Jalapenos, or What to do with Impusle Buys

We were strolling around the farmer’s market last weekend when the intense and fervent notion to make jalapeno dill pickles struck. Great timing, no?  Actually, I’d been kicking the idea around ever since my cousin had made a batch a couple weeks ago and graciously sent me the recipe, but I hadn’t mentally committed to the task until I spotted them: two adorable buckets of perfectly sized cucumbers nestled under a table in one of the veggie stalls.  A good mix of sizes, but not too big.  And at 10 bucks a bucket, how can you go wrong?!  Especially when the same stall is selling jalapenos that look amazing!?

You can’t.  It’s a scientific fact.  So of course I bought both buckets.  And the jalapenos.  John was making some “let’s be reasonable” noises that I promptly/foolishly tuned out.  Truly, the man has a better sense of scale than I do…I see two buckets of cukes and think “let’s MAKE ALL THE PICKLES!!!!!!!”.  John sees me see two buckets of cucumbers and realizes this means “we will be making ALL THE PICKLES UNTIL WE CAN PICKLE NO MORE”.  And that this is usually slightly more work than I’m willing to admit.  OK, always.

Moving on.

As usual, making the pickles was a team effort.  John washed cukes, I sliced, we both packed jars.  These are basic dill pickles with a quarter jalapeno added to each (pint) jar (and a few boiled up with the salt brine for extra kick!).  We used my family’s tried and true cold-pack/inverted jar method…definitely not sanctioned by the USDA, but we have many surviving pickle eaters, so I’m pretty OK with it (based on that observation, plus knowing that the pH of the brine is outside the threshold for botulism growth).  We packed the raw cukes and seasonings into hot jars (I run mine through the dishwasher and leave them in it till we’re ready for them–easy peasy), poured boiling brine over the contents, and then plucked a lid out of the pan of boiling water on the stove, screwed it down, and inverted the jar for a couple hours.  When you turn the jars upright, they should have sealed.  Any that don’t seal go straight into the fridge.  The rest get to hang out until Thanksgiving (well, traditionally, anyhow–we always crack into the summer pickles that week).

Unfortunately, 28 pints of jalapeno dill pickles only used up about half of my jalapenos, so now I get to make more jalapeno stuff!!  (Did I say unfortunately?  I lied.  This is an awesome problem to have!!).  I think I’ll start with a batch of jalapeno mint jelly, and maybe follow that up with some straight up pickled jalapenos.  A further testament of my love of Small Batch Preserving–they’ll both be small batches, but it’ll be nice to trot them out when we need a tiny reminder that winter isn’t endless!

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Cranberry Cheesecake!

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I’m not sure if it’s the pristine whiteness of a fresh, creamy cheesecake that makes it one of my favorite winter desserts, or if it’s just that it’s easier to get away with pure unadulterated decadence on the dessert front this time of year, but I’ve found myself making holiday cheesecakes like clockwork for a few years!  This year’s cheesecake was a particularly awesome specimen, in large part thanks to John’s decision to buy a 10-lb. box of cranberries this fall.  Don’t get me wrong, I love cranberries (so much so I even pickle them!), but 10 pounds is a LOT of them!  So they have been sneaking into a lot of my cooking lately!

I had a bit of a conundrum when scheming this cheesecake incarnation, because cranberries are red (yeah, not exactly breaking news), and they turn everything they touch red, too!  And I did not want a pink cheesecake–that would just look…odd…to say the least.  (Also, I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to pink!)

So just dumping a bunch of cooked-down cranberry goodness into my batter was obviously not the solution.  And throwing a bunch of uncooked cranberries wouldn’t work, either, because I wanted to make a cold-set cheesecake, and they’d be far far far too bitter that way.  So I landed on a modified marble-cheesecake technique.  I cooked my cranberries down with a teeny bit of water and spices and little sugar (just to take the edge off, I like my cranberries pretty tart!), Mixed up my cheesecake batter, and then sandwiched a layer of cranberries between layers of white cheesecake!  Worked like a charm.

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I also made a few modifications to the crumb crust I usually use for cheesecake, because I was feeling festive, and it seemed like a good idea!  I’m glad I did, though, because it turned out amazing!  I detest graham crackers, so I usually use gingersnaps for cheesecake crust, but I didn’t want the gingersnap flavor to overwhelm the cranberries, so I used shortbread cookies and a pinch of rosemary, which gave the cheesecake a lovely piney/wintery flavor, but it was super subtle.  And rosemary goes with cranberries amazingly well!

The whole thing turned out so well, I just had to share (and, I admit, record what I did so I can do it again some time!).  So without further ado, here is my rendition of Cranberry Cheesecake with Rosemary Shortbread Crust.

Cranberry Cheesecake with Rosemary Shortbread Crust

For the crust:

  • 8 oz. shortbread cookies, crushed to fine crumbs
  • 8 T. salted butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. powdered rosemary

For the cheesecake:

  • 2 c. raw whole cranberries
  • 1 T. water
  • 1 T. sugar (or to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 T. honey
  • 1 packet knox unflavored gelatine (about 2 tsp.)
  • 3 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
  • 16 oz. sour cream*

* Use a firm sour cream–Daisy and Old Home brands work well for me.

To make the crust, combine shortcake crumbs, butter, and powdered rosemary in a bowl.  Stir till the mixture resembles wet sand, then press into the bottom of a 8-inch or larger springform pan.  Set aside to chill while you make the cheesecake.

To make the cranberries, combine cranberries through cloves in a small saucepan.  Cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, till all cranberries have “popped”, the mixture has thickened, and cooked down almost to a loose jam.  Remove from heat to cool while you mix up the cheesecake batter.

To make the cheesecake batter, peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler (so you get large strips), then juice the lemon.  Put peel and juice in a 2-qt. saucepan, along with the water and honey.  Cook over medium heat, stirring often, till sugar is completely dissolved.  Let mixture cool to less than 130 degrees F (THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT…if the mixture is too hot, the gelatine won’t work and you’ll have cheesecake pudding).

Once the lemon syrup has cooled sufficiently, fish out the pieces of lemon peel and discard.  Sprinkle the surface of the syrup with the gelatine and let is sit a few minutes to soften up.  Stir it in with a whisk and let is sit another minute to make sure it’s all moistened.

While gelatine is activating, combine cream cheese and sour cream in your stand mixer.  Whip (using the whisk attachment) until smooth and combined.  Pour in the lemon syrup/gelatine mixture and whip till completely mixed.

Pour about half your cheesecake batter into your prepared crust, smoothing the surface so it’s mostly level.  Dollop your cranberry mixture around and swirl it a bit with a table knife (this will break up the clumps of cranberry so you have nicely marbled but hidden cranberries!).  Once you’ve swirled to your satisfaction, spread remaining cheesecake mixture over the cranberries and smooth.  Garnish with rosemary sprig and cranberries, if you like!

Set the completed cheesecake to chill for at least overnight–24 hours is ideal!  To serve, run a hot knife around the outside edge of the cheesecake and then unmold from the springform sides.

Keep leftovers chilled…this is a cold-set cheesecake, so it gets a bit wibbly if you let it warm up too much!

Makes 16 servings.

Refrigerator Pickles

Our garden has developed an interesting habit…at random intervals (with little to no warning), it will produce a cucumber the size of my forearm.  But just one.  This may or may not have something to do with a proliferation of weeds hiding under the cucumber leaves, obscuring cucumbers of smaller stature.  Maybe.  Regardless, when faced with a cuke (or two) of giant proportions, I turn to refrigerator pickles, for three reasons:

  1. They’re dead easy.
  2. They’re fast.
  3. They’re delicious.  And did I mention easy?

The great thing about fridge pickles is that there’s a tremendous variety of brines you can make, and you can really focus on the flavor instead of making sure the acidity is proper and safe for long-term storage (which should be a main concern if you’re canning pickles). Think of refrigerator pickles as more of a salad, if you will.  Take some poetic license!

I whipped up a batch on Monday before work, in fact, just to get my newest super-cuke percolating.  (See?  Fast!)  If you have a food processor with a slicing blade, the pickles can be assembled in under 5 minutes.  If not, you’re only as slow as you can slice!

For this batch, I added some red onion from our CSA, a pinch of dill seed, and a solid pinch of lovage-infused salt (also from our CSA!).  I use a standard fridge pickle brine (for sweet pickles) that consists of 1 T. salt, 7/8 c. vinegar, and 1-1/4 c. sugar per pound of cucumber.  You simply mix the cucumber and any other mix-ins you’re adding (thinly sliced onions and garlic are a great addition, but so are peppers and herbs!…think about 1 cup mix-ins total per pound of cuke).  Then mix up your brine (if you need a little more to cover, just mix up another batch in the same proportion).

Combine everything in a large bowl (make sure the bowl is NON-REACTIVE!!!  use ceramic or glass, but NO metal!).  Weigh down the cukes with a small plate, loosely saran-wrap the bowl, and let it sit on the counter overnight.

my sophistocated pickle-making apparatus: bowl + plate + saran wrap

my sophistocated pickle-making apparatus: bowl + plate + saran wrap

The next day, pack the pickles into jars if you like, top up with brine, and put in the fridge.  You can also just leave them in the bowl, but you’ll want to make sure it has a lid or your fridge will smell…pickle-y.

Since they’re quick-brined and not meant for long term storage, use the pickles up within a couple weeks.  And, if you’re like me and the garden keeps randomly producing new cucumbers, save your brine and keep using it!  A batch of brine can totally be reused to pickle once or twice!

Brine-tamed cukes & onions!

Brine-tamed cukes & onions!

Fuss-Free Birds

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the best time to cook a turkey is any day that isn’t a major holiday.  Yup, I said it…cooking a bird for a holiday is for the birds, and you know why?  They’re a fuss!  And people expect all these side dishes and desserts and whatnot to go with them.  Way too much work.  If “Turkey Day” were up to me, we’d all have some very nice sandwiches, enjoy an array of pickles, hang out with friends and family, and call it good.  (Which may be why Thanksgiving is never left to me…)

Anyhow. I’m cooking a turkey today (yes, it is indeed a rather nondescript Thursday), and it is going to be awesome.  I got out of work a smidge early to wrangle some packages from Fed Ex (did I mention John got an elk when we went to Montana?  Well, he did, and it arrived today, still frozen and mostly in sausage and burger form!)  So to make room for the impending influx of elky goodness, I thawed the last turkey in my freezer this week, and today I’m roasting it.

Out of sheer curiosity, I googled “how to roast a turkey,” and I have to say, there are some arcane methods out there.  Brine it, spice it, butterfly it, wrap it up in a plastic bag (OK, people who cook turkeys in plastic bags, I ask you: what about the gravy!?!! how do you get any browned bits to make gravy out of if you ensconce your bird in a plastic shroud?!), thaw in a bucket, thaw in a fridge, pin the wings, truss the legs, on and on and on.  No wonder NPR has a “don’t panic, you will survive your turkey” program airing every Thanksgiving.  You’d think this was difficult, complicated even!

I promise you, it is not.  The thing is, a turkey is just a really big bird.  If roasting a chicken doesn’t make you hyperventilate, neither should roasting a turkey (and if roasting a chicken sounds intimidating, well, it’s not!…try it sometime when you don’t have a lot of pressure riding on the outcome).  It doesn’t even take a ton of equipment.  That giant roaster pan you have taking up a bazillion cubic feet of storage somewhere?  Completely unnecessary.  (Not that you shouldn’t use it if you have it, I mean, you are storing the thing the other 364 days of the year, but you really don’t need one to successfully roast a turkey).  All you need is a half sheet pan (a jellyroll pan would do in a pinch) and rack that fits inside it.

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The key thing is that you have a pan with edges to trap the drippings, and that the turkey fits on the rack and doesn’t hang over the side of the pan.  Seriously, that’s it.

To prep the bird, thaw it however you like…my preferred method is in a 5-gallon bucket full of very cold water.  Leave it in there for 24 hours max.  Smaller birds will be thawed after 12 hours or so, bigger ones take longer  Change the water around the 12-hour mark, using very cold water again.  I set the whole works in the bathtub to keep it out from under foot.

Once thawed, pull any loose bits out of the body cavity.  These can include a gravy bag (toss it, you are totally capable of making proper gravy that isn’t 90% salt), giblets, neck, pope’s nose, etc.  I don’t use these, but you can use them to make dressing if you want.  I find it to be a bit too much hassle, but your bird = your call!  Once you have everything out of the cavity, rinse the bird inside and out.

Now this next bit is a really important step, because if you fail to do this, your bird will not turn the lovely caramel golden brown we all know and love, it will remain pasty and anemic even after hours in the oven.  So, to prevent that travesty, pat the bird dry.  EVERYWHERE.  Yes, in the crevices between the wings and the breast.  Yes, even in the folds of skin around the neck.  Every drop of water you can remove before you roast it is one less drop that has to evaporate in your oven.  Less time evaporating extra water = more time browning.  Once your bird is dry, set it on the rack in your sheet pan, breast-side up.

Next you season the bird.  This is easy.  First, remove all jewelry from your hands: rings, bracelet, whatever you don’t want covered in turkey goo or potentially lost somewhere therein (trust me, you do not want to go fishing for your wedding band in the depths of a turkey).  Then dump a couple tablespoons dried Herbes de Provence (rosemary, thyme, sage, and tarragon, usually) into a small bowl.  Add enough olive oil to make a loose paste, then stir in about a tablespoon of good Dijon mustard, a couple minced cloves of garlic, and a bit of salt and pepper.  Stir.  You should have about 1/3 cup or so of this mixture.

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Now here’s the icky part…you need to put some of this mixture under the skin of the turkey breast.  So first, find the edge of the skin at the back of the breast.

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Basically, you wriggle your fingers around under the skin (careful not to break through the skin) until you are wearing a turkey mitten (of sorts)…it’ll take you a while, just go slowly (and if your bird has a popup timer in the breast, take it out…you can put it back in later if you want, but right now it’s just in your way).  You should be able to get your hand all the way up and over the breast under the skin.

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Still with me?  Good!  Now take about half the herb mixture you whipped up and smear it all over under the skin.

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This will help keep your breast meat moist, and will give it tons of flavor.  Smear the rest of the mixture over the outside of the bird.  Viola!  Seasoned!

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One last step before you pop the bird into the oven: tuck the wings.  I don’t know if it is just universally assumed that everyone knows what “tuck the wings” really means, but I didn’t get that particular memo, so it took me a really long time to figure out how to do it so they don’t untuck themselves while cooking.  Basically, you stretch the wing out and wrap the point of the wing (let’s call it the wrist) behind where the neck used to be, behind the rest of the wing, and down along the back.

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So your turkey looks like he’s laying there with his arms behind his head (yeah, that’s now missing, but bear with me!) staring up at the sky spotting animal shapes in the clouds.  This keeps the wings from burning as you roast, which is great if you like the wings as much as I do and are as sad as I am when they’re overdone!

Now you’re ready: pop that sucker into a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes.

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Yes, 500 degrees.  Basically this cooks the outermost surfaces very quickly and seals all the juicy flavor inside.  Once the 30 minutes have passed, lower the temp to 350 and roast another 90 minutes or so.  Here’s my bird after the first 30 minutes…so pretty!!!

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Make sure you rotate your sheet pan once during the cooking time (since most ovens are hotter at the back than at the front, if you don’t rotate the bird, the side in the back cooks faster.  And we want an evenly roasted bird!  So turn it!).  As you do this (and when you take the pan out of the oven later), be careful not to splash yourself with the drippings or tilt the pan and accidentally pour them all over your hands…third degree burns are not on the menu here!

When the bird is done, it will register 165 degrees on a meat thermometer (yes, it is truly done at a little higher temp, but if you take it out at 165, it will finish cooking on your counter while it rests, and won’t be overdone!).  Once you hit 165 degrees, pull it out of the oven and carefully–it’s HOT!–set the bird on a large cutting board or platter to rest.  Cover it with foil (or up-end a large mixing bowl over it…you want to keep it warm!).

Now for the best part…now we make the gravy!  Carefully remove the rack and pour the drippings out of the roasting pan and into a saucepan (a pan with a good amount of surface area works best).  Set the roasting pan on a solid surface and deglaze with a bit of white wine (just pour it in and start scraping up all the brown bits, pouring them into the saucepan every so often till your pan is pretty much cleaned out).  In a liquid measuring cup, combine a couple tablespoons of flour with 1/2 cup water; mix well so there are no lumps.  Heat the saucepan over a medium-low flame and whisk in flour mixture.  You can add a bit more wine or water if needed, but cook for 7-8 minutes (it will come to a low simmer), stirring frequently, till thickened and no longer “floury” tasting.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

And that’s it.  Really.  Wasn’t too hard, right?  Maybe not a weeknight endeavor (unless you get off work super early like I did!), but definitely do-able on a weekend.  And the leftovers go so far! From this turkey, I expect to have sandwiches, soup, a turkey tamale pie, and I’ll probably make a batch of turkey stock concentrate using the carcass.  One afternoon’s worth of work (which, realistically, wasn’t that much work!), some cleanup, and I’m done cooking for at least a week!

Have you ever cooked a turkey?  Do you do it differently?

Pot Roast of Epic Awesomeness, or

Pot Roast meets Boeuf Bourguignon and happily drowns in Ommegang’s Art of Darkness.

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Is there anything better than a pot roast on a chilly fall day? I think not. (Or if there is, you need to send it to me, stat!) I was never a huge fan of potroast growing up (I believe I went so far as to call it “peasant food” at one point, which earned me a supper-less early bedtime…but, um, ahem, I’m sure I had my good points as a teenager, too!)

But these days, a good potroast is a luxury treat! (Though come to think of it, I’d still call it “peasant food”…but sans negative connotations). Pot roast means I have a choice chunk of meat (usually a nicely marbled chuck roast), a plethora of root vegetables (hello parsnips, carrots, turnip, and spuds!), a mess of mushrooms and onions, some tasty braising liquid, and 2-3 hours to laze around the house drinking the leftover tasty braising liquid as the potroasty perfume builds with very little interference from moi. Heaven.

And while I really do enjoy pot roast, I have a deep and abiding love for Boeuf Bourguignon. A la Julia Child, of course. Something you start with lardons just can’t go wrong, right? But making proper boeuf bourguignon is a giant pain in the ass. Not to mention, it looks like a dervish tore through the kitchen when I’m done, and all my pots and pans are dirty. Tasty, but so. much. work. But. so. tasty. You see my conundrum?!

Well, I’ve solved the conundrum. I’ve taken all the best bits of boeuf bourguignon and migrated them to the humble pot roast, which also lets me play up the awesome features of that dish! I win!

My culinary mad-scientist tendencies aside, this really did work out for the very best, and I think the beer should get a lot of credit. I used a bottle of Ommegang’s Art of Darkness (a limited edition release, but you could use any good Belgian strong dark ale, or Russian imperial stout or porter and get similar results…you’re looking for a beer with dark fruity plummy notes and hints of chocolate!). The beer gives you some acidity to your braise, and also imparts deep dark delicious flavors that go amazingly well with the caramelization that will happen to your root veggies. And the gravy! Oh, the gravy will make you tapdance around your kitchen in ecstasy.

If you, too, want to create a cross between classic French beef stew and the ease of potroasty awesomeness, give this recipe a try!

Pot Roast with Dark Belgian Ale and Root Veggies

Ingredients

  • 4 lb. chuck roast, nicely marbled, no visible gristle
  • 2 T. bacon grease (or olive oil or cooking fat of your choice)
  • 1 large onion, sliced vertically into eight wedges
  • 1/2 lb. baby carrots (or cut up regular carrots…I had a bag of baby ones that needed using!)
  • 1 lb. parsnips, cut to same size as carrots
  • 1 lb. mushrooms (cut to similar size as carrots, if small enough, just leave whole)
  • 1 lb. teeny tiny (i.e. bite sized) yukon or red potatoes (or cut regular potatoes to size)
  • 12 oz. GOOD dark beer
  • up to 1 c. beef broth (homemade is awesome here!)
  • salt, pepper, dried thyme, and dried sage to taste
  • 2 T. flour
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • 1 c. water
  • salt & pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat bacon grease in a large dutch oven over medium flame (I use a 6-qt.cast iron dutch oven…be sure you have a lid). Pat roast dry with paper towels on all sides, then brown on all sides (will take about 15 minutes total).
  3. Remove meat from pan and set aside. Add vegetables (onion, carrots, snips, & shrooms) and cook for 8 minutes or so, stirring frequently, till softened and slightly browned on the edges. Remove veggies from pan and set aside.
  4. Return meat to the pan. Add beer and enough broth to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the meat. Season with salt, pepper, thyme, and sage to taste. Add about 1/3 of the vegetable mixture back around the sides of the roast, cover tightly with lid, and bring to a simmer over high heat.
  5. Once simmering, pop the roast in the oven and cook, undisturbed, for 90 minutes.
  6. After 90 minutes, add potatoes and remaining veggies to the roasting pan (it’s OK if they cover the meat at this point; they’ll cook down!). Cover and continue cooking for another 30 minutes to an hour, undisturbed.
  7. Test meat to make sure it’s done before removing from the oven. Once meat is cooked to your liking, carefully remove meat and veggies from the roasting pan, leaving as much of the juices as you possibly can in the pan. Tent meat & veggies with foil and keep warm.
  8. Set roasting pan back on the stovetop and bring juices to a slow simmer over low flame. Remember that your pan just came out of a 350 degree oven…it’s HOT!!  Use potholders!!  Whisk flour into a couple tablespoons of milk (to eliminate lumps!), then mix with remaining milk and water. Whisk milk mixture into simmering drippings and cook, stirring CONSTANTLY till thickened and no longer floury-tasting, about 8-10 minutes. Season gravy with salt and pepper to taste.
  9. To serve, slice roast with a serrated knife and serve along with a generous pile o’ veggies and a lovely dollop of gravy.

This hybrid pot roast pairs well with a good dark beer (and knitting!)…

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What’s the best thing you’ve ever cooked with beer?

Porketta

I have to admit that I’m a bit…wary…of Minnesota cuisine.  I mean, a region that churns out cookbooks based entirely on Campbell’s Cream of Something Soup?  That is responsible for the existence of Spam (and proudly houses a Spam Museum, no less!)?  That puts pretzels, fruit, AND cream cheese with jello, then calls it a side dish?  Eek!  I have just cause, I tell you!  Granted there are a few exceptions, but even those generally require some minor tweaking before they’re edible…take tater tots…plain or in “hot dish”?  No thanks.  but dressed up in Parmesan cheese and truffle oil?  Now we’re getting somewhere!

So when I hear that something is a “traditional” local food, I admit, I cringe a bit inside.  Said food is immediately suspect.  Maybe I’m just a snob (quite likely) or maybe you had to grow up eating tater tot hot dish (also quite likely) to really appreciate the finer points of the Minnesota palate.  But every so often, something surprises you.  Every so often you try something new and decide, right there on the spot, that it simply MUST happen in your kitchen as soon as humanly possible, because it’s that awesome.  And every so often, that pile of awesome on your plate is a Minnesota delicacy.

We tried a new brewpub for brunch last weekend with friends.  It’s mainly a smokehouse joint, so most of the offerings were of the smoked meat variety (though, also, intriguingly, they offer smoked egg salad).  A pretty inspired menu, in retrospect, and something that not a lot of places around here are doing.  One of the items on the menu was a Porketta sandwich.  While I’ve heard of “porchetta” (the Italian de-boned, herb-stuffed roast whole pig), I’d never heard of “porketta”, and the menu described it as an Iron Range specialty (the Iron Range being the far north bits of Minnesota).  One of our friends hails from those parts, and he waxed poetic about the awesomeness that is porketta.  (If you want to read more on the background that what I have to say, check out this article from the folks at ATK, who also went in search of porketta, but didn’t have the luxury of being in the same state to start with!)

Porketta, it turns out, is an artifact of Italian immigrant cuisine.  Back when the Iron Range was a profitable place to be, lots of immigrants flocked there for work (being from a mining town out West, I know all too well what that means…culinary free-for-all as immigrants try to take beloved family recipes from “back home” and cook them using an entirely different set of ingredients)!  Turns out that “porketta” is an adaptation of “porchetta”…it’s not the whole hog (though it is generally de-boned).  It’s a highly-seasoned, butterflied pork shoulder roast that is slow cooked till it falls apart, is shredded, and then, traditionally, is served as a sandwich.

I was too skeptical to order the Porketta sandwich myself at brunch, but thankfully my hubby was not such a party-pooper, and I managed to sneak a bite or two.  It was a conglomeration of juicy porky goodness, a bit of spiky garlicky kick, and caramelly sweet fennel flavors, with just a dash of bitterness from (I think) parsley.  It was genius.  One of the best pork sandwiches I’ve ever tasted.  And it absolutely needed to happen in my kitchen this week.

Naturally, the restaurant doesn’t provide too much in the way of ingredient listings or descriptions, so I went based on what I remembered it tasting like…it’s a basic pork roast, so how hard could it possibly be?! (OK, yes, basically I winged it!).  I knew it needed LOTS of fennel and garlic flavors, tempered by a bit of bitterness and a bit of sweet.  I also knew I wanted to cook it in the crockpot (I do dearly love a dinner that essentially cooks itself).  Armed with those requirements, I picked up a 3-pound boneless boston butt roast and a couple bulbs of fennel, and set to work.

For maximum flavor-absorption, I butterflied the roast so I had more surface area to season.  Then I mixed up a seasoning goo (sort of like a rub, but, well, goo-ier).  I used olive oil, fennel seed, salt & pepper, fresh chopped parsely, and very finely minced garlic.  I spread about half of this mixture over the outside of the roast, then flipped it and spread the rest inside.  Then I chopped up half a fennel bulb (probably about a cup chopped…it was a BIG bulb!) and set that in the very center.

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I rolled the roast up around it, and plopped the whole works in an oiled 3-quart crock pot insert.

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I let it marinate overnight in the fridge, then added a couple glugs of good white wine before setting it on to cook the next morning.

I hadn’t actually planned to blog about this, but it was just too awesome not to…ooh, just look at it stewing away!!  Incidentally, your entire apartment/house/yurt/what-have-you will smell amazing as this cooks!

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I strongly recommend you make this!

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 Porketta

Ingredients

  • 3 lb. boneless pork shoulder roast
  • 4 T. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 T. freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 large cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 T. fennel seed
  • 1/2 c. chopped parsley (flat leaf)
  • 1/2 fresh fennel bulb, finely chopped
  • white wine or water

Optional (for gravy…but when is gravy ever really optional?!)

  • 2 T. flour
  • 1/4 to 1/2 c. white wine or water

Instructions

  1.  Butterfly the pork roast (slice in half lengthwise to within about 1-1/2 inches of the uncut edge).  Open the roast like a book, and slice a bit more in the center if needed so it lies flat all the way across.  Lightly score the meat in a cross-hatch pattern to maximize surface area for seasoning.
  2. Combine olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, fennel seed, and fresh parsley in a small bowl.  Mix well.  Spread half the seasoning goo on the outside of the roast, then flip and spread the remaining goo on the inside (the scored side).  Spread the chopped fresh fennel in the right half of the inside (scored) side of the roast, spreading out to within a half inch of the edges.
  3.  Fold the left side over the right (close the book!) and carefully pick up the roast and set it in an oiled 3-quart slow cooker insert.  If you like, you can tie the roast with cotton kitchen twine (I rely on the smallish slow cooker to keep the roast together, but if you want absolute certainty or are using a larger pan, by all means tie it up!).
  4.  Let the roast marinate overnight in the fridge (up to two days).  When ready to cook, splash about an inch of good white wine in the bottom of the slow cooker.  Cook for 6-7 hours on low.  (Alternately, you could roast it at 325 for probably 2 to 2-1/2 hours…I don’t have an exact time since I use the slow cooker, but since you managed to find this recipe, I’m confident you can look up a cooking time chart and figure that out, too!).
  5.  Once cooked, carefully transfer the meat to a large plate and shred.  Set aside while you make the gravy.
  6.  To make the gravy, pour the drippings out of the slow cooker insert and into a wide, shallow pan (a 10- or 12-inch skillet works marvelously for this).  Heat skillet over medium high heat till liquid is simmering.  In a small bowl, combine the flour with a few spoonfuls of the heated drippings, whisking to remove any lumps.  The mixture should resemble runny paste.  Once mixture is lump-free, whisk into the rest of the drippings and cook at a simmer, stirring constantly, for 4-5 minutes, till thickened.  Add wine (water works, too) to achieve the desired consistency (I add about 1/4 cup, but the amount will vary depending on how much drippings your roast gave you).  You will want to taste-test to make sure the gravy doesn’t taste “floury” (if it does, cook it a bit longer).
  7.  Serve the hot meat in open-faced sandwiches on good bread.  Serve the leftovers hot or cold on buns.

Have you ever been surprised by local cuisine?

On the Sauce

I’ve been working a lot of late hours lately.  (Yay for international business!  Boo for 13 hour time-differences between offices!)  Anyhow, what this intercultural employment melee translates to is a very pooped person who has zero ambition when she gets home.  (Trust me, we’ve measured.  Zero.)  Which means I don’t want to do anything, including cooking dinner.

Normally I scorn “box” dinners.  Actually, I detest “box” dinners.  If you try to feed me Hamburger Helper (or god forbid, Tuna Helper), I’ll politely starve till I can get my hands on some actual food.  I’m quite sure I ate my lifetime quota of that stuff growing up (it’s a small quota, folks…it didn’t happen often, but when it did, well, it was memorable, lets just say).  So I’ve had my fill and don’t need to eat those artificial boxes of junk.  Maybe it’s that I don’t trust them if I can’t see what happens to the constituent ingredients from the get-go, or maybe it’s the ungodly amount of salt they usually contain.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know I dislike them.

But every so often, you just need a convenient meal.  Something that can cook relatively unattended, something you can’t ruin along the way, something that pratically puts itself together.  The secret here, my friends, is the sauce.  You can take endless combinations of simple proteins, basic carbs (rice, grains, etc.) and combine them with a sauce and presto! Dinner is served.  And there are LOTS of sauces available that aren’t full of weird chemicals or dyes or ingredients I can’t pronounce!

Don’t believe me?  What about spaghetti and meatballs?  Anything curried?  Sloppy joes?  All convenient, and if you watch the ingredients lists, none are intrinsically evil (unlike those “helpers” which shall henceforth remain nameless).  I submit that you can have a “convenient” meal on the table in under 30 minutes with just four simple steps.  Just four!!

So I make a point of having a few solid sauces in my pantry for evenings where I can’t be bothered to do much cooking.  Some of my usual suspects are the usual brigade of marinara/alfredo sauces, but I think my favorites are Indian-inspired ones (Korma for non-spicy simmering, Vindaloo when you need some punch).  And salsas.  They make great simmer sauces.  Pick whichever sauce sounds tastiest in the moment.

So once you pick your sauce, then you pick your pan.  It must be big enough to accommodate your protein and veggies in a fairly cozy arrangement, and small enough that it will give you a good half-inch to an inch of liquid to simmer away with.  And it must have a tight-fitting lid.

Then pick your protein.  Eggs, perhaps?  (Excellent either hard-boiled, or crack fresh eggs in and poach them!)  Meat/Fish/Poultry?  (Do go boneless if possible, but don’t pre-cook it, you’ll just poach it in your sauce).  Nuts?  (These can’t simmer long or they go mooshy, so add them at the end just to warm them up).  Beans?  (Straight out of the can and into the sauce!).

Then pick your veggies.  Any small or pre-prepped veggie will do nicely.  I love cherry tomatoes, brussies, florets of cauliflower, romanesco, or broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, etc.  Pick at least two.  If you’re going with root veggies, either go with pre-cooked cubes, or be aware that you’ll need to simmer at least 25 minutes to soften them up.

So those four steps I yammered on about?  Here they are:

Step 1:  Dump 1/2 to 1 cup sauce in pan per person (depends on your preference).  If the sauce is a bit shallow, add 1/2 cup water to pan (remember, you want at least a half an inch to work with).  Stir to combine (and don’t worry, as you simmer, the sauce will evaporate a bit, so you can cook it down to avoid making soup!).

Step 2: Heat sauce up to a low simmer.  As sauce heats, add veggies, spreading them evenly around the pan into the sauce.  Decide if you need to cook your veggies for a bit before adding protein (figure on 15-20 minutes simmer-time for beef, lamb, chicken, or similar; 4-5 minutes for eggs; 1-2 mintues for nuts and beans).  If your veggies will not be cooked to your liking in that amount of time, let them simmer solo for a bit.  Cover tightly with lid.  Make sure the sauce is at a full simmer before proceeding.

Step 3: Add your protein.  Nestle it into the veggies and sauce, spreading it evenly around the pan.  If you’re using fresh eggs, make a “dent” with the back of a ladle and crack the egg into the dent so it doesn’t run all over.  If your sauce is too liquidy for your taste, simmer lid-free.  If it’s about right, loosely cover.

Step 4:  Set a timer for when your protein will be done.  If you want carbs with your dinner, cook or prep them now (i.e. throw a pot of rice on the stove, or whip out some bread).  Then sit back, relax, and ignore your pan.  When you hear beeping or buzzing or whatever your timer sounds like, scoop dinner out of the pan and onto plates.

See?!  Four steps to dinner.  Super convenient.  It’s all in the sauce!