Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Happy BBQirthday to You

The ancient Romans possessed a singular genius for culinary hedonism most alarmingly illustrated by their famous (though apparently apocryphal) vomitoriums. One must shudder at the image the word almost necessarily conjures: fat pasty men with bulging stomachs just barely covered by food-stained togas; gluttonous, oversexed, reeking of perfume and puking together in a room full of vomit. Yet somehow, and frighteningly, these are my fellows in sin. In the spirit of true Roman hedonism, Hana's birthday became an orgiastic frenzy of too much food, wine, merriment, and fire. Not quite a culinorgy, but trending there, trending.

As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto points out in his excellent Near a Thousand Tables (read it now!), gluttony has been an ideal until just this last century: fatties have been cultural heroes for millennia.

So we were in good company. Heroic company, at any rate.

As with all birthdays, holidays, and just plain old days, I do my best to break the dinner table with an overabundance of good food, and, Hana being a nice Southern girl, I of course had to go and make a good old Southern Sunday dinner: pulled pork shoulder and homemade barbecue sauce, cole slaw, potato salad, real macaroni and cheese, green chile corn bread, biscuits, and apple pie. All we were missing was bourbon and moonshine.

And as a nice Jewish boy from the outskirts of The City, I'm not exactly an old barbecue head, but there ain't nothing as easy or cheap as rubbed pork seared off on the stove and braised low and slow in beer in the oven. Five to seven hours at 350 will do the trick, the longer the better.

This type of cooking is almost entirely failsafe, and so I strongly recommend that you invent your own rub. Using recipes only as guidelines, mentally taste what you're aiming for: how will flavors work together, and what spices are appropriate?

If you're going to use sugar, which I strongly recommend, you may want to add a bit of vinegar to your braising liquid to counter the sweetness, and remember that brown sugar and molasses are more flavorful than white. If you use chipotle powder, which has a great smokey flavor, remember that it's very spicy before adding it to your rub, and that heat can tempered (moderately) by sugar and vinegar. Finally, your rub should be bolder and more powerfully flavored than may necessarily be palatable when you taste it on its own – sweeter, saltier, spicier, more bitter – because you want your flavors to really permeate the meat.

My rub, a total of about two cups, consisted of chipotle powder and mesquite, cumin, adobo (a mix of salt, onion powder and garlic powder), black pepper, and brown sugar.

I very, very generously rubbed it into a four pound shoulder, seared it on blazing hot cast iron, added a bottle of dark beer, a couple or two onions and a cup of orange juice (optional).

For the barbecue sauce, which I again recommend you invent, I brewed an insanely strong pot of coffee and dumped a cup or two into a sauce pan with the juice and zest of two oranges, two cups of ketchup, a quarter cup of vinegar, enough molasses to tame the acidity of the vinegar and the bitterness of the coffee, a whole head of garlic, cumin, salt, black pepper, and as much chipotle powder I could handle. After the pork finished, I added the braising liquid to the barbecue sauce and reduced to a nice sauce with a ketchup consistency. Bourbon, whiskey, or beer would be nice touches as well.

Because of the sheer volume of food, I'm going to hold off on posting recipes for the other items on the menu unless they're requested.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Santa Fe'asting: The Three Day Tamale

It's been two weeks since Thanksgiving now, and after many scrubbings, the kitchen still smells faintly of lard, the cabinets are now permanently splattered bright red with chile and the refrigerator is still brimming with the products of our long labor. Even after many dinners of homemade sopes and tacos and burritos there are still pounds of masa, pulled pork and jarred red chile in the ice box.

Leftovers: Tostadas with red chile pulled pork and green chile sour cream

But with all that time invested, tamales are a labor of love and well worth the trouble. As with so many of the dishes I've eaten in New Mexico, I'm constantly surprised by the depth of flavor rendered from that same supreme economy of ingredients: to my New York eyes (tongue?), at least, beef, pork, eggs, chiles, beans, corn, onions, garlic, cumin, cilantro, cinnamon and oregano are the only real mainstays of Santa Fe cuisine.

Having never made tamales for Thanksgiving, or, for that matter, ever, I was again somewhat taken aback by their sheer simplicity, so that despite our three day cook time, the actual prep and work time came down to mere hours.

Day One: Collecting the Ingredients for Red Chile Tamales

This recipe will make somewhere in the range of a hundred tamales.

5 lbs pork loin, quartered (never again! bone-in pork shoulder – pernil – is cheaper and more flavorful)
1/2 lb dried red chiles, toasted and soaked in hot water
6 cloves (or more) garlic, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 tsps Mexican oregano
2 tsps cumin

Bring several quarts of lightly salted water to boil in a medium sauce pan. Meanwhile, place a heavy-bottom stock pot over medium-high heat and toast chiles until just fragrant, add to the pot of boiling water, and turn off the heat. Alternately, spread the chiles on a sheet pan and broil for 30 seconds to a minute.

Add the chiles and half their soaking liquid to the remaining ingredients in the stock pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil, remove any accumulated scum, reduce to a simmer, and cover, skimming occassionally, for approximately five hours. At this point, the pork should just be beginning to fall apart.

Things start to fall apart.

Choose Your Own Adventure:

If, at this point, it's going on midnight and your fellow tamalistas are falling asleep, it's time to cool the pot down and shove it in the refrigerator.

If, however, you're still wide awake, remove the pork and, in small batches, blend the cooking liquid in your food processor or blender, retaining as many chiles, or as few, as you'd like. Lightly re-season with cumin and oregano but DO NOT add more salt, as you will be reducing the cooking liquid to a sauce later on.

Return the pork to the liquid, cool, and refrigerate overnight.

Day Two:
Making the masa.

It is imperative that you return the pork to the stove BEFORE making the masa, or, like me, you will cover the entire kitchen in a solid coating of pork fat. Cook with the lid off – you want that chile to reduce by half. At that point, feel free to re-season with salt and fresh minced garlic. A dash of sugar won't hurt either – I'd say two to three teaspoons.

Hana has fun playing with lard.

As you can see, making masa involves incredible amounts of fun with lard and masa flour. Given the inexactitude of Hana's masa-making, I suggest you use the recipe provided with your masa flour. For a ballpark estimate, I'd say we made approximately eight pounds of masa comprising three pounds of lard, a generous amount of salt and...well, let's hope you can do arithmetic.

If, at this point, it's going on midnight and your fellow tamalistas are falling asleep, it's time to wrap and refrigerator the masa. By now the pork should have cooked for about ten hours, total, which is just perfect.

Day Three: Panic.

60 to 100 corn husks
8 lbs prepared masa
5-ish lbs pulled pork red chile

Day three is Thanksgiving, and, if you're anything at all as ambitious as Hana and I, you'll be making sourdough, yeasted biscuits, mashed sweet potatoes, and seven layer dip along with the tamales you have yet to wrap and steam.

Set two quarts of water to boil in a large stock pot. Soak the corn husks in the heating water for approximately ten minutes, remove and set aside. Dump all but an inch of water from the pot, place a steamer (if you have one) in it, return to a boil and cover.

The Game Plan:

Forcibly enlist at least four friends to help finish the tamales.

Only three friends.

While you are shredding and saucing the pork with your cooking liquid reduction, helpers numbers one through three should spread a thin layer of masa on the softened corn husks, which will probably be spread on every surface in your house.

Helper number four, meanwhile, will take your pork and place a conservative amount in the middle of each tamale.

At this point, the corn husks should all contain a thin layer of masa in their center, with no masa touching the edges of the corn husks, as well as a thin line of pork running down the middle of the masa.

Having completed your job, you will begin to roll the tamales : roll lengthwise, then fold the ends over and tie them tamales with torn strands of corn husk.

Finally, get all those helpers to start rolling, and throw those babies into the steamer! It should take about half an hour to cook. Maybe more. I don't know. All I know is, them babies are good!

The Final Product:


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mountain House Sourdough

Last Sunday, I took an improbable leap and landed in a gorgeous adobe house in the desert outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. The cramped Brooklyn apartment I leased out for two months is thousands of miles away and all I can focus on now is my monster of a new kitchen: the turquoise-tiled island, the dishwasher!!! and a powerful gas range.

My first day at seven thousand feet above sea level I was oxygen-deprived and staggering through the kitchen like a drunken sailor on some storm-blasted sea, searching desperately for a calm port of call for my fast-sinking ship. Land ho! There was a small yeasty package in the back of the fridge – sourdough starter – and with that sudden surge of familiarity I got my sea legs back.

What's in a starter that might get me back on my feet? Well in the past five years, I've lived in ten states – from Tennessee to Oregon to Colorado and now, New Mexico – and the one thing I've really kept with me, the one thing that says home when I don't have one, is my cooking.

For one particularly memorable three month stretch in Seattle, I shut myself inside and just baked. I'd stay up all night just to sit next to the dough as it rose, reading recipes and histories and whatever else about bread. Call me crazy. Maybe I am.

Anyway. There I was last Sunday, starting over again in this beautiful house with old friends and new and thinking, here's how we'll connect, or reconnect. I'll make bread. I grabbed the starter and threw it in tupperware with equal parts warm water and flour and just sat with it.

Sourdough is that rare synergy of transmogrified basics: flour, salt, and water become a beautifully golden dome. There's a primal feeling in that certainly very ancient act of catching wild yeast, kneading, shaping, and baking, and a blazing oven and a crackling loaf of fresh-baked bread is a sure-fire way to make new friends and strengthen the ties of old friendships.

Five hours of waiting later a frothing, sweetly fragrant starter was out on the counter waiting for more water, flour, a dash of salt and some olive oil. I felt good, recipe be damned – no measurements, just dump and stir and into the refrigerator we go for an overnight rise.

The next day saw me sitting pretty on the floor between the fireplace and my blazing oven, waiting for that bread, that floured shaped jiggling gaseous mass to rise and be thrown into a preheated cast iron skillet.

In it went. The key to good bread is time alone and, oh, the delicious torture of waiting. Out it came, crackling, smoking, and Maillard-ed to a husky umber and, "Oh my God! You made that? You can make bread? Gimme some of that!"

Mountain House Sourdough:
2 cups starter (pancake batter consistency)
1 cup warm water
1 1/2 cups bread flour
3 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Day 1:
Combine all the ingredients in a large tupperware or glass container at least twice the capacity of the dough; briefly mix, cover, and store in the refrigerator overnight.

Day 2:
Take the dough out of the refrigerator. Place a baking stone or cast iron skillet (at least 2 quarts) in the oven and preheat at the highest setting for at least an hour. Once the dough has doubled (18 hours with my starter) dump it out onto a heavily floured surface and, with wet or floured hands, work it into a rough ball as quickly as possible. Remember, this is a very wet dough so you're not going to want to mess with it much.

After the second rise, dump the dough as unceremoniously or ceremoniously as you'd like onto the baking surface and get it into the oven fast. After half an hour, reduce the temperature to 475 and keep on baking for another 15 to 30 minutes depending on how the bread looks, feels, and sounds (it will sound hollow when it's done.)

To my mind, the bread acquires complexity of flavor as it ages, so try to keep some leftovers if you can manage!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Father's Day Smoked Turkey

Across the country this Father's Day, families are drinking beer, playing football and grilling burgers, wings, and kebabs. And every year in Warwick, my family has our grandfather's smoked turkey.

We pass the long drive to his house with smoked bird on the mind. To begin with, why smoked turkey for Father's Day?

More importantly, why hasn't anyone seen him make it – not in some twenty-odd years? His recipe is secret, its origin a mystery, but one thing is certain: that is some serious heaven on a platter.

His freezer is stuffed with these enormous birds, trussed in their sooty butcher's twine and ranging in color from deep bronze to a burnt caramel black. They're so pungent that, even frozen, you still catch heady whiffs.

Yet when asked for the recipe he smiles enigmatically, mutters something about soy sauce and brine under his breath, and that's that. We may never know more, save that we savor them all, right down to the smoke-impregnated twine.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorialize This!

Memorial Day finds us seated on flimsy folding chairs at a cemented backyard barbecue in Queens County, Long Island – two Jews, fifteen Mexicans, a Bolivian and a Puerto Rican – and though you might say I'm a bad citizen – I'm hard pressed to tell you what it is exactly that we're meant to remember on this mysteriously most memorable of days – I'm giving some serious thought to the concept of "being American."

Because here we all are, hiding from the sun under a black tarp stretched taut against a strong breeze coming off the Atlantic, Coronas in hand, cumbia and tejano blaring on the stereo. Because we are speaking Spanish and English and eating Korean barbecue and topping it with a roasted tomatillo salsa Alma's mother taught her to make in Mexico City. Because nopales mingle with sriracha and generic Kraft barbecue sauce on my plate, and Alma's three year old son Diego is happily covered head to toe in all of it. Because Luis can't get enough of the Vietnamese salad that Sara and I doused in nam pla.

So I have to wonder: looking towards the bright future of their infant country as they celebrated the first of many such memorable days, did the Founding Fathers, or whoever founded this whatever it is Memorial Day, see us – this motley crew slowly baking on a cracked concrete slab in Queens – when they imagined America?

It's possible that this question, and the reality of a place as richly diverse as Queens, has defined the Eastern US more than any other; it's a certainty that the arguments it spawns affect us all. So although the American dialogue is characterized as much by violent nationalism as by an oft-stated, ill-practiced aspiration to cultural inclusion, our character is definite: we are a nation of immigrants and our cuisine shows it.

On this Memorial Day, sharing Korean barbecue with a transplanted family from Mexico City, our plates are a map of East and West, indigenous and imported, rice noodles and nopales and tomatillos. It's clear that these interminglings of cuisines and cultures is what makes us so distinctly American, and for me, this odd, incredible fusion of flavors is the best reason to be here in Queens right now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dancing with the Wurst: A Day at the 9th Avenue Street Fair

The trucks have arrived with their greasy, quivering spiral mounds of sweet and spicy Italian sausage. They're on every street corner, those huge white behemoths of schlock on wheels, filling the air with the sickly sweet aroma of burnt vidalias and charred sausage.

Where else am I but New York, the cultural capital that can't seem to offer up a single decent street fair? Go figure – the world's most ethnically diverse city, the center of the food revolution, conquered by a fleet of shitty sausage trucks. Like a summer nightmare, a blight on an already humid, stinking city built on what used to be a malarial swamp.

But the 9th Avenue street fair is billed as something different, and I've headed up here with a sense of hope and a healthy appetite, ready for anything. Because like the Atlantic Antic, that one bright spot on the calendar of otherwise characterless festivals, this is one time we actually get a dose of some serious personality: the restaurants on the block will be cooking for us?

Strangely or perhaps not so in New York, when culinary personality does pop up on the street, it tends to manifest in seriously barbarous form: severed animal heads, whole spitted piglets and seriously medieval South American barbecue. Go figure.

Nestled in the carnage of the day, and tucked between dancehall DJs and "buy one bra get two free" deals, we hit some truly New York gold: homemade mochi and even more homemade pupusas. But really, and truly, I had come for the currywurst.
If you'd like a history of the currywurst, I'm not exactly the expert you want to talk to, but it's one of those glorious cross-cultural amalgamations that make the ravages of centuries of vicious colonialism, culture conflict and globalization just oh-so delicious. To put it basely, it's just a hotdog doused in curry, but that's like writing off Venice as a stinking, glorified fishing village on stilts – which it is, I guess. But because I hate hotdogs, and I love currywurst.

The right sausage, crisp, so ready to burst you've already grabbed a napkin to wipe your face before you even buy the thing. The bread is crisp and dense, a welcome departure from the wonderbread fluff that turns to playdough in your stomach. The sandwich almost overwhelmed by pickled red cabbage slaw and a seriously delicious onion relish. A blast of curry.

Why the curry? If you have to ask, you'll never know. But really, it just works. This sucker is GOOD.

And then we bump into this. Oh, New York.

Although after the fat tranny hooker I ran into that morning, gut bulging in a cut off mini tee...New York, I love you for it all, but please, please, please, get rid of the sausage trucks!