Ego, And Changing Recipes

I have worked on my barbecue dry-rub recipe for several years, and finally arrived at a mixture of the usual suspects (sugar, paprika, cayenne, and uh, some other stuff) that was pleasing to my palate and that of most of my guests. So what did I do? Screwed around with it! Pretty clever, huh? I didn’t even change the recipe that much, but I also changed the amount of the rub that I put on what I call the “knuckles,” — those chunks of meat and gristle and cartilage connected to the ribs. I have learned how to trim the pork racks so that they look great (and that will be the subject of another post), but obviously don’t want to discard perfectly good food, so I barbecue these knuckles separately, and toss them to any stray children and dogs who may be wandering around. Actually, they taste pretty damned good, so I’ll usually munch on them too. Part of the allure is the pungent taste of the rub. The pieces are small, so they get a big dose of the stuff in comparison to the ribs. And because the rub has lots of sugar, it’s an appealing combination of caramel from the cooked sugar, and the zing of the other spices. Good stuff, unless you are stupid and arrogant and don’t follow your own recipe.

Lesson learned. I promise never to short-change my palate or my guests. A full dose of rub is now guaranteed.


If you don’t know what a slider is, please, just go away. This post is for real eaters, and besides, a life without sliders is a life not worth living.

Here is an interesting blog about…well, you’ll have to guess from the name. But the guy has obviously made a careful study of how to make sliders, and he uses as his inspiration the best on the planet: White Manna.

Moules Frites

Ah, diet food! Well, not actually low in calories, but it is a relatively light meal, at least in comparison to a large bone-in rib steak. I went to the store with the expectation of returning with some large chunk of gilled (no, I have never tried whale) pelagic predator, otherwise known as tuna or swordfish. But the mussels looked so damned good and fresh, I received special dispensation from my wife to deviate from the plan. But what are mussels without French fries? Nothing! And quite conveniently, I had several great looking russet potatoes.* So, for no other reason than to be respectful of the history of the relationship between mussels and potatoes, I had to make fries. I won’t bore you with the details; just fry them twice, once at low temperature and once at high temperature. Continue reading “Moules Frites”

Pork And Super-Pork

If the past several years of the pontifications of many food writers are to be believed, the best foods are also the leanest. And if you can’t get beautiful, uniform, pristine, fatless pork, you are in some way unworthy of being considered a real cook. But fat is flavor, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Oh, there are techniques to extract amazingly concentrated flavors from lean meats and vegetables — just take a look at some of the French “cuisine minceur” cookbooks. The food is great! But it is a huge amount of work, inaccessible to most people. Can some foods taste great without fat? Of course. But some foods are simply better with fat, and pork may be at the top of that list. There has been pushback from some of the more interesting chefs, led, it seems, by David Chang, of Momofuku fame. Eat at one of his restaurants (if you can get in), and you will discover a man who revels in pork fat. His new restaurant, Ko, opens its reservations website at 10:00am and it’s full by 10:01am. I wouldn’t be surprised if his next venture is a spa in which the patrons are immersed in warm pork fat before being massaged by Rubenesque masseuses. Continue reading “Pork And Super-Pork”

Chef’n Garlic Zoom

I bought this silly looking, and even sillier named, kitchen gadget because I chop a lot of garlic and this seemed to be just the thing for the garlic junkie in me. It works pretty well, but I use it only when I need more than one clove. It’s easy to use, although I find that rotating the wheels against my hand works better than rolling it on the counter or cutting board. I am a bit of a gadget freak, and any of you who are similarly inclined will get a kick out of this admittedly not-strictly-necessary kitchen utensil.

Revisiting A Tired, Old Standard: Salmon

As I may have mentioned, I like steak. And pulled pork. And sausage. And roasted beef marrow. And cheese. And butter. Oh, I’ll admit it; I like fat. But as many of us must eventually admit, my waistline and coronary arteries are less enamored than my taste buds of those luscious lipids. Besides, there are foods that taste great but don’t have a gall-bladder-exhausting dose of fat. The default for many people when their doctors say to lose weight and cut out some fat, is fish. And the fish that seems to be one of the most popular, at least judging by what is always front-and-center in the display case and at restaurants, is salmon. But salmon is boring. I ate lots and lots of salmon in my youth. I used to dive for abalone on the North Coast of California, and then trade one or two with the fish mongers at my favorite store. And I would invariably get a big salmon (among other fun stuff) in the transaction. But after eating what seemed like tons of the stuff, it got a bit tedious. However, my bathroom scale has been agitating for a more moderate diet, so last night I dipped my toes into the salmon ocean again.

Instead of cooking the same old recipe, I tried to duplicate something that I had eaten at a wonderful restaurant in San Francisco called Aqua. It was a salmon steak, but they skinned and boned it, and cooked it gently in a simple sauce. It was great, and didn’t taste anything like what I expected. Skinning is easy, but I had to pull out a pair of pliers to remove the tiny bones near the spine. I also carefully cut the spine out of the steak, and was left with two halves, which I rolled together to make a round steak about 4 inches in diameter. I put a thin silicone band around it to keep it from falling apart while I cooked it, and then I made a simple marinade of vinegar, honey, mustard, shallots and cayenne pepper.

The toughest part was deciding how to cook it. I didn’t want a typical grilled or sautéed steak, but I do like a bit of color. So I split the difference and sautéed it briefly, just enough to brown the flesh a bit, and then popped it into a warm oven for another five or six minutes.  It turned out very well. The  flesh was moist and tender, and had a delicate flavor that I certainly wouldn’t associate with salmon. Because the steak was uniform, it cooked perfectly, without the overdone parts that I find really unpleasant. The extra few minutes of preparation was definitely worth the trouble. To complete my transformation into a metrosexual, I sautéed snap peas with a bit of lime juice as a dressing. My wife loved them. I wasn’t as happy. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

A Lighter Touch

I am a fan of big, bold flavors in my food and grand gestures in the kitchen to match. A blazing hot pan, a 3-inch ribeye, big lobsters, 500-degree ovens, triple-cream cheeses…I could go on and on. There is something exciting about seeing a huge hunk of meat, not too many cuts removed from primal, sitting on the counter waiting to be cooked. And huge clouds of billowing smoke wafting through the house always has been, in some weird way, appealing to me. Of course, the old and easy trick of using artery-clogging amounts of fat (my favorites are butter and duck fat) to improve the flavor of a dish is an integral part of my repertoire (and that of most restaurants). So, I surprised myself when I decided to prepare a subtle (for me, at least) meal as a birthday celebration for a relative. Okay, seared tuna is not a delicate dish, but in fact, tuna is not a boldly flavored food. I served the seared tuna on a bed of turnip and potato purée and garnished the tuna with a spoonful of sautéed leeks. And damn, it was good! This is one of the things that separates me from real chefs: the ability to understand and appreciate how different foods go together. I sort of fell into this one and still had to do a bit of testing to make sure that the resulting combination didn’t taste like old socks soaked in cod-liver oil and garnished with match heads.

The point, if there is one, is that with some work and study (and a bit of luck), we can make dishes that work as well as those that come out of the best restaurant kitchens. I am not suggesting that they will be as well executed, but we can, at least, be in the same league. Or maybe just get bumped up to the Majors every once and a while.

Recipe Time Or Real Time

One of the things that frustrates me when I try new recipes is the almost universal inability on the part of most cooking editors to gauge correctly the time it takes to complete certain steps in a recipe. I’m not talking about baking a cake, or roasting a chicken; they seem to be able to figure those times accurately. I am talking about the throw-away times like: sauté onions on medium-low until golden brown, 20 minutes. Or, Cook
until the pancetta is crisp and the fennel is caramelized, about 20 minutes
(That one is from an otherwise wonderful recipe for a caramelized fennel and pancetta salad). The problem is that vegetables have wildly different amounts of liquid in them depending on season, length and method of storage, variety, and probably dozens of other reasons. And for them to caramelize, they first have to lose most of that pesky water. So writing confidently about how it takes twenty minutes to caramelize onions is just silly. And irritating. And unnecessary. Why not just say something like: sauté onions until caramelized. It takes me 20 minutes, but your mileage may vary. And the same thing goes for cured meats. One batch of pancetta for the fennel salad crisped nicely in 30 minutes. The second batch didn’t crisp as nicely in spite of nearly 35 minutes in the oven.

I understand that recipes are written for everyone, and that people need some sense of what they are getting themselves into before they start a dish. But by stating a seemingly inviolate number, aren’t they suggesting, at least implicitly, that you are a failure if you can’t sauté those onions in 20 minutes? I know that these cook book authors are, in many cases, accomplished and talented chefs. And I don’t cook their dishes to compete with them. So why don’t they appreciate that and write recipes that are closer to reality?

PS I am guilty of this laziness too. I reread some of my own recipes and, yes, I am an idiot.

I Promise: The Last Duck Story (How To Brine A Duck)

As you no doubt know by now — and probably are sick to death of hearing — I like duck. But my attempts at brining the little critters did not do them justice, so I decided to try just once more. The problem with brining is that there are many variations, most of which will work well with some meats but not with others. For instance, my chicken brine doesn’t work well with pork chops, but is a rockin’ good way to make roast chicken. I did a bit of research, and discovered absolutely nothing of any utility. I just confused myself even more. But that has never stopped me, and I had a beautiful duck just waiting to be the subject of my grand experiment.

I try not to be wishy-washy in most things, and brining is no exception. I went the overkill route, with a 5:1 ratio of water to sugar and salt (or more accurately; 10:1:1). In retrospect, I used too much sugar, so if I ever brine a duck again, I’ll use just a slightly smaller amount of sugar and replace it with more salt. I also added some fresh thyme, sage and garlic, in addition to freshly ground black pepper and some juniper berries. What? I once had a juniper berry-cured pork chop that was spectacular, and because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing…Anyway, I mixed everything in a pot and boiled it gently for about ten minutes to dissolve the sugar and salt and to extract some extra flavor from the herbs and spices. I then stuck the pot in the refrigerator for an hour or so to cool, plopped the duck into its lovely and fragrant bath, and left it for four hours. After the brining I rinsed the duck in fresh water, dried it, and left in the refrigerator to dry overnight.

The roasting was simple. I stuffed the cavity with whatever I had floating around in the vegetable drawer (carrots, celery, onion, orange) and put the duck into a hot, hot oven (450°F) until the skin was crispy and before the rendered fat burst into flames. About 45 minutes into the roasting, I removed as much of the fat as I could.

Total time? I don’t really know, but the skin was nice and crispy, and the tips of the wings were just a bit charred. And the flavor? Very nicely seasoned, but the salt and sugar overwhelmed the herbs. I really liked the flavor, but it is certainly not a subtle dish. Interestingly, the most important part of this dish has nothing to do with the brining; it is the drying before roasting and then roasting it at a very high temperature. That, Grasshopper, is the secret to duck. I wish that the brine made a huge difference, but all it did was salt the duck and add a bit of sweetness to the meat. I think that I will continue to brine my ducks, but if I don’t have the time or energy, I certainly won’t worry that I am short-changing my taste buds. Maybe adding more herbs and spices to the brine will help, but I wouldn’t increase the time in the liquid. The duck was borderline too salty.

Now that I have driven both of my readers away with my incessant ranting about brining, I will console myself with a duck burrito.

Once More Into The Breach: Brining A Duck

No, I’m not running out of things to write; I just really like duck, and I roasted one  today. But a few weeks ago, I left the whole brining question with a vague sense that I hadn’t quite beaten it to death. So, with apologies to William Shakespeare, once more into the brine, dear friends.

I’ll report, in excruciating detail, every drop of duck fat and each bit of crispy skin. But that will be for the next post. I will leave you with this photo, just to stimulate your salivary glands. And sorry about the huge photo file. I’ll fix that when my blood alcohol level is slightly lower. [Fixed!]