Double Secret Cookbook Probation

It’s past time that I confessed to a slight cookbook problem.

Promiscuous is not too strong a word. I’m entirely too cavalier about absorbing them to into my world. How I instantly fall in love with them – maintaining them ever so  briefly in their place of honor atop my living room end table. How I try, in, vain, to live vicariously through their dishes and how I sometimes try to rudely step into their unattainable inner world, where chutney maintains its luscious color and every plate is impeccably garnished. How I eventually set them aside when something new comes along. I was even at the point where I made an agreement with myself not to buy any more for a while.

But there are few that stick around. The best ones are trusted friends I can count on for candid, straightforward counsel. One or two are a source of excitement and drama. Some I simply click with. There are Beautiful People who might someday invite me to their parties. And several were just in the right place at the right time.

And some just plain inspire me.

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Sorry About That

Sometimes, real life takes over.  One minute I’m lounging about in my short pants gathering cookout pictures and suddenly I’m sniffling into my hoodie sleeve and planning my Halloween costume.  Candidly, though, the last couple months haven’t found me very bloggy.  As a lot of you know, I had a death in the family recently and had to spend a couple of weekends in my hometown, including a trip to “the family farm,” to scatter ashes, chase wild turkeys and whatever.  The side-note here is that I really am grateful for the kindness many of you have shown these past weeks.  It’s been kind of a struggle to find a rhythm and an energy again.  But I’m getting there.

But I HAVE been cooking.  And reading.  And obsessing.   Not even sure where to start.  So, in the spirit of catching up, please indulge my speed round:
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The Thelonious Monk of Banana Breads

Life would be so easy if I just craved Kale.

Unfortunately, the restaurant I worked at as a teenager used the stuff to garnish the salad bar, wrapping the bright and sturdy leaves around plastic tubs full of garbanzo beans and jello squares and soupy ranch dressing.  In retrospect this clearly strikes me as a wanton waste of such a noble vegetable.

Still, if it’s three AM and I’m standing in front of my fridge in my pyjamas ready to gnaw off my arm… or if it’s 830 PM and I’m lying face down on my couch with my work shoes off my heels but still technically on because I don’t have the energy to kick them off due to spending the previous 11 hours at work being yelled at by an entire corporate supply chain… I don’t want f***ing kale.

This latest effort to allay my comfort-food cravings reached all the way back into the murky paleolithic prehistory of my baking – before I understood gluten and fat types and pH and not overmixing quickbread and such things.  Back to one of the first things I ever baked.

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Pork Belly Sous Vide

I’m sorry for such a long post, but there is a lot of pork to discuss.

This all started with a line in a cookbook which read something like, “you can cook a pot roast to medium rare, but still long enough so that the meat falls off the bone…”

I am unable to continue to quote because the remainder of the page is basically obscured by drool.

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Tim Mcgraw Branded Fritos = I Choose Death

I love surprises.

I’m in one of those “cookbook of the month” things. You know, one of those six cookbooks for a dollar send in the card every month deals.  The selection has deteriorated considerably since I enrolled about three years ago.   I’m to the point where I’m too lazy to cancel my membership and I have a recurring event on my cellphone every month to basically inform the clowns not to send me anything.

But this time… I saw something.

And I completely forgot that I ordered it.   I saw the package in front of my door a week later, and, being senile, I just stared at the box primordially as if it were the monolith in 2001.

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An Orphan Thanksgiving

I’d like to preface this, for the record, by stating that my contribution to Julie’s Orphan T-day was minor at best.  As I told our hostess, I would have been satisfied with toast and popcorn, given the laughter and the company and Kate’s two very strong and impeccably prepared Manhattans – not to mention a lot of other wonderful food.

But seriously.  I should do guerrilla marketing for Tide. Because evidently I seem to have this knack for effortlessly getting other people excited about things I’m borderline obsessed about.  I mean, within three minutes of walking into the loft, everyone at the party was talking about bacon.

Yes, I’m exaggerating slightly for comic (?) effect.  But still.

I didn’t even force the conversation, I just have some pretty cool baco-curious friends.  And it didn’t hurt that I brought THIS.

Glazed. Pork. Belly.  First among equals in the Bacoverse, this is the most solemn moment on the High Altar of porcine worship.

Okay, maybe not.   But, when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing stuff.  Pork belly is raw, uncured, unsmoked and unsliced proto-bacon, which you can treat like a more flavorful and even richer form of pork shoulder, and serve it in steaks, slices, chunks, you name it.

I giggled at the recipe.  Specifically, the line which read “Trim away the excess fat from the pork belly.”   Mkay, what, precisely, constitutes “excess” fat?”  As far as I’m concerned every bit of it is critical. As if.

This dish was inspired by the Balthazaar Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the NYC brasserie.  I joke a lot about cookbooks basically being pornography, and this book is certainly no exception.  But the recipes… work.  They’re well written, logical, and have always yielded good results.  Their braised short ribs have become my standard preparation, the mascarpone-parm polenta was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted, and I make the pan roasted root veggies fairly regularly.

But I have to admit that in this case, I went my own way.  The spice combination didn’t sound particularly appetizing (I don’t care for star anise in savory dishes), and, as much as I love my friends, I’m not using veal stock.

So we improvise.  It’s pretty much a straightforward cure/braise.

1 1/2 Cups kosher salt
1/2 Cup Sugar
1 t fennel
1 t ground mustard
2 t black peppercorns
1 T juniper berries
6 Cloves Garlic

2-3lb slab of pork belly, uncured
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
1 T tomato paste
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/2 dry white whine
1 cup chicken broth + 1 cup beef broth (or two cups veal stock)

Place the dried spices in a nonstick skillet over low heat, jiggling the pan constantly until the aroma fills the air.  Apply the spice mixture liberally to the pork belly, then submerge the entire piece of pork underneath the salt and the sugar within a large bowl.  It may be necessary to cut the pork into two smaller pieces.  The key is complete coverage.

Cover with plastic, and let sit in the fridge overnight.

Next day, remove the pork and allow the meat to come to room temperature.  The pork should be a much deeper red color.

Rinse off the salt and pat the meat dry.

Preheat the oven to 300.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed roasting pan.  Add the onion and sweat for several minutes, along with a pinch of salt.  Add the celery and carrot and cook until translucent.  Add the pineapple and cook for five more minutes.    Add the tomato paste fresh tomatoes, herbs and wine, and cook for a moment to allow the alcahol to cook down.

Place the pork belly, rind side UP, in the pan and pour enough stock to fill the pan but not cover the meat.  The liquid should be just level with the top layer of the fat.  Add water if need be.

Bring to a simmer, then transfer to the oven for 2 hours, basting every 15 minutes.

Remove the pork to a plate and strain the sauce into a medium saucepan.  Bring to a skimmer and whisk away any fat that appears on the surface.  Reduce the liquid by half, and adjust the seasoning to taste.

The cookbook recommends that you slice the pork across its width and serve with the sauce spooned over.  I simply cut it into chunks and served it as a stew.

I also happened to make bacon-cheddar-chive biscuits.  They were optically pleasing but were a little tough.  The extra fat and flavor from the bacon and cheese mitigated this somewhat, but I don’t think these guys are ready for prime time.

Lastly, I made another chocolate truffle torte.  It received raves from the Hostess’ mother and one marriage proposal, which I found immensely flattering.  But the recipe is not really my own and I hate to take credit for it.

Anyway, this was the best Thanksgiving I’ve had in quite some time.  Thanks, everyone.