A Perfect Pink Pig Raises My Curve

IMG_8376 The Cute Gardener and I tend to spend our entertainment budget money on food. While other people are spending dollars on clothes and toys and second homes and playthings, we tend to live low on the consumerist radar in lieu of once a week forays into the culinary landscape. Whether it be low brow Sonoran hot dogs on a trip to Arizona or the latest farm to table $200 gastropub to crop up in downtown L.A. our indulgences lie weekly in the adventures of tasting.

This both inspires and drives the way we cook at home. Sometimes we keep it simple, like when the Cute Gardener whips up something from his never boring oeuvre of Italian pasta or Asian stir fry dishes based on whatever vegetables are currently sprouting in the garden. And once a week, I make a meal that is like me: messy, complicated and typically soaked in French undertones. Because we eat out so much we have a high bar to gauge our cooking. The CG who’s been cooking for himself the past 25 years typically meets that bar or surpasses it, making me a spoiled girl. When it comes to me, who’s only seriously endeavored into the world of home chef-dom for the past five or six years, though, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes a dish turns out remarkably well as with a recent olive tapenade-stuffed game hen and other times it flops miserably like the time I halved the beef called for in a beef wellington recipe but didn’t adjust the cooking temp and time accordingly producing an overly dry bastardization of a high caliber filet.

So I bring humor and hope into my ambitious weekly cooking evenings and a dash of the low expectations that come when you know you are an amateur dabbling in the big leagues. When we first met the CG told me that, as much as he appreciated the loving intention that went along with a woman wanting to cook for him, I should be warned that he has eaten out way too much for anything to impress him on the home front so I shouldn’t take anything personally. In our three-year relationship, I have heard him take a bite of two distinct dinners of mine and immediately say “This is good.” I thought that was a remarkable accomplishment. Last week I finally heard the holy grail of compliments escape his lips while biting into a slab of pork loin roast I made. He said, “See, meals like this make me wonder why we go out to eat.” Of course, he wasn’t serious about us not going out to eat –in the ensuing days after that comment we enjoyed Scratch Bar’s lovely cured pig’s heads and pink and purple pickled foods followed by a dash into Barney’s Beanery for a dessert of chili cheese fries. But I have been waiting to hear those words come out of his lips for three years.

So back to my learning curve-raising roast. Dorie Greenspan has been my silent mentor as I chip my way through her “Around My French Table.” So far, she has not served me wrong as I use her book as my personal classroom. Despite the fact that I have a tough judge and coach at home, I continue to try difficult things because over time, like with anything that requires practice, I perfect subtleties that benefit my cuisine overall. I learn when my oven times should be tweaked because I know the elevation of my home is different than the recipe originator’s. I know when I can leave an ingredient out and when I can’t. I know when I can substitute a vegetable for another and when I shouldn’t because of things like water content or fiber. I learn personal golden rules like always massage olive oil into kale before using it for a salad or never cook fresh peas for more than a minute in a hot pan lest they shrivel. And I raise my own cooking curve to challenging new heights. This is why I was pleased as punch to see my chard stuffed pork loin emerge from the oven last week with sublime “just pink” flesh and a dense and juicy tenderness.

Here’s Dorie’s original recipe with my own notes added at the end.

Chard Stuffed Pork Loin Roast

1 bunch Swiss chard, about 6 stalks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, fine dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup golden raisins
red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, at room temperature

Wash the chard well.  Trim the ends of the stalks, about 1/2 inch or so.  Then, cut or tear the leaves away from the center ribs.  Finely chop the ribs and tear or roughly chop the chard leaves.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven, over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and starts to color, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Add the chard ribs and cook for another 3 minutes.  Add the chard leaves in two batches, adding the second when the first wilts enough to make room for it.  Cook until the chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Stir in the raisins and transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.  Add a pinch or so of the chili flakes, plus salt and pepper, to taste.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Wipe clean the pan used for the chard mixture and place the pan in the hot oven.

Crack the peppercorns and coriander using a mortar and pestle or place between two sheets of waxed paper and pound with a mallet or skillet.  Set aside.

If your butcher has not already done so, use a long, sharp knife to make a lengthwise slit in the pork roast, taking care not to cut the meat in two, about 1/2 inch from the outer edge.  Open the roast and spoon the stuffing onto the meat.  Close the meat around the stuffing and tie with kitchen twine, at intervals, replacing any stuffing that escapes as you go.

Rub the pork with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and rub the crushed peppercorns and coriander into the meat.  Carefully remove the hot roasting pan from the oven.  Place the pork loin, fat side up, in the hot pan.  Roast uncovered and undisturbed until the thickest part of the loin, not the stuffing, reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check at 25 minutes but expect that it will take about 40 minutes.

Once the roast is done, remove from the oven and tent lightly with foil on a plate or cutting board.  The pork should rest for 15 minutes.

NOTES:

I did not have kitchen twine so I used two skewers through either end of the open side of the meat and they worked just fine.

My chard leaves in the garden were massive so I only used three.

I used dark raisins instead of golden and they substituted well.

I served this with a kale, dried cranberry, and crushed almond salad lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and a Parmesan polenta with parsley.

 

Sockeye Sings in Earthly Lentils

IMG_8081When I took Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table down from its place on our four-cookbook living room shelf (the other three volumes being Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, Paul Bocuse’s Bocuse in Your Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe) last week, I was guiltily reminded of my grand intentions for cooking its entire contents for the Cute Gardener and then the slow as molasses journey I have been on to do so. A note card placed inside used as my bookmark, had a lonely four notations of recipes made over the last two years: mustard batons, tomatoes Provencal, olive-olive Cornish game hens and gougeres. I didn’t add the salad nicoise I attempted once minus the actual nicoise olives—for obvious reasons.

How pathetic, I thought! * And then went about remedying the situation immediately.

I chose a dish of Roasted Salmon with Lentils because salmon is one of the top five things I can cook as well as one of the CG’s favorite meals. His own father has told me twice on Christmas that I cook the fickle fish perfectly and I take pride in delivering new ways to adore yet not overly adorn its simple yet complex filets. Of course these days, the CG and I go the full mile in sustainable fish integrity and will only eat the approved varieties so it took a few phone calls to discover that I would have to drive the fifteen miles to another city to retrieve a slab of wild sockeye to fit the bill. But the fish karma worked in my favor regardless as it ended up being severely on sale.

The end result was deliciously earthy, grounding the delicate fish. It reminded me how much I love my lentils, especially the French version simmered slowly with classic carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf.

IMG_8080Because I wanted the dish to be the star and didn’t want to overburden the already hearty lentils with traditional cheese desserts or anything heavy, I settled on a light and tangy avocado tartare that had synchronistically arrived in my Food and Wine e-letter a few days earlier to start the meal. Served slightly below room temperature on small slices of baguette it was a perfect palate primer for the evening.

Now I have five notations on my bookmark and a renewed motivation to step up my cuisine Francaise.

IMG_8084*In my defense, it’s hard to summon the constant desire to cook when I live with a man who can throw pasta in a bowl with some leftovers and make it taste like nirvana; or, whose vegetables from the garden, even when mutant and odd like his recent batch of caulifower, taste better than most things I eat in restaurants. 

Singing Chicken Riesling

IMG_7607I re-stumbled upon the writer Joyce Maynard recently when she popped up in the middle of the movie Salinger. Because I recalled reading a few things of hers while growing up which I liked, I was inspired to look her up to refresh my memory of her voice. I found a hilariously pert essay about her attempts at cooking Julia Child’s “Chicken Melon” – an affair that required her blowing of the skin off a chicken through its behind that left me in stitches.

It reminded me why I like making complicated recipes, because I never know what kind of adventure will ensue in the process. I’ll never forget making gnudi from scratch with my good friend Charlotte one afternoon as her daughter was potty training and continued to present us with “packages” she was proud of in her plastic baby toilet. Her tiny little poos looking just like the ricotta pasta we were painstakingly trying to extrude from mushy lumps of dough and a pastry bag. I know it’s taboo to talk about bodily functions alongside making dinner but that occasion made it clear to me that even if the meal doesn’t pull itself off for serving, the comedy alone can make it all worthwhile.

Of course now that I actually live with someone I have to be a little more considerate of my risks in the kitchen. While making dinner for me, I am also making dinner for two, so I can’t just go off on a whim without some kind of notion that the end result is going to be satisfactory to all.

I’ve talked a bit about the fact that I am now banned from certain recipe resources online due to an overactive zeal towards making any old recipe that looked good to me, as was my habit of the past. This rule keeps me from making things that are off proportionately or come from places I shouldn’t fully trust. There are a lot of people out there making things they might like but that I do not. Although I enjoy reading many eclectic food blogs such as David Lebovitz, Foodie Underground, Christy Majors, Food and Think from the Smithsonian, Tastespotting (for the visual food porn alone), Nouveau Raw, Linnet Moss, and Kansas City Gravy Company, I am more prone to frequent them for the personalities of the writers and stories of the food rather than to find something to put in the oven. I have also become such a discerning foodie over the past year that when I do cook I want to make sure that it will at least taste good so the tried and true of Cook’s Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Gourmet’s archives, Dorrie Greenspan’s and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks are to what I turn.

Food and Wine online continues to be a trusted source, which is where I recently ran across a Coq Au Riesling made with the sweeter wine and crème fraiche.  Chicken oftentimes plays center stage in our household and I’d wanted to develop a signature poultry dish that I could call my own and make time and again as a classic. The Cute Gardener has a miraculous fried chicken, a homey shredded Asian-style on rice and a tangy Mediterranean tomato and olives version so I was looking for a French or Italian rendition. In true Unorthodox Foodie fashion, this one brought out all of my usual culinary attributes like taking more than an hour and more than a handful of pots, pans, plates, utensils and equipment to prepare and cook. Much to the Cute Gardener’s simultaneous curiosity, fear, dread and delight; that’s typically the sign that I am in the kitchen.

COQ AU REISLING
from Food and Wine

4 pounds chicken legs, split
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 1/2 cups dry Riesling
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mixed mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Finely chopped tarragon, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 300°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large, enameled cast-iron casserole, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil. Add half of the chicken and cook over moderately high heat, turning, until browned, 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cook the remaining chicken, then pour off the fat and wipe out the casserole.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil in the casserole. Add the onion, carrot, celery and shallots and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 1 minute, scraping up the browned bits from the pot. Add the chicken stock and thyme and bring to a boil.

Nestle the chicken in the casserole; cover and braise in the oven for 1 hour, until tender.

Meanwhile, in a very large skillet, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook over high heat, without stirring, until well browned, 5 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes; transfer to a plate.

Transfer the chicken to a plate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine sieve into a heatproof bowl, pressing on the solids; skim off the fat. Return the braising liquid to the casserole and boil until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in the crème fraîche and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and chicken to the sauce and simmer for 3 minutes. Garnish with tarragon and serve.

IMG_7609I made Dorie Greenspan’s French gougeres and a pile of sautéed mustard greens to go alongside the meat. The greens added a perfect juxtaposing tart bitterness to the addictive Riesling sauce and the earthy mushrooms.

At the end the CG asked if I thought the Riesling really made it better than one of his quick pressure cooker one pots of chicken steeped in pure broth. Although his versions are certainly every bit as soft, savory and delicious as mine was, I still answered that it was worth doing. Because every once in a while when trying various recipes, you actually stumble upon one that makes you proud, makes you not think twice about the hours it took to cook, and makes you want to make it for many different people in your lifetime because you’ve found another signature dish in the realm of comfort food. This was one of mine.

Wintry Radish with French Butter

IMG_7447Until I tried French butter I thought butter existed only to melt on bread, drizzle over popcorn, or massage into pastries and sweet things. I was never a straight butter eater, nor have I ever slathered a ham sandwich with it, and I even eschew it while cooking for my much-preferred olive oil. Little did I know that it could actually be something worthy enough to star on its own, or licked straight from a knife tip into a parade of four simultaneous salty and creamy experiences one after the other in a period of five seconds on the tongue.

There’s a reason French do butter better – the biggest being that their cream is  cultured prior to churning giving it a slightly tart underlying funk similar to that which makes crème fraiche tower over sour cream in the taste department. They also feed their cows very well, especially in the Normandy area where farm cow milk is known for its very high butterfat content.

And only a people known for their love of stinky, rich and decadent foods would elevate the status of a mere fat such as butter to a perfectly good food item in its most bare form.

I first ran into a description of French butter’s charm while reading a recipe in which Dorie Greenspan was describing a special sandwich she used to make for her husband every year. The sandwich consisted of a slab of cold French butter, seasonal black truffles and salt between two slices of soft white bread – the simplicity of which had my mouth smarting dangerously along with a hunger for this odd French butter. The sandwich was like a Hemingway novel – concise, easy, made up of three plain parts but together, a masterpiece.

Then I heard someone talk about how cold butter goes well with radishes.

The idea of pushing a smudge of cold and perfect butter on icy cool radishes like some Tolstoy heroine might do with good vodka late at night was highly appealing to me. It not only titillated my literary heart with its pure elegance and over the top regality but it gave me an excuse to ask the Cute Gardener to dig up the three bulbous French breakfast radishes currently growing in the garden as a precursor to a meal.

I stumbled upon some French butter at the Cheese Store of Silverlake and snapped it up for a whopping eight bucks. I trimmed the radishes and then sliced them into ¾ inch coins and then placed them in a bowl of ice water while the butter softened on the counter. When it was ready, I dried the radishes and dusted them with sea salt. Then we went about eating them with the butter and I learned that French butter is miles above the norm.

IMG_7454Because radishes with butter is most likely to be a once a year indulgence, we decided to have an equally indulgent dinner of accompanying cheeses and wine.

Thelonious Monk and Hens That Overdose on Olives

IMG_7323There’s something really special about cooking for my man. And no, I don’t mean the “barefoot in the kitchen” version of sublimated, antiquated femininity. I mean the, “gee, he cooks exquisite dinners from his exquisite garden on his exquisite collection of cast iron pans ninety percent of the time for me so when I get a chance (which isn’t often) to return the favor, I pull out all the stops with something extra special in his honor” version. And it’s usually French.

Last night I got the urge to roast some Cornish game hens for his supper. You see, the Cute Gardener has a thing for birds and will ravish them from wing to bone with nary a scrap of waste so I figured I would give him a whole one on a plate.

Along with some inspiration from my favorite cook of all things French — Dorie Greenspan — I decided to dress the birds with homemade olive tapenade and serve with a fresh salad and some buttered radishes. The beauty of this meal was that it was done in 30 minutes – almost unbelievable for a bird, yet producing perfect, tender, juicy and flavorful meat.

The entire dish manifested without a wrinkle and I am convinced a big part of it included: my accompanying Thelonious Monk cooking soundtrack; the decision to make a pilaf out of basmati steamed in bay leaf and olive oil simmered minced onion; the fresh arugula from the window planter that went into the spinach, walnut and pomegranate vinaigrette salad; and the way I put my heart and soul into the rare occasion ultimately arriving with something sublimely beautiful and beyond the ordinary.

IMG_7321Dorrie Greenspan’s Olive-Olive Cornish Hens

2 Cornish hens at room temperature
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade (*recipe included at end of blog)
Olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Oil a shallow roasting pan.

Working with one hen at a time, using a chef’s knife, cut down along both sides of the backbone to remove it. (The CG used the bones to make stock on the stove after dinner.) Turn the bird breast side up and press on the breastbone to crack it so the birds lie more flat. Gently loosen the skin from the flesh just enough to push the olive tapenade up between the skin and the flesh of the breast and the chubby thigh. Transfer the hens to the roasting pan, skin side up and give the skin a rubdown with some olive oil. Sprinkle over with some lemon juice, season with salt and pepper and put into the oven.

Roast the hens undisturbed for 25-30 minutes (mine took exactly 26) until the skin is deeply golden and crisp and the juices run clear when you prick the thighs.

*Black Olive Tapenade

½ cup pitted, oil cured black olives, chopped (I couldn’t find oil cured so used the regular can of olives in water and it worked fine)
1 anchovy, drained
Grated zest and juice of ¼ lemon
Pinch of rosemary
Pinch of thyme
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Put all of the ingredients in a food processor and process until pureed to your taste consistency wise. (I kept mine a little chunky.)

On a Biscuit Bender

IMG_7206In our household it isn’t uncommon to plan a week’s worth of meals around a big juicy bird or a large cut of meat. This past weekend as the weather started curling from hot to balmy, the comfort food chord struck home in our bellies and had us hankering to welcome in the fall. This meant Sunday evening was spent with a slow roasted turkey and pile of whipped potato and butternut squash; Monday night savoring a homey turkey, carrot, Chinese sausage and onion version of the Asian slow-cooked rice porridge jook; Tuesday night linguine with shredded turkey meat; and last night going on a Southern style bender complete with turkey and gravy, a decadent fried egg, crispy turkey skin cracklins, butternut cubes and the best part, homemade fluffy biscuits.

Although I haven’t had one in years, I’ve always loved biscuits—especially the way their harder exteriors melt into whatever gooey, gravy, sweet, saucy, tangy substances are placed upon them to soak, rendering their soft innards and outer crust into one big buttery sense of ooh. I was that strange kid who would cut a steaming biscuit in half and make a sandwich out of the entire contents of my plate no matter what I was eating: turkey, cranberry, mashed potatoes during the holidays or chicken, corn, peas, and cream sauce during an ordinary family dinner. Biscuits to me were always the perfect vehicle for an entire meal.

Luckily, the Cute Gardener is a dynamite baker so I was notably spoiled by a homemade version of my long lost biscuit friend. Both the CG and I are huge fans of the magazine Cook’s Illustrated because it is all about precision cooking. Nothing gets printed between its pages unless their staff of chefs have not only tried to make it in their own kitchen, but have also done everything possible to tweak and perfect each element of every dish to produce a supreme recipe. So, unlike the times when I trawl the web and fall for ideas of food to make from prettily illustrated food bloggers or the like, I know with Cook’s I am guaranteed a good result. I’ve actually stopped using recipes from anywhere other than a few trusted resources these days like Food & Wine or a few close foodie buddies or my tried and true Around Dorie’s French Table book at home. The biscuit recipe used in this meal came from the CG’s book The Best Recipe written by the editors of Cook’s.

A fluffy, soft and creamy biscuit was born and lasted me through dinner and then onto my ensuing dessert and breakfast plates heated in the toaster oven before smothered in butter, blackberry preserves and honey.

FLUFFY BISCUITS
from The Best Recipe
Makes 1 dozen (although for us it was ten)

If you are using yogurt instead of buttermilk in this recipe, note that 8 ounces of yogurt equals 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons, not 1 cup as you might expect. Make sure that your over rack is set at the center position. Baked too low, your biscuits will likely end up with burnt bottoms.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plain cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼ inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons melted for brushing tops
¾ cup cold buttermilk or ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons low-fat or whole milk plain yogurt
2-3 tablespoons additional buttermilk (or milk) if needed

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Mix or pulse flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or the work bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. With your fingertips, a pastry blender, 2 knives, or steel blade of the food processor, mix, cut, or process butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few slightly larger butter lumps.

3. If making by hand, stir in buttermilk with a rubber spatula or fork until mixture forms into soft, slightly sticky ball. If dough feels firm and dry bits are not gathering into a ball, sprinkle dough clumps with additional tablespoon of buttermilk (or milk for the yogurt dough). Be careful not to overmix. If using food processor, pulse until dough gathers into moist clumps. Remove from food processor bowl and form into rough ball.

4. With lightly floured hands, divide dough into 12 equal portions. Lightly pat a portion of dough back and forth a few times between floured hands until it begins to form a ball, then pat lightly with cupped hands to form a rough ball. Repeat with remaining dough, placing formed dough rounds 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Brush dough tops with melted butter (May be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to two hours.) Bake until biscuit tops are light brown, 10-12 minutes. Serve immediately.