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Thursday, March 31, 2011

"La Viande des Pauvres"

I've been trying to find a schedule for my blogging, and generally, Mondays and Thursdays are the best days to cook for me.  It being Thursday, I woke up excited for what I might try today.  Long story ensues....

I have been wanting to do a really nice lamb dish.  I have been in contact with a local (well, KIND OF local) farm about an hour and half away.  They raise Chevon and lamb for sale to the public, completely organic down to the feed.  I found out though that they are out of lamb until later in the season.  Apparently, the season starts back up around August or September.  But they do have a leg of Chevon (goat) that I will be purchasing as soon as I can get that way.  More to come on that later.  This morning though, I woke up with the taste of Chengdu lamb from P.F. Chang's on the brain.  If you have never had this dish you are missing out!  For a chain Chinese restaurant, they sure do have a handle on this thing.  Spiced lamb with onions, tomatoes, cumin, and mint?  Yes please.  But I have this thing about sitting in restaurants by myself and figured today wasn't the day.  Still my lamb craving won't subside.  So I took a ride to our local Fresh Market to peruse and kinda feel out what may be on the menu.  The best way to create a dish is to check out what is available and go from there.  It's still cold here (go figure) so I figured another sort of "pot luck" dish would be a nice way to spend a cold evening.  I've been checking out recipes for braised lamb shank and figured that would be nice.  No go.  No lamb shanks at the market so I went with the lamb chops.  After getting my meat, I walked around the produce section for a while.  It just always seems like the same old stuff laying around.  We're kind of in that in between time where things aren't quite in season yet, so it's still a lot of mass production fruits and veg.  I thought, maybe some mushrooms would be nice.  I decided to take a shot at a package of dried black trumpets.  I also picked up some nice baby carrots and potatoes for mashing.  Sounds good, right?  A nice simple warm dish.

The mushrooms require reconstituting so I follow the package directions and soak them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, after which you are "suggested" to pour the mushrooms and the now mushroom stock through a coffee filter.  Since it's hard to clean dried mushrooms, it removes all the grit and what not from them, leaving A) your mushrooms, and B) this wonderful mushroom stock.

Now I know that most people use the fancy schmancy cast iron enamel dutch ovens but me?  I got the good ol' Lodge Logic cast iron uncoated dutch oven.  Not only have I been able to do everything that you can do out of a $200 dutch oven, but it cost be around $35 and it's already pre-seasoned.  I have braised and stewed and fried and even made bread in that thing!  It really is fantastic.

Once the lamb chops were browned and the stock was rolling and the lid was on, the house filled with this beautiful smell of fresh herbs and lamb and earthy mushrooms.  That's the positive and negative of having a small house.  When you bake bread or cook dishes that have fantastic aroma, it fills the house!  (Why does no one have a fresh baked bread candle or braised lamb chop candle??)  Again, the negative side of that is just the same.  If you're making things like relish or frying chicken, prepare to smell vinegar and oil for two or three days.

Braised Lamb Chops with Black Trumpet Mushroom Sauce

4 bone-in lamb chops, roughly 1/4 pound a piece
4 to 5 cloves of roasted Garlic
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
2 to 3 cups of Vegetable stock
2 to 3 cups of Mushroom stock (from reconstituted mushrooms)
1 cup of dry white wine
1 pkg. of dried Black Trumpet Mushrooms
2 tbs. unsalted butter
2 tbs. olive oil
flour for dusting plus more for stock
salt and black pepper (for seasoning lamb)
shawarma spice blend (for seasoning lamb)

- Bring to boil 3 to 4 quarts of water in a medium pot.  Once boiling, place the mushrooms in the water.  Turn off stove and let mushrooms steep for 3 to 4 minutes.  Pour mushrooms and water though a coffee filter and set aside. **I actually poured it right into the coffee maker, which makes sense.  The mushrooms were left in the filter and the liquid in the coffee pot.

- Season the lamb chops with salt, pepper, and a pinch of shawarma on each side.  Dust each lamb chomp lightly with flour.

- In a dutch oven, heat oil on medium heat and brown lamb chops on all sides, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove chops and set aside.

- With chops removed, add two or three teaspoons of flour to the remaining oil.  Stir until lightly brown.  Deglaze the pot with the wine.  Let simmer for 4 or 5 minutes to reduce and remove the alcohol from the wine.

- Mash the heads of garlic with the tines of a fork.  Then add the garlic, rosemary, mushrooms, vegetable stock, and mushroom stock to the pot.  Bring back to a boil.

- Add chops into pot once boiling.  Place lid on pot and reduce heat to low.  Simmer for two to three hours until chops begin to pull apart from bone.  (Just don't pull them off the bone!)

- Once chops are tender, remove chops from liquid, cover and set aside, preferably in the microwave or oven.  Set a colander in a bowl and pour the liquid / mushrooms into the colander.  Let drain for a minute or so until the mushrooms are no longer dripping.

- Set aside a couple of mushrooms for garnish, then run mushroom mixture through a food processor until fine.  Meanwhile, pour liquid into a walled sauce pan and bring heat up to medium-high / high.  Add butter and mushroom mixture to the sauce.  Reduce sauce until in coats the back of a spoon.  Once thickened, run sauce through a strainer or mesh wire colander to remove most of the big pieces of mushroom.  Pour sauce into a serving boat.  

- Serve with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables.  ** I roasted some carrots in the oven with brown sugar and a good currant vinegar plus mashed potatoes (skin on) with some of the leftover garlic and fresh parmigiano reggiano.

The leftover mushroom stock can be placed in an ice tray and frozen, then used later for sauces.  It is such a rich dish with simple flavors.  Lamb is bold and the mushrooms are bold so the seasoning can be kept to a bare minimum.  The shawarma seasoning is optional.  I picked up some at a store in Mobile, AL and always use it in my lamb dishes.  A little goes a long way though.  Plus, again, the main point is the dish is simple but it looks very impressive.  For weekend chefs like myself, it's always very impressive to see these things come together.  I just wish I had a better camera so I could do some of these things justice...

Monday, March 28, 2011

One last time before summer comes....

What's that you say?  The sun is shining?  The birds are chirping?  The grass is growing?  The hay fever is getting out of control?  It must be spring!  Well... it felt like spring for about a week:  temperatures in the mid-70's, beautiful blue skies.  Time to break out the shorts and flip flops.  And then, as mother nature tends to do, we have had temperatures back in the 30's for lows again for the past couple of days and it's not looking like it's going to improve over the next week.  So I thought, what would be better than a nice bowl of chili?  After all, chili is something that I retire during the warmer months of the year and in Alabama, that's usually from around April until October or November, depending.  
Everyone has their own opinions on what chili should be.  Some like it without beans, some with.  Some like it mild, some hot.  Some like white chili and some like the traditional tomato based.  Me personally, I always go for the tomato based standard and add my heat afterward (my wife isn't a big heat fan).  This week though, with her traveling on business, I figured I could go ahead and make it the way I like it: caliente!  The following is my recipe for what we so lovingly call "dump chili".  "Dump" because you take a bunch of cans of beans and tomatoes and stock and dump it in a pot.  My dump chili has evolved though.  You can use dried beans but really, who has the time?  And technically, if you can taste the difference between dried beans and canned beans, be my guest.  

Another note on the spices:  You can use whatever mixture of spices you want, but when cooking something like chili, your flavors are going to develop overtime.  Mine started out this morning at 11 AM spicy enough to where I thought I had over spiced it.  At 5 PM when I checked it again, it was even hotter.  By 10:30 PM when I had my first bowl, it had a great front end taste and a nice back end spice to it.  So again, find some combination that you like and stick with it.  Remember what you did and try not to add things like salt throughout the cooking.  As far as the herbs I use, I have found a great tool for using dried herbs in slow cook recipes.  The mighty MORTAR AND PESTLE!!  Take what dried herbs you want for your spice mix (yes, homemade spice mix... please, PLEASE don't buy those little chili seasoning packs in the store.  They are a waste of money and full of things like MSG and the likes) and grind them in your mortar until they form a fine powder.  This way when adding them into things that slow cook, they don't turn black and nasty looking.  Plus, remember that dried herbs pack more of a punch than the fresh ones.  Be easy, don't over do it.  After grinding them, add in your other things like salt and pepper and whatnot and grind it again.  It makes for an even consistency that blends well into things that you are cooking.  I even use this trick when adding flavors to bread.

Anyways, the recipe:

Dump Chili
1 pound ground beef (80/20)
1 link chicken sausage, casing removed
1 link sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
1 large can (24 oz.) diced tomatoes
1 can (15.5 oz.) black beans
1 can (15.5 oz.) pinto or chili beans
1 can (15.5 oz.) kidney beans
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 box beef stock
1/4 tsp. liquid smoke
1 tbs. tomato paste

spice mixture:
1/4 tsp. dried cilantro, ground
1/4 tsp. dried basil, ground
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried chipotle pepper, ground
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. garlic powder

1.  Brown the beef, chicken, and sausage.  Drain well and add to a large stock pot or crock pot.
2.  Saute the onions and bell pepper in a little olive oil until onions begin to become translucent.  Add to pot.
3.  Add the beans, tomatoes, liquid smoke, and stock to pot.
4.  Make spice mixture and add to pot.
5a.  If using a crock pot, turn to low and cook for 4 hours with the lid on.  After 4 hours, remove lid and cook for another 4 hours.
5b.  If using a stock pot, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low.  Cook for 3 to 4 hours with the lid on.  Remove lid and increase heat to medium-low for another hour.

It really is a simple recipe but it's something that makes you feel good and warms up your insides on a cold day.  Plus, the recipe above serves about a billion people!  That pot of chili will last me for a couple of days eating it twice a day and maybe saving some in the freezer.  I would generally say it has 10 to 12 servings.  What's good about using the three meats is that in one bite, you may taste a little beef, the next you may get a little sausage.  It's like a forever changing dish!  I generally like my chili pretty thick... like hold your spoon upside down and it sticks thick, but the crock pot method makes it a little thinner.  It's a good way to cook chili without checking on it often.  Cooking it in a stock pot allows you to thicken it up and your own leisure.  Of course, chili doesn't end after cooking.  That's when you add your cheese, diced onions, green onions, jalapenos, sour cream, or, if you're like my buddy Cash, a couple of dashes of Ghost Pepper sauce (not recommended for the weak at heart!)  A good chili recipe is indispensable.  And believe it or not, people do make bad chili, I've have a few bowls myself.  Just surprise your family next time when you skip the pre-mixed chili starter pack at the grocery store and say, "Nope, I've got this one in the bag!"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Honorary Italian... (in my own head)

I had the pleasure of having my mom come up this week for a couple of days to see my daughter, and in turn, see me.  I always have fun with my mom and always enjoy sharing different cooking techniques and recipes that I have found because, after all, she was the one that started me on this path.  I wouldn't say that she instilled in me that it was important for a man to learn how to cook, but she made sure once I showed the interest to help me out and share family recipes with me along the way.  She was the one I learned how to make chili from.  She was the one I learned how to make cornbread from.  A lot of what I know about cooking I owe to her.

After a long night Wednesday with my daughter barely sleeping four hours total overnight (which means I slept a total of about two hours), today just didn't seem the day to cook.  I knew that it would probably be the last chance for a long time that I would get to cook for my mom which I really enjoy doing.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity so I put on my big boy shorts and sat there with my mind blurry.  For a while now, I have wanted to make gnocchi, but the task always seemed daunting.  I've always heard that it was a hard process, that it took a lot of precision timing, that the humidity had to be at 38.3 percent and the temperature varying from 69 degrees to 71 degrees from start to finish of cooking... OK, maybe not the last bit, but I had heard or read somewhere that it was a difficult process.  So in my "blurry mind" state, it seemed like a great idea to tackle this challenge today.  But of course, I didn't want to make just any old gnocchi, I wanted something different.  And then it hit me:

Potato and Banana Gnocchi....

HUH?  Really?  Yeah.  After doing a quick Google search I couldn't find any recipes for a potato banana gnocchi.  How exciting!  So it was set.  I got a basic recipe for gnocchi and planned for the melding of worlds.  But most gnocchi is served with a pesto sauce or something of the sort.  I personally like mine with a little Parmesan, red pepper flake, and olive oil.  None of that sounded good with banana gnocchi.  After another quick search to find what kind of flavor pairings went good with banana, I found that Heston Blumenthal, one of the leaders of the molecular gastronomy front, found that banana and parsley went together well.  So there it was.  A potato banana gnocchi with a parsley sauce.  Grocery store, home, nap, then cooking....

I have to say the gnocchi couldn't have been easier.  I have no idea why someone would mark this as a daunting task.  If you can boil potatoes and run them through a ricer, you really shouldn't have a problem making it.  However, I did split the recipe in two: one half for the regular gnocchi (just in case) and one half for the banana gnocchi.  An hour later and it was all said and done.  I boiled the banana and pan fried the plain. 

When I presented my dish to my mom, I found out that she had never actually had gnocchi before!  Wow... So mine was the first.  How embarrassing it could have been if it wouldn't have turned out, but turns out.... it turned out.  It was better than any store bought rubber balls I have ever had.  It was light and fluffy and full of flavor.  In the end, I hate that mine was the first that my mom ever tried.  Fresh is always better as I've come to find out and now she will probably go home and make it ten times better than I could have ever thought of doing it.  That's the price you pay though.  It's also kind of the point of cooking for others, to inspire and to improve.  After all, that's what she taught me.

I'll try and post the recipe for this at a later time on a recipe page.  If you can't wait until then, leave me a message and I'll send it to you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning.

Consider this my mission statement....

For the longest time I have considered myself a good cook.  People tend to like what I cook.  People tend to eat what I cook.  People tend to talk about what I cook.  I always found this to be the driving factor for my next dish.  Maybe if they liked the one before, I could "over the top" the next dish and they would talk about that one even longer.  After a while, I found out that my cooking was very limited.  I could churn out a mean stuffed manicotti.... wow.  I could barbeque chicken... amazing.  Then my wife and I (as "foodies") would go to these restaurants and eat fine dining and be absolutely blown away!  All of these new ingredients that you couldn't find at your local Wal-Mart!  Creative and inventive ways to turn a piece of chicken into a masterpiece!  Flavors that exploded and changed!  That's when I knew in the greater scheme of things I knew nothing.

But it turns out I had a pretty good "base".  My roux was in the light brown stage.  I still can't break down a whole chicken without it looking like something a car has hit.  I still burn meals.  I still used canned beans in my chili.  But I can also make risotto from memory.  I can make a mean braised chicken thigh dish that would put most restaurants in this town to shame.  And that chili is getting broken down and rethought every time I cook it.

The point is, I want more.  I want to band together with other foodies and share my experiences and experiments with the world.  I want to learn new techniques from people instead of from "The Joy of Cooking".  I want to create the food that I love to eat and share it with others.  Hopefully this will come.  Hopefully others will join me in my quest.  Over the next couple of months, I plan on getting back to my roots.  I grew up in a small town in south Alabama that conjures up visions of sitting on the porch shelling peas with my grandparents in the summertime and making homemade ice cream as a reward.  I want to get back to that.  I think it's absurd to pay five dollars for a bottle of dried herbs that have some unknown expiration date.  I pay good money for tomatoes and peppers that sit in the crisper and go bad and then go in the trash.  I want to know what its like to go into MY garden and pick MY peppers and MY tomatoes and MY herbs and make a fresh salsa.  I plan on planting my own backyard garden before Good Friday (because I've heard that's when farmers say the best time to plant is) so the building and planting will be chronicled over the next month or so.  I also plan on seeking out the local farmers and growers and creating dishes from truly fresh ingredients.  All of this and so much more!  Huge plans!

Other than that, if it's food, it's going up.  Local restaurants serving good food, great finds in beer (now that the gravity laws have been raised in Alabama!) and wine, how-to's, what not's and must haves.  I'm open for suggestions.  I'm open for criticism.  It's the only way to get better as a chef.  Challenge me.  I stared at the produce section this weekend for 10 minutes with a package of chicken thighs in hand, trying to come up with something new.  The end result was a braised chicken thigh with parsnips and green apple, wilted cabbage, and stone ground cheese grits!  It was delicious and totally crazy.  I'm just saying...

Thanks in advance and hopefully, we will all learn a little something from each other.