Sunday, February 12, 2012

Plate of Blini Bedtime Snack

As a byproduct both of being profoundly lazy and having a small apartment, Heather and I do a lot of our eating in bed, right before going to sleep. It's probably bad for us in some health type way but we've been doing it so long it seems totally normal. I'll knock something together at midnight and we'll polish it off while talking about how our jobs are annoying or our friends or or whoever that was just now on TV or how it's snowing to suck four dicks right now or that one dude needs to not take so many pills or cancer, boy cancer sure sucks, or what was the name of that one band, you know they had the girl in the outfit? Had that one song? Went "na na na na" making a little ukulele gesture because you can't do full air guitar in bed don't be ridiculous.

Tonight's snack was a plate of blini, little potato pancakes you can garnish with all manner of things. I made a batter in the food processor of raw potato, fresh corn cut from a cob, sour cream, egg, salt, pepper and a little flour. I added baking powder to lighten the batter, but just a dab because when the batter is really wet like this it can overdo the fizz and make the final pancake bitter. I cooked them on the cast-iron griddle, of which I don't get nearly enough use. Cast iron is a fantastic cooking surface, but I never think to pre-heat it while I'm preparing the food, otherwise I'd use it all the time. Tonight it occurred to me, so the griddle was ready when the batter was.

Normal pancakes get semi-solid prior to flipping, but the heat transfers much more gradually in blini batter, so you have to flip them while the tops are still quite liquid. If you wait until the top is covered with pinholes like a conventional pancake, you will have scorched the first side. Blini retain heat off the griddle, so it's important to let them rest before garnishing, both to avoid the garnish liquefying and so the interior can complete its cooking. I stack mine on a plate in a kind of overlapping spiral. I am sometimes tempted to try to make a tower of blini, but not enough to do it. Tower of blini. Ridiculous.

When I had a plate of the little guys I poked around in the fridge for garnish, having neglected to acquire a bunch of caviar. Caviar, man that's a whole thing we could talk about. Like most ostentatious trappings of wealth -- Hummers, speculative investment capitalism, collagen injections -- it is both disgusting and unsustainable. Caviar brought an ancient species of fish to the brink of extinction. For snacks.

Anyhow, we had some nicely sustainable Greek yogurt, so I blopped a spoon of that on a couple. We had some spinach dip from a plastic tub. I don't go for that, but Heather dips chips in it when I'm not around to make little potato-corn pancakes for her. What the hell, I put some of that on a couple. Heather hates Marmite, but I adore it for things like this, so I spread a molecule-thin layer of Marmite on a couple. I drizzled some olive oil on the whole plate and grated parmigiano over everything. The yogurt ones looked a little sad and monochromatic, so I sprinkled some paprika on them and they instantly became quite festive. I finally found a use for paprika.(v)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aged Short Ribs with Fennel on Saffron Potato Puree

Short ribs are delicious. They are on the working part of the animal so the muscles get a lot of use and are constantly being stressed and recovering, which means there is a lot of biological activity, and that creates strong flavors. Rule of thumb, the more biological activity, the more complex the flavors. Ripe fruit is more tasty than immature fruit. Bread is tastier than flour. Cheese, yogurt and creme fraiche are all tastier than milk. Cheese with veins of blue is tastier yet. Wine is tastier than grape juice, vinegar is tastier than wine. The same holds for meat. Loin muscle hardly does anything, so it has the least flavor. Rump, shoulder and shank are working most of the time so they are tastier. Short ribs are the muscles that control the body cavity, keeping the animal's body in line and contracting for things like taking a dump and ruminating. Inside the body cavity, skirt steak and hanger steak muscles do the most work, contracting the diaphragm all day so the animal can breathe, so they are more tasty yet. Same goes for the heart. Super tasty. Deeper in the animal are the guts, each of which has a specific biological function and hence specific flavor. In short, for flavor, go to where things happen.

Short ribs also have some marbling of fat, and the connective tissue web that holds the ribcage together has a lot of collagen and other structural molecules that break down when braised and add the unctuous richness specific to braised beef. Why doesn't spellcheck recognize "ribcage?" Holy shit, just checked with Scrabble and it won't allow RIBCAGE either. I'll bet a hundred bucks I've played RIBCAGE as a bingo word at one point or another. I guess it's "rib cage," or "rib-cage" like a goddamn Englishman. Rib-cage. Pfft. At least Scrabble recognizes "PFFT."

Short ribs are also cooked on their bones, so the bone and marrow enrich the cooking liquid, making the sauce and braised vegetables more delicious, and serving short ribs without them as compliment would be unthinkable.

I started work on these ribs immediately after buying them, about a week before cooking. I rubbed them all over with a modified Midyett rub (espresso, sumac, salt and sichuan pepper) and let them rest in the refrigerator to encourage a little more of that biological activity I've been crowing about. The secondary biology of beef in repose could be described as decay, but that sounds so indelicate I prefer the more culinary term "age." I let the short ribs age for a week. Sounds better than "I let them rot for a week."

When the ribs were old and weird looking, indicating sufficient decay age, I trimmed their more rotten aged extremities and prepared to cook them in the dutch oven by rendering some thick bacon planks in a little olive oil. I seared all sides of the short ribs in the olive oil and bacon fat, then removed them and added the vegetables, fennel wedges, carrot and onion, salting them so they'd give up their liquid a little and start to caramelize. When they had a little color, I nestled the short ribs in among the vegetables and glugged about a half bottle of red wine in there. As noted previously I know nothing about wine, but this was an Italian variety from California with an understated label, so it got the nod. I never buy wines with irreverent names like Peace Feet,  Fish Guts or Shitty Wine, for no other reason than I hate things being made cute and I want these wineries to fail. I know, they'll fail anyway, but my point is I hate them. I would rather have one of Spiegel's celebrity wines. Call me a small man, but I prefer bad to stupid, and would rather suffer the indignity of cooking with wine made by Drew Bledsoe or the dude from Tool than something called Zin Your Face.

After the pot came up to a boil, I turned it down to a wee simmer and let it go for a couple of hours. Maybe three. When I looked at them next the ribs were beautiful, blackened by the searing and Maillard reaction and falling apart from the slow braise. The carrot and onion were at the stage of near-collapse I find perfect for sauce, while the fennel had a nice gentle consistency that retained some texture. What a great vegetable fennel is. I wonder if there are some assholes out there who don't like fennel.

Continuing my recent minor (extreme) saffron indulgence, I decided to puree some saffron-infused potatoes to serve under the meat. I boiled the potatoes as described one post below but didn't shock them. Instead I quickly made a stiff puree with the hand mixer, enriching them with some greek yogurt. This makes the potatoes quite firm, almost gluey, which would be bad for a lot of uses, but under a substantial and stinky piece of meat like this, the starchiness gives the puree enough body not to seem trivial. I could have used polenta or a risotto instead, but potato puree was the first thing to come to mind.

I plated the potato, then sorted the ribs out, spooned some of the fennel and sauce on the dish and scattered chopped chives over it. The bright color of the saffron potato and chives kept the plate from looking too stodgy, which is a real problem with braised meats. I made more than we could eat, which is fine, because that gives me stuff to make food out of later. After removing the remaining meat from the dutch oven for future ravioli or spring rolls, I whizzed the vegetables and jus into a puddle, which I intend to use as a pasta sauce.

If there are fennel-haters out there, they and the brussels sprouts guys should start an asshole club. Call it England. Or the aged rotten asshole haters of the delicious club.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Saffron Potato Cashew Pancakes

Potato pancakes are great. I like the little flat French ones made with raw potato, but for an entree I sometimes make a thicker, more cylindrical patty out of boiled and crushed (not really mashed) potato. I'll often spice-up the flavor of potato by boiling it in stock with saffron. This only works if you peel and dice them so the stock can penetrate the flesh. Saffron adds a sharp, mineral tang to anything you cook with it, and it's perfect for making something starchy feel like a more complete food.

These little guys began life that way, as saffron-boiled potatoes. I learned a potato boiling technique from Jacques Pepin, where you just barely cover the potatoes with water or stock, and once they're up to speed, remove the lid from the pot and let the water boil off. When done, there is only a dab of liquid to drain off and the potatoes are less saturated, so when mashed or crushed have more body and don't become slushy. They also seldom require additional seasoning. I do this basically all the time now.

One of these days I'm going to try something I've been thinking about for a while.* What I like about the saffron gimmick is that it makes the flavor of the potatoes evolve as you eat them into more than a single-note bland matter. Adding a curry powder, chili pepper or garlic puree does something nice as well, but the saffron has a flavor outside the normal spectrum of vegetables that makes it especially good. I sometimes brine pork in coca cola, which adds both a complex spicy richness and a similarly sharp alien tang, probably due to its phosphoric acid. I've wondered if boiling potatoes in a brine made with coca cola would be similarly tasty.

Now there's a thing. Phosphoric acid is horrible stuff. It leaches calcium, so dentists use it to dissolve tooth matter and etch enamel. If you submerge a bone in it you end up with a slurry. Its principle industrial use is as a rust remover, yet we drink it regularly in coca cola, which is delicious.

I've also taken to boiling mustard seeds with potatoes. They swell but retain their constitution and add a nice element of surprise to a potato thing. Surprise, that's why we do this.**

So I boiled the potatoes in stock with saffron and mustard seeds, then drained them and mushed them with the back of a slotted spoon because I still don't have a potato ricer.*** The saffron tinted them a lovely canary yellow. I chopped up a bunch of cashews really fine and added them to the hot smashed potato, along with a couple of cloves of garlic, which I ran through a fine microplane for a smooth puree. Microplanes are great for that and are much easier to deal with than either a garlic press or mortar and pestle.

I added some finely minced scallions and formed the potato into patties. It's important to get this part done efficiently so you don't knead the starch out of the potato and make the patties gummy. You can bind the potato with egg or egg white, but I don't. If you don't manhandle them they keep their shape fine without. If you're concerned about it, you can let them rest and wait for the starch to congeal in the refrigerator for an hour or so, but I don't because I like them to have a soft, open texture rather than a sturdy one.

Once formed, I dusted the patties with rice flour and browned them on both sides in a skillet with a little olive oil. You have to be careful when turning them not to separate the seared crust from the patty itself. I use a thin metal spatula. When they were done I arranged them on a plate and seasoned them with some fresh black pepper and grated Asiago. Potato pancakes are often served with sour cream or creme fraiche, but I prefer Greek yogurt, which is more substantial and tangier. I could have dressed it up with some chopped cucumbers and lemon juice for a kind of faux-tzatziki but I didn't feel like it or have any cucumbers or something. (vg) (v without garnish)

*That's what she promised herself.
**That's what she missed most.
***Birthday reminder, July 22.