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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christkind

Before my family moved back to the States, our Christmases in Vienna, Austria were filled with a hodgepodge of American, German, and Austrian traditions. Tucked away in our five story duplex apartment, we absorbed the mixed Bavarian traditions in our own American way.  It was all that I knew, so I went with the flow. Santa Claus didn't exist. We lived in a snowy world filled with St. Nickolas, Krampus (the anti-St. Nickolas), and the Christkind (the Christ Child gift-bringer).

In mid November, the Austrian Christmas Markets took center stage. Almost every main public square housed a market. While Frau Olga and I shopped the regular markets daily for the basic stuff we needed, the Christmas Markets were different. The glorious music, greenery, and religious icons were mere backdrops for the endless displays of ornaments, chocolates, marzipan, and cookies. Vienna bloomed during the Christmas season. Hand in hand, mitten in mitten, Frau Olga and I would make our way through the frantic streets and crowded trolleys of Vienna in search of the markets. Occasionally, when the aromas were too much to bear, we'd pause for hot roasted chestnuts sold by curbside vendors. Served straight from glowing hot grills and tossed into small paper bags, the heavenly warm chestnut steam soothed the bitter winter air. As a kid, I never had much time to take it all in. As a mitten-tied extension of Frau Olga's arm, I spent most of my time being pulled and yanked out of harms way. Still, there were stolen moments for chocolates and chestnuts.

As strange as it might seem, our home didn't reflect the spirit of the public celebrations wafting throughout the city. Whether my father followed his interpretation of tradition or used it as an excuse, we didn't decorate for Christmas. No tree. No stockings. Nothing. There were hints and nibbles along the way. On St. Nickolas Eve (December 5th), my brother and I would put our largest pairs of shoes or boots outside our apartment door hoping they'd be filled with really good stuff. Of course, that all depended on Krampus, the mean evil-horned-red-tongued beastly sidekick of St Nickolas. Following tradition, on December 5th, he and St Nickolas visited towns and villages throughout Austria to ask all the children if they'd been good or bad during the previous year. If they answered incorrectly, Krampus chased them down with his big crooked stick to beat the hell out of them. Merry Christmas. Thankfully, he never darkened our doorstep. That said, we still had to fess up to our goodness or badness. My brother's boots were usually filled with a mixed bag of good and evil. Sticks. Rocks. Coal. Candy. I fared a little better. Because my boots were too small to hold much of anything, they were always filled with liquor-filled chocolate figurines wrapped in brightly colored crinkled foil. Chomp the head and drink the booze. Yep. Bliss.

When Christmas Eve finally rolled around, it was like any other night. Frau Olga prepared supper and we'd help clean up the mess before going about our business of being boys. When I took to my bed on Christmas Eve, I knew the drill. Cold room. Cold bed. Closed door. Shuttered window. Darkness. Christmas Eve. In my anxious pretend sleep, I could hear things happening. Every year, the clatter eventually faded into white noise before giving way to the gentle smell of Frau Olga's Christmas Linzer cookies seeping through the cracks of my tall bedroom door.

The next morning, like magic, a fully decorated Christmas tree sat smack dab in the middle of the living room. Beneath the molten hot multicolored bulbs and dangling wrinkled tinsel, unwrapped gifts and toys spilled from the base of the glowing tree. Amid the Christmas litter, when the dust cleared, Frau Olga's Linzer cookies left for the Christkind were always left untouched.

I guess my dad never cared for Christmas cookies.
Our win. Wrapped in early morning glee, we laughed and played under poofs of powdered sugar.

Austrian Christmas Linzer Cookies.
Linzer cookies or Linzer "Eyes" are a derivative of the iconic Linzertore, one of the oldest known tortes created in the 17th century. Using the same dough recipe as the torte ( flour, butter, egg, toasted almonds or hazelnuts), the cookies are small sandwich cookies filled with jam peeking through cutouts. Traditionally, the cutouts were small round holes (Linzer eyes). Nowadays, Linzer cookies and their cutouts can be any shape possible.

After toasting 2 cups of raw whole almonds and letting them cool to room temperature, I ground them in a food processor until they resembled finely crumbled flour. In a small bowl I combined 2 cups flour, 2/3 cups ground almond flour, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, a pinch of allspice, freshly ground nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, I beat 2/3 cups sugar with 2 sticks of softened unsalted butter until the mixture was light and fluffy before adding 1 egg,
lemon zest, and 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract.


Adding 1/2 cup of the flour at time, I incorporated the flour mixture with the buttered sugar, kneaded it a few times to pull it together into a soft pliable dough, and divided it into two  1 1/2 inch thick discs, After wrapping each disc in plastic wrap, I slid them into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

The next morning, I let the dough relax on the counter for 30 minutes before rolling out  the dough about 1/8 inch thick. So, I had a fancy Linzer cookie cutter with a bottom cutter and a top cutter for the cutouts. The little things. After cutting  half of the dough into stars for the bottoms, I used the same cookie cutter with the star-shaped cutout insert to cut the other half of the dough into toppers.

I transferred the tops and bottoms to parchment-lined baking sheets and slid them into a preheated oven to bake for 10-12 minutes. When they were lightly golden brown, I pulled them from the oven and carefully placed them onto racks to cool.  When they were completely cooled, I inverted the bottom cookies and spread them with 1 teaspoon of seedless raspberry jam.  After dusting the tops with confectioners sugar, I carefully sandwiched the cookies together and allowed the glistening jam to gently squirt through the small star-shaped cutouts. Spiced crunchy Christmas cookies with sweet sticky jam topped with soft powdered snow.

A Linzer  lullaby.





Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pig In A Blanket

I only know one way to prepare and cook a Christmas country ham.

Marge and Dad married when I was 14 years old.  After they married, we moved from my grandparent's house to the other side of the farm into a home that my father built by himself from the ground up. Shaded under a patch of maple trees alongside Barren River Lake, the house was a fantastic base camp for an adventurous kid hell-bent on summertime shenanigans. Our house was special. It seemed to change and breathe with the seasons as if it were part of the landscape.  In the fall, multicolored maple leaves burned brilliant silhouettes into the crisp blue sky. Come winter, the bare branches danced over the house like floating sticks while casting flickering thin shadows across  the frozen ground. In an unassuming way, holidays in our home were low key and wonderfully magical.

Year after year, sometime during the Thanksgiving weekend, we'd pile into my father's orange GMC pickup truck to scour the farm for the perfect cedar Christmas tree. After hauling the tree home, we'd rearrange the furniture and gently secure the tree into its corner before decorating it with handmade wooden ornaments and fresh cranberry garlands. During the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, banisters were magnolia-ed and and wreaths were hung until the house was bedecked. Christmas in Port Oliver. Even so, it wasn't quite Christmas until the country ham arrived. Now, the ham didn't just appear on the Christmas table in the blink of an eye. It took days to prepare, relegating it to the status of house guest. Working in tandem, Marge and dad prepped, scrubbed, soaked, simmered, wrapped, and baked the beloved ham for Christmas Eve dinner. For years, I watched closely and learned how to prepare country ham the old fashioned way. While there are countless methods for cooking a whole uncooked cured country ham, I only know of one way to capture the taste of my Christmases past.

With my family's early Christmas gathering looming on the horizon, I journeyed home.

Christmas Ham.
A good Christmas ham starts with a great ham. Browning's Country Ham, from Dry Ridge, cures and ages their hams for 12 months. Both mild and robust, it's one of the go-to hams around these parts. When I had a hard time locating a retail source for their hams, I simply called them. Boom. In three days, a 14 pound whole uncooked country ham arrived on our front stoop bundled up to keep the varmints at bay.

Cleaning, Soaking. Simmering. Wrapping. Finishing.
Although I was forewarned to expect mold, it got the best of me. When I ripped open the butcher paper surrounding the ham, plumes of green-ashen powdered mold exploded from the package. Caught by the rays of the morning sun, the dust cloud dangled in the light for what seemed like an eternity. When the ash finally settled, I was covered in pungent funk. It was hysterical.  After a quick wipe down and clean up, I scrubbed the ham under warm water with a sturdy brush to remove the mold. Luckily, I had an enormous canning pot large enough to accommodate the ham. After plopping it into the pot, I filled it enough water to cover the ham, maneuvered the lid over the protruding bone (most folks remove the hock), and scooted the ham into a corner of the kitchen to soak for 2 days, changing the water
every 12 hours.

On the third day, I drained off the water and lifted the pot containing the plumped ham onto the stove top. After filling it with cold water, I topped it off with 6 bottles of Ale-8-One soda and a cup of pure maple syrup before cranking the heat to high. When the sweet gingery water came to a boil, I reduced it to a gentle simmer, covered the pot, and let it rip for 5 1/2 hours, about 25 minutes per pound.

When the internal temperature reached 160 degrees, Michael and I carefully removed the pot from the heat before wrapping the entire pot with several old quilts to let the ham slowly steep in its own juices overnight. Yep. Overnight. Pig in a blanket. When I was a kid, I knew it was coming on Christmas when the quilted ham blob made its way out to the enclosed back deck for its overnight rest.

The next morning, I carefully removed the ham to a roasting pan and discarded the cooking liquid along a fence row in our backyard. Still hot from the quilted insulation, I removed the skin from the ham and trimmed some off some of  the fat.

I lightly scored the soft fat cap on top of the ham, splashed the meat with bourbon, slathered the entire surface with good dijon mustard, and encrusted it with a thin layer of light brown sugar before sliding it into a preheated 400 degree oven.

When the brown sugar dissolved into the mustard and started to caramelize, I pulled the ham from the over to rest. At that stage, it could have been wrapped and chilled. Didn't happen.  After letting it rest for 30 minutes, I transferred the ham to a serving platter, scattered a few quartered Red Bartlett pears to the side, and finished with fresh lovage from my garden.

Down and dirty Christmas ham.
A pure labor of love.

A tender trip to Bountiful.













Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Persimmons

As Michael and I packed up the gorgeous array of wrapped gifts and gifts bags from our reception, he handed me a small bag and said, "June brought some kind of fruit." I peeked into the bag and instead of tapping into my inner squeal, I actually screeched like an untamed tenor, "Persimmons! I love persimmons!" Yep, I did. It must have ricocheted off of every old plaster wall throughout the building, echoing, --immons, --immons, --immons. It's true, I adore persimmons. They're just so beautiful and odd.

Teetering on the edge of utter simplicity, persimmons are a very versatile autumn fruit. Technically, because of some sort of genus or something or other, they're actually classified as a berry, much like tomatoes. Although there are several varieties of persimmons, hachiya and fuyu are the most common. Oval shaped hachiya persimmons are very astringent and are best eaten when extremely ripe.  Their sweet mushy flesh is ideal for baked goods, cakes, tarts, pies, and various other desserts. Squatty tomato-shaped fuyu persimmons, on the other hand, are best eaten when firm and almost under ripe. Simply sliced or diced, fuyu persimmons are great tossed into salads or eaten as snacks.  That said, fuyus can also be cooked and treated like any other traditional autumn fruit.  With mango, banana, and apricot undertones, fuyu persimmons are fantastic sidekicks when paired alongside succulent roasted meats like duck, goose, turkey, or ham.


Wrapped in tissue and tucked into a gift bag, our dear friend had given us a mother load of fuyu persimmons. Total win. Sure, I could have tossed them into a kale salad and called it a day. Nope. With visions of holiday turkeys and hams dancing in my head, I roasted them.

Skillet Roasted Persimmons.

After coring the crackled flower ends from the persimmons, I sliced them half and nestled them into a large cast iron skillet. Feeling a bit dandy, I drizzled them with dark rum, covered them with heavy aluminum foil, and slid the skillet into a pre-heated 350 degree oven to bake/roast/steam for an hour. When they were fork tender, I drizzled them with local honey, fresh squeezed lime juice, and a sprinkling of turbinado sugar before sliding them under the broiler. When they started to blister and char, I pulled the persimmons from the broiler to cool.

To dial back the sweet factor, I finished with a heavy-handed dusting of flaky sea salt, additional fresh lime juice, and lime zest.

While the caramelized honey and sugar added a smoky deep sweetness to the subtly sweet flesh, the aggressive salt and lime zest provided a bright tangy crunch. A perfect combo.

Simple.
Fresh.
Fabulous.
















Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sprouts

We all have our favorite side dishes that  absolutely must accompany roasted turkey on our Thanksgiving tables. For many of us, those familiar flavors are steeped in deep-rooted family traditions. For the past few years, Michael and I have spent Thanksgiving day alone in our house clad in pajamas drinking Beaujolais Nouveau while sliding holiday dishes in and out the of the oven like a choreographed ballet. Glorious organized chaos. That said, we've always had two very different notions and traditions that surround the side dishes that grace our Thanksgiving table. Because they're so deep-rooted, we can't eliminate anything and wind up having everything. Thanksgiving. One enormous brined, stuffed, roasted, basted, and glazed 15 pound  turkey  for two with 13 side dishes. Bliss.

Last year, Michael's sister invited us over for a family Thanksgiving meal. As any dutiful invited guest should do, I asked what we could bring to the feast. She requested brussels sprouts. Specifically, creamy blue cheese brussels sprouts with bacon, a dish she'd fallen head over heels for at an area restaurant. Interesting prospect. Unusual, yet interesting. While we love brussels sprouts, I'd never thought about serving them at Thanksgiving. That changed when we took our little show on the road over the hills and through the woods toting a restaurant riff on those beloved brussels sprouts. Everyone loved them, even the skeptical self-proclaimed brussels sprouts haters. With sweet sherry undertones tempering the soft pungency of the melted blue cheese, the earthy sprouts didn't compete or overpower the traditional food on the table. Their eccentric oddity actually complimented the familiar tastes of Thanksgiving. An accidental win.

It's funny, while I love brussels sprouts prepared just about any way possible, that particular method(with some tweaks and variations) has been my go-to preparation for them since that Thanksgiving day.

Pan-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Gorgonzola Cream and Prosciutto.
Seriously, they were so simple and quick to throw together.  Perfect for a busy food day. Or even a lazy late night snack.

I clipped the root ends off of a pound of fresh brussels sprouts and sliced them in half. After heating vegetable oil in a large skillet over a medium high flame until it started to smoke, I carefully placed the brussels sprouts, cut sides down, into the sizzling oil. When they started to caramelize, I showered them salt and cracked black pepper before flipping them over in the skillet to sear on the other side. After adding a scant tablespoon of minced shallots, I deglazed the pan with 1/4 cup sherry combined with 1/4 cup chicken stock, covered the skillet, and let the sprouts steam for 3 minutes before removing the lid to reduce the stock. When the last drop of sherry-infused stock evaporated into an airy wisp, I added 1 cup heavy cream and 4 ounces of sliced gorgonzola cheese.  Within minutes, the pungent thickened cream enveloped the pan-roasted sprouts. Although that could have been enough, I took it one step further. I spooned the creamy sprouts into buttered gratin dishes, crumbled additional gorgonzola cheese over the sprouts, and slid them under a flaming broiler.

I pulled the gratins from the oven to calm the bubbling charred cheese before finishing with snipped chives and oven-crisped prosciutto crumbles.



Unconventional.
Unexpected.

A perfect Thanksgiving
party crasher.












Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ice Cream In The Pumpkin Patch

Make no mistake about it, we are ice cream people. Big time ice cream people. One year, in lieu of exchanging anniversary gifts, Michael and I pooled our money and bought a mack daddy tabletop ice cream maker. At any given moment on any given day, we'll have some form of ice cream tucked away in the freezer. I can practically make it in my sleep. Some folks might think that ice cream is a seasonal treat.  Seasonal, as in the summer season. Sure, there's nothing better than bellying up to a cooling cone, bowl, or carton of ice cream on a blistering hot day. That said, it doesn't have to be relegated to summer. Ice cream can be seasonally seasonal. Think about it. The possibilities are endless.

Kicking through the gravel paths at the farmers' market, stacks and stacks of sugar pumpkins lulled me into daydreaming about the upcoming holidays. Or, most importantly the food associated with the holidays. Thinking about the usual suspects, my drooling mind zeroed in on pumpkin ice cream. Why not? There'll be pies galore wherever we turn. Pumpkin soup might even enter the picture. Pumpkin scones. Pumpkins biscuits. Pumpkin rolls. Pumpkin muffins. Pumpkin everything. Still, surrounded by pumpkins smack dab in the middle of an urban pumpkin patch, I drifted back to ice cream. Pumpkin ice cream.  Eaten on its own, scooped onto warm pumpkin pie for a holiday double whammy, or dolloped into steaming hot coffee for a sweet creamy boost, pumpkin ice cream could possibly be the white-canvas flavor bomb of the
season.

Because I'm not a baker, I've never given much thought to the debate surrounding the use of canned pumpkin versus fresh pumpkin. I have given a lot thought to  knowing where my food comes from as well as the faces behind the food. So, canned or fresh? Although it probably wouldn't have mattered, it's pumpkin season right now, for pity's sake. Why waste the riches?

Pumpkin Ice Cream.
Fresh Pumpkin.
It was probably as simple as opening a can. I halved a smallish Madison County sugar pumpkin (sometimes referred to as pie pumpkin), scooped out the seeds, reserved the seeds, plopped the two halves onto a baking sheet cut side down, and slid them into a preheated oven to roast for 1 hour before pulling them from the oven to cool.  When they were cool enough to handle, I scraped the soft yellow flesh into a food mill and turned it into a delicate puree. After a quick whisk, I slid it into the refrigerator to chill for a couple of hours.

Custard.
Gosh, I've tried every ratio possible. In the end, I used my tried and true method. Using an electric hand held mixture (old school), I whipped 5 egg yolks with 1 cup light brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg. After heating 1 1/2 cups heavy cream combined with  1 1/2 cups  whole milk to a low simmer, I gradually mixed the warmed dairy with the egg mixture to temper the eggs before adding the combined mixture back to the simmering cream. When the custard was thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, I strained it through a fine mesh strainer, and added 2 teaspoons of thick Madagascar Bourbon pure vanilla bean extract before blending it with 1 1/4 cups of the chilled fresh pumpkin puree. Thinking it was still a bit grainy from the puree, I passed it through the mesh strainer again for a smoother consistency and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

Churn.
The easy part. I poured the pumpkin custard into the chilled ice cream canister, clamped on the lid, and let rip for 25 minutes before scooping the ice cream into a plastic container and tossing into the freezer to set up.

Gilding the Lily.
The seeds were a no brainer. I rinsed the seeds under warm water to release them from the fibrous pulp and dried them with a clean dish towel before tossing them with 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 heaping tablespoon sugar, a dusting of cinnamon, and a pinch of sea salt. After a quick mix, I slid the seeds into a 350 oven for about 8-10 minutes to toast and caramelize.

Maple Spun Sugar.
Yep.
Here's the deal, I might not excel at sweets, but I can spin sugar. Although it can be dangerously tricky, it's actually quite simple and fun. Now, I didn't want to go all croquembouche, spinning fine delicate sugar threads  all over the kitchen like a whirling dervish. I wanted sturdy shards of shatteringly crunchable spun sugar. Edible sugar glass.

I combined 1 cup sugar with 1/2 water, 1 tablespoon corn syrup, and 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup in a small cast iron skillet. After cranking the heat to medium, the sugar and corn syrup slowly dissolved into the water. Without stirring, I let the mixture bubble and rip until it reached the hard crack stage, 300-312  degrees on a candy thermometer. Working quickly and very carefully, I drizzled and twirled the molten maple sugar concoction over a non-stick silicone mat. It was a one shot deal. Spun sugar has a mind of its own. It waits for no one. Just before the melted amber sugar solidified into maple stained glass, I scattered a few candied pumpkins seeds into the lacy shards.

Pumpkin ice cream.
Candied seeds.
Spun sugar.
Decadent win.

Cheers to quiet daydreams
in the pumpkin patch.













Friday, October 17, 2014

Market Tagine

Caught under long cool shadows cast by the trees surrounding the Tuesday/Thursday market on a brisk autumn morning, I found myself quietly prowling for autumn/winter squash. It was easy to get swept away with the varieties of squash spilling from cardboard boxes and tumbling from truck beds. Although tempted by the assortment of cool stuff, this time of year I've always been a sucker for butternut squash. Lending itself to both sweet and savory applications, butternut  is probably the easiest squash to deal with and the most versatile. Typically, I roast seeded butternut squash halves cut side down, scoop the flesh into a blender, add a little stock, a few seasonings, and puree the hell out of it before mixing it with cream and  additional stock for a delicate velvety soup. Whether cooking for hundreds of people or for a quiet dinner at home,  I can't count how many times I've prepared and served that soup. Because it's a no brainer, lusty butternut squash soup has always been my go-to culinary transitional dance from summer to autumn.

This year, I changed things up. Armed with an armload of Casey County butternut and acorn squash,
I ditched my usual dance card.

The exotic tone of Moroccan spices are actually quite similar to the warming spices we play with this time of year. With that in mind, I danced down the silk road with an seductive riff on winter squash tagine. Tagines are North African ceramic conical cooking vessels as well as the meals that are stewed inside of them. Braised food within a braising pot. Low and slow. Although I used a tagine because I had one, any oven safe dish with a tight fitting lid would have worked beautifully.

Here's the deal, braised anything is rough around the edges. Cooked low and slow, whatever gets tossed into the pot (meats and/or vegetables) eventually breaks down and melts into a lovely concentrated essence of its former self. Deep. Succulent. Sexy. Although I love a down and dirty braise, I wanted to dial it back with a delicate bent. While I could have simply chopped the peeled squash for the tagine, I had a little fun and took it a wee bit further.

Butternut Squash Tagine.
An autumn vegetable stew.

Squash.
I hacked the neck from the bulbous end of a large butternut squash. After slicing off both ends of the neck, I stood it on one end and used a very sharp knife to peel and square off the neck until it resembled a gorgeous orange brick before slicing it into very thin rectangles. Using a vegetable peeler, I peeled the skin from the remaining bulbous end, scoop out the seeds, split it in half, and sliced it into thin half-moons.

For contrast in color and texture, I didn't bother peeling the thin-skinned acorn squash. I simply halved it, scooped out the seeds, and sliced it into half moons.

Assembly. The fun part.
To give the tagine structure and form, I snaked the pave' ( paving stones) slices down the center of the dish before wedging the remaining half-moons to the side. To offset the inherent sweetness of the squash, I nestled a few salted sliced lemon halves wherever I could make them fit.

The Silk Road. Happy Dance.
I didn't want to drown the squash in stock. Typically, when braising, the liquid used should measure about halfway up the sides of whatever is being braised. After blooming a pinch of saffron in 1 cup chicken stock, I set the stock aside and slivered a medium sized shallot. I sauteed the paper thin shallot ribbons in a drizzle of olive oil over a medium flame. Just before the shallots turned translucent, I added 1/2 teaspoon each: dried ginger, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin,  allspice, coriander, and ras el hanout. As the spices swirled through the softened shallots, I added a tablespoon of fiery harissa and deglazed the pan with the saffron-spiked chicken stock before adding 1/2 cup dried cranberries, 1/2 cup diced dried apricots, 2 tablespoons honey, salt, and cracked black pepper.

When the dried fruit plumped in the reduced spiced stock, I poured the stock over the squash, dusted it  with citrusy sumac,  placed the conical lid onto the tagine base, and slid it into a preheated 350 degree oven to braise for 1 hour.

After an hour, drunk from the aroma, I pulled the tagine from the oven, removed the lid to release the steam, and let it cool a bit before finishing with fresh parsley and quartered fresh Black Mission figs.

Booya.

With staggering layers of flavor and depth, the seemingly dainty tagine packed a crazy potent punch. Spicy. Sweet. Salty. Tart. Smoky. Like delicate edible sponges kissed with exotic perfume, the achingly tender squash absorbed the complex warmth of the aromatic stock and  fragrant  steam. Tucked beneath the fresh fleshy figs, speckles of plumped fruit countered the slight acidity of the lemons and heady heat of the harissa.

Stewed butternut squash.
Sexy.
Intoxicating.
Fabulous.






















Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Cusp

Yep, it's that time of year when confusion runs wild at the farmer's market. Not wanting the good times to end, it's hard to let go as the vibrant colors of summer slowly segue into the muted tones of fall. For a short time (the cusp), it's a crazy game of mix and match when gorgeous pumpkins, buffed chestnuts, decorative gourds, and leafy wild celery vie for the attention of a few late season plump tomatoes. Throw the dice. Bang the drum slowly. The colors are changing. We're dancing on the cusp.

That said, as the seemingly somber hues of winter squash, pumpkins, gourds, and green beans take over the farm tables, regal jewel-toned varieties of eggplant are still going strong. I've seen several varieties of eggplant (Globe, Thai, White, Graffiti, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian)  at the farmer's market. Smitten by their smooth purple skins glistening in the early morning light, I snagged a few bundles of slender Asian eggplant from Stonehedge Farm for a simple cusp season oven-roasted eggplant salad.

Farmer's Market Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Salad.
After rinsing a pound (total) of Japanese, Chinese, and Graffiti eggplant on the bias, I scattered them onto a sheet tray. Because they were so tender and fresh, there was no need to salt them. I pulled a handful of Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms Red Zebra tomatoes from the window sill, quartered them, and tossed them with the eggplant slices before  tumbling a pint of whole Garey Farms cherry tomatoes into the mix along with slivers of Casey County candy onions.

After drizzling the tomatoes, eggplants slices, and onions with olive oil, I showered them with salt and cracked black pepper. I gave everything a quick hand toss and slid the sheet pan into a preheated 400 degree oven to roast for 45 minutes, turning the pan every 15 minutes.

I pulled the caramelized onions, collapsed tomatoes, and softened eggplant slices from the oven to cool.  When the fragrant steam lifted, I scooped them into a bowl, added 1/2 cup capers, a handful of halved fresh mozzarella bocconcini balls, purple basil leaves, quartered Green Zebra tomatoes, and fresh parsley before tossing the salad with a basic vinaigrette ( 1/2 minced shallot, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, salt, and Pepper).

As the roasted tomatoes melted into the earthy eggplant, the juices wrapped the slices with a slight sweet acidity that countered the sweet tart perkiness of the fresh Green Zebras. While the halved bocconcini provided firm creaminess, the capers added subtle briny crunch.

Dancing on the cusp with a simple eggplant salad.







Friday, September 19, 2014

Bourbon Belly

Porchetta. Porketta. Pork. With layers of slowly rendered fat, succulent meat, and bone cracking skin, what's not to love about roasted pig wrapped in pig wrapped in fat? Think about it.

Porchetta, common street fare in certain regions of Italy, is traditionally made with a whole pig (head to tail) stuffed with herbs, tied, and roasted over an open fire. The fat melts into the flesh, crisps, and protects the meat as it cooks low and slow. It's then sliced and served in paninos, as antipasto, or simply eaten unadorned. Nowadays, for convenience, contemporary porchetta is typically made with either butterflied pork shoulder or pork belly-wrapped pork loin slathered with spices, aromatics, and herbs. When rolled, tied, and roasted,  the pork bundle mimics the unctuous decadent essence of the whole pig experience.

I arranged to have a 5 pound half belly waiting for me at our farmers' market. Communication wires got crossed and I ended up with an entire 8 pound whole belly from another vendor. More is more. Win. Armed with the massive slab of belly, I got my pig on.

Bluegrass Porchetta.
Mise en place.
Breakdown.
Spices. After heating a dry cast iron skillet over a medium  flame, I toasted 4 tablespoons (each) whole black peppercorns, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and crushed  red pepper. When the oils started to release from the spices, I pulled them from the heat, added 2 tablespoons of salt, used a spice grinder to crush them into dust, and set them aside.

Herbs/Aromatics. After snipping handfuls of fresh rosemary, thyme, parsley, and sage from the garden, I rolled the herbs into tight ball, minced the hell out of them, and  tossed them into a bowl along with the zest of a large orange. I smashed 10 garlic cloves to release the skins, and minced them into a  loose paste before adding  the paste to the herbs and zest.

Belly. Down and dirty. Like a wet meaty flag, I unfurled the pork belly onto a huge cutting board. After scoring the flesh at deep 1" intervals, I pounded the meat with a heavy mallet, flipped the belly over, and pounded the skin. Some folks score the skin as well to achieve that explosive fatty checkerboard look. Nope. I left it alone.

I flipped the belly over onto the meaty side and rubbed the spice mixture over the flesh  before slathering and messaging  the garlicky zest-infused herbal paste into every exposed nook and cranny.
The other pig. For a little twist, I ditched the conventional pork loin center and whipped together a simple country forcemeat using ground pork and ground fatback bound together with a panada (milk and bread). I wasn't shooting for pate consistency, so I left the texture on the courser side. After thoroughly incorporating the panada into the forcemeat, I smeared it onto the lower end of the pork belly (lengthwise) and pressed it into the flesh.

With several (15)  18" pre-cut pieces of kitchen twine on deck, I rolled the porchetta into a gigantic roulade. I carefully nudged the pieces of twine under the pork log and tied it up as tightly as possible. Sure, guts spilled from the sides. I simply smooshed them back into the rolled porchetta. Waste not want not.

At 36" long, I ended up with a full yard of roped and tied pig. Booya. After tipping the tied pig into a full-sized hotel pan, I slid it into the refrigerator (uncovered) to marinate and air dry for 48 hours. Yep.

With the fat-infused messy prep out the way, roasting the porchetta was a piece of cake.

After 2 days, I pulled the roast from the refrigerator and let it rest for 2 hours to come to room temperature. Knowing I wouldn't need the whole rolled belly, I sliced it in half and wrapped one half in plastic wrap before tossing it into the freezer for another day.  I blasted the oven to 500 degrees, brushed baking soda over the skin of the remaining rolled belly, showered the skin with salt, placed it on a wire rack inside a large roasting pan, and slid the porchetta into the oven to roast at high heat for 40 minutes before downing the heat to finish roasting at 325 degrees for 3 1/2 hours, basting the meat with the rendered fat every now and then.

During the last hour of roasting, I added peeled Casey County white sweet potatoes, quartered candy onions, quartered fennel bulbs, the reserved orange (sliced), Elmwood Stock carrots, and sliced Boyd Orchard Jonathan apples.

When the porchetta reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, I pulled it from the oven and nestled it onto a large cutting board to rest. After tumbling the vegetables alongside the roast, I skimmed the fat from the roasting pan and placed it over 2 stove top burners cranked to medium high.

Pan sauce. As a throwback to my stints teaching the Culinary Arts Cooking School at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I deglazed the hot roasting pan with a cup of Makers Mark bourbon. When it started to sizzle, I ignited the booze. Fire. As the flames died down, I scraped the sticky fond from the bottom of the pan and let the bourbon reduce to a light glaze before swirling in 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, and a splash of chicken stock.

After letting the porchetta rest for 15 minutes, I sliced it into thick slabs and kissed the meat with the bourbon glaze. To counter the extreme richness of belly, forcemeat, fatty skin, and glaze, I finished the sliced pig on pig with quick pickled fruit and mache.

Lipstick on a pig.
Tucked beneath the perky pickled apples, peaches, and fresh mache, the glistening pork brittle crackled around the lightly glazed tender moist meat.  While the spiraled garlicky herb-packed filling provided aromatic hints of anise, orange, and piney grassiness, the spiced rub penetrated the meat and seeped through the flesh, adding eager saltiness to the puddled sweet, tart, and savory juices of the pork.

Porchetta.
Bourbon belly pig candy.

Lickable.











Friday, September 12, 2014

Tomato Pudding


I peeled a lot of tomatoes the summer I moved back home to take care of my father. By golly, my dad loved his tomatoes. Bolstered by a sprawling garden tucked away in pasture just off the back deck, his tomato supply was endless. The garden fueled his need to have freshly picked sun-kissed sliced and peeled tomatoes with every meal. Yep, peeled tomatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One by one, row by row, bushel by bushel, I peeled a gazillion tomatoes that summer....with a dull paring knife.

For most of the summer and fall, we simply ate tomatoes with a dusting of salt. Sometime along the way, I slipped a small canister of flaky sea salt onto the table for added crunch. A delicious small win. Cracked Tellicherry peppercorns would have been a stretch, so I didn't go there. One day, out of the blue, my dad requested his mother's tomato pudding. Tomato pudding? News to me. By the time I'd settled onto the farm as a kid, her beloved tomato pudding must have fallen out of favor or slipped through the cracks as a forgotten recipe from leaner times because it never made it onto our dinner table. I'm not sure what bolted him back to memories of his childhood on the farm and his need for her pudding. It simply happened. Just like that. Boom. He wanted his mother's tomato pudding. Alrighty, then. I tried to play along.

Apparently, back in the day, my grandmother fashioned her old fashioned tomato pudding with canned garden tomatoes from the cellar mixed with sugar and leftover breakfast biscuits. Much like other bread puddings, the bread soaked up the juices, disintegrated into the tomatoes, and turned into pudding.

Without the luxury of a dank dark cellar, I relied on the sea of fresh tomatoes at my fingertips combined with frozen Fort Knox commissary white bread. I kept the puddings basic for a while. Before long, I got a little uppity and started  adding stuff.  There were hits and misses along the way. Wild mushrooms? Miss. Anchovies? Big miss. Raisin bread? Nope. Goat cheese? Big mistake. Croissants? A one hit wonder. Through it all, he was a good sport. In the end, my tarted up  tomato puddings lacked soul, so I reversed course and went back to the basics by using leftover breakfast biscuits mixed with fresh garden tomatoes. Humble. Old school. Endearing.

When lusty tomatoes start fading into warm summer memories, tomato pudding is a great use for the seconds, culls, uglies, or end of season tomatoes. As unassuming as it might be, Michael and I still adore tomato pudding warmly wrapped up in hand-me-down memories.

Tomato Pudding.
Right off of the bat, I peeled the tomatoes the easy way.
After coring and scoring 5 large overly ripe Pulaski County Big Boy tomatoes, I plopped them into salted simmering water for 45 seconds.  When the skins started to curl away from the flesh, I fished the tomatoes out of the water with a wire spider, dropped them into ice water to cool, placed them onto a dish towel, and slipped off the skins. No fuss.

Without a shred of finesse, I chopped the tomatoes into juicy chunks, tumbled them into a bowl, and squished the wet fruit into a pulpy mess. Tomato carnage. Because they were packed with tons of juice, I sauteed the tomatoes with 1/2 cup minced candy onion, salt, pepper, and a pinch of brown sugar over medium heat to tighten up a bit before adding 3 large roughly crumbled  leftover buttermilk breakfast biscuits. When the biscuits softened and swirled through the pulp, I scooped the mix into a buttered Bybee Pottery baking dish.

For texture and crunch, I smashed 2 additional biscuits into crumbs with a rolling pin before tossing them with minced  fresh parsley and parmigiano reggiano ( sacrilege).  After lightly packing the breadcrumbs over the tomato pudding, I drizzled the topping with olive oil, and slid the pudding into a 350 degree oven (uncovered) to bake for 40 minutes.

When the crumb topping was nicely browned, I pulled the tomato pudding from the oven to rest.

As the pudding settled down from the heat, I cracked the biscuit shell with a spoon  to snag the ruby red filling. Sealed beneath the herbaceous parmigiano crust, the salty biscuits softened, plumped with the juices of the crushed tomatoes, and jiggled on the spoon like a proper pudding should.

Sweet and savory.
Soft and crunchy.
Old fashioned tomato pudding.

Simple country fare.
Fabulous.






Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup

Fragrant and aromatic. Alluring and intoxicating. Pho bo, the iconic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is a powerful force. A really good bowl of pho mystically captures the soul and sweeps it away. Anything less is like a bad date prolonged by cheap warm wine. With fresh garnishes, chiles, herbs, and condiments on hand to accent the soup, the mysterious essence of pho lies in the broth. It's all about the broth. Anchored by marrow-rich meaty bones cooked low and slow for several hours with charred onions, ginger, sensual tongue-numbing cloves, exotic licorice-like star anise, fennel, cardamon, and the warm subtle heat of cinnamon, pho is a lovely complex assault on the senses. It only takes one very brief slurp to understand pho. One sip. One slurp. Drinkable.

Here's the deal. With such a rich heritage, there are many deep-rooted variations of Vietnamese beef noodle soup. I'm no pho expert. I'm just a Kentucky boy who loves to stick his face in a steaming bowl of pho. While fabulous restaurant versions are great for instant gratification, I wanted  to experience the essence of pho with an adventurous culinary jaunt.

Pho Broth.
There's a fine line between broth and stock. In a way, they're interchangeable. The bone to meat ratio is key. Whereas stocks use mostly bones, broths use a combination of meat and bones. Pho broth, with a few fun tweaks and interesting change-ups, is actually very similar to classic French beef stock. With the exception of some minor prep, it might even be simpler. Who knew? It's definitely more fun.

Typically, basic beef stock is made from roasting beef bones and mirepoix (separately)  until they are caramelized. The combination is then tumbled into a stock pot with herbs and spices, covered with water, brought to a boil, and left to simmer for a few hours with periodical scum skimming to achieve clarity. Blah. Blah. Blah.  Pho broth takes an alternative route.

I fell in love.

Bones.
Meat.
Spice.

Blanching. The crud police.
To achieve purity and alleviate the need for excessive skimming, I tumbled 3 pounds of Quarle's Farm meaty beef shins into a large stock pot along with 2 pounds of Elmwood Stock Farm oxtails. After covering them with cool water, I cranked the heat to high and boiled the bones/meat for 10 minutes to release the crud. I drained the bones into a colander, rinsed the pot, and rinsed the bones before returning them to the pot.

Aromatics. Onions and ginger.
I sliced 2 Shelby County candy onions in half (skin on) and split a 5" hand of ginger before grilling the pieces over flaming hot coals until they were charred. Yep. Blistered caramelization. The quirky looking outer char insured succulent and aromatic sweet flesh.

Spice:
I bundled 5 gorgeous star anise pods, 1 tablespoon fennel, 5 cloves, 1 large stick cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon whole coriander into frilly cheesecloth, tied it up in a knot, and set it aside.

Broth.
After tossing the charred onions and ginger into the stock pot with the blanched meaty bones, I added the spice bundle along with a 2" chunk of white rock candy. After throwing an additional cinnamon stick into the pot for good measure, I filled  the pot with 3 quarts of cool water, brought it a boil, reduced it to a simmer, added 1/4 cup Three Crabs fish sauce, and let it rip for a ridiculous 9 hours. Some broths can go for as long as 24 hours. Nope.  9 hours allowed enough time for the aromatics, spices, collagen, marrow,
and beef to amply  flavor the broth.

Just before calling it a day, I drained the broth through a colander double-lined with cheesecloth, quickly chilled it down over an ice bath, discarded the bones, reserved the oxtail meat, and slid the broth into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

When thoroughly chilled, stock/broth should have a thin layer of fat covering jiggly deeply flavored beef gelatin. Beef jelly. After carefully cracking the layer of fat, I scraped it from the top (with a few bits reserved), plopped the coagulated broth into a sauce pan, and brought it to a smoldering simmer.

As the beef jelly slowly melted into the pan, I blanched fresh Banh Pho rice noodles in boiling water for 10 seconds, rinsed them under cold water, and briefly set them aside.

I feathered the rice noodles into large bowls, tucked warmed shards of oxtail meat into the noodles, draped thin slices of raw beef tenderloin over the top, scattered slivered candy onions to the side,  and carefully covered the noodles with the aromatic broth. I served the garnishes on the side to keep them fresh and vibrant for every sensual bite.

Transcendent steaming broth. Tender beef. Slippery noodles. Fiery Sriacha. Spicy sweet Hoisen. Perky mint. Thai Basil. Flowering chives. Crisp jalapenos. Crunchy sprouts.


Pho bo.
Toss the chopsticks
and slurp the magic.





Saturday, August 16, 2014

Colors

Pink. Red. Yellow. Orange. Green. Brown. Purple. White. Black. Striped. Rusty Red.
Summer tomatoes.
You can taste the colors. From high sugar/low acid to low sugar/high acid to a fifty-fifty balanced split, the flavors of ripe summer tomatoes are literally reflected in their varying colors.While I might be partial to the lusty dark purple and black varieties, I love them all. Any simple stroll through the sea of tomatoes at the farmers market usually makes my head spin. New varieties pop up all  the time. Expect the unexpected. Depending on my mood on any particular day, I might opt for tangy Green Zebras over the irresistible deep smoky sweetness of Purple Cherokees. Then again, cheery Lemon boy or Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes might out-pretty my bent toward sultry Sun Golds. On some days, I can't choose which way to go. Big. Small. Sweet. Smoky. Tart. On other days, I'll forego the decision making and pick a few from my  garden.

And... then there are those days when I simply choose them all. Boom. Yep. The whole shebang. It happened on a very normal early morning pre-work market romp. Befuddled by the dizzying array of colors dancing under the morning sun, I grabbed every variety and color I could get my hands on. Gone was the notion of characterizing and labeling them by sweet/tart ratios. With that in mind, why not toss them all together with a few market peaches and see how nicely they play together? Sun-kissed tomatoes with warm ripe peaches.

Summer Peach and Tomato Salad.
I can't say I did much. It was a simple salad. With such gorgeous tomatoes, my goal was to not muck it up. Starting with the smaller ones, I halved a few Paw Paw Plantation black Indigo Rose plum, Speckled Roman Roma, and Sun Gold tomatoes before splitting several Stonehedge Farm Green Zebras and setting them aside. After slicing Pulaski County red Mule Team, Amana Orange, Great White, and Virginia Sweet tomatoes into thick rounds, I halved a few Green Doctor cherries and sliced thick wheels of Casey County Purple Cherokee tomatoes before snagging a few dainty Yellow Pears from the garden to add to the mix.

With everything on deck, I overlapped the larger sliced  tomatoes onto Milk Glass plates, scattered the smaller ones over the top, tucked thin wedges of warm freestone market peaches into the tomatoes, and splashed the salad with a faint drizzle of white balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil before finishing with parsley, purple basil, coarsely cracked black pepper and flaked sea salt.

Taste the colors.
Eat summer while it lasts.

Simple. Fresh. Fun.

Fabulous.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ajo Blanco. The Other Gazpacho

Long before tomatoes arrived from the new world and made their way into the silken tomato-based gazpacho we're all familiar with, ajo blanco was the gazpacho of Spain. Ajo blanco (white garlic) was a simple chilled peasant soup concocted to supply nourishment to field workers and help quell the blistering heat that pounded the southern provinces of Spain. Like its red cousin, ajo blanco was created in the southern region of Andulacia, specifically Malaga. The region, rich with olive groves and moorish-influenced almonds, made ajo blanco affordable and readily available. Made with pounded almonds, olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and grapes, it's referred to as the gazpacho of Malaga. Nowadays, ajo blanco has been taken out of the fields and gussied up a bit, paving the way for more refined versions to grace the tables in tapas bars throughout Spain. While elevated from its humble roots, the beauty of ajo blanco lies in its simplicity.

Garlic. Water. Bread. Olive oil. Sherry vinegar. Grapes. Peasant food. Ajo blanco. White gazpacho.

We've had a great tomato season here in Kentucky. Beautiful. Plump. Bountiful. Perfect for gazpacho. That said, while we're still in peak season for summer tomatoes, local grapes have also started to hit the farm stands. Demurely tucked in and around the brash darlings of summer, grapes don't crash the markets like thundering tomato tsunamis. They filter in quietly as they ripen and mature. Amused by their unexpected appearance, I bagged a few Graskop Farm Reliance grapes sold by Elmwood Stock and embraced the other gazpacho.

Ajo Blanco.
Bread.
Without the addition of any cream, good bread provides the faux creaminess that characterizes ajo blanco. I sliced 2 fat Sunrise Bakery tear baguettes in half and ripped the soft bready guts into small pieces. When I accumulated 2 1/2 cups of torn bread, I soaked the pieces in 2 cups of iced water until they softened.

Almonds and garlic.
While the bread plumped in the water, I tumbled 2 cups of raw almonds into simmering water to blanch and help release the skins. Although raw garlic is traditionally used in ajo blanco, I wanted to temper the biting rawness, so I added 4 smashed cloves of Elmwood Stock garlic to the simmering almonds. After 45 seconds, I scooped the almonds and garlic onto a dish towel to drain. When they were cool enough to handle, I slipped the skins off of the garlic cloves and set them aside.  Instead of popping each individual skin from every individual almond, I used the dish towel as friction to slip off the skins and reveal their buttery flesh.  Who knew? Magic.

Back to the bread. I squeezed as much liquid out of the bread as possible, reserved the remaining water, and set the soggy bread aside.

Traditionally, the bread, almonds, and garlic were pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Nope. Didn't happen. I dropped the bread into a food processor along with the almonds, garlic, salt, and white pepper. After adding the reserved soaking water to the processor, I blasted the mixture for 2 minutes before slowly drizzling in 1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive and 4 tablespoons of Spanish sherry vinegar.

Most folks would've left it at that. To alleviate the slight graininess from the pureed almonds, I strained the soup through a chinois and tossed it into the refrigerator to chill for several hours.

When the ajo blanco was bone cold, I poured the velvety soup into tiny parfait glasses, floated split Reliance grapes over the top, and added a few halved almonds before finishing with snipped chives from my garden.

Funny, while the unlikely combination of ingredients seemed weird, they totally worked together. The soup was deceivingly light and didn't scream garlic. Swirled through the emulsified creamy puree, faint whispers of garlic mingled with the fruity olive oil, pureed bread, buttery ground almonds, and musky tang of the sherry vinegar to create rich complex layers of flavor. While the suspended almonds added crunch, the split grapes provided pops of sweet wet freshness.

The other gazpacho.
Sexy.
Refreshing.
Captivating.

A perfect Kentucky summer tapas.













Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lady Fingers

What's in a name? Abelmoschus esculentus. Bhindi. Bamia. Lady fingers. Bendi. Gombo. Okra.
However it's labeled, the slender slime filled pods elicit different responses from different people. It's a love hate thing. Me? I have a total lusty affection for okra and wholeheartedly embrace the slime. That said, it's not all about the slime factor. Granted, when used to thicken Louisiana gumbos or low country okra stews, the mucilaginous stuff melts into the base and disappears. Tricky. It's there without really being there. Makes me smile. Crossing continents and oceans, okra can be found in almost every cuisine throughout the world. While it might not have taken a few European countries by storm, it's revered in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, South America, the Caribbean, the southern United States, and Kentucky.  That's a love thing. Over the years, I've prepared huge vats and steam kettles filled with creole/cajun sauces containing hundreds of pounds of okra for Mardi Gras merry makers. Even the okra haters gobbled it up.

When not in season, frozen okra is a great understudy for stews and gumbos. Fresh okra, on the other hand, is a real game changer in other preparations. Keep an eye out. Fresh local okra is rolling into farmers markets with unabashed abandon. This year, while the small green pods are still the most common, Stonehedge Farm has pulled out the big guns with Red Burgundy okra. Twisted, long, slender, and gorgeous, they're the fancy pants of the okra world.


 

I adore combining okra with tomatoes. Fresh or frozen okra. Sun-ripened or canned tomatoes. It's a classic pairing. Right now, it's all about fresh okra and sun-kissed tomatoes. As much as I love hoarding the culls and ugly castaway red tomatoes from the market for cooking, I  gravitate toward super ripe Sun Gold cherry tomatoes during the peak summer season for an okra hoot-a nanny.

Red Burgundy Okra with Sun Gold Tomatoes.
Not quite a stew. Not quite a gumbo or saute'. Simply, okra and tomatoes with a few twists.

Tomatoes.
I halved 2 pints of Paw Paw Plantation Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into dry cast iron skillet. After seasoning them with salt and pepper, I cranked the heat to high and sauteed the tomatoes until they started to break down. When the sweet pulp oozed from the skins, I mashed the tomatoes with back of a fork to release the rest of the juices and deglazed the skillet with 1/2 cup white wine. As the wine reduced, the skins separated form the pulp and floated to the top. I drained the tomatoes and wine through a medium strainer to catch the skins before returning the remaining pulpy juice to the skillet. After the wine reduced to a silken
glaze, I added 2 cups of chicken stock and let the golden tomato stock bubble away until it reduced by half.

Okra.
Here's the deal. To slime or not to slime? While I could have gone either way, I wanted a bit of crunch to offset the sweet stewed tomatoes. Typically, I blister okra in a very hot skillet to seal the pods with heat. To keep the prep as simple as possible, I took an easier route.  After slicing the burgundy okra pods in half lengthwise, I dropped them into a deep fryer (350 degrees) to flash fry for about 3 minutes. When the split pods were charred and caramelized, I scooped them from the hot oil to drain on paper towels.

I pulled the tomato stock from the heat and tumbled the fried okra into the steaming sauce. To brighten and echo the flavor of the stewed tomatoes, I tumbled a few halved fresh Sun Gold tomatoes around the skillet before finishing (on a whim) with fresh thyme, file' powder, and a heavy-handed dusting of hot smoked paprika.

Simple and rustic, it seemed innocent enough. The okra, suspended over the sauce, crackled and snapped. The stewed tomatoes tasted like wet melted tomato jam. When the okra pods collapsed into the stock and softened, the swollen seeds spilled into the mix like slippery edible pearls. Spice. While the ground sassafras added an earthy level of heat, the hot smoked paprika added pure fire. Innocence lost. The combination of the two added an unexpected explosive depth of flavor and complexity that belied the simplicity of a quick stew/saute'.



Sweet heat.
Lady fingers.
What's in a name?
Fresh Kentucky okra.
Win.






Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hand Pies

My grandmother and Miss Lottie were best friends. Their homesteads in Western Kentucky, separated by a winding narrow country road lined with patches of woods, were perched on two rolling hills adjacent to each other. During the winter, when the trees were bare, their houses were visible through the twisted branches. Country neighbors. They might not have spent a lot of  social  time together outside of church, community functions, or shared telephone party-lines, but it was quite evident they were close. Bonded by parallel life experiences, they were similar in many ways. They raised families through the Depression while tirelessly tending to their gardens, pastures, and barnyard animals. Farm life. While I assumed they were the same age, I always had an inkling that Miss Lottie might have been a few hundred years older than my grandmother. When you're a kid, you simply know things.

As similar as they were, Miss Lottie and my grandmother were polar opposites in other ways. During the summer months, my grandmother floated around the house like an aging wisp draped in lightweight sleeveless floral cotton dresses accented with mismatched terrycloth aprons cinched tightly around her waist. Lovely. Miss Lottie, on the other hand, always seemed to be buttoned up from head to toe in sturdier heavy dresses anchored by ankle high black leather sensible shoes. Scary stuff. Opposites. That said, beneath her rigid exterior appearance, Miss Lottie had a heart of gold. During those  hot summer months, when we weren't fishing, swimming, mowing fields, rewiring  fences, or opening/closing cattle gates, we could count on Miss Lottie for two things: her small black pony she kept loosely tied to a tree in her front yard with a long grass rope for neighboring farm kids to ride and her flaky deep fried apple pies. She was the patron saint of summer. While the pony was a given, we never knew when or where her fried apple pies might appear. They simply happened. Without notice, she'd pull up the hill leading to my grandmother's house and deliver a platter of fist sized half-moon shaped deep fried apple pies carefully tucked under meticulously pressed dish towels. Sweet, without being overly sweet, the cooked apples dripped from the fried crusts faster than we could lick our fingers and arms to prevent the precious goo from spilling onto the ground. I can still smell and taste those summer gifts.

Back in the day, fried fruit pies were made from sun dried harvested fruit. Apples. Peaches. Apricots. Preservation. Waste not want not. Right now, it's all about the abundance of ridiculously ripe fresh summer fruit hitting the farm stands and markets. In the fall, when apples flood the markets, I'll give Miss Lottie's fried apple pies a go. During the peak summer season, I'll stick with peaches, plums, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. The sky's the limit.

I might not be a baker,
but I believe I can fry.

Fried Blueberry Hand Pies.

Pastry.
Tricky business. I suppose just about any good pie pastry would have fried up into  fantastic fried fruit pies.

I went very basic. After sifting together 3 cups Weisenberger Mill all purpose flour with 2 tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt, I dumped the mix into a food processor and added 6 tablespoons of chilled unsalted butter. I pulsed the butter/flour mixture until it resembled course crumbs before adding 1 beaten egg and 1 cup milk.


I blitzed the dough until it formed a loose ball, rolled it onto a floured cutting board, gathered it into a disc, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and slid the dough into the refrigerator to chill for an hour or so.

Blueberries.
Although blueberries might be hitting their final stretch for the season, they're still plentiful. In fact, they're everywhere. Score. I didn't want to kill the pies with overly sweet filling, so I tip-toed between a pie filling and a compote. I tumbled 3 1/2 cups of beautifully plump Silas Farm blueberries into a sauce pan, added 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons water. After bringing the berries to a boil, I reduced the heat to a simmer and let the filling rip. When the berries collapsed and the mixture thickened, I pulled it from the heat to cool before folding in a handful of julienned 'mini purple' basil leaves and 1/2 cup whole uncooked blueberries.

Chill. Chill. Chill.

I knew it was important to keep the pastry chilled during every step of the process. I failed that test once in a classroom. Once.

I pulled the dough from the refrigerator and plopped it onto a floured cutting board. Starting from the inside out while turning the dough in quarter turns, I rolled the dough into a large 1/4 inch thick circle and used a 6 inch pastry ring to cut the dough into several discs. After covering them with plastic wrap, I slid the discs back into the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

Filling.
Trial and error. Too little or too much? Like crepe making, the first few sucked. After brushing the edges of the dough with an egg wash, I spooned about 1 1/2 tablespoons of filling onto each piece of dough, folded them over, and sealed the edges before crimping them with a fork to really seal the deal. Back into the refrigerator they went to chill for an additional 30 minutes.

Fry Time.
Although I have an awesome deep fryer, I used a heavy cast iron skillet as an homage to Miss Lottie. After adding enough canola oil to measure about 2 inches in the skillet, I cranked the heat to medium high. Using a thermometer to gauge the heat, I let the oil reach 325 before turning the heat down to medium. When the oil reached 350 degrees, I carefully fried the pies until they were golden brown, turning them occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the hot skillet. After 2-3 minutes on each side, I scooped the fried blueberry pies from the oil and placed them onto paper towels to drain. While they were still hot, I sprinkled them with superfine sugar and Cerulean sea salt. Yep.

I transferred the fried pies to a rack to cool before slipping them onto a cutting board and showering them powdered sugar.

Hand pies.
Fried blueberry pies.

Fistfuls of summer.

Fabulous.








Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Braisin' In The Sun

Braising tends to get put on the back burner during the summertime. Granted, our local markets are exploding with beautiful fresh produce right now that beg for light summery fare.  I get it, I really do. I'm on the bandwagon. That said, it's a shame to shy away from succulent long braised meats just because it's summer. Forget the hot kitchen and steamy windows. Ditch the clunky cookware, keep it fresh, keep it simple, and move the fuss outside onto an outdoor grill.

Grilled/Braised Chicken in Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Simple. Nothing fancy. I used our old charcoal grill with a hinged lid, a few fantastic local ingredients from the farmers' market, herbs from my garden, and a couple of pantry staples to turn a somewhat traditional braise into a riff on a summer cookout.

Earlier this summer, I signed up for Elmwood Stock Farm's FarmFan program (It's still available). With the program, I receive points for every purchase and text notifications before each market telling what they'll have on hand. Pretty nifty. Because of the program, I knew in advance that they'd have fresh (never frozen) organic free-range chicken at the next market day (while they lasted). Niftier still, I reserved one and didn't have to awake at the crack of dawn to snag a bird before the market madness began. Booya. Sold. Fresh chicken.

Game on.
Chicken.
Using a sharp paring knife, I broke down the gorgeous 4 pound chicken into eight good sized serving pieces. After slicing the thighs and legs from the breasts, I separated the thighs from the legs and set them aside. Using kitchen shears, I snipped the backbone from the breasts, tossed it into the freezer with my other chicken parts, and sliced the large breasts in half. After seasoning the chicken pieces liberally with salt, I slid them into the refrigerator to dry brine.

Tomatoes.
Sure, I like the pretty tomatoes. The jewels of summer. There's nothing better than a sun-kissed warm tomato sliced into thick pieces and sprinkled with flaked sea salt or beautiful heirloom tomatoes sandwiched between slices of white bread or Caprese Salad or gazpacho. On and on and on.

However, when I intend to cook the tomatoes, I head straight for the ugly ones. The culls. The throwaways. The ugly ducklings. I needed quite a few fresh tomatoes for the braised chicken, so I bagged a few pounds of gigantic puckered ugly tomatoes from Henkle's Heirlooms and Herbs "Uglies" bin before stopping by The Paw Paw Plantation to bulk up the tomato factor with a few almost overripe pretty tomatoes.

To keep it fuss free, I eschewed the blanch and peel method and simply cored the tomatoes, chopped them into manageable wedges, and ran them through the course disc of a food mill. After scraping the disc clean, I ended up with about 5 cups of outrageous blood red tomato pulp.

I thought about using a large cast iron skillet for the braising vessel, but because the chicken pieces were quite large, I opted to use my well-seasoned grill tested 14" paella pan.

With everything on deck, I lit the coals,  pulled the chicken from the refrigerator, and quartered 4 small Scott County candy onions.

So, here's the deal. Most traditional braises (pick a meat) include aromatics, herbs, seasonings, wine, and stock. Pretty basic. I stuck to most of the basics, but switched out the wine for a good quality red wine vinegar. A little twist with French and Spanish influences.

When the coals settled into their glowing/grey ashen mode, I scooped the coals to the sides of the grill to create an outer ring of heat as opposed to an intense direct heat source. I place the paella pan over the grill and drizzled it with olive oil. When the oil started to smoke, I lightly dredged the chicken through flour, carefully placed them into the hot oil, browned the chicken on all sides, removed the pieces to a side plate, and added 1/2 cup minced candy onions. When the onions turned translucent, I scattered 3 crushed garlic cloves into the pan and deglazed the pan with 3/4 cups red wine vinegar. After allowing the vinegar to reduce to a loose glaze, I added all of the tomato pulp and 1 cup of chicken stock.

When the tomato sauce started to pop and spurt, I nestled the chicken pieces into the sauce, tucked the candy onions around the chicken, slipped a few bay leaves under the chicken, swirled stems of fresh lovage throughout the sauce, covered the paella pan with aluminum foil, lowered the lid of the grill, and let the chicken braise for 60 minutes, removing the foil and lid for an additional 20 minutes to allow the sauce to reduce.

The timing was perfect. At first, I thought I was killing the chicken with the heat. As time went on, the coals burned down a bit and regulated the heat inside the grill. After an hour and 1/2, I pulled the chicken from the grill to rest. To freshen the sleepy braise, I finished with tiny halved Madison County sun gold tomatoes, fresh lovage leaves, and snipped chives.

I was amazed at how a few simple ingredients could offer such crazy multi-layered depth to a simple braise. While the candy onions melted into the sauce, the humble old fashioned lovage packed  intense celery flavor both in the braise and as a garnish. Celery essence without chunks of celery. Win. Tarted up with subtle piquant undertones from the reduced red wine vinegar, the tomato pulp bathed the tender chicken with soft acidic smoky sweetness. Perfect balance.

And the chicken? Organic free-range fresh (never frozen) chicken. Think about it. The meat was so unbelievably moist and tender. We couldn't tell the difference between the breast meat and the thigh meat. They were literally  interchangeable in a weird how-did-this-happen kind of way. Sure, my off-the-cuff method added tons of unexpected flavor, but the chicken was key. Even after a long hot sunny braise, it didn't shred or fall apart. Every messy fistful (trust me) yielded juicy succulent shards of flesh that slipped from the bones like butter. Pull. Swipe. Suck. Repeat.

Braisin' in the sun.
Killer.