More-than-just-a-salt-rim

To date, I have three out-standing margarita memories. To be clear, that’s not memories of outstanding margaritas, necessarily. Just three memories, standing out in my mind, of margaritas.

One is a blended cranberry margarita from the now long-defunct Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. N and our friend J and I ended up there one evening on the way home from Christmas shopping in Portland. Power was out through half the city as a result of wind storms, and while we drove half-lost through the winter darkness, J fell asleep in the backseat clutching a thermos of tepid coffee. He’d been up all the night before with some friends and a new date, the woman he’s now been married to for almost a decade. None of this relates to that margarita, of course, but it was frosty and tart and crunchy with ice crystals, and I was at once smitten and sad that it was only a seasonal special.

Another is a straightforward affair of tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup made in my kitchen a few years ago by our friend I. He’s a bit highbrow of a purist about his booze, so he supplied the good stuff, and no triple sec to be seen. He also brought the best citrus juicer I’ve ever seen, and though I don’t remember the drink itself beyond that it was tasty, I remember the sink being full of lime skins, bright green and juiced almost dry.

The third is just this January, a month so long ago it feels like years. N. and I were on our way home from a visit to my aunt and uncle in Florida, in the Denver airport, and I was coming down with a cold. (Visit? What is that? Airport? How did we even dare?) As we exited our plane in Denver, I saw two people walk past carrying gigantic taco salads, the kind that are served in a perfectly crisp, slightly greasy, deep-fried flour tortilla, and suddenly that was all I wanted in the whole world. With the help of a few airport staff we found the place they were from, and I knew I was getting a taco salad and a margarita for dinner: the idea of a citrus kick and, I joked, a little antiseptic from the tequila, would surely help “cure” me. It didn’t, of course, but it was a blissful half hour during which I was too busy stuffing my face to feel my symptoms.

All this to say, during the past month or so I’ve been on a margarita kick. I’ve been pretty low-brow about it, using bottled margarita mix from the store, and adding some extra lime juice, and sometimes orange juice, to make it more interesting with minimal effort. Instead of the traditional tequila, I bought myself a bottle of mezcal, which is made from agave and often has a distinctive smoky flavor.* My first mix-up, salt assiduously applied to the rim of my glass for “authenticity,” was good, but missing something: the smokiness of the mezcal I had seemed to call for heat in the drink. Ah, I thought, this needs some spice in with that salt. A few experiments later, I had it perfect. Five major tastes are represented: sweet from some raw sugar, sour from the lime juice that sticks the crystals to the glass, salty from, well, salt, and both bitter and spicy from a few shakes of smoked chili powder I happened to have in the spice cupboard.** It’s that, rather than the margarita itself, that I’m serving up for you today.

This is a non-recipe type of recipe, which is to say, I’m supplying some quantities here but you might want to adjust them depending on what you like best. The actual beverage I’m pouring into this glass is a mixture of mezcal, bottled margarita mix, a squeeze of juice from an orange and an entire lime, stowed in the freezer for a few hours to get slushy.

* When I first tried it, I thought mezcal was a type of tequila, but in fact it’s the other way around. All agave-derived alcohols are mezcals, but some mezcals, based on where they are produced, how they are distilled, and what type of agave they come from, are classified as tequila. See here and here for more.

 

** No, spicy is not usually categorized as one of the five tastes. That honor belongs to umami. But I think spicy is a definitive taste on its own that doesn’t necessarily intersect with one of the others. So for my purposes, I’m allotting it space.

Enough for 2-3 cocktail glasses,
depending on diameter (mine is about 3 inches across):
1½ teaspoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked chili powder (or just your favorite chili powder)
zest of one lime
small wedge of lime, to wet the lip of the glass

 

  • On a small plate or the dry, clean lid of a container about an inch wider in diameter than your cocktail glass, combine the sugar, salt, chili powder, and lime zest.
  • Holding the glass upside down, run the wedge of lime around the lip so it is evenly wet, but not dripping.
  • Before the lime juice dries, lightly tamp or spin it through the dry mixture until the lip of the glass is evenly coated.
  • Carefully pour in your cocktail, and enjoy.

 

Dalgona Experimentation

I hope you are well and finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones – perhaps not joyful or fulfilled – but safe and satisfied – during this strange time. I have not yet – and the “yet” is important – succumbed to the siren call of quaran-baking, but I have, thanks to a friend and former colleague, been introduced to the fluffy, caffeine-laced clouds that are Dalgona coffee. Basically equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped together until they froth and then fluff into a mound of something like meringue, this confection is then scooped over very cold milk, and your tongue gets a play of temperatures and textures, not to mention an intense hit of sugar and caffeine.

I tried the original first, and, as I mentioned previously, I’m a fan. But immediately I had questions: why settle for instant coffee? Why not a strong brew of something high quality? Why water, when you could get extra creaminess from scalded milk? What about adding cocoa powder or vanilla or almond extract? Where would chai spices fit in? To what other application could this be put, aside from a float atop a glass of milk (or, as my siblings have discovered, iced irish cream liqueur)? With raw materials at hand and plenty of time, this would require experimentation.

My first thought was how this could work as cake frosting or filling. To get everything in there together, I would replace the water with hot milk, and following a suggestion I saw here, I would use twice as much milk “for a creamy texture.” What I can tell you today is that if you use 2 parts very hot milk to one part each instant coffee and sugar, it takes a very long time to whip up. It might become marshmallow-y clouds eventually, but I wasn’t quite patient enough for that.

The lightly thickened, foamy concoction I ended up with wasn’t nearly thick enough to serve as a filling or a frosting for anything – it just wasn’t spreadable. But it was certainly capable of draping itself thickly over a slice of still warm chocolate cake. And when shaken up thoroughly the next morning and stirred into to a glass of milk with a little bit of chocolate syrup, it was an intense – and intensely satisfying – replacement for an iced mocha.

Watermelon Gin Slushies

As I’m sure is true for many of you, over these past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering hidden treasures (and also “treasures”) in corners of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. One of the latter was a jar of apple butter I don’t want to talk about that I uncovered while cleaning up a spill on the top shelf of my refrigerator. One of the former was a small jar of instant coffee granules that allowed me to experiment with the recent “Dalgona coffee” trend various parts of the internet are extolling. Short story: you need equal parts of each component, it really does whip up like that, and it really is delicious (I’ve heard some people complain that “it still tastes like instant coffee, though.” So it’s only fair, I guess that I confess I’m not a coffee connoisseur). Next time I’m adding in some cocoa powder for a mocha version.

As I’m also sure is true for many of you, I’ve been very careful lately – much more careful than normal – about not letting food go to waste. If it’s in the fridge, it needs to be eaten. Even if I’m tired of it or it wasn’t my favorite. This has led to some creative triumphs – potatoes and lentils cooked with warm Indian-inspired spices, chard from the backyard stirred in to wilt, and topped with a scoop of yogurt and some of the char stems, thinly sliced and pickled – and some creative… well… one-time-only (features) – a pot pie with overly herbed filling and under-salted crust.

Most recently, I combined these two truths in a cocktail: it emptied the remaining few swallows in the bottle of gin I discovered unceremoniously jammed under several bags of almonds at the back of the freezer, and it allowed me to use up some chunks of watermelon from a pre-cut fruit medley N. really wanted but that wasn’t particularly ripe or flavorful.

This is not the most original, or seasonal, or precise of recipes. How’s that for a convincing argument? But honestly, I’m sure the internet has gushed widely about combining watermelon, some sort of alcohol, and ice in a blender and piling it into a tall, frosty glass for a perfect summer afternoon. I did the same (except it’s April, and my watermelon was on the edge). And I’d encourage you to do the same as well! These were bright, they were tasty (at first I wasn’t convinced, but then I realized that even though I knew they were gin and watermelon, I really wanted them to taste like strawberry margarita), and best of all, they are easily adaptable, and offer one small, boozy way to ensure you aren’t letting a single precious (or not-so-precious) item in your well-stocked fridge go unused.

Watermelon Gin Slushies
For 2 small cocktails
About 1 cup frozen watermelon chunks (or other fruit of your choice)
About 1 cup ice cubes
2 shots gin (or other alcohol of your choice)
2 TB simple syrup, or to taste *
juice of half a lime, or to taste
lime wedges, to serve

 

  • Once the watermelon has frozen quite solid, add it, along with everything else except the lime wedges, to a blender. Blend to combine using about 3-second pulses. My blender has a smoothie setting, which does effectively the same thing: short, high-speed pulses until the mixture has become an even-textured, pale pink slush.
  • Taste and adjust quantities of lime juice and sugar syrup to your liking. Blend again briefly to combine if needed, then pour into glasses, garnish with a thin lime wedge, and serve. We had ours with lemon and pepper spiced popcorn and wouldn’t change a thing.

* If you don’t have simple syrup, you can easily make up a batch while the watermelon freezes: just combine equal parts sugar and water in a small pot, bring to a simmer, stir briefly, and when all of the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear and just barely thickened, you’re done, and need only cool it down and find a suitable storage container.

On Unfrosted Cake

Growing up, we had one cake. This one. I mean, of course we ate other cakes: coffee cake was a breakfast time treat, and Mom made other recipes (plus there was that one boxed coconut cake from Sara Lee that came out of the freezer every so often), but this simple chocolate cake, a variant of the Depression era wacky cake or crazy cake, was the standby for celebrations. And though the original recipe called for a thick, sweet buttercream, we always frosted it with lightly sweetened whipped cream instead, artfully (or sometimes something less than artfully) swirled on with a knife or a rubber spatula or, if someone was feeling really fancy, an offset metal spatula that got just so close to the bakery-smooth finish I, at least, was always after.

So as you might expect, as I “leveled up” in the kitchen I tried some fancier finishes (though for THE cake I always went back to the whipped cream). I found the perfect cream cheese frosting recipe. I flirted with buttercreams of various kinds, and with varying success.

Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating the simple pleasure of unfrosted cakes. I don’t know if this is a result of binge-watching so much Great British Baking Show, on which the Victoria sandwiches are simply dusted with sugar, but there is something satisfying about plonking down a cake that you haven’t spent time fussing over.

I’ve made three unfrosted cakes of note recently. The first is an almond cake recipe from King Arthur Flour. I did this almost exactly as the site required, subbing in some almond meal for some of the almond flour, a move that I think was a good one, and now has me looking for places to add almond meal for flavor and texture (stay tuned on this for cookies…). The recipe also taught me an interesting twist on pan preparation, requiring a dusting of sugar instead of flour atop the butter or non-stick spray layer. This results in a lovely, crunchy sugar coating on the bottom and sides of the cake (though the bottom usually ends up not noticeable) and, if you have the presence of mind to add it 15 minutes or so before the baking time ends, on the top as well.

The second unfrosted cake I’ve made recently was a recipe from Tara Jensen’s cookbook/journal/mini-memoir A Baker’s Year. She calls it “groomsman cake,” celebrating the man she met at a friend’s wedding who entered her life with curiosity and bourbon. I may have overbaked mine a tad, since the resulting bundt was a bit less tender than I was expecting, but it was nothing a tumble of raspberries and a heaping scoop of whipped cream – my current favorite combination for cakes without frosting – couldn’t amend.

Finally, in a major blast from the past, I made a rum cake from deep in my mom’s recipe archives for a viewing party last weekend. “Why rum cake?” Mom asked, and the answer was more about linguistic cleverness than anything else: because if you make the cake using Bacardi, then you can call it “lightly thematic” because the brand name so resembles that of a certain former Starfleet captain now back on screen and invested in returning to the galaxy out there… This was not only nostalgic in the sense that I pulled it forward into the 21st century (or 24th?), but in its composition: boxed yellow cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A boiled sugar glaze. For the second time in recent cakery, a bundt pan. And Rum Cake? This cake means it. A full cup of dark rum, half baked into the tender sponge itself (which emerges a shocking dandelion yellow topped with toasty chopped pecans), and the other half stirred into that boiled glaze and drizzled slowly over the cake until it has all absorbed. When show-and-cake-time arrived, I pulled off the layer of aluminum foil I’d dressed the cake in for travel and was caught off guard by the heady fumes that rushed out. Fortunately we had a full hour of show to enjoy before anyone drove home.

Despite that leftovers of this cake need to be enjoyed more in the 3:30pm hour than in the 10:30 snack slot (and despite my snobby concerns about its less-than-from-scratch ingredient list), it is delicious. Tender. Moist (how could it not be?). Beautiful flavors, and the aggressiveness of the rum somehow mellowed overnight, though the kick lingers. And that makes it even better as a party option: you can – you should – make it the afternoon before, giving you less to fret about on the day of whatever gathering it’s invited to.

Of course, an unfrosted cake requires less dressy fuss in terms of presentation, too. No fancy cake pedestals necessary. A large plate, a simple platter, even a wooden cutting board will do, especially if you can add a stack of plates, forks, and a knife to it, so the moment you bring the cake to the table is the only one needed to get everyone eating.

Tell me. Are you a frosted or unfrosted fan? What’s your current favorite flavor combination, or serving vessel, or cake variety, that makes the buttercream and the fondant and the cream cheese feel unneeded? Leave a comment here and let’s talk cake!

Project Cook: Slow Braised Pork Tacos

A few years ago my sister told me it would be nice if, in addition to number of servings, I included in my blog recipes how long the dish took to prepare. I grumbled inwardly about this, since pausing to take photos and make notations on my scribbled plans made any time span I provided an approximation, but decided it was a good idea and put it into practice. A little later, I started buying cookbooks highlighting Middle Eastern food written by an Israeli chef who works in Britain (by now you probably know who I’m talking about by now) who doesn’t typically provide an estimate of total preparation time for his recipes. More than once, I was caught by unexpected directions like “simmer 40 minutes” or even “let sit overnight” that I hadn’t noticed in my initial skim through the recipe, and suddenly dinner was off the rails. My fault for not reading carefully, but still, a little up front estimate would be helpful.

Especially in the food blog world, in which I know some people read for the reading experience, but some people Google a main ingredient they are hoping to cook in the next hour, this time estimate seems particularly important. But again, especially in this forum in which we seem to have decided a story must precede the recipe, as I tell my students, you want to use your time efficiently. Thus if I promise you a perfectly smooth custard and you think “great, that’s dessert, let’s get started” to see only after reading about how well it went over at my latest dinner party that the custard base needs to chill for two hours, well, you’re back to your search engine and starting over again.

All this to say, I think initial warning is needed, so as you can see above I’m instituting a new label: “Project Cook.” This is to designate a dish that is fairly complicated to make, or takes a long time, or uses multiple cooking methods, and thus you’ll know whether to avoid it or to launch in with a full and lazy afternoon to work your way through. As time and memory permit, I’ll go back and apply the label through the archives.

So as you might expect, to launch this label I’m offering something that takes a long time and uses multiple cooking methods. These slow braised pork tacos are a riff on a recipe by Melissa D’Arabian, and though mine take longer, they are actually a bit pared down in terms of equipment and steps, since instead of braising in the oven, I turn to my slow cooker. That means although the pork needs to simmer away in the slow cooker for 7-8 hours, and then ideally it needs to sit in the fridge overnight (unless you’re starting this thing at 8 in the morning the day you want these tacos), after an initial sear and sweating of vegetables this is mostly hands off, which is perfect if, like me, you have a lot of planning to do for a semester that suddenly, now that it’s February, feels a lot closer than it did last week…

Let’s work through what’s happening here: if possible, salt the pork a day or two before cooking. Everything I’m reading (and watching – have you seen Salt Fat Acid Heat yet??) lately about cooking meat suggests the seasoning process begins, and works best, in advance. It doesn’t get salty, but the seasoning takes a while to penetrate past the surface. The pork gets seared in bacon fat for a beautiful crust and some extra flavor. A medley of vegetables sweats down in the pork fat next, before everything tumbles into the slow cooker together with red wine, beef broth, orange juice, and some herbs. Eight hours later, you have a hunk of pork that practically dissolves at the prod of a fork.

But we aren’t done there. The thing is, a lot of fat rendered out of that meat during its slow braise. Shoving it in the fridge overnight (after straining out the spent veg and herbs) means a.) the fat can be easily scraped off once it solidifies on top, and b.) your dinner prep the day of just got about 85% easier. All that remains to be done is to shred the pork, boil off the remaining liquid to reduce, and then crumble in crisp bacon to simulate the crunchy bits a great hunk of barbecued pulled pork has but a braise loses (alternatively, you can spread the pork out on a tray and broil it for a minute or two until some of the edges get crunchy, but I was too hungry to bother with all that).

Of course you can serve this in any way you want, from the taco suggestion in the title to heaped sandwich filling to just a scoop on a plate, but we settled for mounding it into toasted corn tortillas and topping it with shredded cabbage, crumbled cotija cheese, sliced radishes, and a spoonful of guacamole. Oh, and some strings of pickled onions for that sour tang. Since there’s red wine in the sauce you can enjoy the rest of the bottle with dinner, but we opted for a lovely deep stout with orange and chocolate tones that paired perfectly.

Slow Braised Pork Tacos
Adapted from Melissa D’Arabian
Serves 6
Overnight project; time spans divided in procedure section below
To make:
2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
½ lb. bacon
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 poblano, stemmed, seeded, and diced
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 TB tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ an orange
optional: guajillo chile, lime juice
To serve:
Corn tortillas, warmed or toasted
Crumbed queso fresco or cotija cheese (I like to add some lime zest to mine)
Thinly sliced cabbage dressed with salt and lime juice
Pickled onions
Thinly sliced radishes
Reserved crumbled bacon

 

Day 0: the day you buy the pork shoulder, salt and pepper it generously, then store it in the fridge until you are ready to cook (no more than 3 days, preferably)

 

Day 1:
Active time: 60-90 minutes
Unattended cooking time: 7-8 hours
Inactive: overnight refrigeration
  • Cook the bacon in a large skillet over medium or medium-low heat until it is crisp. For me this took 15-20 minutes. Drain it on a paper towel and set aside until cool before refrigerating; we won’t be using it until Day 2. Turn the heat up to medium-high and carefully place the pork shoulder fat side down in the rendered bacon grease. It will sizzle aggressively; let it sear until it is golden-brown, at least 5 minutes. Repeat for each side, then remove the browned meat to the slow cooker.
  • Lower the heat to medium and add the diced onion, celery, carrot, poblano, and the smashed garlic. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat the vegetables until they are tender but not browned, around 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, being sure it is well integrated.
  • Transfer the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the pork. Add the red wine, the beef broth, the bay leaves and the oregano. Squeeze in the juice from the orange half, then add the spent orange as well. Pop on the lid and set the slow cooker to low. It will cook for 7-8 hours, until the pork is extremely tender.
  • Remove the pork from the slow cooker pot and strain what remains, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Return pork and strained liquid to the slow cooker or to a vessel of your choice and refrigerate overnight.

 

Day 2:
Active time: about an hour
  • About an hour before you are ready to serve, remove your storage vessel from the fridge. While everything is still cold, scrape off and discard the layer of fat that should have collected on top.
  • Remove the pork from the storage vessel and place it on a board. Use two forks to shred it into ribbons (this is easiest once the pork has warmed up a little).
  • Place the liquid from the storage vessel into a medium pot on the stove (or just use your slow cooker on high heat, if it has that function). Taste and consider. Of course the flavor will be stronger when it has reduced, but if you feel like it just.. needs something, drop in a guajillo chile and/or a few squeezes of lime juice. Boil the liquid until it has reduced to a scant 1 cup; for me this took about 35 minutes. While the liquid is reducing, prep your accompaniments.
  •  When reduced, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper, if needed, and more lime juice. Add in the shredded pork and turn the heat down to low, cooking just until the pork is heated through.
  • Just before serving, crumble in the reserved bacon.
  • If you want additional crunch, spread the warmed, sauced pork out on a tray and put it until a preheated broiler for a few minutes, until some of the edges have crisped and a few have charred here and there. Serve with accompaniments listed above, or your own favorites.

Chopped Challenge #6: Orzo Puttanesca

Course: entree

Ingredients: orzo pasta, onion, red wine, anchovies

I’ll admit something to you, friends. I… kind of waited to do this challenge until after we got back from our trip on purpose. I knew the ingredients a few weeks before we left, but I couldn’t turn them into an entrée dish I was happy with.

That’s not really because I couldn’t think of anything. I thought of a number of options. They just didn’t feel very creative to me. I mean, what do you make with pasta besides a big bowl of pasta? I couldn’t get past the expected. It didn’t even occur to me, as Nz. pointed out on the FB mystery basket reveal post, to make a cold option, even though I have an awesome orzo-based pasta salad in one of the dozens of cookbooks weighing down my bookshelves.

Finally I decided I had to just do it, creativity be damned. I put off the challenge for a month, school started, weeknights suddenly became off-limits for lengthy kitchen experiments, and I needed to get this challenge done if I was going to continue the project.

A big bowl of pasta it was, then. And my favorite pasta for anchovies and red wine has to be puttanesca, so that seemed like a doable, if not particularly original, solution. I’ve given you a puttanesca recipe before; this new take adds onions to the typical trifecta of garlic, capers, and olives. It amps up the anchovy quotient, making those amazing little salt-bombs the primary seasoning for the sauce and carriers of the dish in their own right, and at the last minute brightens everything with a palmful of lemon zest.

What resulted was satisfying, though we both noted there’s a reason puttanesca is not typically served with orzo. Classic Italian sauces are traditionally paired with particular pasta shapes for a reason, and puttanesca is heavy enough in both texture and flavor that the orzo gets a bit overwhelmed.

Regardless, we were left with a tasty dish that, crucially at this time of year, provided sufficient leftovers to see us well into the week in take-to-work-lunches.

Orzo puttanesca, then, and after that, as Two Brew from William Goldman’s The Color of Light might say, on to the next!

 

Orzo Puttanesca
30-45 minutes
Serves 8
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ diced onion
4-6 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
6-8 anchovy filets
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup drained capers
½ cup finely chopped kalamata olives
1 cup red wine
28 ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
16 ounce package orzo pasta
¼ – ½ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped or chiffonaded fresh basil
zest of one lemon

 

  • Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic together and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and become translucent. The objective is not to brown them; if browning starts to occur, turn the heat down.
  • When the onions have tenderized and the mixture smells fragrant, add the anchovies. Use a flat-sided spatula (I like my wooden one) to smash and crush the filets into bits, which will eventually melt in with the vegetables and oil.
  • Once the anchovies are broken down, stir in the red pepper flakes, the capers, and the olives, then add the wine and cook on medium high heat for 2-3 minutes, just to start the wine reducing.
  • Add the canned tomatoes, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to medium low and simmer at least 20 minutes, preferably more like 30, stirring occasionally.
  • While the sauce is simmering, cook the orzo in boiling salted water about 1 minute less than what the package suggests. Just before draining, add about ½ cup of the pasta water to your sauce and stir in.
  • Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, mixing well to ensure even incorporation. Just before serving, stir in the parsley, basil, and lemon zest. If desired, you can reserve a little bit of each to sprinkle over the top.