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.