Articles in Meat
Most cooks acquainted with Turkish food know of borek, a dish of phyllo-like pastry leaves called yufka brushed with butter or oil, layered with meat or cheese, and baked. In Istanbul and other parts of Turkey yufka, when not made at home, is usually purchased fresh and pliable at weekly markets and from specialists called yufkaci.
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A few years ago while traveling along Turkey’s central Black Sea coast I discovered yufka’s other incarnation, as a thin cracker-crisp round meant to be rehydrated — or not — before being incorporated into borek. On the Black Sea, yufka is also rolled, sliced and dried for islama, a dish of yufka spirals topped with chicken or turkey and crushed walnuts and doused with melted butter and broth. And I found that when it comes to filling their borek, central Black Sea cooks go with the season.
Late one February, at a family-owned restaurant 25 miles inland, I feasted on zilbert boregi, a short stack of yufka sheets encasing sautéed borage. Light and crispy, its filling tasting of artichoke and asparagus with a hint of mushroom, that borek hinted at the spring that was beginning to show itself in the region’s budding fruit trees. Six months later in a town a few hours east, I feasted on borek spilling mushrooms foraged from nearby hills, their meatiness foretelling the coming winter.
A sweet deviation
But my favorite Black Sea borek is one that was made for me by Esen, a rare woman in a male-dominated trade who owns a yufka shop not far from the central Black Sea fishing town of Sinop. A short sturdy woman in her late 30s, Esen toils over her big round gas-fired griddle from the wee hours of the morning until late in the afternoon, turning out katlama (stacked yufka rounds with a slick of butter in between) and layered and rolled sweet and savory borek.
One morning I asked Esen what she intended to do with a big pumpkin sitting on a table near her griddle. She smiled and grabbed the pumpkin by its stem, raised it over her head and threw it on the concrete floor where it split neatly in two. After peeling and grating the vegetable she roughly chopped two handfuls of walnuts and measured out a bit of sugar. Then she laid a leaf of dried yufka on her griddle, brushed it with oil and built a borek.
Sparely sugared, it was a delightful departure from the syrup-soaked Turkish pastries I’d eaten up till then, with crunchy walnuts and crispy pastry contrasting beautifully with softened pumpkin.
Pumpkin and Walnut Borek (Kabak ve Cevizli Boregi)
Dried yufka and a hot griddle make for a crispier, lighter borek. Baking sheets and an oven work just as well and fresh phyllo sheets, fused and left to dry, are a fine substitute for dried yufka. Don’t worry if the dough tears or wrinkles as you’re making the borek; imperfections add to the charm of this rustic dish.
Plan to lay out your yufka or phyllo to dry at least six hours before assembly. Once that’s done the dish comes together quickly because the borek is baked flat, in one big piece.
Serve this dish for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. It also makes a wonderful dessert, served (untraditionally) hot from the oven with a scoop of ice cream.
Serves 6 to 8
10 sheets of phyllo
3 cups grated pumpkin or sweet squash
1½ cups chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
Canola or other light cooking oil
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1. Lay a single sheet of phyllo flat on a work surface. Using a pastry brush, wet it lightly with water. Lay another sheet of phyllo on top of the wet sheet and then use a rolling pin to fuse the two together. Repeat with the remaining eight sheets of phyllo, fusing them 2-by-2 to make five thick sheets in total. Transfer all to cookie sheets or paper towels and leave uncovered in an airy room to dry for at least six hours or as long as overnight.
2. Once the pastry is dry, place the pumpkin, walnut, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and mix with a fork or your fingers.
3. To assemble the borek, lightly oil a cookie sheet large enough to accommodate the yufka or phyllo (at least 15 by 10 inches). Place one sheet of pastry on the cookie sheet (if the pastry hangs over the sides of the cookie sheet just fold the excess inward) and lightly brush it with butter.
4. Sprinkle one quarter of the filling over the buttered pastry — it will not cover the phyllo completely. Place another pastry sheet on top of the pumpkin-walnut filling, pressing it lightly onto the filling with your palms (don’t worry if it cracks a bit). Butter that pastry sheet too. Top with one quarter of the filling, and repeat until all of the filling and pastry is used up. Brush the top piece of pastry with butter.
5. Bake the borek in a 350 F oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the top is showing splotches of golden brown (if your oven is small reverse the position of the cookie sheet halfway through).
6. While the borek is baking, lightly oil another cookie sheet. Remove the borek from the oven and place the second oiled cookie sheet upside down over its top. Squeezing the two cookie sheets together, flip the borek, carefully remove the first cookie sheet, and return it to the oven to bake another 12 to 15 minutes, or until nicely browned.
7. Cut the borek into 6 or 8 squares and serve hot or at room temperature.
Top photo: Pumpkin and walnut borek from Turkey. Credit: David Hagerman
There are many good reasons to make your own homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re already a devoted pickle maker, corned beef is just another product of brining. If, like me, you’re conscientious about the source of your food, selecting grass-fed beef is the most healthful and sustainable option available for this March holiday feast.
Let’s start with the simple culinary adventure of “corning” beef. This archaic term just means salting, and it’s one of the most ancient methods for preserving meats. For today’s cooks, the brining process transforms the flavors and textures of the beef by expelling excess moisture and infusing it with salt and seasonings.
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I was intimidated about making my own corned beef until I understood that it was just a matter of soaking meat in salted water and then simmering it until tender.
What could be easier?
Most of the “work” involves waiting four or five days for the beef to cure in the refrigerator, then waiting again while it simmers very slowly. For your patience — with only about 15 minutes of active work time — you get a classic corned beef supper with all the trimmings of cabbage, carrots and potatoes plus leftovers for grilled Reubens, corned beef hash with poached eggs for brunch or sliced cold corned beef on dark rye with mustard.
Any way you use it, corned beef is the best entry into the wide world of cured meats, known officially as charcuterie.
The cut: Beyond brisket
Brisket is the classic corned beef cut, and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true favorite. But, in the grass-fed market, brisket is a smaller cut due to the generally smaller frame size of these cattle, and there are only two on every animal.
Given its lack of abundance, brisket can be either hard to find or relatively expensive. So, I’ve learned to use other cuts that are well suited to corned beef. For example, hard-to-use bottom round roast, also known as rump roast, in this recipe below, in particular, is remarkably good and very lean. Other inexpensive cuts, including sirloin tip and chuck roast are easy to find and will save you money. Tongue is another traditional choice with rich meat that brines wonderfully.
Step 1: Brining:
The technique of soaking meats in a salt solution — brining — is a common method to maintain moisture and add flavor to pork and chicken. The science behind this is simple, according to French food scientist Hervé This: when meat is submerged in a salt solution, the water in the cells leaves the muscle until the concentration of salt inside and outside the cells is equal. The result is more tasty protein inside and out.
Salt, sometimes used in combination with curing salt or sodium nitrite (also known as pink salt for the color it is dyed to prevent confusion with table salt), is the main agent used to prevent the growth of bacteria in preserved meats. When the meat is fully cooked as in this corned beef recipe, the curing salt is optional.
Another function of the brine is to convey other seasonings into the cells, including the cloves, allspice and coriander in the classic pickling spice, plus peppercorns and bay leaves. When you start with more flavorful grass-fed beef, then this works all the better.
Step 2: Simmering
After a quick rinse, simply cover the meat in a tight-fitting pot with fresh water. Bring it to a simmer and cook at a low and steady heat for several hours. When you can easily slide a skewer in and out of the meat without any resistance, it’s done. Or, you can slice of a piece to taste and make sure it’s tender to the bite. Cool and store the meat in the cooking liquid to keep it moist and your homemade cured deli meat is ready to eat.
The grass-fed difference
If you’ve heard that grass-fed beef cooks quicker than conventional beef, you will be in for a surprise. Although meat science states that heat penetrates the leaner muscle fibers of grass-fed faster than conventional beef, my experience is that grass-fed corned beef will take longer to cook — up to three and a half hours at a slow simmer. Moreoever, the texture of the meat will be firmer, not the melt-in-your-mouth texture some corned beef lovers expect.
For everyone who finds satisfaction in DIY creations, your own corned beef will be a triumph to share on March 17. I like to invite friends over to indulge in a generous platter of corned beef with a bounteous display of vegetables, including traditional choices of cabbage, carrots, potatoes or unconventional ones like kale and parsnips, garnished with good mustard and a strong craft ale.
Grass-Fed Corned Beef
Unlike store-bought corned beef, which is pink from curing salt, this homemade corned beef turns out pale red-brown with all the flavors of traditional corned beef.
Serves 6 with leftovers
½ cup kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons pickling spices
3 bay leaves, crumbled
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 (3½ to 4 pound) bottom round roast
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long rounds
1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Remove it from the heat, add the kosher salt and sugar, and stir until they dissolve. Pour the salt mixture into a 4-quart or larger glass, ceramic, or plastic container. Add 4 cups ice-cold water along with the garlic, pickling spices, bay leaves, and black pepper. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir to chill the brine rapidly or put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
2. Pierce the beef all over with a wooden skewer to help the brine penetrate, submerge the beef into the brine, and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days.
3. Drain the beef along with the garlic and spices in a large strainer and rinse it briefly in cool running water, reserving the garlic and spices. Discard the brine. Put the beef in a pot that fits it snuggly and fill the pot with cool water to cover the beef by 1 inch. Add the reserved garlic and spices.
4. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, partially covered. After about 2½ hours, add the onions and carrots, and continue to simmer until a skewer slides in and out of the beef with ease, 3 to 3½ hours total.
5. Serve the corned beef warm in thick slices moistened with some of the cooking liquid and with the vegetables on the side. To store, transfer the corned beef into a container, add enough cooking liquid to cover it, and refrigerate it for up to 4 days.
Recipe reprinted with permission from “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
Top photo: Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
If you’re someone who likes to experiment in the kitchen, you know that inspiration can strike in unexpected ways. The latest spark for me was a trip to Mexico, where a Canadian chef persuaded this American to try her hand at making beef jerky. I like to think of the result as my own little gastronomic North American Free Trade Agreement.
In January, I traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to attend a five-day culinary event at the El Dorado Royale resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Sponsored by a Canadian beef association, the recurring series features a different Canuck toque each month, and January’s presenter was chef Louis Charest, who is at the helm of two restaurants in Ottawa, Canada — Big Easy’s Seafood & Steakhouse and Rosie’s Southern Kitchen. In addition to sharing tips and techniques for buying and cooking beef, Charest also prepared a slew of beef-centered dishes for us to taste, including a rich short-rib ravioli that he served up with a strip of jerky on the side. While the ravioli were delicious, it was the concentrated flavor of that small garnish that was a revelation.
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Although I enjoy a good burger, steak or bolognese sauce from time to time, I don’t eat a great deal of beef, but I do remain a fan of well-made charcuterie. Long tarred by its image as truck-stop mystery grub, beef jerky rarely gets invited to the high-end cured-meat party, but sampling Charest’s version made me realize the good kind can more than hold its own with other salted and dried gourmet products like salumi. One of the best ways to ensure quality — and avoid consuming unpronounceable preservatives or the byproducts of an Upton Sinclair–esque meat-processing facility — is to make your own at home.
Although the name is believed to derive from the Incan word for dried meat, jerky was also a popular staple for Native Americans and, later, the early colonists. Back in the days before refrigeration, the technique helped preserve meat for long periods of time, and the end result was sustenance that was easy for trappers and settlers to transport on long journeys.
As anyone who’s ever eaten the stuff can attest, jerky is not the most attractive food, but what it lacks in beauty, it more than makes up for in taste. The possible seasoning combinations are nearly infinite, but the basic building blocks are salt and air-drying, which serve to draw out the meat’s moisture, thereby preventing spoilage. Not surprisingly, the resulting food is fairly high in sodium, but unless you’re on a salt-restricted diet, this shouldn’t pose a major problem. The best jerky has a very concentrated flavor, and it’s not meant for gorging. A little goes a long way.
Let your tastes guide your beef jerky marinade
Standing in one of the resort’s working kitchens, Charest talked me through his jerky recipe. It features many of the seasonings he employs at his two New Orleans-inspired restaurants, where he draws from Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole culinary traditions as well as their French and Canadian influences. His final jerky spice blend includes elements like cayenne-celery salt, paprika and ground seaweed, but he was adamant that home cooks should feel free to deviate from this recipe and others. “Don’t be afraid to swap out one ingredient for another,” he says. “If you don’t have or like a certain spice, replace it with something else. Go with the flavors you enjoy.”
In this spirit, I set about adapting his recipe to match my own palate, while still relying on his overall technique. In Mexico, he used meat from the shoulder clod, but if you can’t find that particular cut, a blade or flank steak works just as well. Like moisture, fat also promotes spoilage, so it’s important to use lean meat and take the time to trim it thoroughly.
In addition to using generous amounts of salt, you’ll also want to slice the meat as thinly as possible, to facilitate the drying process. In my research, I came across several recipes that recommended freezing the meat for an hour or so to firm it up, making it easier to cut, but you can also follow Charest’s approach of pounding your slices with the flat edge of a chef’s knife or meat tenderizer.
For the marinade, any permutation of soy sauce, alcohol (such as bourbon, mirin, tequila, etc.), teriyaki sauce, vinegar or citrus will do nicely, but if you opt for a base that’s salted, like soy sauce, remember to adjust the overall salt content to fit your taste. (I used low-sodium tamari, because that’s what I keep at home, so I made sure to include enough extra salt.) It’s also a good idea to add a sweet element, like sugar or honey, for balance. And taste the mixture before adding the raw meat, to ensure you like the flavor.
Quality beef is not the world’s cheapest ingredient, which is why my recipe calls for a relatively small amount of meat. The idea is to experiment with different spice combinations first until you hit upon one you really like; once you do, simply scale up the ingredient quantities.
As its earliest proponents knew, beef jerky is an eminently adaptable recipe, so let your imagination — and taste buds — be your guide.
Smoked Paprika and Lime Beef Jerky
If you don’t have a dehydrator, your oven will do fine. Set it as close to 170 F as possible. Because you want the beef to dry out without burning, it’s also helpful to leave the oven door cracked open a bit and check on the meat periodically. Cooking times will vary according to oven and room temperature, ambient humidity and the thickness of your meat slices. Just be sure to leave the beef in the oven until it has dried completely.
4 to 4½ tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice (about 2 limes)
3 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
½ pound thinly sliced fat-trimmed beef
1. Combine lime juice, tamari, rice vinegar and sherry vinegar in a large bowl. Add sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika and cayenne powder, and stir well to combine the marinade.
2. Slice meat into ⅛- to ¼-inch-thin strips. As you slice around the gaps where you have trimmed fat, you will likely get slices that are no longer uniform in shape. This will not affect the recipe.
3. Place the meat into the marinade. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight.
4. The next day, preheat your oven to 170 F. (If you have a dehydrator, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.)
5. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil to catch the marinade drippings and place a rack atop the sheet. Lay the meat strips on the rack, making sure to leave space among them to allow air to circulate.
6. Place the rack in the oven and leave the door open a bit. (If you choose not to do this, be sure to check the meat occasionally to ensure it does not burn.) Leave the rack in the oven until the meat is completely dry. The time will vary. In my oven, it took 3½ hours.
Top photo: Beef jerky. Credit: Sofia Perez
Have you ever truly considered the merits of black pepper? If not, no one would blame you. This staple seasoning is so commonplace it’s barely an afterthought for most people while cooking or eating. True, peppercorns — the fruits from flowering vines that inspired the ancient spice trade — have been around forever. Given this overfamiliarity, black pepper may be the single most misused and misunderstood ingredient in the kitchen today.
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I’ve long been blasé about pepper. Using finely ground black pepper growing stale in a shaker is unthinkable for any professional cook. But even Tellicherry peppercorns, a prized variety of this fruit cultivated on India’s Malabar Coast, ground from my peppermill gets me persnickety. I generally find myself resisting the ever-present cookbook instruction to “season with salt and pepper.” Some recipes assert “freshly ground black pepper,” but it’s all the same to me.
Used so automatically, black pepper, I’ve believed, is sticking its (sharp, biting) nose where it does not belong. When it comes to seasoning meat, and nearly everything I cook, I stick to salt, adding pepper only when and if its musty pungency will complement the dish.
I found a like-minded soul when Sara Dickerman in Slate denounced black pepper’s place in the seasoning pantheon with salt, as if our prized salt was stuck on a perpetually bad date. Her point, for which she was denounced by pro-pepper enthusiasts, was this: Black pepper has wrongfully earned its place at the table.
This winter, as I produced quarts of beef and chicken broth and mugs of homemade chai, I found myself radically rethinking this spice. I’d palm four or five puckered peppercorn orbs and roll them into the steaming liquids where they’d imbue their warming, spiced, woodsy aromas. In the building of flavors, black pepper is foundational, essential. I would seriously miss it.
That’s when I realized that I’d been ignoring a medieval spice merchant’s riches of peppercorns in my spice basket. Purchased six months before at The Spice & Tea Exchange in downtown Portland, Ore., along with Ceylon cinnamon sticks, saffron and Hungarian paprika, were five wildly different types of peppercorns. If these had been samples of sea salts or olive oils, I would have tasted them on the spot. But it took a giant pot of beef stock simmering on the stove to get me to study each specimen.
Most surprising were the long pepper shaped like a tiny pine cone and the African kili pepper resembling a twig and filled with bitter seeds. I compared the black and white ponape peppercorns both from the Pohnpei plant, the difference being the black is picked green and matured before sun drying while the white is picked red ripened, then fermented and skinned before sun drying. The intriguing, purple-black Tasmanian pepper, not even related to black pepper, botanically speaking, is a sweet dried berry used for seasoning in aboriginal cooking.
Mind you, these five were less than a whiff of the pepper world. My collection didn’t even include green peppercorns or black peppercorns from other continents or the unrelated pink and Sichuan peppercorns to boot. But truly, they were sufficient to shake me from my own misunderstandings.
I crushed each pepper in a mortar and pestle to get at their flavors, since it’s misleading to sense their aromas through smell. With my finger, I gingerly pressed the bits onto my tongue, anticipating mind blowing heat. Instead, I experienced the nuances of pepper, from spiced sweetness hinting of garam masala in the long pepper to the mild, citrusy burn of the white pepper. For the first time, I appreciated these spices for what they offered on their own terms.
Giving black pepper a starring role in two courses
In the following weeks, I crushed long pepper for a Middle Eastern vegetable stew with chickpeas and dropped it whole into my brewing chai. I ground white pepper into clam chowder and French onion soup with gladness. As I prepared dinner, I considered which pepper might enhance its flavors. My new favorite, the long pepper, the bona fide black pepper of the Greeks and Romans, now owns shelf space in my spice cabinet.
It was no leap to invoke the most pepper-forward preparation of all: steak au poivre, or pepper-crusted steak. I served it, by golly, with a creamy peppercorn dressing over salad mix. It seems I’ve learned that there are times, after all, when there is no such thing as too much black pepper.
Pepper-Crusted Steak Salad With Buttermilk Peppercorn Dressing
Prepare the dressing for this meal first and let it sit at room temperature while you prepare the steak. This allows the dressing’s flavors to develop.
For the dressing:
Makes 2 cups
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, such as Tellicherry or long pepper
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup finely chopped chives
For the steak salad:
1 heaping teaspoon each ponape black and white peppercorns
1 10-12 ounce flat iron steak
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 cups mixed salad greens
1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the dressing:
1.Whisk the sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, pepper and salt until smooth. Stir in the chives and taste for seasoning. If using right away, leave the dressing at room temperature to allow the flavors to develop.
If preparing in advance, store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 5 days to use as a dressing and a dip.
For the steak salad:
1. Crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle until most are very coarsely crushed and some remain whole.
2. Dab the steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with the salt. Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat with the oil. When the oil begins to smoke lay the steak in the center of the pan and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Turn the steak and cook for 3 minutes more.
For rare, transfer the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes. For medium-rare to medium, turn off the heat but leave the steak in the pan for 1-3 minutes more, testing for your preferred doneness with an instant-read thermometer (130 F for medium-rare; 135 F for medium) and transferring the steak to a plate to rest for at least 5 minutes when done. (The steak can be cooked in advance and cooled to room temperature or served warm.)
3. Pile the salad greens in the center of 4 plates. Dollop on the dressing to taste. Layer on the steak and garnish with the shaved cheese.
Top photo: Pepper varieties, clockwise from the top: Tasmanian pepper, kili pepper, ponape white pepper, ponape black pepper, long pepper. Credit: Lynne Curry
After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.
I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”
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If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.
I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.
Freezing meals, not just foods on sale
Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.
Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.
The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.
My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.
A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils. When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.
Be careful about what goes in the freezer
I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”
So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.
1 head cabbage with large tender leaves
2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped
1 large onion, coarsely
1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes
1 can sauerkraut
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup
Juice of one lemon
1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)
2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked
2 carrots sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.
2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.
3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.
5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.
Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.
Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber
Place a carbon steel pan on a stovetop burner on high heat and stand back. In minutes, the surface temperature will reach 600 to 700 F. When hazy smoke floats into the air, it’s time to drizzle a small amount of oil onto the pan. The oil scatters across the surface, looking for a place to hide from the heat. But there’s no escape. The oil accepts its fate, adds a bit more smoke and waits. Drop a piece of marbled meat or a beautiful medley of farm fresh vegetables into the pan and the sizzling begins. Smokin’ carbon steel is the alchemist’s apprentice, transforming fat and starch into savory sweetness.
To create beautifully charred meats and crispy skin fish filets, restaurant chefs use sauté pans designed to take high heat. Searing caramelizes the outside and locks in flavor. In the home kitchen, cast iron and stainless steel pans are favored by many, but carbon steel has advantages over both. No health issues are associated with using carbon at high heat and cleanup is easy. Like woks, once a carbon steel pan is seasoned, the surface turns black so there is no need to brandish a scouring pad and cleanser.
Working with carbon steel
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Some additional care needs to be taken. Never soak a carbon steel pan in water or place in a dishwasher. Simply scrub with a little soap to remove particulates and grease, rinse, then heat the pan on a stove top burner until dry and the pan is ready to use again. Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice and tomatoes can affect the seasoning of the pan, but that is easily remedied by following the manufacturer’s directions.
Available in cooking supply stores, the pans are half the cost of stainless steel and twice the price of cast iron. Once seasoned according to the manufacturer’s directions, the pans are virtually indestructible and designed to last a lifetime.
The pan I use is a French-made de Buyer 12.6-inch Mineral B Element. A bit lighter than a comparably sized cast iron pan, the extra long handle never gets hot when used on the stove top. At high heat, the surface of the carbon steel pan becomes nonstick with the smallest amount of oil.
Very much like Chinese stir-frying, cooking at high heat requires all ingredients to be prepped before cooking begins. To avoid risking a burn, experts suggest using a pair of long metal tongs, 12 inches or longer to manipulate the ingredients in the pan.
Get ready for some serious heat
A good exhaust hood with a fan above the stove is also necessary. High heat’s sweet smoke can turn from pleasure to pain if unvented. Many a meal has been spoiled by the annoying screech of a smoke alarm.
Use an oil that can tolerate high temperatures. A proponent of high-heat cooking to prepare his signature crispy salmon filet, chef Taylor Boudreaux of Napa Valley Grille in West Los Angeles, Calif., recommends a blend of canola (80%) and olive oil (20%).
Keep a premixed bottle on hand in the kitchen and you’ll always be ready for a smokin’ good time.
Pan Seared Bone-In Ribeye Steak
I believe a little bit of steak goes a long way, so my preferred portion is 6 to 8 ounces. Quality rather than quantity makes the difference in this supremely easy-to-make, protein-centric dish. Buy the highest quality steak available.
A good steak deserves good accompaniments that are entirely personal in nature. One person draws pleasure from a side of fries, another prefers a baked sweet potato with butter. Some diners wouldn’t eat red meat without a glass of red wine. I enjoy a charred steak with caramelized onions and shiitake mushrooms served alongside garlic-parsley mashed potatoes, a carrot-broccoli sauté and an ice-cold perfect Manhattan up with a twist. But that’s me.
The times indicated in the recipe are estimates. The thickness of the steak will affect how long the meat needs to be cooked to reach the desired level of doneness.
1 bone-in ribeye, T-bone or Porterhouse steak
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional, see variations)
1 garlic clove, peeled, root end trimmed (optional, see variations)
½ teaspoon finely chopped chives, or the green part of a scallion (optional, see variations)
1. Wash and pat dry the steak. Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside.
3. Place the carbon steel pan on a burner on a high flame.
4. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the oil into the pan. In seconds the oil will smoke.
5. Using tongs, place the steak in the pan. Press down gently along the edges and the meat next to the bone. Pressing too firmly will force juices out of the steak which would diminish the flavors.
6. Allow to cook and sizzle. Steaks are best served medium-rare. Make adjustments as to time if you prefer yours less or more cooked.
7. After 3 to 5 minutes, turn the steak over. After another 3 to 5 minutes, press against the middle of the steak. If the meat feels solid, it is cooked. If it can be pressed down easily, then it probably requires more cooking. To be certain, use a sharp paring knife to make small cut in the middle of the steak. Inspect and determine if the steak has cooked to the state of doneness you enjoy.
8. Serve hot with your preferred sides and beverage of choice.
1. Use a combination of stovetop searing and oven baking, as many restaurant chefs do. To do this, sear the steak for 2 minutes on each side, then place in a 400 F oven for 5 minutes. To remove the pan from the oven, remember to use an oven mitt. The handle that rarely gets hot on the stove top will be very hot after spending time in the oven.
2. Test for doneness as before. If not cooked to your preference, place back in the oven.
3. After removal from the oven or the stovetop, drop a teaspoon of sweet butter and a crushed garlic clove (peeled) into the pan. Spoon the butter-garlic mixture over the steak, bathing it in the sauce. Discard the melted butter and garlic before serving. Place the steak on the plate with the sides.
4. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon finely chopped chives or the green part of a scallion over the steak just before serving.
Caramelized Farmers Market Vegetables
Perfect as a side dish or as an entrée with noodles or rice, the vegetables should be charred but not overcooked so their texture is al dente. Using the freshest, highest quality vegetables will create a better tasting dish. Butter is optional, but a small amount can add a level of umami that turns a good plate of vegetables into an outstanding one.
2 large carrots, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, cut into rounds or 1 -nch oblongs
1 medium onion, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, julienned
3 garlic cloves, skins and root ends removed, smashed, finely diced
2 cups broccoli florets, washed, sliced long ways into bite-sized pieces
2 cups Brussels sprouts, root ends trimmed, cut into quarters or julienned
1 cup shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, stem ends trimmed, thin sliced long ways
1 teaspoon blend of canola oil (80%) and olive oil (20%)
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1. Assemble all the vegetables on the cutting board, ready to use. If serving with steamed rice or cooked pasta, have that prepared as well.
2. Set the burner on the highest setting. Place the carbon steel pan on the burner. Allow to heat until a small amount of smoke begins to form.
3. Drizzle in the blended oil. When it smokes, add all the vegetables.
4. Using the tongs, toss the vegetables frequently to prevent burning. Toss for 3 to 5 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked al dente.
5. Remove the pan from the burner. Because the carbon steel is still very hot, continue tossing the vegetables. Add the butter and cayenne (optional). Toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning with additional sea salt and pepper.
6. Serve hot as a side dish or with the pasta or rice.
– If caramelized onions are preferred, cook them separately until they take on a golden color, then add the other vegetables.
– Substitute or add vegetables you enjoy, such as zucchini, turnips, kale or kohlrabi. Since some vegetables cook more quickly than others, learn which ones need to go into the pan ahead of the others. For instance, small diced turnips and kohlrabi would go in first before adding the other vegetables.
– Instead of adding butter and cayenne (optional), add 2 tablespoons soy sauce or an Asian sauce (optional), and for added heat, add 3 tablespoons finely chopped Korean kimchi (optional).
Top photo: Carbon steel sauté pan on high heat, smoke rising from the blended oil. Credit: David Latt
The last time I made tamales, I also made a delicious discovery: pork stock. My tamale recipe calls for simmering pork shoulder in a pot with water, an onion and a couple other simple ingredients until the meat is fall-apart tender. Some of the resulting liquid is typically used to make the masa — the cornmeal dough that forms the base of the tamales — but on this occasion I bought already-prepared masa to save some time. This left me with a couple of quarts of fragrant, delicately flavored stock.
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What to do with it? Dump it down the drain? Freeze it for a future tamale-making session? Then a radical thought occurred to me: Why not use it to make soup?
While that idea may not seem like the stuff of anarchy to readers outside the United States, the fact is, we Americans almost never cook with pork stock. Many of us have never even tasted it, that is, outside the realm of Asian and Latin restaurants.
Why is that? Is there some kind of cultural taboo against pork stock? Would its flavor somehow overwhelm American soups and sauces?
“We seldom encounter pork stock, if ever,” confirmed Ojakangas, whose book includes more than 100 soup recipes, yet not a single one involving pork stock. “However, I have retained the juices from fresh ham and used them in pea soup and bean soup.”
She made an interesting point. Americans will often flavor soups with pieces of ham or bacon, but for some reason we haven’t made the leap to pork stock. “I don’t know why it isn’t more highly prized,” Ojakangas admitted.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of commercial availability. You can go to just about any grocery store in the U.S. and buy chicken, beef, mushroom and vegetable stocks, but pork stock? Good luck with that. If you want to make soup with pork stock, you have no choice but to make it yourself.
The good news is that it’s really easy to do just that. There are a couple ways to go about it. You can make the stock from bones, which is cheap, but can take three hours or more. You also can make it from meat, which costs more, but takes less time and yields tasty leftover meat that can be used for some other purpose. Anne Mendelson wrote a great article for Zester that covers the basic stock-making techniques in more detail. I’m a fan of the meat-based method, because it creates the makings of a second meal for the same amount of effort.
The resulting stock is flavorful, but not overpowering, which makes it very versatile. It’s delicious as a base not only for Japanese ramen and Mexican posole, but also for pork chili and white bean soup.
Basic Pork Stock
Makes about 6 cups
3½ pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut in large pieces
10 cups water
1 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1. In a Dutch oven, bring pork, water, onion, garlic and salt to a boil.
2. Reduce heat and simmer covered, about 2 hours or until meat is very tender and falling apart.
3. Remove meat from broth and allow meat to cool. Shred meat using two forks and reserve for another use, such as tamales or pulled pork sandwiches.
4. Strain the broth. If using immediately, use a fat separator to remove fat from the broth. If not, refrigerate overnight in a couple smaller containers and skim solidified fat from the top before using or freezing.
White Bean Soup
1 pound dried white beans (Great Northern or cannellini)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 celery stalks, chopped in ½ inch pieces
3 carrots, chopped in ½ inch pieces
2 dried bay leaves
4 cups pork stock
4 cups water
Salt to taste
Extra virgin olive oil for serving
1. Rinse and pick through beans to remove any pebbles. Cover with cold water and soak overnight. Drain.
2. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat and add onion, garlic, celery and carrots. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
3. Add beans, bay leaves, pork stock and water to the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until beans are tender, about 90 minutes.
4. Add salt to taste. If you like a thicker soup, remove ½ cup of beans, puree them and stir back into the pot.
5. Finish each bowl with a drizzle (about 1 teaspoon) of good extra virgin olive oil.
Top photo: Homemade pork stock. Credit: Tina Caputo