Smoking Light

I finally buckled and bought a small grill/smoker.  This little guy is the compromise I’d been dreaming about: a compact heavy duty grill geared for smoking.  Turns out, this odd-duck is the cast iron smoker box add-on to Char-Griller’s large premium model.  Their baby version is also designed as a stand alone tabletop grill.

Char-Griller Table Top Grill

I’ve been running it through its paces and yes, it holds optimum temperatures of 250-275°F.  Using the the offset smoking method, coals are fired up in a lower ash box opposite the main grill side. Two vents channel smoke up and around the food, constantly wrapping it in warm smoke.

I’m not interested in smoking food for hours on end, but I do want it thoroughly smoked and safely cooked within a reasonable amount of time. There’s a delicate balance between duration of time and establishing the proper interior heat for adequate smoking.  When planning for thorough cooking of most foods, the 250-275°F range seems to be it.

Acceptable internal meat temperatures can actually differ from traditional gauges and guidelines, such as cooking poultry until 165°F.  It’s been proven that holding meat at a prolonged lower cooking temp is perfectly safe, if it is held for a prescribed period of time.  For example with chicken, the USDA says that bacteria like salmonella is eliminated and chicken is safe once it fully reaches 145°F and is cooked at that temperature at least 13 minutes longer.

That’s more information than you may want. Especially if you have an electric or propane grill that monitors all of that for you.  But this approach works for the minimalist in me.

In my opinion chicken thighs are an ideal solution for a ‘smoking light’ session. With the bone-in and skin on they need little more to produce perfect packages of moist, blissful meat graced with just enough skin for those who may deem it important.

Thighs ‘Smoked Light’

My approach for smoked chicken thighs includes brining. A flavored salt solution acts to purify, moisturize and enhance the thighs. It gets the job done in four hours, but may be held longer with a saltier outcome.  If concerned, just dilute with more water.

After the brining, thighs air dry for 4 hours to aid in smoke adherence and absorption. To counteract flabby or rubbery skin, try a quick sear in a hot pan prior to smoking. Another solution is to sear them on the grill, but fat dripping onto coals also means flare ups and heat acceleration.

No time to brine? Try a light rub on the thighs prior to placing them on the grill—with a water pan below.  A simple rub with paprika and slight pop of sumac is included; it will punch up the flavor yet allow the smoke essence to flourish.

For smoke flavoring, I soaked a combination of mesquite and apple chips for 30 minutes and drained them well before placing them in a smoker box on top of white charcoal.  The coals  were replenished once to maintain the grill’s interior temperature.

After 1½ hours cooking time, thigh internal temperatures ranged from 145 to 155°F.  Within 15 minutes, temperatures maintained and stabilized from 148-155°F throughout.  The thighs had a beautiful burnished color and were firm when pressed.

Smoked Chicken Thighs

Done to perfection!

Smoked Chicken Thighs

Ingredients
4-6 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
Brine
2 cups water divided
2 cloves garlic, smash and sliver
1 Tbsp each sea salt and granulated sugar
½ tsp peppercorns
bay leaf
Optional Rub
1 tsp each salt, white pepper,  sweet or smoked paprika, ⅛ tsp sumac

Directions

  1. Brine: combine 1 cup water and ingredients, bring to boil to dissolve salt and sugar. Add 1 cup cold water to the brine and set aside to cool.
    Wash the thighs and trim excess skin and fat. Place in zip lock bag covered with brine. Marinate 4 hours; it becomes saltier the longer it brines.
    Remove the thighs from brine, pat excess liquid.  Air dry on a rack for 4 or more hours in fridge. Bring thighs to room temperature before smoking.
  2. Soak chips: soak wood chips in water for 20-30 minutes, drain well and place in smoker box if using.
  3. Prepare the smoker:  ignite coals. Add a water pan below the offset smoker grill side and spray the grill. When coals begin to turn white, top with chips/smoker box.
  4. Optional thighs sear:  heat skillet to medium high and coat it with oil. Sear skin sides only.
  5. Optional rub:  If using rub, apply just before placing on grill.
  6. Smoke the thighs: when interior smoker temperature reaches 250°F place the thighs on the grill. Close the lid and set vents partially open for draft.  Smoke the thighs for 90 minutes to 2 hours, until 165°F internal temp, or a sustained overall internal temp of 150°F for 5 minutes.

Note:  to maintain a steady heat level check coals 30 minutes into smoke, if dwindling add a few more hot coals to bed.     

Mole, please

With the changing seasons I’m already thinking of more robust meals and nothing makes my heart beat faster than a high flavored mole, the national dish of Mexico. This unique dish is a throw back to esteemed concoctions originally made by the Aztecs and later nuanced by the Spanish nuns of Puebla.

Mole!

A traditional mole sauce can vary in color from red to green and in-between, depending on what it contains and where it is made, but often includes a range of chiles, nuts, seeds, spices, fruits, and even chocolate.

With all of these moving parts, this complex labor of love can require a day or longer to create—thus, it is often held for special occasions. Once prepared, the triumphant sauce is simmered with chicken, turkey, pork, or beef and served with plenty of warm tortillas, local vegetables such as chayote or squash, and rice.

North of the border, we are more likely to come up with a compromise meal solution that’s attainable in far less time—but just as festive. We could 1) devise our own “simplified” sauce, perhaps include dried chiles, spices, peanut butter, and chocolate, 2) run to the closest local Mexican market for their prepared house blend, or 3) pull out a jar of Doña Maria Mole, a dense paste found at your local grocery store.

Doña Maria Mole Sauce helps makes an impressive meal—even mid-week.  I still like to dress it up with more garlic, chile powder and seasoning before adding the mole base. It needs copious thinning with stock or other liquid and then the sauce is simmered briefly to blend flavors.

Turkey Mole

Browned-off portions of chicken, pork, or beef—or my favorite, turkey breast—are added to the sauce and simmered until tender. If you have an Instant Pot, this entire project can be accomplished in about an hour.

As you would expect, mole actually improves overnight, and reheats beautifully.  The sauce thickens mightily and goes much further than you would expect. Like a good soup, extend with more water.

Mole, please

EZ Turkey Mole

Ingredients
turkey breast, 2-3 lbs. boned, with skin (or equivalent cut-up chicken, pork or beef)
½ tsp both salt and pepper, or more
1-2 Tbsp canola oil
½ tsp chili powder
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup liquid: coffee or water
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 cup prepared mole blend (such as Doña Maria Mole Mexican Sauce)
3-4 cups approx., stock or water to thin
1-2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds, ½ cup cilantro

Instructions

  1.  Season the turkey breast with salt and pepper, heat the oil in a pot over medium high and brown the breast on both sides,10-15 minutes total. Transfer to a holding plate.
  2. Reduce heat to medium/low. If necessary add enough oil to yield 1 tablespoon in pan. Stir in spices, then the garlic; cook until fragrant, 30-60 seconds. Add liquid, stir to loosen and combine pan drippings. Blend in the tomato paste.
  3. Stir in the mole base adding enough liquid to thin into a medium sauce. Adjust seasoning and bring to a simmer; it will continue to thicken as it cooks. Return the turkey breast (and any accumulated juices) to pot.
  4. Set Instant Pot for 20-30 minutes (9 mins/pound) with 10 minute release, or simmer on the stovetop 45-60 minutes, until tender.
  5. Adjust seasoning, it may need a touch of orange juice or sugar. Serve sliced portions with sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds and fresh cilantro. Pass warmed tortillas. Serves 4.

Tomato Sauce, Keto-style

When my daughter Shannon recently sent her favorite recipe for Five Minute Keto Pizza I was off and running.  She has long been a keto fan, and a terrific source of the latest information.

Ketogenics is not new; it was developed nearly 100 years ago at the Mayo Clinic as a treatment for epilepsy.  It has gained a huge following by those interested in weight loss or other heath issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy, and more. The keto diet focuses on the restriction of carb-rich foods, forcing the body to burn fats rather than carbohydrates, resulting in a metabolic state of ketosis.

Turns out the pizza crust is made with eggs for protein, psyllium husk for fiber, and Parmesan cheese. The blended mixture thickens to form a bread-like base when cooked in an oil lined skillet for a couple of minutes.  Rao’s Tomato Sauce and mozzarella cheese are spread on and quickly broiled. Its fast!

No doubt this is a good recipe for those seriously interested in adhering to the keto program as ingredients and quantities are set out to meet specific criteria. On the hunt for psyllium husk, I found a small vaguely marked bag in the back of a cupboard.  I wasn’t sure if it was a powder form or whole, and this matters when it comes to the gut and intestinal processes.  I set it aside for later.

I turned my attention to the sauce;  as a recipe developer this looked like a good challenge.  Unlike other fruit, tomatoes are considered keto-friendly, thanks to their low sugar net carb status. Who knows what Rao had in mind, but I could surely make a homemade tomato sauce that stays within keto boundaries—and acceptable to me.

I zeroed in on Bagna Cauda, the incredible “hot bath” from Italy’s Piedmont region traditionally made with copious amounts of olive oil plus butter. It’s simmered with loads of garlic and anchovies and served as a hot dip, fondue-style. I would begin there. For a win/win, I’d cut back on the oil and butter and substitute a heritage tomato such as a San Marzano or Oregon Spring.

There are so few ingredients in this sauce, each one is important.  It needs a fruity, full flavored extra virgin olive oil, at least 1 clove garlic per serving, and red pepper flakes for a hit of heat. The anchovies give a mysterious umami boost, any fishiness fades to the background, and it’s not too salty.  The tomatoes should be thin-skinned, meaty, low in acid, with few seeds. If using a canned San Marzano, look for one with no sugar added.

Simple Tomato-Bagna Cauda Sauce

As the bagna cauda base and tomatoes simmer away, they break down together and develop into a richly rounded sauce. Serve with chicken, fish, pasta, or pizza.

Tomato-Bagna Cauda Sauce

Ingredients
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, mash and mince
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
8 anchovy fillets, dice
4-6 large heirloom tomatoes such as San Marzano, chop
salt and pepper
1-2 Tbsp fresh basil, torn

Instructions

  1. Heat a wide pot over medium-low, cook olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovies. Slowly cook; mashing the anchovies until melted, smooth, and aromatic, 5-10 minutes.
  2. Add the tomatoes, partially cover set to a low simmer an additional 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until thick. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in fresh basil. Makes 2 cups or more.

 

Five Minute Keto Pizza

Source: Ruled.me
Ingredients
2 large Eggs
2 tbsp. Parmesan Cheese
1 tbsp. Psyllium Husk Powder
1/2 tsp. Italian Seasoning
Salt to Taste
2 tsp. Frying Oil (I use bacon fat)
1.5 oz. Mozzarella Cheese
3 tbsp. Rao’s Tomato Sauce
1 tbsp. Freshly Chopped Basil

Directions

  1. In a bowl or container, use an immersion blender to mix together all pizza crust ingredients.
  2. Heat frying oil in a pan until hot, then spoon the mixture into the pan. Spread out into a cirlce.
  3. Once edges are browned, flip and cook for 30-60 seconds on the other side. Turn the stove off, and turn the broiler on.
  4. Add tomato sauce and cheese, then broil for 1-2 minutes or until cheese is bubbling.

This is a mouthful

I finally came up with a smoked salmon pizza that makes sense.  I love the idea but have been stuck on a Nova salmon approach for so long, I missed the obvious.

I had to get beyond the New York Nova style salmon,  the cold smoked process that we think of with bagels and lox. In my mind, this equated to adding salmon after baking the pizza to preserve its delicate smoked essence.

Well, of course. Here in the Pacific Northwest, hot smoked salmon is king. That smoking process delivers a bolder, firmer, deeply smoked salmon that’s unflinchingly good, whether hot or cold.

Once out of that box, a concept finally emerged,  a hot smoked salmon pizza with a buckwheat crust topped with toasted onion rings.

Smoked Salmon Pizza, Buckwheat Crust, Toasted Onion Rings

I’d retain some elements associated with traditional Nova, but for this pizza I’d veer off with a buckwheat infused crust.  I’d keep it simple with a light white sauce and bites of the hot smoked salmon graced with toasted sweet onion rings, capers, dill and rosemary.

There’s nothing complicated with any of these moving parts, but they do require a little advance work.

The buckwheat crust brings a toasted nuttiness which is lovely with the salmon.  I often use buckwheat in baking as an alternative to whole wheat and stock a small amount of the flour purchased in bulk for occasional use.

Buckwheat Pizza Dough

The crust is the usual pizza dough here, substituting ½ cup buckwheat flour for ½ cup AP, if no buckwheat go with wheat flour if you have it.  Since the dough only needs a few minutes to rise and pats out like a dream, I tend to continue on and prebake 2 medium crusts (or 1 large) because they freeze so well. This way, finishing a pizza can be done at my own speed rather than futzing with dough at the last minute.

For the onion, I opt for sliced sweet onion which is not caramelized in the true sense. Rather, the rings are kept as intact slices and laid onto a flat skillet with a light coating of butter and evoo. The slices are left to toast undisturbed, then flipped over and browned a little longer for a total of 10-12 minutes.

Toasted Onion Rings

The sauce is essentially a light Mornay enriched with a little Asiago cheese and a dollop of thick yogurt. It’s flour base provides stability for the yogurt— which holds beautifully and supplies a creamy bright edge rather than richness.

The pizza makes a superb dinner with salad. As you would expect, it is delish the next day for breakfast.

Smoked Salmon Pizza with Buckwheat Crust & Toasted Onion Rings

Ingredients
1-2 tsp evoo for pan
1 recipe Quick & Easy Pizza Dough
½ cup buckwheat flour (or whole wheat flour)
5 oz hot smoked salmon
Toasted Onion Rings
2 tsp butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 sweet onion, slices
Cheese Sauce
2 tsp butter
1 tsp olive oil
1 Tbsp AP flour
¼ tsp each salt, ⅛ tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp Asiago or Parmesan cheese
½ cup liquid: stock, water, etc.
½ cup milk
⅓ cup thick yogurt
Finish
½ cup Asiago or Parmesan, grated
¼ tsp or more coarse ground pepper
2 tsp capers, drain
2 tsp mixed fresh herbs: rosemary and dill

Directions

  1. Prepare dough, substitute ½ cup AP Flour with ½ buckwheat flour. Let rise 10-20 minutes. For medium pizza, use ½ recipe. For large pizza, use entire recipe.
  2. To toast onion, heat butter and olive oil over medium/low heat in wide skillet or on a griddle. Lay sliced rounds of onion into pan and toast until golden; carefully turn and toast second side, for a total of 10-15 minutes. Remove rings, cool on plate and set aside.
  3. For Cheese Sauce, in small saucepan heat butter and oil over medium/low heat. Add the flour, salt, and pepper and stir for 3-4 minutes. Add the cheese to melt and then stir in ½ cup liquid to dissolve flour, then add the milk, stirring to create a sauce. Stir in the yogurt, combine and heat briefly. Adjust seasoning and set aside.
  4. Shape ½ the dough with oiled hands onto oiled 9-10” pizza pan or pat out all for 1 large crust. It can be prebaked at this point, see dough recipe.
  5. Spread the dough with Cheese Sauce.
  6. Divide the salmon into chunks and arrange evenly oven the sauce. Drape with onion rings.
  7. Sprinkle with ground pepper, grated cheese, capers and herbs.
  8. Bake 425-450°F until bubbly and top begins to color, 18-25 minutes. Makes 1 medium/large pizza

sauce & cheese with your bow ties

I was in the mood for a quick pasta dinner and all I had in my pantry was a package of bow ties, likely an impulse buy. For pasta staples I tend to stick with the basics, a linguine or similar strand, a tube such as rigatoni, a lasagna type, and a smaller shape such as acini.

I started the whole project late; it was closing in on dinnertime, so it needed to be straight forward.  I envisioned a fast tomato sauce, the pasta, a little kale for roughage, and fill in with mozzarella and Parmesan.

Actually, this evolved into a one-pot meal in a hurry and turned out to be an incredibly nice surprise.

I started by making a marinara sauce of sorts. Once it was underway, I added chopped kale.  Then, I decided to throw in the dried bow ties plus a little extra water to extend the sauce. Why not cook it all together? I ventured.

one-pot bow ties

In the time it took to simmer the sauce a few minutes the pasta was al dente and had absorbed much of the excess liquid. I poured it all into a quiche dish, tucked mozzarella pieces into the crevices of the bowties, sprinkled on a little Parmesan, and baked it long enough to melt the cheese, make a salad, and clean up.

The surprise was that the bow ties expanded but retained their mouth-sized shape and held together. Their curly edges and flat surfaces were ooooozing with sauce and cheese.  Oh, my.  If you are a sauce (and cheese) lover, this is the way get it!

One-Pot Bow Ties & Kale in Marinara Sauce

Ingredients
2-3 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, cut into strips
1 cubanelle or other mild-medium hot pepper, seed and cut into strips
1 clove garlic, mash & mince
½ tsp dried oregano or basil
1 tsp fresh rosemary
16 oz can crushed tomatoes
8 oz can tomato sauce
½ tsp salt, pinch crushed red pepper
3-4 leaves kale, cut away center rib, chop  bite-sized
1 cup water, approx.
8 oz pasta bow ties
4 oz mozzarella cheese, cut into 1”x ¾”x ½” thick strips
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Directions

  1. In a sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium heat; add onion to soften. Stir in the green pepper, cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the garlic. Add herbs, cook 2-3 minutes. Stir in the tomato products, salt and pepper, and simmer 5 minutes.
  2.  Stir in the cut up kale, 1 cup water, and cook to wilt, about 3 minutes.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. Pour the pasta into an oiled wide quiche dish.To finish, tuck mozzarella into the pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
  3. Cover with foil and bake at 350-375°F for 20 minutes, remove foil for the last 10 minutes, until bubbly and cheese is melted.
    Serves 3 or more

       Note To add ½ lb ground sausage or beef, brown it first; drain and proceed.

Sour Pickle Power

I link sour pickles with old-fashioned New York deli pickles. In traditional delicatessens they were stored in large wooden barrels that seemingly held a lifetime supply of pickles—and you were free to dip in and fish out your own. Unlike most off-the-shelf pickles that use vinegar, ’half sours’ are fermented in a salt-water solution and become only mildly sour.

My recent venture into sour pickle making stemmed from an over-abundance of fennel—and conjuring up new uses for those feathery fronds I have learned to cherish. I knew I had a plan when I coincidentally netted a supply of small Persian cucumbers.  They are similar to Kirby cucumbers, the popular clean-flavored babies used in pickle making.

Persian cucumbers

These pickles couldn’t be easier, they require no canning or water bath.  Brines and marinades, those stalwarts of the small kitchen, both provide natural preservative qualities and the ability to infuse flavors.

Sour Pickles, in the works

The salt water fermentation brings forth pickles rich in probiotics, vitamin B and K.  Depending on ambient conditions, a jar of crisp garlicky pickles is ready to eat in 7 to 10 days.

crunchy sour pickle taste test, yum.

In all fairness, the fennel flavor is not wildly apparent; I know it’s there, and that makes me happy. It’s tough to compete against the power of garlic, and the combination of dill and garlic is doubly hard to beat.

But, for pickle diversity, the fennel is a nice change and it works beautifully.

Sour Pickles

Ingredients
4-6 Persian or Kirby cucumbers; wash, trim halve
1 cup fennel fronds or 4 heads dill
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 cups filtered water, warm
1 Tbsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 Tbsp whole peppercorns

3-4 cup clean jar with lid

Directions

  1. Dissolve the salt and sugar in warm water. Add the peppercorns and cool.
  2. Place a layer of fennel or dill in bottom of a 3-4 cup jar. Pack the cucumbers upright in the jar, distribute the garlic among the spears, and top with a layer of fennel or dill.  Pour in salt water to cover; reserve any excess.
  3. Drape jar top with a layer of cheesecloth and set on a plate to catch any potential brine overflow.  Let cucumbers ferment 1-4 days at room temperature—the warmer it is, the faster sourness will develop. Top off with more of the salt water to keep emerged. When the brine becomes cloudy and a foam forms on top, taste for sourness. Within 7 to 10 days they should be ready to eat.
  4. Seal with lid and move to fridge to slow fermentation and longer storage.  They will last in the fridge up to a year.  Yields 1 jar pickles.

Ready when you are

If you happened to read the preceding post, you know that this past St Paddy’s Day took a turn and the usual corned beef and cabbage evolved into homemade pastrami.  It wasn’t until well into the pastrami making process that I began to consider new accompaniments.

A peppery rub and time in the smoker had altered this corned beef so greatly that thoughts of traditional boiled vegetables seemed horribly wrong.  Rather, the deli side of the pastrami emerged far more intriguing. As I continued to tinker with the pastrami, visions of an upgraded deli potato salad took form… one with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots and fennel.

pastrami mixed grill deli plate

Pulling it all together, I’d keep it simple (famous last words): throw on a few stashed Red-Hot links during the smoking stage for a little variety and transition to an easy mixed grill. Maybe include some pickled items—no horseradish here, I’d pull out a delicious stone ground mustard.

The trouble with roasted vegetables is that they take so long to actually roast. I decided to help them out by briefly precooking the potatoes, carrots and fennel in the microwave (the fennel really works here). Then, when convenient finish them in a hot oven.

roasted potatoes, carrots, fennel

To be honest, I added a tangy spoonful of aioli to the dressing, rather than garlic and 1 tablespoon of the mayonnaise. It makes a dramatic difference if you have it; but the standard formula works well, too.

Roasted Potato Salad

As with many potato salads, this one improves when made ahead for flavors to fully develop. It will last 3-4 days in the fridge—good on a deli plate whenever you are ready.

Roasted Potato Salad

Ingredients

4 Yukon Gold potatoes, skin on
3 carrots, peel
½ cup fennel stems and fronds, chop
sea salt and fresh ground pepper
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
em>Dressing
2-3 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, crush
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 small stalks celery, chop
2 green onions, chop
1 Tbsp fresh fennel fronds, light chop
1 Tbsp capers
1 tsp lemon juice or caper juice

Instructions

  1. Cut potatoes in chunks, place in microwaveable bowl add 2 Tbsp water, and a pinch of salt. Cover and steam for 2 minutes. Place in colander to drain. Repeat next with carrots and fennel.
  2. Distribute the semi-cooked vegetables on a lined baking sheet, toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes; turn the vegetables . Set broiler to 450°F and cook 5-10 minutes longer until cooked and beginning to brown. Remove and cool.
  3. Meanwhile prepare dressing: combine the mayonnaise, garlic, yogurt and mustard to taste. Add the celery, green onion, fennel fronds or 1 tsp fresh thyme, and capers. Point up with lemon or caper juice, season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the cooled vegetables in a medium bowl, toss with dressing to coat well. Best made an hour or more ahead. Serves 3-4.

Pastrami making in the small kitchen

At my house, St. Patrick’s Day is traditionally celebrated with corned beef, cabbage, and all the trimmings. Since this year’s invasion of the coronavirus is like no other, I went off in a completely different direction. This year I tried my hand at pastrami making.

I began without much of a clue.  All I really knew was that corned beef and pastrami were similar, but I wasn’t certain how they differed. Turns out, pastrami has evolved, but not via Ireland. They are both frequently brined with spices, but pastrami further includes a final rub and smoking process.

Historically, pastrami’s roots stem from the Ottoman Turks where mutton, goat, and beef were preserved in salt and rubbed with spices. It made its way via the spice route to Romania where it became a favored process in preserving goose. When immigrating to America, Romanians brought the technique with them. Ultimately, it would transition to cheaper beef cuts, and pastrami would become a staple in New York delicatessens.

Notoriously tough brisket and rounds of beef require long cooking to tenderize.  Because I wanted a firm but not mushy texture for slicing, this was a major factor in my pastrami making.  Rather than the usual boil, I elected to steam the meat in the multicooker at high pressure.

With that settled, I selected a thick 3½ pound corned beef brisket that would fit in the pot I had available. No boiling meant I would first need to desalinate. I settled on 4 hours of presoaking time, with a change of water every hour. The brisket was then sealed in the multicooker and steamed for 90 minutes.

Uninspired steamed corned beef

Meanwhile, I developed a rub that would flavor the meat prior to the final smoking process. I toasted and ground black peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds. After that, ground coriander, mustard and smoked paprika, garlic powder, sugar and salt were also added for faster absorption into the meat.

Rubbed corned beef

When cooled, I pressed the rub into the meat and let it air dry. Then, it was loosely covered to protect but allow air circulation—and refrigerated overnight. I turned the meat 2-3 times, and by the following afternoon it was ready to smoke.

I packed my tiny grill with a supply of coals for indirect heat and 2 foil wrapped pouches of wood chips for smoking.  After 30 minutes and a couple of turns on the grill, I moved the remaining coals about and gave the pastrami a final 5-minute sear.

Homemade Pastrami

This is where I failed.  I could not leave it alone.  It looked good but I wanted to see what it was doing inside!  So excited, I grabbed a serrated knife (what was I thinking?) and nearly ripped it apart.  Yes, it was so good, I kept at it and hacked away!!

(Sigh) Lesson learned. Let it rest, as you would a fine steak, and then cut.  With all that cooking, it will be cooked, and very nicely done!

Pastrami from Brined Corned Beef

Ingredients
3½ pound package corned beef (uncooked)
 Pastrami Rub
2 Tbsp mixed peppercorns
2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
2 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp brown sugar

Instructions

  1. Soak the corned beef.  Cover corned beef with water; soak 4-6 hours, change water 2-3 times.
  2. Trim. Remove all but ⅛” fat layer and any silver.
  3. Steam. In multicooker, pour in 1 cup water, add trivet and place meat on rack. Set to Hi Pressure, steam 90 mins. Rest 10 minutes and release pressure. It should be fork tender,  internal temperature at least 145°F (steamed in PC, likely 200°F. )  Drain and cool.
  4. Rub & Refrigerate. Press moist meat surfaces liberally with rub; less on thinner areas. Refrigerate 1-2 days, let air circulate.
  5. Smoke the pastrami. Create a bed of coals around the perimeter of the grill. Makes 2 small foil packets of wood chips and poke a few holes. When coals are hot, place the packets against the coals. Cover and and allow smoke to form.  Add beef and smoke approximately 30 minutes over indriect heat.  Move coals to center of grill, and sear the meal well for 5-8 minutes.
  6. Rest.  Let pastrami rest at least 10 minutes before slicing.  Refrigerate and seal well. It is even better the next day.

 

    

So Much for Scraps

Perhaps you too suffer small twinges when faced with throwing away odd scraps of food.  These days I’m becoming increasingly aware of the waste factor and I try to think before chucking food.  In the heat of the moment there are still plenty of times when I’ll do the ‘should I, or shouldn’t I?’ shuffle and toss away—only to regret it later.

The latest such event proved to be a good lesson in why I need to pay attention when that twinge hits.  It happened while prepping tender red chard leaves for a fast brunch dish.  At the time I wasn’t much interested in the stems, they were in my way and I was ready to pitch.  I took another look at the intensely  beautiful burgundy stems, and in that moment my better self intervened. Instead of sending them arbitrarily to the trash I dropped them in the fridge instead. I’d deal with them later.

The next day I consulted Lindsay-Jean Hard’s Cooking with Scraps cookbook to get her take on chard stems. She says they are well worth roasting, grilling, pickling, even steaming… and my plan began to take shape.

I considered my obvious resources and centered on a small spaghetti squash that needed attention and a jar of fresh mozzarella balls marinating in a yummy garlicky evoo herb blend.  I’d keep it simple; I’d steam the squash and stems, liven them up with a little of the marinade, perhaps tuck in a bit of cheese, maybe some fresh basil, and see how that all works.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Despite its appearance, spaghetti squash is very forgiving to prepare—I’ve even had success cooking it in the microwave. For manageability, I prefer smaller squash, 1½ to 2-pounds in size. My plan here is to cook both the squash and stems at the same time in the Instant Pot. It’s the pot-in-pot concept in which you layer 2 or more dishes or items into the pot and steam them simultaneously.

I’ve read cutting spaghetti squash in half, across its mid-line, will cook faster than lengthwise, plus yielding longer strands and using less space. I accumulated over ½ cup of seeds while scraping them out of the squash, and sampled one; they were mild and meaty. Again, my better self stepped forward and I set them aside;  they were well worth saving for a short brine and fast roast in the microwave.  I figured they might not make it today, but they’re enough for a later snack, a salad topping, or other such.   I’m on a roll with scraps—when I’m paying attention there are benefits all over the place!

Marinated Red Chard Stems & Spaghetti Squash

I move on and place the two squash halves in the Instant Pot on a trivet with 1 cup water. The stems are cut into smaller lengths, tossed with a bit of marinade for flavor and moisture, and sealed in a foil packet.  It’s all layered in the Instant Pot and set for 7 minutes under pressure. That’s it.  Once cooked and removed, the squash drains a few minutes to release excess moisture from steaming.

Ah, the stems, the stems… what a surprise. They are earthy, tender, and absorb just enough marinade to elevate them straight to delicacy status.  The sweet spaghetti squash is a perfect foil, lightly seasoned with salt, red pepper flakes, the marinade further helps to separate the strands. The ruby red stems are folded in like jewels and pieces of mozzarella meld into the warm spaghetti squash.  This is an affirmation to slow down and give scraps a chance.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Ingredients
1½ – 2 pounds spaghetti squash
stems from 1 bunch red chard
Marinade
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic mash & sliver
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme
¼ tsp sea salt and coarse ground pepper
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 fresh round mozzarella or 1 cup other melting cheese
¼ tsp crush red pepper flakes
fresh basil or other herbs

Instructions

  1. To prepare marinade, combine olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and whisk in the vinegar. If time permits, marinate the mozzarella overnight in the fridge.
  2. If the chard stems are large, cut them lengthwise into ½” thick strips and then into 1-2” lengths and place in medium bowl. Lightly drizzle with about 1 Tbsp of marinade and toss to coat.
  3. Carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half across its mid-section. Remove seeds and set them aside.
  4. In liner of Instant Pot, add 1 cup water and place trivet in bottom.  To preheat, set pot to Sauté More.  Wedge the squash halves sideways in the pot on the trivet.  Place 18” length of foil on work surface and pile chard stems and marinade in center; wrap and fold foil to seal packet and wedge into pot with squash.
  5. Seal lid and set pot to Hi Pressure for 7-8 minutes, depending on squash size. When time is up, disconnect pot, let stand 5 minutes and then release remaining pressure.  Carefully open pot. The squash should be fork tender; remove the squash to drain upside down for 5 minutes. Open foil packet and check stems, they should be tender and fragrant.
  6. To assemble, loosen squash with fork into spaghetti like strands and place in medium bowl.  Season lightly with marinade, salt, red pepper flakes, and toss. Gently add the chard stems. Slice the mozzarella and tuck into the warm squash to soften. Sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serves 2.

Sweet Dreams

We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.

Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau.  Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain.  It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?

People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends.  Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.

I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard.  In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.”  Sweet.

The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking.  Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice.  His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.

I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard.  He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake.  Simple enough.

Basque Gateau

I decided to give it a try.  Here are a couple of notes:  I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk.  It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy.  I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant.  However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

So, there you have it.  I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!)  The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.

I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart

Ingredients
Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional

Instructions

1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes.  Mix in flour.  Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling.  Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead.  You should have enough for 2 cakes.

2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.

3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick.  Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge.  Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Release cake from pan and slice into wedges.  For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving.  Cover and chill for storage.   Serves 6-8