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spring

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!