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: