Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pork for everyone

I enjoy a good pork chop. Especially breaded and baked. So much in fact, I make it about once every other week. Pork chops were the first savory food (along with macaroni and cheese) I ever attempted to cook all by myself. I say attempted because they didn't turn out so great (granted, I was 7). However, my troubles have been remedied and I think I've made pork chops over 50 times. I like the center cut chops the best because the bone does nothing except add cooking time. Unlike chicken breasts, pork chops do not need a bone to add flavor (it only helps when braising or grilling). I also like my chops about an inch thick, anything more and they are begging to be stuffed (some other time, I promise). If you do buy the 2 inch thick chops, slicing them in half (like making a layer cake) is a simple solution.

The common method of making pork chops is dipping them in an egg bath, which is usually 1 egg with salt and pepper whisked together, and then another dip in bread crumbs. Place in baking pan and bake for 45 minutes or so until they reach 160 degrees (lets call it 45 minutes), and eat.

This works pretty well, but there are a few glaring errors. First, pork is a different beast than it was when everyone got together to determine cooking temperatures (probably about 100 years ago). The fatty pork of old was prone to many different disease states, which required it to be cooked to 160. Pork is now leaner and resistant to most bugs. The main parasite in pork, trichinella, is eradicated at 145 degrees. Therefore, pork's cooking temperature can be lowered.

The second error is the breading. Plain old bread crumbs are gritty and bland, only suitable for deep frying or meatballs. For years my family has used crushed stuffing. Yes, crushed Pepperidge Farm stuffing is a great breading. It comes in big chunks, has lots of seasonings, and makes for a great crunchy coating.

So far so good. However, a few more problems have reared their ugly heads. After baking, the bottom is soggy and the chops lack an even, crispy exterior. And pork loves to dry out. Pretty much all the pork I cook now is brined, which makes a huge difference. Trust me, its easy, and you should brine any pork that is not going to be barbecued.

I consulted Cooks Magazine, which, if you are not getting this magazine, is totally worth it. They bake their pork on a rack, which prevents the soggy bottom. It also lets the pork cook faster, which prevents drying. So after playing around with the recipe, I have settled on the following:

Breaded Pork Chops

1/4 C salt
4 C water
2 pounds pork chops (probably 4 of them), about an inch thick

Dissolve salt in water. Trim all excess fat from pork, place in zip-top back, add water, and brine for 15-20 minutes. In the meantime, prepare breading and pan.

1/4 C flour + 6 T
3 egg whites
2 T Dijon mustard
1 1/2 C stuffing. slightly crushed

Prepare three pans, one with flour, one with the 1/4 cup flour, one with the egg whites and mustard, and one with the bread crumbs. Add the 6 T flour to the egg whites and whisk until slightly lumpy.
To prepare the baking pan, take cooling rack and lightly coat with non stick spray. Place on top of a baking sheet.

And now, it all comes together. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Remove the pork from the brine, rinse with fresh water, dry well and season with pepper (it's already plenty salty). Dredge one chop at a time in flour, shake off excess, dip in egg whites and then in breading. Make sure to press down for the breading to get even coating. Place on rack and repeat with other chops. Bake for about 15 minutes or until they reach 150 degrees internal temperature. Let cool for about 5 minutes and eat.

And there you go. The egg whites prevent sogginess (that was the yolk fat), and the mustard adds some tasty flavor. You can drizzle lemon juice over them if you wish, but I like mine as is.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Quick Chocolate Cake

Two years ago my girlfriend and I were playing cards at my mom's house. Between hands my mom gets up and tells us she is going to make "a quick chocolate cake". A little bit of skepticism crossed. And that is exactly what it was, because 10 minutes later there was a cake in the oven, and a short time after that we were enjoying warm, moist chocolaty goodness.

I have made this cake for years, and never once did I stop and consider that it took me less time to make this than to make, say, a batch of biscuits. It is pretty straight forward, and tastes better than most chocolate cakes that are put in front of me. Do yourself a favor though, and do not skimp on ingredients. You can use butter, margarine, or even Smart Balance, but do not use fat-free sour cream (low-fat is cool). Your cake will be slightly mushy.

This cake is great by itself, but even better with cream cheese frosting.

Quick Chocolate Cake (Red Devil's Food)

3/4 C butter
2 C sugar
2 eggs
1 C sour cream
2 1/2 C cake flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 C cocoa
1 C boiling water
1 tsp vanilla

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and beat until nice and fluffy. Add dry ingredients, followed by sour cream. Mix well, make sure to scrape out sides as some will stick. Add boiling water, mix slowly until incorporated, then mix well. Add vanilla last. Pour into a greased pan (I like Baker's Joy). Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes.

Some notes.
- Beat the sugar, butter and eggs well. But once you start adding everything else, be sure not to over mix. This will affect the moistness and tenderness of the cake.
- Add the vanilla last. This is not because the vanilla will curdle, it is because if you add the hot liquid after it will evaporate the vanilla's alcohol. This does not allow the alcohol soluble flavors to come out in the taste.
-This cake works well as a bundt, which allows more even cooking.
-Baking time will vary on your oven, but leave it alone if possible. Do not use a toothpick or open the oven often, it will cause the cake to fall. So how do you tell if it's done? If the cake is barely wobbly in the center. If it is completely firm it is over done, if it is gooey it needs a bit more time.

Cream Cheese Frosting

1/4 C butter
1 8oz. package cream cheese
2 tsp vanilla (or 1 tsp each vanilla and almond extract)
1/2 package of powdered sugar.

Let butter and cream cheese come to room temperature and soften. Beat in mixer until creamy. Add vanilla and powdered sugar. If it's too thick, add milk, if too thin, add more powdered sugar. If you don't think you have enough, add some milk and powdered sugar to increase the volume slightly.

One last thing. Great cake deserves milk. Always


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cast Iron or How I Learned to Love the Fond

I will be honest; I grew up with all non-stick cookware. I thought only the big restaurants and fancy chefs had anything else. I made my eggs, sauces, and cooked all of my meat in similar vessels, not knowing what I was missing. A while back I was watching a particularly good episode of Good Eats in which fried chicken was prepared. To my dismay, it was done in a cast iron skillet. Wait, I thought, aren't those only used outside on a ranch or as decoration? Obviously I had been pretty sheltered.

A few weeks later I decided to try out this cast iron, went down to my local store, and purchased a $15 model (Lodge has an impeccable reputation) that was about 14 inches in diameter. I went home, prepared my fried chicken, and somewhat disappointed with the result. The chicken stuck to the pan, there was a slight funky taste to my coating, and I was very unfamiliar with cooking time in something that holds heat so well. Nevertheless, I was determined to make something of this skillet and turned to the internet for answers.

Turns out I experienced the same result most first-timers experience with a cast iron skillet. It was not seasoned, which leads to food sticking and a less developed flavor. Seasoning a cast iron skillet refers to repeated use of the vessel, causing small deposits of oil and food particles sticking to the iron surface. Over time this can lead to a deeper flavor and a relatively non-stick surface. Cast iron was once the material of choice to cook stews, bread, and any frying due to its wonderful heat retention and even distribution. Skillets and pots were passed down generations thanks to their wonderful seasoning. However, with the advent of non-stick cookware and the home cook asking for quick, easy solutions, cast iron took a back seat to more convenient methods and with it, taste.

One of the main reasons cast iron can make things taste better is because of the fond. Fond is the browned bits of meat that stick to the bottom of the pan after cooking. With cast iron, this fond is partially left on the bottom of the pan, and further cooking can pull up deeper flavors from the pan. This can dramatically increase your flavor base of gravies, stews, and many other foods you can cook in cast iron. After all of my research, I found out a few key things that should be noted when using cast iron.

- Do not ever wash the pan with soap. Hot water is the only cleaning substance that should ever be used. If food bits stick the bottom of the pan, do not use an abrasive sponge. Instead, pour some salt (kosher preferably) over the spot and scrub at it with a paper towel. This will allow the salt to gently remove the food without scratching.

- Dry the pan as soon as possible. If not, rust will quickly set in and you will have to scrub it out before your next use. The best way to dry is to put the pan on the stove over low heat for about 5 minutes.

-Seasoning can take some time, do not get frustrated. If it seems your skillet is losing some of its seasoning, add 1/4 inch of oil to the bottom of the pan (preferably canola or vegetable) and put it in a 300 oven for an hour. Wipe out the excess oil. This will seal up the pores and reestablish the seasoned layer.

-You can cook almost anything in cast iron. Do not be afraid to try eggs (they will not stick after a while and will taste great), braised meats, and especially fried chicken. I now use my cast iron skillet to make sausage gravy thanks to the skillet imparting a wonderful browning of the meat.

Sausage Gravy

1 pound of original roll sausage
2 C Milk
salt, pepper, cayenne

Heat skillet over medium heat. Add sausage, brown and chop until a nice dark brown. Sprinkle flour over the sausage (about 5T) and stir until the flour absorbs most of the fat from the sausage. Cook this for about 2 minutes to allow the flour to hydrate. Add the milk, stirring often until the gravy has thickened. If it is too thick, add a bit more milk to thin it out. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Serve over biscuits, toast, or pretty much anything that deserves gravy.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Salsa- A journey to hot and back

Salsa has always been somewhat of a tradition with my family.

I remember eating dinner at a friend’s house when I was six; we were having tacos. They passed around a bottle of salsa and I happily applied it to my meal without a second thought. At the time my dad was a professional chef, and he did not think bottled salsa was the way for me to experience the best thing since ketchup. After all, we lived in Arizona where tortillas are made from scratch and a whole aisle of the supermarket is devoted to them. So he happily went about creating his own simple salsa. In Arizona salsa is much more common than ketchup, and why not? It has a deeper flavor and a greater versatility. Creating a homemade recipe allows for fresh flavors, and it's cheaper than buying a bottle. Contrary to what they put in the store brands to make salsa last, the fresh stuff will last up to a month (or longer in some cases) because it contains salt and no fat.

The recipe my dad developed needed very little in terms of enhancement. I have tinkered with the recipe over the years, and for a while I followed certain trends. I tried cucumber in my salsa (something found in Sonora salsas), applied chili powder (which I will never, ever add again to my salsa), and varied other ingredients. But I always came back to the original version. This salsa can be prepared in many different ways; it just depends on your taste preference and tolerance to heat. I prefer mine chunky, almost like pico de gallo, but my girlfriend prefers hers smooth from a blender.

Salsa (Base)

3 Green Onions
1-2 T Fresh Cilantro
4oz Canned Diced Green Chiles
15oz Canned Diced Tomatoes, preferably the ones with green chiles or jalapeños
3/4 t Ground Cumin
1/4 t Ground Cayenne Pepper
Salt, Pepper

That’s it, that’s the base of this salsa. Simple, yet splendid. Now comes the best part about this recipe, the ability to modify it any way you want.

Chunky- Dice onions and cilantro. Add to a bowl with tomatoes and chiles, stir, then season to taste with salt, pepper, cumin, and cayenne

Smooth- Roughly chop onions and cilantro, add to blender with other ingredients. Pulse until desired consistency (be careful, you are not making baby food here). If you want it extra smooth, add a small can of tomato sauce, but be aware you will need to adjust the seasonings.

In the Middle- Follow chunky directions and add one small can of tomato sauce.

Like it Hot? - Substitute one can diced jalapeños for the green chiles or add one fresh diced jalapeño.

Some last notes. Do not season by measuring, season to what you like. I like cumin, and I love cayenne, so I go over. Also, do not leave the cilantro out of this recipe. You will make hot chunky tomato sauce without it. Last, the salsa does well to sit in the refrigerator for about an hour before being eaten. This is not a necessity, but it does help.

This salsa is great on eggs, Mexican dishes, and in guacamole (more on that later). Also, try it on burgers, you may never reach for a bottle of the red stuff again.

EDIT: Changed a few passages and hopefully painted a better picture.


Up and Running

It took me a while. I had a blog, I talked about stuff that was pretty much only interesting to myself. What could I do to make people actually want to read what I write? Movie critic, sports, rambles, all of these came to mind. But they all lacked some interest. Why not write a blog about food? Most people enjoy my cooking, and most want my recipes or want to know how I did something. Plus, I am always looking for ways to improve my food. What a great idea! I think. Well, enjoy my blog, please leave comments about what you think or what you would like me to write about, and enjoy the food.


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