Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cottage Pie (featuring root veggies)

What is a cottage pie? When I demoed this at the market I watched peoples eyes light up when I said "pie" only to turn to confusion and horror when I listed the ingredients, "Beef, turnips...". "Beef? Turnips? Carrots? That's not pie! After a moment of contemplation, some said "You mean shepherds pie". Nope I mean "cottage pie". Shepherds pie is made with lamb and ONLY LAMB! (O.K... maybe mutton.) That's my story, and until someone alerts me to the existence of the secret society of bovine shepherds, I'm stickin' to it. Cottage pie, on the other hand, is most often made with beef, although venison, chicken, turkey, cuy, or any other meat is acceptable.

Why all the roots? In a continuing effort to eat make local foods a larger part of our diets we often find ourselves in a bit of a pinch this time of year. I tend to push the limit as far as being a locavore but still struggle to keep my local food intake above 50% during these long Cleveland winters. Many cottage pie recipes call for peas and/or corn but since peas and corn aren't in my vocabulary in January I thought amping up the root veggie portion of the traditional recipe would be a great way to honor some of the root veggies that many of us have become bored with by now. How many root veggies can you get away with? My version is 75% roots to 25% meat and that's BEFORE the potato topping. It got rave reviews.

Which roots? For me, it wouldn't feel right to not use carrots and turnips, so those, along with onion (of course), are a perfect start. You could stop there but I prefer the use of other aromats such as garlic and celery (o.k, not a root, but if you have celery root, use it) and, as I perused the market, sun chokes, (A.K.A Jerusalem artichokes) caught my eye as did sweet potatoes. Both really perked this recipe up.

My food processor gets little use in my kitchen but it is perfect for mincing all the veggies together. I don't play favorites here. Then all go in together and get processed to a very fine mince. Feel free to go at 'em with a knife or box grater if you like and leave them coarser if you prefer. There are no rules here.

Next you need to saute the veggies in butter. (Use oil if you like, but it wont taste as good. Bacon drippin's, lard or tallow? I'll love you even more.) The goal here isn't necessarily to brown them but to reduce them and concentrate flavors. Take your time, a little brown wont hurt at all and be sure season with salt, pepper and your herb of choice. Rosemary or thyme are common. I preferred to use savory. Worcestershire sauce is an excellent addition here also. There are no rules here either.

Remove the finished veggies from the pan and brown your meat of choice. Here brown means brown. Not grey stuff boiling in it's own juices. Keep cooking 'til the liquids evaporate and the meat guessed it...BROWN! You want the relatively small amount of meat to have big flavor and proper browning is the way to do this. While my version of this recipe doesn't necessarily call for stock, it, as well as beer or wine, to deglaze the pan couldn't hurt. Otherwise, a little water in the pan to get the crunchy brown goodness out will work just fine. Combine your meat with your veggie mixture and taste it. It should be delicious.

Next the potatoes. Cook them. How doesn't matter, bake, boil, steam and this is a good time to use up leftover mashers if you happen have them. I tend to boil them and run them through a food mill and prep them like standard mashed potatoes. (That means cream, butter and salt. They are NOT real mashed potatoes without those three ingredients... but I digress) Prep your potatoes any way you like. Smooth or chunky, Real mashers or just loosened up with some stock, or milk, or whatever. As long as they taste good and are spreadable, they will work. Sweet potatoes for the topping? Winter squash hanging around bored? All or part? Why not. Rules? None.

Assemblage: Spread the meat/veggie mixture in a baking dish of some sort and spread your potato mixture on top. This can be tricky only because the spreading the potatoes may stir up the bottom mixture. Take a lesson from those who frost cakes. Do a skim coat over the meat and veggies first and then go back and do your final coat. This will make it much easier to get two distinct layers without just mushing everything together. Bake it at 350º or so 'til the top is browned. Doting it with butter first will make it brown nicer if you like.

This is easy and very flexible dish that can feed lots of people on only a few bucks and tastes even better as leftovers. You can't ask for much more than that from a locally-sourced meal in the middle of the winter.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thai-ish crawfish cakes w/ banana bread crumbs

Why have so many people forgotten what bread crumbs are all about? We seem to live in a world where people throw out stale bread but head to the store to buy bread crumbs in a can or worse yet "seasoned" bread crumbs in a can. Not using stale bread is a waste and missed opportunity and I would include in that category crackers, cake, cookies, chips of all kinds (potato and tortilla especially) donuts (I made awesome apple fritters using dehydrated day-old glazed donuts) and all other types of flour based goods.

A while back I found myself with an aging loaf of banana bread, and being the cheap fucker that I am, I needed to find a use for it. I broke it up and threw it in the oven to dehydrate it. It didn't take long to come up with something. How could crab cakes, Thai-style, with banana bread crumbs be bad. They weren't. I fact they were fantastic.

Having found myself with an abundance of banana bread once again, I decided to recreate that recipe...well kinda'. I didn't have any crab meat but I did have some frozen crawfish tail meat. I also didn't have any homemade curry paste in the freezer (See my post about homemade curry pastes here) so I needed to make a quick simple one. Certainly you could buy a canned one. They work well but if you're fortunate enough to have access to galagal, lemon grass and lime leaves, you can make a nice one at home. I made one with those ingredients along with, dried arbol chiles, garlic, green onions, cumin, coriander and fish sauce pureed with water in the blender. Is it any traditional style? No. Does it taste good? Yes and it only took 5 minutes to prepare.

The rest is also simple. Mix your crawfish meat (or crab meat or shrimp or any other seafood type thing) with the dried and ground banana bread crumbs, your curry paste, an egg and anything else you want. Mix it all together and form it into patties. Now cover those babies in panko. I know, how can I possibly rant about store bought bread crumbs and then suggest panko? Panko rules! They're unique and there isn't really a replacement for them. Now just fry them up. you can refrigerate them to firm them up first if your afraid they will break up in the pan.

Hopefully, next time you find yourself with some stale, overcooked or aging baked goods you wont just throw them away but instead let them guide your creativity.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


The dregs from the pot on day eight.

In this paranoid "Your whole family is going to curl up and die if you leave the potato salad on the picnic table for more than thirty minutes" world we live in it's nice to remind yourself that people successfully survived without refrigeration quite well. So well, in fact, that there are way too many of us dragging our knuckles around the planet. This little experiment that I conducted on myself a few months ago is a good example of just that.

Admittedly, since pepperpot contains cassareep as a preservative, it's not quite the same as "mayo in the sun" but I'm sure the idea of eating the pot of meat you left on your stove for over a week would have your local sanitarian throwing a frenzied shit-fit also.

Pepperpot is not much more than a meat/offal stew with the one notable ingredient, cassareep. Cassareep is the juice from the cassava root cooked down with spices long enough to drive off the hydrogen cyanide and turn it into thick, rich, black, syrupy, bitter-sweet, molassesy goodness. A damn little miracle by it's self. You should be able to find it at any Caribbean food store.

My version was simple. I boiled a couple of pig trotters, skimmed off the scum and added cubed beef, allspice, cloves, cinnamon stick, cinnamon leaf (I don't know but they were at the same Caribbean store so why not?), a habanero chile from the garden, thyme, bay leaves, onion, garlic, cassareep and quite possibly some other shit. I cooked this until everything was tender and then checked for salt. Since many people shy away from bitter notes some people consider adding a bit of sugar. We had this for dinner over rice.

Nearly all references suggest that the flavor will improve over a period of days as long as you don't refrigerate it. There are stories about pots being kept going for over 100 years with new additions of meat and other ingredients being added to the dregs from the previous days. There appear to be two theories on preserving this. One is to add cassareep every day to restore its preservation ability. The other is to just bring it to a boil every day. Since I couldn't imagine that it would taste all that good with multiple additions of the stuff, I chose to bring it to a boil each day. The exception to this "boil a day" routine came on day four when I brewed beer and forgot to boil the pot. Not only did it NOT get reboiled for 48 hours, it also sat on the stove with gallons and gallons of boiling water and wort for 6 or so of those hours. Instead of the 70+ degrees it normally spent it's down time at, it probably was closer to 100+ degrees for that time period. Still the experiment continued.

Day one it tasted pretty good but I think I peaked in flavor by day three. I forgot about it on day four but, admittedly a bit reluctantly, tasted it again on day five. At this point it still tasted good but the texture of the meat was beginning to suffer and the meat was also beginning to taste cooked-out rather than rich and flavorful. I let the stuff sit for a few more days, still boiling it, while contemplating whether or not to eat the last serving. Day eight came and I decided to not be a pussy so I heated it again and ate it. It didn't taste spoiled but it didn't taste all that good either.

I'm happy to report that I suffered no ill effects at all from this experiment. I recommend that you not only seek out cassareep and make your own version of this but that you leave it out and eat it on day three. Without adding fresh meats and rebuilding it, there is no sense in storing it longer than that.

Oh, and by the way, the leftovers you brought home from the restaurant last week are fine to eat as is the pot of soup you forgot to put in the fridge last night. Oh, and so is the block of cheese that you left out the day before yesterday. And while were at it, the pork roast that's still a little pink in the middle? It's fine also. Relax people. Rant over.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Chorizo is your friend

Here is a quick, simple recipe for a "flavor-bomb" sausage. It only takes a few minutes and is perfect for stuffing all kinds of veggies this time of year.

1/3rd cup chile powder (Today I used ancho but use whatever you like and of course, using whole chiles, soaking and pureeing is preferable but not as quick)

1 head of garlic, coarsely chopped (grate it on a box grater if the cloves are large enough)

1 Tbsp. freshly ground coriander seed (cumin would be more common)

1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano

1 Tbsp. Kosher salt (or equivalent amount of your favorite salt)

1 Tbsp. cider vinegar (or more to taste. It should have a bit of a twang)

1 Tbsp. brown sugar, give or take (to offset the bitterness from the large amount of chile)

A little water to mix to a loose-paste consistency

Mix into

1 lb. good coarsely ground pork (And yes, grinding it yourself is better)

Today I mixed the cooked sausage with some cheese curds and inky-binky tiny red potatoes and stuffed it into some small poblano chiles. I then heated them over a low flame in a small amount of freshly made tomato puree.

And after a little mozzarella is melted on top.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Homemade masa for tamales

I love tamales. I've been making them for years relying on my now defunct local tortilla factory for fresh masa. Sure, I've made them with Maseca, and you can make a passable version with that stuff but the result will likely be a passable corn batter with (hopefully) a great filling. The problem is, a great tamal is about corn. The masa should be exquisite with the filling being more of a garnish or a bonus. To have an awesome masa batter you need great fresh masa and even if you have access to a tortilla factory, you can do much better by making it yourself. As it turns out this is pretty easy and wont add to much time to what is usually a pretty involved tamale making day.

Aside from the normal tamal batter ingredients (fat, stock and salt), you will need need only two things, Cal or calcium hydroxide which you can find at most Latin grocery stores (or from me) and some sort of dried field corn. The first time I attempted this I used field corn grown by a local farmer for animal feed. It worked great but needed alot of cleaning before I could use it. A couple of weeks later I found myself with a little time to try again and had an idea. Almost everybody has dried corn in their house in the form of popcorn! I look forward to trying many different blue, red and other various heirloom maize varieties in the future but I highly recommend popcorn as an always-available alternative.

To turn your popcorn into nixtamal all you need to do is boil it with the cal (a generous tablespoon per pound should be fine) for 15 minutes and let it rest for an hour or more, even up to a day. After resting it needs to be rinsed thoroughly. Put it in a colander under cold running water and rinse it, rubbing it together to remove as much of the softened hulls as possible. In a perfect world you would end up with perfectly white and completely hull-less corn. I have yet to achieve this and don't consider it necessary for a great tamale batter. Then you'll need to grind your nixtamal in a blender or food processor. The food processor will not give you as fine a grind but will get you a stiffer batter, closer to what most of us are used to using. The blender will give a much finer grind but will require more liquid (hopefully good homemade stock) to keep it moving through the blades. I've done it both ways and have had slightly better results from the blender version even though the thinner batter can be a bit messy to work with during assembly. Either way, don't be concerned about the gritty texture. Once they are steamed you will end up with a completely un-gritty result.

Standard procedure would have you beat your fat (hopefully real, fresh rendered pork lard) with salt and maybe some baking powder to aerate it which will ensure a good rise during steaming and therefor a light texture. That's fine but I've had great results from adding cold fat to the machine for a few seconds once the mixture is ground as fine as you can get it. Feel free to experiment. As always, make sure it's seasoned well and tastes great.

Fillings can be anything you want. The one pictured above was filled with some leftover achiote-braise pork shoulder but anything delicious will do and a small amount of leftovers can be turned into a feast.
As far as filling, folding and steaming, Rick Bayless can explain it better than anyone so I'll leave that to him.

Now go make some tamales.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A couple of new books you should own

I know, I know. I've been slackin' on posting again. I'm very busy this time of year trying to pull the market together for another season. I do have a couple of things worth posting that I hope to get to soon. Here's a hint.

I do want to mention o a couple of new books I'm excited about.

The first one is Ruhlman's new book, "Ratio". I can put him at the top of the list of people I can blame my ever increasing cooking obsession on. He's the reason I make all of the bacon I eat from scratch and now he's responsible for my recent bread-making compulsion. I have tried many times to make even a passable loaf of homemade bread but after reading the first chapter of Ratio, I made some pretty nice baguettes. The next day I went out and bought a 50# bag of flour and haven't stopped baking since, with very good results. This book belongs in everyone's often neglected reference section of their recipe book collection along side Ruhlmans "Elements of cooking", Ruhlman's "Charcuterie", McGee's "On food and cooking", Corriher's "CookWise" ect.

The other book I'm looking forward to picking up is the latest version of Cleveland Ethnic Eats. I first ran into this book in the late "90's at a time when the wife and I were searching every corner of Cleveland looking for the unusual ingredients we needed to fuel our new found passion for ethnic cooking. It rode around in the car with us for years and not only helped us find ingredients, but also to find the ethnic restaurants and festivals that were our inspiration. These little stores eventually became the first suppliers for a spice stand that I started at an old farmers market in my neighborhood which lead to my rewarding (although not financially so) career as a part time spice vendor and full time volunteer at the Coit Rd. Farmers Market. If you live, or spend any time, in or around Cleveland, (and require the consumption of food for your survival) you should own this book.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Homemade goatmilk ricotta

The first time I made ricotta was about a year and a half ago. I began buying goat cheese from Lake Erie Creamery and asked about getting some whey to make ricotta. I was told that it can't be made from an acid precipitated whey because there are no solids left after the process of making chevre. Even though everything I read said the same thing, I decided to try anyhow. After heating four gallons of the whey I did get about a pound of very tangy cheese. While it was certainly not real ricotta it was usable and I made a zucchini casserole that took into account it's tart, lactic quality. Why mention this? Well, if you have access to whey from an acid precipitated goat cheese, don't write off the possibility of making a ricotta-type cheese from it. If you're clever, you will be able to come up with a recipe that will benefit from a tangy soft cheese.

Since then, Lake Erie Creamery have begun making several other cheeses including a French feta and the award-winning Blomma. I requested whey from a rennet-precipitated cheese and received nine gallons from a Caerphilly they are currently working on.

I did a search on making homemade ricotta and the first problem that I had with the results was that the over-whelming majority begin with or include milk. This ignores the spirit behind ricotta which is to take advantage of a by-product, whey. So for starters, no milk. The second variable was whether or not it would require the addition of an acid to increase yield or coagulate at all. After all, ricotta is supposed to be an heat AND acid precipitated cheese. I thought it would be smart to split the whey and try it both ways.

The first batch was the simple version. All We did was heat 4 1/2 gallons of the whey to 200 degrees and large chunks of curd began to form immediately. We scooped the clumps into a strainer lined with cheesecloth and then gently spooned the rest of the liquid through. After a half hour or 45 min. we had a pound and a half of delicious cheese. Definitely easy enough to make homemade ricotta on a regular basis.

The second batch would have an acid added. There were several quantities and types of acid suggested including one that suggested as much as 1/4 cup for two gallons of whey. That sounded like an awful lot of acid so I decided on a modest two tablespoons of lemon juice expecting that if the flavor came through (which it did), it would be more pleasant than vinegar. We heated the 4 1/2 gallons of whey to 200 degrees and added the lemon juice. We saw nothing. None of the big clumps that so easily formed without the acid. I even called Mariann at the creamery to make sure the whey in each bucket was exactly the same. She confirmed that it was. Since there was some very fine particles in the pot we decided to strain it anyhow. The fine particles nearly completely clogged the cheesecloth but it continued draining very slowly. After several hours (during which we reheated the spent whey from batch one and added 1/4 cup of vinegar to see if we could squeeze any more curd from it. Nope.), we finally got the last of the liquid in the strainer but it would take all night until it drained to approximately the same moisture level as the first batch.

The results were surprising. Two distinctly different cheeses. The first one had a texture similar to standard supermarket stuff but with a far superior flavor along with just a hint of "goatiness". The second batch, much to our surprise, did have a slightly better yield, about 1 5/8 lb and an amazing soft, fine cream cheese like texture with a hint of lemon. Both were awesome in their own way.

Batch one became part of a cannelloni dish. I seasoned the cheese modestly with salt, white pepper, a dash of nutmeg and a little mixed Italian seasoning. I rolled the mixture in some squares of fresh pasta that I made and fit them into a baking dish. I topped them with a simple sun-dried tomato sauce I made by sauteing in olive oil, garlic, onion and minced sun-dried tomatoes (or more correctly "oven-dried tomatoes" that I dried last fall and packed with olive oil in mason jars) and adding some heavy cream. The wife and I must have sound ridiculous as we moaned our way through this meal. It was awesome.

Batch two was seasoned with some sugar, vanilla and a tiny pinch of salt and rolled into some homemade crepes and topped with some black raspberry jam that we heated until it melted into a sauce. These we ate for breakfast and, needless to say, they were great.

As good as batch two was, it was no fun to strain. I will do it again, primarily to see if I get similar results with a different batch of whey (the real variable) but I can't see doing it regularly unless I come up with a more efficient straining process. On the other hand, batch one was so good and so easy that I expect this to be how I get all of the ricotta I use in the future. It was a simple and low impact process. It took maybe an hour and a half and and half of that was spent bringing it up to temp. The half hour or 45 min. strain and drain was well worth the pound and a half of excellent (and free) cheese. If you have access to whey I highly recommend that you intercept some before it all goes to feed these hogs.