Saturday, November 26, 2011

Look Ma Stuffed Tomatoes

On the phone with mom the other day I felt like a triple dirtbag. 1) I got super busy and didn't call her on her birthday. 2) I remembered as I was falling asleep that I needed to call her in the morning to make up for it, but then I overslept and was late and it slipped my mind. 3) Now I'm on the phone with my mom two days late and apologizing for not calling her on her birthday or the day after. Triple dirtbag. Then she lays this on me, "I've been reading your food blog. You're getting a little too precious with it."

A too-precious triple dirtbag. I hang my head.

So this one's for my ma, who taught me by example that you can make dinner out of whatever is in the pantry plus whatever anybody happened to bring home dead, to not waste anything, and now how not to be precious. Mom always bought in bulk and stored things in the freezer because you never know when you're going to need something, and that's a habit I've picked up as well.

I was responsible for a side dish for the buffet at the Mydyette-Hunter Thanksgiving feast, and not knowing precisely what people would want to eat, I got it in my head to make some stuffed baked tomatoes. Seemed like nobody could really object to a tomato. For the stuffing I imagined a savory pilaf, nothing too heavy. I started the rice by sweating some onion and garlic in a sauce pan with olive oil, then added the rice, some saffron, water and Vegeta. I didn't have any stock. Shame on me for not having stock. For normal fluffy rice I use 2 parts liquid to one part rice, but this was going to be cooked twice, so I cut the liquid back by about a third. I wanted the rice to be al dente when I stuffed the tomatoes with it so it would absorb the cooking juices from the tomato to complete its hydration.

In preparation I had got a bunch of hothouse tomatoes, so I cut the tops off them to make little hats and saved the tops on a wet paper towel in the fridge. I cut around the perimeter of each one to a depth of about an inch and a half, then hollowed out the insides with a spoon. I saved the insides in a big bowl and salted them to get the liquid to render. I'd need the liquid later.

When the rice was done to the point I could use it, I dumped it into a big mixing bowl to cool off, and added a bunch of chopped cashews. I tasted the mixture and it was good, but could use a little more complexity, so I went to the freezer, where I keep the pine nuts I buy in bulk (thank you mom), put a handful of pine nuts on the fire with some butter and browned them, then added them to the rice. They were toasty delicious. When the rice mixture was cool enough to handle, I chopped a couple of scallions, some cilantro and a bunch of mint leaves and stirred them in along with some olive oil and crushed Mexican oregano. The rice was a little too firm for easy packing into the tomatoes, so I ladled some tomato liquor from the bowl of middles into the rice to loosen it. I also tried a sip of the tomato liquor and it was delicious. Maybe Devin can devise another cocktail with it and open franchises in New Orleans. Sell them in big tomato-shaped goblets all shaved ice and rimmed with Old Bay. Call it a Tomatogarita or a Hurri-Tomatocane or a Mai-Tomato-Tai. Hang them off the necks of revelers with a lanyard and a long bendy straw. Have a mascot like the Kool-Aid man except a big tomato guy. People need work, why not. Franchise people in New Orleans call me.

I stuffed the tomatoes with the rice and arranged them in a shallow baking dish. I put the dish in the fridge to wait for morning, but reserved four of them for Heather's dinner. Those four went into a small tin and got baked in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes covered in foil. When they were soft and giving, I doused them with another little shot of the tomato liquor to refresh the rice, then shredded some parmigiano on top, drizzled them with olive oil and  browned them under the broiler for a few minutes. To balance them on the plate, I cut some croutons from some leftover skillet soda bread I made after watching Jacques Pepin do it on TV.

The tomatoes were delicious. The hot, astringent juice made a perfect compliment to the sturdy, rich interior, and the par-cooked rice didn't degenerate into mush. The tomatoes I cooked for Thanksgiving got a little mound of bread crumb mix made of panko, parmigiano, olive oil and black pepper instead of the cheese, and it browned to a nicer effect, adding a crisply toasted element. I had intended to put the little tomato hats back on for presentation but forgot all about them. If anybody has a suggestion for what to do with the little tomato hats, please let me know.* When we ate the tomatoes at Thanksgiving, I heard from the other guests about a supposed pine nut shortage that had recently crippled kitchens all over, and felt an unusual pride in having learned to buy in bulk.

Thank you mom, and happy birthday.

Mom in Hawaii for our wedding. We bought in bulk.

*You get a little tomato hat with your Tomatogarita.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pan Roasted Pineapple in Prosciutto with Li Hing and Umeboshi

My li hing mui obsession continues to find opportunities to express itself. Here's the next shot.

The celeriac skordalia was a big hit with H-Bomb. I call Heather H-Bomb sometimes. She hates it*. The last time I made celeriac I ended up with a little left over, so I needed something to serve on it as a main course. One of my favorite Hawaiian li hing items is fresh pineapple with li hing sprinkled on it. It's totally delicious, spicy and weird. At one of the PRF barbecues I was treated to some grilled pineapple rings wrapped in bacon, served with a spicy barbecue sauce. They were savory, hot and sweet and I thought I could make a version of them spiced up with li hing that would go well with the celeriac.

I'm a fan of bacon as an ingredient in its own right, but not so much of using it to dress up other things. It's such a strong flavor it tends to become the focal point of whatever it's used on, and that aspect has become quite a gimmick problem solver in professional kitchens. Dull menu item? Slap bacon on it, especially if it's incongruous, and tell the wait staff to crow about it and pull a face when they say the word "bacon."  Baconizing the mundane is now a first option, and has already worn out its welcome on me. I've seen bacon-slapped doughnuts, chocolate bars, brownies and baked items, bacon fat-infused coffee, ice cream and jelly. The baconification of restaurant food has even made me tired of the more traditional -- now ubiquitous -- bacon-topped sea food and poultry. My bacon nerves are pretty well shot at the moment, but at the point I was served the bacon-wrapped pineapple mentioned above I was still vulnerable to its charms, and I wanted to do justice to that younger, less jaded response.

Wherever bacon would be rude, I've had some joy substituting prosciutto, which seems to deliver a satisfying savory richness without being an obstacle to what lies beneath it. Lardo does just as well, but tends to read as butter rather than meat, and the celeriac needs a substantial entree to compete with its savory personality, not buttered fruit.

I cut a pineapple ring approximately 1.5" thick, then into six segments, making roughly pyramidal chunks, then dusted them all over with li hing powder, which instantly stained them a brilliant crimson. The color of li hing is probably largely synthetic, since the powder is made from a pickled plum, similar to the light pink umeboshi common to Japanese rice balls. I was intrigued by this difference, so I took out a jar of umeboshi to compare the two. As soon as I opened the jar, it occurred to me to include a piece of umeboshi in the parcel to provide a sour counterpoint to the sweet pineapple. I wrapped a pitted umeboshi plum with each piece of pineapple in the prosciutto, overlapping to bind it to itself closed. Since the pieces would cook quickly, I collected them on a plate to cook simultaneously. I presumed the prosciutto and li hing would be salty enough that I wouldn't need to season the hunks separately.

I pan-roasted the pineapple chunks in a skillet just barely wiped with olive oil. I didn't want to risk trapping any frying oils in the folds of the prosciutto or the crevices of the pineapple underneath. The prosciutto both rendered and crisped nicely, the fat becoming instantly transparent and the meat becoming red and supple before browning and shrinking to enrobe the pineapple. The little things looked cool as hell, and I couldn't resist eating one piping hot. It was delicious and reasonably balanced, though mild, so I made a quick vinaigrette to spice up the plate out of an egg yolk, some Sriracha, mustard, lime juice, soy sauce and garlic. I plated the celeriac skordalia first, then plunked the pineapple chunks on top, doused the plate with the vinaigrette and garnished with some alley mint leaves.

Heather was less taken with the pineapple than I was. "I'm not so into fruit for dinner," she said. I wish I could say I was unhappy she had eaten all the celeriac and left most of the pineapple chunks, but whatever emotional pain I felt was soothed by wolfing the things down like a snuffling pig.

Really, she hates it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Asparagus in Perilla with Pork Rillettes and Leek Chives

I mentioned previously that I got some "sesame" leaves at Jong Boo market. These are perilla, a Korean relative of the Japanese herb shiso. They taste somewhat of wintergreen or licorice and are about the size of small grape leaves. As soon as I had the Perilla leaves in my hand, I imagined wrapping something in them, and was pleased to discover while googling them that they are used that way in Korea. Since I also just acquired some nice white asparagus, I decided to make some asparagus rolls. I love asparagus for eating and am charmed by the magical way it transforms the smell of my urine. It's amazing how quickly it gets through your system. I've eaten asparagus as an appetizer and visited the toilet between courses a few minutes later and been greeted with the familiar (yet magical) transformation. Charming and intriguing. Nothing else does this to pee that I know of, though I've heard from a few experienced women that a diet heavy in celery improves the taste of semen.* So far I've been unable to confirm this due to scheduling conflicts, and my sole reference book on the subject doesn't mention it.

I like regular asparagus, but for some reason the white stalks are better represented in the produce sections of supermarkets around here. Lately whenever there are both white and green, the green is usually older, with open, drying florets and woody stems, while the white stalks are nearly pristine and closed tight. I have no idea why this is, but if I have a choice I'll take whichever looks better and lately that's been white. The modern Japanese restaurant Macku has an excellent white asparagus custard on its dessert menu, and whenever I see white asparagus in the store I make quiet plans to attempt something like that some day. Today was not the day.

With green asparagus I generally peel the bottom third of the stalks, more if the skin looks sturdy, and nip off the very end of the stalk, which can be scarred or fibrous. The "trick" often seen on TV cooking shows of snapping the bottom quarter of the asparagus stalk off is wasteful and crude. Just peel it like any vegetable and trim the bad part. White asparagus has a thinner skin, but I peeled and trimmed these out of habit.

We had eaten a bunch of braised pork shoulder recently, and there was still some left, so I imagined frying it into a sort of shredded carnitas to accompany the asparagus in the rolls. I still had some of the Korean leek chives (or are they chive leeks?) left, and while they proved underwhelming generally, I thought they could compliment the mild flavor of the asparagus and pulled them out of the fridge.

I got a pot of water boiling, salted it and threw the asparagus in. I figured it would take a couple of minutes, but while that was underway I could make use of the boiling water. Using a skimming ladle, I blanched the perilla leaves in the salted water, then shocked them in cold water to set their color. I did the same to a bunch of the leek chives, after tying them together to keep them in a tidy bundle for easier handling.

While the asparagus was boiling, I sliced an onion into thin rings and started them caramelizing in a skillet with some olive oil. I shredded a bunch of the slow cooked pork into the skillet to cook along with the onions. My plan was not just to reheat the pork but caramelize it with the onions, give it a crisp texture and intensify the flavor of the braising liquid that had clung to the pork. There was enough fat clinging to the pork that it wouldn't be lying to call it rillettes, but I would only do that if I was trying to impress somebody.** 

The pork would take a couple of minutes, so I removed the asparagus from the water and shocked it, then cut it into lengths that would fit inside the perilla leaves. I didn't intend to roll the ends of the leaves over like a burrito or dolma, but I didn't want the asparagus poking out the ends. I also made a quick dressing, a kind of loose aoli with some garlic, mustard, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, honey and Sriracha.

Since the water was already boiling, I got a third use out of it. I threw in some extra salt and a few colorful new potatoes to serve along with the asparagus rolls. The new supermarket had a special on colorful little potatoes, so I bought a bag of mixed hues, golden, blue and pink. They seemed like a good candidate for a side dish and they were small enough that they could boil in the time it took to make the rolls.

When the pork was ready, I made the rolls by laying a couple lengths of asparagus on a perilla leaf, dressed them with the aoli, laid in some of the crispy browned pork and a few of the blanched chives, then rolled them up. For presentation I cut a few of the rolls in half to show off the insides and made a nice pile of them on the plate. By then the potatoes were done, so I drained them and dressed them with the remaining aoli, black pepper and some of the chives, chopped fine, then set them on the plate and garnished with a couple of bright red olives. I was happy with the jolly look of all the different colors rumbling around on the plate. Reminded me of childrens' building blocks or Legos or something. Do they still have Legos? They must.

About the rolls, Heather ate them but said they were "a little thing, not a meal." She's right, I should have served them with something else, like a soup or a cutlet or some other more substantial item but I didn't think of it until she mentioned it.

It's honestly amazing about the pee.

* I don't even need to say it really.
** I am trying to impress you.