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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Beat It

It's Derby week here in the Bluegrass.
Let the parties begin.

During the week leading up to the big race, it's all about bourbon and classic Kentucky fare. Steeped in tradition, platters of beaten biscuits filled with shaved country ham will appear at Derby parties alongside roasted beef tenderloins with Henry Bain's Sauce, bowls of burgoo, benedictine tea sandwiches, miniature Hot Browns, and versions of chocolate walnut pies. Kentucky Proud.

I've always had a thing for beaten biscuits this time of year. With their crisp chewy texture, beaten biscuits stuffed with country ham are perfect bite-sized party snacks. While they appear dainty and delicate, they're quite the opposite.  Unlike their familiar flaky soft-dough counterparts, beaten biscuits are more like crackers or hardtack. Classically southern, they originated in Virginia and made their way across the mountains to Kentucky before traveling north to Maryland. In New England, they're called sea biscuits because they were staples on whaling ships.

Originally, beaten biscuits were made without leavening agents. The dough was beaten vigorously  (for 45 minutes to an hour, about 500 whacks) to incorporate air and develop  glutens in the dough  for a subtle rise. Beaten, not stirred. Beaten, not kneaded.  Back in the day, axes, hoes, clubs, iron bars, and hammers were used to beat the crap out of the dough.   Nowadays, rolling pins or mallets eliminate the need for farm equipment.

Beaten Biscuits with Shaved Country Ham and Course-Grain Maple Bourbon Mustard.

I've been on a mustard-making kick lately. When I discovered how simple it was to prepare, I went a little crazy. With homemade mustard, the textures and flavor profiles are endless. Because it was Derby week, I hit the bourbon trail.

I tumbled 3/4 cups black mustard seeds and 1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds into a medium sized bowl. After dousing them with 3/4 cups Maker's Mark Bourbon and 1/2 cup water, I let the seeds steep for 2 hours. When the seeds softened, I added 1 tablespoon turmeric, 2 teaspoons paprika, 6 tablespoons dry yellow mustard, 1/3 cup pure maple syrup, 1/4 cup brown sugar, salt,  and 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar. I poured the mix into a heavy cast iron skillet, brought it to a boil, reduced it a simmer, and let it rip for 5 minutes. When the thickened mustard cooled down, I pureed  it with an immersion blender (leaving enough whole grains for texture) and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.  Booya. Mustard.

Biscuit Dough.
While beaten biscuits are a cinch to make, they're not for the faint of heart because the process is incredibly labor intensive. It's a messy business. Very messy. Trust me.

I sifted 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt into the bowl of a food processor. After pulsing 1/4 cup chilled vegetable shortening into the flour, I added 1/2 cup cream and 1/3 cup water. I pulsed the mix until it formed a wet loose dough ball and dumped onto a well floured board. Using a floured rolling pin, I beat the hell out of the biscuit dough, folding it in after every 5 to 10 whacks. Although I lost count of the total whacks at around 280, the dough was smooth and blistered after 45 minutes. Beaten biscuit dough. Yep. A cinch.  Everything within 5 feet of my work surface was covered in flour dust. Everything, even our cat. It was hysterical.

I pulled the dough into a small ball, cleaned the kitchen, mopped the floor, dusted the ceiling fan, and took a long hot shower before chugging  several glasses of  a buttery chardonnay.

Refreshed, I revisited and embraced the beaten biscuit dough.

After rolling out the dough into a 1/3 inch sheet, I cut it into rounds with a small biscuit cutter, docked the rounds with a fork, and baked them in a 400 degree oven until the bottoms were slightly browned, about 20 minutes.

While they were still somewhat warm, I sliced the biscuits in half and filled them with shavings of Browning's Country Ham. Paired  with  maple bourbon mustard and sprigs of Hoot Owl Holler Farm watercress, the humble biscuits were dressed for a party.

So, beat them or buy them?
Packages of fully cooked beaten biscuits are available at Critchfield Meats or any Taste Of Kentucky retail location.

I'm beating up another batch for Derby Day
after I sharpen my axe.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pesto: A Midsummer Night's Dream


Michael's basil seedlings have poked through their sleepy peat pot cocoons and unfurled their delicate tender leaves. As they bend toward the morning sun, they inspire dreams of  midsummer caprese salads and  genovese  pestos. While we're weeks away from the sweltering dog days of summer and the height of basil season, a variety of vibrant pestos can be prepared from the gorgeous spring greens that dot the stands of our farmer's market.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Market Days

Tulips, daffodils, horse racing, and strong mint julips are sure signs that spring has sprung here in Lexington.  For food lovers, locavores, or anyone who respects the  integrity of locally grown food, spring really begins when the farmers' market moves outside for opening day. After a long winter, the Lexington Farmers' Market ditched its indoor digs and set up shop this past weekend under the Pavilion in Cheapside Park. Although I hit the market early on opening day, it was bustling. Warmed by the sun beaming down through a brilliant cloudless sky, everyone embraced the serene energy and vibe that reverberated throughout the market. While people meandered around, a lone violinist quietly serenaded the morning crowd. Market Days. Let the games begin.

Without a plan, I hit the ground running.. Typically, pickings are slim on opening day. Not this year. Although I've grown accustomed to the usual early season out-of-state offerings, I was blown away by wonderfully fun local surprises. After eating my way through a wide variety of cheeses (chevre, beer, and cheddar),  I wandered up the side street of the market. Chilled by the dimmed shade of the old courthouse, I was quite taken with baskets of delicate micro greens, watercress, and pea shoots from Hoot Owl Holler Farm in Boyle County.  In all of my market days, I can't recall ever running across micro anything. Sold.

On my way to the car, I stopped by the Blue Moon Farm stand for a bite of garlic scape pesto. Why not? Cheese and pesto.  Breakfast of champions. My non plan changed completely when I spotted fresh feathery Bracken County shitake mushrooms nestled between tied bunches of young green garlic bulbs. Game on.

Chicken Marsala might seem a bit old fashioned and old school, but the combination of sauteed crisp chicken breasts, sweet fortified marsala wine, stock, white button mushrooms, onions, and garlic is downright delicious.

Chicken Marsala.
After using a damp kitchen towel to clean the shitake mushrooms, I snipped the tough stems from the caps, sliced the large mushrooms into thin strips, left the smaller ones whole, and set them aside.

I pounded two small boneless chicken breasts into very thin cutlets (1/4 inch thick). After seasoning the cutlets with salt and pepper, I melted 2 tablespoons of butter in a cast iron skillet over a medium flame.  When the butter sizzled, I dredged the chicken pieces through sifted flour and pan fried them until they were golden brown. I removed the chicken cutlets to a side plate, tented them, and let them rest.

While the skillet was still hot, I added two tablespoons of butter and a thinly sliced shallot. I sauteed the shallot threads until they wilted into the butter, tossed in minced garlic, cranked the heat to medium high, tumbled the mushrooms into the skillet, and let them rip undisturbed for 10 minutes. Just before the mushrooms started to caramelize, I showered them with kosher salt and fresh parsley. After the salt seared into the their soft flesh, I deglazed the pan with 1 cup of Lombardo Fine I.P. ambra sweet marsala wine, reduced it to a glaze, added 1/2 cup chicken stock, and slid the crisp chicken cutlets into the sauce to warm through.

After boiling 1/2 pound of linguini in heavily salted water until al dente, I twirled the pasta into large bowls, nestled the chicken cutlets on top of the pasta, and spooned the shitake mushroom marsala sauce over the chicken. To brighten the sleepy sauce, I finished with tender pea shoots lightly tossed in olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

The mushroom marsala wine reduction spilled over the crisp buttery chicken, bathing it in the aromatic sauce. Perfect. Savory and sweet. Classic marsala.

While the tender glazed chicken alone could have sealed the deal, it was all about the fresh shitake mushrooms. Instead of collapsing or melting away, the succulent meaty sponges absorbed the sultry sauce, plumped, remained robust, and popped with earthy marsala wine-infused mushroom jus.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pot Of Gold

You can't rush pot likker. It takes time to coax the porky, peppery, and vinegary flavor from a mess of greens simmered long and slow in a highly seasoned ham hock stock. It's worth the time when you finish with a huge pot of southern comfort. Sure, the  greens turn out great, but the likker is liquid gold.

We still have a couple of weeks before the perky spring vegetables  hit the stands at the farmers' market. Right now, we're in the 'between' time. The market cusp. I impatiently await the arrival of the pretty stuff. In the between time, I made do with a preseason spin on sleepy southern greens.

Ham Hock Stock.
The Base.
I probably made too much stock, but I wanted enough pot likker to soothe my soul. I sauteed two cups of diced onions in bacon fat.  When the onions caramelized in the salty fat, I added 2 minced garlic cloves, cracked black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper flakes, sugar, and seasoned salt. Just before the garlic browned, I deglazed the pot with 3 cups chicken stock and 2 cups water. I tossed a large smoked ham hock into the bath, brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, cover the pot, and let it simmer for an hour. In a moment of high falootin' weakness, I added a tiny pinch of saffron to the stock. I couldn't help myself. Sorry, Granny.

While the stock simmered, I thoroughly washed 2 pounds of collard, mustard, and turnip greens. After chopping them into bite sized pieces,  I nudged the greens into the simmering stock and added 4 tablespoons
of apple cider vinegar.  When the greens wilted into the ham hock stock, I covered the pot and simmered the greens for a ridiculous 2 1/2 hours. Our house smelled like a roadside diner. Honest cooking. No pretense (sans the saffron).

Confession. While the greens simmered into oblivion, I repeatedly used a turkey baster to drink taste the stock. Suck. Cool. Squirt. Repeat. Elixir. Fabulous. To preserve my precious pot likker, I replaced my baster blasts with an additional 2 cups chicken stock.  After the first hour, I pulled the ham hock from the pot and shredded the tender meat before returning it to the simmering greens.

It's virtually impossible to mess up a mess of greens. They simply happen.

After a few hours on the stove top,  I  ladled the not-so-pretty murky greens and pot likker into large pasta bowls. We typically eat our greens topped with chopped hard boiled eggs and peppered vinegar. I changed it up a bit by slipping wedges of heavily buttered cornbread into the seasoned likker before scattering quick-pickled julienned carrots over the greens and nestling soft boiled eggs to the side.

Packed with contrasting textures and flavors, there was a lot going on for ordinary southern greens.
While the oozing egg yolks enriched the spiced stock, the  pickled carrots popped through the sleepy greens with crisp biting zing.  By the time the cornbread dissolved into the twangy mess, the greens were gone. Only the pot likker remained.

I tipped the enormous bowl to my mouth and drank every last drop.

Liquid gold.
Enough said.