Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fry Poke Chops

O.K., time for some 'poke' chops. I sure do love me some 'poke''s versatile, it's (relatively) cheap, it can be lean, it can be fatty, and perhaps most importantly, it's tasty. This night we cooked some bone-in center cut chops, also known as top loin chops, or strip chops. Eventually they will be pan-fried and topped with a dollop of sour cream and pineapple chutney, alongside braised red cabbage and mutsu apples, wild rice, and a simple spinach salad. First we talk about some of the sides...

I started with the cabbage. This is a classic accompaniment to pork, and something that my family (being of Danish heritage) always serves for Christmas-eve dinner. Thinly sliced cabbage, diced red onion, and peeled and diced mutsu apples braise in apple cider vinegar, sugar, and spice. I kept it pretty simple spice-wise, just a little salt, pepper, and a pinch of coriander. Let simmer, covered, for 1 hour. You may want to adjust sugar seasoning to taste if it's too sour. Once the cabbage was in the pot and simmering, I got some rice going. I love wild rice, and the black japonica rice blend from Lundberg is my one of my favorites. Diced onion sautees in butter, add 1 cup of rice, stir to coat, add 2 cups of broth, bring to a boil, cover and turn heat down and simmer for 45 minutes.

Then I started on my chutney. This photo here is of the first round of chutney, that I ruined. I had a ripe pear and had peeled and chopped. After adding some red onion and other spices, I grabbed a jar of ground dry ginger to tap in a little sprinkle.....oops. There was no plastic shaker lid on it. Tap in a little sprinkle turned in to pour in a huge scoop. I tried to save it. Alas, it was the pear chutney's time to go. Damn. Oh well, think quick, what other fruit do you have lying around that would be happy on pork? Not much the freezer door and, shizam! Frozen pineapple chunks:

I will make a pineapple chutney. O.K. So, hindsight being 20-20, I poked (apropos, seeing the drawled swine title of this blog) around I found that I did have some fresh ginger. So that got minced, red onion diced, into a hot pan, a dash of spice (salt, pepper, cumin), pineapple joins the party, a splash of lime juice, a liberal sprinkle of sugar (me and my liberal sprinkles tonight!), and leave to simmer. Since the chunks couldn't easily be chopped when frozen, once everything had heated though and cooked down a bit, I emptied the contents on to my cutting board and chopped it up with my trusty cleaver. Then back into the pan to stay warm.

Now, on to the pork. These chops were to get a breading treatment, and I had recently seen Sunny Anderson bread up some poke chops on her show Cooking For Real. Sunny said her secret was cornstarch. 1 cup of all-purpose flour + 1/2 cup of cornstarch = crispy. I gave it a try, and they were fantastic! I just pan-fried mine in a little canola oil instead of deep-frying them in shortening but they still formed a great crust. Another little trick was adding some hot sauce to my egg wash (before dredging). I have heard elsewhere, too, that it is best to have your seasoning underneath your breading, so your spices don't burn. Cook on med-high for about 4 or 5 minutes per side, or until the internal temperature reaches 140-145° F.*

*A note on cooking pork safely: the risk of trichinosis is nearly nonexistent in the U.S. nowadays, and even if the trichina parasite is present, it is killed when the temperature of meat reaches 137° F. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Pork Board (have to) recommend cooking pork to a final internal temperature of 160°, but given the leanness of today's pork, such recommendations result in dry, tough meat. The folks in Cook's Illustrated test kitchens find that cooking pork beyond 150° is a waste of time and money, and cook thinner cuts of pork such as chops to a slightly rosy 140-145°. If you are paranoid about salmonella contamination, you must cook (any type of) meat (including beef!) to 160° to ensure that all pathogens are eliminated. (from Cook's Illustrated, The Best New Recipe Cookbook)

So, when my digital thermometer registered 140°, I threw them poke chops on the plate! Dropped a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of chutney over the top, plated up my sides and garnished the plate with some fresh chives, and sat down with my gal for a lovely meal.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The wine of the bean. Bunna...Qahweh...Coffee.

Not sure what other culinary product is more interesting than before I get in to my own personal affair with coffee, let's discover some of the intriguing history surrounding the plant(s) of the Coffea genus.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word coffee comes to us (1598) from Turkish kahveh, from Arabic qahwah "coffee," said originally to have meant "wine," but perhaps rather from Kaffa region of Ethiopia, a home of the plant (coffee in Kaffa is called buno). I'm partial to the apparently less-likely etymology, from a truncation of the Arabic qahwat al-būnn, meaning "wine of the bean." Ooohhh. Sexy. I think I'm even going take it one step further and call it qahwat al-būnn min Kaffa, wine of the bean from Kaffa (not sure if that's how you would really say it...I've only gotten to Lesson 2 in my Living Language Arabic Coursebook).

I also prefer the apparently less-likely story of the origin of coffee: Kaldi, the 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder (or was he really a prince??? ...nod to Akeem Joffer) who discovered coffee by chewing on the red beans of Coffea arabica after noticing the gleeful dancing of his goats after they had done the same. In my mind, this is how coffee came to be, but the more credible story is perhaps even more beautiful. Sufis were probably the first coffee drinkers, using it as a stimulus to stay awake during late night Dhikr (remembrance of God). Each Sufi order or lineage within an order has one or more forms for group dhikr, the liturgy of which may include recitation, singing, instrumental music, dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance. (Touma 1996, p.162). No alcohol allowed? No problemo! Power a pot of coffee or three and spin around for a while like the Mevlevi....

(photo by Elainne Dickinson)
O.K., enough history (although there is so much more to be said), let's move on to the harvest and roast. The two most cultivated species are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Arabica is considered to be the better bean, with more flavor and acidity than robusta (Coffea canephora). As you might suspect, Arabica counts for about 3/4 of worldwide cultivation.

The best (and most expensive) coffee results from manually, individually picked fruits because it provides uniformity to the coffee crop and does not allow leaves, twigs or other litters to interfere with coffee fruits. Usually you find twin-seeds in each coffee fruit but about 5% of coffee cherries (so the fruits are called) produce one, round, coffee seed. Those specimens are sold separately on the market as peaberry coffee. (
(photo by Jake Liefer)

After the harvest, the seeds (beans) must be cleaned of the fruit remains. This can be done in one of three ways: dry, wet, or semi-dry. Instead of explaining the details of each possible step in the coffee production process, I will direct any of those interested to peruse a thoroughly written wiki page on the subject. I will give you a brief overview simply for the wow factor. From the plant to the cup, beans are:
  1. picked
  2. wet-milled (to remove the flesh of the fruit)
  3. hulled (to remove any excess mucilage or parchment)
  4. polished
  5. cleaned
  6. sorted
  7. graded
  8. (potentially) aged*
  9. roasted
  10. ground
  11. brewed
*This aging business deserves some attention, and I will share with you the story of how I was first hipped to it. I was working at Cafe Mare, and on one of my days off, I popped in to say hello after having just purchased some beautiful coffee beans from a local roaster. The beans smelled rich, were dark black and very oily. The legendary Jean-Pierre (Calabrese, but born and raised in Alsace...hence the franquish name) took a grimacing look at my oily little coffee seeds and said "no good, man." He explained further that "It's going to be bitter. Eventually, you want to dry the beans before you roast them, so the oils come out and you get a sweet coffee. That's how we do it in Italy." Damn Italians, everything they do is good. So, I said enough history but here's a little bit more with respect to how "aging" came about:

All coffee, when it was introduced in Europe, came from the port of Mocha in what is now modern day Yemen. To import the beans to Europe the coffee was on boats for a long sea voyage around the Horn of Africa. This long journey and the exposure to the sea air changed the coffee's flavor. Once the Suez Canal was opened the travel time to Europe was greatly reduced and coffee whose flavor had not changed due to a long sea voyage began arriving. To some degree, this fresher coffee was rejected because Europeans had developed a taste for the changes that were brought on by the long sea voyage. To meet this desire, some coffee was aged in large open-sided warehouses at port for six or more months in an attempt to simulate the effects of a long sea voyage before it was shipped to Europe.

Although it is still widely debated, certain types of green coffee are believed to improve with age; especially those that are valued for their low acidity, such as coffees from Indonesia or India. Several of these coffee producers sell coffee beans that have been aged for as long as 3 years, with some as long as 8 years. However, most coffee experts agree that a green coffee peaks in flavor and freshness within one year of harvest, because over-aged coffee beans will lose much of their essential oil content.

So, just like Madeira and India Pale Ale, the glory of aged coffee was discovered serendipitously. I love when that happens.

(photo by Jeff Kubina)
Additionally, aged coffee requires a longer rest after the roasting stage to fully even out. Aged coffee tends to taste best at a dark roast, as this helps to accentuate the body. While aged coffee tends to be of high quality, you rarely ever see aged coffee in anything else but a blend. This is because even the best aged coffee has a taste that some feel is acquired. However, when aged coffee is used in a light bodied blend, it is highly effective. This is because the presence of aged coffee beans can add body without adding undue acidity. (

Man, this is a long ass post!!! We're not even to the roast!! At any rate, once the beans are roasted, they should be ground and brewed as soon as possible. It's not always easy if even possible to know when your beans are ground, are lucky enough to live in Oakland or San Francisco, where you can get beans from Blue Bottle Coffee Company. The founder's vow is: "I will only sell coffee less than 48 hours out of the roaster to my customers, so they may enjoy coffee at its peak of flavor. I will only use the finest organic, and pesticide-free, shade-grown beans. If they can't come to me, I will drive to their house to give them the freshest coffee they have ever tasted." The last time Lissa and I went to the city, we grabbed a cup at the at Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building. While I was patiently waiting for my perfectly pulled espresso, I lamented to the barista, "I wish there were a Blue Bottle in Santa Cruz." He said to me, "Well, why don't you go to Verve, their coffee is awesome."

Errrrrrrrp (record scratching). Verve?? Dank microroasters on the east side of the Cruz, what???? Yup, and their beans are the bomb. Turns out that there are killer microrasters popping up all over the place. Hopefully there's one near you already, or one coming soon. You can see on the top of the label, the roasting date. In a perfect world, I would have a beautiful little manual burr grinder to freshly grind my beans each time I brewed a cup 'o' joe. Alas, I do not have a fabu burr grinder, but it's all good. We keep our ground beans in a ceramic canister with a locking lid, and go through a pound in a week. Now, on to the brew...

We use a melitta cone and (unbleached) paper filter to make our drip coffee. Here's some tips on how to brew the best cup if you use a cone filter also: let the water cool for about a minute once the water boils (water should be 198° F), pour some water through the empty filter to get rid of any papery taste and to warm the cup, use 3-5 tablespoons of ground coffee (soft but still gritty) for every 8 oz. of water, pour the water over the grounds to let them expand, then as you are pouring the rest of the water, gently but steadily stir the grounds. Now, finally, the culmination of tremendous amounts of time, energy, and (hopefully) love, you have before you in a ceramic cup, qahwat al-būnn min Kaffa, the wine of the bean from Kaffa. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Roasted Chile Chili

We kept hearing about this heat wave that was supposed to hit Santa Cruz. Instead, over the weekend the fog rolled in (heavy) and it definitely felt like fall...cold fall. So, when it's chilly, make some chili! Now, chili is one of those dishes, like barbecue, that it highly disputed in origin and preparation. gives us a bit of background on the some of the potential origins:
Some people say that chili was invented in Mexico during the 1800s, some will tell you that its origin is in Tijuana, Baja California, or Ciudad Jurez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The Mexican theory is that it was created to be served in cantinas, for outsiders, who wanted a spicy "Mexican" dish to eat, that was free or cheap. Original chili was made with leftovers from the meals and served for free to drinking customers. The chili recipes that originated in America were in wide use in pre-Columbian Mexican culture. Any stew made using significant amounts of chilies might be seen as a forerunner of all modern chili recipes.
There you have it. Now, I'm not going to go in to all of the hoopla surrounding recipe and preparation contention but I will say this: I used beans. Sorry Texas. My first inspiration was to roast some chiles. I love to roast chiles (or eggplants, or tomatoes, or whatever else you may want to roast and peel) right on the burner. You simply let them char all over, including top and bottom...the blacker the better. Then you want to let them sweat a bit, so toss them in a paper bag and fold it closed. After 5-10 minutes pull them out and the skins should slide off easily.

Once peeled, chop up your peppers and set them aside. Oh, by the way, I used one red bell, two poblanos and a jalapeño . The rest of the ingredients are pretty straight-forward: onion, garlic, ground beef, diced tomato, tomato paste, kidney and black beans, spices (salt, pepper, chili powder [which contains chile pepper, onion, garlic, cocoa powder, oregano, red pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves], cumin, and smoked paprika). If I had a slow cooker or a dutch oven I would have used that (I really need to get a nice cast-iron dutch oven). Alas, all I own at the moment is a big soup pot with a pretty thin bottom, which spells b-u-r-n. So really low heat and lots of stirring is what is needed to not end up with a blackened mess and a scorched-tasting chili. As I was looking for some chili tips in my beloved Cook's Illustrated New Best Recipe Cookbook, I read about a nice trick to keep things from simmering too briskly and prevent burning...a homemade flame tamer! Although store-bought flame tamers are inexpensive, if you don't happen to have one on hand, you can fashion one out of aluminum foil. Just take a long sheet of foil and shape it into a 1-inch thick ring that will fit on your burner. I happened to be out of foil (foiled again!), so I just stacked one of my iron burner grills on top of the other, like so:Time to build the chili...heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil, then add your diced onion and cook until translucent. Then add garlic, cook until fragrant. Add ground beef, breaking up with a wooden spatula, and cook until browned. Next I added my spices. (Some recipes will tell you to add spices later, but I paid them no heed). A splash of red wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, and beans join the party, bring to a boil, then turn down to the simmery-est of a simmer for an hour or so. I am always this precise. That's just about it. No cornbread tonight, though that's always a great side. I served a big green salad and some Rosenblum Syrah, which stood up to my roasted chile chili quite well. A dollop of sour cream, some diced avocado, and you're good to go. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Crispy Pan-Seared Salmon with Tartar Sauce

Growing up in Northern California you get the chance to eat plenty of Salmon. If it's cooked properly, it can be amazingly rich, succulent and delicious. I have, however, had plenty of Salmon that has been overcooked or under seasoned. Salmon doesn't need much, because it is such a flavorful fish. Salmon is high in protein, high in Omega-3 fatty acids and high in vitamin D. Usually salt, pepper and lemon is all Salmon needs to be happy. You can barbecue it, broil it, poach it, steam it...this night I decided to pan-sear it, and I was inspired to do so after watching an episode of Tyler's Ultimate cooking show on Food Network. Now I must briefly just state that there are cooking shows that I really enjoy, there are shows that I tolerate, and there are shows that I despise. Tyler's Ultimate is a show that I tolerate. Nuff said. Having confessed my slight annoyance with Mr. Florence, I confess, he did hand out a nice recipe for crispy salmon.

Now there are people who love food, and then there are people who LOVE food. With fresh salmon fillets, you should eat it med-rare, and you should eat the skin. I'm sorry to should on you, but I must. Eat it. Love it.

So the big tip from's pretty simple really. Tip number one: salt and pepper the fillets like normal, but let them sit a couple minutes, this will help the skin crisp up. Tip number two: butter the skin side for more crispage. Then heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over med-high heat and pan-fry the fillets for six minutes. Flip it over and continue to cook for another minute or two and you're done-zo. I made a quick tartar sauce with minced capers and pickled onions, chopped cilantro, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. I had prepared a...I don't care, I'm going to call it a succotash...of eggplant, onion and cherry tomatoes. For a raw green side, I served a simple green salad with chickpeas and cucumber in a honey-mustard sauce. Let's talk about the salmon, though. The meat was tender and moist, and the skin was super crisp. Simple. Awesome.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Peaches Flambé

One of my favorite childhood memories is making bananas flambé with my dad. Sliced bananas, raisins, brown sugar, Grand Marnier, and, of course, fire! Poured over a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream, it was definitely a treat. Every once in a while we would make peaches flambé, too. I'm pretty sure that bottle of Grand Marnier lasted for at least seven years.

Well, Lissa brought home some peaches and vanilla ice cream, and though I didn't have any Grand Marnier, I did have some Amaretto. Peaches and almonds are wonderful together. I was quite excited.

First the peaches got a quick dunk in boiling water so the skins would slide off easily. Then I diced them up and tossed them in to a hot saute pan with a tablespoon of butter. Once the peaches soften up a bit and release some of their juices, I turn the heat down to medium and add in some brown sugar. These peaches were pretty ripe (and sweet) so I didn't want to use too much sugar, especially since they would eventually end up over ice cream. If they weren't completely ripe, I would have added a bit more azúcar.

The sugar will start to caramelize, I turn the heat back up to high and (carefully) pour in the Amaretto. If you are cooking with gas, tilt the pan so the flame will ignite the alcohol, otherwise use a match or lighter to get your flambé on. Let it reduce down and thicken up a bit, and you're done! You can spoon it over your ice cream (or in this case gelato, Talenti Tahitian Vanilla Bean Gelato to be specific) right away or let it cool for a couple of minutes so it doesn't melt your frozen cream so much. That's it. It is such an easy way to spruce up vanilla ice cream, and you can do it with just about any fruit and any liquor or liqueur. I have tried lots of different combos...apples and brandy, mangoes and tequila, strawberries and midori....go crazy. There's no reason to stop at fruit, liquor, sugar and butter, either. Add some spices, some herbs, use two fruits, or two liquors, or any number of the bajillion different ice cream flavors that are out there...toss on some chopped nuts!....The possibilities are endless. I love consulting my flavor bible for inspiring combinations, if you haven't checked that book out yet, do so. Happy flambé-ing everyone!

Oh yeah, thanks dad ;^)

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Tonight, we decided against going to the store to buy ingredients for dinner. Lissa challenged me to use what we had in the fridge and the pantry to create a culinary delight. The result? If I do say so myself, it was delightful indeed. In the pantry (our "pantry" is actually just a big have to make due when you live in a remodeled garage) I found polenta, pasta, lentils, and...white arborio rice.

Ah, risotto, (pronounced ree-zoh-tto, holding that 't' sound for an extra second) that wonderful dish that hails from Northern Italy, is rich and creamy but still has a nice al dente bite, and can be cooked with so many different ingredients. In my Il Cucchiaio d'Argento cookbook (the most famous Italian cookbook...50 years, over 2 million copies sold) there are recipes for risotti with seafood, red wine and mushroom, jerusalem artichoke, blueberry, caviar, nettle, strawberry, cream and arugula, black risotto with cuttlefish, and many more. (By the way, I made the blueberry one a while back...awesome). The name 'risotto' really refers to the method of cooking the rice, not the rice itself. High-starch, round, medium-grain rice is used to make risotto, the most popular varieties being Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, and Arborio.

So, back to the matter at hand...what else do I have lying around that would be happy in a risotto. Sweet potato? Yes... Apples? Yes... A hunk of blue cheese? Yes... Radicchio? Yes, yes, yes, and yes!!! Oh my, this is starting to get exciting. We had some chicken broth in the fridge, to which I added some water, and brought to a boil in a medium saucepan.

Diced onion gets sauteed in a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter. I added peeled and cubed sweet potato, poured in a cup of the warm stock and covered so the papa could steam slightly before I added the rice. Then I added the rice and peeled diced apple, tossed to coat, and started the 'add broth, stir constantly, let evaporate, repeat' cycle. Once the rice was fully cooked, yet still al dente, I tossed in my blue cheese, sliced radicchio, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, and fresh from the garden chives. Dy-no-mite.
I wanted to serve something fresh and crisp to balance the richness of the risotto. A green salad would be great, and I happened to have a bag of arugula in the fridge. Perfetto. What else?... I also found a handful of chanterelle mushrooms left over from the previous p.m.'s pizza night. Those got chopped up and sauteed in olive oil with chopped garlic and a sprinkle of morel sea salt (a present from our friend Dick) from Entre Sel et Terre, and a splash of wine. Once they softened up a bit, I let them cool and then added some more olive oil, along with some white wine vinegar and sherry vinegar. A handful of yellow pear tomatoes and, voilà.
Not bad for working with what we had on hand. Then again, when you love to cook as much as I do, you happen to have a kitchen filled with some pretty special ingredients, like, morel sea salt. If I may inspire nothing else, do try to make a risotto sometime. It is not as difficult nor as time-consuming as many people think.