Articles in Meat
Finns treasure their solitary excursions into the endless woods and forests that fringe the 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands of their hauntingly beautiful countryside. Throughout the summer and autumn, they prefer to keep their meditations on the beauty of the natural world to themselves: They rarely go in large groups, privacy is valued, and the social code generally prohibits more than a brief nod to anyone they meet. And, of course, they sensibly like to keep their prized foraging spots to themselves.
Although Finns have always collected berries and mushrooms, other types of plant-hunting have become nearly forgotten skills. Foraging was associated with war-time hardship (dandelion roots, for example, were used as a substitute for coffee) and rejected in favor of status-symbol, shop-bought food. However, Helsinki-based chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. And it’s not just a way of finding food for free, but of celebrating healthy produce and enlightening minds.
As Tallberg says, “Once you understand where ingredients come from, you see their beauty and learn to respect their qualities with the minimum of processing.”
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Catching the foraging bug
“I was just knocked out when I tried it,” Tallberg recalled, “and when I came back to Finland, I realized I was living in a big green supermarket. The Everyman’s Rights Code allows anyone to pick anywhere except someone’s back garden or protected species.”
Tallberg does not consider wild plants as substitutes for cultivated vegetables and herbs, but as important ingredients in their own right, both in terms of taste and their nutritional qualities.
Taking advantage of one of Finland’s long summer days, Tallberg and I went foraging on a tiny island that lies within Helsinki’s city limits. We were surrounded by a surprisingly wide variety of edible plants: mild, strong, crunchy, coarse, fragrant, bulky, delicate. Less than an hour later, he served me the best salad I have ever eaten. And the cheapest.
Highlighting wild herbs and plants
The use of wild herbs and plants has become a hallmark of many modern restaurants in Finland and elsewhere — Noma in Copenhagen led the way with its version of the new Nordic Cuisine. But Tallberg wants to introduce (or re-introduce) wild plants to the home cook.
As we explored the thickets of greenery, Tallberg gave me a lesson in plant-hunting. The patches of wild strawberries, with tiny, twinkling fruit, were easy to spot and Tallberg showed me how to string them on a blade of grass to transport them safely home. Carpets of exquisite purple and yellow heartsease (Viola tricolor) were delicately perfumed with vanilla. And Japanese rose bushes (Rosa rugosa) were in bloom, their petals shocking pink against the dark green leaves.
After that, plant identification became trickier. Tallberg is adamant you should not eat or even pick any plant you cannot recognize with absolute certainty. If in doubt, leave it out, he advises.
“Start with the ones (plants) you already know to get you going,” he advised as he presented me with a bunch of sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which he describes as a smaller, more elegant version of common sorrel. “Many people think it’s a noxious weed, but it’s lovely with fish and shellfish or green asparagus.”
“When you find a new plant, stop and go back some 10 meters and walk towards the plants again. This way you will be able to make observations about some essential feature, such as color, height, leaf shape, scent and so on.”
Unless you go out with an experienced forager, it helps immensely to consult a book, such as Tallberg’s “Wild Herb Cookbook,” or take a course about native plants at a local community college. Websites, such as NatureGate, are also helpful. But, as Tallberg says, “Be sensible: don’t go harvesting herbs or plants along highways, on areas sprayed with herbicides, or near factories. Also avoid foraging near golf courses or other areas where herbicides or other pesticides may have been used. Consider sustainability and don’t tear out all the roots. The tools you need are the same as used in gathering mushrooms: a basket and a small knife, although I also include scissors in my basic tool kit. If you’re picking nettles, wear gloves.”
Able to identify culinary plants
As he gathered samples of chickweed, fat hen and sweet cicely, Tallberg said he could identify more than 80 varieties of culinary plants but was still learning.
“I get so excited when I’m out foraging — I imagine how lovely the violets will be with fish or how polypody (Polypodium) is a natural flavor enhancer for game or how I’m going to use pine needles like rosemary or deep-fry nettle leaves or lichen and flavor them with juniper salt. … And then I remember I’m still in Helsinki — it’s crazy! Foraging has given me a new angle on life, not just gastronomy,” he said.
Tallberg has built a business supplying wild ingredients to other chefs, has written several books on the subject and acts as a national consultant and Finnish food ambassador. He was awarded the prestigious Finland Prize for his work with food, nature and conservation.
As we meandered, Tallbert was a companionable and enthusiastic soundtrack, “There are many different types of dandelion. … Oh, look, there’s some orpine. They’ve got juicy, succulent leaves and tops, and you can use them like a salad leaf or toss into a jus. … Ooh, just found some Polypodium vulgare, that’s quite liquorish and good for fish and game. … A bit later in the year, this is where I’ll find bilberries, rowanberries, wild raspberries … Wild yarrow will bring herbal tones to a salad. … I use maple leaves, when they’re young and shiny, like vine leaves. … Chickweed are like pea shoots but milder and more mellow and add volume to a salad.”
Back at his flat, he explained the building blocks of wild salad making: “You’re looking for acidity, aroma and sweetness.”
To the haunting music of Aino Vena, we drank refreshing Nordic Koivu, birch sap water, as Tallberg made a vinaigrette with a splash of sea buckthorn juice. The salad was vivid and intense. I could feel myself getting healthier as I ate. Together with an omelette, local goat’s cheese and yogurt with wild strawberries, violets and bee pollen, it was the real taste of Finland.
- Yield: 4 servings
- Four 7-ounce pork chops (use first-class pork for this dish)
- 2 handfuls of fat hen
- 2 tablespoons strong mustard
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
- Season the pork chops with sea salt and pepper, brush with oil and fry on a hot cast-iron pan until just cooked.
- Cook the fat hen in water flavored with honey and salt for a couple of minutes, drain, toss with a drop of olive oil and serve with mustard.
- * This goes well with Carrots With Sweet Cicely
Carrots With Sweet Cicely
Yield: 4 servings
14 ounces small carrots
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons honey (brown sugar or treacle will do, too)
2½ cups water
half a handful of sweet cicely, finely chopped
2 ounces butter
1. Peel the carrots (unless you are using new season ones that have a thin peel containing plenty of flavor).
2. Place all the ingredients in a pot (apart from the sweet cicely), covering the carrots with water. Cook until almost all of the water has evaporated and a shiny butter glaze remains. Add the sweet cicely.
Steamed Fillet of Salmon With Ox-Eye Daisy Shoots
Yield: 4 servings
4 (4-ounce) pieces of salmon, boned
1 cucumber, sliced lengthways
4 tablespoons salad dressing*
Freshly ground sea salt and pepper
1. Season the salmon pieces with sea salt and pepper, steam them for about 3 minutes and leave to stand in room temperature for about 10 minutes, after which they will be ready.
2. Peel the cucumber, spoon out the seeds and cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices (with a cheese slicer or mandolin cutter).
3. Toss the shoots and cucumber in the salad dressing, season with sea salt and pepper and serve with the salmon at room temperature.
* Salad dressing
2 generous cups of cold-pressed olive oil
1¼ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup white wine vinegar
1½ tablespoon dried tarragon
4 medium-size garlic cloves, sliced
4 to 5 ounces Dijon-type mustard
Juice of half a lemon
1. Mix the ingredients in a jug blender or with a hand blender, and strain them by pressing through a strainer with a small ladle to ensure all aromas are captured.
Recipes are from: “Wild Herb Cookbook” by Sami Tallberg (2012), available in both Finnish- and English-language editions.
Main photo: Finnish chef Sami Tallberg is on a mission to make foraging part of the national way of life once more. Credit: Martin Thompson
Fig season is here! Farmers markets and grocery stores have baskets of plump, juicy figs, drops of sweet sugary nectar often found oozing from them. Living in California has many advantages, including the ability to have fruit trees in your yard. Fig trees are scattered everywhere in my city. Many people just ignore the fruit, leaving it to the birds and squirrels. That means a lot of fat, happy birds and squirrels.
My introduction to figs was, naturally, a Fig Newton. I learned to love the taste and texture of a cooked fig from that cookie. My mother enjoyed fresh figs, and soon I loved fresh figs too. But I really loved the cookies.
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As I got older and began to go to fine dining restaurants, I would often find unique and appealing fig dishes on the menu. There were sweet desserts, savory entrées and interesting appetizers. I realized the flavor of a fig complements so many other flavors: aged and fresh cheeses, salty cured meats, dessert wines and many nuts.
Fresh figs can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, used as a pizza topping, wrapped in salty cured meat, tossed with a salad or pasta, cooked down into a sweet sauce or baked in a tart or cake. I have even sampled a fig cocktail. But don’t forget you can eat them as nature made them, sweet and plump and juicy. If nothing else, figs are versatile little fruits that have been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Types of figs
My fig of choice is the California Mission fig, with its purple-black skin and deep red flesh. The Mission fig gets its name from the Spanish missionaries who planted them as they traveled up the California coast from Mexico.
Depending on your location, there may be different varieties of figs at your local market:
- Brown Turkey figs are large and pear shaped, with brown skin.
- Calimyrna figs are rather round and green skinned. They are often found dried, but when fresh they are honey sweet.
- Kadota figs are green skinned, with luscious amber-colored flesh when ripe.
- Black Mission figs are black skinned with amazingly deep red flesh.
- 4 bone-in pork loin chops, about 1-inch thick
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 to 6 fresh figs, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup Cambozola cheese, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 egg, lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- Heat the oven to 350 F. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the chop starting from the end farthest from the bone. Cut carefully through the middle of the chop, almost to the bone. Repeat with the remaining chops.
- Season the chops with salt and pepper on both sides and inside the pocket.
- Place a small amount of figs into the pockets of the pork chops.
- Cover the figs with a good amount of cheese, pressing it down into the figs.
- Close the top flap of the pocket over the figs and cheese, adjusting as needed to seal the seam.
- Place the flour, egg and panko bread crumbs each into a separate shallow dish or plate.
- Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
- Coat each chop with flour, patting to remove any excess.
- Dip each chop into the egg mixture, making sure to coat them evenly.
- Place the chops into the panko breading, pressing lightly and turning them to cover the chops completely. Make sure the seam is well coated with panko to prevent the cheese from oozing out while cooking.
- Place the chops onto the prepared baking sheet.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Main photo: Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Grilling takes effort. Lots of coal goes into building the fire; you wait for the coals to get hot; and the food cooks in about 15 minutes, if you’re having steaks, burgers, vegetables or hot dogs. And that’s it. The fire continues burning, wasting away, while you eat. How about getting full use out of all those hot coals that are burning away for hours?
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Here’s a game plan for a multi-course grill party that will be perfect for a summer weekend gathering that keeps different foods grilling for hours. Given the amount of food, you’ll probably want to have at least eight people joining you.
The courses you will serve are an appetizer, a first course, a main course, and a dessert. However, you can just keep throwing food onto the grill as you like, especially vegetables, because they can be chopped up later for a grilled salad.
Remember that the idea here is to get full use of your charcoal fire and not merely to cook quickly, although some foods will.
The summer night’s grill party menu and recipes.
When you build your fire, do so with a bit more coals than usual and with all the coals piled to one side of the firebox so that the other side will be cooler once the fire is going. Do not start cooking until all the coals are white with ash. All recipes assume the grill fire is ready to go.
Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.
- ½ cup dry bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons freshly grated caciocavallo or pecorino cheese
- 1¼ pounds swordfish, cubed
- All-purpose flour for dredging
- 1 large egg, beaten
- Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
- Mix the bread crumbs, oregano, salt, pepper, and cheese in a bowl.
- Dredge the swordfish in the flour and pat off any excess. Dip in the egg on both sides and then dredge again in the bread crumb mixture, coating both sides. Place on double skewers without touching each other.
- Drizzle the top of the swordfish with olive oil. Place the oiled side down on the grill and cook 4 minutes. Flip to the other side and grill another 4 minutes. Serve immediately.
Grilled Vegetables and Bruschetta
You should be able to get everything onto a 22-inch diameter Weber kettle grill. Cook in batches otherwise. The vegetables are eaten at room temperature after the main meat dish is cooked.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into ⅜ -inch-thick slices
4 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise into ⅜ -inch thick slices
4 bell peppers (various colors)
4 large portobello mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh basil leaves, to taste, whole, snipped, or chopped
Fresh or dried oregano to taste
8 (½-inch thick) slices Italian or French country bread (about ¾ pound)
1. Mix the garlic and olive oil in a bowl. Brush all the vegetables with olive oil. Place on the grill directly over the fire and cook until they are charred a bit. They can be set aside individually or mixed or chopped and mixed. Season with salt, pepper, and basil or oregano.
2. Brush the bread slices with the olive oil and grill until lightly toasted. Arrange all the vegetables attractively on a platter and serve.
Grilled Pork Tenderloin With Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary
Prep Time: 2 hours, including marinating
Cook Time: 25 to 30 minutes
Total Time: 2.5 hours
Yield: 8 servings
Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.
4 pounds pork tenderloin (about 4 tenderloins in all)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1. Place the pork tenderloins in a glass or ceramic baking dish and pour the olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them. Sprinkle with the garlic, onions, rosemary and black pepper and marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours, turning several times.
2. Place the tenderloins on the grill (6 inches from the heat source for charcoal fires) and cook, uncovered, until golden brown, without turning or moving them, about 15 minutes. If your grilling grate is closer to the fire than 6 inches, grill the meat for less time or grill with indirect heat. Turn once and grill until the other side is golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle the parsley to coat a serving platter and arrange the grilled pork tenderloins on top and serve.
Grilled Bananas With Peach Schnapps and Cinnamon
Prep time: 0 minutes
Cook Time: About 12 minutes
Total Time: About 12 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Note: Total time does not include time for the fire to be prepared.
4 bananas, with their peels
4 tablespoons peach schnapps
Confectioner’s sugar for sprinkling
Ground cinnamon for sprinkling
1. Put the un-peeled bananas on the grill 1 to 2 inches from the source of the heat until they blacken on both sides.
2. Remove from the grill, slice the bananas open lengthwise, leaving them in their peels, and sprinkle a tablespoon of peach schnapps, a shake of powdered sugar and cinnamon on each and serve.
Main photo: Grill fire ready for a four-course dinner. Credit: iStock/Keith Tsuji
You just can’t escape a barbecue grill on the Fourth of July. The holiday demands outdoor cooking followed by fireworks. And the curious thing about Americans’ Independence Day food traditions is that they are not confined to one or two expected dishes. Almost anything goes.
When I lived in Arlington, Mass., July 4 was an especially big deal because my house was about 100 yards from the route taken by William Dawes when he rode the southern route to Lexington while Paul Revere took the northern route on April 18, 1775, (as you know, Revere got all the fame and Longfellow’s poem).
Traditional New England fare
Traditional July 4 fare in New England, especially in the 19th century, was poached salmon with egg sauce, fresh peas and new potatoes, lemonade, and blueberry cobbler. Not once in the 14 years I lived in New England did we have this menu. What we did have was anything we damned pleased — hamburgers and hot dogs being on everybody’s go-to menu, along with potato salad, a bean salad, and, of course beer, plus soda and juice for the kids.
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This July 4 perhaps a little innovation is in order such as the favorites of Italian-Americans, braciole, stuffed meat roll-ups. They go by other names such as involtini, but for any Italian-American they’re always known as braciole and they’re always braised in ragù or grilled. But this was not always so. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked alla brace, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.
Braciole was once synonymous with “cutlet.” The place to begin is with the cut of meat. Not all braciole are cut from the same meat. If you grill the braciole, you might want to use a large piece of beef such as sirloin tip or beef round from which you can slice nice flat steaks that can be pounded thinner in order to roll them up.
Pound them as thin as scaloppini with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver. Lay the meat slice in front of you and place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing on the end nearest you. Roll once away from you and, pressing with your fingers so it’s tight, keep rolling and secure the ends or anything that looks loose with toothpicks. Now you’re ready to grill.
Here is a recipe to get you started after which you will only be limited by your imagination. The roll-ups can be prepared the day before and kept refrigerated until time to grill.
These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.
- 12 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
- 1 tablespoon currants
- 1 ¾ pounds beef round, cut into twelve 3x5-inch-slices
- 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for basting
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped onion
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Twelve 8- to 10-inch wooden skewers
- 1 large onion, quartered, and separated
- Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
- If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
- Place the beef slices between 2 pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver until they are about 1/16 inch thick, being careful you don’t rip the flesh.
- In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Drain the currants and add to the bread crumbs with the pecorino, pine nuts, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
- Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
- Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide a bay leaf, an onion slice, and a beef roll onto each set of skewers.
- Place the skewers on the grill close to the fire, if possible, and baste with olive oil. Cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Move to the cooler side of the grill if there is too much flare-up. Serve hot.
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