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It’s about time I pop in and say hello!  I just had to share the salad I’ve been eating about every other day since strawberries have hit the farmer’s market in full force.  It’s really a combination of some of my favorite things in the world, all mixed together in one bowl.   There’s just such a melange of flavors and textures that it’s really satisfying–the leafy greens, the crunch from the pecans, the bite of red onion, the sweetness of the strawberries, and the acid from the balsamic vinaigrette just make this a delicious lunch.

Spring Spinach Salad with Strawberries and Grilled Chicken

Serves 2 as a small lunch dish

  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 6-8 ounces grilled or broiled chicken breast, shredded
  • 1/4 of a small red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 8 large strawberries, sliced
  • 2 ounces broken pecan halves (about a large handful)
  • Balsamic Vinaigrette (or you can use your favorite) to taste

Just add all of those ingredients into a mixing bowl and toss until the vinaigrette is evenly distributed.

Happy Spring, everybody!

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“You have made bacon.  You are like unto God,” said my friend, Chris.

“Oh my God, this bacon is obscene,” said another.

I even received the offer of being my cabana boy in exchange for a hookup of cured pork belly.

I think Kelis got it wrong:  it ain’t milkshakes that bring the boys to the yard.

There’s something so primal about seeing those thick ribbons of fat and the lip-smacking expectation of smoky, savory meat.  There’s nothing quite like the flavor profile that bacon adds to a recipe, turning greens into a sturdy side dish, intensifying sweets with its saltiness, and making a Sunday brunch dish memorable.

It is no secret that I love bacon, and learning how to make my own is one of the greatest pieces of knowledge I now have in my repertoire.   To be fair, this is not the first time I’ve made bacon–when Michael Ruhlman posted his instructions on how to home-cure bacon, I absolutely had to do it.  How could I not?  Still, even though I may have had a head start on some other Charcutepaloozers, I found myself making some rookie mistakes.  The first batch I made, I forgot to rinse off the cure before putting it in the smoker leaving the bacon overseasoned.  It was still good, but I was ready to try it again.  With the maple bacon I have pictured, my timing was all wrong.  The day I had planned on smoking my bacon it rained–and foolishly, I didn’t take it out of the cure, but left it in there for a few days longer, until I was ready to fire up the smoker.  Another rookie mistake:  not letting the bacon dry out and form a pellicle (a tacky ‘skin’ that forms on the meat which helps provide a surface that will hold on to the smoke flavor and also helps seal the meat to keep it from drying out) before smoking.  The bacon is fine enough, but I think the third time will be a charm:  no overcuring, rinsing off the cure, and giving the bacon a day to form a pellicle–got it.

But, if we’re really going to talk about something awesome, let’s talk about the pancetta.  If I got anything right this time around, it was the pancetta.  I followed the instructions to the letter, poking the curing belly every other day, and laughing with Choo as we struggled to tie the roll properly.  I have been so thrilled with how it turned out that I’ve been sharing the goodness with everyone to the point where I now only have a few ounces left.  This past Saturday, I found myself cutting pieces out to all my dinner guests to take home–because cured pork belly is pretty darn close to love under this roof.   I have been using it in bits and pieces with my CSA greens–chard, collards and kale have all got the pancetta treatment, and Kiddo approves heartily.

I didn’t come up with a special recipe this time around, as I wanted to pull up some of my favorite bacon recipes I’ve posted before:

Chard Gratin with Bacon & Chevre

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon

The Bacon, Cheddar & Cornmeal Waffle

Bacon Maple Shortbread

 

I’m pretty sure I’m never going to buy bacon again.

 

 

We’re back on the CSA Bandwagon after a break from the holidays.  Just before getting our box, my weekly newsletter from Food52 showed up advertising a Kale Salad with Apples and Hazelnuts which just sounded delightful.  I’m always looking for something new and interesting to do with kale–I usually throw it into a soup, but having it in a salad sounded really interesting.  Of course, when today rolled around and it was time to make dinner, I didn’t necessarily have everything that the original recipe called for, so I… improvised. And it was good.  So, I thank the fine people at Food52 for the excellent inspiration!  This salad worked very nicely with the broiled salmon and parmesan broccoli that were on the menu, and we knew we had something because Kiddo ate it (always a sign of success).

Kale Salad with Apples, Pistachios & Dried Cherries

  • 1 tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Honey
  • 2 tablespoons Olive Oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • 1 bunch Lacinato Kale, washed and cut into 1″ ribbons
  • 1 large Granny Smith Apple
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Pistachios
  • 1/4 cup Dried Cherries
  1. In a large bowl, pour in vinegar and honey and whisk until incorporated; add in olive oil in a slow stream while whisking constantly until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Add kale and toss until leaves are completely coated with vinaigrette.  Set aside for about 1 hour to let leaves break down slightly.
  3. Peel, core, and slice apple;  toss into greens, adding nuts and cherries.  Serve immediately.

Remember just ten days ago, I took apart a duck, preparing its pieces for several things:  skin and fat to be rendered, legs to be made into confit, and breasts to pack in salt and hang to dry for prosciutto.   The ten days are over for the prosciutto: one full day packed in salt, nine to hang and dry.  The wait was a trial of patience, but rife with breast jokes:  taking pictures of my breasts to put up on Facebook, squeezing my breasts to check them daily and how tired I was of having my breasts just hang around like that.  But, this wait paid off:  today was the day to try my first bite of duck prosciutto, and it was such a wonderful surprise; the fat is buttery, the meat rich and full of that delightful duck flavor.   I mean, there is no pretending that this is anything other than duck:  it is duck intensified, and it is a good thing.

Other than making dirty jokes over the past ten days, I began to wonder what exactly I’d be doing with the prosciutto when it was finished.  Yes, yes, we’d be eating it–that’s a given–but man does not live by meat alone, no matter just how good it is.  My mind drifted to dates and how that particular luscious sweetness of a date would pair well with the salty richness that I was expecting (rightly so) from the finished product.  Throw in a creamy cheese filling and pistachios, a natural complement to duck;  a little citrus to add a bit of acidity to lighten the overall flavor profile, and I was sure to have a winner.

These scream to be eaten along with a glass of a bold Zinfandel or Merlot–in fact, if I was doing a wine tasting, these would definitely be one of the appetizers I’d serve.  They’re perfectly bite-size, but they pack a ton of flavor.

Note:  depending on the size of your dates, especially if you’re using high-quality Medjool dates, you may need to use two slices of the prosciutto to wrap them entirely.

Duck Prosciutto-Wrapped Stuffed Dates

  • 1 1/2 ounces Chevre
  • 1 1/2 ounces Mascarpone
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 12 dates, preferably Medjool
  • 1/4 cup shelled pistachios, finely chopped
  • 12 slices duck prosciutto (or more as needed)
  1. In a stand mixer, beat cheeses with orange zest and juice until smooth.  Set aside, or fill pastry bag for easy stuffing.
  2. Cut dates lengthwise to remove pit;  pipe or spoon in cheese filling.
  3. Place chopped pistachios on a small plate, press the exposed cheese filling towards the nuts to create a coating of pistachios.
  4. Wrap stuffed date with slices of duck prosciutto and secure with toothpick.

To kick my butt into gear for blogging this year, I signed up for the Charcutepalooza challenge created by Mrs. Wheelbarrow and The Yummy Mummy.  I mean, let’s face it, I love meat.  I also love sugar, fresh berries, heavy cream, caramel, rainy days and Mel Brooks movies–but that’s beside the point.  As I start moving into a different way of eating–sharply reducing my consumption of processed foods (not that I was eating that many at this point), grains and refined sugars, I needed to re-evaluate what I was cooking and writing up here, too.  Sure, I’ll still make the occasional baked goodie because I’ll never stop loving the smell of something baking in the oven, but in the few changes I’ve made in the past few months, my health has turned around for the better–nearly 30 pounds lost, cholesterol and blood sugar down–the numbers don’t lie.

ANYWAY, back to what I’m doing for 2011:  Making Meat.  Or, more specifically, making meat products.  Charcuterie, the art of curing, smoking and otherwise preserving meat, was a class I barely paid attention to while in culinary school.  I’m serious–I was all about the pastries, and why in the world should I know how to make duck confit?  If I had a time machine, I’d go and kick myself in the pants for feeling that way.  I’m making up for lost time here, and along with over 100 other food bloggers, I’ll be reading, learning and cooking (three of my favorite things) out of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie.

First up is January’s challenge:  Duck Prosciutto.  It’s really not a difficult task; it’s a simple salt cure and 8 days of hanging to dry.  The challenge here is being in Southern California where the temperatures as of late have been in the 80’s, and the duck requires temperatures in the 50-60° range.   I fixed this by finding a mini-fridge off of Craigslist (which will serve as the Poker Night Beer Fridge when it’s not curing meat), that I will fidget with until I can get it to do what I want.

The next challenge I put upon my own head:  butchering a whole duck.  I’ll say it now:  I haven’t handled a duck since school, where I have this vague memory of making a Duck Galantine with Pistachios, thinking, who the hell eats this nowadays? I have no problem taking apart a whole chicken, but I was feeling a little intimidated:

I only need the breasts for Prosciutto, but that leaves the rest of the duck.  I decided that the legs would go into a Confit, all the skin and fat trimmings would be rendered for their fat, and the rest of the carcass would be used for stock.  In the end, nothing was tossed out but a few bone fragments from my hack job of butchering.  Otherwise, I was able to use the whole duck which made me feel a little proud of myself for not being wasteful.

I started with kitchen shears, and first cut off the wings and removed backbone, popping out the leg joints as I approached them–this made the removal of the legs very easy.  My biggest worry came when it was time to detach the breasts from the rib cage–I never do a very good job of it with chicken, but it ended up being easier than I thought.

The breasts came off with a flick of the boning knife and a little pull.

The line up:  the ceramic dish that will hold the breasts smothered in salt, which I didn’t bother to take a picture–it’s a dish that looks full of salt; my not-too-horrible-for-10-years-out cuts of duck; the pot of fat and skin to be rendered.  Not pictured:  everything else, which was in the stockpot, simmering away.

After packing the breasts in the salt, I started on the legs:

They’re seasoned with salt, pepper, clove, garlic, orange zest and a lone juniper berry.  Those will sit in the fridge for a few days as is, until it’s time to cover them in duck fat and poach them for hours.  I’m really not sure what I’m more excited about, the prosciutto or the confit!  I’m hoping to change Choo’s mind about duck–he’s not much of a dark meat guy, but I think he’ll enjoy what comes out of this.

Come back in about 10 days when I’m able to talk about the finished products!

Yow, that was a long title.

Hey, can you believe it’s been this long since I’ve posted?  I’ve been a bad, bad food blogger, not getting pictures of anything interesting when I’ve made it.   Most of my holiday baking this year I’ve already posted about before, but I do have something new for you guys.  Tomorrow is the office holiday party, and we all know how much of a drag those things are, but I still wanted to bring something fun and tasty for the office.  These were a whole lot faster than trying to decorate an army of gingerbread men, but they’re full of spice, a little dense and moist, and the orange zest in the frosting helps keep the whole thing from getting too heavy.  As for decorating, go silly with sprinkles, or get elegant with some fine slivers of crystalized ginger.  You can see which way I went.

Gingerbread Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes approximately 22 cupcakes

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup boiling water
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, spices and salt
  3. Beat butter, sugar and molasses at medium speed until smooth and light.
  4. Beat in eggs one at a time, and scrape bowl between each egg.
  5. Add flour mixture alternating with boiling water, beating in at low speed after each addition.
  6. Spoon batter into paper-lined muffin cups and bake 20-25 minutes.
  7. Cool in pans for 5 minutes, then cool completely on wire rack before frosting.

Vanilla Bean-Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1-8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (save pod for another use)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh orange zest
  • 1 pound confectioner’s sugar
  1. Beat cream cheese, butter, vanilla seeds and orange zest until fluffy.
  2. Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar and beat until smooth.

I have to tell you guys, I am cooking for 30 people this year.  Funny enough, this is our usual Thanksgiving at El Rancho Destructo–my in-laws invite all of their family and friends, and it’s a huge party.  I get the tasks of most of the traditional American dishes like stuffing, cranberries and mashed potatoes while they handle the South American dishes like rice with lentils, tamales and salsa.

One of the things that I’m also responsible for is the turkey.  Now, last year I went with the idea of roasting a 29 pound turkey.  FOLLY, my friends, it was pure folly.  Have you ever tried to wrestle a 29 pound bird?  This year, I decided to break down and cook three turkeys, and one of them would be smoked, which I could do several days in advance.  Although I have experience in smoking meats, this was my first time smoking a whole turkey, so after a little research, I worked out a game plan.

I know that there are people out there who hail from the Church of Brined Turkey;  me, I’m really not totally sold on it.  The breast meat can be kind of slippery, and I think the bird doesn’t release enough of those wonderful, delicious drippings that are so important for gravy and drizzling on the pans of stuffing before popping them into the oven while the turkey rests.  However, there is one time I absolutely kneel at the Altar of Seasoned Salt Solution, and that’s when it’s time to smoke poultry.  My worry was the long cooking time and what it would do to the breast meat;  I’ve smoked turkey legs plenty of times, both brined and just dry-rubbed, and the brined legs are far more tender.

As for my brine, I was suckered into buying a brining mix when I went to go purchase my wood at the local BBQ supply shop, BUT, if you want to do everything on your own, I have tried Alton Brown’s brine recipe with great success.  What’s the deal behind brine? you might ask.  The long scientific version is here, but the short version is that in soaking a turkey in a salt solution will cause some of the proteins in the meat to break down to not only create a tender piece of meat, but as the turkey cooks, proteins shrink and release water.  Fewer proteins in the meat means less water gets squeezed out, hence a juicy turkey.  This is necessary during the long, slow cooking process of smoking, which will dry out an unbrined turkey.

The night before, I prepared my brine (and even though I bought a mix, I still doctored it) and lined my small cooler with a plastic bag, filled it with cooled brine and several quarts of heavily iced water.  The turkey went in breast-down, I sealed the bag, shut the cooler, and left it on my porch overnight, where the brine stayed below 40°.  My Sunday morning consisted of pulling myself from my warm, cozy bed to face a damp and chilly sunrise.

You know it’s a good idea to truss your turkey, right?  Of course you do, because you know it helps the bird to cook evenly and keeps those legs looking neat and tidy.  After the long soak in the brine, use a few paper towels to dry off the surface of the bird and give it a little massage with some vegetable oil.  No need for seasoning the skin–the meat is now plenty seasoned enough.  I let the bird hang out on the counter for a bit while I got started on firing up the smoker.

I have a Weber smoker that uses charcoal as its main source of fuel.  I tucked in a few pieces of apple wood with the charcoal for the smoke.

The basin gets set in just above the coals and filled with liquid.  The basin serves a double purpose:  by adding liquid, it protects the meat from being cooked by direct heat, and the steam helps keep the meat moist.  This is also another excellent way to add more flavors by adding aromatics–here there is an orange, an onion, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cloves and allspice berries.  It also catches all the drippings from the meat, to keep the flare-ups from falling fat at bay.

Approximately at 8:15 AM, our 12-pound bird is placed in the smoker.   The smoker is kept at a pretty even 250° which is done by controlling the airflow to keep a slow burn.

Seven hours later, the thigh is registering 165° and it’s done!  At this point, the turkey has been wrapped very tightly and stored in the refrigerator–I haven’t cut into it for fear of drying out the meat between now and Thursday.  I’ll reheat the turkey before setting it out on the buffet, so I can’t tell you how it tastes right now–but all signs (and previous times I’ve smoked turkey legs) point to having created a smoked masterpiece.