Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Paying Homage to an Annapolis Staple

For those that know me outside of the blog realm and have ever sat down to a meal with myself and my husband, you are aware of our extreme appreciation for any and all pork products. There is nary a bit of that magical cloven hooved animal that I don’t love. As a matter of fact, my friends Diz and Mona and I have a long running joke about how much I love pork- there’s a wholesale meats shop just down the street from Mona’s house, and she is always waiting on the day that I will show up with an whole pig (hooves and all) strapped to the top of my car ready to share its culinary mysticism. For years, our friend Adam and his crew would host a pig roast every summer (think high school reunion on speed with kegs, pigs, guns, bonfires and camping. AKA- Best.Time.Ever.), and the moment of unveiling was always the highlight of the night. At one of these events, the police (shockingly!) showed up, and someone shouted “Pigs!” to which my friend Jessie grabbed her plate, only to realize it wasn’t the dinner but rather a suggestion to make one’s self scarce. So it is no surprise that when Kyle and I stumbled on the flavorful, crunchy medicinal-esque powers of the Pork Verde tacos at one of our favorite watering holes when we lived in Annapolis ( it was a religious experience. The pork was done in a traditional Mexican style- marinated in spices, slow cooked and flash fried- and served simply w/ verde salsa, chopped cilantro, onion, tomato and a squeeze of lime. Sublime. The experience was only heightened by their near-lethal margaritas, at peak I think I once consumed 5, and proceeded to bring down the house with Diz at the bar next door with our karaoke rendition of  "Don't Stop Believin'", and do the backstroke across our living room floor.
News recently was passed down to us that Mexican Café would be closing their doors in May 2010 due to a multi-use project wherein the little peach stucco shack will be bulldozed and a CVS will spring up in its place. As much as I would love to dedicate this to a diatribe full of profanity towards such endeavors, I will instead concentrate on the celebration of Mexican Café, their pork verde tacos and my re-creation of this favorite treat. Many spring afternoon and evenings were spent at the Café, and they will live on in infamy with the old Edgewood crew long after they have served their last margarita. To Diz, Carolyn, Rob and Will- always glad we lived within walking distance, and had plenty of room for crashers!
For my version (which has been modified and perfected over the past couple of makings), I don’t use the deep frying process, as I was trying to lighten it up a bit and haven’t had the best of luck when immersing food into hot, spattering oil. This all oven method is a slow cook, but great for a weekend, and an easy and inexpensive way to entertain. I really like using country style ribs for this, as you get a nice mix of light and dark meat, and the fat that is essential to making this pork crispy. Depending on your personal taste, you can leave out as much of the fat during the shredding point and skim the liquid fat out of the pan before the broiling. Personally, I go whole hog (pun completely intended) for the dish, as I think it really rounds out the rustic flavor of the tacos.

Fresh Pork Verde Tacos

For the Pork:
-1-2lbs. Country Style Ribs (depending on how many people you’re feeding/how hungry you are)
-Spice Rub (recipe as follows)
-Olive oil
-1 small can roasted green chilies, chopped
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-Cracked pepper & sea salt

Spice Rub:
-2 tblspns chili powder
-1 tblspn ground cumin
-1 tblspn crushed red pepper flakes
-1 tbspn Spanish paprika
-1 tablspn ancho chili powder
-2-3 tblspns good pork rub (I used one I picked up in a specialty shop, season salt can sub in)
-1 tblspn Mexican oregano

For Assembly:
-Small corn tortillas
-½ cup chopped tomatoes (I used a mix of organic heirloom cherry tomatoes for their color)
-½ cup chopped sweet onion
-¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
-1 Avocado, chopped
-Verde Salsa (we have a couple of great Latin markets nearby, so I usually pick some up fresh, but feel free to make your own or sub in your favorite)
-Sour cream
-Lime wedges

Pre-heat oven for 325. Combine all spice rub ingredients in a jar with tight fitting lid and shake to combine. Coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven (large enough to hold all of the ribs) with a little olive oil. Place ribs in skillet, add in garlic, green chilies, salt & pepper (to your taste) and toss to coat. Cover liberally with spice rub and toss so all surfaces are well coated. If you have any leftover spice rub, it will keep in a well sealed jar for weeks. Place skillet on the middle rack & cook for 1 ½ hours, checking occasionally. This is a great time to prepare and chop all the other components while the pork is doing it’s magic in the oven. This is also usually the time that my very talented husband makes a pitcher of his absolutely knockout margaritas, and I think it really adds to the experience, just make sure any prep involving knife work has been completed.

After 1 ½ hrs., pull out of oven and let rest until meat is cool enough to handle, approx 20 minutes (do not let meat cool completely, as it will be more difficult to shred). Remove meat from skillet onto a plate or cutting board, and working one section at a time, shred back into skillet. Once all meat is shredded, toss in pan drippings/spices to coat well, move oven rack on step higher, turn on broiler and return skillet to oven under broiler. This next phase involves a lot of watching, and a good set of long spring loaded tongs or a long handled wooden spoon are crucial. As pork begins to brown, turn occasionally so all pieces have a chance to get crisp and crunchy and well sauced. This can take anywhere from 15-25 minutes, depending on the heat output of your broiler, so keep a watchful eye. To really achieve that deep fryer style crunch, I let this go for the maximum time and it will be super crunchy and have great texture. If it’s your first time working with your broiler, you may want to start on the low setting- it will take a bit longer, but will buy you a little insurance against cremating your pork.

 Just before desired crispiness has been attained, wrap tortillas in a damp kitchen towel and place on lowest rack below skillet to avoid singing to warm for a minute or two. When pork perfection has been reached- remove wrapped tortillas and skillet. To assemble, place tortillas on plates, load up with pork, dress according to your tastes and enjoy with a big stack of absorbent cloth napkins (maybe a Shamwow???) and a pitcher of homemade margaritas or icy cold Mexican beer. Que aproveche!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fish Fry Friday!

Every now and then there are winter nights when you have a craving for something, but don’t have the motivation to leave the house to get exactly what you want. Last Friday was that night for me. When we lived in Annapolis, my husband, brother and I regularly had what we called Fish Fry Fridays and would load up on crunchy pan fried Cod, oven fries and the occasional plate of steamed mussels when available. I had the craving to re-visit this tradition, but really didn’t feel like trudging out to the store, so I went with what I had on hand. Most of the time I’ve got a bag of flash frozen wild caught deveined shrimp in my freezer (shell on for more flavor in stocks & stews!) and knew they would completely satisfy my seafood craving. I have to admit that I am joining the legions of panko converts, and have had a soft spot for the light crunchy Japanese breadcrumbs after our first introduction after a stint working in a Japanese restaurant in Colorado in 2004. The three step breading process may seem a bit tedious but it’s pretty easy to get a rhythm going once you get into it, and it’s well worth the results. The breading process is the most labor intensive part of the meal, and at 10 minutes is an indication to how easily this meal comes together. I also have to admit that I have become a bit of a snob when it comes to tartar sauce- I will gladly take the extra 5 minutes to make it fresh rather than deal w/ the overly sweet pre-made version, not to mention the preservatives and additives in most jarred stuff- eek! As far as the “chips” portion, I decided to forgo this craving and instead went with some hearty cannelli beans, which ended up being a great pairing. The bean dish is insanely easy to throw together, and can be cooked and ready while the shrimp are in the oven. Happy Friday!

Panko Shrimp with White Beans and Greens and Homemade Tartar Sauce

For the Tartar Sauce:
-1 cup good mayonnaise (if not homemade, Hellman’s is my go to)
-2 tblspns chopped capers
-2 tblspns fine minced red or sweet onion
-2 fine minced dill pickle spears
-1 tblspn fresh chopped dill
-½ tblspn fresh lemon juice
-½ tblspn caper “juice” (the brining liquid from the jar)

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and leave in fridge while making other components so that flavors may come together.

For the Shrimp:
-1 lbs. deveined RAW shrimp, shells removed, tails left on (starting with raw shrimp will ensure that in the end the shrimp will not be over cooked and rubbery. I like to leave the tails on for easy dipping and eating, just be sure to place out a small bowl for tails)
-1 cup panko bread crumbs, seasoned with:
- 1-2 teaspoons seafood seasoning (Old Bay comes to mind)
-A couple of turns of fresh cracked pepper
-Pinch of cayenne pepper
-1 cup all purpose flour seasoned with cracked pepper & salt
-1 large egg, beaten w/ a little champagne vinegar or lemon juice
-A large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper & topped with an oven proof wire rack, sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat shrimp dry between paper or kitchen towels. To set up “assembly line, set up shrimp at one end, followed by a shallow dish or plate with flour mixture, followed by egg wash, then panko mixture in shallow dish or plate and finish up with your lined baking sheet. One at a time, dredge shrimp in flour, dip in egg wash, and coat in panko mixture and lay flat on baking sheet. Repeat with all shrimp and let rest for 10 minutes before firing in the oven to ensure that the breading won’t fall off while baking. When ready, bake for 20 or so minutes on the middle rack until crispy, pink and cooked through. Depending on the size of shrimp you use, keep a watchful eye for over cooking and adjust timing accordingly.

For the White Beans with Greens:
-16oz. cannelli beans (either dried that have been soaked according to package directions or canned that have been rinsed & drained)
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-8 oz baby arugula, spinach, kale or any other hearty greens
-½ cup vegetable stock or water
-1-2 tbspn olive oil
-1-2 tbspn white wine (I used Sauv Blanc)
-Cracked pepper & sea salt to taste

Heat oil in bottom of sauté pan or wok over medium heat and add in garlic, cooking for a few minutes. Add in drained beans, white wine and stock or water & continue cooking a few more minutes until beans are heated through and liquid has cooked off a bit. Mix in greens & stir well to combine and wilt greens into the mix. Serve shrimp on top of beans with tartar sauce for dipping and a wedge of lemon for tartness.

Lazy Sunday Mornings...

This breakfast dish has become an absolute staple in our house and has evolved over the past few years. I’m not sure it’s exact origins, but more than likely it was born out of necessity (living with two very hungry men) and availability of product in the house on any given Sunday morning. My family has a long standing tradition of great bread puddings and I am pleased to offer up my own evolution of a dish that is commonly served as a desert. My grandmother used to make the desert variety in sheet pans for her 11-yes, you read that correctly- children, and is now a staple at our family’s restaurant in Bangor. I brought this to a “Nestie” get together back home in Maine (with some fabulous ladies and awesome homemade treats!) over the holiday, and it seemed to go over well and traveled easily to boot.
I made this on Valentine’s Day morning (we’re not big celebrators of the day, but it did happen to fall on a Sunday this year), and it didn’t fail to satisfy. The making of the pudding actually had less to do with the holiday and more with the abundance of leftover bread from the aforementioned snow day, which worked out beautifully in the final product. It is yet another fantastic way to use up any odds & ends from the week and not feel like you’re skimping on your Sunday brunch with a very wallet friendly dish that it totally suitable for company. It’s also great as a “breakfast for dinner” dish, and reheats well. Any combination of breakfast meat (be it the real McCoy or the veggie variety), veggies and cheese work fabulously in this, so don’t feel confined to this combination, it just happens to be my favorite…

Breakfast Bread Pudding
-½ lb. Bulk breakfast sausage, or links broken up
-3 Cloves garlic, minced finely
- ½ Large sweet onion, sliced thinly
-6-7 Crimini mushrooms, sliced
-7-8 Large fresh eggs
-3 Tbspns ricotta cheese
-2 Tbspns milk
-¼ lb. Smoked Gouda, cubed
-¾- 1 loaf old bread, torn into pieces (I used a combo of white milk bread & herb and garlic rolls, so there was no need to add in extra herbs, bonus!)
- Fresh herbs (flat leaf parsley, dill, thyme, etc), optional
-Couple of tablespoons of olive oil
-Fresh cracked pepper & sea salt

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat a good sized oven proof Dutch oven or baking dish over medium heat with a little olive oil and brown sausage, breaking up with a wooden spoon into smaller pieces. Add in onions and sauté until slightly softened. Add in garlic and mushrooms & let cook for additional 4-5 minutes until softened and remove from heat. In a small bowl, combine eggs, milk and ricotta cheese with salt & pepper (season to your taste preference) and any herbs used. Add torn bread pieces and cubed cheese to sausage and vegetable mix in Dutch oven and toss to combine. Pour egg/ricotta mixture over all ingredients in pan and stir to coat all bread, pressing down lightly to ensure all of egg mixture is soaked up. Place bread pudding in oven for 35-40 minutes on until eggs are set (may vary depending on oven model- if top browns before eggs are set, cover with a round of tin foil to avoid burning). Serve with a side of breakfast potatoes, Cuban style French press coffee, bloody marys and pajamas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Have You Met My Friends?

In going through my postings up until this point, I have noticed that there are a lot of "repeat offenders" in the photos of equipment used in my kitchen. The main reason for this is predominantly blamed on the fact that the kitchen in our little tree house apartment is not exactly set up in the most condusive manner (as in we do not have any drawers-seriously), but I love it nonetheless. Kyle and I actually spent a good chunk of this weekend re-organizing our kitchen to make it more user friendly, and it was just about the best Valentine's Day I could ask for. We now have our most loved and well used pots & pans easily accessible from wall hooks near the sink, installed plastic sliding drawers in one of the lower cabinets, added mug hooks and a wine rack under an upper shelf and put in some wire pantry shelves for dry good storage. Ah, it's the little things!

While sorting through and organizing all of our cookware and kitchen tools (and there's a lot!), I was happy to be able to purge a few of our older items and duplicate pieces for donation and it got me thinking about the staple pieces of cookery that I can't live without- these being the pieces that keep showing up in my blog photos. If pressed to pick my favorite, it would easily go to our laminated cast iron Dutch oven. That bad baby has served up more meals than I could begin to count in its years of service. It's the perfect size for stews, braising, roasting vegetables and baking pasta dishes. It cleans easily, is hearty enough to retain heat for long periods of time, and is presentable enough to bring to the table. It is also worth noting that it is quite heavy, and can leave a good size welt on one's foot if you're not paying attention while rifling through the lower cabinets! About a week ago, my husband went to turn on the stove to start the water for coffee and shuffled away without realizing he had switched on the wrong burner. Much to my dismay, he had turned on the burner under our empty Dutch oven,which spends most of its life on our stovetop. Needless to say, the bottom of the pot turned black, and I was sure that it was the end of the road and proceeded to have myself a little mini-meltdown over the potential loss. Being the magic man that he is, my husband was able to save the pot in perfect form, and all was right with the world yet again. With that in mind, I began to think about those kitchen tools that you just can't live without, and so I posted the question to my friends on The Nest and on Facebook. The answers ran the gauntlet from the traditional (stand mixers, cast iron, indoor griddles) to the slightly more modern approach (vodka, corkscrew,turkey baster, husbands and microwave), but there were a few resounding leaders that kept showing up:

-Good quality knives
-Kitchen Aid stand mixer
-Saute pans
-Dutch oven
-Cast iron skillet
-Spatulas/Wooden Spoons

I would definitely be inclined to agree with these top choices as they pretty much reflect my desert island cooking survival kit. I have already professed my love for my enamel Dutch baby, and my only additions would be my immersion blender, kitchen shears and French press, although I think these might be second tier to the top six mentioned above. I'm pretty sure with my top pieces I could pull off a dinner party even under the Thunderdome, although I may have to tack vodka on to the list to calm nerves and dull the taste buds of those attending (it never hurts!). Do these pieces apply to you, or is there something else out there that you just can't live without in the kitchen? Maybe something really cool that we don't even know about??? Food for thought...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cold Weather Comforts

There is nothing better than getting out early, immediately donning your most comfortable duds, pouring a glass of wine and watching the snow fall. To add to this perfection of a day, we both began tooling around in the kitchen, looking to make something to enhance our snowy afternoon. And I will say this now for all to witness- my husband is the official Chief Baker in our household, hands down. I have made mention before about my complete inability to bake, and discovering his almost natural ability to make beautiful fluffy treats in all shapes and size, I am happy to hand the task
The other day, Kyle and I were gifted with the treat loved by those of all ages- a snow day. While I still reported to work in the morning for a couple of hours, Kyle was able to get out for the whole day, so he trudged our 4 wheel drive beast out to Portsmouth to pick me up and we (cautiously!) raced home to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

(and the stand mixer) over to him! I will get him at some point to scribble down his lovely bread recipe, but will share now what I ended up making. Soup has always been the perfect accompaniment to a cold day. I had some odds n’ ends rolling around in our fridge that I was looking to use up, and in my family’s tradition (thank you, Old Delicious), soup is usually the best avenue to use said bits up. I ended up with a wonderfully simple and very satisfying tortellini soup that was just as good for lunch the next as it was for supper last night. For mine, I used a combination of baby arugula and spinach, but you can use any greens that you have on hand. The ingredient list was also perfectly easy and relaxed and took very little time to prepare. Simple ingredients, simple preparation, simple pleasures. It was a good night to be snowed in…

Tortellini Soup with Onions and Greens
-1 12-16oz. package o
f fresh tortellini (I used sausage, but any
variety works well)
- 2-2 ½ quarts of chicken stock, homemade preferably

-1/2-3/4 of a sweet onion, sliced thinly
-3 good sized garlic cloves, finely minced
- 5 oz. fresh baby arugula

-5 oz. fresh baby spinach
-6-7 crimini mushrooms, sliced thinly
-1 Bay leaf
-Parmesan or any other hard cheese rind, optional
-Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg

-Fresh grated lemon zest
-Couple of tablespoons of olive oil
-French sea salt & fresh cracked pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add in sliced onion & begin to sweat, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper, add in bay leaf and continue to cook until the onion becomes soft, but still holds their shape. Add in garlic, allow to sweat out a bit longer (watch for over browning!), and continue stirring. Once garlic starts to release, add in chicken stock and cheese rind (if using) and allow to come up to a simmer, still over medium heat. About 10-15 minutes prior to serving, add in tortellini, greens and mushrooms and cook until pasta has warmed through, greens have softly wilted and mushrooms have absorbed some of the stock. Grate over a couple of passes of fresh nutmeg and stir. To serve, ladle into soup bowls, grate over a little fresh lemon zest and serve immediately. Pairs beautifully with fresh baked bread…