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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Red Wattle

The long arctic winter came to a crashing halt when I spotted  gorgeous baby rainbow chard from Elmwood Stock Farm at our Lexington Farmers' Winter Market. Skidaddle, winter. Boom, it's over. You've lost your power here. Because I'd grown accustomed to the usual winter market pickings, I was surprised to find something green (other than kale) dancing in the morning light. Finally. With the official Farmers' Market Spring Kickoff on April 5th just days away, the feathery baby chard leaves offered a sneak peak of what's to come. Shop local. Shop often. Expect the unexpected. There will always be surprises. Always. Bring it.

Puffed up from my self-declared secret find, I went on my merry way. Bounding past the unassuming Two Forks Farm table, home of Hood's Heritage Hogs,Travis Hood pulled me in with his unabashed enthusiasm and commitment to his craft. Talk about passion. I was totally blown away. Their mission statement begins very simply, Know your farmer. Know your food. As I flipped through the various Red Wattle Hog cuts he brought to the market that day (roasts,loins, chops, bacon, ham steaks,and sausage), people hovered around waiting for me to choose something. When I finally settled on a rather small tail-end pork tenderloin, the gallery jumped into the fray and gobbled up the rest. That was exciting.  In a way, it reminded me of those frenzied early summer mornings when I felt the need to rush to the farmers' market to buy the good tomatoes before they vanished. Welcome back, Spring. Open arms..

Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Wilted Baby Rainbow Chard.
Years before my cooking stints at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, we hosted bourbon tasting/pairing dinners at work.  Back in the day, (my baby step days) I tried to keep things as simple as possible. My go to entree at the time was bourbon braised pork loin. I seasoned  a few 8 pound boneless pork loins with salt, slathered them with dijon mustard, and packed them with brown sugar before roasting the pork until the fat melted away and swirled into the pan juices, about 2 1/2 hours. While basic, it was killer.

Scaling everything back with a few downsized changes, I adapted my old stand-by method to fit the shorter cooking time for my smaller less fatty Red Wattle pork tenderloin.

I mixed 1 cup dark brown sugar with 1 tablespoon each onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, kosher salt, ground mustard, and cracked black pepper.  After smearing the whole tenderloin with sharp dijon mustard, I packed the spiced brown sugar on all four sides and set it aside to come to room temperature.

After 35 minutes, I splashed 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large cast iron skillet and cranked the heat to medium high. Just as it started to ripple, I added the pork tenderloin and browned it on all sides before deglazing the hot skillet (off the heat) with 1 cup of Town Branch bourbon. I scraped the sticky bits from the bottom of the skillet, added 1/2 cup chicken stock, and slid the pork tenderloin into a preheated 400 degree oven to roast until the internal temperature reached 145 degrees. After 30 minutes, I pulled the meat from the oven, placed it on a cutting board (covered) and let it rest for 15 minutes to let the juices redistribute throughout the meat.

I strained the pan juices through a fine mesh strainer, poured them back into the skillet and added 1/2 cup chicken stock along with a splash of bourbon. I brought the sauce to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and let it bubble away.

Typically, when preparing swiss chard, the tender leaves are stripped from the tougher stalks. The newly harvested baby chard was so fresh, I left the tiny stalks attached to the leaves, trimmed them up a bit, and rinsed them under cold running water.

With everything on deck, I didn't want to cook the crap out of the chard. Working over a medium flame, I sauteed 2 thinly sliced shallots with 2 quartered hot pickled cherry peppers. When the shallots started to caramelize, I threw a handful of the baby chard  into the pan, kissed it with fresh lemon juice, gave it a quick toss, and pulled it from the heat.

After slicing the pork tenderloin into 2" medallions, I nestled them into pillows of creamy celery root puree, twirled the wilted baby chard to the side, spooned the pan sauce over the medallions, and finished with peppery watercress.

I loved everything about this. Anchored by the airy celery root puree and lovely wilted chard, the utterly tender heritage pork tasted like pork should taste. Real. As the tenderloin roasted, the few ribbons of fat basted the meat like butter and melted into the mustardy brown sugar rub. Like my old school method, the spiced caramelized fat mixed with the reduced bourbon to create a sauce spiked with vanilla undertones. With a bit of added stock, the sauce morphed into a subtle sum of it parts. Savory, sweet, delicate, and complex.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Salty Fish

There's a lot more to anchovies than salty little fish. We're all familiar with those salt bombs that stick to the top of carryout pizza boxes (well, if you order anchovies). That type might be on the lower rung of the anchovy food chain, but they're great mixed into salad dressings or sauces for that special umami thing. That said, not all anchovies are stacked and packed in razor sharp flip-top cans. Salt and pressure are the keys to curing anchovies. After stacking alternating layers of anchovies and salt into drums, the anchovies are pressed with weights, and left to cure. The salt draws out the moisture and preserves the fish. From that stage the anchovies are either canned in oil, jarred in oil,  or packed in salt. I usually opt for oil-packed jarred anchovies. Whether swimming in a plain olive oil bath or jarred with garlic and red chilis, they usually come vertically packed or rolled up like little fiddlehead ferns. They're easy to work with and the residual flavored oil is an added bonus. Win. Salt-packed anchovies are a different beast. Prized for their cleaner taste, the salt-packed varieties have to be filleted, cleaned, and rinsed before use. I really don't care how they prepared, packed, curled, or stacked, I'm an absolute fool for anchovies.

Several years ago, while lunching with Michael at an area restaurant, I discovered marinated white anchovies or boquerones en vinagre (fresh anchovy fillets marinated in vinegar and olive oil). The pristine fish fillets arrived unannounced as a garnish on an overworked and heavy handed  salad nicoise. I ravaged them with abandon, dangling the slightly pickled darlings over my tongue before slurping them down like wet ramen noodles. The slippery-skinned and mild tasting unsalted fish changed the anchovy game.

To this day, when I'm lucky enough to run across them, I order white anchovies straight up. No salad needed. On really fabulous days, Michael brings them home. Cue the music.

Simple Flatbread with Baby Arugula, White Anchovies, and Stuff.
Me and my anchovies. A lesson in self indulgence.
I wasn't gunning to make pizza, foccacia, or true flatbread. I guess I was shooting for something like a big cracker. I sifted 2 cups of all purpose flour with a pinch of salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda before adding 1/2 cup chilled water. After forming the dough into a loose ball, I kneaded it for 5 minutes, floured a large wooden board, and rolled the dough into a very thin misshapen oblong. Hell, I didn't care what it looked like. I brushed the dough with olive oil, scattered thinly sliced onions over the top,and slid it into a 400 degree oven to bake for 35 minutes. When the cracker-bread browned and the onions charred, I pulled the crust from the oven to cool.

I tossed baby arugula with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, flaked sea salt, and cracked black pepper. After covering the baked cracker with lettuce, I tumbled slivered red bell peppers and sliced kumquats into the leaves before finishing with butterflied white anchovies. Booya.

So simple. Like glammed up canned sardines on crackers (one of my father's favorite things), the unlikely combination worked. Bitter arugula. Sweet/tart kumquats. Charred onions. Cracker crust. White anchovies. Perfect.

Game changer.                                                          

Monday, March 10, 2014


I think beets get a bad rap. They're almost polarizing. People either love or hate the earthy downtrodden root. I know there are people out there who love beets. While I'm on the love-fest side of the fence, very few people I know share my enthusiasm. I typically have to grab them on the sly or catch them on an occasional salad bar. That said, my last few salad bar adventures were beet-less. Zero. Slim pickings for a beet lover.

Sometimes, you have to grab the bull by the horns and take a little ride. I wanted beets. Period. Giddy-up, Mr. Bull.

Roasted Beet Salad.
Typically, I roast beets in individually-wrapped aluminum packets. While it's a great method, it's messy business. The beets usually stick to the foil and bleed from the packets. Familiar territory. Low on my foil supply, I took a simpler approach. After snipping the greens (washed and reserved)  from 3 bunches of chioggia, red, and golden beets, I scrubbed the beet bulbs before dropping them into a shallow roasting pan. I added 1/2 cup water, covered the pan with aluminum foil, and slid them into a 375 degree oven to roast/steam/bake for 1 1/2 hours.

When the beets were tender enough to poke through with a wooden skewer, I pulled them from the oven and let them rest until they were cool enough to handle. Using rubber gloves, I easily slipped the skins from the beets and tossed them into the refrigerator to chill. Sure, I splattered everything in sight with wet crimson beet juice. When you play with beets, expect bloodshed.

With the beets safely tucked away, I gave a demure nod to molecular gastronomy with a simple method for balsamic pearls from Modernist Cooking Made Easy.
Balsamic Pearls.
After placing 1 cup of olive oil into the freezer to chill for 45 minutes, I boiled 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar with 1 tablespoon agar agar and poured the mixture into a squeeze bottle.  When the olive oil was quite chilled and cloudy, I carefully drizzled droplets of the thickened balsamic vinegar into the oil. As the droplets fell through the cold olive oil, they formed into tiny little spheres. Fabulous. I gave the pearls a quick stir to break them apart before dropping them into chilled water to set.

I pulled the beets from the refrigerator, sliced them paper thin rounds, tossed them with sliced watermelon radishes, added a few small raw beet greens, and drizzled everything with a simple lemon vinaigrette. After layering them will-nilly onto a serving plate, I nestled the balsamic pearls into the beets before finishing with flaked sea salt and slivered serrano peppers.

The glistening jewel-toned beets packed a potent earthy punch. Sliced whisper thin, they were both robust and delicate. Crazy. Mimicking the tender sweet beets, the watermelon radishes crashed the party with killer stinging crunch.  So, balsamic pearls and lemon vinaigrette? Overkill? Nope. It was a fantastic combination. The jellied balsamic pearls countered the bright clean acidity of the lemon vinaigrette with small pops of concentrated dark sweet acidity. Balance.

Beet fix.
Total self indulgence.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


At first glance, it might appear that Quarles Farm offers only baked goods, salsas, jams, and jellies at the Winter Farmers' Market. Not so. Dig a little deeper and ask a few questions. Their coolers (loaded with goat, lamb, and beef) are goldmines.  On my last visit, they offered  local apples and parsnips alongside their fantastic canned goods and breads. I was on the prowl for neck bones. Nope. I had to think fast, spin on a dime, flip a coin, journey to the other end, and choose tail. Oxtail. Aside to myself. Oddly, oxtail is commonly referred to as oxtails. Plural. Lots of tails. Many tails.  I kind of get the notion. Packaged supermarket oxtail fools the eye with big meaty chunks of tail. Locally sourced oxtail is readily packaged as one tail. Oxtail. Singular. From the fat butt-end section down to the tiny fly swatter, it's one tail.

Slapped back to reality, I passed on the apples, snagged a bundle of parsnips, and picked up a gorgeous piece of tail. My initial plan was to conjure up an intoxicating curried neck bone stew. With the same gelatinous marrow content of neck bones, I could have easily substituted the tail for the neck bones. In the end, I took a straightforward approach (with a few tricks) with the oxtail.

Red Wine Braised Oxtail with Parsnips, Carrots, and Cipollini Onions.
Braised oxtail is a beautiful thing. Because of its wonderful fat content, oxtail is best prepared a day in advance. Perfect timing for a lazy weekend.

Day 1.
After tying the oxtail pieces with kitchen twine to keep them intact, I seasoned them liberally and  browned them in sizzling  hot oil. When they were deeply browned (almost charred), I pulled them from the pot before adding chopped celery, onions, carrots, parsnips, and 2 tablespoons tomato paste. When the vegetables and paste caramelized, I deglazed the pot with a full bottle of cabernet sauvingnon. I scraped the bits from the bottom of the pot, let the wine reduce by half, and added 2 cups beef stock. At that point, it was pretty basic stuff. Beef stew, in a sense. To give the braise an extra oomph, I tossed 3 salty oil-packed anchovies into the stock along with 2 tablespoons pulverized dried porcini mushrooms. Although it might sound odd, I knew the anchovies would melt into the stock and quietly disappear. Masquerading as invisible umami bombs, the glutamates in both the mushrooms and anchovies would actually make the beef taste beefier. Win. That said, I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, added bay leaves, covered the pot, and slid it into a 350 degree oven.

After 31/2  hours, I pulled the pot from the oven, removed the meat to a side plate, drained the stock, discarded the vegetables, and wiped out the pot before pouring the reduced cooking liquid back into the pot. I nestled the oxtail into the warm stock and added a few fresh parsley sprigs to steep in the braising liquid while it cooled. When completely cooled, I covered the pot and slid the oxtail into the refrigerator to chill  overnight.

Day 2.
Thankfully, I tied the delicate meat with twine because the bundles were completely embedded in the coagulated beefy wine jelly. After carefully plucking them from the wine-infused demi glace, I skimmed the fat from the top, spooned the remainder into a cast iron skillet, added the oxtail, and set it aside.

To balance the richness of the oxtail I simply steamed a few carrots and parsnips until they were tender before sauteing them in butter with blanched cipollini onions. I set the vegetables aside and  gently rewarmed the braised oxtail over a medium flame. As the demi glace melted into the skillet, I used it to constantly baste the meat  until it was deeply glazed and lacquered with the mahogany jus. I scooped the tail from the sultry sauce, tucked the pieces into swaths of chive-flecked white sweet potato puree, and tumbled the vegetables to the side before finishing with lightly dressed celery leaves, slivered red pepper, and baby arugula.

Here's the deal, there is nothing fancy about braised oxtail. I mean, it's a tail.  A fly swatter. A bony thing with meat.

There was a lot going on. Cooked low and slow for hours, the collagens dissolved into the meat, rendering it utterly tender. Unleashed from its twined corset, the tender shreds spilled into the unctuous sauce, peppery parsnips, and soft sweet carrots. Hearty, lusty, and far from the dainty, the innocent meat-and-three quickly morphed into a shameless bone sucking meaty romp.

The perfect piece of tail.