Things That Were Cooked Memorial Day 2012

Outside of writing, cooking is probably my favorite creative outlet. Annoyingly I only get to do it rarely because cooking for one is utterly joyless for me. If I can’t share what I’m making, I don’t see much point in it. This has more to do with my personality than my menu. It’s like how I don’t consider a story done until I get a solid bit of feedback from a handful of my fans.

Anyway, a few times a year I do get the chance to cook for a crowd and I always post my trials and errors here, usually along with pictures of the food…or at least of the weekend. I took zero pictures last weekend so this will be an even more absurd exercise than normal as I’ll just throw stock photos into the mix.

1. Pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe

This is quickly becoming a go-to dish for me. It’s easy as hell but it uses enough weirdo ingredients that people go “Oooh” and “Ahhh” and if you play it right you come across as a genius.

Basically if you can taste food for texture than you can make this. Get four hot italian sausages, split open the casing, brown and mash up the meat in a pan.

Brocolli RabeGet a bunch of broccoli rabe. This is “Oooh” ingredient number one. I bought it at the A&P, but it’s good to lie and say you went to some farmer’s market thing. You steam this. If you don’t know how to steam something, well, you put it in a pot with enough water to make steam but not so much that the broccoli is drowning in it. Ideally you have a steamer insert to go into the pot to make an inch of room between the water at the bottom and the broccoli.

Now this is important. As it’s steaming, TASTE THE BROCCOLI RABE. You should have prepped it by snipping it into little bits and discarding the stems when they get too thick. So pop a bit into your mouth now and then until it has the right texture. The flavor will be bitter, that’s what broccoli rabe tastes like, but the texture should be pleasing.

Crunchy? You’re not there yet. Mushy? You went too far. Throw it out and pretend like you planned on a meat sauce instead.

It should be about ten minutes total.

Pasta is the same way. Salt your water and bring it to a boil. Throw two boxes of shells or orecchiette  (you can gain fancy points for using this) into the water once it’s boiling. Stir. Cover. When it comes back to a boil take the cover off or you’ll have a boil over. Then taste after seven minutes or so. Mushy? You’re fucked. Crunchy? Start tasting a shell every minute or so. Get it the hell out of the water sooner rather than later because there’s a lot of carry over heat so a little under will turn out to be nicely done while a little over will turn into mush in the strainer.

Dump the cooked sausage into a big bowl, dump the broccoli rabe in, dump the pasta in, stir. After that’s mixed start crumbling your blue or Gorgonzola cheese in. You want some of it to melt in the heat of the pasta but some bits should stay whole so you get contrast.

Again, this dish involves cooking three ingredients and then stirring them together but when you present it as “Orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe and a hint of blue cheese to bring it all together” people will think you’re a wizard.

2. Beet salad

BeetsI love beets. My friend thinks they taste dirty. I think he’s never washed his beets. Beets are also easy. You give them a rinse, cut the ends off, drizzle them in oil, then wrap them in foil and put them in a 350 oven for about an hour. Let them cool and then peel the skin off. You will get red dye all over the god-damned place and your hands will look like you’ve been butchering sheep. It’s fun. Once the skin is off cube your beets and TASTE THEM. If they’re too crunchy, back in the oven they go. When they have a nice plump, juiciness, they’re done. Mine had to go back in the oven. Didn’t hurt ‘em none.

Now here was my big breakthrough this year, I decided to add mango to the cubed beets. I took a mango, cut the flesh from that giant annoying seed in the middle, peeled away the flesh from the skin, cubed it, and threw it in the bowl with the beets.

Complicated, I know.

I also added a splash of Balsamic Vinegar. Then I crushed some walnuts over the top. With my fist. Because I’m all man. I mean the walnuts were out of their shells, I didn’t crush walnut shells with my fist. But shelled walnuts from a bag were crushed over the top.

This was a big winner.

3. Pulled Pork

I’ve been doing things to pork shoulders for six or seven years now and the fussier I get with things the less happy I am with the results. This year…oh by the way you should be drinking at every stage of the entire cooking process for all of these recipes. Anyway, this year there was a drunken debate about brining with a friend of mine. He said that too long can make the pork taste “wormy” and I said that I agreed but that some brining was needed and then I think we quoted Always Sunny for awhile.

But we did, indeed, brine the pork shoulder. We had a picnic shoulder cut…thing of pork. To make a brine you heat some water in a pot and add a ton of salt. How do you know how much salt? TASTE THE WATER. It should be ocean salty or saltier. Then you need to cool it down because you can’t put pork into hot water to brine because that’s disgusting.

Honey glazed pork shoulder rawSo why heat the water in the first place? Because cold water won’t let as much salt dissolve in it as hot water does. So you up the heat, dissolve a lot of salt in it, then cool your brine down. If you’re adding ice to cool it keep in mind that the ingredients of ice are: water. So you’re adding water to your brine. So your salt level will decrease as the ice melts. It can be easier just to shove the pot in the freezer for awhile so you don’t have to think as much. Remember, you should be drinking so thinking should be an anathema to you at this point.

Then the pork goes into the brine and the whole thing goes somewhere at a temperature safe to store meat overnight.

Now here’s where I switched things up this year. Normally I take a big pan and put quartered onions and garlic along the bottom, and add some liquid (water, apple juice, bourbon, a mixture of some sort, whatever) then put the pork in and tent it with foil and let it sit in a 250 oven for most of the day. I’ve never been crazy happy with the results.

This year I opted not to tent it.

I do need to stress the quartered onions in the pan. You don’t want the pork just sitting on the bottom of the pan cause it’ll overcook there and get stuck and blech.

Anyway, no tenting, 250 for most of the day, and then I cranked it up to 450 for an hour. This did…something. I don’t know, I think the tenting in past years has ended up steaming the pork more than slow cooking it. The object is to make the fat at the top of the pork (oh put your pork in fat side up) render down through the meat, self basting the whole sucker.

No tenting seemed to help that process more. Again, I think it was steaming too much before, and then the blast of high heat at the end really let her get some color and run through the last bit of fat.

By the way, cracklin’s, i.e. the pieces of fat that have rendered entirely into browned chips, are fucking delicious.

Then you pull the pork and serve it up with things and stuff.

4. Pesto Pasta

Here’s another “recipe” that’s me-proof but makes people “Oooh” and “Ahhh.” You don’t even cook anything here except the pasta. You make the whole thing in a Cuisinart. First garlic, that can be mildly tricky because garlic cloves in a Cuisinart like to bounce around like lunatics and not chop but on pulse you can get the suckers to pulverize. Then you add basil. Not dried, herby, basil, but fresh basil still on the stem.

Pesto

Again, bought it at the A&P. Wash it, cut off the thicker parts of the stem, then into the Cuisinart. You’ll get a weird half result here with leaves smooshing against the side but that’s okay because ingredient three is olive oil. Drizzle it in until you get a nice smooth paste consistency. Then maybe some shredded parmigiana. Some people add cream here too. Most of this is optional. Again, you should be drinking, so have fun with it. I actually don’t remember what I added. Except salt. How much salt? Well first you TASTE YOUR PESTO. Then add some salt. Then TASTE AGAIN. When you like the taste you’re there.

At the end of all of this I throw in some pistachios. I don’t turn them to mush, just pulse until they break down. This is another “Ooooh” thing that makes you seem like a wizard. They add a nice crunch, distinguish your pesto from other pestos, and they’re green and salty so it’s a nice match.

Then cook some pasta and mix.

5. Wings

Just go to the Alton Brown recipe. It looks like a pain but good lord it makes fantastic wings.

6. Cheese plate? Salad? Grilled things?

I don’t know. I cook a lot when I get the chance and was constantly throwing things together.

Just keep in mind that people love eating, it brings them together, and if you have a lot of heavy dishes you should make something lighter to balance it out. Too much light stuff and you should anchor it with something heavy. Too much tangy? Add some sweet. Too much starch? Make more meat.

Oh and always drink while you cook. Always. That’s the most important part.

Unless you don’t drink.

In which case bring whatever you love into the kitchen with you, because if you aren’t having fun doing it then the food gods will be angry and your food will pay and then really what’s the point?

New York BBQ Festival

This past weekend was the New York BBQ Festival. I went and stuffed my face. This is one of those things that my group always talks about going to but then never does. This year I’m happy to say we made it, though I do have to recommend arriving at around 11:00.

I go there five minutes before everyone else and managed to eat a fried blackberry pie while waiting. Then I wept openly on the sidewalk. God that pie was good.

Sadly I ate it too fast to photograph, but here are some other shots. Most of them are fuzzy due to smoke…which is awesome.

Here we have the world’s greatest traffic sign:

Here is a proud member of the BBQ family alongside his tools:

Here we have delicious, delicious sausage being grilled:

Here’s an old pro serving up some pulled pork sandwiches (these were the most delicious things I tasted all day by the way):

And the following are various signs on various smokers. Apparently BBQ enthusiasts also love word play:

Fantastic day, was home napping and full of meats by one.

And, again, I have to recommend showing up early. This was taken at maybe 12:30:

Not a seat to be found.

Man those sandwiches were good…

Last Sunday’s Cooking

The pots were rallied and the pans were rounded up again this past weekend for some more adventures in cooking.

If you ever cook anything anywhere for anyone, always start with one of these:

No matter how badly you mess up the rest of your meal, people will remember the delicious cheese and olives.

The rest of the menu was very simple. Normally I like to cook 80,000 dishes and take over my friends’ apartments for hours on end, but this time there were only three dishes. Although they did take lots of time and space so that was good.

The simplest was a zucchini pancake:

Shredded zucchini was salted heavily and allowed to sit in a colander for twenty minutes to purge out moisture. Then it was wrapped in cloth and squeeeeeeeeezed to get more water out. Then some beaten egg whites (soft peaks) were folded in with some seasonings, flour and sugar. Finally it was pan fried in oil. Very nice. And no I don’t have a picture of the final product. That would make too much sense.

The second dish was osso buco. This sounds crazy fancy but it’s just veal shanks seasoned, dredged in some flour and seared off in oil:

These then get transferred to a dutch oven. Actually you can brown the shanks in the dutch oven to start with but there was some pan confusion so that didn’t quite happen. Anyway, deglaze what you can with chicken stock and some wine, throw in your normal trinity and some fresh herbs (rosemary makes things happy) and put into a 350 degree oven for about two hours making sure the liquid in the pan covers the shanks. Pull when fork tender.

The final dish was insane and wasn’t actually my department. My friend made raviolis. Home made raviolis. Like the pasta was from scratch.

Isn’t that pretty? Flour and eggs and a pasta roller and you get these nice sheets of pasta. They then get cut:

This basically amounts to slave labor, constant kneading and rolling and sheeting and cutting. But it’s fun. There’s a lesson there about the nature of work and your attitude towards it but never mind that because here’s the crazy part: the raviolis were BEET raviolis.

Baked beets were shredded. And yes I know this looks terrifying:

Then they were mixed with ricotta and seasonings. And yes I know this looks trippy:

Then the ravs were stuffed creating an army of scalloped pasta to do one’s bidding:

Pretty weird looking, rather labor intensive, very delicious.

A poppy butter sauce makes a nice finish.

Also you should drink wine.

Like a  lot of it.

Pork and Earl

Normally after I cook things I try and get some pictures of the dish and provide some semblance of a recipe to share with you all. At least, that’s what I decided I would do after my last cooking excursion. I shall be known as that cook guy who also writes books.

As I mentioned last week, my big Labor Day attempt was going to be the making of pulled pork.  However, I didn’t get a whole lot of  pictures of the food that was made. I did get a lot of pictures of the sorts of waves a hurricane stirs up when it’s passing by miles away, as that is precisely what Hurricane Earl was doing. So we’ll do a sort of hodge podge here of pictures of waves and descriptions of pork and it will make perfect sense.

First, here is what I drank:

I love that picture and I think Maker’s Mark or Canada Dry should buy it off me.

As for cooking, and as I just said, the main dish was pulled pork. I had to go with cooking in a normal oven as my smoker has been banned from my family’s house. But it turned out marvelously. Not that I have any real recipes to come away with, but I learned a lot about the various techniques. First I brined the pork:

I basically kept putting salt into water until it tasted brackish to me. This measurement means a lot more than cups and gallons as I can never remember that, but I will remember how salty the water tasted. Then I dumped in sugar until it wasn’t horrible to taste. Then I soaked the pork shoulder for about fifteen hours. I think I could go ahead and soak for much longer as well as add some spices to the brine. The finished product, while delicious, could have used some added seasoning and brining supposedly lets the flavors in the soaking liquid fill up the inside of the meat. I’m told that purists don’t like to brine pork shoulder as they prefer a milder flavor and brining tends to make things taste “too much like ham.” But it’s my damned pork and I wanted more saltiness so a longer soak next time I think.

Then I made up a spice rub and applied it:

No idea what was in it. I smelled the spices I had until I had a pungent, spicy mess of powders which I then coated the meat with once I had removed it from the brine.  I let this sit for awhile in an attempt to brine the meat and dry rub it…no idea if that’s legal but it’s what I did. I’m not entirely sure how much this added as I had to use a semi-wet cooking method so all the spices might have simply dripped off in the oven. I would probably pay more attention to my brine next time and less to my rub. But I wouldn’t cook my meat naked, either.

Then I put the pork into a disposable roasting pan and threw in some quartered onions and some celery. Then I added some Maker’s Mark and water. Not a lot, maybe enough until the liquid came half an inch up the sides of the pan:

Next I set the oven for 250 degrees, covered the pan in foil and let her sit in there for about nine hours. The resulting meat was utterly wonderful. It was so tender that I didn’t really pull or shred it so much as tap it with a spoon and watch it dissolve into moist pieces of pork:

And that’s really it. A simple easy recipe. Once shredded, the meat was wonderful by itself or spread on a potato roll with a slice of swiss cheese to top it.

Bon appetit!

The Jersey Shore after Hurricane Earl


Hog Wild

This coming Labor Day weekend I shall be heading out to New Jersey to spend some time drinking beer, dodging possible hurricanes and cooking. This happens a few weekends over the course of any given summer (minus the possible hurricane) but it is usually only once a summer that I do battle against my most ancient of foe, the pork butt.

And, no, that doesn’t mean…you know…pork butt. It’s what they call a pork shoulder, which is what pulled pork is made out of, and it was my great honor and great mistake a few years ago to say, “You know what? I think I’ll try making some of that pulled pork.”

This resulted in hours of research on rubs:

Way too many trips to the hardware store:

The building of a homemade smoker:

And a lot of very tasty, but not quite perfect, cooked pig:

For someone who’s a bit of a neurotic perfectionist, pulled pork represents the ideal cooking project. You can tinker with near unlimited elements from your rub to your smoke to your technique, it takes tons of time so you really feel like you’ve got your teeth into a project, there’s heat management and multiple phases to fret over and at the end everyone is so drunk and starving because it always takes four hours longer than you told them that all you get are compliments on how good it tastes.

This weekend I go into battle one more time. The homemade smoker, sadly, has been scrapped and I am left with only a standard oven for this year’s try.

Unconventional? Yes.

Lacking the utter craziness of past attempts? Yes.

Downright sacrilegious to barbecue enthusiasts? Yes.

A quest I refuse to give up on despite all of this?

Hells yes.

On Saturday it’s time to get my pork on, come hell or hurricane.

Things That Were Made (Smoked) Last Weekend

Last summer, some of you might recall, I made a foray in the art of cooking with smoke and decided to make the homemade smoker from Alton Brown’s show, Good Eats.  You take an earthenware flower pot, put a hot plate at the bottom, a tin full of chips on top of that, a grill grate down inside of it, you put your meat on the grill grate, top it off with another pot, then plug it in and walk away:

smoker4

It works frightiningly well.  I’ve heard people talk about how finicky smokers are and how using them outside can be tough because the weather can affect your temperature, but the earthenware is so thick and so good at holding onto heat that it never wavered. It always held at a nice 200-210 degrees through pretty strong wind and even some sprinkles.

The first day I made pulled pork.  Pulled pork takes a loooooong time.  I was up early:

sunrise

Then the pork went on:

pork-before

Twelve hours later the pork came off:

pork-after

Awesome bark, great flavor, extremely tender.  The only thing I would change is that I’d like to try giving it a longer brine.  I was only able to soak it over night which, considering I got it in late and was up early, wasn’t that long a time.  I’d like to give it like a four day soak and see how that effects things.

But otherwise I’m so very happy with my smoker.  If anything, actually, the thing is too easy to use.  The next day we decided to smoke some more stuff.  I did some sausages that I stuffed with jalapenos and cheese:

sausage-before

sausage-before-2

Those turned out pretty well:

sausage-after

There were some ribs that were smoked as well but I didn’t get a shot of them. They turned out awesome.  There was talk of smoking some chicken wings but that never materialized.  For that matter there was talk of smoking a pizza and a hot dog bun and possibly some Cheetos and, had we not been incredibly stuffed full of food, we probably would have tried it.

Also, you’ll notice that there isn’t a damned vegetable in sight. I was so fixated on getting the pork right that I didn’t exactly round out the meal.  Yes, we had coleslaw, but that was really just part of the pork delivery system.  Then again had there been any vegetables lying around I most likely would have tried to smoke them (I’m sitting here wondering how many stoners are going to wander onto this blog post).

So this, the second outing with my crazy-ass homemade smoker, was such a success that I think I had my fill of smoked meats for about six  months.  Which is good and bad.

Oh, and you’ll notice in the top picture how I use a seashell to block the hole on the top of the smoker.  This is what the shell looked like at the end of the weekend:

Which I think is beautiful.

Things That Were Cooked Last Weekend

I had a cooking outing on Saturday.  I will attempt to walk you through this visually, although being busy cooking means not being free to take photos.  Some of the more interesting stuff went undocumented and some of the better looking stuff was cooked not by me but by my happy cooking friend.

So be it.

Everything started at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle:

Whole Foods Outside

This is the only picture I was able to take inside before being told I wasn’t allowed to take pictures:

Whole Foods Inside

I don’t know why they don’t allow photos.  I’ve never run a store so I’d imagine there are plenty of reasons, the first that springs to mind is that they don’t want a bunch of idiots like myself rearranging their fruit to take photos while paying customers are trying to shop.  But it’s a shame.  That place is beautiful and I’d like to photograph its pants off.

On to cooking.

I was in charge of the protein and we settled on baby back ribs. I went with Alton Brown’s recipe which involves putting a dry rub on the ribs, letting them sit for at least an hour, then wrapping each rack in a separate aluminum foil pouch (I have no before pics of the ribs or the rub sadly):

Foil Wrapped Ribs

Here’s an artsy picture of them…aluminum foil is shiny:

foil

You then make a braising liquid, pour some into each pouch, seal the pouches and park them in a low oven for a few hours.  It’s an interesting cooking method, one I’ve never used before, and something went a little wrong.  The ribs tasted great and all but they weren’t BBQ Baby Back Ribs.  They were…I don’t know what they were.  They didn’t have the sticky mahogany coat I was aiming for.  And after they’ve cooked you’re supposed to drain out the remaining liquid from each foil pouch and reduce it to make a glaze. Only it never really reduced into anything except brown water.  I’m thinking I put too much liquid into each pouch.  Braising requires the barest minimum of cooking liquid, otherwise you’re stewing.  So I guess I made stewed ribs.  Which still tasted awesome.

Ribs

That photo is making me hungry.

We also had Okra…

Chopped Okra

…which you toss in corn meal.  No egg or flour or any washes are required as Okra is slimy.  I know saying that a food is slimy doesn’t sound that awesome but it allows your dredge to stick to it au natural which makes it fry up surprisingly light and crisp:

okra

We had biscuits.

I didn’t make these.  I hate baking.  My happy cooking friend also claims to hate baking which started to sound a little silly by the end of the night as, among other things, she managed to turn this:

Cut Flour

Into this:

Biscuit Dough

Into this:

Biscuits

We also had grits.  I’ve never made grits before.  We used quick grits.  There are grits, which require full cooking time, quick grits, which are specially ground regular grits that require very little cooking time, and then there are instant grits, which are precooked grits which only require hot water to rehydrate.

Here’s a fun experiment.  Try cooking grits in a group and counting how many times My Cousin Vinny comes up in conversation:

vinny

It’s a lot. I can’t find the actual clip.  You either know what I’m talking about or you don’t, and if you don’t then you were living in a cave for all of 1992.

Anyway, grits are crazy-stupid-easy.  You boil them for five minutes.  Then you dump cheese and butter into them. We also threw in some chopped jalapenos:

grits

What else…collared greens and fried green (yellow) tomatoes:

Collared Greens

tomatoes

No after shots of those.  Both very simple.  Greens get simmered in some salted and sugared water for about 30 minutes or until tooth tender.  Adding cooked bacon and caramelized onions, shockingly, adds some nice flavors.

Tomatoes get floured, egged and dredged then pan fried in some oil.

And here is a shot of some tomato and dill which has nothing to do with anything nor do these two ingredients have anything to do with each other but they looked nice:

Dill and Tomato

There was also key-lime pie and pecan tarts but no pictures were taken of those.

Oh.

Wine and beer:

beer

Can’t forget that.

Joe out.