Thursday, January 28, 2016

Zesty, Rootsy Winter Pickles

With fresh local vegetables becoming more and more widely available to us year-round, even here in the Frozen North, there’s no reason that pickling season has to end with the first frost.  Co-ops and winter farmers markets are burgeoning these days with locally grown vegetables in great variety.  Yes, they’re mostly roots, but what an abundance and variety of roots, from black, watermelon, beauty heart, and daikon radishes, to turnips in several colors, rutabagas, beets red and golden, celery root, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips.   

What’s great about this is:  Fresh, locally grown produce, in the middle of frikkin’ winter!  What’s less awesome is:  They’re all pretty much radishes and turnips!

Personally, I like radishes and turnips, but a steady diet of them through the long cold months becomes pretty monotonous.  A little pickling is a good way to change up the flavors and textures of these hearty, assertive roots.  And for winter pickling, I tend to lean to the East.  So here are two easy Asian pickles to make in small batches and enjoy alongside a bowl of ramen, a rice bowl meal, or as part of a regular Chinese meal, or just to nosh on at will. 

The first, Sichuan Pao Cai (Pickled Vegetables) is something I’ve made off and on for a long time, and something I would often order at the little restaurants in the alleys outside the university gates when I taught English at Sichuan University in Chengdu, waaayyy back in 1989-90.  A little dish of pao cai would be served bathed in chile oil (hong you) and a dash of soy sauce.  The pickles in Chengdu were always pink, I’m not sure why.  Recently I came across a fabulous recipe for a chile oil scented with wonderful aromatics.  I’m now addicted to it, and here’s the recipe, from Elaine Luo's excellent China Sichuan Food website--you'll find the red oil (hong you) recipe in the larger wonton recipe.

The other is a super quick pickle of thinly sliced radish (but you could sub/add turnip or carrot or what have you) in a simple mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and sugar, with a little ginger and garlic for added depth.  To me, the sweet/sour/salty flavor combination of sugar/vinegar/soy is crazy delicious.  I could drink it like broth, but it would do weird things to the inside of my mouth, I fear, so I enjoy it in moderation and in pickles. 

This can be whipped up at the last minute, or made a day or two ahead.  It loses some freshness if left to sit too long, but it’s not going to go bad.  I often make up a small quantity to liven up rice bowl dinners.  With small radishes I tend to slice them very thin on the Benriner, while with larger radishes like a big daikon, I might shred instead.

Sichuan Pao Cai (Pickled Vegetables)

Makes one quart

You can use pretty much any firm vegetables in this pickle.  In winter it’s going to be mainly roots—red beets are the only one I would probably avoid; they would take over the pickle, both in color and taste, and also, they’re just not very Chinese.  In summer you could use green beans, cucumbers, peeled, diced broccoli stems, the thick white center rib of napa cabbage or bok choi.  My veg mixture for this batch was black radish, daikon, rutabaga, kohlrabi, cabbage core, and another radish, the one that’s pink inside, I don’t know the name, a friend had picked it up for me.  

This recipe is adapted from Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook, a key book in my cooking history.

4 cups firm vegetables in ½-inch dice, about a pound
6 – ¼-inch slices ginger root
2 or more dried red chiles—I used 2, as these particular chiles are VERY HOT!!!
½ teaspoon whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns)
1 ½ cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon cider or rice wine vinegar

Combine everything except the diced vegetables in a small saucepan, and heat just to dissolve the salt and sugar.  In a quart jar, layer ginger slices, chiles, and vegetables.  Pour in the brine, put a lid on it, and allow to ferment at cool room temperature for 3 or 4 days. You’ll see the brine start to become cloudy, and bubbles will rise from the depths when you open the jar.  When they are fermented to your taste, refrigerate.  The pickles will keep indefinitely.

Soy-Pickled Radish Slices

A mild radish, such as daikon or watermelon, is best in this pickle, which can be used almost right away, or refrigerated to mellow for a few days.  I used my Benriner Japanese mandoline to slice the radishes, but you can also slice them very thin with a sharp knife.

About 2/3 cup thinly sliced small radishes, or shredded larger ones
1 teaspoon finely shredded ginger root
1 small clove garlic, crushed, optional
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
4 teaspoons cider or rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar

Combine the radish slices, ginger, and garlic, and place them in a small jar—half-pint will do.  Combine the rest of the ingredients, stirring well to dissolve the sugar.  Pour this mixture into the jar with the radishes, put the lid on, give it a little shake.  Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving, or refrigerate for later use.  Will keep at least a week.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Winter's Tail (Oxtails Braised in White Wine)

Continuing on the theme of winter-worthy dishes, let us consider the oxtail.  I just saw a tweet from the National Weather Service to the effect that starting tonight (writing this Friday, January 15), temperatures are expected to remain below zero for at least the next 80 hours.  That’s three-plus days, folks, and that’s real Upper Midwest January weather.  Booya!  It could possibly be the coldest snap of what has otherwise been a fairly mild weather, and that makes it the perfect time to prepare the richest, most unctuous, rib-sticking, soul- and belly-warming dish that I know, and that is oxtail stew.

Actually, what I prefer to make is more of a braise than a stew, the difference being really not much more than how much liquid is used in the cooking and is left at the end: stew=lots of liquid; braise=not so much.  I think that in a stew the liquid is most often water, while a braise uses a more flavorful liquid like beer, wine, cider, but that’s not written in stone, or in Escoffier, that I know of, and opinions may vary.  What I’m looking for in the end result is oxtails cooked to absolute surrender, collapsing in a rich, savory, lip-smacking sauce, enough to bathe a mound of polenta or rice, or a tangle of noodles.

The term oxtail is an odd survivor from some earlier age when, presumably, people ate oxen.  What we’re really talking about is the tail of a cow, the same beast that gives us T-bone steaks, chuck roast, and hamburger.  Oxtails used to be pretty cheap, but in these days of nostalgic nose-to-tail cooking, they demand a premium, especially when you consider than most of what you pay for in a package of oxtails is inedible bone and cartilage.  The oxtails from grass-fed animals I picked up at Seward Co-op cost $6.99 a pound, over $15 for the two-pound or so package; that will feed the two of us generously for dinner, with perhaps a lunch for one or two leftover.  Eating low off the cow is not cheap these days. [We actually wound up getting two dinners for two out of these oxtails, plus a cup of soup each to round out another lunch.  First time through, we ate our fill of the recipe as presented here.  Second go, I removed all the meat from the leftover oxtails, added a little more broth and a splash of wine, some chopped cabbage, cooked chickpeas, simmered until the cabbage was tender-crisp.  Served with leftover polenta, it was a wonderful mid-week dinner.]

I said the cartilage in oxtails is not edible, but that’s not quite true.  There will be gelatinous or slightly crunchy bits of cartilage left even after long cooking, bits that will be our dogs’ delight.  But in that extended braise, the cartilage and bone will exude collagen into the braising liquid, and really, that’s the whole point of a dish like oxtails.  The meat is nice, for sure, but even more delicious is that unique, almost gluey, quality that imbues the sauce left at the end of cooking.  It’s a flavor sensation you don’t get any other way, and the rare case where the word “gluey” is likely to be attached to food in a positive sense.  Viscosity and specific gravity are other terms that come to mind, also rarities in the world of food writing.  As with the puree of cabbage and potatoes that I wrote about last time, oxtails are not the sort of thing you’re likely to crave in the midst of a July heat wave.  

No, this is apres-ski or post-wood-chopping food, to be washed down with a robust red wine (the Marietta Old Vine Red is one that pops immediately to mind, and is widely available; what we actually drank with the dish described below was an Italian barbera, cheap from Trader Joe’s, quite suitable).

When I’m making oxtails, I always think of my father, Albert William "Bill" Laidlaw, who died too young, at the age of 65, back in May of 1990.  During by childhood, in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the term foodie had not been invented (O, happy days!), and if it had existed, you would never have applied it to my dad.  But my father was, I think, a sort of secret gourmand, and as I think back on his brief catalog of favorite dishes, I realize that he specialized in what you might call difficult foods.  He would take charge of the broiler when he was home for dinner (a traveling salesman for much of my childhood, my father was absent a lot), cooking up sizzling rib steaks or pork chops.  Of course when we barbequed, he took the lead—his most important piece of equipment being a Bubble-Up bottle filled with water, with a sort of shower head stopper in the neck, essential for dousing the frequent flare-ups that threatened to incinerate the chicken. 

But on the more esoteric side, he absolutely loved marrow bones, and seemed to relish extracting each, last, savory morsel from the hollow bones.  For roast beef sandwiches he would mix up strong English mustard from the powder that came in those distinctive rectangular yellow metal containers, using a shot glass and a toothpick, stirring with the concentration of a medieval alchemist.  I remember taking a whiff of it, and thinking that my nose would never be right again.   

Perhaps the most exotic (and to me, at the time, oddly frightening) food he prepared was smoked Lake Winnipeg goldeye, a sort of whitefish.  My parents were from Winnipeg, and on our yearly trips to the homeland he would sometimes bring back a smoked goldeye or two.  The interesting thing about my father and the goldeye was this:  he would eat them all by himself, and outside of regular mealtimes.  He would heat them in foil in the oven, and the house would fill with that smell of warm smoked fish—a smell unlike anything else that ever issued from our kitchen on North Eden Drive in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. 

Maybe my memory is selective, but I recall him then sitting alone at the kitchen table, with the foil packet of warm, fragrant fish open before him, and with an air of utter, blissful satisfaction, going at the flesh, revealed by pulling back the reddish-gold skin, with his fingers alone.  In this iconic memory the rest of the family stands at a respectful distance, beholding the ritual devouring of the goldeye with some mix of awe, delight, terror, and pride.  I think now that my mom simply couldn’t stand the stuff, and it was assumed that my brother and I would be equally unappreciative.  But there it is, the elemental power of food, that such memories (even if embroidered or dodgy) can survive decades, and help to define people, times, and relationships.

Oh, and my dad loved oxtails, so this recipe, though somewhat fancier in preparation than what we used to make, is one I’m sure he would have enjoyed, and so is dedicated to his memory.  There are lots of comfort food sorts of dishes—braises, stews, warming soups—that, when you take the first, long-anticipated bite, fill you with a sense of:  “You know, everything’s going to be okay…”.  Well prepared oxtails have that quality, and more.  The first unctuous, melting bite of really good oxtails brings a sense of:  “Everything’s going to be fabulous, and tomorrow’s going to be grand, and we shall live in joy from here ever after…”. 
You think I’m exaggerating?  Then go ahead, give it a try.  

I rendered some home-salted pork fat to use in browning the oxtails and vegetables, simply because I had it on hand.  The rendered pork fat has a high smoke point, little flavor of its own, and does a lovely job of browning things without burning.  But  you can certainly use vegetable oil in its place; if everything else is in place, don't let the lack of salt pork stop you from making this wonderful dish.

Also, re the garnish:  I browned up some small shallots and button mushrooms, which you'll recognize as the traditional garnish for coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon.  This is also strictly optional, though delightful.  You could also add fresh vegetables toward the end, to make it more of a stew--perhaps peas, blanched pieces of carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, or celery root, that sort of thing.  Put them in for the last 30 minutes of gentle cooking.

Oxtails Braised in White Wine

Serves two generously, with leftovers

2 pounds oxtails
2 ounces salt pork in ½-inch dice, divided, optional or
     3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, divided
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut in 5 or 6 pieces
1 small leek, white and green, cleaned, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 medium or ½ a large onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 ounce dried tomatoes, chopped in small pieces
2 pinches dried thyme, or a couple sprigs fresh
12 black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns)

1 ½ cups dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
¾ cup chicken or beef stock, optional

Optional garnish:

About 20 small button mushrooms, white or crimini
A dozen very small shallots, or pearl onions

Heat your oven to 325.

In an oven-proof dutch oven with a lid—enameled cast iron, like Le Creuset, is ideal—begin to render half the salt pork with a little bit of oil—the other half of the salt pork will be used the next day, so refrigerate it.  If not using salt pork, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the dutch oven.  Salt the oxtails, then brown them over medium-high heat in the oil or salt pork renderings.  Turn them often to brown all sides; take your time with this step, as the browning develops a lot of flavor.  It will probably take a good 15 minutes.  If the salt pork cubes start to burn, remove them from the pan and set aside.

When the oxtails are well browned, remove them from the pan and add the carrot, onion, leek, and garlic, along with a couple pinches of salt.  Cook the vegetables, stirring often, until they wilt and start to take on a bit of color.  Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden scraper to dislodge any browned bits.  Then add 1 ½ cups water, the dried tomatoes, thyme, peppercorns, cloves, and hua jiao.

Return the oxtails and salt pork cubes to the pan, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat.  Cover, and bake for 3 to 4 hours at 325, turning the oxtails over every 30 minutes or so.  Add water as needed to keep the liquid about halfway up the oxtails.  You want the liquid to be bubbling gently, so adjust your oven temp accordingly (some ovens run hot, others cold, etc.; mine, of course, is perfect…for this recipe, anyway).

After the 3 to 4 hours of baking, test the oxtails to see if the meat will come easily away from the bones.  If they’re properly done you should see the meat starting to pull away from the bones.  You want the meat to be utterly yielding; chewy oxtails are a travesty, and such a sad waste of all the time you’ve spent on them.  Provided that you don’t cook them to hot—i.e., furiously boiling, or so that the liquid all evaporates, and they burn—it’s really not possible to cook them too long.

When you are satisfied that the oxtails are tender, remove the pot from the oven, allow it to cool, then refrigerate the whole thing until a couple of hours before you are ready to serve.  The dish can be made up to this point several days ahead.

A couple of hours before serving, remove the oxtails from the fridge.  You will find that a good amount of fat has solidified on the surface of the liquid—which will now actually be more like gelatin.  Remove as much of the fat as you care to.  Start to heat the oxtails on medium heat, and add more water and/or the optional stock to keep the liquid at half-oxtail level.  Taste for salt; it shouldn’t need much, if any, as so much flavor will have developed in the long cooking of the meat and vegetables; as you taste the liquid, close your eyes and smack your lips a little—there, now you know what umami means.

For the shallot and mushroom garnish:  start to render the remaining diced salt pork in a bit of oil, or just heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, then add the shallots.  Cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown a bit, then add the mushrooms and a good pinch of salt and a grind of pepper.  Toss these around in the fat, and cook gently until they are quite brown, soft, and fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and shallots to the oxtails.

Now we’re just about ready to serve:  open a bottle of hearty red wine.  Warm some crusty bread, and put a dish of butter on the table—I would go for salted butter here.  I like to serve oxtails with polenta, which ups the warm and fuzzy comfort food quotient considerably.  We do polenta at a 4:1 water to coarse cornmeal ratio, cooking it gently for 25 to 30 minutes, adding a little additional water as needed to keep it creamy, stirring in a good knob of butter at the end, seasoning well with salt.

So:  spoon a mound of polenta onto each plate—a shallow bowl sort of plate works well here—making a shallow depression in the polenta to catch the sauce.  Nestle a couple sections of oxtail beside the polenta, and spoon sauce and vegetables generously over all.  Drink a toast to beauty of winter cooking, and then get in there and enjoy.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Simply Superior Soup (or "Effing French Cooking Magic")

It’s the last week of December 2015 as I (begin to) write this, 2016 looming just days away, and for cooking options we are decidedly into the winter larder.  On December 6 we were amazed to eat, and very much enjoy, the last garden tomato.  The last leaves of fresh kale were part of a festive Christmas dinner:  seared venison loin (harvested from the Bide-A-Wee property last year) with a rich, savory red wine and port reduction; lima beans simmered with stock and aromatics, then pureed, a surprisingly luxurious result from a humble dried bean; then the kale, braised with chestnuts and garden leek, a splash of our homemade cider vinegar.  Though we haven’t really celebrated Christmas in any traditional way for some years, I’m not going to let an opportunity for a festive dinner go by.  And anyway, we think of it as a continuation of our solstice festivities—especially appropriate here, as Mary’s birthday occurs during the same time.

Once those last leaves of kale vacated the crisper, dinner planning turned a page.  It’s true that there’s still quite a bit of “fresh” produce, from both garden and farmer’s market stock-ups, in our cellar, in the fridge.  But the term fresh doesn’t really mean the same when applied to storage carrots, cabbage, squash, and onions, as it does when describing a handful of beans or a bowl of tender lettuce harvested from the garden to be prepared and served minutes later.  Those winter stand-bys are fresh in the sense of not being frozen, dried, pickled, fermented, etc., but…you know what I mean.  It’s not the same as throwing dew-dappled snap peas in the wok or snipping fragrant dill into a dressing.  Our vocabulary fails us in efficiently denoting that crucial difference:  there’s fresh produce, and then there’s fresh produce

This is not to disparage the stalwart vegetables of winter, not at all.  Like reliable character actors, they show up and fill their roles with unfailing professionalism, year after year, decade after decade, while the fad for arugula fades, or a trendy heirloom cucumber turns out to be just another pickle, after all.  Cabbage, potatoes, carrots, squash, onion, leek, turnip, beets--the roster might at first glance suggest daily supper at the gulag:  bung it all in a kettle, boil until done.  But there’s a saying I like (and as far as I know, I came up with it), goes like this:  There’s meat, and then there’s cooking.  Which is to say:  It’s not always only about the ingredients, but often as much or more about imagination and skill in preparation.  Today’s soup, which we had as a first course on Christmas night, is a perfect example.

If it hadn’t come with a sexy French name, I might never have tried it.  Puréed cabbage and potato soup sounds, you must admit, a good deal less appealing than Crème de Choux aux Beurre de Roquefort.  The source is Madeleine Kamman’s In Madeleine’s Kitchen.  There are three remarkable and surprising things about this recipe:

1)  In spite of the cream—crème—in the title, there’s no cream in the soup.
2)  In spite of the fancy-sounding title, the list of ingredients is short and plain.
3)  In spite of the short, plain ingredient list, the resulting soup is delicious, even luxurious, the result of “Fucking French cooking magic,” as I described it, enthusiasm overwhelming decorum, in a tweet.

There are a couple of secret ingredients:  walnut oil, and confit fat.  But I think you could do without those if you don’t have them, substituting good butter for the confit fat, olive oil for the walnut oil.  However:  if you haven’t tried French walnut oil, it is well worth seeking out.  A commonly available brand, and the one we always buy, have even brought back from Paris in the past, is J. Leblanc.  It’s pricy, but a little goes a long way.  For me, a salad of fresh tender lettuces straight from the garden, dressed with nothing more than walnut oil and a bit of fleur de sel is one of life’s simple luxuries.  But I’m getting ahead of the season.  Just one more note on the walnut oil:  the French stuff is made from lightly toasted walnuts, so it’s amber in color and has that nutty fragrance and flavor.  The golden walnut oil often sold at “health food stores” and co-ops is not the same.  The French walnut oil should not be used for cooking, only dressings and seasoning.  (NB: the English name is in small print on the bottle, so you’re looking for a bottle labeled “Huile de Noix,” as above.  For Mpls/St Paul readers, Cooks of Crocus Hill carries it, but are currently out of stock in all stores.)

The basis of the soup is potatoes, cabbage, and water.  It gets a smoky depth of flavor from bacon.  Not a lot of bacon, either, less than an ounce per person in Kamman’s recipe (she actually calls for pancetta).  No cream or milk, as noted above.  No stock, just water (you can call it Chateau Sink, as Jacques Pepin sometimes jokes, or perhaps Domaine du Tappe, to French it up).  There’s a bit of garlic, whose presence is felt.  The beurre de Roquefort is simply blue cheese and soft butter mashed together, a few grinds of coarse black pepper—a simple compound butter; it’s worth making extra, for it’s nice to have around, to smear on a burger, say.

And that, my friends, is it, the ingredient list in its entirety.  You gently render off small cubes of the bacon or pancetta, add potatoes and garlic, then the cabbage.  This sweats for a few minutes (“mellows,” in M Kamman’s version), then you add water and simmer until the cabbage is very tender.  The well mellowed vegetables and bacon are then whizzed up in a blender (I used a food processor, carefully spooning out the solids, adding liquid gradually; an FP is really not the best appliance for pureeing soups, I’ve learned from bitter experience).

And get this:  it suffers not at all from being made a day ahead and reheated just before serving.  On Christmas Eve I added a little crunchy garnish, chopped goose skin cracklings—yeah, I happened to have some lying around; don’t hate me because I’m beautiful—from the goose we cooked for our first solstice celebration.  When I made it again for lunch I toasted some small croutons in olive oil—it’s really about the textural contrast, that crunch to perk up the creamy soup.  (See:  "It's all about the garnish".)

Coming back around to my earlier point and seasonal eating and the winter larder:  this is a fabulous dish that you would never make in the summer, but which is perfect for the cold months when, you know, you have a lot of potatoes and cabbage around.  It also reminded me how absolutely lovely and civilized it is to start a meal with a soup, so elegant and yet so comforting.  A fading tradition I hope to start reviving in our house.

My adaptation of Madeleine Kamman’s recipe:

Creamy Bacon, Potato, and Cabbage Soup with Blue Cheese Butter

Serves four as a first course, two to three as a main course—add salad and crusty bread to make it a meal

2 ounces bacon or pancetta, preferably in one chunk
1 tablespoon duck confit fat or butter
1 medium or 2 small potatoes, 6-7 ounces total
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
¼ of a green cabbage, about 12 ounces
1 tablespoon walnut oil, plus additional for garnish*
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the blue cheese butter:
2 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature
2 ounces blue cheese

Croutons or cracklings, optional but highly recommended

In a small bowl, mash the butter and blue cheese together with a fork until well blended.

Cut the bacon or pancetta in small dice, about ¼-inch.  Peel the potatoes and cut them into smallish cubes, about ¾-inch.  Shred the cabbage into ½-inch strips.

Heat a medium saucepan and add the confit fat or butter, then the bacon.  Cook over medium-low heat.  As the bacon renders its fat and begins to brown, add the potatoes, tossing them in the fat, then cook, stirring occasionally, until they become a little bit brown, 4 to 5 minutes (you’re just looking for a golden color, not deeply browned as for hash browns).  Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or two, then add the cabbage, a couple generous pinches of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

Turn the heat to low, cover, and let the cabbage sweat (“mellow” is the term M Kamman uses) until well wilted, about 5 minutes.  Add 3 cups water, bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook partly covered until the cabbage and potatoes are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

Let the soup cool for a few minutes before pureeing.  If using a food processor, separate the solid from the liquid parts of the soup and purée the solids first, then gradually add in the liquid.  When everything is in the FP, purée for about a minute.  At the end of the minute, drizzle in the walnut oil.  Return the soup to the saucepan.  Reheat just before serving.  (Note:  Kamman directs you to strain the soup back into the pot after puréeing; I did not bother with this step, finding the soup smooth enough to my taste without straining.  Straining would no doubt produce an even more velvety and elegant purée, if that's what you're after.)

To serve:  heat the soup and taste for salt; you will probably want to add another pinch or two.  Ladle the soup into bowls, and to each add about a tablespoon of the blue cheese butter.  Add croutons or cracklings, as you please, drizzle a small amount of walnut oil over the surface of the soup, and serve.

*If you don’t have/can’t find walnut oil, use a flavorful olive oil—or, perhaps pumpkin seed oil, such as Wisconsin’s own Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil.  And, how about this—if using pumpkin seed oil, think about substituting butternut squash for all or part of the potatoes, then garnish with toasted pepitas instead of the croutons/cracklings.

Happy soupage!