Monday, January 18, 2010

Nacho Salad

To know me is to know that I love nachos. This has been discussed before and I'm quite certain it will be again. For every single one of my lofty rules pertaining to gastronomy, local, seasonal and sustainable gets thrown out the window when it comes to nachos. If I see nachos on a menu, it's hard for me to think of ordering anything else, even when I should know better, or have made that mistake before. Call it faith or stupidity, but I am constantly ordering and then regretting ordering nachos.

Actually, it has been awhile since I've indulged, and I'm not counting a really weird and scary version of bbq brisket nachos at Esparza's restaurant because I should not have even gone there in the first place.

Last night the Golden Globes were on TV. Which means I spent 2 days thinking about what I wanted to make for myself and my roommate while we get drunk and efface celebrities. Even though every fiber of my being wanted to make a giant tray of nachos authentico, I resisted the temptation because, well, I am training to run a half marathon and I think it would go a little easier if I lost a few pounds rather than packed them on. My knees would appreciate it. With enough ingredients lying around to only warrant the purchase of an avocado and a head of lettuce, I concocted a mildly healthy chopped salad that satisfied almost every nacho-craving impulse and left me with no regrets. No regrets over the food, at least.

Nacho Salad
serves 4

6 cups crisp romaine lettuce, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup pickled onions (see below), chopped
6 radishes, diced
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (or, let's be honest, more)
1/2 large avocado, diced
small handful tortilla chips (I julienned and fried up a couple corn tortillas)
optional: sliced pickled jalapenos, black olives, more cheese...


for the pickled onion
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 T kosher salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds, toasted
a few hours ahead of salad time, place onions in a bowl and bring a pot of water to boil. Pour boiling water over onions and then immediately drain. Return onions to bowl and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and toss--refrigerate until ready to use. Will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.


for the seared beef:
10-16 oz round steak or other lean cut.
1 tsp ground chile powder (I use ground New Mexico chile)
1/2 tsp cumin
salt and pepper
2-24 hours prior, pat steak dry with paper towel and season with spices and plenty of salt and pepper. Refrigerate, but bring to room temperature 30 minutes before cooking. Heat a heavy-duty skillet on a high burner and drizzle a little oil on the pan. Might want to turn on your exhaust fan at this point. When the oil starts smoking, sear the steak. I like about 3 min per side for a 3/4 to 1-inch thick steak to cook medium rare. Remove from heat and let the steak rest while you put the rest of the salad together.


chipotle and sour cream dressing:
1 garlic clove, minced
salt & pepper
juice of one lime, about 2 T
1 chipotle from a can, chopped
2-4 T sour cream
2-4 T olive oil
Place garlic in bowl, sprinkle on salt, chipotle and lime juice, let sit 10 minutes.

To Assemble: When steak is rested, slice thinly against the grain and toss in a large bowl with the rest of the salad ingredients. Add dressing to taste. garnish with some extra tortillas if you're feeling indulgent.

I forgot to art direct the salad and take a photo, but it was too good to not capture, along with the award for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Spiced Pork Crackling Peanut Brittle

I sat here trying to come up with a clever name for this post, one that would convey the psychic weight of a candy enriched with the byproduct of a Saturday lard-rendering. But, in the end, I think the confection can speak for itself.

There is a wonderful book out there, which I don't yet own, called Fat. I have Ms. McLagan's earlier Bones and for all the irrelevant cookbook titles that are out there (pretty much anything published by The Food Network), these are a gold mine for cooks like me, who first acquire the ingredients (in this case, odd cuts of meat) and then go in search of a recipe. While leafing through Laura's copy I found a recipe for spiced crackling brittle, in which you first roast rendered pork rind in an improvised 5-spice powder, then mix with sugar that is melted and brought to the hard crack stage. Pretty simple. Not so simple when you are improvising with cracklings and peanuts, as I decided to try. First, I roasted my cracklings in a mixture of star anise, allspice, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt, with a little lemon in for brightness.

Then, I proceeded to make an old-fashioned peanut brittle, from a recipe supplied by the eternally reliable Joy Of Cooking. This involves melting sugar, adding cream of tartar, baking soda, butter and vanilla at crucial stages, heating the sugar to the hard crack stage (305) without scorching it, adding nuts at lighting speed, pouring it out to cool, and finally, pulling the only-slightly cooled candy with your hands thus incorporating enough air bubbles to qualify it as a true brittle and not just some average piece of hard candy with nuts (and in this case, pork fat).

Working with the cracklings was not quite the same as supplementing a second kind of nut. I wanted to add them early, at the stage where you'd normally add butter. You know me, always looking for ways to shave off some fat here and there! The pork being spiced, and the temperature being hot, and also my candy thermometer being unreliable, resulted in some premature scorching. It all happened so fast. I was pretty sure I hadn't hit the sweet spot of 305 with my sugar before I poured it onto a greased cookie sheet, but miraculously it pulled and hardened just like brittle should.

The brittle was pretty special: sweet, salty, spicy and, in places, deliciously fatty. Co-workers made quick work of it and I'm looking forward to perfecting it on round 2 when I incorporate smaller pieces of crackling a bit later on in the cooking process. In the meantime, I'm saving up for Fat so I can figure out what the hell I'm going to do with all my lard.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lard 101

Back in early November, my friend Laura Ohm and I went in on a pig together. No, not as a pet (though I did have a pet pig in college, ask me about that sometime), but as dinner. Many, many dinners. This is the second or third pig that Laura and I have split in as many years, and we go in on cows and lambs together too. If there's anything my 7 years as a vegetarian taught me, it's that I love eating meat but I do have a conscience. For me, buying animals directly from your farmer is a responsible and guilt-assuaging way to have your cake and eat it too. And don't think the cachet of pulling out, "yeah, I've still got about a third of a pig in my freezer" at parties doesn't rake in the men. It totally does.

Our 'season' for buying our animals is usually late fall. In brief, the life-cycle of our meat is such: we reserve a pig. Pig is born, weaned, raised and fattened. During this time, Laura and I frantically try to cook off the remains of last year's meat and also put in our cutting order for current, living pig. Farmer slaughters pig or hires a slaughterer to do the dirty work. Pig, who lived and grew on a small family farm and hopefully had a happy life, is slaughtered, then brought to a processor, where it is butchered and packaged. Laura and Robin pick up about 180 lbs of pig parts wrapped in butcher paper. Every year is a little different from the last. Sometimes we change farmers, sometimes the farmers change processors, sometimes the processors change their packaging. These variations may result in a pleasant surprise or niggling annoyance, like a new 'splitting' fee which is the equivalent of being charged for an extra plate for sharing at a restaurant. This year, along with 2 different cures for our hams (good) and the all of our ground pork seasoned as breakfast sausage (bad) our pig came with a heavy, double bagged pale lump of what we hoped was fat.

This weekend we decided to make lard. Lard is fat, but fat is not lard. Fat needs to be rendered, lipids melted, solids separated. Cobbling together our shared experience of rendering chicken and duck fat, we broke our fat down into manageable pieces and placed them in heavy enamel pots with just enough water to keep the fat moist before it melted.

then it cooked,

then it melted,

then it was done. It's so clear and pure, you can see your reflection though I don't really recommend doing this. It kind of felt I was giving myself a lard facial.

Now Laura and I each have a little over 2 quarts of solid lard and nearly the equivalent in delicious, deadly cracklings. Luckily, both byproducts are going to keep a long time in the fridge, even longer frozen. Which is good because there's only so much pork crackling you can nibble at for "research" at a time. Here is just one container of fresh, homemade lard, chilled overnight and still aromatic enough to pique Victor's interest.