Add meats like sausage, bacon cubes, or other bits of meat in small bite-size. Brown, then add tomatoes. Finally pour in as much stock as you want, keeping in mind whether you want to make it a stew or a soup.

Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, for a good forty-five minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, add whatever seafood you happen to have on hand. What flavoring you add will entirely depend on what you have at hand, but try to keep it simple: a light touch of kosher salt, ground black pepper, oregano, thyme. I'd suggest experimenting, but don't overdo it, or you'll drown out the other flavors.  Serve with rice or biscuit.

This is one seriously easy dish; in fact, you get so into it that your loved ones will most likely ask you to stop making it because they have had enough for a while. You can use different meats, all depending what you happen to have at hand. The minimal ingredients I would say comes down to onion, bell pepper, celery, meat and stock. This is a great way to get some use of vegetable odds and ends, like that half tomato you used for lunch and those potatoes that are sprouting legs and are trying to escape. Clean the lot and toss in!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Laying low and delicious.

I have taken a long break from the blog, but I am returning to bring you more useful tips, info and techniques to help you develop your inner cook. Today will be something of a two-for-one deal, probably because its a Monday at the end of the month, when money's getting tight in expectation of the budget hit when rent comes due in a few days. So we're going to look at a nice technique that will make a good impression and will allow you to open a new branch of flavors in your meals: poaching.

First off, a definition: poaching is a cooking term that means slowly cooking in liquid. Its not boiling, as poaching requires a much lower level of heat, and the liquid used will often not turn into a sauce. Its a more delicate technique, but that can result in very interesting results.

The most common poached food you might have come in contact with is poached eggs, especially in the posh breakfast staple, egg benedictine. Poached eggs are an easy way to learn the basics, and cheap to: all you need is a cooking vessel, either a sauce pan or a frying pan deep enough to hold the cooking liquid and the egg, water, an acid flavouring agent (good vinegar or lemon juice) and an egg of two. A ramekin comes in handy to manage the pouring on the egg.

Fill the vessel with water and add about a spoonful of your acid agent. Bring to a very light simmer, making sure you not only not boil the water, but just enough that you can see a very gentle roll in the liquid. Crack the egg in the ramekin, being careful to keep the yolk whole. Pour the egg gently into the water, then cover and turn off the heat; this will prevent the whites from cooking too tough at the bottom. Let stand, undisturbed for three minutes, then remove using a slotted spoon. The white should be just set enough to keep it together and the yolk should be barely set on the edges but runny.

Its an easy, no-mess way of preparing your eggs in the morning, keeping the scent of cooking food to a minimum. Also, its a delicious way to impress that date you brought home last night and that stayed over for breakfast. Some now you know how to poach eggs; the same basic technique can be used for other, more delicate foods, like fish, chicken, or fruits, using different cooking liquids. Now, here's my favourite poached preparation, poached onions, or onion confit.

The idea is the same, but the items are cooked in this fashion more as a preservation method. The start example of this is duck or goose confit, originally from south western France, where the birds and cut into pieces, cured, and then poached into cooking fat, usually their own. The parts are then put into jars that are then filled to cover with the cooking fat to seal. The preparations can then keep for long periods with minimal refrigeration.

In Italy and southern France, condiments like onions, garlic and chilies. The preparation is very simple, if a little time-consuming, definitely something of the "slow food" movement. The basic elements required for this is a thick frying pan, olive oil and onions. Simple.

First, thinly slice your onions. Just half and slice, keep it simple. Then, put a good amount of olive oil in the pan a bring to a low heat, basically medium-low, edging towards the low side; you don want to fry your onions, just heat them in the oil. When you're confident that oil is at the right temperature, add the slices, and stir to ensure that everything is spread out. There should be plenty of oil, as it acts as the poaching medium. I like to add a bit of thinly sliced or crushed garlic to the mix, for flavor and to balance the chemistry, and a pinch or two of kosher salt to help the onions sweat. A few drops of balsamic vinegar, some herbs (oregano, rosemary and thyme work well), a touch of sugar also can help you shape the flavors.

This will need to cook for a good forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat as needed to avoid the crusting at the bottom of the pan. It is ready when the onions nearly disintegrate. You want a very soft mixture. Take off from the heat and use.

It makes a great alternative to tomato sauce in pizza and pasta, and its a great way to build a base for a ragout or stew sauce. And its a perfect base for our next blog entry, gumbo!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gone, but not forgotten

I have not been updating the blog lately, but its not that I have forgotten, its just that life gets in the way of fun, you know what I mean? So here's a couple of very useful instructionals on proper knife grip and sharpening. Once that you've mastered that, you'll find that you save yourself a lot of hassle and time, not to mention a lot less crushed vegetables and knife cuts.

And notice that in the background, you can see how this professional chef stores his kitchen tools, and that's also how you can store yours, cheaply and effectively: recycle and reuse your large tin cans. If you get a couple of large cans of tomato juice (more than likely if you are a fan of Bloody Marys) or olive oil (economy of scale folks!), just take off the top using a good can opener, clean it well and store all those non-sharp tools on handles. It'll save you from spending extra cash and will help decorate your kitchen with theme-appropriate elements. You can well use coffee cans for the smaller items; variety is the spice of life (and maintains your sanity when applied to your diet.)