Foodie Tuesday: Head Cheese

In a phrase, it's meat jello.  Mmm, right?

As evidenced by the photo above, head cheese is not a cheese at all, but rather a cold cut made of all the parts of an animal (cow, pig) that you don't normally want to eat, suspended in aspic (or jelly, traditionally made by boiling the head of an animal, brains/eyes removed, to produce a stock that would contain natural gelatin from the skull), and sliced.  A peasant food, no doubt. It might also include feet, tongue, and heart, and is usually flavored with onion, peppercorns, allspice, bay leaf, salt and vinegar.

I first encountered head cheese at Safeway of all places, right there next to the braunschweiger and salami.  I was horrified, and I'm not only relatively fearless meat eater, but also Chinese.  And you know what they say about Chinese - we'll eat anything on four legs that isn't a table, and anything on two legs that isn't a plane.  But this head cheese was really something else.  And with a name like 'head cheese,' which sounds like a euphemism for 'brains,' it didn't exactly encourage me to try it.

Then I realized that I have probably already eaten a variation on head cheese, in the form of cold cuts in Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches.  Along with "pork roll," which is also pretty much all the parts of the animal you don't normally want to eat, ground up and pressed into cold cut format.  And then I thought, well, how is head cheese any more disgusting than, say, a hot dog or a chicken nugget?  Just because you can actually still see what the meat product is made of since it hasn't been processed beyond all recognition?

The answer, of course, is that head cheese is NOT more disgusting.  In fact, it is less processed and thus 'safer' in that you sort of know what's going into it.  As opposed to the hot dog or chicken nugget, which contains heaven-knows-what including bones, beaks, eyeballs, membranes of all sorts.  Blech.  I think i just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

Foodie Tuesday: Himalayan Salt Plate. I want.

This is one of the coolest things I've heard of in a while (well, not quote as cool as Motivational Wolf, but close).  When I mentioned that I wanted to try salt-roasting a fish (more on that later), my coworker Thais told me about the Himalaya pink salt plate her friend used to bake some delectable, flavorful fish.

So apparently you can use pink Himalayan salt like regular salt, dusted over your food, but to really take this delicacy (and I am a sucker for fancy salts) to the next level, you can buy an entire block of it, cut out of rock high in the mountains of Pakistan, that serves as an extremely versatile cooking instrument.

You can place it directly over your stovetop burner and fry an egg.  Or place it over your barbecue to grill shrimp.  Or stick it in the oven.  Food comes away with just enough saltiness plus some extra flavor from the minerals of the salt block.

You can even freeze the block and use it to serve sushi and other cold dishes!  

From the NY TImes:   

This thick 8-by-11-inch piece of solid salt, mined in Pakistan, can be used for cooking. It will not melt when placed directly on a stove burner and heated gradually. Lightly brushed with butter or oil, it will fry eggs, shrimp, fish steaks or thin slices of beef that come away with quite enough salt. The slab can go in the oven or on a grill and can also be chilled or even frozen to use for serving sushi or other seafood. It will retain the cold for an hour or more. Scrub it with a stiff brush or plastic scouring pad after use and rinse it quickly. It must be thoroughly dried overnight before heating again.

9pm supper for one/Late Foodie Tuesday: I made this beautifully simple fennel salad but forgot my camera so you'll have to take my word for it.

I hadn't had much experience with fennel before I started working at G.  Mostly the chefs there braised or sauteed it, and I decided I didn't like the texture or the flavor - too stringy and unpleasant, like celery, but even tougher.  

I've been kind of flirting with the idea of giving fennel another try, mostly because I see it so often in the market, and because the frond-y part of it resembles dill, which is one of my favorite herbs.  Finally I figured maybe fennel would taste better raw and sliced paper-thin, like green bell peppers do (I hate green peppers cooked.  So brash - yuck!).  So I bought a bulb the other day and figured I'd find a way to make it work.
Let me tell you: if you think you hate fennel, try it shaved, or sliced paper-thin, in a bright and fresh salad.  You might need a mandolin to get the job done, or if you're careful like me, you can just slice it yourself.  

I took a cue from my go-to Molly Wizenberg, and also the lady at Simply Recipes, both of whom I can rely on to bring me simple and delicious recipes.  I knew what I had to do:
  • Trim, wash, and slice one fennel bulb paper-thin
  • Juice a lemon (which I got fresh from my coworker's tree)
  • Make a dressing with the lemon juice, some good Spanish olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped parsley (which I grow right in my kitchen).  I like to whip the dressing separately before tossing in with the salad to kind of "fluff" it up.
  • Add some bright and colorful watermelon radish, sliced thinly, for contrast.
  • Toss everything together with some grated parmesan cheese
I have to say it was a beautiful thing when I was done.  the slices of fennel were layer-y and translucent, but had a strong flavor of licorice and a pleasing crispety-crunch.  The lemon did a lot to cut through the strong herbiness of the fennel, and the parmesan gave it this yummy savory quality that made me want to gobble up a giant bowlful of the salad.  

Instead, I exercised some restraint and ate half of the salad I made with half a pita bread and some Costo chicken.  Dee-lish.

Early Foodie Tuesday: Okra, I fear you no longer.

I feel that most people have some story about a traumatic encounter with okra.  Most notably about the slime that leeches out into soups and stews anytime okra is involved (scientific name: mucilage).  And about the rather unpleasantly large and alien seeds, the strange pod-like shape, the inexplicable fur that sometimes covers them.  It's like a product of another world.

I remember having to help my mom pick out okra as a kid in the grocery store, and she showed me how to look for unblemished pods with tips that bent easily without breaking.  I remember the sticky way it clung to my knife when I sliced it.  So I'd sworn off okra early on, deciding it was the most disgusting of strange vegetables, and could only be consumed one way: breaded and deep fried.  I never thought I'd come face to face with it again, least of all in my very own adult kitchen.

In general I try to give things a second chance (as with eggplant... or in the case of "juicy pear" Jelly Bellies, about twenty chances.  And I still hate them!).  It was Milk Pail Market that convinced me to try again with okra.  They had this small crate of the vegetables in an obscure corner of their produce section, but I saw immediately that the okra was uncommonly fresh, pretty even, with smooth and elegant ridges, very little fur, and a slight purple sheen.  They were quite sexy.  Despite myself, I quickly filled a bag with them and bought them.

Then came the challenge of how to actually cook them.  But to my Brazilian friend and coworker Thais, the answer was obvious: Frango com Quiabo, or chicken with okra, that quintessentially Brazilian dish traditionally served with polenta.  There was very little that was traditional about my version of chicken and okra.  What I ended up making was more like a cross between frango com quaibo and chicken gumbo. but it was still tasty and not slimy.

Southern cooks swear that adding a spoonful of vinegar to a gumbo gets rid of the offending sliminess of okra.  Indian cooks swear by pre-frying the okra, which sort of "cauterizes" it and eliminates any slime.  For good measure, I did both-- I readied some hot oil in a pan, dropped in my okra, and added two spoonfuls of white wine vinegar on top.  Before long it became obvious that the most important thing was to make sure the okra was frying cut-side down, and to fry it on both sides.  Given the size of these okra slices, it was kind of labor-intensive and involved standing watchfully over the pan with a pair of chopsticks, ready to turn the slices over before they burned too much.  When you first place a slice of okra over a hot pan, it will dance.  That is the slime burning away.  You'll know the slime is gone when the okra stops dancing and starts browning.  It's kind of up to you how browned you want it.  As it was my first time doing this, I accidentally let the okra sit too long in the pan and some of the slices got almost black.  I took them out of the pan and set them aside.

In a separate pan, I sweated a small chopped onion in oil with chopped garlic.  I added small pieces of boneless/skinless chicken thighs (if this were a traditional dish, I would fry whole bone-in pieces of chicken until they were golden brown) and gave them a few healthy shakes of cumin and adobo seasoning.  Don't ask me why the adobo; it probably had no place in this dish but it felt right.  And, because I didn't quite have enough of the chicken, I added a sliced sundried tomato chicken sausage.  I'm sure Brazilian cooks would object.  When the meats were cooked through, I added some homemade chicken broth to make a saucy-sauce, and dusted some flour in to thicken it.

When it was all done, I added the okra back in and gave it a good stir.  Perfect.  Served over some brown rice, it was a nice comforting thing to have on a Sunday evening.

Note: I got some tips on technique from this YouTube video that is a bit hard to follow (not just because it's in Portuguese), but gives a basic idea:

Foodie Tuesday: Brown Sugar Discs

A somewhat lazy Foodie Tuesday for you today.  If you ever wondered whether there is an alternative to having rock-hard brown sugar from which you must chisel pebbly hunks from every time you want to make chocolate chip cookies...well, wonder no more.

These nifty little terra cotta discs will restore the fluffy soft texture of your brown sugar, as it was meant to be.  And if your brown sugar is already nice and fluffy, they will keep it that way.

No, I don't really understand how they work except maybe that there is controlled release of moisture involved.  Available at a bunch of places, most conveniently Amazon

And yes, they come in all sorts of fun shapes/designs.

Foodie Tuesday: Sofrito, for Cuban-style black beans

This journey began with Versailles Cuban Food in Culver City, where I first fell in love with that magical combination of black beans and fluffy white rice.  Each by itself is pretty good, but together they become more than the sum of two parts.  Don't ask me why a Cuban place is named after a French landmark.  Just ask me how delicious their food is, and I'll give you an answer: VERY.

You can tell good black beans when you spoon them over a small pile of rice and they sort of just fall slowly over themselves in this luxurious mix of sauciness and mashiness.  And when you taste them, it's got this pleasingly soft mouthfeel and thickish texture, and the cumin starts to make happy little zings across your brain.  At least, that's what cumin does to MY brain.  Cumin is hands down my favorite spice, ever.  Who needs illegal drugs when there's cumin around?

Anyway, I've tried over the years to replicate that amazing flavor at home, with very little luck.  I remember the first time I bought a pound of dry black beans from the local Mexican market, feeling so proud of myself, only to be so disappointed when I tasted my first batch of beans and found them upsettingly sweet and nothing like Versailles' Cuban-style black beans in flavor or texture.

A friend from Jamaica tsk-tsked me and told me I should NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put onions in with black beans.  No onions!  Only garlic, and lots of it!  But when I tried her method, it still didn't come close.  She also was the one who insisted that "plantains" be prounounced plantin's, as in, "I'm plantin' a garden."  I have never heard anyone else pronounce it this way, but it stuck with me.

More recently I was absolutely determined to find a really authentic recipe for cooking Cuban-style black beans.  I was dubious of most recipes that called for not only onions, but bell peppers, which is one of my least favorite vegetables.  That is, until my search led me to this series of how-to videos on YouTube, by Expert Village. Let me tell you, this is quite possibly the world's most infuriating how-to video, because what should be a 24-minute demonstration is inexplicably chopped into 1-minute segments that are not labeled in order (part 1 of 24, part 2 of 24, etc).  That meant sitting through this annoying 6-second introduction 24 times.

However, in my grim determination I watched all 24 one-minute clips, mostly out of order, and trusted my instincts to help me put the story together. And the secret I unearthed was this: SOFRITO.

I'd never heard of sofrito before, but I learned that it's the Spanish and Latin-American equivalent of mirepoix, an aromatic combination of super-finely chopped onions, bell peppers, and spices that serves as the base for many soups, stews, and sauces.  At last, here was the key to that hauntingly delicious flavor I'd experienced at Versailles.  Despite my reservations about bell peppers, after cooking them down with spices I realized that their bitter brashness balanced the sweetness of the onions well, and it is absolutely what pulled all the flavors together.  That, and a WHOLE BIG MESS OF CUMIN.
So my super dumbed down version of how to make Cuban-style black beans involves:
  • Putting your pre-soaked black beans (about a pound) on the stove to boil, on high, with a few big chunks of bell pepper, 1-2 bay leaves, and enough water to cover.  Optional: you can use chicken stock instead of water, but adjust your salt accordingly.
  • Processing about 1 bell pepper and 1 small onion along with 2 cloves garlic (optional) in your processor or with your nimble fingers and a sharp knife.
  • Adding the vegetables to a small fry pan along with a good amount of olive oil and spices (cumin, oregano, black pepper, garlic powder, about a teaspoon or tablespoon each depending on how much you're making) and salt (start with a cautious amount; you can always add more later). This is your sofrito.
  • Cook the sofrito on medium heat until it is nicely rendered down, stirring occasionally, about 20 min.  It should be dark greenish-brown and greasy-looking and very fragrant.
  • Check your beans.  When they are fat and swollen, and starting to crack open, they are ready to receive the sofrito.
  • Take the beans and sofrito off the heat.  Mash the beans a bit, leaving about half of the beans whole, then add the sofrito and mix.
  • Add a spoonful of sugar to the pot and mix.  THIS STEP IS CRUCIAL.
  • Add maybe a quarter-cup of red wine and a splash of vinegar.  This step is nice-to-have for additional flavor but not as crucial.
  • De-glaze the pan you used to cook sofrito with a little red wine; add everything to the pot of beans.  Also a nice-to-have but not crucial.
  • Return pot to heat and simmer on low, partially covered, for several hours until the soup is super thick and creamy and yummy.  Or move the whole mess to a slow cooker, set it, and forget it.  Check back to see if you need to adjust the amount of liquid, spices, or salt.
  • Serve with fluffy white Cuban rice and your choice of Cuban meaty deliciousness.

Foodie Tuesday: Cooking with egg whites, or, Don't let this happen to you.

Behold.  A double-decker pancake?  Mexican pastries?  Some kind of odd flatbread?  Oh no, friends.  What you see here is my first and miserably failed attempt at making angel food cake.  I only embarked on this strange journey because I happened to have 10 egg whites left over after I made my glorious homemade eggnog for Wendy's pre-Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday.

I used this recipe on allrecipes that got tons of great reviews, but with the caveat that you had to do things just right.  I am usually a cook who likes to "wing it," "play it by ear," or even "cut corners."  And the discipline of cobbling together an angel food cake just goes to show that in some cases, one must adhere to a very strict and deliberate process.  One that I did not quite follow tonight.  A list of my transgressions:

  • The recipe called for cake flour.  Not having any, I used mostly white flour with a tablespoon of cornstarch mixed in.
  • The recipe called for cream of tartar.  Not having any, I used 1 tsp. lemon juice as a substitute.
  • I forgot, and added the salt to the dry ingredients instead of the egg whites.
  • I forgot, and dumped all the sugar into the bowl in the beginning, instead of adding it to the already-whipped eggs.
  • I didn't have an angel food pan, or even a bundt pan, and used a regular 9'x13' pan instead.
  • I am not sure, but I probably overmixed.  Even though I folded as carefully as possible. (That link leads to an excellent tutorial on folding by Chef John Mitzewich, the same ingenious and hilarious guy who brought us 'How to Eat a Chicken Wing."  My favorite line?  "You're not folding yet, you're just like, "Hey, how're ya doing, batter?'"
At any rate, the cake collapsed miserably and I'm really not sure which of my sins had the greatest impact on its inability to stand upright.  I'm hoping some more experienced bakers (ahem...Reggie...Wendy) can tell me exactly how to avoid this sort of disaster going forward.

Foodie Tuesday, 1 day late: Blue Corn Pancakes

In keeping with my growing love for purple things, I thought it appropriate to share this discovery I made at Rainbow Produce about a month ago: blue cornmeal.  As soon as I saw it, my mind started racing, thinking of all the great things I could do with blue cornmeal.  Blue corn tamales. Blue cornbread and blue corn muffins.  Blue corn pizza dough!

But the first and most obvious thing to do with the cornmeal was this: blue corn pancakes.  Because they are AWESOME.
I adapted a couple different recipes that I found online (weeks ago... I can no longer find them because of the f-ing Google search algorithm change).  They are all more or less the same: varying portions of blue cornmeal, white flour, egg, melted butter, sugar, baking powder, salt.  I put it together and was mildly alarmed at how thin the batter was.  I had to keep whisking it so the ingredients would stay incorporated, and they made for some really flat, thin pancakes (you can even see holes through them, below).

But what I really love about these pancakes is that they are so versatile.  They have a hearty texture and nuanced flavor, and they can go either salty or sweet, opening up a world of possible accompaniments.  Here are some of my favorites:
  • Wildflower honey: the deep, nuanced flavor of really good honey plays beautifully against the rich nuttiness of the pancakes.
  • Avocados
  • Creme fraiche
  • Honey butter
  • Eggs
  • Any number of fruit preserves and jams
  • Smoked salmon
  • BACON!

Foodie Tuesday, 3 days late: Wouldn't you like to be a pepper, too?

I am quickly developing a penchant for purple and blue food items that are supposed to be another color.  What do I mean?  I'm thinking purple potatoes, purple cauliflower, purple carrots.  Besides being extraordinarily high in anti-oxidants (much like blueberries, the so-called "brain food"), I think they're more delicious than their conventionally colored counterparts.  They're nuttier, earthier, and generally richer in flavor.

Plus, I don't think I'll ever get tired of the novelty of eating something purple that is not grapes or eggplants.

So the other day I was wandering the produce section at Berkeley Bowl when I came across this strange thing next to the green, red, orange, and yellow bell peppers.  A purple pepper!  I'd never seen anything like it before.  Of course I grabbed one just so I could take it home, cut it up, see what's inside, and know what it tasted like.
And whaddya know, inside it wasn't purple at all, but white.  Maybe a tinge of green, but I was delighted to see the beautiful contrast of colors.  I turned to Google for some purple pepper recipes, but came up rather short.  Apparently it's a shame to cook the peppers because that kills the gorgeous color, and anyway purple peppers are actually the least ripe of all peppers and the least sweet (left on the vine, purple peppers will eventually turn green, then yellow/orange/red).

So I just sliced it up and stuck it in a salad.  Can't say it had a ton of flavor but it added a nice crispy texture.  I'll definitely be getting them again.

P.S. The title of this post refers to the old Dr. Pepper slogan, which I first heard in the movie Short Circuit (I know, I'm dating myself now).
P.P.S. Yes, I created a new tag called "Purple Things"!  Stay tuned for blue corn pancakes!