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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Eat Your Beer: Beef And Guinness Pie

You don't have to dangle backwards from a parapet of Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone to feel a wee bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day. Whether slamming back a few pints with Jameson chasers, donning something green, watching a parade with friends and family, or chowing down on hearty Irish fare, most everyone embraces the revelry and spirit of the day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland.. Some of us might enjoy it a little too much. That said, it's really all about balance. Eat, drink, and be merry. Do it all separately or do it all together. I'm all in for a combination of the the same time. Balance.

Guinness Beef Pie with Hot Water Crust Pastry
Meat pies, in general, are fairly straightfoward. Meat + Pastry = Pie. Choose a filling, choose a pastry, and call it a day. Pretty basic. However, under the big umbrella of meat pies, things  can get tricky. Which pastry dough works best for which filling? Shortcrust pastry, puff pastry, flaky pastry, rough puff pastry, suet crust pastry, or hot water crust pastry? Then, double crust, or single crust? It's all subjective and a matter of personal taste. For something as robust as Guinness steak pie, I went very old school with a double crust hot water lard crust pastry. Yep.

A hearty and rich booze infused stew.
I seasoned 4 pounds of Marksbury Farm beef short ribs with salt and pepper, dredged them with flour, shook off the excess flour, and set them aside. After heating 3 tablespoons bacon fat to the smoking point in a large dutch oven, I carefully browned the short ribs in batches until they developed a gorgeous crust, scooped them from the pot, and set them aside. While the pot was still smoking hot, I added 3 tablespoons vegetable oil to the smoky bacon fat. When the two fats melted together, I tumbled 4 sliced carrots, 3 sliced celery ribs, and 1/2 cup chopped onions into the hot oil.
Just before the onions started to caramelize, I added 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic and 2 tablespoons tomato paste. After swirling the tomato paste through the softened vegetables, I let the tomato paste brown before deglazing the pot with 2 cups Guinness Stout bottled  beer. Heads up.
When the heady foam settled back into the pot, I added 3 cups beef stock, 2 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish, 1 heaping tablespoon dried shitake mushroom powder,  3 tablespoons dark brown sugar, salt, cracked black pepper, 1 tablespoon dried English mustard, 3 bay leaves, 1 sprig fresh rosemary, and 3 sprigs fresh thyme. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tumbled the reserved browned meat (with juices) into the stock, covered the pot, and slid it into a pre-heated 350 oven.

After 1 1/2 hours, I pulled the stew from the oven, loosened the base with an additional 2 cups beef stock, added 2 cups peeled pearl onions, and returned the stew to the oven. At the 2 1/2 hour mark ( an hour later), I pulled the stew from the oven to rest. When the short ribs were cool enough to handle, I pulled the meat from the bones and sliced it into 1' pieces.  After scooping the vegetables into a side dish, I tossed them with the cooked meat, covered the dish with plastic wrap, and set it aside. I skimmed the glistening  visible fat from the surface of the stock, covered it with plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

When the stock chilled enough for the fat to congeal on the surface, I scraped off the remaining fat and draped the gelatinous sauce over the meat and vegetables.

Hot water pastry is an interesting beast. By breaking the keep-everything-well-chilled rule, it goes against the norm. In doing so, the process creates a strong  flaky crust that can withstand the weight of any savory filling.

After sifting 3 2/3 cups all purpose flour and 1 teaspoon salt into a large mixing bowl, I made a well in the center of the flour, poured 2 beaten eggs into the well, and feathered the wall of flour over the eggs. Working over a medium high flame, I melted 2/3 cups lard in a small saucepan before adding 6 tablespoons milk and 6 tablespoons water. When the lard/water/milk came to a rolling boil, I carefully poured the hot liquid around the edges of the flour and used a fork to pull the dough together. When it formed a ragged dough, I turned it onto a well floured bread board, kneaded it until the egg strands disappeared into the dough, patted the dough into flattened disc,wrapped it in plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to chill.

I divided the dough with a bench scraper and rolled the bottom crust into a jagged  16" x 1/4" circle, rolled the dough onto the rolling pin, and unrolled it over a 8" spring form pan, leaving a slight overhang. After pinching the dough into the base of the pan, I pushed the dough up the sides, smoothed the creases, patched a few tears, set it aside, and rolled out the remaining dough for the top.

I mixed the room temperature filling with the sauce, spooned the mixture into the pastry case, sprinkled fresh parsley over the filling, brushed the exposed pastry with a beaten egg wash, and carefully rolled the top crust over the pan.  After trimming the edges, I brushed the top of the pie with the egg wash, crimped the edges to form a tight seal, sliced three vents to allow the steam escape, and shoved the massive pie into a pre-heated 390 degree oven.

After 45 minutes, I pulled the pie from the oven, released the spring form pan, brushed the sides of the crust with egg wash, and returned the pie to the oven for an additional 25 minutes to brown before pulling it from the oven to rest.

When cooled, I scattered snipped chives over the top of the pie and sliced it into oversized hearty thick wedges. Boom. It was not my grandmother's dainty beef pot pie.

Deep and complex, the tender meat and sweetened root vegetables melted into the rich mahogany sauce. Although still very present, the Guinness stout relaxed its bitter edge from the long cook. While the brown sugar enhanced the inherent chocolaty roasted sweetness of the beer, it also tempered the hoppy assertiveness.

Cracked and splintered, large crusty pie shards easily became edible spoons for sopping, leaving the smaller flakes to fleck through the unctuous sauce like delicate crisp croutons.

Eat your beer.
One bite at a time.

Friday, February 5, 2016


I started catering by accident. Thirty odd years ago, I moved to New York armed with a theatre degree, a cute wardrobe, and boundless energy. Hardly a triple threat. In the beginning, I juggled several odd jobs to earn enough money for bills with enough pocket change left over for cheap vodka and cigarettes. During the day, I worked the first floor information desk at the American Museum of Natural History located on the Upper West Side. "The dinosaurs are on the 4th floor. The elevator is straight ahead." "The dinosaurs are on the 4th floor. The elevator is straight ahead." "Whales? Down the hall and to the right." "The dinosaurs are on the 4th floor." "Yes, ma'am. The 4th floor." "The. 4th. Floor." On and on and on. At night, I split my time hawking 'I heart NY' coffee mugs and feathered theatre masks in a dingy souvenir shop on a dank ally just off of 45th Street and manning the lowest station in the kitchen of a failing restaurant on Restaurant Row. I was living the dream.

At the time, I had a good friend who helped curate the theatre collection for the City of the Museum of New York on the Upper East Side. Fancy digs. One one particularly insignificant day, he asked me if I'd be interested in catering an exhibit opening at the museum as a replacement for a caterer who bailed at the last minute. Embracing my impetuous inner me, I said yes without giving it a thought. Here's the deal. I was a hustling  pizza-by-the-slice, street vendor hot dog, Asian take-out, Blarney Stone Bar buffet kind of guy. The closest I came to my imagined notion of gentrified museum snacks were the occasional nibbles I'd snag from the sample counters of Zabars and Dean and Deluca. I was a kid without a clue. Hell, that didn't stop me. I embraced what I knew and took my interpreted  mish-mashed Jewish/Italian arsenal of goods on the road. Old school crab-stuffed cherry tomatoes (yep). Chopped chicken liver on matzo crackers. Smoked whitefish dip. Gravlax on rye. Skewered buffalo bocconcini balls. I was brazen, young, and unafraid. At the end of the night, when the dust settled, my traveling food show was a hit.

While my  real jobs evolved and changed over time, I held fast to my museum catering gigs. In the chaos of New York, it was grounding. Sure, I grew with the changing food trends.That said, even though I mixed things up a bit, I stubbornly kept my bread and butter workhorses. My last hurrah unfolded at a satellite exhibit opening housed in a large temporary kiosk on Times Square. The exhibit was designed and mounted to showcase the historical connections and relationships between the costumes of Hollywood and Broadway.From Broadway to Hollywood and back. Bi-coastal.

The night went off without a hitch. As a one man band, I had my hands full keeping foods trays stocked and supplied. Midway through the opening, I huddled under the formica ticket counter top to refresh a tray of salmon. When I pulled up....boom. Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers stood inches away smiling at me through the dimmed rose-colored underlighting that softened their worn faces beneath the gaudy flickering neon of the entrance sign.  Of course they were there, I thought. I stood there, shell-shocked and disheveled, a pastry bag in one hand with salmon slipping through the fingers of my other hand. Flummoxed, I simply used my elbow to point toward the salmon on rye. They both slipped a few pieces onto their plates and vanished into the exhibit. And that was that.

Several years later, after landing a big boy theatre job totally unrelated to food, I sat 1st Row, Center, 1st Balcony at Carnegie Hall for Ethel Merman's last live performance. Full circle. Lucky me.

Beetroot Cured Salmon on Pumpernickle Rye.
At its most basic, cured salmon simply needs salt, sugar, and time. While the ratio of salt to sugar is forgiving, it has to be strong enough and balanced to properly set the cure. I always use a 50/50 salt to sugar ratio for the foundation. After that, almost anything goes.

First and foremost, using beets in the curing process does not make the salmon taste like beets. The beets simply impart a shockingly surreal color that defies common sense. Commit and go big.

Mise en Place.
Rubber gloves. Plastic wrap. Full on rubber body suit. Beets are messy business.

I rinsed a 1 1/2 pound salmon filet under cold water, meticulously removed the pin bones, sliced it in half to make it more manageable, and set it aside. After donning plastic gloves, I grated 3 large peeled beets on the course side of a box grater over a large mixing bowl, added 1/4 cup grated fresh horseradish root, 1 cup kosher salt, and 1 cup granulated sugar.

I double lined a large sheet pan with plastic wrap (with enough overhang to wrap the salmon), spread half of the beet/horseradish/sugar/salt mixture onto the bottom of the sheet pan, placed the salmon on top of the mixture, brushed the flesh with local Pure Blue Vodka, covered the salmon with the remaining cure, nestled thinly sliced lemons into the macerated beets, and feathered fresh dill over the lemons.

I loosely folded the plastic wrap over and around the salmon, leaving enough air space for the salmon to breathe and sweat. After covering the salmon with another sheet pan, I weighed it down with 4 full bottles of wine and slid the salmon into the refrigerator to cure for 3 days, flipping the salmon  once a day, draining off the liquid, and weighing it back down.

Quick Pickled Beets.
After simmering 2 medium beets in salted water for 45 minutes, I slipped the skins from the beets (rubber gloves) and set them aside.  When they were cool enough to handle, I sliced them into 1/2" cubes, tumbled them into pint canning jar, added 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, and 1 bay leaf before sliding the beets into the refrigerator to chill.

After 3 days, I wrapped myself in plastic wrap, unwrapped the salmon, scraped off the beet-infused
cure, rinsed the salmon under cold water, and set it aside.

The fun part.

After patting the salmon dry with a clean dish towel, I sliced it on a sharp bias into paper thin ribbons using a very sharp boning knife. Slow and steady was key. I gently pulled the salmon into the knife while carefully slicing the flesh with long slicing motions, letting the salmon fall from the knife.

I brushed pumpernickle rye toasts with creme fraiche and  feathered the ridiculously vibrant salmon ribbons onto the rye before finishing with slivered shallots, radishes, pickled beets, fresh chervil, and fresh dill.

Salmon on rye.
Light years (and miles) away from my vagabond museum days.