Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Caramelized Onion, Apple, Walnut Grilled Cheese

There are 2 types of bloggers: the hermits and the party animals. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might wonder why I never leave comments on your blog or participate in food blogging events. Two things happened in the last couple of years that turned me into an on-line hermit: I left my office job that offered plenty of slow days and nothing to do but surf the web, and I had a baby. My new anti-social existence often leaves me in situations of having a perfect recipe for a food blogging event at completely the wrong time. Sometimes I am late by a few days, sometimes by a few months, and in this case, by a few years. The event in question is the "Grilled Cheese Day" from 2006. Some journalist from Food and Wine Magazine reported that most food blogs were boring because they discussed something as mundane as a grilled cheese sandwich. In response, the food bloggers around the world decided to show him just how fabulous and interesting a grilled cheese can be. I guess I am more than 2 years late for that event, so writing about grilled cheese is no longer a cause. It's just plain old yummy grilled cheese.

Do we really need a "recipe" for grilled cheese? The students in my Knife Skills class think that we do. Knife Skills is the only class where I don't give out recipes since the focus of the class is not cooking, but chopping. But we still have to eat, so we improvise a meal out of whatever we chopped up. Most of the menu changes, but one item has become so popular that I make it for every Knife Skills class: the grilled cheese.

We always end up with a ridiculous amount of sliced onions, and what better thing to do with them than to caramelize and turn them into a musky, jammy concoction that turns every dish to gold. As Marie Wolf from BreadBasketcase mentioned: "Caramelized onions improve almost everything, except maybe ice cream." I got an idea for a grilled cheese with granny smith apples and caramelized onions from a class I took with Didi Emmons about 5 years ago. The walnuts got added when I was trying to use up whatever was left over in the vacation house pantry on the last day of a ski trip 3 years ago. It was such an incredible sandwich that I haven't changed it a bit in the last 3 years (and I am a hopeless improviser). What can I say -- you can't mess with perfection.

Caramelized Onion, Apple, Walnut Grilled Cheese

For Caramelized Onions:
3 Tbsp olive oil, plus more as needed
2 Lb yellow onions, sliced
Salt (2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher / 1.5 tsp Morton's Kosher / 1 tsp table)
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

For the Sandwiches:
Good bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick (in Boston, I prefer to use Iggy's "country sourdough")
Unsalted Butter, softened
Walnuts or Pecans, coarsely chopped (either toasted or un-toasted are fine)
Granny Smith Apple, sliced 1/6" thick
Good cheddar, sliced 1/8" thick (I prefer 1 year old Cabot or Grafton Village)

To make caramelized onions:
  1. Set a large, heavy (not non-stick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, onions, and salt. Cook stirring occasionally until onions get somewhat brown, 12-18 minutes.
  2. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook stirring occasionally until onions are medium brown, about 45 minutes, adding more oil if they stick too much.
  3. Add balsamic vinegar, and cook stirring occasionally until onions are dark nutty brown, about 15 minutes. Take off heat. You'll have way more onions than you'll need for grilled cheese, but that's not such a bad problem to have.
To assemble sandwiches:
  1. Have 2 pieces of bread ready for each sandwich and butter each piece on one side (be generous with butter -- you only live once :)
  2. Turn on the broiler.
  3. Set an oven-proof skillet, that can hold all the sandwiches you are making in one layer, over medium heat.
  4. Place 1 piece of bread per sandwich in the skillet, buttered side down. Arrange caramelized onions on top of bread, sprinkle with nuts, top with 1 layer of apples and then cheese. The order actually matters. You want the cheese to be on top so that it melts quickly under the broiler and the nuts to be next to the onions so that they stick and don't fall out. Cook the sandwiches until the bottom of the bread is golden brown.
  5. Pop the skillet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, just until the cheese melts. Check every 20 seconds since broilers vary widely.
  6. Return the skillet to the stove top on medium heat. Top with the second piece of bread, placing it buttered side up. Flip the sandwiches, and cook until the bread is golden brown on the bottom.
  7. Serve with a German Riesling. It's a food/wine match made in heaven.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Boston butt (pork shoulder) Osso Buco style

Shortage of ingredients is a wonderful thing. Don't get me wrong, it's great when I can go to the store and buy whatever is on my shopping list. But availability and creativity and inversely proportional as far as I can tell. How did the French start eating frogs, the Chinese jellyfish, and the Americans lobster? I bet it wasn't out of over-abundance of beef and chicken. It was out of necessity due to lack of other sources of protein. That's exactly how this roast came about. I went to Whole Foods, with the plan to make Osso Buco (brasied veal shanks) with my Tender at the Bone class. But that day, it was not to be. No veal shanks, and no one could tell me if they were coming in later. I was in a pinch. I needed a braising dish for the class, and I already had the rest of the ingredients for osso buco. I desperately started looking through the meat counter until I found my savior -- pork shoulder (a.k.a. Boston Butt).

Just like veal shanks, the pork shoulder is made up of many different muscles joined by tons of connective tissue. After a long and slow braise (cooking in a pot with a little liquid) the connective tissue melts and you are rewarded with spoon-tender, wonderfully savory meat. The pork and veal flavor profiles are also similar, so I was hoping the final result would be true to Osso Buco concept.

Since the butt was de-boned, it had some loose pieces of meat sticking out where the bone was. I decided to tuck them all in, and truss it with string to make one large roast instead of cutting it into round pieces that mimic the shape of the shanks. I followed my Osso Buco recipe as is, increasing the braising time to 4 hours to take into account the large piece of meat I was working with. All I can say is yum! It was the most succulent, tender, and flavorful pork roast I've ever made. There also happens to be a nice side-effect of substituting pork for veal: your wallet gets a break. The veal shanks are $12/Lb (considering the fact that almost half of that weight is the bone, the real price is more like $20/Lb), and the Boston butt is only $3/Lb.

Boston butt (pork shoulder) Osso Buco style

Serves 6

3 Lb boneless pork shoulder (a.k.a. Boston butt)
2 Tbsp canola oil
2 Tbsp butter
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
2 large carrots, finely diced
2 celery ribs, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup beef stock, plus more as needed (up to 3 cups total)
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 275F.

If the pork shoulder has loose pieces of meat, tuck them in and roll the pork into a neat roast. Tie the roast with kitchen string at 2 inch intervals. This will give it a more uniform shape and help it cook more evenly.

Immediately before cooking, dry pork extremely well with paper towels and season very generously with salt and pepper. If using unsalted stock, I use about 1.5 Tbsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (= 1 Tbsp Morton's Kosher = 0.75 Tbsp table salt) . If the stock is salted, go a bit easier on the salt. Set a heavy deep over-proof pan that can later be covered on medium-high heat and add 2 Tbsp canola oil. When the pan is hot and the oil is starting to ripple, place the pork in the pan and cook until nicely browned on the first side, 2-3 minutes. Turn and brown the other side. Keep rotating the roast and cooking it until it's browned all over (including standing it up on the ends). Remove the pork to a plate and set aside. If the fat has burnt, clean out the pan before proceeding.

Return the pan to medium-low heat. Add the butter, onion, carrots, and celery to the pan. Season with salt and cook stirring occasionally until tender and golden brown, 15-20 minutes. Add tomatoes and garlic. Cook until most of the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens, 10-15 minutes.

Add the wine to the pan and boil on high to reduce in half, about 10 minutes. Add the stock. Bring to a simmer. Add the pork and bay leaves to the pan. Wait for the liquid to return to a simmer. Cover and put in the oven for 4 - 5 hours, flipping the roast half way through cooking time. During the end of cooking time, keep an eye on it to make sure there is still a little liquid in the pot. If all of it is evaporated, add a little more stock. The pork is done when it's fork tender or registers 210F on an instant read thermometer inserted in the center. Move the roast to a carving board and rest for 15-20 minutes. Add a little more stock or water to the pan drippings and simmer gently for 5-10 minutes, scraping up all the yummy bits stuck to the bottom. Remove the string from the roast, carve, and serve with pan drippings.

As all braises, this will taste even better the next day, and will keep in the fridge for up to 4 days or in the freezer for months. To warm up, slice into 3/4 inch pieces and simmer gently in the pan with a little extra stock or water until heated through.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hooray for high oil prices!

"I have something for you," said Frankie. He must have picked up something interesting at the pier that morning. Something that wasn't salmon, trout, sword, halibut, cod, tuna, or sole. "Maybe it's mahi," I thought. "Or if I am really lucky, sable." "I have," Frankie paused gravely, "Bluefin tuna." It took me a few seconds to regain my speech. "No way!" I replied. "Bluefin! Real bluefin?"

How do I explain this miracle? It was like bumping into Mario Batali at your local supermarket. Frankie disappeared in the back and came back with a 20 Lb tuna loin. He wasn't kidding. I could tell by the color that it wasn't the yellowfin he usually carries. The yellowfin (also known as ahi) is burgundy red throughout and never has any fat. The loin Frankie brought out was paler and pinkist-brown in parts. The less intensely red the tuna looks, the more fat it has. That's right. That bright red tuna people get so excited about in the sushi restaurants is the cheap lean stuff. Of course, one shouldn't confuse white tunas like Albacore with a fatty bluefin or big-eye. You have to look very closely to see if they flakes themselves are light in color if if they are streaked with little lines of marbling.

"I'll take it! Wait, how much is it?" I asked. Since we never see our wonderful local bluefins in the North East, I was prepared to pay through the nose. After all, the reason they all get shipped to Japan is that people are willing to pay serious money for them there. I've never shopped for fish in Japan myself, but I hear that North Atlantic bluefin can retail for some astronomical prices. "$20/Lb," said Frankie. "That's all?" I asked. Hmm, I guess it's not a good idea to tell someone they are giving you too good of a price. But what is Frankie to do? Most of his clientele is traditional New England. Halibut is as exotic as it gets with these folks, and I am willing to bet you can count raw fish eaters who shop at Frankie's on one hand. Unless you are willing to try this fish raw, you'd never know what's so amazing about it and why $20/Lb is more than a reasonable price.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about what to do with my precious new possesion. Since I didn't have time to buy any extra ingredients, I decided to go the simple route. I sliced the fatty half of the tuna (the radish-brown part streaked with lines of marbling) and served it over a bowl of sushi rice, and I seared the leaner (bright red) part and served it with a mango salsa and balsamic-soy-ginger sauce.

The lean seared tuna was delicious, but the raw fatty one was to die for. You couldn't feel connective tissue at all. It felt like velvet that dissolved in the mouth, like getting a tuna French kiss.

How come this beauty was left to us Bostonians and not whisked off to Japan? Frankie and I are betting on high oil prices. I guess it took 30 years, an invention of styrofoam transportation boxes, millions of trips around the globe, and finally a recent spike in oil prices to bring what Japanese call a "Boston Bluefin" to a Boston table.

More information on tuna types and how to eat them raw.

For more information on globalization of the tuna trade, read Sasha Issenberg's The Sushi Economy.

Frankie's Catch of the Day
19 Leonard St
Belmont, MA 02478
Phone: (617) 484-6460