Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sweetbreads 3 Ways (Smoked, Grilled, & Pan Fried)

Cost per Person: $2.93

Net carbs: 4-5 g (from the carrots and black soybeans)

Sheesh, its been a while since I've posted here.  I've been hopping back and forth between the West Coast and Boston, and have been really bad about exercising (my exercise bike time is usually when I write up these blog posts.)  Since you've waited so long for the blog posts to start back off, I thought I would start out with something that is either awesome or horrifying depending on how culinarily adventurous you are: sweetbreads!  I'm really loving our ability to get more exotic (and often considered 'higher end') meats on a budget out in CA.

OK, the basics for the uninitiated: sweet breads are not bread.  Oh my no.  They are various delicious organs of the cow, typically the thymus and pancreas.  They have a velvety, slightly sweet taste with just a hint of minerality.  Its difficult to describe the texture and taste.  Definitely a much milder taste than liver, and the texture is also smoother and less chewy.  But the texture is more similar to liver than, say, to steak. Its kind of like if you mixed foie gras and a little bit of beef flavor and then somehow cooked it so it was a little firmer than foie gras normally is, but not as firm as beef liver.  Anyway, I am a huge fan.  If foie gras is goose butter and uni is sea butter, then sweetbreads are beef butter.

I was lucky enough to find a big old pack of sweetbreads at the local Mexican carniceria, on sale for $2.29/lb.  Apparently they are often grilled and eaten in tacos.  Way to go Mexican cuisine, you're doing it right.

Since I had an ungodly amount of sweetbreads, and most of them would need to be eaten at a single meal as they go bad very quickly, I decided immediately that I would try to cook them three different ways: pan-fried, grilled, and smoked.  That part was easy to figure out...picking vegetable accompaniments to each was a little tougher.  I had some spinach in the fridge that I'd bought for $0.49, and I remembered a delicious spinach salad my favorite wine bar used to make with bacon & smoked asparagus.  So I decided I'd make the same salad, but sauté the asparagus and get the smoky flavor from some smoked sweetbreads. For the pan-fried sweetbreads I thought a more traditional New England-y vegetable accompaniment might go well, and there were some carrots and radishes in the fridge that were on the bubble... so I decided to roast those up.  For the grilled sweetbreads, I wanted to stick with the Mexican theme, so I planned to chop them up and mix them with various fillings (beans, enchilada sauce, zucchini blossoms, chiles, etc.) and stuff some peppers with them.

So, let's start with the losing recipe.  The stuffed peppers had some flaws.  First of all, the filling I made was so flavorful that it overwhelmed the sweetbreads.  Also, we ended up just grilling them on the foreman grill, as our charcoal had gotten wet and we were too lazy/pressed for time to buy new.  So all the flavor that the grill would normally put on the sweetbreads was lost.  They ended up tasting like just another bland, soggy ingredient in a decent but not amazing stuffed pepper.  I think it would have all tasted a lot better if I'd just made a simple chile relleno stuffed with adobera cheese and grilled sweetbreads.  Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.

The runner up recipe was the pan-fried sweetbreads.  The roasted carrots & radishes were a big hit with Omeed (he really likes when veggies are roasted - especially how they get that dry and caramelized outside and then the inside is delicious and gooey.)  The pan-fried sweetbreads were pretty similar to how I've always had them cooked in restaurants... though they probably could have benefitted from either a higher frying temperature or some breadcrumbs/pork rind crumbs mixed in to the batter.  The outside breading wasn't as super crispy as I'd hoped, but I do tend to be a little bit shy about how long I leave things in the frying oil.

The clear winner, however, was the smoked sweetbread spinach salad.  To smoke the sweetbreads, I just threw them in our smoker for an hour at 275 degrees, with a cup of applewood chips in the hopper.  They reduced to about half their size and got a lovely dark brown color on the outside.  I chilled them for about 10 minutes in the freezer and then sliced them and put them on the salad, which was just spinach, sautéed asparagus, and crumbled bacon dressed with a basic balsamic vinaigrette.  There were some really good flavor and texture combinations going on there, especially the crunch of the bacon and asparagus with the silky smooth texture of the sweetbreads.  I really don't want to eat sweetbreads any other way now.

So, unfortunately, all this dining victory does come at a little bit of a price.  Sweetbreads are a bit of a bitch to prepare.  If you are up for the task, here's what you need to do *before* you get to the part where you're actually cooking those puppies:

  1. Remove the sweetbreads from their packaging, put in a bowl, cover with cold water, and let soak for 2-3 hours.  This will whiten them and help get some of the blood out.  If you notice any large blood vessels near the surface of the sweetbreads, it is a great idea to give them a little poke with the tip of a knife, this will make a small hole for any residual blood to get out through.
  2. Wash the sweetbreads off, toss the water, and repeat step 1.  Gotta make sure all the blood is out of those suckers!
  3. Wash the sweetbreads off, put them in a deep saucepan or stockpot, and cover with water.  Bring the water to a boil and boil the sweetbreads for 5 minutes.  This will help firm them up.
  4. Drain the sweetbreads and put them in the freezer for 10 minutes to cool them off.  Remove from freezer, and using a paring knife or poultry knife carefully remove as much of the tough outer membrane as you can.  The membrane is tricky and seems to be all over the place, so in the process you may end up dividing one big sweetbread into several smaller pieces.
  5. NOW you are ready to cook that sucker.
So, not a super intense preparation process, but definitely a long one.  And the membrane can be slightly annoying at first.  Just be patient and work at it slowly.  These are best made on a weekend when you have the time to be popping into the kitchen every few hours.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chicken Fried Steak | Roasted Radishes & Jerusalem Artichokes | Brussels Sprout Slaw

Cost per person: $3.49
Total net carbs: 6-8 g

This was not one of the cheapest dinners we've had, but for it being steak the price wasn't too bad! And our food purchases were under budget overall for the week, which means at some point soon we're going to have a dirt cheap dinner or two!

Like many of our dinners, this particular plate came together as the result of a few needy ingredients and a culinary idea I'd read about and wanted to try.

In this case, the needy ingredients were the jerusalem artichokes (they had been in the fridge for a couple weeks and were starting to look sad and tired) and the steak (which had a sell by date of the day before.)  The steak had come as two giant top sirloin slabs, and one I'd already used on steak tartare, so I had to cut one in half to make our individual steaks.  I was worried that the cut side wouldn't look quite right if just pan seared it.  So I decided to chicken fry it instead.  Its a simple process involving salting & peppering the meat, dredging it in flour, dipping it in egg, and dredging it in flour a second time.  Then the meat is pan fried on each side until the breading is golden.  It would have been even better with some gravy, but I was tired and didn't have it in me to put a third pot on the stove!

The jerusalem artichokes I simply peeled and boiled in water with salt and a little leftover white wine.  I paired them with the culinary experiment of the week: roasted radishes.  I have never been a fan of radishes.  I just don't get them.  Seriously.  I don't understand why anyone would eat them.  The only type of radish I have any type of appreciation for is pickled daikon, and even that is more tolerance than enthusiasm.  At the same time, I *want* to like radishes, because they are so darn cheap.  Radishes often sell for $0.50 a bunch, and this week they were on sale for $0.33 a bunch.  Somewhere, on one of my "what is the point of radishes" web searches, I came across a claim that roasting radishes turns them into something totally different, mellowing out the taste and taking away a lot of the peppery taste.  So I quartered some radishes, coated them in truffle oil and salt and thyme, and roasted them at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.  And wouldn't you know, they didn't even taste like radishes. I'm not sure exactly how to describe what they *did* taste like... I guess the closest thing would probably be al dente parsnips.  Basically they ended up tasting like a sweet, mildly firm root vegetable, which was just fine with me.  I love root vegetables.  Pretty exciting to now be able to eat radishes without being grossed out!  Also, they look quite pretty on the plate!

The brussels slaw I have covered on this blog in the past, but rest assured it was just as delicious this time (and the several other times I have made it since.)  As Omeed said: "I could live in this stuff."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Holy Food Deals, Batman!

Another "look what I bought!" photo - lots of pretty produce in this one.  I can't believe how low produce gets at some of the local stores.  I spent only $2 at Seafood City for a big bag of produce! Four broccoli crowns, two chinese eggplant, six baby bok choy, a bunch of green onions, and a bunch of radishes.  Crazy!  I think even the cashier was surprised when she rang me up.  All of the stores seemed to have some ridiculously good deal on produce - from 50-cent artichokes at Northgate, to $0.19/lb oranges and $0.19/bunch cilantro at Pancho Villa, to $1.27/lb asparagus and $0.99/lb brussels sprouts at Stumps (the discount grocer in the new neighborhood we're moving to).  I bought everything in the photo for only $40... Planning on spending the $28 'extra' on some treats!  Stumps has lamb shank for $3.99/lb and bur rata is only $2.99 there, so you can bet those are going on the list... other possible treats include heirloom tomatoes from Sprouts ($1.99/lb) and some of their 'mini' cheese wedges (perfect for a cheese plate!)

I love how healthy the whole table looks.  I like to compare each new shopping trip photo with our first 'budget grocery shopping' trip from back in 2011.  Our first efforts just look so sad by comparison!  The funny thing is that the photo above actually has about 5x as much meat as the photo on the right... but it looks like relatively little meat because of all the extra produce!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Smoked Chicken | Mole | Jicama Salad

Cost per Person: $1.34

Some of you regular readers may remember that about two years ago we bought an electric smoker, with elaborate plans to smoke our own cured meats and make our own bacon.  Well, for about a year and a half it sat in our basement unopened, as we got distracted by work and friends and life in general. Then when we moved, it made its way out onto the patio ... a promising step in the right direction.  I'm proud to report that a few weeks ago, the smoker was christened at my birthday/housewarming party with great success.  We're hoping to use it a great deal more often now that we know how it works and that using it is so easy.  It runs off of 120V AC, has an automatic thermostat and timer, and produces a nice amount of smoke.  Much better than the reviews had led me to believe. Best of all, with a little advance planning it is an excellent way to produce a very flavorful main course with a minimum of effort.

Case in point: these very well priced chicken drumsticks that I bought at Northgate Farmer's Market.  $3.37 bought me 14 drumsticks, of which more than half are currently chilling out in the freezer because, lets face it, who needs 14 drumsticks in one sitting?!  All it took to get these drumsticks into insanely delicious territory was a quick dry rub made of equal parts paprika, pepper, salt, and garlic powder, then 1 hour 10 minutes in a 275 degree smoker with 1 cup of applewood chips.  I didn't even use a mop (oil & vinegar mixture used to keep outside moist.)  I served the drumsticks on top of some store-bought mole that I'd improved with a little cream, butter, garlic powder, and some smoked salt.

Our side dish was a little bit of a treat - I'd found pea shoots at Seafood City for the incredible price of $1.99 for a giant container (usually we pay $3.99 for a container about half the size.)  So I made a tasty salad of jicama, red pepper, pea shoots, and avocado, tossed with an orange sesame dressing and a little bit of yuzu juice.  (Lime, yuzu, or other bitter citrus helps jicama taste a lot better.)  I think it I made this salad again, I'd try and have it be more along the lines of the polynesian crab stack that I used to make - mostly for presentation.  It just looks so damn impressive.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stuffed Roasted Calabash | Miso-glazed Eggplant | Heirloom Tomato Carpaccio

Cost per Serving: $2.53
Net Carbs per Serving: 6-7 g

This night of scrounging in the fridge turned out much better than expected.  I had some cheap calabash  (also known as upo or bottle gourd) in the fridge that I'd bought from Seafood City for a grand total of $0.18, and also some chinese eggplant that set me back about the same amount.  Both were nearing the end of their lifespan.  I'd read that calabash had a taste & texture somewhere in between cucumber and zucchini, so I decided to make a stuffed calabash dish with a little Asian flair.   But instead of cutting the calabash lengthwise, I cut it so that the stuffing 'vessel' would be a little tower filled with the stuffing mix.  I fried some tofu that I'd marinated in wine & miso, and added mushrooms, the calabash insides, red peppers, and some shirataki noodles that I'd simmered in chicken broth and fish sauce.  A little hot sauce and fish sauce, and I had a tasty stir fry on my hands!

The eggplant was incredibly easy to make - good time investment for the high taste value!  I just cut the eggplant lengthwise, brushed a little miso & mirin on the cut side, and baked them cut side up in a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes until the miso had caramelized and the eggplant was tender.

A thinly sliced heirloom tomato with pink salt and shaved onions rounded out the plate. (Like the calabash and eggplant, it was one of those "on the bubble" pieces of produce in my kitchen.)

Stuffed Calabash
Serves 2

1/2 lb tofu
1/2 cup white wine or sake
3 tbsp miso
1 large calabash/bottle gourd/upo
1 packet shirataki fettucine
4 tbsp fish sauce, separated
1 tbsp chicken bouillon
2 cups water
2 tbsp butter
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 red pepper, diced

A day or two before, mix the white wine & miso.  Cut the tofu in 1/2" slices and place in a tupperware just big enough to fit it.  Cover with wine/miso mixture and place in the fridge.  On the day of cooking, cut the upo in half and scoop out the insides (I used a melon baller), leaving 1/4" of flesh around the outsides and 1/2" on the bottom.  Dice the removed calabash flesh and set aside.  Drain the shirataki and boil with the water, chicken bouillon, and 2 tbsp fish sauce for about 15 minutes.  Drain and set aside.  Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Drain the tofu and chop into smaller pieces.  Fry in butter until they start to brown.  Add mushrooms, reserved calabash, and red pepper, and stir fry until softened.  Add the shirataki and stir fry an additional 5 minutes.  Place calabash shells on baking sheet and stuff with the tofu mixture.  Cover top with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.  Optional: sprinkle top with breadcrumbs and brown with a kitchen torch before serving.

Miso Marinated Chinese Eggplant
Serves 2

1 chinese eggplant, cut in half
2 tbsp miso
2 tbsp mirin

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the mirin and miso.  Spread evenly over the cut portion of each eggplant half.  Bake for 50 minutes or until eggplant is tender and miso has caramelized slightly. (Eggplant skin will turn brown.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Braised Pork Neckbones in Mole Sauce | Baby Bok Choy | Crema Con Sal

Cost per person: $1.16
Net carbs per serving: 10 g

We're not up for crazy amounts of cooking every night!  This night, for example, I was lazy - putting on some pork neck bones to braise and topping them with some store-bought mole and some steamed baby bok choy.  Some sesame seeds and a little crema con sal topped it all off for an easy and cheap meal.

I'd never cooked pork neck bones before - for some reason I thought they were mostly all bones and were useful only for making broths and stocks.  But when I saw them in the store it was pretty clear that they had a good enough amount of meat on them.  A little internet sleuthing and it became clear that they were supposed to be a very flavorful cut of pork, despite the slightly unattractive presentation and the annoyance of having to work to really clean all the meat off of the bones.  I braised a pound of neck bones in a mixture of apple cider vinegar, water, and a tiny bit of white wine - just simmered them on top of the stove for 3 hours.  The result was delicious falling-off-the-bone meat with a delicious flavor that was enhanced by the tang of the vinegar and the fruitiness of the wine.

I'd originally intended to make my own mole, but got lazy - so I went with the Dona Maria store-bought mole that I'd gotten the week before for $0.99.  It is a paste that you mix with water or broth to dilute - one jar makes 8 servings of mole sauce (and the servings are pretty large!) so its a pretty good deal.  A little high on net carbs vs. homemade mole (10 g net carbs vs. more like 5 or 6 for homemade), but a good option in a pinch!

Overall not the most creative or high end dinner we've had, but you have to have your 'down' days to balance out the haute cuisine ones!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ana Sortun's Braised Beef Shanks | Sunchoke Puree | Baby Bok Choy

                Cost per person   Net Carbs
Beef Shanks     $1.97             0.5 g
Sunchoke Puree  $1.33             7 g
Baby Bok Choy   $0.20             0 g

This week I had the good fortune to act on a friend's recommendation and check out "Seafood City", a Filipino supermarket chain a few miles from our house.  Good frickin idea.  Not only did they have incredibly affordable fish (whole leather jack for only $0.99/lb), but their meat and produce sections also yielded some surprising and unexpected bargains.  I found pork belly for $2.50/lb and cross cut beef shanks for $1.99/lb.  In produce, bean sprouts and mint were very cheap, and for some reason some very high quality looking baby bok choy was on sale for $0.50/lb.  What a bargain! I also picked up some extremely cheap shallots for $0.69 for a bag of about 15 (they cost $0.69 *each* at the supermarket across the street from us) and some Upo (bottle gourd squash) for $0.33/lb.  Definitely one to add in to the shopping mix.

I stopped by Sprouts to pick up some 'good' bacon (not the cheapest out there, but it is relatively affordable and thickly sliced and goes well with breakfast) and decided to nose around and see if there were any deals.  I found a small wedge of very tasty looking Camembert for use on a future cheese plate, and while browsing the produce aisle stumbled on a basket of sun chokes (Jerusalem artichokes). I love those damn things, and I have *never* been able to find them in a store - just on the menu at restaurants.  Its understandable because they aren't nearly as popular on the East Coast as the West Coast, but still... every time I go to the grocery store I look for them!  And every time, even in California, I have been disappointed until now.  They were $2.49/lb, which seemed perfectly reasonable, and I had the room in the budget.  Yay!

I roasted the sun chokes in the oven at 300 degrees for about 40 minutes and then pureed them with a little chicken stock, a fried shallot, and a touch of vinegar.  The puree was a little on the gritty side (I think I could have cooked them a little longer), but the flavor was good - fresh and a little nutty tasting.  One of those addictive flavors that you just want to eat more of.

The baby bok choy I cut in half lengthwise, then sealed in a ziploc bag and microwaved for 1 minute.  That was all it took.  It was so tasty I really didn't need to add anything but a little finishing sauce - there was plenty of sauce from the beef to dip it in.

I braised the beef shanks using the braising liquid from one of my favorite dishes - Ana Sortun's Short Ribs. Ana used to be the head chef at a restaurant in Harvard Square called Casablanca.  They still serve the short ribs there as "Ana's Short Ribs" even though Ana is long gone... rumor was that it was a condition of her leaving that she pass on the recipe. Of course now that she has a couple cookbooks out, the recipe is no longer as secret as it once was!  (I remember spending weeks in 2005/2006 testing out all different combinations trying to replicate her short ribs.)  Ana's short rib recipe made with beef shanks is, in my opinion, even better than the short ribs -- with the beef shanks you get an added bonus of delicious, rich little nuggets of bone marrow.  As seems to always be the case, I braised those shanks until they lost all structural integrity, but i was able to reassemble them on the plate to resemble their original state!  I really ought to consider using something to hold the shanks together... maybe bacon?  or trussing string?

I thought the whole dish went nicely together, though if I made it again there are a few improvements I think I'd make.  The beef paired well with both the baby bok choy (the braising liquid has a bit of an asian taste due to the soy sauce and star anise) and the sunchoke, but I think I could have prepared the jerusalem artichoke differently to mesh better with the overall dish.  I've been reading a lot from the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks this week and am thinking the slightly gritty texture of the sunchoke would work really well as a polenta.  Maybe with some garlic in it.  Mmmm.  At the very least it would give the dish a bit more flavor (from being fried like polenta) and color.  As it is, the sun choke puree does not look incredibly appealing.

Braised Beef Shanks

Serves 4-5

2 large onions, sliced

2 tbsp butter
2 lbs cross cut beef shanks
2 cups balsamic vinegar
2 cups white wine
1 cup soy sauce
2 star anise
2 tbsp black peppercorns
4 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup heat-stable sugar substitute (optional)

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.  Saute onions in butter until starting to brown.  Place beef shanks in stock pot and add onions and remaining ingredients.  Add water until shanks are covered with at least 1 inch of water.  Braised for at least 5 hours and up to 8 hours.  Check periodically and add water to replace any that has evaporated.  After braising, remove shanks to a separate container and add just enough braising liquid to cover them with 1/2" of liquid.  Put the remaining liquid in its own container. Refrigerate - a layer of fat will form on top of the liquid.  Remove this fat the next day.  Take the container with just liquid (it will have formed a gel) and reduce it by 1/2 at a rapid boil.  Allow to cool slightly, to start thickening, and serve this sauce with the shanks.  Reheat shanks by quickly cooking in a pan with a little oil, for a few minutes on each side until heated through.