Exquisite home-aged beef, and another rant about cookbook editing

 

People ask me, “What does a cookbook editor do?”

And now I have a good answer that everyone can see.

It started before Christmas when my friends and CSA -splitters Chris and Lisa suggested that we buy a gorgeous 7-bone rib roast, split it, and dry-age it ourselves. Dry-aged beef is not that commonly found, because it’s time-consuming to produce, requires a lot of individual attention, and the USDA regulations make it even more challenging. When you can find it, the price is astronomical. So, sure, I’m game to take a $10.99/pound roast and turn it into a $45/pound roast

     using only a spare fridge, a calibrating thermometer, and some clean kitchen towels.

Aging beef seems easy enough, too, and kind of foolproof if you keep changing the cloth towels. You don’t even really have to pay attention. I once saw a beef slab in a meat-aging locker in Vegas that had developed mold on the fat cap. Right there in public. From a big name steakhouse. I assume it was aging to that state on purpose — surely a fermenting steak is a boast: “We know meat so well that you can trust us that this $100 mold-kissed steak is going to be the best thing you ever, ever ate, if you’re lucky enough at the blackjack tables to afford it.” It looked pretty good to me, anyway: I’m a fan of mold, yeast and fermentation — it’s the magical heatless cooking method.

Chris was using Alton Brown’s technique,
for dry-aging and then cooking the meat. In typically stylish Alton Brown fashion, there’s a luscious sage jus that is made after the roast is complete. But I used Merle Ellis
‘ method for aging, because I had read it often enough to feel familiar and comfortable with it.

I aged my beef just 5 days. (Merle’s method allows for up to 21 days of aging.) By then, my beef was dry on the outside, had clearly shrunk in volume, was sort of hard and unappetizing  in places. The fat covering was waxy, not moist, and if I’d never seen the Vegas steak, I would have been a little worried. There was a little hitch at cooking time when I found that Merle’s technique didn’t include a recipe for cooking the beef, so I just went to Alton Browns recipe. Easy decision.

And here is where the editing part comes in. Brown’s recipes can be a little over the top. So I skipped the excruciatingly detail part that calls for a new, clean, azalea-size terra cotta pot for roasting the beef. A roasting pan and 3 layers of aluminum foil would be fine. And after rubbing the roast with oil then packing on some kosher salt and rubbing in pepper, you put it into a cold oven, turn the temp to 250 degrees, put the roast in. And here are the rest of the directions, verbatim, from the Food Network site.

“Finally, place a probe thermometer into the center of the roast and set for 118 degrees. Put the roast and the bake-ware dish onto the pizza stone, cover with the terra cotta pot, and return to the oven. Turn the oven down to 200 degrees F and roast until internal temperature is achieved. Remove the roast and turn oven up to 500 degrees F. Remove the terra cotta lid and recover with heavy-duty foil. Allow the roast to rest until an internal temperature of 130 degrees F. is reached. “

So here’s an excruciating detail that would have been helpful: how long do you cook the damn thing? Would it be too much to ask for a ballpark figure?  Like, is it going to take 30minutes, 90 minutes or 5 hours? If it were a baked good or a casserole, you might guess based on experience. But if you have no experience of cooking 18-pound slabs of meat, and no experience with cooking at 200 degrees, you maybe at a loss. I know I was completely at sea, and I do this for a living. I put the roast in as the first guests were arriving at 5 p.m. Just guessing.

By 8 p.m. the guests were drunk but jolly, asking frequently about the entree, and really, really hungry. The meat thermometer, plunged into the center of the roast, read 74 degrees. My friend Lisanne, who is a shameless eater of steak at least once a week and knows cow flesh better than most people, called it: “Cut the ends off and give those to people who like it less rare. Let everyone else eat it rare.”
Of course, it was delicious, if raw. Iwent back to the site the next day to make sure I hadn’t just missed the directions. But it wasn’t just me — a lot of the comments on the site read like onefrom “Dorothy”: “Perfect, but took forever.” In her case, 6 hours. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask of an editor to put the cooking time in the recipe. That’s what editors do. You shouldn’t have to read through the comments to figure out how long to cook something.

The next day, we finished the remaining roast — another couple of hours in the oven, then a 500-degree blast to create a crunchy crust. We’ll definitely get it right next time. If there is a “next time” when you’re talking about a $90 piece of meat during a recession
 

Sissy and Bubba are cookin’

Here’s what you need to make greens and cornbread for 200 people

  1. A brother who volunteers to smoke 150 pounds of pork shoulder for a downtown transient service center that serves lunch to anyone who shows up. 
  2. A trip with that brother and his wallet to a food wholesaler. You need about 20 3-pound bags of frozen greens. Get a mixture of turnip greens, mustard greens and collards, because turnip greens by themselves are too astringent, collard greens are a little chewy, and mustard greens nearly melt away when cooked. (Don’t forget to take the tax-free letter if you have one.)
  3. Four 5-pound boxes of Krusteaz white cornbread mix. Yes, the Krusteaz company is in the north. Yes it’s white cornbread, not yellow. Don’t let’s get huffy about it — if you prefer, buy four bags of Martha White cornbread mix. White is drier and better for with pot likker; yellow is more moist. White is fancier, yellow has more flavor. Y’all quit arguing about cornbread or I’ll stop this car.
  4. If you do it the hard way, like I do, you only buy half as many frozen greens as you need. So you’ll also be going to a conventional grocery store for fifteen 2-pound cans of Glory seasoned greens and about 7 pounds of smoked ham hocks and a bottle of dried whole red peppers. (Note: Food Lion requires masses of paperwork to sell tax-free groceries.) If that fails, go back to the food wholesaler and buy equivalent canned greens. 
  5. A pressure cooker. Once you cook the hocks and hot pepper in some vegetable oil, the greens take only about 12 minutes to cook. It’s so fast that it takes the cooker longer to build to the right pressure than it does to cook the greens. It’s like flying to Memphis from Nashville — the plane spends longer taking off and landing than cruising.
  6. An industrial kitchen or two plus
  7. Four fantastically competent friends to help.
  8. Some church people and real estate agents to help serve. 
  9. About 200 people willing to stand around in the rain waiting their turn for lunch.
  10. A bunch of big garbage bags.
  11. An industrial sink for washing all those pans.
  12. A nap.

Merry-making, crab-caking, crawfish-baking, trinket-taking, Cajun-faking for Pete’s-saking trek to New Orleans

Amtrak to New Orleans for a meticulously planned, precision-timed history-and-eating trip. Things may be dire in New Orleans’ neighborhoods, but the food is back to where it was, loads of new restaurants have opened, the Quarter was crowded and the tourists came to partay.   First stop, Mr. B’s Bistro. For freeform crawfish ravioli.  Then to Central Grocery for a muffuletta, Zapp’s chips, and a Barq’s root beer. Righteous. As good as the one I had in ‘96. And the one in 1991. We bought decaffeinated Cafe du Monde at the best price we found in town.

Next day, to the Palace Cafe for Redfish with Andouille Crust in Crystal Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc, the most fantastical discovery. Mellow and hot and savory. Big Fella had pork “potpie,” a vertical creation of cochon au lait and mashed potatoes. 

 We were beginning to bloat by this time, but we persisted. On to Antoine’s, where it was too dark (and we were a wee bit too oiled) for photography. Feelings Cafe in the Faubourg Marigny — what a great neighborhood. And a bargain of a restaurant. Coop’s Place at the back of the Quarter for smoked duck quesadilla and the best fried chicken — yes, better than Prince’s — and a revelatory rabbit and sausage jambalaya. No pictures, because Coop’s ain’t much to look at. And our fingers were greasy.

Dinner with friends at Luke,  the John Besh property on the ground floor of the Hilton on St. Charles. House-made pickles, pate and sausages. Moules frites. Pork debris sandwich. Good wines by the glass. A real find.

We felt lucky to eat so many good meals in so many good place. But we probably missed some good ones — where should we go next time?

A gift to warm a mother’s heart

On a rainy late winter day, I came in from a long day away and my Precious Muffin surprised me with these extraordinary flower cookies.  

She picked the recipe from American Girl magazine and she and Big Fella shopped for the ingredients. It was no short-cut slice-and-bake or box mix cookie, either, but a real toffee cookie with a chocolate chunk center. She didn’t shortcut the decorations, either.  It must have taken hours.

They were beautiful and really good, too. I guess she is interested in the culinary arts, after all. As with everything else, chocolate and marshmallows were key.

Grate times, grate food, grate gear

Right around the time I realized that my kitchenware is lame, my friend Lisa at Fine Cooking was looking for a reviewer for box graters. It sounded like fun. I grate a lot of stuff, I like writing about food, and, let’s just be honest, I expected there would be extra graters after the testing.

After identifying about 30 graters and getting samples of about 20, Lisa and I outlined the features and performance we wanted in a grater, and we set the tests: shredding potatoes, grating hard cheese, shredding semi-hard cheese and zesting lemons. The magazine requires that testing be done side by side, so that all the graters share the same conditions. Once the graters were assembled in one place, it was pretty clear this was a big, a really “grate” big effort.  Thank goodness for Lesleyeats. Four hours, 5 pounds of potatoes, a good scrubbing, then 3 pounds of Wisconsin-made vegetarian aged cheese called Sarvecchio (found by Lesley at Whole Foods) uncovered a couple of standouts and a winner among our graters.

The next day a very culinary neighbor came to help with Round 2 — lemon zest and Cheddar cheeses. Another 4 hours, a couple dozen organic lemons and a couple of big blocks of Cheddar yielded two different standouts and another clear winner. You can read all about it in the May issue of

Fine Cooking magazine.

Lots of grated foods left from those days.  The Sarvecchio became alfredo, the potatoes went into ham and potato bake. The lemon peel is soaking in a jar of Everclear. The SOC (shredded orange cheese) is in bags in the freezer — I’m waiting for the right moment — what would be the best use for it?

    And what became of the graters? I think that will be pretty clear around the gift-giving holidays.

 

Cupcake-Palooza

 

Last week Claudia of cookeatFRET held a a great gathering of fun people for Cupcake-palooza. She had a beautiful spread of about 25 types of cupcakes from 4 local bakeries and a home-baked batch from the Cake Doctor (baked by Nashville foodie Mindy Merrill). You could practically feel your insulin level surging after a couple of rounds. As we ate, we rated them on a wildly complex sheet that had to be explained to me — twice, because I’m thick that way. As As you’d expect, there were some great cakes on that table and some, eh. Lesleyeats wrote up a pretty comprehensive posting of it here.

Cupcakes are a trend I don’t have an opinion about — I thought. But I do have opinions on cake: There are dozens of kinds of cake out there, but for some reason, the one that is sold in America’s bakeries and in cake mix form is a sponge-type cake that’s the worst of the lot.It’s too tender and it’s flavorless, really just a vehicle for frosting. And since that’s usually made with shortening, it hardly seems worth the calories, even to a sugar hound like me. This was the fate of our last bakery cake. 

So it was heartening that three of the contenders — Cuppycakes, Sweet 16th and Dulce Desserts — are using other recipes. I loved the cupcakes from Dulce Desserts, run by my old running buddy Juanita. We spent a portion of our misspent youths together. I didn’t see or hear from her in years — we were both having kids — then she reappeared as a phenom in the medium of cake. I think this photo below is her dulce de leche cupcake. The cake was delicious, but the buttercream frosting was a little higher in butterfat than I like. Still, using the high butterfat specialty butter is generally a good development that raises the bar.  In the end, the calculus of the rating sheet showed that that winning cupcake for me was the mocha cupcake from Cuppycake with their chocolate cupcake running a close second, and heartily endorsed by Sweet Cheeks, too.

What am I bid?

It’s almost Derby Day. It’s almost Mothers Day. It’s almost graduation, all important garlic-cheese grits occasions. I hear there’s a small stash of garlic cheese roll at the Apple market on Lebanon Road in Donelson, but that doesn’t help you if you’re in, say Maryland or Alabama.

This fuzzy photo shows the last known garlic cheese roll in captivity (click the link to read about the discontinued cheese roll).

If you reached this page looking for a substitute for Kraft Garlic Cheese roll, try this recipe I found on the Kraft chat boards. I modified it so the roll sizes match the Kraft 6-ounce roll.

Garlic Cheese Rolls

  • 1 1/2 pounds sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 pound processed cheese product such as Velveeta
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
  • Garlic powder to taste
  • Soften cheeses and mix all together well. Shape into six rolls and wrap securely in foil or plastic wrap.

Hungarian grated chocolate torte

My day job is editing community cookbooks, but I’m not just an editor — I collect them on a small scale. This one, from the Dorcas Guild of the Magyar Reformed Church in Elyria, Ohio, is my prize. Every recipe in it is profoundly Hungarian, from lekvar cakes to cooked potato noodles. It must have been both a reflection of its community and simultaneously serves as a guide to the old country for the young cook. It must have been successful, because it was reprinted ten times from 1952 to 1956.

read the book like a snapshot from another time and place. The thick, typed pages of dishes like baba leves bean soup, porkolt and kifli nut cookies conjure images with ladies in embroidered aprons, church basement kitchens, the row houses on the street. I’m not explaining it well, but life in an immigrant community is so far from my own experience as to be exotic and appealing.

All the recipes sound so deeply, satisfyingly homemade, and depend more on technique than on ingredients, which appeals to me, so I packed Hungarian Recipes along in the small stash of cookbooks I moved to England. I figured boredom, isolation, and long days of meal planning would force me to cook from it and learn those techniques.

After a few successful experiments, though, we grew busy being immigrants in our own immigrant community, tracking down much-missed foods like applesauce, marshmallows and fajita seasoning, and gathering for cobbled-together potlucks of macaroni and cheese, pinto bean burritos, skirt steak, country ham, fried corn.

I cook from the book occasionally when I can — it’s good, sturdy winter food that fills the house with good smells, if maybe a little cabbage-y. I made it last week for my dinner group. The menu was a rich ham and bean soup thickened with sour cream, golubki in a tomato/sour cream/sauerkraut sauce and paprika potatoes. Loads of meat (2 pounds), cabbage (1 head plus a big bag of sauerkraut), eggs (14), sour cream (2 pints) and lots of sauteed onions — there’s still a faint onion smell in the curtains.

From their centuries yoked to Austria, the Hungarians are masters at pastry-making and baking, and the baker in me is drawn to the extraordinarily expert techniques. To disgress here, I think the only cultures that can be entrusted with dessert are Russians, French, Hungarians and Americans. I mean, have you tried a Japanese dessert? Or a Brazilian one? Or a Tunisian one? Dairy products are important, and no one uses more of them than the Hungarians.

I selected a grated chocolate torte with pudding frosting for dessert. First you separate 9 eggs, then you grate 8 ounces of chocolate and grind a pound of nuts. The result is a spectacularly flavorful cake, nicely chocolate, but light because it’s grated, not melted, and free of butter, so it’s not dense like a fudge cake. The frosting recipe was troublesome, and 4 d*mn ounces of d*mn expensive d*mn chocolate seized up in the top of a double boiler, so I sort reformulated the recipe. Fortunately it worked, and cake plus frosting resulted in a beautiful balance of rich and light.

 

 

Grated Chocolate Torte

  • 9 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, grated
  • 1/2 cup fine cracker crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 8 ounces nuts (almonds, walnuts), toasted, ground
  • 1/4 cup white or sweet wine, such as Marsala, Madeira or sherry
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch cake pans, or a 10-inch torte pan with a removeable bottom, then line the bottoms with waxed paper or parchment paper and grease the paper.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form (I add a pinch of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar for insurance). Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat until stiff. Combine the chocolate, crumbs and flour and nuts in a bowl. Fold into the egg whites along with the wine and lemon juice.

Spread the batter in the pan(s). Bake for 40 minutes until torte is set in the center and top appears dry. Cool 10 minutes in the pan. Run a knife around the edge to separate the torte from the pan. Invert onto a serving platter and remove the parchment.

Hungarian Pudding Frosting

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 eggs (or 3 egg yolks)
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped (optional)

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler set over simmering water. Quickly beat in the sugar and eggs. Remove from the heat, but keep the mixture over the water and beat until it’s thickened. (You may need to add a little cream.) Beat in the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time. If the frosting seems spreadable at this stage, use it to fill and frost the torte. If it seems thick, beat in whipped cream, then spread it over the torte.

Braised Cuban Creole Pot Roast

The end of cold weather means the end of slow-cooked, braised foods, which I always mark with a flurry of braising before I leave behind brisket, pork roast, and oxtails. This year’s braising season featured Daniel’ Boulud’s Braise. The multi-layered, complex dishes that start in one culinary locale and gallop all over the globe caught my fancy. Maybe he’d discovered new symphonies of deliciousness in the vast, sprawling flavor profiles.

I made a couple and decided they weren’t for me. Maybe the recipes I selected were weird in some way, but nearly always, some jarring flavor note punctuated the experience, a whiff of cinnamon or chopped olives or sherry vinegar where you don’t expect it.

The incident that most sticks in my culinary memory is the orange peel and chorizo grease in a beef braise. A Cuban Creole beef braise produced a couple of quarts of tasty, tomatoey, garlicky pot liquid that might have been ideal for freezing to use in a later braise but for the bitter flavor of chorizo and guerilla bits of orange peel.

I use the recipes as inspiration now, and leave out ingredients I don’t like. As with every other food that’s crossed my path in the last year, I felt compelled to try braising in the pressure cooker. I know, I know: my BFF, the pressure cooker, but here’s a fact: I walked into the kitchen at 5:55 p.m. and we were eating beef pot roast at 6:50. Imagine a time stamp in the corner of this photo that reads “6:05.”

Cuban Creole Stew

  • 3 to 4 pounds beef brisket
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 10 plum tomatoes
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 2 green bell pepper
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled, cut into chunks
  • 1 plaintain, peeled, diced

Rub the beef with salt and pepper. Puree the tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves, lime and cumin and pour over the beef. Marinate in the refrigerator at least 8 hours (and up to 2 days). Scrape off the marinade and brown the beef in olive oil in a dutch oven or pressure cooker. Remove the beef from the pot and saute the onions and peppers until tender. Return the beef and marinade to the pot and add more salt than you think you need. Add the vegetables to the pot and stir to coat with the tomato mixture. (At this point, you can cook it in the oven at about 300 degrees for 4 hours or in a slow cooker for about 9 hours). Secure the pressure cooker lid and gauge, bring it to pressure until the gauge rocks, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes a pound (more for brisket, less for top round). Let the pressure drop by itself or run cold water over the bottom of the pan until the button unlocks. Slice or shred the meat and serve with the vegetables. Boil down the pan liquid for a sauce.

The beef, marinade and vegetables may seem a little dry before you lock the lid, and if that makes you nervous, add 1 cup of water. It’s not necessary — the vegetables release a lot of liquid as they cook — but it won’t hurt either.