Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Mighty Sandwich

The sandwich is a hell of a culinary vehicle, one that should not be underestimated; though quite often, it is. Invented by the Earl of Sandwich in the mid-eighteenth century, supposedly out of the necessity to eat without having to stop gambling, it is as potentially delicious as it is convenient. Its iterations are limited only by the chef's imagination, and I have enjoyed some doozies; take Waterbar's Softshell Crab "BLT," for instance, put together with pancetta, heirloom tomatoes, crisp Bibb lettuce, and spicy aioli on thick-cut brioche. The thing is so deviously yummy, crispy and crisp and juicy and fresh; and when you're chewing a bite with everything in it, the flavor profile is totally awesome.
But sometimes a sandwich isn't intended to be a culinary work of art. Sometimes you make a sandwich simply because you have some fresh bread and some good meat and the two just go together. Such were the circumstances within which I found myself the other day.
I had a fresh baguette and a flawlessly cooked New York Strip. Even if I had nothing but these two ingredients, I would be in good shape, but I had worked an event the night before where we'd made a thick, creamy, blue cheese dressing, and I'd brought it home knowing I could put it to good use. It was the perfect spread for the sandwich. I slathered a thick layer on both pieces of bread, then toasted them in the oven at 350, finishing on broil for a minute or 2 to get some nice golden color.
And what's a steak sandwich without onions, right? I sliced one into rings and caramelized them nice and slow with some oil and a touch of butter... oh, and some of the fat I trimmed off the steak, cut up into juicy, little morsels and nestled in among the onions, releasing flavor all over the pan. You can't imitate that real beef flavor; there's nothing like it, and it is the tits. I got the pan nice and brown, then deglazed every last bit of goodness with some red wine, letting it all reduce to French Onion Soup-style richness. I was ready to build.
The steak was sliced thin, heated up gently, and sat like ribbons atop a bed of bubbly, pungent Gorgonzola, just barely tinted blue, that melted down the sides of the baguette and ran together with the pink juices of the steak to create gentle, aromatic pools on the white plate.
I piled the onions high atop the other piece of gorgonzola bread and sprinkled them with a handful of fresh rosemary leaves from the garden. Then, taking care to keep the ingredients on their respective buns, pressed the two halves together gently, slowly applying pressure and watching for the moment when the fillings just began to poke out the sides. I let the whole thing sit for a moment so that everybody at the party could get to know one another.
Then I took that thing down. The tangy gorgonzola spread brought a punch; the onions were sweet, smooth, and rich; the steak was juicy, succulent, and flavorful. Each part depended on the others for balance and they complemented one another exquisitely. Every bite I took brought me to pause and appreciate the perfection and exceptional deliciousness that I was holding.
And thus, the beauty of a sandwich: a pretty, little package that can be packed with so much show-stopping flavor that you almost can't believe it. Let us always try to make our sandwiches the very best sandwiches they can be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Not that I'm saying I support KFC...

But I really like the new marketing campaign for their popcorn chicken. The whole thing is basically muckraking directed towards McDonalds (which I couldn't be happier about), and they attack the ambiguity of the chicken nuggett. "What part of the chicken is nugget?" the commercial asks. It goes on to let us know that KFC makes popcorn chicken; the latter being distinguished by the fact that it is off-the-bone breast meat as opposed to pressed, formed, nuggets. Given the fact that KFC is a massive fast-food corporation, I still don't trust their chicken; but this commercial speaks to a far bigger point in a really positive trend that is gaining ground in the way Americans eat.
Thanks to the efforts of people like Alice Waters, Anthony Bourdain, and even good, old Ermeril Lagasse, the spotlight has been shone on what real food is. People are actually starting to give a shit about what they eat for the first time in a long time. And I don't just mean people, I mean People. Like, all of them. Sure there's still a long way to go, but you can see it happening, very slowly, in commercials like this. You saw the same thing in recent Domino's commercials that surprised focus groups by suddenly revealing that they were actually at the farms where Domino's gets their tomatoes. People were shocked and delighted to find out that the pizzas they were eating had -gasp!- fresh tomatoes in the sauce. Just like people are going to be stoked to hear that the chicken they are eating is -gasp!- real chicken.
Ironic and potentially disturbing as these circumstances are, take faith in the fact that they are baby steps on the journey to America eating real again. The fact that people care about where there food comes from, even in these incredibly general terms, is a step in the right direction. As people all over the country, from Alice Waters to the high school lunch lady, continue to do their part in leading that march, maybe one day that McNugget will even cease to Mcbe...
But I'm getting dangerously close to sounding like a full-on picket-weilding idealist, and that wasn't my intention. Let me just say that it makes me happy to see the people who feed us being held accountable for how they do so, even in small and tragically ironic ways. Because for a very long time, they weren't. Which was bad.
So here's to you, KFC. Thanks for promising not to feed us fake chicken.

Cocoa-Habanero Wings

Let's be honest: there aren't many people out there who don't like chicken wings. Hot, mild, sweet, tangy, messy, crispy, spicy, juicy... whatever your preference, wings are a crowd-pleaser. I, personally, think it has at least something to do with the fact that you have to throw manners to the wind and just get in there if you really want to enjoy them. I hold that to be a somewhat universal law in food: if you have to work a little bit for it (wings, crabs, lobster claws, etc.), it just tastes better. Maybe that's why I became a cook.
So when Julia and I were grocery shopping the other day and she grabbed a pack of raw chicken wings, I got excited. Making wings, for me, is one of the easiest and funnest ways to cook. You need nothing more than a bowl, a bag, and your imagination. I go foraging through my pantry and fridge, scanning the labels excitedly and grabbing armfuls of spice-jars, cans and bottles that clink joyfully as I haul them onto the counter. Sometimes I have to rely on taste to identify an unmarked spice bag (hello, harissa spice mix) or mason jar (mmm, apricot-vanilla jam); it's all part of the fun. From there, it's just about putting shit into the bowl and tasting as you go.
I mean, use your head; don't start with chocolate milk and add a dash of mustard. Think about how you want your wings to taste. Sweet? Start with some jam, maybe, or even fruit juice. Want some spice? Just add something spicy. Anything spicy, in fact. Just add it in small amounts and check it carefully and slowly as you go. There are very few spices and flavors that won't work. The key is adding little amounts of an ingredient at first, then adjusting more generously as you start to taste what works. My mom always said, "You can always add more, but you can never take away." Follow that guideline and you pretty much can't go wrong.
It's a damn shame that there are people who believe that Hooters' wings are the best thing out there. Even sadder are the giant plastic bags of T.G.I.Friday's frozen wings in the supermarket troughs, flash frozen and frostbitten, covered in high-fructose corn syrup. And don't even get me started on boneless "wings." At that point you're just settling for the lowest common denominator, and you might as well get yourself a box of chicken nuggets and call it a day. Jackass.
So this is what I came up with; it was a HUGE hit with a panel of wing aficionados. Full disclosure: the panel consisted of Julia and myself. That being said, the wings are sweet, earthy, and had some nice kick that sort of snuck up on us, which I loved (albeit more so than Julia). I do, however, guarantee you that they were tastier, more succulent, and kicked the crap out of most of the wings you're used to tearing through. And you can tell Hooters I said that.

If you wanna try them, put all this stuff in a big bowl:

1/4 C    canola oil
1 T    chili oil
1 T    worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 T    rice wine vinegar
2 T    jalapeno jam (this is what I used, but any jam can be subbed in; a spicy jam is, obviously, best if you want more kick.)
1 T    honey
2 t    soy sauce
2 t    habanero pepper (finely minced habanero w/ seeds works, as does jarred habanero paste from mercados.)
2 T cocoa powder
1 T garlic powder
pinch of salt

Whisk all this stuff together to a smooth texture, then toss it in a large ziplock bag with 6-12 wings and refrigerate it for up to 24 hrs.

Lay the wings on a sheet tray and bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, for an hour, basting every 15 minutes.* Then eat the hell out of them.

*After you lay the wings out to bake, pour the remaining sauce from the bag into a bowl (or small saucepot) and whisk in 1-2 T of melted butter; keep it warm and use it to baste the wings with a pastry brush every 15 minutes, or more often if you want to baby them (which is juuuuuuust fiiiiiiiiine).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Risotto Innovation

Last weekend we had dinner at Jane's house, and she made one of her specialties: Mom's Gooey Chicken. What this entails, essentially, is a chicken broken down into its eight pieces (for those who have never seen a chicken: two wings, breasts, thighs, and legs), and baked at 350 atop a generous layer of peppers, onions, and a somewhat secret recipe of seasoning and sauces. I know Worcestershire sauce plays a key role, but the rest is a bit of a mystery. At any rate, as the chicken cooks, it renders its fat and juices into the peppers, onions, and sauce, thickening like only natural animal fat can. Once everything cooks together, a few key stirs and what you have beneath (and all over) the chicken is a viscous, luscious, hearty sauce with a flavor all its own. It is called Mom's Gooey Chicken for a reason, and that reason is: it is very, very gooey. And holy moly, it is DELICIOUS.

Anyway, this is admittedly not a revolutionary way to cook chicken and it's not why I'm writing... though now that I'm here, I'm glad that Mom's Gooey Chicken is getting lauded, whatever the circumstances, because it's freaking scrumptious. No, what was new and neat and turned into gastronomic gold is what we did with the scraps.

After we polished off the chicken, we took a metal spatula and scraped all that amazing incredible goodness off the bottom of the roasting pan. I mean, seriously, we got in there and scooped up every last bit. What we ended up with was a ziplock bag of... goo. And if we're being honest, it wasn't much to look at. You know what pan scrapings look like, they're dark and sludgy and a little chunky; and I realize at this point I'm not doing a very good job of foreshadowing anything delicious, but bear with me...

I had assumed we'd end up using it for a sauce, maybe adding some booze to thin it or some flour to thicken it. We talked about making a tart out of it, or maybe just tossing some root vegetables in with a little water and making a hearty soup. Our (almost) final decision was to toss it with some pasta, something, ideally, like a rigatoni or a farfalle, whose shape and texture would best absorb and hold its ooey-gooey goodness. And then Julia took it one step further; what kind of pasta would do the absolute most absorbing? The answer was the pasta that is not a pasta at all: risotto.

We toasted the Arborio in a heavy pot for a few minutes, then added the goo and let it reduce a bit as the little grains of rice began to drink up the flavor-rich moisture. From then, we cooked it in typical risotto style; the water we used to hydrate and cook the rice had nothing more than a pinch of salt, a drizzle of oilve oil, and a parmesan rind. We stirred in some frozen peas, finished with some grated Reggiano, and dinner was served.

The flavor was even more concentrated than it had been on the chicken. At this point, the goo had been cooked down so long that it was simply bursting with hearty goodness. It was earthy, sweet, a little tangy, and had that juicy, sticky mouthfeel imparted from the chicken fat. Just so much flavor in every bite, it made me smile all the way to the last spoonful. Gotta love our new house favorite: Mom's Gooey Risotto.

*In retrospect, the one tiny thing I would have done differently is to have actually deglazed the pan, most likely with some white wine (though almost any wine would work). Also, this dish could be replicated (or improved upon) by using the scrapings from any roast dish. Ideally, you want some type of roast beast, as opposed to just a bunch of veggies, because the fat and gelatin from the meat or poultry is what will get into the goo to get it thick and velvety. However, if you must omit the meat, you could use a generous chunk of butter to help achieve the ideal texture and flavor (hell, throw the butter in even if there's meat!). Just roast your food as you normally would, and then once you pull out the main event, throw the roasting pan on a burner at high heat, wait for everything to start bubbling, then add your wine or booze (about a half a cup) to facilitate scraping the goodness off the pan. Sample booze generously.