My Husband’s Mise

A friend gave us venison back strap — a generous gift, as you already know if you’re a hunter. I settled on a vinegar-soy-sesame oil marinade, then a wrap of bacon and a drizzle of blueberry pomegranate syrup and a turn under the flames.

    Big Fella saw me deeply involved with the vegetable side dishes and asked what he could do. He doesn’t cook, per se,  except for the odd skillet-browned bratwurst and soysage scramble, because he doesn’t have to.

Also, he’s a perfectionist who finds the most difficult possible way to do everything. It always turns out a superior result, but it’s maddeningly slow. Example: when it’s his turn to top the pizza, he chops each topping into microscopically small bits, thenspreads them with precision over the pizza. It takes ages.

        But honestly, dinner needed attention. “You could wrap the venison pieces in bacon,” I offered. “But here’s the thing: the bacon will melt, and the fat will spread over the meat naturally, so don’t spend a lot of time trying to cover every millimeter of the meat with bacon.” Because wthout directions, he’d spend 30 minutes and  use a whole pound of the

better-than-usual bacon

    •  we bought.

When I cook Chinese, I use a mise en place system because you’d be crazy not to, and end up with cruddy results.

For other cuisines, my aprons and dishtowels tell the story. I stop often to wipe my hands clean so I can prep the next step, because I didn’t set it out before I started.

    When I checked in on Big Fella’s progress, I just had to shoot a photo. This perfect mise was the handiwork of my husband, whose car is a rolling trash can and whose office has corners piled so high with crap that we’ll have to hire a professional. I can’t explain it, so I had to document it.


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.

Pig Candy, Seriously.

We’ve just prepared and eaten our annual country ham. We buy it in Giles County usually, and it’s nearly always a Bigham’s ham.

        We editors were sittin’ around talkin’ ham the other day, with our particular methods for scrubbing them, then soaking and boiling them. Our newest editor is from Virginia, where the

country ham 

         is different. She said, “You all talk about scrubbing and soaking a ham. We usually get Virginia hams, and

we don’t scrub or soak

        those.” But

Tennessee ham

    •  is covered with cure mixture that doesn’t seem like something you want to eat.

So you scrub it, then most recipes call for soaking and boiling. Here’s a recipe where the ham is cooked without soaking, just a good scrubbing. Seems like it would be salty — if you try it, let me know.

We do something different with hams, because our family is small, and our largest pot is a lobster pot. We take the ham to Todd’s Butcher Shop where Todd saws off the hock and saws the hock into usable pieces for bean soup. Then he cuts off three or four ham steaks to be thrown onto a hot grill or skillet on the nights when we don’t get home until 6:30. The now-small-enough ham-ette goes home and into the lobster pot to soak and boil.

    After its hot bath, we usually pack on a crust of brown sugar, dry mustard, black pepper and a little flour, then bake it for an hour or so. But this time, we rubbed it with rib rub and wrapped it in foil, then grilled it over wood chips for a couple of hours. Maybe it would be a taste sensation, but it could just as easily be too tough to eat. We hadn’t heard of anyone cooking a ham this way, so there was no one to ask.

The last 30 minutes, we mopped the ham with a mixture of molasses, ketchup, broth and brown mustard. We brought it into the house and opened the foil — it was red from the wood smoke and falling into candied shreds. Pig Candy! Six of us ate nearly half of the ham-ette.

    • Couple of days later, we had ham and potato bake. Winter comfort food at its peak. Wish you had been there.

Grilled Country Ham

    Scrub and soak a Tennessee country ham. Boil it for about 2 hours in water to cover. (Old-time cooks add pickle juice, vinegar, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns and brown sugar to the water.) Let it cool in the water until cool enough to handle, about 6 hours or overnight. Trim off most of the fat. Rub all over with your favorite rib rub. Wrap in heavy-duty foil and grill over a very low, indirect heat source that includes wood chips for smoke. Turn the ham several times and cook for 11/2 to 2 hours until meat pulls off easily in shreds. Baste for the last 30 minutes with thin barbecue sauce. Makes about 20 servings.


Oh Was There Football, Too?

Big Fella went to an all-boy Superbowl party and shot this photo. I asked, “Were there naked women there too?” Because, you know, it seems like that’s the only element missing from an otherwise perfect evening.