Monday, March 29, 2010

A meal fit for the Joads

I've been thinking, lately, about bacon. Thinking about it a lot. Or, I should say, somewhat more than is usual, since it's not exactly rare that I have bacon on the brain. Why the pork dreams, you ask? Well, I've been re-reading John Steinbeck's masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, a book that sits high atop the American literary canon, peering down and perhaps sneering just a little bit at all the books stacked up below--and deservedly so. I think I first read the book in seventh grade, and it certainly made an impression on me at the time. I don't think, however, that as a child I could truly understand and empathize with the crushing plight of its central family, the Joads, nor could I really appreciate the flawlessness and innovation of Steinbeck's prose. In short, I'm glad I made the decision to pick up the book again (and you should, too!)

But I'm getting off track--let's get back to the bacon. You see, in The Grapes of Wrath, the rise and fall of the Joads' fortunes can be reliably tracked by one thing: whether or not they have "side meat" sputtering away on the stove. In one of the early scenes of the book, when prodigal son Tom returns home from prison, he finds Ma in the kitchen in a classic scene of domestic tranquility, removing "high brown biscuits" from the oven and "curling slices of pork" from the pan. The book, here, carefully constructs for us a whole, complete picture of family life that is about to be torn down, shattered, trampled and spat upon by the powers that be, or Big Business. The bacon is just one of the things that assure the Joads they are safe, at home, together. But it's a persistent image. All throughout the rest of the book, Ma, Pa, Tom and Al all bring up side meat--repeatedly. As soon as they've got some coins in their pockets or even some credit at the rapacious company stores--they're spending it on side meat. When they're all out, things are bad. But when there's some bacon frying in the pan, it's a small victory; the sound and smell of the crackling pork, and the nourishment it brings, reminding them that they are still human, that they're still a family unit.

Now, bacon doesn't hold the same resonance for me, but it sure is darn delicious. And the Joads' constant yearning for it definitely got me hungry. That's when I put down my book, put on my coat, and strolled down the street to Jubilat Provisions, a Polish-owned meat shop that bursts at the seams with a seemingly endless variety of house-made kielbasa and other sausages, as well as various types of pat├ęs, smoked and cured meats, fresh Polish baked goods and jars and cans of imported delicacies of every stripe (it's one of my favorite food stores ever. Do yourself a favor and check it out the next time you're having a BBQ). And one of the best items in the house is the thick-cut, double-smoked bacon. I picked up a little less than a pound, using it first in an Austrian potato strudel that my friend Patricia and I brought to a potluck over the weekend, then, of course, crisped up in a pan for breakfast, and when I still had some left over, I thought of the Joads. Although they're not southerners, they eat (when they can manage to) what I think of as soul food: biscuits. Pie. Warming stews. Lots of things fried up in grease in a cast-iron pan. As it happened, my mom had made Southern-Style Barbecued Pulled Pork, and had given me some of the leftovers. So I had that component down. There's not much that goes better with pulled pork than good old fashioned collards do, and that's when I figured out how to use up my bacon. Finally, I wanted something sweet and starchy, but less heavy than cornbread, something that would fry up nice in my iron pan: I found a recipe for a type of corn griddle cake and worked from there. The resulting meal that I sat down to was warm and comforting, with sweet, soft meat; melting, smokey greens; and crisp, nutty, savory corn cakes. This plate's for you, Joads.



















Traditional Southern Collard Greens
Serves 4

Ingredients:

2 large bunches collard greens, washed, with tough stems removed
4 slices of bacon, cut into a small dice
Half an onion, sliced very thinly
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Salt
Pepper

Preparation:

1. In a deep, heavy-bottomed, medium-sized pot, heat the bacon over a medium flame until it starts to sizzle and render its fat, about 3 - 4 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is tender and translucent.
2. Take several leaves of greens, roll them into a tight bundle, and slice them into long ribbons of medium thickness, adding them to the pot and stirring as you go. Repeat, in batches, with remaining greens. Season greens with salt and pepper, add about 1/2 cup water, and cover the pot. Drop the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary, until greens are very soft but not mushy, about 35 - 40 minutes.
3. When greens are done, shut off the heat and add the apple cider vinegar. Taste for seasoning and serve.


Corn Griddle Cakes
Adapted from epicurious.com
Makes 12 - 15 cakes

Ingredients:

1 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for brushing the griddle
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk (or sour 1 cup milk with 1 tsp. white vinegar or lemon juice)
1 cup thawed frozen corn kernels

Preparation:

1. In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, pepper, and sugar).
2. In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and melted butter.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, stirring to combine (don't worry about a few lumps). Stir in the corn kernels.
4. Drop the batter into a buttered cast-iron skillet set over medium heat, dropping about 1/4 cup batter at a time. Cakes will be about 3 - 4 inches across. Cook until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining batter.

*Note: these cakes can be eaten savory or sweet. They were delicious with my Southern dinner and equally so the next morning reheated with additional butter and drizzled with maple syrup.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Simple but good

When people are first getting to know me, they discover pretty quickly that I'm obsessed with really into food, and they invariably ask me this question: "So what's your favorite thing to cook?" I never know quite how to respond to this, because I really, truly, don't play favorites with my food. What I enjoy about cooking is the creativity and invention at work in it; the sense of freedom that I feel in choosing ingredients that I think might go well together and then attempting to unify them, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, with the flavors and cooking techniques that I surmise will do the most justice to those ingredients. What I'm trying to say is that 99% of the time when I'm cooking, I'm just winging it: not following recipes and rarely making the same dish on a regular basis, because what I love most about the process of cooking is how it's new every time.

Since that's a pretty long answer, what I usually say goes something like this: "Well, I like to cook lots of different things, but what I like best is simple food." And it's true. Though there are exceptions to the rule, you'll notice that most of the recipes I share on this blog are very intuitive, with few steps: the kind of food that even people with little cooking experience could make easily. For me, it's a kind of bang-for-your-buck thing: with the type of food I make, a relatively small amount of planning and labor can often yield an extremely satisfying result. I try not to get too touchy-feely about the process of cooking when writing on this blog, but the truth is that sometimes it seems almost magical, like some sort of alchemy: putting in but salt and heat and time, and then sitting down to something that is truly complex, with layers of flavor and shades of richness.

The following recipe definitely fits that description. The ingredients are as follows: chicken, soy sauce, brown sugar, star anise and lime. Count 'em: 5. I just made it up one night when I had some chicken thighs to use up (as I often do), and a craving for Asian flavors (as I often do). It won't deplete your pantry, and it'll take about 15 minutes from start to finish: it's simple, but it's good.



















Soy-Braised Chicken Thighs with Star Anise and Brown Sugar
Serves 1

Ingredients:

2 chicken thighs
Salt
Pepper
Vegetable oil
Dark soy sauce
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 star anise pods
Water
Half a lime

Preparation:

1. Generously salt and pepper both sides of the chicken thighs and sear them in a wide, heavy pan set over high heat until well browned on both sides, about 6 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
2. Drop the heat under the pan to medium. Add about 1/2 a cup of water to the pan and stir to deglaze. Add about 2 tbsp. soy sauce, the brown sugar and the star anise; stir to dissolve the brown sugar, then drop the heat so that the mixture bubbles slowly. Add the chicken, cover, and cook until chicken is tender, about 12 minutes.
3. Remove the lid and allow sauce to evaporate until it is quite thick and coats the chicken in a sort of glaze. Taste for seasoning. Eat the chicken over noodles or rice, squeezing the juice of the lime over it before you do.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tofu for carnivores

I love tofu: firm or silken, smoked or not, freshly made or prepackaged, I'll happily take them all. I also love meat. I happen to really, really like tofu and meat together, as in, in the same dish.

If this pairing seems incongruous to you, then you've probably missed out on many of the best dishes that Asian, particularly Chinese, cuisines have to offer. You see, in America tofu has acquired a pretty poor reputation for being the wan, tasteless, colorless and textureless ingredient that people sub in for meat, resulting in such unfortunate products as Tofurky, Boca Burgers, and the like. You can't taste the tofu in these things at all; it's covered up, hidden away behind a thick veil of salt, herbs and spices.

Asian cooking takes a different stance on tofu. It's a revered ingredient, one whose smooth texture and clean flavor is as at home nestled in among a medley of vegetables as it is sitting shoulder to shoulder with, say, some pork...shoulder. Rather than attempting to substitute tofu for meat, Asian recipes oftentimes place the two together--a sort of yin and yang, if you will forgive the terrible, terrible pun, a harmonious, balanced relationship that allows both ingredients to shine. Some of Asia's most famous dishes--such as Chinese mapo dofu, Korean kimchi jjigae, Filipino tokwa't baboy, and Thai pad thai--all call for both meat and tofu. All are delicious.

It was from Asia that I took my cue last night when I decided I wanted to have a light, flavorful and balanced soup for dinner. I had made some Chinese-style chicken earlier in the week, and as a result I had a whole potful of chicken broth flavored with ginger, scallion and Szechuan peppercorns leftover. To give my soup a sort of Thai inflection--bearing tom yum soup in mind--I heated up the broth with some crushed lemongrass, poaching some additional chicken thighs at the same time. When the chicken was cooked through, I shredded it and added it back to the broth, along with some sliced shiitake mushrooms, some diced drained tofu, and some soba noodles. When the noodles were just cooked, I added dashes of dark soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar to taste and topped off my bowl with some thinly sliced scallion. Utilizing Chinese broth, Thai herbs and Japanese mushrooms and noodles, this soup was definitely all over the map. But the one thing about it that I think all those various nations could appreciate is its perfect union of meat and soy.



















Asian Soba Noodle Soup with Chicken and Tofu
Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, if possible flavored with aromatics such as ginger, scallion and garlic
1 stalk fresh lemongrass
1/2 a block extra-firm tofu, or use smoked tofu
2 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin removed
8 - 10 shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 generous handful Japanese soba noodles
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Dark soy sauce
Sesame oil
Rice wine vinegar
Salt

Preparation:

1. Drain the tofu: cut the half block of tofu in half again, this time lengthwise. Place the two pieces on a deep plate lined with paper towels, then put a heavy plate on top. Weight it down; I used a large can of tomatoes. Place in fridge and allow to drain for at least a half an hour.
2. Heat the chicken broth. Add a length of lemongrass that you have crushed with the back of a knife. Add the chicken thighs. Bring the broth to a gentle simmer and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and let cool in fridge.
3. When chicken is cool, shred it with your fingers and place the meat back in the pot. Remove the tofu from the fridge and cut it into small, evenly sized cubes. Add them to the pot. Add the sliced mushrooms and bring the soup back to a simmer.
4. When soup is simmering, add the soba noodles. Cook until they are al dente, about 6 - 7 minutes. Discard lemongrass. Add dashes of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar to taste. Salt to taste and garnish soup with sliced scallions.