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.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ramsay's at it again!

Alright, I haven't done a recipe in a while, so here's Gordon Ramsay showing you just how easy it is to prepare roasted duck breast:

Now, you'll say that duck is expensive, especially if you buy just the breast, which is true... that is, any meat will be expensive when you buy just the cuts, but if you buy the whole beast and prepare it yourself, you'll not only save money on the individual purchases, but you'll gain so much different products that it'll be well worth the effort and initial cash output to convert you over.

I'll be going through the bird portioning in an upcoming post.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Kitchen basics: its all in the sauce

We've covered a lot of the pantry already, so we're ready to do the final stage, those little elements that already exist, fully composed that can add extra flavors, either by being condiments, or by their complex value-adding properties. Most of these guys will be housed in bottles or jars, and many of them do not require refrigeration.

Worcestershire sauce: the old mainstay of pretty much every kitchen. It might have a very British name, but it's origins are nothing but; it was a recipe brought over from India, and is used as a flavor enhancer. Its a great enabler for meats, taking a somewhat boring cut to another level. Mix it in your meatballs, rub it on your steak, drip some in your sauce, its pretty much a carnivore's essential, and available everywhere.

Mustard: the classic condiment and the one item that is pretty much guaranteed to be found in the otherwise empty fridge at that new apartment you just moved in to. There certainly is a fairly broad variety of mustard mixes, but it essentially comes down to three kinds: yellow, Dijon and horseradish. For our purposes, I'll stay with the essentials: have a jar of yellow mustard and a jar of good French Dijon at hand. Dijon mustard is like Balsamic vinegar, as there is a pretty broad variety of heat, texture and flavors, so you'll have to try and taste, until you find the one(s) that you like. I personally am something of a mustard collector, with something like fifteen different jars of mustard, mostly Dijon, but several flavored types, like honey, balsamic, white wine and garlic. If you really want to burn your mouth off, then go for Grey Poupon, but me, I'll stick to rustic stone ground, if its all the same to you

Ketchup: again, the classic condiment in its bright red sauce and squeeze bottle container, it has its uses beyond just improving your fast food. it can be added on to your sauces to add both sweetness and tomato flavor. Get a good jar of the rustic chunky stuff and you will be thankful for it. Its a great way to add flavor to your burgers while adding a good kick of vegetables. In the hands of a creative cook, this can be turned into different sauces or flavor components. While there are commercially available varieties (some of them quite good), look at farmer's markets for the farm-made stuff, many of them are pretty incredible and you'll go through them pretty quickly, whether it in the summer with the results of your barbecue endeavors, or in winter to vary your roasts, braised meats or meat pies.
Salted herbs: you'll probably have a hard time getting your hands on this, as its one of those local products, but its a pretty invaluable asset in my flavor arsenal. Essentially, this is a mixture of finely chopped herbs, with a few vegetables, ripe off of the garden and preserved in salt, giving you access to these green flavors all year around. There are recipes available on the net for those who feel the need to experiment. Me, I just reach for the jar on the shelf and add them to my mash, soups, sauces, roasting vegetables spice mix...

Soy sauce: the Chinese Worcestershire sauce, its the essential flavor and color add-on to so many Chinese dishes that anybody who wants to do some Asian food who doesn't have some at hand is kidding herself. While available in any grocery store, after trying out different products, I would highly encourage you to get the imported stuff. Its not that the VH or other home brews are bad, but... no. Go a little out of your way, get the good stuff like Kikkoman. While you're at the Asian shop, look at picking up tamari and mirin. Tamari is a soy sauce, but somewhat stronger flavored, while mirin in a cooking rice wine. Both of these are key components of Japanese cuisine.

Angostura bitters: the enhancer from Trinidad, made from a secret mixture of herbs, roots and possibly vaudou, its one of those who pack a big punch is a tiny amount. Most commonly used in cocktails, try using it in soups, sauces, or in any other situation where adding some amplifier would be a good idea. You really don't need to add a lot; a few drops are generally enough. Easily available in any grocery store that also carries wines, and is generally found right next to the maraschino syrup.

Harissa: the Tunisia hot sauce common to all of North Africa, it will bring both heat and flavor to those tagines and other middle-eastern dishes, prefect for hot summer nights or a taste of the exotic at any time of the year. It can be found in specialty shops, and of course, in ethnic grocery stores. In those shop, expect to find their home brew (and far superior mix), but you'll probably have to use it fairly fast. It is also conveniently found in resealable tubes, just like toothpaste. Don't mix them up, unless you feel like playing a nasty prank on your hungover roommate.

Pesto: going on a milder streak here, we're looking at an essential Italian staple for the magical quick-fix when a simple, yet flavorful sauce is needed. Essentially a fresh basil and olive oil mix, with the essential parmegiano and pine nuts. Unless you love arguments, don't ask Italians which one is the best, every nonna has her secret recipe blend that is, of course, the best. Tho its fun to see them argue about it. Pesto can be fragile, so once that the jar is opened, keep it in the fridge and make sure that there is always a layer of olive oil on top, it acts as a sealing cap and prevents mold.

Besides the ready to use concoction, there's a few others that don't quite fit in the other basics categories, but that you should have on hand because of their versatility and their usefulness.

Honey: honey is the old school sweetener, used since time immemorial to infuse a dish or drink with deliciousness that masks its otherwise bland nature. A spoonful of honey mixed in the cooking rice turns the dish into something far more appealing. It can also replace sugar in certain savory preparations where it's flavors would work in combination with the existing spices. And its great to have on hand to make tea more appealing and to treat a sore throat in winter.

Maple syrup: like honey it can be used as a sweetener (say for a Sunday morning coffee) or a flavor enhancer. Used sparingly, as I know that for most of you, its going to be hard to come by and/or expensive, but dont bother with so-called table syrup, its s terrible imitation.

Dried vegetables: a convenient mixture that comes in several varieties, useful for flavoring rice and to create quick soups from scratch. Treat it like flavoring herbs and use moderately if you want to stretch your supplies.

Vanilla: get the real stuff, not the artificial junk, even if its cheaper. A few drops are enough to either flavor directly, or enhance the flavor of many sweet dishes and baked goods. While you could got for the beans, they are rather on the pricey side, but if you feel that its the only way to go, then by all means, go for it, but use it smartly. The pods can be used to infuse a couple of times, so make sure that you keep them in an airtight container in the fridge after use.

Corn starch: not a flavor component, but a thickener. Its a quick way to thicken a sauce, to make a milk pudding and is pretty essential to Chinese cuisine. It is used in the marinade to help thicken the sauce, but also to make the flavors stick to the meats.

Toasted flour: basically, this is wheat flour that got toasted to a brown color. It is used to add color and flavor to sauces and gravy. Not essential, but useful to anybody who likes some delicious gravy or darker sauces

Bouillon cubes: they come in a variety of flavors and are a useful way to have stock at hand even if you have limited freezer space or cannot be bothered to make your own stock. Its a base, so you'll have to add some flavorings to that, but it takes little to turn a basic chicken or vegetable bouillon into a delicious soup. Think or your basic Ramen for example...

Once that you've got your flavors down, you turn the bland into the extraordinary, which is great relief to the down and out. With some practice, you'll start saving money, simply because when you'll eat your takeouts, it will be so below what you can make at home that you wont bother much and just whip out your own meals. And if you still have access to cheap and delicious eats, then congratulations, you are lucky buggers. Send us pictures and be happy.

For the rest of you, to your cutting boards and dish out!

Friday, June 10, 2011


I'm taking a short break from the blog, as I am working on a few projects that are taking up some of my time. There should be a new post in a few days, so don't go thinking that I've dropped this work; there's loads of material yet to cover, so stay tuned!