Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Swiss Steak

Last weekend I gave myself an early birthday present and drove to a church parking lot in Tualatin to pick up my order of a split half of beef from Crooked Gate Ranch. They raise about 40 steer each year - their beef is raised exclusively on managed pasture and never goes to a feedlot.

So when I got home, I unpacked 3 boxes (approximately 100 pounds) of grass-fed beef. I piled stacks of white-wrapped frozen meat haphazardly on all of my kitchen counters and tried to get a handle on what I'd purchased. Of course, there was a ton of hamburger - but there was also numerous chuck roasts, short ribs, rib steaks, t-bones and even a tenderloin. There were also 4 large packages of round steak, which is a lean, beefy cut that needs to be braised for hours to get it even the slightest bit tender.

Round steak is underrated. It's actually one of my favorite cuts, because it's just so cheap and versatile. You can shred it, make chicken fried steak or beef jerky with it (which was actually the very first thing I did - I pulled out my smoker and made a batch of jerky!) But one of my favorite recipes for round steak I got from my dad several years ago. It's called Swiss Steak, and it's one of those recipes that you can find in pretty much any old cookbook - and each version is slightly different. I don't know where my dad got his recipe, but it's a good one.

Swiss Steak
2lbs round steak
1 tbsp bacon grease or canola oil

1/4 cup flour
2 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Coat all sides of the round steak with the flour mixture. Using a meat mallet, pound as much flour into the meat as it can hold. Heat fat in a dutch over or large pan. Brown all sides of the meat, and then add:

1/4 cup Worcestershire
1 cup beef stock or water
1 medium onion, sliced
1/4 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced

Cover meat and cook on low heat until tender - about 2 hours, depending on the thickness of the meat. Sometimes I add chopped tomato, sometimes not.

Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with garlic mashed potatoes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Frito Pie

Since I've lived my entire life in the Pacific Northwest, I hadn't heard of the gastronomic delight known as Frito Pie until a few years ago. And I admit, I was underwhelmed by the idea of putting chili on fritos and calling it a meal. But then earlier this year, I went to a work-related conference in Melbourne, Florida and discovered an amazing hot dog place called Mustard's Last Stand, and after eating my way through the menu (side note: macaroni salad and nacho cheese sauce on a hot dog is not as good as it sounds!) I eventually ordered their Frito Pie - and then I finally understood what Frito Pie was all about. Salty, spicy, crunchy, oozy deliciousness.

So last weekend Kevin and I went camping on the coast, and I was running out of food ideas. I love camping, but I'm not very good at coming up with camping menus. But Frito Pie filled saved the day. It's a perfect camping food.

I'm still not sold on the idea of Cincinnati Chili, though. That's a regional food that I still can't understand.

Frito Pie
3 cups of beef chili, preferably homemade
Half of an onion, diced
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
Bag of Fritos corn chips (must be Fritos!)
Sour cream

Pour hot chili on top of plate of Fritos. Top with cheese, onion and sour cream and eat like a king.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

New and improved, with pickles.

My blog has returned! The Blogosphere is heaving a collective sigh of relief right now, I'm sure. My house was robbed back in February, and my crappy digital camera was stolen. And I realize that food blogs without pictures of food are a complete waste of time, so I didn't bother posting anything. Also, I'm a lazy bum who didn't feel like typing for 6+ months. But now I have a new camera, I've had my afternoon nap, my fingers are limber, and all is right with the world - so I'm giving blogging another chance.

Ever summer for the past 4 years I try making pickles, with varying degrees of failure. The first couple of years I did fresh pack pickles, which turned out edible but each batch always seemed a little "off" to me. The pickles were too soft, or too sour, or overwhelmingly strong. Then last year my dad gave me (after a lengthy begging period) my grandfather's old pickling/beer making crock - an 8 gallon ceramic goliath that I fell in love with on sight.

So, this amazing acquisition is what led me to abandon the fresh-pack method and try brining pickles instead. After my 10 pounds of cucumbers were submerged in their salt and water bath for a couple of weeks, the crock started to smell awful. Every time I uncovered the crock, I felt like I was transported to an episode of CSI - one where they had just discovered a body that had spent 3 months decomposing in a drainage ditch. The pickles looked ok, but the fermenting/death smell was just too much - and I couldn't bring myself to take a bite of even a single pickle. After a long period of intentional neglect, the smell of fermentation turned to something akin to zombie BO and the cucumbers started to disintegrate in the brine. I dumped the crock into the trash and declared I would give up on brining foods forever (after an equally smelly attempt at making sauerkraut.)

Fast-forward to the present. Honestly, the whole failed stinky-pickle experiment had been nagging at me. I decided to try again, on a smaller scale. I'd also determined that part of my problem was I was letting the pickles sit in the bring for too long. So, I put 3 pounds of pickling cucumbers in a smaller crock and combined a few different recipes. After 5 days, I put the pickles in the fridge to stop the fermentation and voila! Delicious, crispy pickles! Adding a little vinegar at the start seems to speed up the process enough that the pickles never got stinky.
Homemade Kosher Pickles

3 lbs pickling cucumbers, washed with the blossom end removed.
1 gallon cold water
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup pickling salt
4-6 peeled garlic cloves
1/4 cup pickling spices
1 or 2 dried chiles or a pinch of chili flakes, depending on how spicy you like your pickles
2 Tb mustard seeds
Grape leaves (optional)

Put a layer of grape leaves in the bottom of a large glass jar or a ceramic crock. Add the cucumbers, spices and garlic cloves to the container. Combine water, salt and vinegar, stir until salt is dissolved and then pour over cucumbers until completely covered. Use a plate or zip lock bag filled with water to keep them submerged.

Let the pickles sit in a room between 65-75 degrees. Start sampling the pickles after day 3. As soon as the flavor seems "pickle-y" enough, put the pickles in a glass jar and cover with the strained brine (top it up with more white vinegar, if needed.) Refrigerate.

These should last months in the fridge.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Meditations on yeast

I love making bread. My love of kneading started when I was a preteen, helping my mother make cardamom bread at Xmas. Mom wasn't a big fan of spending her days off slaving over a meal in the kitchen, so she was more than happy to pawn the task of mixing and kneading the bread off to me. I used to worry that the packets of yeast that sat in the back of the cupboards had expired - a worthy concern considering my mother bought a 3 pack of instant yeast maybe every other year or so. I also spent an exorbitant amount of time fretting over the temperature of the water - was it too hot? Too cold? What if I killed off whatever yeast had managed to live for an entire year while smashed underneath a giant container of taco seasoning? And the proofing... how was I supposed to know when the dough had doubled in size? Should I eyeball it or follow the recommended time on the recipe? And so on.

Of course, I figured out after a while that yeast isn't as finicky as I initially thought, and now I buy my yeast in bulk and just store it in the freezer - I don't look at expiration dates. Making yeasted dough is no biggie. And over the years I've gotten more relaxed about proofing, and kneading and all that other bread lingo. But when I brought home a bread making book from a book sale with detailed instructions on how to make sourdough bread without using ANY packaged yeast, I was dubious. I felt that old self-doubt creeping back - there was no way I was going to be able to make bread only with flour, water and a pinch of salt. Impossible. It would never rise.

Basic sourdough starter (the modern liquid levain style starter - there are also heavier starters that were used by the French for a zillion years, but they are more labor intensive) is made like so: You take some water, mix it up with some all purpose flour and a little rye flour, let it sit for 8 hours, then you mix it again, and then wait another 8 hours and mix it again, then add more flour and water, and wait another 8 hours. You do this for anywhere between 4 and 10 days. And lo and behold, somewhere in this process, the wild yeasts that were previously dormant in the flour come to life, and one morning you walk into the kitchen to discover that your levain has doubled in size, smells like a ripe apple and is as sour as a lime. I would never have believed it was possible until it happened right before my eyes, after about 6 days.

One I had the starter ready, I made myself french baguettes. Since wild yeast rises slower, it requires several rises and an overnight stay in the fridge. But let me tell you, when I pulled the loaves out of the oven, I felt like I had performed a miracle in my very own kitchen. I mixed regular old flour and water together and somehow got beautiful, crusty loaves of fantastic sourdough bread!

It's amazing how far away Americans have gotten from their food that the basic, ancient process of bread-making is completely foreign to the vast majority of the population. If I were to poll 100 people right now, how many of them would know how to make bread without commercial yeast? Maybe 1 or 2?

Friday, October 19, 2007

la taqueria and a lemon crepe

I flew to San Fransisco last weekend for some much needed R&R. I would have gotten far more R&R had I not booked a hotel at the very top of Nob Hill, but at least I had a nice view of the city once I got over the wheezing caused by the near vertical climb to my hotel room.

Anyone who says that Portland has great food (I'm talking to you, Mr. New York Times) is mistaken. Portland has adequate food. Sure, we have a nice variety of restaurants, and yes, we have new restaurants opening up on every corner. There are some nice grocery stores, like New Seasons. But when I try to think of a food - any kind of food - that Portland does better than anywhere else, I'm left drawing a blank. And I haven't even traveled all that much, so all the amazing food I'm missing in places like New York or Chicago (let alone most of Europe and Asia) blows my mind.

And it's true, familiarity breeds contempt.

The best food of my trip was a plate of escargot from a little French restaurant across from my hotel, a place called Rue Lepic. The waiter was Chinese, the chef appeared to be Mexican, but the food was perfectly French. The restaurant decor was charming, as it had no attitude whatsoever and wasn't trying too hard, like most French restaurants I've been to. The escargot was served in a garlicky tomato sauce instead of the usual sizzling butter, and it was exactly perfect. No pictures, though.

However I did take a picture of my carne asada tacos from La Taqueria in the Mission District. Amazing!

I also stopped at a creperie in the Mission called Ti Couz and had a lemon & sugar crepe with Chantilly cream. It was the best crepe I have ever had.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

What is wrong with America today

Speaking of hicks and processed meat products, Kevin (who can't resist buying new and disturbing junk food) purchased this at Winco last week:

That's right, it's "Jeff Foxworthy's HAM JERKY." When beef jerky just isn't hitting the spot anymore, or if your beef allergies keep you from enjoying a chewy piece of jerky every now any then, you can rip open a big bag of ham-flavored dried meat product and tear right in.

Thank you, Jeff Foxworthy, for making sure that ham is no longer shut out from the jerky industry. You saw a niche market that wasn't being exploited to it's full extent, and you filled it. With dried, chemical-laden pork.

I wonder if Jeff Foxworthy and Dwight Yoakam are friends? Or maybe - deadly enemies?

Tomorrow I'm going apple (and pear) picking in Hood River. Whenever I think about picking apples, or any other kind of tree fruit, I get the Frost poem "After Apple Picking" stuck in my head and then I start thinking about extended metaphors and symbolism and how awesome Robert Frost was, and then I want to read the poem all the way through so I go start looking through my books, and then I find a bunch of interesting books I'd forgotten about, and pretty soon I can't remember what I started looking for in the first place. So, I haven't really thought out what I'm going to do with all my apples yet.

And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Little Pillows

I made potato gnocchi last weekend, and it was a very enjoyable experience.

I've never made gnocchi before, and after reading recipe after recipe warning of all the horrors that can occur in the gnocchi-making process (really either they end up too gummy if you add too much flour, or you don't add enough and they fall apart in the boiling water) I was worried I would screw something up. But in the end, they turned out quite nicely. I served them with a tomato-basil cream sauce, made with fresh tomatoes.

Instead of the typical gnocchi pattern made by pressing each dumpling against the tines of a fork, I went the lazy (or, I prefer calling it "rustic") route: I just made a little indentation with my thumb in each gnocchi, and when I was finished, it looked like a baking sheet cluttered with soft little doll pillows. So cute.