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this is not a recipe for faux hanger steak salad

salad I’m not one of those vegans. I mean I’m not one to fool myself or others with faux stuff. I’ve tried the non-dairy “cheeze”. It’s nasty. Buffalo tofu wings? Visited, didn’t buy the t-shirt. I’ve even tried to scratch the unscratchable itch - pizza with so called crispy crust, melty cheese, soysage pies. There’s not enough hot sauce in the world to fix those wrongs.

What I’ve learned is faux anything is just fooling yourself. Fear not, for there is truth in this tale. Real foods, plants, legumes and fungi are, in their own way, quite honest.

So, this is absolutely not a recipe for faux hanger steak salad. If you make this and it reminds you of hanger steak, we’ve both failed. But, if you do make this and love the charred, rich, textured bites of unctuousness, well, then we’ve got something.

I love maitake mushrooms. They are dense at the base, springing forth a fringed, tangled forest of ridges. From the top they look like the diagram of a brain, or perhaps beautiful coral. They are brilliant mushrooms for cooking. Their shape and structure mean some of the outer ridges get crispy while the denser, inner core simply warm through.

Here, we’ve paired some maitake segments, seared on high heat, with simple bibb lettuce and some small potatoes.

It is the ultimate in…drat…faux steak salads.

For the Dressing:

makes 1 cup

  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 caper berries (1/2 teaspoon of capers as a substitute)
  • 1 green onion
  • 1 generous pinch of salt
  • 1/4 cup champagne vinegar
  • 3/4 cup of neutral oil (canola)

Place everything except the oil in a blender cup. If using a stick blender, blend on high until smooth. If using a traditional blender, blend in medium until smooth (too high creates too much froth). Turn blending device on medium or low and slowly drizzle in the oil until a smooth emulsion is reached.

For a more tart, lower fat dressing, reduce to 1/2 cup of oil. Note, the result will be less emulsified.

For the potatoes:

  • 4 medium sized yukon gold fingerling potatoes

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a very generous amount of salt. Boil potatoes for 10–13 minutes until fork tender.

For the mushrooms:

  • 2 maitake clusters, both roughly softball sized
  • 3 tablespoons Edward & Sons Wizard Sauce - this stuff is amazing!
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Heat a pan over very high heat. Once hot, add a substantial film of canola oil. Section the mushrooms into segments, each about the size of a very large strawberry. Pace into the hot oil and season liberally with kosher salt.

Step back. Don’t touch the pan.

Let the mushrooms sear in the hot pan until they are deep, dark golden brown, even charred at the edges. Turn them once and achieve similar brownness.

Deglaze the pan with the wizard sauce and balsamic vinegar. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the residual energy to evaporate the liquid, leaving the mushrooms coated with no remaining liquid in the pan.

To plate:

In a bowl, toss the rinsed bibb lettuce with 1–2 tablespoons of the dressing. Remove the leaves and assemble on a plate.

Slice the potatoes into 1" rounds. Place in the same bowl you used for the lettuce and lightly dress with the dressing, 1 tablespoon should do it. Add to the arranged lettuce.

Place glazed maitake mushrooms on top of the salad. Garnish, if desired, with a small amount of crunch sea salt.

From Elsewhere: Alec Baldwin and guest Robert Lustig on the sugar epidemic

This post is part of my From Elsewhere series.

A recent study reveals that 80 percent of the 600,000 food items in America are laced with added sugar. Lustig says, “There is not one biochemical reaction in your body, not one, that requires dietary fructose, not one that requires sugar. Dietary sugar is completely irrelevant to life.

Honestly, I didn’t expect that. Not considering the source. I mean, I’m not surprised by Dr. Lustig’s comments, but that’s not what I expected to hear when I downloaded Alec Baldwin’s podcast for the first time recently. Honestly, I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe a rating tirade about angry birds, airlines or one of Baldwin’s family members. But not a serious dialogue about the epidemic of noncommunicable disease owed to our increasingly flawed food system.

So, for those tempted to write off Baldwin’s show based on his many reported personal challenges, let me prothletise: This is a good show. This episode, in particular, is worth a listen.

Some my recognize Dr. Lustig from his popular YouTube video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth which has more than 2,600,000 views. Dr. Lustig breaks down the historical and socioeconomic events which have led to a food system full of processed, sweetened food. He goes on to discuss the toxic effect all this sugar has on our bodies and suggests sugar may be the underpinnings of the chronic diseases plaguing our society.

I’m not qualified to determine if Lustig is clinically accurate. But it doesn’t take a research scientist to know all the HFCS in our food supply can’t be helping the obesity problem.

Have a listen wither through the embedded player below or by downloading the podcast episode via iTunes.

Robert Lustig: We need a new food model. We need a new food growing model. By 2050, we’re gonna need four California Central Valleys in order to feed our population, we won’t even have one. Because of the runoff in the Sierra, the changes in soil erosion, we won’t even have one. So you know what the obesity epidemic might even take care of itself because we’ll have a famine because we are misusing our food system. Michael Pollan writes about this routinely. The bottom line is biochemically our current food environment does not work for us and until we fix it, we’ll continue to pour money down a rat hole. We will continue to be sick; we will continue to die of things like diabetes and heart disease. Medicare will be broke by 2024 because there won’t be any money to pay for it. You won’t be able to see a doctor because they’ll be too busy taking care of all the other fat people in the emergency room who are having their heart attacks and there won’t be enough food anyway.

via Here's The Thing: Robert Lustig Transcript - WNYC.

   

health, behavior, and the economy of obesity

Remember the post I opened about loving pizza? Yeah, well I guess my pepperonis are coming home to roost. It is becoming increasingly apparent our struggles with weight gain in this country, at least in terms of a health epidemic, is an economic problem. Eating healthy simply costs more than eating crap. As long as we subsidize corn, we are effectively enablers in an economic addiction to cheap food, poor health and death.

Last week I had the privilege to speak to executives and sales teams at a large financial company. The title of the talk is Innovation as a Requirement for Success in Healthcare. I have not put the slides online, it was mostly a "TED-style" talk and so the visuals do not stand too well on their own. I did share an interesting slide from a JAMA report on actual causes of death. We usually see reports on morbidity - heart attack, cancer, stroke, etc. This particular JAMA report attempted to determine the real root causes of death. For instance, was the lung cancer the direct result of a lifetime of smoking. The study concludes 40% - the bulk majority - of US deaths are due to behaviors. The top three causes are tobacco, obesity / sedentary lifestyle, and alcohol.

Thanks to Ben Miller for first alerting me to the JAMA study on his blog. If you have access, you can find the JAMA article on their site. 

In the talk, I used the JAMA slide as an example of how patient behavior contributes to challenges our healthcare system faces. I went on to talk about food choices in general - a mini soapbox opportunity. If you have seen Food, Inc or read The Omnivores Dilemma then you are already up to speed on how the price of food contributes to poor health.

Food, Inc. is available for free streaming on Amazon Prime as well as Netflix

In Pollan's Omnivores Dilemma, he looks at the price of corn as the most significant contributor to its ubiquity; and its ubiquity as a major cause of  obesity in America. Corn, largely thanks to advancements in genetic modifications as well as the innovation of nitrogen fertilizer, is a prolific crop. So prolific, as it turns out, we have so much excess the federal government pays farmers not to grow it. What do we do with all that corn? In addition to being broken down into many of the  multisyllabic, unidentifiable ingredients in processed food, we are now putting it in gasoline, plastics and more. Why? Because its cheap!

Want a primer? Read Polan's essay here

The artificially low price of corn enables Hostess to sell Twinkies for pennies. Cheap corn lets McDonlads sell you a supersized McWhatever for less than $5.00. Least I be labeled un-American for lambasting a buttered ear of corn at a cookout, it is worth noting we are talking about an entirely different species. For the record, I loved buttered ears of corn. Frankly I love anything buttered.

Last week the USDA in conjunction with the Economic Research Service published a report titled: The Effect of Food and Beverage Prices on Children’s Weights. In the report, researches conducted a longitudinal study of the body mass index of kindergarteners and the Quarterly Food-at-Home Price Database. The results are predictable. Cheap, low quality, highly caloric food contributes negatively to BMI.

In addition, lower prices for dark green vegetables and lowfat milk are associated with reduced BMI. The effect of subsidizing healthy food may be just as large as raising prices of less healthy foods.

From the report's Implications

There are three main implications of our findings. First, they support the idea that food prices have small, but statistically significant effects on children’s BMI. Lower prices for soda, starchy vegetables, and sweet snacks have likely led to increases in children’s BMI. The reverse is true for some healthier foods such as lowfat milk and dark green vegetables. Others have found that lower real prices for fruits and vegetables predict lower weight (Powell and Bao, 2009; Auld and Powell, 2009) or a smaller gain in BMI for young school-age children (Sturm and Datar, 2005, 2008). By separating the price of dark green vegetables from higher calorie starchy vegetables, we find that the price effect is not the same for all vegetables.

For the visual impact, consider the relative inflation of fresh fruits versus carbonated drinks.

While you'll never convince me drinking a liquid from another animal is normal (and yet I love cheese, I am paradox!) , check out the findings on drink consumption tends:

I would be the last person to admonish anyone's tastes or food preferences. As I write this, I'm looking at a plate which just a few scant minutes ago was throne to a wonderful slice of pepperoni and jalapeño pizza. Have I told you about my thing for Sour Patch Kids? OHMYGODTHEYAREAWESOME. However, we have a relative luxury in my household - we can afford leafy, healthy, full-of-summer-sun vegetables. We belong to a CSA farm.  We shop at Whole Foods and buy organic veggies. And non of that is cheap. While our personal choices may at times be poor, we have the ability to eat well and within our budget.  When a head of broccoli costs more than a whole meal at McDonalds how do we ever expect to address the behavioral causes of health problems and death in this country?

beach music or olive oil - inside out thinking from one of my favorite restaurants

"we taste 'em, the olive oils, usually three different ways - cold off a spoon, on a salad and then warmed, you know, not hot, but with a little tomato sauce... I'm still looking for the right one" "well, this is my second job and I haven't really tried the food. I hear the fish tacos are good."

You have a choice, pick a restaurant based off of those two quotes. Don't have enough info? One is a multi-million dollar investment, the other is a more modest joint. Still undecided? Ok, last clue, one has a tiki bar over looking the river and the other doesn't take most credit cards or reservations.

Last night Susan and I had an awesome date night. We kicked it off at the Virginia Museum which is winding down its Picasso exhibit. The collection is on loan from the Musée national Picasso in Paris. We had a great time exploring the same collection we had gotten to know well while living in Paris in a new but familiar space. Ironically, I lived across, like seriously front door to front door, from the Va Museum for two years and we almost never went. Since moving down the road we are going a lot more.

But back to the food. So after hanging with Pablo, we went to Mamma'Zu. We had the most amazing meal which wasn't a surprise to us, we've been there many times before. We had fresh ramps - a seasonal delicacy kind of like a wild leek. We devoured a bright green fava been puree. The courses went on and on, many off the menu. We were in foodie heaven. Why do we go back time and time again? Because its all about the food!

If Top Chef's Restaurant Wars has taught us anything its that the front of the house and ambiance matters, right? Some health care guy with a blog wrote about a hoity-toity dining experience in New York where the service, as much as the food, made the experience. Holistically, clearly the two go hand-in-hand.

Mamma'Zu is a little different. It is a bit like this place in Germany which blindfolds diners to heighten the food experience. When ambiance is removed, you focus solely on the food. Mamma'Zu has no blind folds - the place is simply dark and different. This place is a Richmond institution (need a primer? check this post). The paint needs touching up. Most of the tables are wobbly, maybe because there are some floor tiles missing. It is also a bastion of inside out thinking.

It is one of my top three or four restaurants in the world. Here is what I've learned from Mamma'Zu:

Inside out in thinking restaurant owners think: "What is the best dish I can serve tonight? Is this best olive oil to use? Can I make enough of these to serve or would I have to sacrifice quality."

Outside in thinking restaurant owners think: "Can I fit the tiki bar AND a faux beach scene on this same wall? Will more people come for drink specials or food specials? How does that guy across town make those pizzas, I want something like that."

See the difference? The inside out thinkers have a core, a focus. In this case, we are talking about food. Sinek talks about Apple and tells us Apple is first a design company. Everything they do is about making better designs. Compair that to Microsoft, a company founded on selling software. When Microsoft launched the Zune MP3 player, its as if they thinking "we are known for global dominance in operating system software, I know, lets make MP3 payers to compete with Apple." That is outside in thinking. It is away from their core competency, what some people call the "why". In the case of the two Richmond area restaurants above, one chef/owner has a clear why, food. The best food; nothing else matters. The other place seems to be motivated off shtick. Their why is unclear. Are they going for a great tiki bar? If so, why serve bland fish tacos at all? In their case, the end result is that neither the ambiance nor the food comes off stellar.

Outside in thinking does not have to occur to the determent of everything else. A novelty restaurant can be a cool tiki bar and serve great food. An italian place like Mamma'Zu could focus on both atmosphere and food. The difference for inside out thinkers is resources. If focusing on something else means you lose quality and focus on your core, then its out. Outside in thinkers have no problem with detrimental compromise.

You've probably guessed it, I'm on this 'inside out thinking' kick. True. Consider it with me for a moment. Inside out thinkers start with a why, core, reason, mission...whatever. The end result is almost always focused. As consumers of that finished product, we can almost always trace it back to its roots. In a great restaurant we say "wow, they nailed in the kitchen today." With technology we say, "it just works."

Since my brain doesn't easily shift gears, and since most of these posts are about healthcare, we'll briefly explore the inside out theme in the healthcare construct. Healthcare leaders, both clinical and non-clinical, have the similar challenges to restaurant owners. Is it mediocre fish tacos with bad beach music or an almost obsessive focus on olive oil? Is it a fancy waiting room or is it spending that one critical extra minute more with a patient? The experience at Per Se taught me when the resources exist, one can build an infrastructure of service and experience to go along with a myopic focus on quality. Bridget Duffy tells us when we focus on that inside core belief, the rest (revenues, clinical outcomes, quality) will follow.

If you want to experience inside out thinking next time you are in Richmond, visit Mamma'Zu.

Elsewhere: Accountable for care, employers supporting healthy food choices

Elsewhere: Remember me? Yeah, me either. This whole graduate school thing is hard - who knew!?! Elsewhere is my series of posts highlighting content from sources I find interesting, inspiring and supportive.

My world got a little bit smaller the other day. When I walk the dog I usually listen to podcasts, downloadable audio and video shows. Think TiVo for your iPhone. You already knew that didn't you?

So I'm listening to American Public Media's The Splendid Table. If you are at all inclined towards the culinary arts, by which I mean eating, then it is well worth a listen. You can dial it in on most NPR stations, although I suggest you download it to you portable gizmo as a podcast, either through iTunes or their website directly.

Anyway. Host Lynne Rossetto Kasper kicks off each week with a mini-monolog about some food trend or observation.

This week, Lynne discussed an employer which is offering to help subsidize community sponsored agriculture (CSA) memberships for employees. CSAs are like gym memberships for famers markets. Usually you pre-pay to "join" a farm and get regular deliveries of fresh veggies, meats, dairy, etc. You help fund the operations and get a share of the lauder in return.

Think about that for a second - an employer that was willing to sponsor a food lifestyle choice for employees.

Some employers, although I anecdotally suspect the number is low, sponsor gym memberships for employees. The idea is when you workout you are healthier and thus avoid disease and illness which, in turn, saves the company money on healthcare costs.

If that logic holds true (and aren't we told we are what we eat?) then doesn't sponsoring healthy food choices also make sense?

There is a lot of talk in the healthcare industry about "accountable care." Without going into details on the pros and cons and esoteric points, suffice it to say it means healthcare provides partner with the people paying for care to reduce the cost and innovate the care model. Most people who get insurance in the US, outside of Medicare, get it through their employers. Many of those employers are self-insured; meaning they pay for care out of the company's coffers, even if administered through a third-party commercial plan. You may have blue cross, but your employer is likely footing most if not all of the bill.

Given that, doesn't it make sense for employers to support employees who make healthy food choices?

Paying for CSA memberships is admittedly not the norm. It is a little on the hippie, 2000s-dot-com-days side of out there. But it may offer similar benefits as paying for gym membership, or perhaps it is even better. Nonetheless, it is as least accountable, forwarding thinking and socially responsible.

Supper Punch - week 2

So....good news and bad.

First the good, my tacos took week 1! Thanks to everyone who voted!

Now the bad, it has become apparent that no one really likes the idea of confit of lambs tongue... although it's not too late. Come on people, it's just a muscle like any other cut of meat. Did we give up when the German's bombed Pearl Harbor? "Over, did you say over? Nothing is over until we say it is!" So get over to RVA News and VOTE DAWSON!

From my entry for this week:

Ok, I’ll admit it. There is a certain stigma with offal. The problem with the 5th quarter, as our Italian friends often refer to organ meats, is they remind us so much of…well… us. But before you go sticking your tongue out in disgust, I implore you to try an experiment with me. Every time I use “tongues” below, substitute “duck leg”. Then, ask yourself, what is really different about eating the equivalent of a quadricep vs. any other muscle?

After the silence of these Virginia lambs, the tongues spent what can only be likened to a weekend at the spa: 24 hours in a salt water bath before being blanketed in a liberal snowfall of coarse kosher salt, thyme, and garlic over night. Next they went into a vacuum bag with some black tea leaves, juniper, and bacon fat, and took a plunge in the sous vide hot tub for 10 hours at 162 F. While they rested, some par-boiled potatoes, straight from my dad’s garden in Bedford county, were glazed in the cooking liquid from the tongues. The dish came together with some garlicky, sticky, slow cooked brussels sprouts. Some fennel was warmed in the separated bacon fat. The tongues got a final quick fry in some butter and were plated with a reduction of the cooking liquid and a whole grain mustard vinaigrette.

If I could have, I would have cooked the tongues longer. You’ll be surprised to find out there are not a lot of guides for sous vide of lambs tongue online. I think 18 hours would have made them meltingly tender. As it was, they had the texture of a medium rare steak, not unpleasant at all.

I've posted more pictures over on flickr

A foodies Christmas list

Just saying is all....

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It has been the year of the cookbook. Last year's releases of Grant Achatz's Aleina set the new standard for uber food pr0n:

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At $32.00, Aleina broke the mold of the $150 high-end celebrity cookbook.

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And once the flood gates were open, it has been no holds bared for frugal foodies. These are some of my favorites from 2009:

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Simply Dressed - Springtime veggies and vinaigrette

Is there anything better than seeing those first green shoots pop up from the brown dirt in the early spring? They are at once the white flags of winter's surrender and the welcome committee for the sun. Early spring time veggies are often the most delicate and sweetest that nature has to offer. That first bounty is truly something to celebrate; and there is no better way to applaud Mother Nature's work than treating them simply.The Yum Fortunately, most of us do not spend the winter working through our supply of canned produce from the previous season anymore. Most grocery stores carry the full gamut of veg year round. But if you live in Vermont and had broccoli in December, there's a pretty good chance it did not come from a local farm. Vegetables are one of the best reasons to find a farmers market and to live seasonally. Eating what is growing naturally during the year is not only more sustainable and trendy, it tastes better. Really, I promise. Tasting asparagus that came out of the April ground from your local farm will always knock the socks off the South American produce laying limp under the mister at the store.

If you do venture out to your local farmers market, or are among the lucky few to have your own garden, then its time to think about how to celebrate the early harvest. One of my favorite ways to enjoy the first plucks of spring is with a simple vinaigrette. The vinaigrette is one of the most versatile 'sauces' in the kitchen. Few things are so simple but pack such a big punch. At the most basic - oil and vinegar- you get bitter acid and sweetness from the wine vinegar, umami and fruit from the oil and maybe a hint of spice from cracked black pepper. One of the vinaigrette's great tricks is its ability to complement foods and not over power them. Getting the hang of a basic emulsified vinaigrette will open the doors to a plethora of potential combinations: ponzu and yuzu for an Japanese flare, dill and caper to accompany fish, chopped pickle and hard boiled egg for a salad dressing... the list is endless.

The good news about the vinaigrette is that there are no real rules (shhh don't tell the French), only guidelines. Most are emulsified, that is to say very well mixed to the point of being creamy in texture. They can also be 'broken' where the acid and oil are noticeably separated. The acid can come in many forms, from lemon juice to aged balsamic vinegar. For that matter, so can the oil; olive, walnut, grape seed, melted butter, duck fat! What follows is my take on a very classic and simple vinaigrette as well as some variants. Once you master the suggestion below, feel free to play around. Make sure to drop me and note let me know what you come up with.

When it comes to the classic oil and vinegar mix, I prefer an emulsified vinaigrette. Emulsification is tricky don't worry if it does not come together for you right away. There are a few tricks that will help though. Get a Hand Blender . Those are the hand held mixers that you can plunge into anything you want blended. I use mine almost daily. If you are going to use a whisk, stick it and the bowl into the freezer for five minutes. Heat is the enemy of an emulsification. For the recipe below, I assume a whisk. If you are using a stick blender, it will be the same, but you will want to use the tall narrow cup that your mixer came with.

A general guideline for ratios is 3:1 oil to acid. Keep that in mind and you can riff on the idea however you like.

Ingredients: * 3 table spoons grape seed or canola oil * 1 table spoon white wine vinegar * 1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard * 1/2 clove garlic, crushed * 1/8 teaspoon (lets call it a pinch) of white sugar * pinch of sea salt * freshly ground black pepper (course)

Technique: In a cool bowl, combine the vinegar, salt, mustard, sugar, and garlic and pepper. Whisk together to combine into a rudimentary paste.

Start whisking vigorously in a figure eight movement.

We want to add the oil very slowly. In a stream so small that the next stage would be a drip, not a stream at all.

Slowly drizzle in the oil. You want to look closely, you should never see the oil accumulate on the surface. If it does, whisk faster and drizzle more slowly. The goal here is to literally smash the oil and vinegar together. Mustard contains a natural compound called lethicin which helps that bond between the oil and vinegar.

As you whisk the in the oil, you will see the entire concoction lighten in color and take on the consistency of mayonnaise. (mayo is really just a vinaigrette with an egg yolk by the way).

Thats it, pretty simple right? For veggies, serve it as a dipping sauce in a bowl. Lightly toss roasted asparagus or roasted cauliflower in the vinaigrette. Early spring lettuces should get the lightest possible coating- spoon 1 teas spoon into a bowl and add the greens, toss to cover.

Variations In the recipe above, I suggest a neutral oil like canola or grape seed (this tea oil is also wonderful but pricey). Olive oil has a very distinct and fruity flavor that can be overpowering, but sometimes, particularly with more hearty viggies, it works quite well. The technique would be the same and you can even mix oils, using half tea oil and half olive oil.

For my favorite salad dressing I like to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. This is where a Hand Blender comes in handy.

* 6 table spoons grape seed or canola oil * 2 table spoon white wine vinegar * 1 teaspoon Dijon style mustard * 1 clove garlic * 1 small Bubbies pickle (bubbies brand is worth seeking out, they are fermented) * 1 hard boiled egg, yoke separated from white, the white should be finely diced * 1 table spoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (use the real stuff) * 3 dashes of Worcestershire sauce * 1/2 teaspoon capers (get the salt packed ones, soak them in warm water for 10 minutes first) * 1 big pinch of  red pepper flakes * pinch of sea salt * cracked black pepper to taste

The technique is the same, combine everything except for the oil and chopped egg white in the cup of the stick blender. Pulse a few times to form a slurry. Make sure the stick blender is on high and begin slowly drizzling in the oil just as before. Once the oil is incorporated and you have an emulsification, stop blending immediately. Over mixing will cause the emulsification to "break" and you'll have something that feels like it has an oil slick on the tongue - not good. Stir in the chopped egg white by hand with a fork.

If you do want a broken vinaigrette that does taste good, try this

* 3 table spoons good olive oil * 1 table spoon lemon juice * 1 small garlic clove, minced into a paste with the back of your knife * pinch of salt and black pepper

in a bowl, combine the garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Pour in the oil. Using a fork give things a good hearty mix. You will not get an emulsification, but when it turns cloudy, you are there.

Spoon that over anything from roasted fish to some arugula greens with shaved goats cheese. YUM!

Simple Pork Chops - perfect for early spring

74F during the day and 35F at night - yep, it is early Spring in Virginia. This time of year is always bittersweet for me. On one hand the warm days mean ski season has come to an end. On the other, little tender buds of the first veggies and spring flowers are starting to poke their heads out of the ground. My personal sliver lining is that ski season ended for me rather forcefully this year - that means I can focus on the bounties of the season. One of my favorite dishes for this time of year combines the crunch gold brown goodness that warms the cool nights and a bright acidic lightness for those warm afternoons - crispy pork chops.

Pork is such an essential ingredient, and one that we are appreciating less and less. It is a real shame when you think about it. The pig is an amazingly versatile animal. For starters the meat runs the gamut of deep and rich to light and lean. It takes on flavors effortlessly but is sweet and savory on its own. Pigs are also endowed with a truly perfect fat-to-lean ratio. It is why pork is the basis of most of the great cured meats from saussion sec to the Spanish Iberian ham.

Chefs will tell you, given only one protein to work with that they will make a choice of the porcine persuasion every time. So why is it that for last twenty years we have relegated our pork consumption to gray flabby chops and tenderloins packaged in chemicals masquerading as a marinade? While I am fairly sure my goal of reintroducing lightly fried pork liver may be an uphill battle, I am confident that we can start giving pork chops the justice they deserve.

Like so many of the Food Simply posts in this series, the first step is finding great pork. And great pork usually comes from great pigs who are (you guessed it) probably closer to your home than on a factory farm ten states away. Locally grown pork may not be hard to find either. In a poetic mix, social media tools like FaceBook and Twitter are connecting local farmers with foodies in a very 2.0 kind of way. Try a search on search.twitter.com or ask some friends. Finding a real, bone-in chip will make a tremendous difference. In addition to a bone-in chop, there are few other key things to look for when selecting a chop. As you move from the front of the pig towards the hind legs, the chops will get larger and contain more of a secondary muscle group. If you can find those back-cut chops, the reward is a richer, darker meat that is full of flavor. You should also look for a nice "fat cap" running around the outside rim of the chop. In general, the chops should be a nice rosy pink, free of sinew and should never have a slimy feel.

The Brine

Just like our simple roasted chicken, we want to start with a brine. You can pull the exact same brine method from that post. The basic idea is the same, add as much salt as the water will absorb - toss in any other flavors you like and give the chops a soak for at least 12 hours; you can take it to 72 in the fridge with no problem. Brown sugar will enhance the natural sweetness of pork.

The Prep

*At least an hour before cooking, remove the chops from the brine and pat dry. *Let them dry on paper towels. *On a plate, combine 1/2 cup of panko bread crumbs (you'll find them on the ethnic aisle) and 3 table spoons of white flour *thinly slice 1 clove of garlic *Mince a hand full of fresh parsley *slice a lemon in half - we'll juice it into the sauce * grab 1/4 cup of chicken stock, if you don't have homemade use water (its much better than store bought stock)

*optional - some people cut 3 slits vertically in the fat cap, on skinnier chops this helps prevent 'cupping'

The Crust

This is a technique I learned from a chef friend. They used it at my favorite restaurant to make their sweetbreads extra crispy and it works on anything from chicken to ...well.. pork chops. The goal is to really press the panko-flour mix into the meat. You want to almost force the breading into the pores. I like to lay the chops flat into the mix then press down with my palm. Flip them over and repeat. Then pick up some of the breading with your fingers and actually try and press more into the flesh. Pick up the chops and give them a gentle tap or shake to knock off excess.

Important - let the crust rest on the chops for 10 minutes before cooking. That will hydrate the flour and make a stronger bond so it does not come off in the pan.

Cooking

This is another trick that I have borrowed from Brad, my chef friend. He likes to cook New York strip steaks in their own fat by starting them on the fat cap and rendering it out. The result is a really crispy crust where the fat was. It works equally well with pork chops.

*in a heavy pan over medium heat, place the chops in standing on their side with the fat down. You may have to hold skinnier chips with tongs. *Once the fat is golden brown - it may take up to 8 - 10 minutes, lay the chops down and crank the heat to high *After about 4 minutes, life the chops and check for a deep golden color, if they look G.B.D. give them a flip. *start checking the internal temperature after 2 minutes - we are shooting for 135F. Remember, this is quality pork and just like our chicken there is no reason to over cook it. Once it hits 135F, pull them from the heat and let them sit aside to keep warm. *Dial the heat back to medium and drain the excess fat, saving a scant film *add the garlic and toss for 30 seconds *squeeze the juice of the lemon into the pan *add the 1/4 cup of stock or water *Allow the liquid to reduce via a boil for 1 minute * add parsley

Serving

*pour your pan sauce over the crispy warm chops, garnish with slice of lemon and ENJOY!

AskAFoodie.net - a work in progressess

AskAFoodie on Twitter UPDATE: AskAFoodie.net is now live- check it out for more info. The goal is simple - have short foodie exchanges on Twitter and delve in deeper on AskAFoodie.net

The social networking site Twitter.com has one rule - you cannot post more than 140 characters at a time. That means everything is short and to the point. That is the perfect place to try and new experiment - AskAFoodie. Jump on twitter and send a note to @askafoodie - anything from apples to zest. Soon Now you will also be able to ask questions via www.askafoodie.net so book mark it and check back soon.

Sous Vide at Home

Originally uploaded by NickDawson

For Christmas, Santa brought me a copy of Thomas Kelleher's Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide - a cookbook largely devoted to the sous vide technique of cooking. Sous Vide, or under vacuum, is a bit of a misnomer but refers to cooking things sealed in vacuum bags in a water bath.

There are three reasons people use sous vide. First is that you can intensely flavor whatever you are cooking. Since the bag is sealed there is no chance for flavors to evaporate; instead they go into the food. Secondly is for precise temperature control - this is what makes sous vide at home such a challenge. Finally can get a sort of compression. Mellon has been the popular example. You can take a 5" cube of watermelon and compress it into something about 1/2" that has a much different texture.

Sous Vide requires two pieces of equipment. First, you have to have a way to vacuum seal the food. The $100 FoodSaver from Tilia does a fine job (although it will not provide much compression). The challenge comes with the temperature control part. Professionals are using laboratory-grade 'immersion circulators' which can keep a container of water at a perfectly controlled temperature. The only problem - they cost $1,000.00. That makes impressive tricks like preparing salmon that looks raw but is actually cooked a challenge. You need water that is exactly 104 degrees F. 103 and 105 simply do not work, its a protein coagulation thing.

(Worth noting, Grant Achatz has demonstrated sous vide in zip top bags - you can find the video here)

The good news is that the technique still has a place in the home kitchen. Some foods, like vegetables, are very forgiving and can withstand the fluctuation that you get using a pot of water and thermometer on the stove. We tried some green olive and grapefruit poached fennel that was outstanding. The olive and citrus flavor was pronounced throughout the fennel and it could not have been easier. We prepped a bag with sliced fennel, some crushed green Spanish olives, grapefruit slices and great olive oil and set it into a pot of water that we tried to keep around 160 degrees F. It took about two hours for the fennel to soften up, but the remarkable thing was how green and crisp they stayed. Another forgiving food are scallops. Scallops are almost all protein and work very well in sous vide. We did ours with bacon fat and bay leaves. After rendering the bacon, I let the fat cool and poured enough in to cover the scallops which had been seasoned with a little gray salt. After that I tossed in a few fresh bay leaves and sealed the bag. 1 hour in a 120 degree F bath and they were cooked perfectly through and had a wonderful texture. The bacon flavor was intense but not over powering.

I am looking forward to working through Under Pressure and learning more about the technique, but I am excited to know that at least some part of sous vide is in reach for the home cook.

The Per Se kitchen

Service never endsI am still mentally digesting our meal from Per Se. Check back soon for a post about the menus and our meal. As a quick update, I did want to share a few photos from our behind the scenes tour of the kitchen.

The rumors of the video link between the French Laundry and Per Se are true, but what impressed me were the custom inlay tiles with "Sense of Urgency" blazed in blue. That phrase is the montra for the entire staff - it means much more than simply working quickly. Sense of urgency is a reminder of how important every detail is in making a meal at Per Se one of the best dining experences in the world.

Sense of Urgency

Cut the cable, keep the cake

In my last post, I spoke about where to splurge on food online. Over the top food finds are great for the holidays, but the reality of our current economic situation may mean beans and franks. In fact, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on 12/11 about a proposed bailout for the producers of Italy's famed Parmigiano Reggiano. If that is not a salient indicator of our economy, then just take a look t the portion sizes next time you go out to eat. So how is a foodie supposed to get their fix? For us, it was cutting the cord; ditching cable TV not only saved us a heap of dough but it helped us discover some foodie programing that we may not have found otherwise. Our modest cable package- basic digital cable, HBO, and the set to box rental, was pushing skywards of $130.00USD per month. I suspect that is not an unfamiliar figure to many American households. However, when we really looked at the amount of TV we were watching we discovered that the few shows we did watch came on less than 10% of the channels we were paying for; that is a stat what will make you reach for the cable cutters. Giving up The Bass Fishing Network was an easy choice for us. But leaving some of our favorite food shows was a bit of a challenge. Pardon the metaphor, but this is one time where we can have our cake and eat it too.

The first step is admitting you have a problem - the problem is not how much TV you watch, in fact this probably makes more sense if you are a full fledged TV addict. The problem you have to admit is that paying $100 per month that's $1,200 per year...that's like 20 trips to Mammma'Zu. Once you have come to grips with the financial grip that cable TV has on your food budget (because after all, its all about bringing home the bacon), you can start thinking about alternatives. In our case we solved our need by combining online services and free HD broadcasts.

That's right, free, as in beer. Each of the major networks, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC have been required to broadcast their signal in pristine high definition. All you need to take advantage is a pair of rabbit ears and the right equipment. Chances are, if you have a new HDTV it will have the electronic guts to do the job. If not, you can get an OTA (over the air) tuner for less than a dinner on the town. To truly take advantage of all that the free OTA world has to offer, consider a TiVo - with a TiVo you can scour the airwaves for your favorite food programs and record them for viewing when it works for you.

Taking advantage of all that free HD goodness will get you pretty far, particularly if you are a fan of prime time TV. But if you hanker for the globe trotting, tripe eating, tipsy style of the adventure foodies then hope is not lost. The internet has become the go-to place for video on demand; forget what you knew about that star-shaped button on your cable box's remote, its all about IPTV. Internet TV, IPTV, downloadable media, call it what you like, the concept is the same. iPod Owners will already be familiar with Apple's iTunes Store where you can download songs for $0.99 a pop. But its not just music; the iTunes store is also packed with foodie goodness from the Food Network, Travel Channel, TLC and more. You can buy shows for $1.99 each or purchase a whole season of Top Chef for $30.00. While you may only have one option for a cable company, your choices for online content are wide open. Amazon has gotten into the game with their Unboxed Video On Demand Service. Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern is $1.99 for an episode or $19.99 for the whole second season.

If you are truly reveling in the savings from the kicking your cable box to the curb, you can still get content for free online. Hulu.com offers free (and legal!) shows from NBC Universal. You can watch content from most of the NBC networks in a quality that ranges from near DVD to HD. Hulu has full shows for of its options (Top Chef for instance) and clips for other shows (Food Network). The free streaming goodness does not end there. If you are a Netflix Subscriber, you do not have to wait for them to ship your next disc, there is a good chance you can play it online with their free (to subscribers) streaming service. Queue up the last few seasons of Good Eats and get your food nerd on.

The following are some of my favorite foodie shows from 2008 - none of wich require a cable tv bill

Spain... On the Road again This has to be the food show find of the year. Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Gweneth Paltro and Claudia eat and drink their way across Spain. Admittedly the show has a special place in my heart since they highlight some of the places we discovered on our own tour of the Iberian Peninsula. Spain... On the Road Again is free to record from PBS, $1.99 or iTunes

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern Because one man's slaughter room scraps are another's three star meal. Bizarre Foods $1.99 on Amazon

Three Sheets The Mojo network is sadly gone, but Zane's legacy lives on. This man is paid to travel the world and go drinking, 'nuff said. Its free on Hulu.com

Feasting On Aslphalt Alton Brown, of Good Eats fame, takes to the American highway on his motorcycle for everything from soul food to fried pork brain sandwiches. Stream it on Netflix.

America's Test Kitchen Its free, its on PBS, and its the cooking show your grandmother would make, if she was an anal-retentive bald man from Vermont. Record it on PBS

Top Chef Watch pompous sous chefs make "caviar" out of everything ... I'm not jealous at all... older seasons are free on Hulu, get current shows on iTunes on Amazon

Now its your turn - What are your favorite food shows and where do you find them? Leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

DIY: Trash Can Cold Smoker

cold smokerWhen I announced my idea to build a cold smoker I got a lot of strange looks from family and friends. There is, of course, the logical reaction: “if smoke comes from fire, how can you have cold smoke?” There is also the layperson's reaction “ why do you need two different kinds of smokers?” And finally (and what may arguably be the most compelling) there is the aesthetic reaction “you are going to put that on our deck?” Agreeably, all of these reactions are valid ones. But if you have ever tasted an amazing Scottish salmon, or a perfect chorizo, then you know all about the magic of cold smoke. I have been reading Charchuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn . It is a wonderful look at the art of curing and sausage making- something I have been ingregued by for some time. As Ruhlman and Polcyn note, our ancestors figured out early on that meat left over a smoldering fire lasted longer- the smoke cured it. Today we have the luxury of refrigeration, but that does not mean we need to lose a taste for things like bacon, prosciutto or guanchali. If you are interested in the details, click here to read on.

Anyone from the South East will gladly tell you about their favorite BBQ joint – wether its mustard sauces from South Carolina or a vinegary spicy mix from Virginia, everyone has a favorite. BBQ is an example of hot smoking; or basically, cooking with smoke. You bring the chamber up to about 250F and let the smoke impart the heat and flavor. With cold smoking the goal is simply to bring the flavor to the party without the heat. Some cold smoked items are already cooked when smoked, hot dogs fall into this category. Others are cured, often with salt and sugar, then smoked and left to air dry for weeks or longer. Any way you slice it, cold smoking will take most cured items to the higher level of porcine perfection.

hot smokerThat, in a nutshell, is what led me to my Trash Can Cold Smoker. Ruhlman and Polcyn acknowledge that most smokers capable of cold smoking crest the $1,000.00 mark rather quickly and require some what of a professional operation to run. They do recommend a $450.00 model which has modest results. Having already built a $40 hot smoker based on Alton Brown's terracotta pot design , I was fairly confident that I could apply some kind of McGyver engineering to the cold smoke problem. While we waited for polyurethane to dry (which has the mild advantage over paint of having fumes that will knock you out, but otherwise is of equal interest), my dad and I put our minds to the challenge. What we came up with is either an homage to L. Frank Baum or a wonderful cold smoker- the Trash Can Cold Smoker. With little more than $70 in parts, we were able convert my hot smoker and a galvanized Trash Can into a very functional cold smoker.

Parts Required

parts
1 Terracotta Pot Hot Smoker – there are various sources, but I recommend finding a copy of the original Good Eats episode.
1 large galvanized trash can
1 8 foot long x 4 inch diameter flexible dryer duct
2 4 inch duct take offs – usually in the duct work isle of the hardware
2 worm drive duct collars – also in the duct work section
1 vent cover – again, duct work isle
1 role Nashua tape or other metal duct tape – avoid traditional vinyl duct tape
1 terracotta saucer or dome pot to function as a lid for the smoke chamber
1 19 inch grill grate
1 21 inch grill grate
8 small “L” brackets with hardware or 8 small nuts, bolts and washers
Optional Parts
Computer fan – any low voltage fan, check radio shack or CompUSA
18 gague bell wire – any two wires should work
9 volt battery case
low voltage switch

Tools Required

Sheet metal or tin snips
pliers
drill with masonry bit (hammer drill may be preferable)
Wood/Metal bit for drill (hint: most regular drill bits are made for metal as well as wood)
rubber mallett or hammer
screw driver

Attach the intake to the Trash Can

The first order of business was to attach the dryer hose to the trash can. Since we want the smoke to rise and fill the chamber, we attached it close to the bottom.
1.Use one of the 4” take offs to trace an outline of the hole.
2.Using a regular wood/metal bit, drill a hole just inside the outline you traced
3.work the metal snips through the hole and begin cutting out the hole – when in doubt, err on the side of making your hole too small rather than too large. Try and fit the “tabbed” side of the take off through the hole, if its a little snug remove just enough of the metal to get a good fit.

cut hole
4.Bend the tabs of the take off flush against the inside of the can

tabs
5.using four sections of Nashua tape, make a square pattern around the tabs. Overlap a little of the tap around the inside of the take off, so that it overhangs the hole. Then carefully rip and bend the tape back inside the hole. At this point the tabs should be covered (to avoid sharp edges) and you should have a good seal.

snug fit
6.Using either small (1 ½ inch) pieces, or longer pieces with partial vertical tears, being taping around the outside of the takeoff. Again, the goal is to ensure a proper seal to the trash can.

box tape.

outside tape
7.Loosen the worm drive collar as much as possible and slip it around the take off's protrusion from the can.
8.Slip about 3 inches of the flexible duct around the take off.
9.Slide the collar over the duct and secure it with a screw driver

collar

With that done, its time to manufacture the lid. This is a little tricky since it involves drilling terracotta, something notoriously prone to cracking. I found that saucers work quite well since they are rather thick. I have successfully drilled two out of two saucers, nevertheless you may want to buy a backup. Alton Brown's design called for a bowl pot which would function as a dome lid – I love the idea, but I've not been able to find one at either Lowes or Home Depot.

1.Again, use the other 4” take off to trace an outline in the middle of the saucer.

trace
2.Working just inside the line, being drilling a series of holes using a masonry bit. It may help to make as few as four holes around the ring, then being filling in the gaps with another four holes, evenly spaced. That helps avoid weakening one area before the other side of the ring is ready to be knocked out

drill

holes
3.after you have established a good ring of holes (more holes than connecting terracotta) being working across the hole by making an X pattern across the inside of the hole.
4.Make another X so that you have a star pattern across the inside of the area to be removed.
5.By now the area should look like swiss cheese, start in the center and with short and deliberate strokes, knock it with a hammer. If done right, small sections should fall out. Work back towards the edge

hammer
6.(Optional) using a grinding disk in the drill or a Dremel tool, you can smooth the edges of the hole
7.confirm a snug fit with the 4” take off
8.Repeating the process from the trash can, bend the tabs inside the lid as much as passable. The thickness of the lid may make a flush fit difficult. A pair of pliers will help you get a better grip.
9.Working with short 1 ½ “ sections of tape, begin taping from inside the take off back to the lid. Work around the hole, overlapping the tape
10.Use for longer sections to tape a box pattern around the short piece. Again, overlap the hole and carefully fold the tape inwards.

tape lid
11.Use short sections or the tearing trick from step #6 above to seal the outside of the take off around the top of the lid
12.slip the second 4” worm drive collar around the protrusion of the take off

Building and attaching the chimney is very similar to attaching the take off to the can. While I worked away with the masonry drill, my dad painstakingly crafted a damper to fit inside the flue to regulate the smoke escaping. This is totally optional, you might also look for the a replacement grill vent and use that.
1.Trace an outline
2.drill inside the outline
3.use metal snips to remove the inside of the outline
4.make 3/4” vertical cuts around the bottom of the chimney, spaced about 3/4” apart. In other words, create tabs similar to the ones found on the take offs
5.bend the tabs back against the inside of the trash can lid

tabs in
6.Secure with box pattern of 4 pieces of tape
7.secure the outside against the top of the lid with more tape

smoke stack

We are almost done, now its time to mount the grates. You'll want to space these vertically in the can so that you'll be able to fit both large resting items as well as hanging items. You might even put in extra brackets to make them adjustable. This can be done with brackets, or simply with bolts.
1.For the lower grate, pick a distance off the bottom of the can. We wanted to leave room for some ice in case we wanted to smoke on a warm day. Measure up about 16” from the bottom of the can.
2.Make 4 marks around the can at your desired height (ours was 16”). You can count the ridges in the can to space the marks evenly.
3.Drill a hole that is only large enough for your hardware (either hardware for the “L” brackets or just bolts secured with a nut and washer)
4.If you are using brackets, attach them with the provided hardare. We secured our ½” “L” brackets with small wing nuts and lock washers. If you are using bolts, push the head through so that it is flush with the outside of the can, secure it with a lock washer and nut.
5.Repeat the process for the upper grate.
6.Optional, you may want to even install hooks on the lid for hanging items. We did not since hooks can always be hung from the upper grate.
7.Seal the outside of any holes, screw and/or bolt heads with more tape.

Now for the final assembly. No matter how many terracotta saucers we tried, none were a perfect fit for our hot smoker. That means some smoke leaks out. One options would be to find some weather stripping or oven insulation (avoid things with lose fibers that might become airbone and get into the smoke). We elected to use two damp rags to seal the lid to the hot smoker.
1.Wet two old dish rags and ring out the water
2.role them up and use them to make a seal between your hot smoking chamber and the saucer “lid”
3.place the lid on top of the hot smoker

rags
4.pull the flexible duct away from the body of the trash can
5.attach the lose end of the duct to the take off on the lid, secure with the collar and worm clamp

Thats it, you are ready to smoke! Of course you'll want to pick a wood and get the hot smoker fired up, but otherwise things are ready to role. You might notice that we have not taped the duct work to either the trash can or the saucer “lid”. That allows us to disassemble the contraption, which can be a bit of an eye sore, and hide the parts inside the trash can. It also allows us to replace the duct work as it wears out.

While the smoker works well as a “passive system”, I have elected to retrofit mine with a small fan. For about $10 you can get everything you'll need from your local radio shack. I mounted a small computer case fan inside the trash can where the smoke comes in. It draws the smoke from the hot smoker a little more effectively and even helps cool it in the process. I ran a short section of 1 pair bell wire inside the can and covered it with more Nashua tape. I secured a 9 volt battery housing and switch on the outside of the can. Presto, the passive system became an active one!

Ideally you want to maintain a temperature of around 80F inside the smoker- something that may be difficult to do on a warm day. I plan to experiment with ice in the bottom of the trash can or possibly even packed around the can itself.

There you have it, the Trash Can Cold Smoker. final