Thunder Thighs

Chicken thighs kind of make me sad. Whole legs, I love; they’re big, and classically proportioned, and can be arranged all artfully akimbo on a plate, but thighs by themselves just sort of shrink into unappealing little lumps that are very hard to make beautiful without shredding all of the meat off to make something entirely other. And that has often been a problem, since the closest store only carries (organic, semi-local) thighs. Until now. Today I figured out that if I just treat them like wings, they work just fine; subsumed in sauce they become part of a whole, rather than the featured protein. So this evening, presented with two frozen four-packs of said thighs, I attempted to combine my parallel desires for hot wings and escabeche into one low monthly payment.

To begin, I rolled the thighs in seasoned flour. Not doing this means that the skin pretty much entirely gets stuck to the pan (we are a Teflon™-free household) and further ruins what little aesthetic charm the meat possesses to begin with. I added salt, pepper, herbs, cumin, and smoked paprika to the flour. After they were a goodly brown all over, I added a head’s worth of cauliflower florets to brown as well, and a bit more flour to roux-ify the oil in the skillet. Then I poured in a mixture of tomato paste, sherry, pork stock, balsamic, sherry, and cider vinegars along with a handful of minced garlic and herbs, covered the pan, and let it all simmer low for a while.

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Do A Little Dance That’s Called The "Bacon Fat"

Today I taught the first of what I hope is many cooking classes in our lovely new kitchen; we covered tsukemono, fermented pickles (kraut and kimchi) and vinegar pickles (in this case, beets because they’re ostensibly in season). It was a great group, and I think everyone had the subject demystified to the point where they can now comfortably, confidently do it at home. After they left, I got busy with some other culinary projects before the family returned (they went to a movie). Ten pounds of local pork belly had spent two weeks absorbing my super-secret miso-based cure and were ready for the smoker, so I fired it up and brought them up to an internal temp of 150˚F over the course of about two hours. Milo and I vacuum-sealed them all and put them into the freezer.

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Ahi

We ordered a luscious fuchsia yellowfin steak for our weekly fish delivery, and I tried to make a dinner that did justice to the beauty of the flesh of this fish. With sashimi-grade gorgeousness, especially a big hunk like this, my normal policy is to break it apart and do different things with it to avoid plate fatigue. Even melt-in-your-mouth fish or Wagyu beef can get lose its heavenly edge after five or six bites, so turning one ingredient into a mini-tasting menu usually makes for a more pleasurable experience. And pleasure is what delicacies are all about.

To begin, because a hungry family is a cranky family, I busted out some hand rolls. I made some caramelized maitake mushrooms and leeks for an appetizer, but since we were already at defcon four I decided at the last minute to just fold the browned, mushroomy goodness into the (leftover) brown rice and use that as the sushi substrate. Tuna, rice, wild garlic chives and/or scallions, and the mayonnaise-sriracha blend that is the bête noire for so many traditionalists made some pretty damn fine spicy tuna rolls.

Once these tasty treats had quieted the horde, I moved on to the main course. There was some salad, too, but it was not alas recorded for posterity. Normally I like to take all the fish trimmings and make them into a lovely tartare, which lately I’ve been searing on one side to make for a more complex and satisfying flavor profile, but this time around I just sorta punted and made tuna maki, tuna sashimi, and more hand rolls (by request, and that is real wasabi in the background, which helped). It was not the meal that it could have been, but it was plenty good all the same. It’s hard, but I have no choice but to accept that the food I want to make is mostly out of my reach; however desperately I may want to, real life demands too much time for me to spend half the day making dinner.

The Circle Of Leftovers

So here’s a story of another (mostly) meatless meal, and how it ended up being part of three different dinners and a couple of lunches as well. To begin, early this week I made a stock from the chicken carcass and T-bone bones left from two recent meals (both posted already). Once made, I used some of it to make a very simple puréed kabocha squash soup using some steamed squash from the night before. Very simple, very easy. The following night, since there was a good amount of it, I used it as the base for a chickpea curry with leftover kale and parsnips added in. Here’s a shot of the soup and the curry, just prior to my saying “fuck it” and dumping the rest of the soup in. Things reduce and thicken very quickly on this beast of a stove.

The result had a lovely density, yet was uncharacteristically light for such fare, owing to the soup taking the place of the traditional coconut milk or yogurt/cream/ghee. You can really see the silky, squashy shine. Best of all, it tasted like something completely different–not at all like leftovers, despite being made almost entirely thereof. And it made a lot of room in the fridge; I think I emptied four containers to make this.

Two days later, I defrosted some pie crust (every time I make it, I make a double batch) and rolled it out, using the wine funnel to stamp circles since it’s a good size. The crust was nice and thin. I put a dollop of curry on each one, folded them up into samosas, and put them in the oven.

While they baked, I rustled up some sauce. Using mango juice, tamarind paste, mustard oil, tomato paste, agave syrup, and sudachi juice, I managed to make a pretty decent equivalent for the tamarind sauce that always comes with the fried appetizers at Indian restaurants. After we polished these off, we had a nice soup of puréed kale and leeks that I sweated and then simmered in more of the chicken/steak stock. We were out of yogurt, which is what I wanted to use, so I tossed in a knob of butter while blending it for a bit of richness. And now we have leftover puréed soup in the fridge, and the cycle starts over again.

One Pot, Five Minutes

I know that it looks like we eat a lot of meat around here, but it’s misleading. Very often I just make pasta or some sort of curried vegetable thing or some variation on rice and beans. But they’re not very innovative and/or photogenic, or they’re something that I’ve covered before, so I don’t write about them. The next few weeks are going to be pretty hectic, so it’s likely that posts will be on the thinner side. I’ve got some good pictures saved up to help fill in the gaps, so maybe it will work out.

But I wanted to put in a few non-meatcentric things to more accurately reflect the way we really eat. First up, something I mentioned last week in the bread post: pappa al pomodoro. Tuscan bread soup. This is the very essence of peasant cooking, in that it actually requires a heel of stale bread to work properly. We had such a heel, actually of the loaf in the picture in that post, slowly fossilizing on the counter. And half a jar of tomato purée (an aside here–we don’t buy canned tomatoes anymore, just the ones in jars; read Eve’s post for more info). And that’s all you need, besides the usual. Barely brown some garlic, add bread, let toast a bit, add tomatoes, herbs, salt, and let it marry for a few minutes. Serve topped with unfiltered olive oil and minced parsley or basil. I used oil, Espelette pepper and wild garlic chives. The reason that the bread should be hard–I used our big Chinese cleaver to take it apart–is that it gives it the integrity to not go all squishy as soon as the tomatoes hit the pot. After about five minutes of simmering, these roughly 1″ cubes of bread had a lovely textural gradient from pudding-soft on the outside to dense and chewy in the center. And it goes without saying that good homemade multi-grain sourdough makes for a superior result.

Obviously in tomato season this would be better, or with home-canned tomatoes, but it can approach profundity just like this, especially on a cold, rainy day that’s waving a daunting to do list in your face. (I had this for breakfast, but it’s even better for lunch).

I ordered this last time I was in Florence, and they served it puréed into a brick-colored gruel, like gazpacho’s dimwitted Italian cousin. It was very disappointing. Leave it chunky.

There’s No Gift Like The Present

This here salad is made entirely from things that survived the winter and are now roaring back. Some stuff–I’m talking to you, Asian cabbage–is just bolting and bitter, but the mizuna, pan di zucchero, and radicchio are lovely. There’s a bit of chervil, too, and parsley, and I cut all the tatsoi too since it was thinking about flowering.

Now I love a good bowl of greens; there’s nothing quite so soul-polishing as a perfect salad. But the difference between just-picked and even the good, local, organic mesclun? Is night and day. Bitter, sweet, chewy, yielding, a little spicy, and with all of those qualities echoed and amplified by quality oil and vinegar, and heightened still further by the joy of spring’s timely arrival–I ate the living shit out of this salad.

In keeping with the gardeny theme, the rest of the meal was a roast chicken with sautéed kale and freshly-dug carrots and parsnips roasted with oil and herbs. I resist digging parsnips in the fall so we have something sweet and wonderful to enjoy as soon as the ground thaws. And last year my second planting of carrots actually grew quite well, so we have a lot of those, too, which I’m pulling up to make room for new things.

The only other noteworthy thing about this is the gravy; I used kimchi brine along with some of the pork stock to make it, and it was pretty great. I’m finding more and more ways to use it in place of citrus, often with superior results: gravy, mayonnaise, vinaigrettes, ceviche, tuna salad. So now every time I put a fresh batch into jars, I make sure to fill a quart jar with just brine so there’s plenty on hand. It’s more nutritious, it’s free, and it doesn’t go bad.

Nobody Rides For Free

Pursuant to the grueling research that attends yet another article, I’ve gotten hip to numerous first-rate local sources for the very best meat one could hope to eat. Or, in the case of people with actual hearts and souls, the only sort of meat one would agree to eat: from animals raised humanely and fed things like grass and/or kitchen scraps and which live the best possible life evolution and domestication have combined to construct for them.

In this case, it was 100% grass-fed Black Angus T-bones from Cedar Ridge Farm over on the Connecticut line. Feeling lazy, I pulled a couple out of the freezer and dunked them in tepid water to thaw (they’re vacuum-packed) while I figured out what to adorn them with. We happened to have leftover brown rice and whole wheat couscous, neither in sufficient quantity to make much of anything. Combined, though, they added up to something, so I made a pilaf of sorts by tossing them with olive oil, cider vinegar, scallion, cilantro, and a bit of kimchi brine. I let the mixture sit to harmonize while I blanched lovely big collard leaves after pretty expertly stripping off the extra stem with my very best knife.

Having at least one high-quality knife that is kept very sharp makes almost every task easier.

Once blanched, and thus a pliable and resplendent British racing green, I rolled up each leaf with a generous dollop of the pilaf and then simmered them gently for a few more minutes in some of the lusciously gelatinous pork stock from the last post. I cooked the steaks in butter, flipping them often to get a good sear–their thickness (1″) precluded a gorgeous, dark crust–and then removed them to rest on a plate, covered. While they reposed, I deglazed the pan with kimchi brine and dijon mustard, whisking it into the steaky fond to make a thick sauce.

Grass-fed meat, because it’s much healthier and less fatty (and with entirely different kinds of fat) needs a bit of care in the cooking. Fat tends to allow wiggle room to clumsier cooks, making for a wider zone of acceptable doneness and tenderness. This kind of beef wants to be rare to medium rare. It’s so beefy and wonderful that it’s a sin to cook it past 130 degrees. And with a tangy, mustardy sauce and some bright green grain wraps, life is good indeed.

Happy Feet

I ordered a chest freezer, which hasn’t come yet, but in anticipation I made six liters of trotter stock (it’s like Fergus Henderson’s Trotter Gear, but I separate the meat and strain the liquid. I also don’t use Madeira). It’s such a jiggly joy to have on hand, and I always freeze most of it in ice cube trays for convenience; even one cube adds superlative lip-smackery to anything from simple sautéed greens on up.

This batch I made particularly neutral in flavor, since it’s so easy to add custom aromatics on the other end. Carrot, onion, a bit of celery root, and a couple of fennel stalks were it. Oh, and a shake of herbes de Provence, because I think a pinch of dried woody herbs gives such a wonderful note to stock. And it’s hard not to add lavender to pretty much everything. This pot simmered low, with the surface of the liquid undulating gently, for about five hours. The house smelled porky.

Now it’s all socked away in the freezer, waiting to be put into a bag. The new, big freezer will be here soon, I hope; in doing research for an upcoming article I’ve found a bunch of excellent sources for humanely raised, pastured meat in our area and my inner survivalist wants provisions for when the rapture happens.

Meh

I have a bunch of posts to get to, but I hurt my back making bread–yep, disregard everything I said about it before, it’s DANGEROUS and should be avoided at all costs–and then managed to get a flu-ish thing at the same time, so it’s been a pretty lame week. Today I felt halfway normal. Last night I did make dinner, and it turned out remarkably well, probably because I wanted so badly for it to be the kind of hotspicysavorysatisfying ordnance that would crush malevolent microbes into dust.

I took some super-wiggly pork stock and mixed it with some leftover chicken and mussel stock and simmered it all together with cubed tofu and shredded kale. Boiled some soba. Caramelized some oyster mushrooms. Soup, noodles, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro, kimchi for salt and crunch, and a big fat squirt of sriracha to make it very hot indeed. This shitty few days did teach me one thing, though: good Nicaraguan rum is excellent for both sore throats and sore backs.

Fish And Chips

How’s THAT for a snappy title? I know, I know. Some days, the inspirado just rushes through me like a Prius doing 80 with somebody’s Grandmother inside, frantically and fruitlessly stomping on the brake pedal. I’m just happy to share the wealth. It’s been raining for days now, which is a good thing, and all the better for not being snow. We’ve had some serious wind, too, but thus far our power has stayed on. Once this breaks and the sun returns, a whole lot of brown ground is going to turn green in a hurry. The chilly, raw weather has bestirred a hankering for food of a less healthy sort, so I’ve been trying to cater to the urge without indulging too wretchedly in totally abject junk food.

A case in point are these chunky Yukon gold fries which I toss in olive oil, and some version of the spice blend that still needs a catchy name, and then put in the oven, giving them a shake from time to time. Fries they ain’t, but they’re not far off in goodness. I made them for the Devil Burgers™ last week, and made them again with some super-fresh halibut that Gerard brought over. (Though the night he was here, we had mussels, hake in green sauce, and paella-flavored risotto; this was a bonus gift). I cut the fish into chunks, dipped them in beaten egg diluted with water, and then dredged them in fine polenta seasoned with pretty much the same spice blend. After a quick fry and blot, all of the above got together with a homemade tartar sauce of freshly-made mayo flavored with kimchi brine, capers, parsley, mustard, yuzu juice, cider vinegar, and some random so-so relish from the fridge since we were out of cornichons.

There were also steamed collards, which I should have put on the plate for some color. But damn, this fish. Polenta makes for a superbly crunchy crust that contrasts beautifully with the amazing texture of halibut. Much more interesting than flour. And if you don’t make your own mayonnaise, might I humbly suggest that you should, since it’s a completely different food than the dreck one finds in the store. And it’s ridiculously easy, especially in the food processor; I might just write a post describing my idiot-proof technique to get your own culinary Priuses (Prii?) moving. This tartar sauce was ever so luscious.

For dessert, because it was one of those Saturday afternoons, Milo and I made an apple tart, which was much like the one I wrote about last month, but with a different glaze. This glaze was Julia’s apple/plum/star anise jelly, a little apricot juice, and local pear brandy. The butter wasn’t frozen when I made the crust, since I forgot to put it in the freezer beforehand, but it was cold enough to work; because it was less hard, it broke up a bit more than usual, and the result was almost like puff pastry around the edges.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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