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 #1: Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: bulk sausage, bell pepper, sriracha, panko bread crumbs

Here it is! The first “basket”! N. decided that for the first challenge of the year, it would make sense to offer the first course of the meal, so to speak. He says he will change up and randomize courses later on, but I know for sure that January = appetizer, February = entrée, and March = dessert. That doesn’t tell me much, but it does offer a solid start.

As seems so often to be the case with real Chopped baskets, three of the four ingredients seemed to go together well however I shuffled them. Sausage, bell pepper, panko: reasonable! Sausage, bell pepper, sriracha: okay. Even bell pepper, sriracha, and panko seemed to fit. But all four? I couldn’t wrap my brain around how it was going to work and still keep this an appetizer.

Ultimately I landed on a blast from the past, if you will. I’ve been digging mushrooms lately, and realized at least three of the four: the sausage, the bell peppers, and the panko, could get crammed inside (or at least on top of) a mushroom and baked into a tasty, bite-sized little throwback classic. The sriracha would have to become part of a sauce – I didn’t fancy a spicy kick inside my mushrooms (besides, one of the biggest complaints from the judges on the actual show is the relative dryness of a dish – they are always after a sauce or dressing component).

To wrestle the heat into the dish, but also to ensure more exposure for the bell peppers, which were really just going to get minced and cooked down with the sausage and some onions, I decided roasted red pepper would be a nice flavor base for the sauce. It would need something to enrich it, though, and goat cheese would provide a tang and a welcome thickness. There. I had my dish.

Though this definitely took me more than the twenty minutes allotted on the show (could I have done it in time if pressed? Maybe… with a much bigger mess…), it came together well. It’s hard to fault pork sausage cooked with aromatic vegetables, especially when it gets mounded with panko soaked in what seems like an excessive amount of oil and baked until feverishly crispy. At first taste we weren’t sure the sauce matched the mushrooms – the roasted red pepper has such a strong vegetal clarity that, blended down and even spiked with hot sauce, it can stand up to and overpower its supporting players. Yet we kept going back to it, sliding the mushroom caps through and dotting on another spoonful, and when we each tried a mushroom bare, it was good, but we wanted that kick from the bright, orange-red smear left on the plate. Ultimately I think the sauce was on the right track, but needed a little something to combat the overly heavy vegetal quality, so the recipe below cuts the pepper-forward flavor with the addition of broth. I suspect this will help it meld with the mushrooms better.

We tried out two serving options, just to see which we preferred: a puddle of sauce topped with a few stuffed caps, and a row of caps drizzled with sauce. Though we decided the puddle of sauce on the bottom would be better for hors d’oeuvres that were going to sit around for any length of time, as the sauce-on-top styling could damage the pristine and glorious crispness of the panko topping, we preferred the sauce-on-top delivery method as both prettier and easier to eat. In either case, a final dusting of parsley made for a prettier presentation and a welcome little herbal freshness to the bite.

* Photo note: this week, as I wait for my new machine, I’m using the editing features on Preview on my laptop. I’m… underwhelmed. Le sigh.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce
Makes 12 mushroom caps + extra sauce
40-45 minutes
For mushrooms:
12 large crimini mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup finely minced onion
½ cup finely minced red bell pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sprig thyme, optional
8 ounces bulk pork sausage
¼ – ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
For sauce:
6 ounces roasted red pepper (you can do it yourself, of course, but the jars are so quick and easy)
3-4 ounces goat cheese
3-4 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons sriracha, or to taste
To serve:
chopped parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and place a wire cooling rack in a baking tray or cookie sheet – we are making a slightly elevated platform for the mushrooms to prevent waterlogging.
  • Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the gills and some of the innards from each of your mushroom caps. We need lots of room for filling. Finely chop the “guts” you’ve removed.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushroom pieces (not the caps), the onion, the red bell pepper, and the thyme sprig, if using. Season with black pepper if you like that sort of thing, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are tender, around 5-7 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, place the hollowed out mushroom caps stem side down on the cooling rack and place into the oven. This gets them started cooking and allows some of the water they will expel to drain right into the cookie sheet. Cook them until the sausage is done.
  • When the vegetables in your skillet are looking tender, add the sausage and use a wooden, flat-sided spoon or spatula to break it up. Continue to cook over medium heat, breaking up the sausage and stirring often, until the meat is just cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes for easier handling. (Reminder: at this point you should also remove your mushroom caps from the oven!)
  • While the sausage cools, toss the panko and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • When you are ready to fill, flip the mushroom caps over so the hollow side faces up. If you want, you can move each and lightly spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray; they do start to cling a little bit while baking.
  • Fill the mushroom caps with heaping spoonfuls of the filling, lightly but firmly packing it in. It will be a little crumbly, so be determined but not rough, as that can break the delicate mushroom caps. Top each filled cap with a mound of panko, then carefully place back into the oven to bake at 400F for 15 minutes.
  • While the mushrooms cook, make the sauce. Using a standard or an immersion or stick blender, whiz together the roasted red pepper, the goat cheese, and the broth until very smooth. Pour into a pan (I used the same skillet I’d cooked my vegetables and sausage in, just wiped clean with a paper towel), add the sriracha (start with just 2 teaspoons; you can always add more) and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Simmer about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.
  • To serve, either spread a puddle of sauce on the platter and place the mushrooms on top of it, or arrange the mushrooms on a platter and then drizzle sauce over each. Both are pretty. Either way, sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top to add freshness, and serve warm.

Split Pea and Ham Soup with Collard Greens

food-blog-february-2017-0318Two things come to mind when I think of split pea soup, both from childhood. In the real world, I think of my mom and sister – R. ate a lot of Campbell’s soups for lunch when she was little, and I remember Mom asking her whether she wanted some “hammy pea soup.” On screen, I remember the charming little clip from the beginning of Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under depicting how the fancy restaurant Bernard and Bianca go to gets its soup course to the table. Both memories charm me more than the actual product, so I decided, as a first real dip into the soup project, in a February that veers wildly between dreary and bright (and not just on a meteorological front), making this one over would be a rewarding project.

food-blog-february-2017-0307I’ll be honest, though, right out of the gate: this is indeed a project. This is not a soup you’ll have on the table, or in a mug curled up on the couch, in a half hour or so. This is a multi-step, multi-hour prospect.

Are you still here?

Good.

food-blog-february-2017-0294The average split pea soup is not unlike a dreary February day, the kind where you feel pressed into the couch by lack of motivation, or just unable to move away from your newsfeed. It is thick and heavy and sometimes muddy in flavor, as pulse-based soups can be. There are, I think, two ways to amend this. One is to go the daal route, amping up the spice quotient. The other, the one I chose, is to add freshness near the end of the cook time, forcing the wintry brew toward something springy, no matter what Punxsutawney Phil had to say this year.

food-blog-february-2017-0295My method of freshening was almost entirely though association of the two major players. Split peas are a starchy, dry, processed product. Why not take them to a family reunion with their plump, sweet, former selves? A cup of frozen peas would jangle in at the end to brighten things up. The other major ingredient in the mix – the ham – is usually in the form of a “ham hock,” the lower part of the leg, smoked, with the skin and bone still present. Ham hock reminded me of collard greens, and I started wondering how some ribbons of greens, cooked until tender but not decimated, would do in this soup. Pairing collard greens with starchy legumes is hardly new – food historian Michael Twitty writes this important discussion of the cultural background of collard greens, including their frequent matching with peanuts in the cuisine of the African diaspora.

food-blog-february-2017-0296Split pea soup usually has some other starchy ingredient in it – most often potatoes. I opted to omit this entirely, but you could certainly add some back in, or change it up and use celery root instead for a more herbaceous flavor. Instead, I made my base simple: carrots for sweetness and color, leeks for a mild onion-y punch, and just a bit of garlic to keep things savory. At the last minute, I stirred in a handful of parsley for a final bright burst.

food-blog-february-2017-0302As I noticed when I consulted a few recipes for inspiration, differences in procedure really lie in how you treat the vegetables. Some recipes brown them first, then add the peas and broth, but this can result in disintegrated veg by the time the soup is ready. Some, to prevent this over-softening, add the vegetables part way through the cooking, but then the soup doesn’t benefit from the extra flavor a bit of caramelization and initial browning provides. The New Best Recipe cooks the vegetables in a separate vessel before adding them to the soup, and that would be fine if you don’t object to extra dishes… but I always object to extra dishes. I would rather it take longer and have less to wash up.

food-blog-february-2017-0308In my procedure, we cook everything in the same pot. First, brown the exterior of the ham hock first (I used a smoked pork shank, but they are almost the same thing). Once it is crisp and golden on the exterior, the vegetables get browned in the residual fat (plus some fatty bits and pockets, if you want to carve any off and add them), then set aside until the final twenty minutes of simmering, so they retain some texture and have the extra flavor from the pork fat. Yes, this adds some time, but you’re prepped for a project anyway, right?

I have to admit, though I always want to like what I make, I wasn’t expecting to be crazy about this soup. With the dreary, February-gloom hanging around my expectations despite attempts to create brightness, I thought I would like it but not love it.

food-blog-february-2017-0312It’s nice to be wrong sometimes, isn’t it? This soup exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. The play between the two kinds of peas – creamy and starchy on one hand and barely cooked pops of sweetness on the other – was delightful. The ribbons of collard greens were perfect: vegetal and tender, good flavor companions with the peas and the shreds of ham. Sometimes when I make a soup I end up freezing half of it and planning in vain to use it again, but this one we scarfed down the night of, and then for lunch the next day, and then for lunch again, and it was gone, and our bellies were warm and bolstered against the gloom of February.

food-blog-february-2017-0318This will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days in a sealed container, and reheats easily in the microwave or on the stove. You might need to add a drizzle or two of extra broth when reheating, since the peas suck up a lot of the liquid as they cook and as they cool. Delightfully, this is one of those soups that, while it’s delicious the first day, improves as it sits and its flavors mingle.

food-blog-february-2017-0320* yes, that coaster does say “I want to hold your ham.” It’s from a set my sister gave me that features misheard song lyrics, the technical term for which (can I tell you how much I love that misheard lyrics have a technical term?!) is mondegreen.

 

Split Pea and Ham Soup with Collard Greens
3-4 hours
Serves 6
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾-1 pound ham hock, smoked pork shank, or bone-in picnic ham
2 leeks, white and pale green sections only
3 carrots, stem end lopped off, peeled
2 cloves garlic, crushed, papery skins removed
6 cups water, broth, or stock. I used my roasted vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
½ pound green split peas (a little more than 1 cup)
ground black pepper to taste
salt to taste
1 bunch collard greens, tough stems removed
1 cup frozen green peas
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

 

  • Begin by prepping the vegetables. You’ll be happier later. For the leeks, slice off the root end, then cut vertically so you have two half-moon shaped logs. Rinse these under water, working your fingers between the layers to excavate hidden dirt. Shake vigorously. Set on your cutting board with rounded sides up, then cut in half vertically, then in half again so you have four piles of thin strips, as in the photo above. Slice across these strips to produce small squares. For the carrots, cut each in half horizontally, then in half vertically. Treat these like the leeks, slicing each rounded half-log into four thin strips, then cutting across the strips into small pieces. For the collard greens, once you have removed the tough stems, stack the leaves in a pile and roll them up tightly into a fat log. Slice across the log into thin ribbons. You can cut those into smaller pieces if you want to, but I liked the look and feel of the ribbons.
  • In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. When it is shimmering, add whatever sort of ham you’re using and cook until all sides are nicely browned: 2-4 minutes per side. Remove the meat and set aside. Lower the heat to medium and add the prepped carrots, leeks, and garlic. If the ham has some pearly fatty bits, carve those off and add them to the pot with the vegetables to continue rendering. Cook, stirring, until nicely caramelized: about 10 minutes.
  • Remove vegetables and fat scraps to a plate. Discard the fat scraps, if there were any, but reserve the vegetables. In the pot, add the stock or broth or water, the ham again, and the bay leaves. Cover the pot, turn the heat up to medium high until you reach a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover the pot, and simmer until the ham is tender and pulling away from the bone. For me, this took about 90 minutes. It may take you up to 2 hours, depending on what kind of meat you are using.
  • When the ham is quite tender and pulling away from its bone, remove it from the fortified cooking liquid and set it aside until it is cool enough to handle. After it cools, separate the meat from the bone and shred the meat. Discard any rind or fatty bits.
  • To the cooking liquid in the pot, add the thyme sprigs and the green split peas. Keep the liquid at a simmer for 45 minutes, until the peas are tender but not dissolved. Once you’ve shredded the ham, you can add the bone back into the cooking liquid if you wish. Season to taste with salt and pepper, keeping in mind you’ll be adding ham back in, which can be quite salty.
  • With the peas tender and just beginning to fall apart, add the reserved vegetables, the prepared collard green ribbons, and the shredded ham to the pot. Return to a simmer for 20 minutes. Many of the split peas should now have collapsed into a creamy mess.
  • Finally, add the frozen peas to the pot and cook just until they are hot – another 5 minutes at maximum. Remove the bay leaves, the crushed garlic pieces, and the ham bone, if you put it back in there. Stir in the parsley, taste for seasoning once more, and serve, preferably with a piece of garlic-rubbed toast to dip.

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Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs

2015 Food Blog December-0665When I told my parents that my blog project for 2015 was meatballs, my dad immediately said “I know how you should start your first entry.” He recommended the children’s retelling of the old folk song “On Top of Old Smokey” which, rather than a lament about lost love, relates a warning tale about losing your meatball (all covered with cheese) as the result of a poorly timed sneeze. After rolling off the table and onto the floor, the poor meatball rolls out the door, into the garden, and collapses to mush under some shrubbery. Fear not, however! In the springtime, it grows into a tree, presumably studded with fresh, hot, cheesy meatballs.

2015 Food Blog December-0653Since my first entry was a.) already written and b.) decidedly middle eastern, Dad’s song suggestion didn’t seem to fit. It did make me reconsider, though, my initial proclamation against the classic meatballs usually crowning the spaghetti-and– combination. My objections were memories of uninspiring flavor and texture – the classic meatballs can be mealy and soft inside, and they are so drowned in red sauce their own flavors are rendered unapparent.

2015 Food Blog December-0646The decision to make the classic, then, required three challenges: the meatballs themselves had to be light, springy, tender, and flavorful – all of the techniques I’d been honing throughout the year would be put into application here – the pasta had to be perfectly cooked, and there would need to be sauce. The meatballs, as the feature, needed to have the right texture – I decided on milk-soaked breadcrumbs for tenderness, but not too many. Many classic Italian-American meatballs combine multiple types of meat – I chose pork and beef for a strong pairing of fat and flavor. Some meatballs also use ground veal, but I have ethical concerns about veal and so I choose not to purchase it. The pork, with its fattiness, and the beef with its lean flavor, would be perfect. Using pork as well as beef eliminated the need for an egg as a binder. Raw ground pork clings to itself and everything around it, so these meatballs hold together with no trouble.

2015 Food Blog December-0657Flavorings are, I think, the most important part of a meatball. Rather than a bland ball of, well, meat, I wanted these to be interesting in their own right. Parsley was a definite, and I decided I wanted some basil as well. Finely grated onion and garlic sweated down in a bit of olive oil would add flavor as well as moisture, to keep the meatballs from getting dry. Finally, there needed to be parmesan cheese. Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup features baked chicken meatballs oozing with cheese, and the salty gooiness is so appealing; I knew I wanted to imitate it with mine.

2015 Food Blog December-06582015 Food Blog December-0659Meatballs managed, there was then the sauce to contend with. Tomato sauce and I have a long, fraught history. I never much cared for the sort that dripped out of jars, and during my teenage years it flat out upset my stomach. The idea of meatballs burbling away in that acidic, over-processed stuff was beyond unappealing. But I’ve started making my own tomato sauces in the last few years, and I’ve found that rather than tomato paste and sugar, garlic and red wine seem to be the key flavoring components for a satisfying pasta topper. For this one, I started with Smitten Kitchen’s incarnation of a three ingredient tomato sauce, but couldn’t deal with the probably stellar simplicity of it, and succumbed to adding red wine, garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, and – my ultimate pasta sauce weapon – a parmesan cheese rind (I keep them in the freezer when there’s no more cheese to grate from them) to the original trio of canned tomatoes, an onion, and butter.

2015 Food Blog December-06622015 Food Blog December-0663While it would be sacrilege to call this anything like the “best spaghetti and meatballs” (in today’s world, that title is probably copyrighted anyway), it was a very satisfying way to conclude the project.* The meatballs were flavorful and tender and held together well. The sauce was deeply savory but still fresh and light and strongly tomato-y. Crowned with some fresh herbs and a fluffy shower of grated parmesan, it was worth holding onto, and certainly nothing to sneeze at.

2015 Food Blog December-0668*Though I’ll be back next week with a few end-of-year reflections on the project in its entirety.

Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs
About 90 minutes
Serves 4-6
For meatballs:
scant 1½ cups fresh bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
1 cup milk, cream, or half and half
¼ cup olive oil, divided
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ a large onion)
2 large or 3 small garlic cloves
½ pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
⅛ teaspoon pepper
½-¾ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup grated parmesan
For sauce:
½ cup dry red wine
28 ounces crushed tomatoes (I like the San Marzano brand)
3 tablespoons butter
½ a large, peeled onion
6 whole, peeled garlic cloves
3-4 inch hunk of parmesan rind, if you have one
2 stalks basil
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound hot cooked spaghetti
¼ cup chopped parsley
extra parmesan cheese, to serve

 

  • Use a food processor to make your bread crumbs, then add them to the milk in a two-cup glass measuring cup, and let them soak for 10-15 minutes.
  • Use the same food processor (you don’t even have to rinse it out) to process the onion and garlic – toss in the onion in a few pieces, and the whole garlic cloves, and pulse until almost paste – only very small, grated-looking bits will remain.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Scrape in the onions and garlic, sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper, and sweat until tender and translucent; 5-8 minutes. Turn off the heat and move to a glass bowl to cool slightly.
  • While the onions and garlic are cooking, use the food processor again to chop the herbs and the parmesan cheese. Drain the bread crumbs by squeezing them lightly with your hand, then add the crumbs, the herbs, and the cheese to your cooling onion and garlic mixture. Toss together lightly.
  • When the bread and aromatics mixture is room temperature or only barely warm, add the ground beef, the pork, and the salt and pepper. Use your fingertips to combine – you want to evenly distribute the ingredients, but not overmix. Keep it as light as possible.
  • In the same large skillet you used for the onions and garlic, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Fry about 1 teaspoon of the meat mixture until cooked through, then taste for seasoning, and adjust in the remaining mixture if needed.
  • Roll the remaining meatball mixture into 16 equal sized meatballs (they will be about 3 tablespoons each) . Carefully place them into the skillet, not touching one another (you will probably need to do this in two batches), and sear, undisturbed, for about 2 minutes. When this first side is golden brown, flip over and fry for another 2 minutes, again until golden brown. When browned nicely on all sides, remove to a clean plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
  • When all meatballs are browned and removed from the pan, add the wine all at once and use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape around and remove the browned bits from the bottom into the wine, where they will act as flavoring agents. Add in the canned tomatoes, the onion half, the garlic cloves, the parmesan rind, if using, and the stalks of basil. Stir to combine. As soon as the sauce starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium low and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • This is a good time to start a pot of salted water for your spaghetti.
  • After the sauce has simmered 10 minutes, taste it and add salt and pepper as needed, but go easy on the salt – the parmesan rind will release some salinity, and the meatballs themselves will as well. Nestle in the meatballs and simmer another 10 minutes, then flip over each meatball and simmer a final 10 minutes, for a total of 30 minutes.
  • Discard the onion, garlic, basil, and parmesan rind, then drain the cooked spaghetti and add it into the sauce. Use tongs to gently work it through the sauce, coating it completely.
  • Serve directly onto warm plates, or carefully slither into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with herbs and fluffy grated parmesan cheese. I recommend a side of garlic bread, and maybe a green salad.

Banh Mi-tballs

Food blog April 2015-0634When it comes to creating music, it seems to me there are two basic schools. One begins with the melody, considering sound, instrumentation, rhythm, process. Words and story – if there is one – get added to fit the beat and the harmonics and the feel. The other starts with the words: weaving a story, shouting a chorus, infusing rhyme and connotation and syllabic play. Filtering in notes and melodies that fit the narrative.

Guess which one I favor.

Food blog April 2015-0599I have the same issue with food. Seriously, when it comes to creating a recipe, I should probably start with the fundamentals: ingredients. Taste. Familiarity. Procedure and execution and fitting flavors together.

More often than not, though, the singer-songwriter I’ve never been pops to the forefront and I’m instead thinking of names and paragraphs and ways of representing the food I haven’t even made yet.

Food blog April 2015-0600That’s what happened with this experiment. In fact, this is in many ways the inspiration for the whole meatball project. Not because I’ve had a dish just like it that needed to be recreated. Not because I’m obsessed with or particularly fond of meatballs. No. Because I thought the name “banh mi-tball” was too good to pass up.

Food blog April 2015-0603As I noted previously, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity and exactness of such a sandwich. Ratios of meat to vegetable, the types of vegetables, the texture and flour types in the bread, form the bases of entries on numerous discussion forums that range from curious to intensely heated. Names are called. Gluten is flung.

Food blog April 2015-0604Here’s the thing, though. Now that I’m invested, I just wanted to make a sandwich good enough to be called banh mi-tball. I mean, you can’t back up a heart-wrenching narrative woven in clever rhyme with a tinny little toy guitar and an out-of-tune keyboard. But by the same token, I don’t think you have to be Jimi Hendricks or Eric Clapton to support the story in a satisfying way.

Food blog April 2015-0606What I’m trying to say here, is that I’m not all that interested in authenticity. I didn’t seek out every banh mi shop in Los Angeles and sample and compare and pester their chefs for trade secrets. Even when I’m not losing my mind grading papers during the semester, I don’t have that kind of time or motivation. The point was, I decided, to strive not for exactness or tradition, but to craft a damn good sandwich. So that’s what I’m going for.

Bread, vegetables (pickled and non), meat, spread. These are the necessary components. There should be a crisp crust, there should be a representation of sourness, spiciness, and umami, there should be a vegetal crunch. For this incarnation, I added strips of fresh Persian cucumbers to my pickles, along with sprigs of cilantro and wedges of lime. I spread my slightly-less-than-crisp “baguettes” with a curiously beautiful coral-hued spread of mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice, and I stood back and let my fellow sandwich-diners have their way with the pan full of meatballs on the stove.

Food blog April 2015-0611Since banh mi sandwiches so often feature pork, a pork meatball was the way to go. It would need to echo some of the flavors found in the sandwich itself, which means this is one of those recipes with a tablespoon of this and a teaspoon of that and an ingredient list long enough that you might at first be put off. You shouldn’t be, though. Like so many good Asian recipes, especially sauces, every single individual component has a part to play, and none are particularly exotic. Ginger and garlic for their aromatic spice. Jalapeños and cilantro for freshness and heat. A few tendrils of pickled onion  and a squeeze of lime for sourness. Soy sauce and brown sugar to balance that sourness. Fish sauce and red miso paste for that earthy umami funk. Capitalizing on my previous meatball experiments, a pinch of baking powder for lightness and an egg to bind everything together.

Food blog April 2015-0612Despite the lengthy ingredient list, the actual production of the meatballs is easy. Remembering my satisfying results with Swedish meatballs, I dumped everything in the food processor and let it whir. Pâté is a frequent protein option for banh mi sandwiches, so the smooth, bouncy texture I knew I could achieve with mechanized mixing seemed to fit the bill. After a mix, a quick roll with moistened hands, and a shallow fry in vegetable and sesame oil, all that remains is a twenty minute simmer in flavorful liquid. I opted for chicken broth with a bit of miso paste and a bit of brown sugar swirled in, which resulted in a poaching liquid so tasty I debated serving small bowls of it on the side.

Food blog April 2015-0625Once you have all the components, sandwich construction is easy. Because people tend to like crafting their own, this actually makes remarkably good party food. Just lay out your pickles, your vegetables, your bread, set down a jar of spread and a bowl of meatballs and watch your guests go to town. Load up your own baguette with enough fillings to stretch the corners of your mouth as you attempt that first bite. Then hide the leftovers. Because you’re going to want this again, and you might not want to share it.
Food blog April 2015-0628

Banh Mi-tballs
Makes 22-24 tablespoon-sized meatballs
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, skins removed
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1-2 tablespoons jalapeño slices
¼ cup cilantro
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon red miso paste
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon fish sauce
½ tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon lime juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped pickled onions
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
For the sauce:
1-2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon red miso paste
1 teaspoon brown sugar

 

  • Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and cilantro to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until almost paste-like. This will ensure easier integration and no large chunks of garlic.
  • Add the pork and all other meatball ingredients through the 1 egg (that is, everything except the vegetable and sesame oil), then clamp on the lid and pulse to combine until the vegetable bits are well integrated and the pork itself is smooth and slightly gluey in texture.
  • Working with moistened hands to avoid too much stickiness, roll the mixture into tablespoon sized balls. When all are rolled, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers, then carefully add the meatballs in a single layer.
  • Fry over medium heat until browned on all sides; 5-8 minutes. Remove to a clean plate.
  • In the skillet, whisk together the chicken broth, the 1 tablespoon of red miso, and the 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering broth, again in a single layer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low.
  • Simmer meatballs for ten minutes, then flip each one over and simmer for 10 minutes more. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature on a sandwich with pickles, vegetables, and spread (recipe follows).

 

Sriracha and lime mayonnaise
makes a generous ⅓ cup; enough for about 4 sandwiches
⅓ cup mayonnaise
zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice
½ tablespoon sriracha or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (go easy; it’s strong)

 

  • Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well to combine.
  • To assemble the sandwiches, split baguettes lengthwise, spread generously with sriracha and lime mayonnaise, then layer on meatballs, pickled vegetables of your choice, cucumber, sliced jalapeños, cilantro sprigs, and if desired, a squeeze of lime juice.

Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs

I have to admit, this meatball is a bit of a cheat. I mean, when it comes right down to it, this is a breakfast sausage patty, spiked with small chunks of apple and onion sautéed in butter, slivers of sage, and a generous glug or two of maple syrup. And plenty of black pepper, of course. I know, what’s to complain about there? But essentially, it’s just that, rolled into a meatball form instead of flattened into a patty. I’ve made this a number of times already as a sausage patty, and the simple change feels a bit dishonest – a bit like a masquerade. But the thing is, it allows me to tell you about an event for which I feel a great deal of fondness. So consider this a cheat with good intentions. An excuse, let’s say, to tell you about a time of warmth which, as the winter rolls on, might be something you need.

(Additionally, as I’ve recently noticed, sorry about the lousy photo quality on the in-post photos. I’m thinking this is largely due to artificial lighting, which makes maybe one good thing about that whole Daylight Saving Time curse that has fallen upon us, but also might be a WordPress thing, because if you click on the image for a larger version, it looks clearer and higher quality – more like the original shot.)

Food Blog March 2015-0431The apple and onion in these meatballs (or patties) play very well with the sage and the fatty pork, and the maple syrup results in stellar caramelization, while giving a nod to the “breakfast” idea. This combination was so successful at home in some trial runs and at a summer gathering last July that I broke it out again this January. One of my dearest family friends, a young woman I’ve known so long it feels strange to acknowledge that she is, in fact, a young woman rather than a kid, got married in November, in Chile. She and her now-husband’s Southern Hemisphere nuptials meant that only a small handful of her American friends and family were able to attend. In January, then, while many of us were still off work for the holiday, they had a “stateside celebration” in northern California, which N. and I thankfully were able to attend.

Food Blog March 2015-0420The bride’s mother, whose capacity for party planning is unparalleled, rented a house for the weekend for the “kids” to stay in, and as the oldest members of that no-longer-accurate category, N. and I somehow got in under the age wire and hung out with the “young people” at the party house. This allowed for opportunities like feeding (fat, greedy, possibly possessed) miniature ponies who happen to live on the grounds, wandering an impressive, decked-out-for-Christmas back garden, exclaiming over the proliferation of strange decor choices in the house (lots of religious imagery, a fully decorated Christmas tree in every room of the house, a large rocking horse at the foot of our bed, Victorian and Rococo linens and bathroom paintings, modern art pieces contributed by grateful former guests, a fur stole my sister briefly considered wearing to the party), and riding to and from the event itself in an aesthetically impressive but poorly stocked limousine, my first limo ride ever. (Really, this house was amazing. A Secret Garden/Windsor Mystery House of a place, and we were so lucky to get to experience it).

Food Blog March 2015-0423To offer my thanks, of course I turned to food, offering to cook breakfast for all of the “kids” on the morning of the marriage blessing ceremony. This offer was met with enthusiastic approval, and so my sister and I got up early(ish) and set about finding the least battered tools in the kitchen (it contained an astounding variety of dishes and utensils, but as you might expect of a rental property, many were not well maintained) to make breakfast-for-eight. Among the offerings were these same sausage patties, which were met with considerable acclaim. There were no leftovers.

Food Blog March 2015-0425I realize this is not much about meatballs, but for me, food is so tied to the people I’m feeding and the events surrounding its production that they become part of the taste. These people we were celebrating are so dear to me, and became so with such haste, that I can’t remember a time I didn’t think of them as an extension of my family. She was my bridesmaid when I married, and now at the celebration of her own marriage, it felt so tied to my own declarations of love and familial belonging. As I said when I offered my toast at their reception – while remarking on the tendency my eyes suddenly had at trying, on their own, to alleviate California’s massive drought – there has never been a time when I was not so, so happy to see them. This has been true from the very first time we met (it was raining then, too, relieving this poor parched state once again, as the now-bride’s father welcomed us in with the shout “We’re having a rain party!”), till that evening, surrounded by others they love, who love them.

Food Blog March 2015-0430This is all a bit tumbling and confessional and warm, but I know you’re really here for the meatballs, so let’s get to it. All I’ve done is taken the same ingredients from my sausage patties and rolled them into a meatball, rather than flattening them for the pan. But really, they are perfect either way. They are one of those offerings that, even if they get a little dark on the bottoms from the sugars in the maple syrup (and they may, so don’t despair), they are gobbled up willingly. And even if they stay in the pan a bit too long because you are taking the time to catch up with family who re friends who are family, they stay moist thanks to the apple and onion threaded through them. They are a standby indulgence. I hope they become that for you as well.

Serving suggestions: as you can see, we had ours alongside a fluffy pile of scrambled eggs and some well toasted crumpets. They would also be perfect stuffed inside a pillowy buttermilk biscuit as a fancy little breakfast sandwich bite, and I certainly wouldn’t say no to a pyramid of them gracing a belgian waffle or two. In short, pick your breakfast favorite, and add these.

 

Apple Onion Breakfast Meatballs
Serves 2-3 (but is easily doubled or even tripled)
2 tablespoons butter
⅔ cup diced green apple (about half a medium apple)
⅔ cup diced red onion (about half a small onion)
⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons sage (sage is strong!)
8 ounces pork sausage
2 tablespoons maple syrup

 

  • Heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When melted, add apples and onions, season with ⅛ teaspoon each salt and pepper, and cook over medium or medium-low heat until tender: 5-8 minutes.
  • In the last 30 seconds or so of cooking, add the sage and stir to integrate. Then remove from heat and let cool until room temperature or barely warm.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the sausage, maple syrup, and cooled apple and onion mixture. This is already seasoned, thanks to the salty sausage, the sweet syrup, and the salt and pepper added to the cooked apples and onions. If you like a heavy hand with the seasonings, though, feel free to add an additional ⅛ teaspoon each of salt and pepper.
  • Using moistened fingertips, mix well until apple and onion pieces are evenly distributed. Moisten the palms of your hands as well, then gently roll mixture into 10-12 equal sized balls – it will be soft.
  • Heat the same skillet you used for the apple and onion over medium heat and gently add the meatballs evenly spaced, not touching each other. Cook over medium heat until browned on all sides – about 3 minutes per side – then cover the skillet with a lid and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let sizzle until meatballs are cooked all the way through – another 8-10 minutes. If the bottoms of the meatballs begin to look a bit on the dark side, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan.
  • Serve hot or warm with breakfast foods of your fancy.