Please Romaine Calm

Last week, on the afternoon of April 20th, I ingested a meal at the Flicks Theatre. It was a large chicken Caesar salad. As I crunched through bite after bite of tasty romaine lettuce, I hardly paid attention to my phone which was vibrating continuously in my pocket. “I’m far too addicted to my devices,” I reasoned. “No need to check whatever news is causing this ruckus.”

I cleaned my plate, even using a piece of baguette to mop up the last shards of parmesan, and walked back to my place of work.

Back at my desk, I finally glanced at my phone. Text messages flashed up at me. My eyes darted back and forth like Nicholas Cage finding the secret code on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The CDC. Yuma, Arizona. My grandma shouting about avoiding all salads. And what was this about lettuce?

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Tri-Tip and The Problem of Meat

This Father’s Day, my family elected to cook the family BBQ classic: tri-tip.

We bought two smaller tri-tips , so my mother and I decided to cook them different ways. My mom opted for Santa Maria style grilling,  turning the meat every four minutes and basting with a mixture of oil, red wine vinegar and garlic. I used Thomas Keller’s tri-tip recipe, in which you brown the outsides with oil and butter, and then slow cook it in the oven.

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My Tri-Tip, awaiting butter and rosemary.

Both cuts of meat received a paprika and black pepper dry rub about 2.5 hours before they went on the grill. If you’re planning properly, you’re supposed to rub and refrigerate overnight. I can see why, as my hasty spice work did little to improve the flavor.

The final products were… just ok. The Thomas Keller recipe produced a better texture, while the grilled meat had a more distinct flavor.

And this is my ultimate problem with tri-tip: it’s never as good as you hope it will be. It’s easy to overcook, and unsatisfying compared to other cuts of meat. During our Father’s Day meal, I realized that the portobello mushrooms we grilled for our vegan family members were abundantly more flavorful, not to mention less taxing on my vascular system. (Portobello marinade: olive oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic. Very delicious.)

Admittedly, I am no fan of red meat. But still I wonder, why do we value it so highly? Is it really so delicious? Or has red meat been perverted into a bloody status symbol, the Cadillac for the posturing philistine?

I believe we are deceived. We are stuck in a sort of Plato’s cave – Plato’s Meat Cave – and the shadows on the wall force us to rejoice in the chewy labor of the Stakehouse. If we only turned around, we could discover the truth: that chicken, fish, lamb, and most roasted vegetables, are more capable and delectable than the tri-tip and T-bone.

It is time for liberation. And a portobello mushroom burger.

(Note: none of this criticism of steak applies to Dave Yasuda’s sous vide steaks and Chandler’s fillet, which are absurdly and inconceivably delicious.)

Muse: Focaccia

This week, I realized that I want to learn how to bake bread, and focaccia was the first variety that I attempted. Soft, crusty and liberally flavored with olive oil, it’s a delicious accompaniment to any Italian meal.

Focaccia requires the following ingredients: flour, salt, olive oil, yeast, water, and a tablespoon of sugar. That is it. (Here is the extremely helpful recipe I used.)

The takeaway from making focaccia was the same as every other time I learn how to cook something: holy crap that’s so easy! Why did I buy that from the store before?

Making focaccia dough was so simple and enjoyable that I instantly felt ashamed for buying Trader Joe’s pizza dough all these years. The whole process was incredibly straightforward, and smelled so good. The smell of dough man, it hits you on a deeper level.

My first attempt at focaccia was pretty good. The inside was properly fluffy yet dense, and it paired nicely with balsamic.

IMG_5444.jpgYou know what they say, like it, loaf it, gotta have it.

 

Pit Stop: Meraki’s Zeus Fries

Meraki is a fascinating greek restaurant that probably warrants its own review — maybe even its own podcast. Just to give you an idea, they put french fries in their gyros. Better yet, they serve pork gyros instead the standard beef and lamb mix. This is because pork is in fact the traditional greek meat. (You can still order beef and lamb, but they tell me that such stylings originated not in Greece but Chicago, and may soon be discontinued).

But my visit to Meraki was all about the Zeus Fries. Yep, that’s right. French fries, seasoned gyro meat, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce — drizzled with a side of spicy feta.

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Even your cardiologist wants a plate of these to himself.

 

Carnitas: The Better White Meat

Carnitas are the proper measure of any taco truck. At their best, they are pulled pork plus divinity — a tender, greasy, crispy miracle unrivaled among meats. When they get messed up, they are the most dry and boring meat on the menu.

When my friend decided to have taco night at his house, I saw an opportunity to try my hand at Mexican cuisine’s most thrilling and enigmatic protein. As imagined it, I would be Rumpelstiltskin, spinning carnitas forth from a slab of pork like gold from straw. Only in this version, no one would owe me their firstborn.

I could delight you with references to fairy tales all day, but my track record as a man of substance is well established. Let’s get to the meat of my story:

As always, I found a carnitas recipe by skimming through google until I had a sense of what the average recipe looks like.

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This recipe was one of my favorites.

This food network recipe is very similar to what I ended up doing, but I fiddled with it slightly — adding 2 limes, foregoing the jalapeño, and roughly chopping the garlic (nothing kills taco night like too much garlic).

I planned on buying 6 pounds of boneless pork shoulder (tripling the Food Network recipe), but when I went to Winco, I saw a stack of something called “carnitas” in the deli case. It was ostensibly pork shoulder, but cut this meat was cut into smaller pieces. I decided to grab that instead.

It cost twelve dollars to buy six pounds of pork — I’m not kidding. The meat used in carnitas is so cheap you start to worry that it’s going to be disgusting or expired, but that’s the whole point of carnitas. You cook them so slowly that they have to be delicious.

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Six pounds of pork shoulder: in the flesh.

Thus it was that I rinsed six pounds of pork, massaged it with olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and cumin, and tossed it in a slow cooker. At this point, my kitchen already smelled pleasantly aromatic. I threw in the garlic and the onion, roughly chopped. I then juiced two limes and two oranges over the meat and tossed the rinds in with the meat. I set the whole affair on low and walked out the door.

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Carnitas require less ingredients that you think.

Eight hours later, my carnitas were cooked and smelled delicious. I removed the meat from the slow cooker and pulled it with two forks. I discarded the citrus rinds and fished out most of the onions, but the cooking juices stayed put.

It was taco time. I heated a generous amount of canola oil in a frying pan. When it was hot enough to make sizzling sounds, I put in my meat — just enough to cover the bottom because you want every piece to be sufficiently browned and greasy. I poured two ladles of the slow cooker liquid over the pork while it fried, which provided essential salt and flavor. I wish I had photos of this part, but frying something in one had with a DSLR the other is a level of douchebaggery to which I cannot succumb.

I opted for a traditional taco bar — guac, pico, jalapeños, sour cream, cilantro, and small corn tortillas. I also included some of my pickled red onions and cotija cheese for extra flair.

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I apologize for an unsettling white balance.
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Birds eye view.

The carnitas were delicious — salty and crispy just as I had envisioned. Moments after the meat came out of the pan, I built my tacos: Tortilla, carnitas, slab of guac, pickled onions, cotija, cilantro, sour cream.

I rarely delight in my own cooking, but was pleased with the way I visualized, and then executed, my flavor combinations. You can call me Guy Fieri, because these tacos were a quick trip to Flavortown (population: one dude with frosted tips).

Carnitas take a long time, but they aren’t labor intensive. Get out there and spend a shockingly small amount of money on meat. Your taco/enchilada/burrito/tostada awaits.

Superbowl Nachos

Last week I had to face the sad fact that the Patriots were once again in the Super Bowl. This meant that I would once again have to see Bill Belichik’s rumpled visage transformed by it’s biannual grin. (Bill Belichik can only be happy for the first six seconds when he’s holding the Lombardi trophy. By the time the players start giving victory speeches he’s already planning who he’ll cut for next season.)

Between the Patriots and my guilt from enjoying the product of a morally destitute league,  I doubted my ability derive any joy from this game. I decided, instead, to focus my efforts on Superbowl foods.

For too many Superbowls, I have greatly expanded my hors d’oeuvres variety at the expense of quality. Guac, salsa, and potato chips, that’s well and good. Adding hummus and a crudite, that’s pushing it. A cheese plate, smoked meats and corn muffins — now none of these foods go together and I’ll have to lock myself in the bathroom during the third quarter.

This year I knew I couldn’t allow myself the excesses to which I am naturally inclined. I would choose one and only one snackable dish, and I would execute it at the highest level. My choice was nachos.

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First things first, if you aren’t making your nachos on a baking sheet, get with the times. Baking sheets provide great surface area and they are the best platform for sensible chip engineering. Additionally, making them on parchment paper makes cleanup easy, and transfer to another plate effortless.

I’ll make this simple and digestible by describing my nachos in terms of layers (but you should understand that these ingredients were repeated at various points based on chef’s intuitution):

Layer 1: Refried Beans (thinned out with water until they take on a mexican restaurant consistency)
Layer 2: Corn chips
Layer 3: Tomatillo chicken thighs (slow cooked for eight hours using this fine recipe)
Layer 4: Black beans
Layer 5: Delicious, delicious homemade nacho cheese

With the base fully realized, I piled on guacamole, homemade pico de gallo, and pre-shredded mexican cheese (I thought it would melt well, but in retrospect I should have shredded my own).

The final touches? Why not some pickled jalapeños, radishes, black olives, cilantro, crumbled cotija cheese, annnnddddd sour cream from a fun squirt bottle.

They almost made up for that comeback.

Handcrafted Spaghetti: Not As Hard As You Think

Spaghetti is too often confined to a rectangular box. I am ashamed to say it, but in the conveniences of modern life I had forgotten that spaghetti could be anything but a brittle dehydrated noodle.

Luckily the ambition of my biology class lab partners reminded me just how accessible a better noodle can be. After an hour of studious data collection, we met in my kitchen set on creating spaghetti from scratch. Combining mixing three eggs slowly into two cups of flour, we we’re able to make a very satisfactory pasta dough.

We ran our dough through a pasta making machine (which I was luckily able to procure from my uncle, though I am sure they are available on the internet) and were quite surprised to find beautiful fresh spaghetti.

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Stirred into well seasoned boiling water, the pasta cooked in 4-5 minutes. All it took was eggs, flour, salt and water.

We removed our pasta from the water a few minutes early, and let it finish cooking in a red sauce that was simmering on the other burner. The result was a handmade noodle evenly and delightfully coated in sauce. One mandatory dusting of aged parmesan, and this stuff was ready to eat.

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Yum. Cooking continually reminds me that you can make almost anything cheaper and better than a restaurant in your own kitchen — you just need a little extra time.

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My bio 191 pal, Tallon Endicott, enjoys his creation.

 

Clock Management

There’s something you should know when I enter the kitchen. I’m going to be there a while.

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I’ve always moved at a slow (some might say glacial) pace. I always brought a book to the bathroom as a child. I get distracted easily by newspaper box scores, my cellphone, and passing birds. I often stare into space for 90 seconds in between tying my shoes.

The point is, I’m not an abundantly effective man. And it is never more obvious than when I am in the kitchen.

You want cereal? You’ll need to give me 5 minutes.

You want some 6 minute rice? Well that will take 20.

Need me to sauté an onion? See you in an hour.

You want a pork roast? Please have my AARP card at the ready. I’ll be eligible by the time I serve dinner.

This chronological impairment is without doubt the greatest threat to my young culinary career. Good cooking is, in large part, good clock management. And to the accomplished chef’s Bill Belichick, I am the overmatched Andy Reid (only frustrated Chiefs fans will understand this).

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Anyways, the true sign of a good meal is that everything retains the correct temperature and consistency when it hits the plate, and subsequently, our mouths. If you don’t respect the omnipotent role of timing in cooking, you could end up committing a deadly food sin — like reheating sautéed spinach, or (gasp) serving a cold breakfast meat.

And on the note of shamelessly reheated and aggressively ash like spinach, lets talk about the dinner I made the other night.

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I was cooking dinner for my family. I made seared chicken with a blueberry reduction, turnip mashed potatoes, and sautéed spinach. I was trying to utilize many of the recipes that Nicole graciously demonstrated for us on Monday.

My chicken was simple — a chicken breast, cut into small medallions/fillets, and fried in a pan with butter, salt and pepper. The result was pleasantly chicken-y, and that’s about all I can say. I should have cooked it less, and seasoned it more, but how much can you really do to chicken?

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The reduction sauce was undoubtedly the highlight of the meal. I started by cooking down frozen blueberries and water in a saucepan with four halved and peeled pears. Once the berries had cooked down and the pears were fully poached, I pulled the pears out, they would be used as dessert later. After I had cooked the chicken, I added more butter to the delicious chicken grease, and sautéed shallots in the yummy swirling fats. Then I poured in my bubbling blueberries, an aggressive amount of balsamic vinegar, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. I let the sauce cook down and vinegars sweetened up deliciously. I added a pat of butter mixed with cornstarch at the very end to thicken up my creation. It was delightful atop the chicken.

But here’s the trouble, I had already made mashed turnips and potatoes (which had good flavor, but owing to my use of the turnip, entirely to watery). All this time they were sitting idle on the counter in my kitchenaid.

To make matters worse, I had stupidly sautéed a huge pile of spinach before making the chicken, and it was becoming hypothermic alone on the counter. All the time that I took constructing my sauce had made these important side dishes colder than Ice Cube in a Coors commercial.

From beginning to end, making this simple meal of potatoes/turnips, spinach, chicken and sauce took me nearly two and a half hours. Two and a half hours. Thats as long as Fellowship of the Ring. In that time Frodo made it from The Shire to the hills of Emyn Muil. I made some lukewarm chicken. That can be called nothing other than inexcusable.

Whatever the variances in kinetic energy, my family consumed the meal, and deemed it somewhere between edible and yummy. I was glad to have fed them and glad to have practiced a variety of cooking teqniques.

But the great question of timing hangs over me.

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If time is money, I am a very poor man. But the nice thing about time is, there’s more of it in the future. And there are many hours still to come where I may serve everything at the temperature it deserves.

Lentil Soup: A Medicine That Goes Down Easy

Being sick always forces me to recognize the extreme nature of my food addiction. I can’t taste at all, the only thing I can derive from a meal is texture, and I still pound slices of pizza like my life depends on it. Force of habit I guess. The whole time I desperately breathe through my nose, hoping to oxygenate my palate and experience the taste of food that I so deeply miss. Its a pathetic and mucus filled occasion.

At some point, you can’t change who you are, you just have to work around the problematic person you’ve become. I knew that having a cold, and subsequently no sense of taste, would do nothing to prevent me from eating. So I decided to make my meals as healthy as possible. Because whats the difference between bacon wrapped shrimp and kale salad when your taste buds are out of commission? Might as well stave off heart disease for another few weeks.

So I made lentil soup. I used the exact recipe that was used to a delicious end in class on Monday. I sautéed carrots, celery, and onion in olive oil to make your classic mirepoix. Then I added a can of chopped tomatoes, and cooked them down with about half a cup of water. Then I added maybe four cups of lentils, and simmered the soup for about ten minutes. I salted throughout, and peppered at the end, but in retrospect, it didn’t really matter. I had no ability to season to taste.

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My soup, pre-lentils.

I ate five bowls of it, just so I could feel the comfort of chewing and swallowing. I could sort of taste it from time to time, and I’m pretty sure it was delicious, but one never knows. The important thing is that I got all my essential nutrients, plenty of protein, and didn’t let illness get in the way of my impending obesity.

You might be curious about the gastrointestinal impact of eating five bowls of lentil soup in one night. I’ll just say this. There are consequences. Very real consequences, and I think it would be best for everyone if I leave it at that.