Monday, October 29, 2007

Ricotta Gnocchi with Sausage and Fennel Ragu

We've been in love with this dish ever since we had it as an appetizer at Lupa in Manhattan. Lupa is a former Mario Batali joint, and is now run by Mark Ladner (who you might recognize as one of Mario's sous chefs on Iron Chef America).

The basis for the ragu is Mario's basic tomato sauce. We use this sauce a lot as it is very versatile. We always make a good sized batch, divvy it up into 1- and 2-cup portions and keep it in the freezer.

The fennel part of the sauce comes from both fresh and dried fennel.

The fresh fennel bulb gets finely chopped up, and the dried fennel seeds get toasted and ground. Both are sauted along with some red onion, carrot, celery, garlic, red chile flakes and sweet Italian sausage removed from its casing and broken up. The ragu comes together after a long simmer with the basic tomato sauce.

The gnocchi start with ricotta cheese that has been drained overnight. Mario's recipe calls for goat-milk ricotta, which is great if you can get it, but standard cow's milk ricotta works for us.

After adding a bit of flour and egg you form football shaped quenelles with a pair of spoons. The dough is light and moist, but fairly easy to work with.

The gnocchi only take a few minutes to cook. They sink initially and are nearly done once they float to the surface.

Perfect versions are delicate, with an almost velvety texture when you bite into them. Their simple seasoning of salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg is a nice counterpoint to the aggressively flavored fennel and sausage sauce.

The Lupa recipe can be found here, but we use the Molto Mario version of the recipe and add double the tomato sauce to loosen the ragu a bit. Note that this recipe make a *lot* of sauce. We generally make a half batch of the ragu and still have some leftover (which isn't a problem -- it's great as a pasta sauce).

Friday, October 26, 2007

Mu Shu Pork Butt

We really like Mu Shu Pork, and we have lots of left over pulled pork on our hands (a 7 pound butt makes a lot of pulled pork...), so we thought why not combine the two?

We made a filling much like our normal Mu Shu recipe, but omitting the eggs, bamboo shoots, fungus, lily buds and, of course, the pork. Rolled up in a Mandarin pancake with hoisin sauce and some of the pulled pork, it was similar to, but interestingly different from regular Mu Shu.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Beer-Braised Lamb Shanks

Our friends Oren and Jill have been on a cooking-with-beer kick recently. Talking beer and food with them over a few pints at the Liars' Club got us inspired. We have a number of bottles left from our second attempt at a San Diego Pale Ale. That particular batch had a much more malty character than we were going for, but we figured it would be a good beer to try cooking with.

Braised lamb shanks are simple to prepare and one of our favorite fall foods -- using our beer as the braising liquid made perfect sense.

First I seared the shanks until well browned to deepen the flavor. Carrots and onions were browned in the same pan, followed briefly by minced garlic and finely diced tomato.

Then I added the beer a little at a time, scraping up caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan. We added a little stock to bring up the liquid level and brought it to a boil, then we put the lid on and popped it in the oven for an hour to braise.

It came out beautifully. The lamb was perfectly cooked -- coming off of the bone easily, but still with some structure left and with that lovely stickiness that comes from collagen breaking down.

The sauce was a bright, burnished orange and had great flavor. The hint of bitterness from the hops in the beer added an intriguing note.

Here's the recipe. We used a modified version of recipes we found online.

Beer Braised Lamb Shanks

4 (3/4 pound) lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 small onions, quartered
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large tomato, cored and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (22 ounce) bomber malty beer
Approx. 1 cup beef stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil over medium high in a large dutch oven. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper, then sear in the hot pan until well browned on all sides, 10-15 minutes total. Remove shanks from pan and set aside in a bowl.

Brown the onions and carrots in the same pan, stirring occasionally. When lightly browned (about 5 to 7 minutes), reduce heat to medium and add the tomato and garlic. Stir and cook about 2 minutes. Add one third of the beer then scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to incorporate any brown bits into the sauce. Add the remaining beer and bring to a boil.

Simmer the beer and vegetables for a couple minutes, then nestle the shanks into the pot, adding any juices from the bowl. Add enough beef stock to immerse about 3/4 of the shanks. Put the lid on the dutch oven and place in the preheated oven for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. The shanks are done when the meat pulls easily from the bone and is very tender. Remove shanks from the pot and skim excess fat from the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper, return the shanks to the beer broth and serve.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pulled Pork Tacos

Pulled Pork Tacos

Our current pulled pork delivery vehicle of choice is the taco.

Rolled in a mini corn tortilla and topped with a fresh salsa and red cabbage, the smoky pork really shines through. The masa flavor from the tortilla and the acid bite of the salsa complement it perfectly.

Pulled pork sopes are pretty amazing, too...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Barbecued Pork Butt

Every summer we make sure to do a pork butt on the barbecue. This year, we just managed to squeeze it in before the end of barbecue season. As it gets dark earlier, it gets harder and harder to cook outside -- particularly when the dish takes 9 hours...

A whole bone-in pork butt is a beautiful thing. We get ours from Siesel's Meats, a nice local place offering a good selection of high quality meats. (If it's not in the display case, ask. They just might have it in the back.)

Covered in a generous coating of flavorful spices, it's even better.

Our rub is from Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork and includes paprika, chili powder, cayenne, garlic powder, brown sugar, ground cumin, ground coriander, dry mustard, dry sage, dried oregano, black pepper and kosher salt. The spice mixture is applied the night before cooking and the whole thing is wrapped in plastic, then refrigerated. Overnight, the rub draws out a bit of moisture to become a sort of dry marinade.

We use a gas grill with indirect heat for this type of cooking. Using a single burner, we can keep the temperature at a reasonably consistent 200 to 250 degrees -- usually about 230. The hard part is getting a good, stable smoke level. But by placing the wood chip box very close to the lit burner, we can usually achieve a nice, if sporadic smokiness. The grill loses a fair amount of smoke, so the chips need replacing quite frequently -- I'm sure everyone in the neighborhood can tell (smell) when we're cooking barbecue.

During the long, slow cooking process, the smoke and spices combine to create a delicious crispy, yet chewy, intensely flavored crust. After resting, all it takes is a couple of forks to pull the pork into savory shreds. Add a little vinegar sauce seasoned with salt, pepper, sugar and chili flakes and you're all set.

When we first started making pulled pork, our primary use of it was the traditional pulled pork sandwich. Recently, though, we've changed our ways. We find that the bread of the sandwich masks a lot of the great pork flavor. As an alternative, we like to make pulled pork tacos.

Barbecued Pork Butt

The Spice Rub:

1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon dry sage
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

The Vinegar Sauce:

3/4 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 (6-8 pound) bone-in pork butt
Several cups of hardwood chips (hickory and alder), soaked for 2 hours.

Thoroughly mix together the ingredients for the spice rub. Sprinkle the rub evenly all over the meat giving it a generous coating. Wrap the seasoned meat tightly in plastic wrap, place on a tray to catch any escaping juices, and refrigerate overnight.

Unwrap the meat and let sit at room temperature while preparing the grill. Using a gas barbecue grill, remove one grill plate and center the other in the grill area. Light one burner to the left or right of the grill plate and put a wood chip smoker box filled with damp wood chips near the lit burner -- bring them to a smolder. Place the seasoned meat on the grill, fat side up, and close the lid.

Maintain a grill temperature of 200 to 250 degrees, replenishing the wood chips as necessary to achieve a consistent smoke level. Cook the pork until the internal temperature reaches at least 180 degrees; for improved tenderness, shoot for closer to 190 degrees. Cooking time will take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending upon the roast size and grill temperature.

Due to the long cooking time, the wood chip smoker box will fill with ashes, reducing its effectiveness. Every few hours, use tongs to remove the box and empty the ashes into a metal container before refilling with damp wood chips. If needed, turn on a second burner for a few minutes after opening the lid to restore the temperature level and jumpstart the chip smoker.

When the meat is done, carefully transfer it from the grill to a tray. Cover with foil and drape with kitchen towels, then allow it to rest 30 minutes. Prepare the vinegar sauce by mixing the ingredients until the sugar and salt have completely dissolved. Once the meat has rested, use two forks to pull the meat into shreds and transfer to a large bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of the vinegar sauce over the meat and mix gently, but well. Add additional sauce to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Road Trip - Beer In Review

If you have read any of our road trip posts, you'll probably have noticed that beer was a bit of a theme... Here's a beer focused collage from the trip.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Smoked Chicken

Inspired by an appetizer we ate at Josef's in Santa Rosa and still remembering the barbecued turkey event in the mountains, I decided to try my luck at doing a smoked chicken here at home. (Mike had suggested BBQ Pork Butt, but that would have to wait for another day.)

We had some apple wood and alder wood chips on hand, perfect for poultry since they're milder than hickory.

The chicken was brined for several hours in a salt and sugar solution. Since it's smoked at a low temperature (200 degrees) for several hours, the brine included a little pink salt like you would use for other cured meats.

For the glaze, I used Early Times whiskey and a nice, dark, grade B maple syrup. The flavor and texture came out wonderfully, and went really well with a warm, vinegary potato salad.

We found that we liked the breast more than the dark meat (which ended up more salty from the brine). The next time we try this technique, we may just use skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts instead of the whole bird.

Whiskey-Glazed Smoked Chicken

Based on a recipe from Charcuterie. Instructions here are for a gas grill.

The Brine:

1 gallon (4 liters) water
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) kosher salt
1/2 cup (125 grams) sugar
8 teaspoons (42 grams) pink salt

The Glaze:

1 cup (250 ml) bourbon
1/2 cup (125 grams) maple sugar or 1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 packed cup (50 grams) dark brown sugar
Pinch cayenne pepper

1 (3-4 pound) chicken

Mix the brine ingredients in a large (~12 quart) pot until all sugar and salts have dissolved. Place the pot in the refrigerator until the brine is cold.

Rinse the chicken under cold water, and then place it into the brine. The chicken should be fully submerged; use a plate to weigh it down if it tends to float. Chill for about 18 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine and rinse well under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels, place on a tray and refrigerate uncovered for at least 4 hours or up to a day. This allows the salt brine to distribute more evenly and improves the skin's ability to accept the smoke flavor.

Mix the glaze ingredients in a small pan and bring to a low simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Continue cooking until the glaze becomes syrupy. The original recipe suggested arriving at a volume of 1 cup, however cooking longer to achieve a 1/2-cup volume results in a thicker glaze with more chance of sticking to your bird. When ready, remove from heat and allow to cool.

Prepare your grill for hot smoking by lighting only one burner. Put a wood chip smoker box filled with damp wood chips near the lit burner and bring to a smolder. Place the chicken on a grill rack away from the lit burner and close the grill lid. Maintain a temperature of about 200 degrees, replenishing wood chips as necessary to achieve a consistent smokiness.

After about 2 hours, brush some of the glaze all over the surface of the chicken. Close the grill lid and continue smoking the bird until a thermometer inserted into the thigh registers 160 degrees, about an hour to an hour-and-a-half longer.

Remove the chicken from the grill and brush with more of the glaze. Let rest at least 15 minutes before carving and serve warm now, or chilled later.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Road Trip - Tobin James Barbecue In Paso Robles

Our final stop on our road trip was at Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles. Our friends Arne and Gisela are members of their wine club, and invited us to go to an end-of-summer barbecue at the winery. Lots of food, free-flowing wine, what's not to like?

In addition to barbecued oysters and ribs, they had a pizza oven going. I want one!

An evening of wine consumption made for an amusing shuttle ride back to the hotel. Here are Arne and Gisela in a not uncharacteristic pose...

Road Trip - Passionfish In Pacific Grove And Camping In Big Sur

After our Toronado stop in San Francisco, we headed down the coast toward Big Sur. Along the way, we stopped overnight in Pacific Grove and had dinner at Passionfish. We had heard good things about this place and were looking forward to trying it.

One of the things Passionfish is known for is having an interesting wine selection with low markup. It did not disappoint. The list was varied, and had many interesting selections in the $20 range. In keeping with our Basque theme, we had a bottle of Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli (how's that for a mouthful?), which proved very enjoyable from start to finish.

For food, we started with an order of fried calamari and an heirloom tomato salad. The calamari was disappointing -- overly salty (and I'm a salt fiend) but the heirloom tomato salad was our favorite dish of the evening. Nice ripe tomatoes in a flavorful vinaigrette and dotted with halved grapes which I enjoyed much more than I would have expected.

For entrees we had an asian-themed sablefish dish from the menu and a sturgeon dish they had as a special. Both were just ok. The sauce for the sablefish was uninspired and we found the wasabi slaw on the side a strange accompaniment. The fish itself had a less pleasant flavor and texture than we have had elsewhere, and it also was full of bones.

The sturgeon was not much better (although we've never had sturgeon before, and have no basis for comparison). It was served with a corn and bacon relish, which would have been better if the corn had had more "corn flavor" and the bacon were less overpowering.

Overall, the meal was a let down. Other than the excellent tomato salad, we did not truly enjoy any of the dishes. My overall impression was ok food for an ok price. I would have rather paid half again as much for a more memorable dining experience.

The next day we headed on down the coast along the beautiful Big Sur drive.

We camped for the night at Limekiln State Park, the southernmost public campground in Big Sur. We had never camped there before, and really only ended up there this time because it had the only campsite left in the park when we booked a month or so earlier. It turned out to be a beautiful little place with a private beach and campsites in amongst the redwoods.

We caught a great sunset that night.

And then put together a makeshift meal. Smoked salmon + pesto + spaghetti + tomatoes = dinner.

We had Jameson while camping on the way out through Zion and Bryce, so we gave the Scots their due this time around with a bottle of Bowmore, one of our favorite Scottish whiskys.

The next morning we hiked the park's several short trails up the creek that runs through the campsites. One trail leads up to a very pretty waterfall.

Nice short visit to Big Sur. We'll definitely be coming back to Limekiln.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Road Trip - Toronado and Magnolia In San Francisco

Coming down to San Francisco from Santa Rosa, we did the mandatory tourist stop north of the Golden Gate. It was an atypically beautiful warm sunny day for the area.

After the bridge, we had only one more stop to make in the city on this particular visit -- The Haight.

From what I'd heard, there is only one other beer bar in the country that has a chance as possibly bettering my local (the Liars' Club). That bar is Toronado. We had never been there, but that was about to change...

Toronado is a lot like Liars' -- an unapologetic fuck you exterior with a heart of gold. This is a bar where the customer is not always right...

But the beer selection certainly is. With over 40 beers on tap, Toronado is a powerhouse of Northern California (i.e. not San Diego) craft beer. Unlike Liars', they don't do food and do not have a full bar, which leaves them more room for taps.

I had a pint of Hop Stoopid from Lagunitas. I haven't been a big fan of their beers in the past, but I liked this double IPA just fine. Sherry had a Brother David's Belgian-style Double Ale from Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which we both liked ok (still trying to really get into that Belgian yeast flavor...)

They actually did have one San Diego beer on tap -- a double red from Port Carlsbad called 547 Haight (that's Toronado's address - Port made the beer in their honor). I had a taster of it and really liked it. Very flavorful beer. I also tasted Rodger's Last Stand, a triple IPA from Drake's, but ended up going with a pint of Racer 5. I know, a bit of a cop out since we had been at Bear Republic the day before, but hey, I love that beer. Sherry went with a Big Daddy IPA from Speakeasy.

We then walked up Haight to Magnolia Pub & Brewery for lunch.

I was sobering up to drive, but Sherry got their Proving Ground IPA. I tasted it as well, and neither of us was particularly impressed.

We had some pretty good food, though. I had a cuban sandwich and Sherry had a grilled chicken sandwich that had a really nice mango remoulade on it. We also happened to run into one of the couples we met a few days earlier at Bear Republic. It's a small world when you are on a quest for good beer.

Monday, October 1, 2007

September In Review

September in review is a bit toned down, as we were traveling for the first half of the month and didn't get a chance to cook much. We'll make up for it with a special road trip beer collage soon...