Monday, June 6, 2011

Eating Local Far Away

I am from the east coast and my wife is from a lovely spot in the Central Coast of California. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in her old home town, which is known for a lot of wonderful food and wine. Chief among these is Santa Maria Style Bar-B-Que and Tri Tip. Tri Tip is the tip of the Sirloin, and somewhat hard to find on the east coast. It usually comes in roast between 2 and 4 pounds, and is a wonderfully flavorful and juicy cut of meat. So over the years we have had to satisfy our tri tip craving on our annual trips back to the other coast.

Slowly, however, I have been working to develop a set of local suppliers for our fix. This has also required me to learn a lot more about how to best cook and prepare the tri tip itself. With the visit of her brother, also a major Tri-Tip junkie, I took the opportunity to try out my hand on this specialized delicacy.

In addition to locating a 2 pound, locally raised, grass fed tri tip from Midland Tree Farms in Virginia, I also located some Santa Maria Pacquinto beans from Rancho Gordo. While decidedly not local (they are based in Napa Valley), they are authentic to the region and the owners of RG are really focused on bringing back heirloom varieties of beans. I was thrilled to find these local delicacies, even if they required some shipping.

The means were cooked with some inions and garlic, and some chopped up pork belly to add some meat and richness to the dish. I pre-soaked the beans and then cooked them in their soaking liquid for about 4 hours on low heat. They still had a little bite left and were not too soft. Added a small amount of salt and the end, along with a little soy sauce and Worchester sauce as well.

The tri tip got a light coating of Santa Maria dry run about 2 hours before being cooked. The rub features garlic salt, salt, pepper and some herbs. The salt helps draw out some moisture and helps ensure a nice crust on the meat.

The fire was hardwood charcoal and some shredded oak chips. I CANNOT STRESS HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS. You need to use oak to make authentic tri-tip or Santa Maria BBQ. I was lucky enough to have the rancher from Midland Tree Farms provide some oak from her ranch. So the meat was going to be smoked from trees surrounding the area where the cows lived. Kind of cool, I thought. I soaked the shreds for 30 minutes in water. I had never used shreds before, and I admit I like them because they don't need to soak for hours. The downside is they cook down very quickly.

After letting the coals die down (about 325 in the grill), I coated the roast with more dry rub and then put the roast on the grill as far from the heat as possible. And I then threw the oak right on top of the fire and closed it up.

About 15 minutes later, I turned the roast, and threw on another handful of the oak. Fifteen minutes later, I moved the roast over the heat for 5 minutes a side and then check the temperature - now a perfect 130 degrees and took it off the heat to rest.

The longest 10 minutes in the world are the ones left waiting for the meat to rest. But once it had relaxed, we carved up this terrific piece of meat. The outside was crusty and brown, it has a nice 1/4" red smoke ring and was incredible juicy. The deep smoky flavor added just the right local note to this dish. The side of beans, which tasted like had been served up at our favorite local joint, were the perfect side.

I served it with some local lettuce (we grew) and tomatoes, and drank a terrific Linne Calodo from Paso Robles.

Everything we ate or drank were authentic central coast, even if some of it came from the East Coast and some had to be imported. Did this make it taste better? Probably not, but it allowed us to enjoy the meal even more for the effort and the theme. Regardless, it was one awesome meal. I am drooling just thinking about it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How Would You Like Your Meat?

And with the first pick in the draft, Team Jon selects – bone-in rib eye steaks.

To some, this entire sentence will make no sense at all. To others, it will seem like a non-sequitor. But for about 30 people this weekend in DC, this was the start of a really terrific event demonstrating yet another way for people to buy humanely and healthily raised beef.

The geniuses at are the ones who deserve the credit for this really fun concept combing a food co-op for beef with a fantasy sports draft. They were covered in the WashingtonPost a while back as well. For those not familiar with either concept, keep reading. For those who don’t need the primer, skip down a bit.

1) A beef co-op – this is a novel way for a group of people to share beef from one cow. IN this concept a group (more than 1) agree to share a slaughtered cow (wither a whole, a half, a quarter or some smaller portion). By pursuing the co-op, consumers skip the middle man, and can find beef raised in a way they like (grass fed, pastured, traced back to the rancher and non-CAFO linked) and cut to order (like your porterhouse cut double thick, no problem0). You can also save a significant amount of money as beef averages less than $5 bucks a pound. Now, you also end up with a lot of cuts you might never even see in the store, let alone buy. Tongue, liver, cheeks, arm steaks, etc. The co-op is an old concept but one that is regaining a following as people turn away from beef that is, well, a lot less like beef used to be.
2) A fantasy sports draft – if you have been living under a rock, you may not know that America is fantasy sorts crazy. In this activity, people in a group pretend to be the general manager of a sports franchise (football and baseball, mainly) and begin the season by spending their fantasy budget drafting the players they want on their team. Each player then scores points depending on how they perform during the season. In the draft, the player who goes first gets his pick of the entire universe of players (who usually drafts the best performing player). The person who goes second gets the pick from everyone left, and so on and so on. One the full roster of pickers has selected, they go again in reverse order so with 12 teams, the person who picks 12th picks first in round 2. Overall, it looks like this: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-1-2-3-4 . . . .
Well, in this, there are no players, only recently killed, dry aged, cut and shrink wrapped cuts of beef. Everything from bone-in rib eyes and filet mignons to briskets and chuck roasts. Jon and Sam, the owners of WhiteHosueMeats are there to make sure it all runs smoothly and to answer all and any questions from “what the frick is an English pub roast?” to “how do I cook tongue.” They also give you tips, if asked, on what to pick next if you don’t know how to get the most for your money.

Everyone is guarantees to leave with 20 pounds of meat at a pre-set price of $9.80/pound. Yes, if you buy nothing but ground beef, you are overpaying. But if you pick well and get lucky in your draft order, you can get several choice pieces of beef that would usually run over 20 bucks a pound at Whole Foods or other major grocery chain. Add to this the fact that you can find out exactly where and how this cow lives, when it was harvested, how it was treated and ensure it goes right from the owner to you in less than 3 weeks (including several weeks of dry-aging) and many would consider this a bargain.

So, there we ended up, about 30 people (most teams had several people per team) at the DC Grey Market (more on that another time) at 1pm going over the basics and looking at two long tables loaded down with about 140 parcels of beef. Just to begin, you could tell the beef was good just by looking at it. Dark red to purple in color, well marbled and in a mind-boggling variety of cuts. I don’t know that I have ever seen what a whole cow looks like broken down. Man, there is a lot of meat in a cow.
We got picked to go 6th in the draft. This was fine with us as we had looked at the table and knew that for our top choices – rib eyes, stripes and sirloin steaks, there were plenty to go around. We also guessed (correctly) that a few people would go for other less bountiful cuts for personal reasons (like there are only 2 briskets, 1 hanger steak, etc). In the first two round, we got two rib-eyes on the bone each for about 5 pounds. In the third round, we picked a flank steak (a very nice cut, about 3 pounds) and in the 4th we selected a long piece of sirloin. Later rounds brought two nice chucks roasts and a London broil, which was actually a top sirloin. We rounded out our 20 pounds with some ground beef and with a few free picks, some liver and some beef bones.

I have not gone back and done the math but I suspect we broke about even if we went and bought the beef at the store. Yet then again, we ended up with a bunch of freebees, had a fun time, learned about different cuts of meat and ended up with a healthier and hopefully more delicious product. The grilling is set to begin this weekend and I will update on how it tastes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Daily Grind

No, not the caffeinated kind, I am talking about my newest passion for me - freshly ground beef. The taste, texture and benefits of grinding meat is a revelation for me, akin to tasting my first non-industrially raised chicken. What I have been eating for years, wrapped in plastic and served on styrofoam plates is one thing, but what I have just begun to prepare for my family on a regular basis - freshly bought, selected and ground beef is an entirely different product.

Many people are likely intimidated by the idea, others will ask "why should I bother, I can get this for $4.99/lb at Whole Foods. For the first group, I would say what do you have to lose and for the second, I would ask them if they are willing to pay more for one cut of meat over another, then why would they settle for ground beef made up of who knows what?

So in thinking about joining this modest movement of homegrinders, there are a few things to consider:

1) What to "grind" with:
No, you do not need an expensive meat grinder. First of all, you can ask your butcher to do it for you. They are more than happy to do so in most stores, although they will ask if you are SURE you don't want what is alrady ground. Yes, you ARE sure. This is a good way to determine if the difference in taste, texture and control are enough for you to take the next steps.

I use a Kitchen-Aide meat grinder attachment. This one, in fact. It is very inexpensive, provided you already have a KA mixer, easy to use and easy to clean.

You can easily use a food processer with a cutting blade attachment. This risks sending the meat into mince teritory, so you have to be caseful not to overgrind. Doing small batches is the best way to go here, and you can get the hand of this.

Lastly, you could, and I have, use a heavy butchers knife, but this takes time. I guess this is how they did it in the old days.

2) What to grind: As with any piece of meat, the fat content and structure of the meat will affect the texture and flavor. You overcome the texture issue a bit when you grind, which is why you can use tougher cuts of meat to produce a tender burger or meatloaf or meatball or whatever. That is also why the market is eager to sell you ground beef since they can take cuts that no one would buy for more than $3/lb and sell it for $5/lb, marketed as "lean, healthy" 85% lean ground beef.

But as with many things, fat means flavor. I began to grind my own meat when I got tired of bland burgers and wondered by the "gourmet" burgers I was eating out at $10 a pop tatsed so good. one word - FAT. So, when you decide what to grind, think about the fat content.

I prefer a mix of cuts for my burgers, and choose (depending on what is available and what is on sale) among the following:

- Chuck - depending on the cut, chuck can have between 15-30% fat content, so you have to use your judgement. Usually a chuck steak or roast will have 15-20% fat, when trimed, and can be the bulk of what you use for ground beef.

- Sirloin - Sirloin is very lean - about 10-15% fat, and I use this when it is on sale to balance out the fat content.

- Round or Eye Round - this is a sually cheap piece of meat and has about 10% fat.

- The Secret Weapon - Brisket - I am convinced that the best burgers in the world have the same secret incredient - Brisket. The same meat that your grandma had to cook for hours and hours yields terrific flavor and texture when ground, and does so quickly. A good, well trimmed brisket will usually have about 20% fat content. Now, Brisket is trendy, and can be expensive, but right after passover you can usually buy this cheap.

Overall, I like to shoot for 75-80% lean when all is done, or about 20-25% fat content. This may sound like a lot, but when you grind your own meat, you will find that instead of needing a huge 8-10% burger, you will satisfy your meat craving with a simple 5 - 6 oz patty. That takes you from 1.5oz of fat for a 10oz burger to 1.2oz for a 6oz burger, with a lot more flavor per oz. less fat, more taste, fewer calories - win win win.

If you use brisket, you may want to double grind. If not, and using more tender cuts, then I have found that once through the grinder is enough.

What you do with your meat is up to you, but you will find that the freshly exposed surface area is tastier and needs less flavoring. I use a good dose of salt and pepper and some celery seed, and not much more. Depending on the fat content, you may need a binder, which can be anything from chicken or beef stock to oil to egg.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Friday, February 18, 2011

Posole Rojo Con Pollo

"It’s a dessert, and a floor wax!!!" If you are old enough, you will remember the SNL skit that made this funny. If not, then bear with me.

Posole is treated corn. But it is also a stew, and last night I took my first swing at an authentic simmered Posole stew. And, if I risk injuring my arm by patting my own back, so be it.


One dish meals have always had a pull over me. They can be so simple, and yet so complex and satisfying. Layer after layer of flavor and texture can be added and continue to evolve over time. I think I am also drawn to o them because we did not get many of them when I was growing up – my parents favoring the more traditional, Escoffier balanced plates. Which is a shame, these one pot dishes are endemic to almost every culture and I would have like to try more as a kid from my own background.

But for last night, I adopted the southwest of the United States. Having found some true posole online through ranchogordo(check it out, this guy is really committed to his food mission), I decided to go for a con pollo recipe to start. I am sure my next one will be pork centric (always loving the porcine) but a few posts got me interested in keeping the flavor of the posole front and center and I knew the chicken would play a more supporting character, as opposed to pork that would insist on a staring role.*

As expected, the dish really bought out the earthy and unique flavors and aroma of the treated corn. I had always associated SW cooking with the smells of corn tortilla and tamales, but the essence of corn produced by cooking posole is like those other smells multiplied. You could have closed your eyes and been in Santa Fe.
I also managed (for once) to get the heat factor just right – surprising since I swagged the number of peppers. In the end, this dish was just a total winner/crowd pleaser. It will go into regular rotation and only continue to improve.
* there was agreement that a pork version would add some nice richness/fattiness but that the chicken version had a nice, clean flavor. This is a lean dish.

Posole Rojo Con Pollo
1 3-4lb chicken
2 cups dry posole
1 can Chioptle peppers in adobo
2 mild red dry chilis, soaked, seeded, destemmed and pureed in ¼ cup water.
2 onions
1 TBSP cooking oil
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp Tomato paste
1 tsp oregano
1tsp cumin
1 tsp mild chili powder
2 bay leaves
Diced radish
Green onions
Red onion
Queso blanco
Sour cream/yogurt
Poach whole chicken (30 minutes on boil, then steep for 1 hour). Let cook and pick off all meat, retain the stock.
Soak Posole overnight in water, retain water.
Rough chop onion and sautee in oil in heavy bottom stock pot
Add in tomato paste, garlic, pureed peppers, one diced chipotle and 1 tsp of adobo sauce
Sauté until cooked through
Add in stock from poached chicken, soaked posole and chicken meat
Add enough of the retained posole soaking liquid to cover by 2-3 inches, add in dry spices and bay leaves
Bring just to a boil, and then simmer at the lowest setting, with lid slightly ajar, for 2 hours.
Serve with garnishes and tortillas and beer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pizza from the Freezer

No, not that kind. No Stouffers or Boboli here. Saturday night, we pulled some pizza dough I had made two months ago and frozen. The dough was as good as brand new, and using frozen dough significantly cut the time from inception to consumption. One hour to warm up the oven and pizza stone and 15 minutes to make and cook. Topped with some homemade pizza sauce (a complex concoction of one can of whole tomatoes with juice, smashed and boiled down with salt and pepper) and some basic toppings (we used mozzarella and goat cheese, some thinly sliced fennel and a tomato).

I am amazed that more people don’t make pizza at home. It is far superior to anything you can buy and take home (with the exception of really good, true wood oven artisanal) and very inexpensive. I think I spent a total of $2.50/pie, if you include all of the costs, like the yeast, veggies.

Knowing that the dough will freeze well is a revelation. When I make it from now on, I will double up the recipe. That will give me enough dough for 3 or 4 small 12 inch pies. Individually wrapped and frozen, they can be pulled out the night before and thawed in the fridge. Bittman says to only freeze for 3 weeks, but they will last 3-4 months easy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You Still Have To Eat

Winter with a kid can be tough. Before my adorable son joined us, I could sail through the winter months germ and illness free, but alas, no more. However, even when you catch a cold or a stomach bug, you have to eat. My winter motto is "feed a cold – feed a fever.” And coming from a long line of chicken soup-eating European peasants, the key weapon in my medicine cabinet is real, honest chicken soup. Not for the soul, but for your health and recuperation. Not from a car, box or LORD FORBID a cube.

I am constantly amazed at how few people make their own chicken soup/stock. It is easier to make than eggs, although it does take a bit longer to make – but not that much longer. I can go from nothing to a good bowl of soup in less than 2 hours, with about 15 minutes of actual working time. of course, when you are not sick or when you want to get fancy there are all sorts of ways to dress it up – dumplings are always nice, noodles make a terrific filler, etc but with a good soup and a few veggies, you can be on the mend ASAP.

In the end, this is a must have in your arsenal and, of course, this is a recipe where the quality of your ingredients show off because you use so few and use them in their purest form. When I am really going for a big batch, I will use 4-5 chicken backs, or the collected carcasses and pieces from other chicken dishes than no one should ever throw away, but in the end, a 10 minutes stop at the store can provide you everything you need for a honestly good meal. Oh, and it will make you feel better fast.

Basic Chicken Soup
2 chicken legs, washed
1 2”long thumb of ginger, sliced into coins
1 glove garlic, smashed
1 star anise
6-8 cups of water
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 carrots, fine chop
1 piece of celery, fine chop.

• Chop the chicken legs into 2 inch pieces
• Add oil to stock pot and heat, add chicken
• Brown on both sides for 5 minutes (the longer you cook them, the darker your soup will become)
• Add in ginger, garlic, star anise, water, salt and pepper.
• Bring to a boil, then let to simmer almost completely covered for 45-90 minutes depending on how long you want to wait.
• Strain soup and pick chicken meat off bones, add back to soup.
• Bring back to a boil and add carrots and celery
• Simmer 10 minutes and serve.
• Add noodles, make dumplings, and season as you want (I prefer a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil)