Tuesday, April 28

Anniversary Lamb

Some of you may know my girlfriend of five years, Kate. Shortly after we started going out, I decided to take a shot at impressing her. So the first time I had her over to my old apartment for dinner, I made a leg of lamb. Cut the bone out, butterfly it a little, slather some paste in there for bonus flavor, tie it back up, sear, bake, serve.

So this past weekend, we celebrated our fifth anniversary by cooking for each other. She made grilled chicken thighs with buffalo sauce -- very good and that'll be another post. Me, I went back to that lamb.

We actually had to hit an alternate grocery store; the one we usually go to isn't big enough to carry rare items like lamb legs. Here's what 7.15 pounds of leg of lamb looks like, should you try to bludgeon someone with it.

I cut the one pound leg bone out, put it in a freezer bag. I'll boil that for soup at some point. Also, in the butterflying process, I had to trim off 2 pounds of meat that I couldn't reattach, so it went in another freezer bag to be turned into burgers at a later date. So that left 4 pounds to hit the grill. A combination of garlic, dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and a little oil, slathered on the inside and rolled up, secured with cotton twine. (Okay cotton/polyester. Just make sure it's not nylon. Or jute. Eurgh.) Sorry I couldn't show the butchering process. My hands were a lot messy. But here's what's awaiting me on indirect coals:

Ten minutes, roll it, ten minutes, roll it, ten minutes, roll it, let it go until the inside temperature reaches 135. Or what you hope is 135, because my probe thermometer is on the fritz.

If it's not done, just pull it off the grill, pull the grill off the coals, and shove them all in the middle for some direct heat. Toss a box of rosemary on there too for some extra flavor.

LET IT REST. For the love of God and all that is holy, rest your meat before you tear it into small bits to devour! This was served with bacon grease dinner rolls -- stay tuned.

Sunday, April 26

I Made A Salad Today

That's right. I know I have a reputation for just making colossally unhealthy (yet delicious) things. Many of you were quite recently at my much-touted Rock and Roll Fryathon, in fact. But I just want to let you know, gentle readers, that I'm still capable of making things like this:

That, my friends, is a spinach and apple salad with sliced mushrooms and grape tomatoes in a dijon, honey, and red wine vinaigrette. It's topped with gorgonzola, toasted hazelnuts, and still-hot herb-rubbed sirloin, and served with three honkin' huge muenster-parmesan croutons.

Now don't tell anyone. I've got a reputation to uphold.

Thursday, April 23

Burgers at Shake Shack

Caution. This post may contain some explicit language. The burger I ate today was that fucking good.

It's been a week since our last post, and there's a good reason for that. She's sitting about two or three feet to my right. But enough with the excuses; none of you really want to hear about it here. You want to hear the word on what I'm eating.

And the word, my friends, is burgers.

That's right, motherfuckers. Today, Zack has proven once again that he is a true seeker of the delicious, for at his behest, I made a pilgrimage to a place I should have been to a long, long time ago: The Shake Shack.

At 11:30, my ladyfriend and I arrived at the little stand in Madison Park and attached ourselves to the already-substantial line formed at the ordering station. We were joined forthwith by Count Zackula and his cohort Sebastian, and spent the next ten minutes in line discussing what to get. Both of them were old hands at the joint, and assured me that no meal at the Shack would be complete without getting at least the Double Stack: a burger augmented by a deep-fried cheese-stuffed portobello mushroom.

But no, that would not be enough for me. I needed something more. I needed the Shack Stack - cheeseburger, awesome mushroom thing, cheeseburger.

And so we ordered. We were given a buzzer to await the arrival of our meal.

I clutched this plastic vibrator like a spinster on a Saturday night, waiting impatiently as customer after customer rose to retrieve their deliciousness. I gave the mental finger to each one in turn. Up yours, girl who's talking on the phone, picking at her fries rather than eating her burger. Screw you, guy who got a friggin' hot dog. Your mother, batch of interns who ordered like ninety things to bring back to the office. You don't appreciate what you've got. You don't deserve it.

At long last, ol' #34 buzzed. Giggling like an imp on meth, I scurried to the window to claim my prize.

That's what a burger order should look like. A cardboard box with a fry boat, a plastic cup of tasty beverage (Abita Root Beer in my case), and a gut bomb wrapped in greasy wax paper.

Fuck yes.

Staring down that fried portobello was like getting your first hooker. You're nervous, you know you should have brought protection, but you already paid, so...


I bit into the burger, and the crispy disc of mushroomy goodness ejaculated its hot, cheesy love lava into my mouth. It was as if the burger had bought my taste buds a few drinks, taken them out for a ride to a Makeout Point, and nailed them in the backseat of their Camaro. Two months later, my taste buds would decide to keep the baby as a reminder of that magical night of passion.

So, yes, it's safe to say I enjoyed the experience. And it would seem that I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

That, my friends, is a lot of people waiting for their chance to get mouthfucked by this burger. Bless their zeal.

Zack says the next place we're hitting up is an arepa joint, one that's got plenty of chorizo on the menu. I can't wait to get some hot, greasy sausage in my mouth.

Thursday, April 16

Corned Beef Soup

Here's a story that happened a few weeks ago. Way back around St. Patrick's, we made a corned beef. (Hands up all of you who are surprised that it's the Alton Brown recipe. No one? Good.) But when you cook the thing in that massive pot of water, you're left with, well, a massive pot of water. Except this pot happens to taste of corned beef. Waste not, want not. So what do you do?

Just throw in some more potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, like you're making another corned beef. Of course, you've got to add some beef to that. Choose your favorite cut, or find the thing labeled "stew meat", or if you're lucky to find it, a couple of pounds of brisket cubed.

Of course, the beef winds up tasting corned, what with it steeped in the leftovers of an already corned beef. Two for the price of one! There's this strange side effect though. The first time around, I made it without the saltpeter -- the stuff that turns it pink. Second time --

-- huh. Wonder how that happened. Still, tastes pretty good.

Monday, April 13

Sometimes I Make Gross Things Because I Can

I like to think of myself as somewhat of a culinarian. I enjoy the finer points of food appreciation - the nuances of herbs in a rich slow-braise, the delicate interplay between fish flesh and baby spinach. But now and again, I just come up with a terrible idea. A deliciously terrible idea.

It starts with meat. Ground beef, to be precise, mixed in with a little bacon and my favorite flavor of Tabasco.

Then it moves on to America's favorite childhood potato product - tots.

"Oh no! We seem to have fallen into this corningware dish! And we are liberally sprinkled with this delicious meat mixture!"

"What's this? Cheese? Gadzooks, it's everywhere!"

"Oh, dear! Is that a 400 degree oven we're being thrust into? Eeeeeeeeeeeee!"

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Totchos. Like nachos. With tater tots.

If anyone needs me, I'll be happily cramming these things into my mouth. If I should drop dead of a heart attack, rest assured that I died the way I lived.


Friday, April 10

Fried Chicken at Dirty Bird To Go

One of my favorite things about doing work for my friends is that I'll more often than not get paid in food. And when that food is fried chicken, well, that's pretty much all I need to hear to get out of the house... especially if Zack's the one doing the summoning. His knowledge of tech is rivaled only by his appreciation for delicious.

Dirty Bird To Go is a tiny little chicken shack on W. 14th - one of those joints where the kitchen is way bigger than the seating area. I think there were a whopping two tables in the place, both adorned with salt, pepper, and two kinds of hot sauce. That pretty much sold me right there.

First up were the sides.

The kale was delightfully garlicky without being laden with butter or bacon fat. The mac and cheese was a careful balance between cheese and mac, with neither overpowering the other. The smashed potatoes with gravy were simply delicious - everything I ever wanted in the side, deftly dodging the common pitfalls of overworking and oversalting. All in all, the sides were simple, but very skillfully done.

But I was there for chicken, and Dirty Bird did not disappoint.

The chicken arrived, picture perfect with two wedges of cornbread and way too freaking hot to put in my mouth. Ha! Like that was going to stop me.

Aaaaaaah. The crust was thin, but substantial. Crunchy, but not mouth-cuttingly so. And it did a good job of staying put when I bit into it. The meat was moist, dripping with chickeny goodness, coating my hands and falling onto the plate where it could be absorbed by the cornbread. The cornbread which, until blessed with a drizzle of fallen chickeny goodness, had been somewhat pallid in flavor.

It was then that I realized something. The cornbread was kind of boring... but perfect with the chicken. I took a bite of chicken and followed it with the kale. The textures melded together beautifully, with the garlic just punching through enough. The mac and cheese got a shot of meaty goodness and that crunch from the crust when eaten in tandem with the chicken. And the mashed potatoes... I can't really describe the combination without sounding like a pervert.

Dirty Bird knows their chicken. And they know how to bring the best out of their chicken in their sides, which is a beautiful and rare thing to experience. If you get the chance, make a break for it - it's some of the best fried chicken in the Village.

Thursday, April 9

Bacon grease biscuits

Waste not, want not. I've been hanging on to the drippings from every pound of bacon for about... 5 years? I'd kept them in one of those quart-sized containers that Chinese food places deliver soup in, and to keep it from going rancid, I'd kept it in the freezer. Now that causes the cheap plastic to become very brittle, very quickly. When I moved in with my girlfriend, she dropped it. Twice. After shattering two containers, she blurted out, "You have this thing, but you never use it!"

Let's fix that, shall we?

Ho-kay. St. Alton's biscuit recipe is our target tonight. Note that there's 2 T of butter and 2 T of shortening, which will be switched out for bacon grease. The rest of the recipe will be left alone. Mostly.

The bacon grease complies nicely when you mush it into the flour mixture. Now, most people roll the dough out and then cut them with a round cutter. Then they say "when you reroll the dough, the second batch won't be as fluffy." Then why reroll? Unless your biscuits must be round, just plunk them down in a big rectangle, then use a pizza cutter to divide them.

And heck, while I've got the bacon grease out, let's brush melted bacon grease on the tops to add some browning and flavor.

You want fluffy? Here you go:

You want flaky? Here you go:

You want a tuna croquette stuck in the middle? We can do that too:

They've got just a hint of bacon flavor. Definitely there, but not quite to the point where it's clobbering you over the head. Very nice.

Wednesday, April 8

Beer-battered Chicken

I might have mentioned at some point that I love frying things, particularly chicken. And since I still had four chicken thighs left over after cacciatore last week, I thought I'd put a little somethin' somethin' to the test.

You see, I have long pooh-poohed the concept of batter-fried chicken. It's just not a practical method of frying; the chicken takes so long to cook in the oil that the batter just burns to a crisp. No, if you want to batter-fry chicken, it had better be boneless and cut up into little pieces if it's got a hope of achieving a balance between golden-brown and cooked all the way through. Right?

Wrong. The solution, my friends, is to par-cook the chicken. I know, it's a fairly obvious idea, something I should have been able to come up with on my own. But the thing is, why would I have bothered? I did well enough with my standard breading procedures for the concept to not cross my mind.

But I'm always open to new ideas, and since it had been ages since I had beer-battered anything, I figured I'd try something out.

The spare chicken had been sitting in the fridge in a brine for a few days. I figured that since I was cold-storing it anyway, it might as well be acquiring some extra flavor while I decided what to do with it.

The brine was nothing new. Salt, peppercorns, a little rosemary, some parsley, all dissolved in the dreaded Clamweiser. Don't you judge me, I gotta get rid of it somehow.

After extracting the chicken, I gave some thought as to how I wanted to par-cook it. All the recipes I had read online made it seem like poaching was the way to go, but I had my reservations. Poaching was well and good, but would it really add any significant flavor to my brined chicken thighs?

In the end, I settled on roasting them. There was a lot of flavor to be made here - salting, peppering, and garlic powdering the outside would create a nice, well-seasoned crust. Not to mention the wonders of the Maillard reaction. Much to my surprise (and chagrin), the lengthy brining backfired on me. So much moisture had flooded the chickenflesh that it all gooshed out when the chicken hit the pan. Rather than the almost-crispy crust I usually get from a nice pre-roast pan-sear, I was left with pallid, rubbery skin when I turned them over.

Oh, well. It still got some nice color in the oven.

Next up was the batter. I figured I'd keep it simple. Just some flour, a little baking soda, a pinch of salt, and, of course, beer. In this case, Magic Hat's lovely flagship, a bottle of #9.

As with most of my cooking, there really wasn't much measuring going on. I was thinking I'd go for a nice pancake batter consistency, but it had been so long since I had made pancakes that I forgot what that was like. Come to think of it, I haven't had pancakes in so long that I can't remember what they're like. Great. Now I want pancakes.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the batter. It was thick enough to achieve a good coat for the chicken, so while it was resting in the fridge next to the chicken, I preheated the fryer.

At the beep-beep-beep, the chickens got a little dip in the batter...

And into the fryer they went.

At once, I knew something was wrong. The chicken dropped to the bottom of the basket and stayed there. I shook the basket a little. No movement. I poked at the chicken with the tongs. No movement. I rather suddenly realized that I had made a rookie mistake when it comes to batter-frying things. Always swish the battered material around for a bit before releasing it into the oil, or that batter'll wrap itself around whatever it lands on and not let go. The end result was a patch of exposed chicken on the initial two specimens.

(sigh) Well, if at first you don't succeed, fry, fry again, right? Right. Second run came out a lot better.

Ain't it cute? Like a big poof of fried chicken. Definitely a stern contrast to the crunchy crusts that the various dredge processes net.

Like a poof it looked, and like a poof it tasted. Crisp, but with a certain leavened give that the baking soda and beer afforded it. The inside was juicy as all get-out, especially since I had managed to overcook the chicken just a tidge in the roasting stage. And very beery in flavor. As predicted, roasting the chicken beforehand brought an explosion of toasty goodness to the table, too. All in all, I'd say the experiment was a success, though as an alternative method of frying, it's not my favorite. But it's definitely something to try again, something to take another couple of swings at to iron out the problems.

It was only later, whilst I was snacking on dessert, that I realized I probably should have kept the batter around just a little while longer...

Ah, well. C'est la vie. Next time.

Friday, April 3

Chicken Cacciatore

So I was sitting on the couch the other day, watching TV, when I started thinking about chicken. Despite how odd that might seem to some of you, me thinking about chicken is actually a quite common occurrence. Standing in the shower, scrubbing away the sleep, I think of chicken. Looking out the window at the spring rains as they bring life back to the soil, I think of chicken. Gently holding hands with Courtney... She asks quietly, looking soulfully in my eyes, "What are you thinking about?" I return her delicate, meaningful gaze and reply, with all the seriousness in my heart, "Chicken."

But I digress. It occurred to me that, in my entire adult life, I have never attempted to make chicken cacciatore. I remembered my mother making it, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember what it tasted like. I knew it was red and smelled tomatoey, but I really couldn't remember the flavor. So, after a little websurfing for recipes and a quick visit to the Key Food across the street, I was ready to take a whack at it.

I managed to pick up two things about chicken cacciatore while rooting around online. First, it involves flour-crusted chicken braised in a tomato sauce. Second, what goes into the sauce is pretty much anyone's guess. The options were wide and varied - just the way I liked it.

Now, like all things that are good and beautiful in this world, my cacciatore started with bacon.

I'm not going to explain or defend my choice. It's bacon, people. C'mon now.

While I was letting the bacon crisp up and render out, I set about disassembling my vegetables.

Mushrooms were on sale, in case you couldn't tell. There's something relaxing about cutting apart veggies in preparation for cooking; getting the peppers, onion, and garlic into a small dice seemed to take no time at all. The shrooms were stemmed and sliced thin.

Now, the greatest thing about starting with half a pound of bacon is the bacon fat.

Mmm. Bacon fat. The second greatest cooking medium in creation. What do I use it for? Well... I could use it to brown these chicken thighs that've been dredged in flour.

Or I could use it to brown up these here mushrooms.

And when I'm done with the mushrooms, there's still plenty left to sweat out these vegetables.

Mmm. Now, while the veggies were softening up (with a liberal application of crushed red pepper, dried oregano, and dried basil), it was time to assemble the liquids that were going to make up the rest of our sauce.

By this point, the smell of the red wine reducing was enough to get me salivating. If it's one thing I love, it's an apartment that smells like food. Once the wine was reduced by half (or so, I never actually measure), it was time to dump in the tomatoes and stock... and my secret weapon.

Mmm. Capers. I happen to know for a fact that two people very dear to me aren't fond of them, but I can't resist. They're all briney and vinegary and little explosions of flavor in everything you put them in. I didn't even bother draining them; I just dropped the brine into the sauce with the rest of it. By now, the sauce was looking pretty hearty.

It was time for the final push. I stirred in the bacon, wedged the chicken thighs in there, put on the lid and set the pot to simmer for 30 of the longest minutes of my life.

In the meantime, I had to fix myself up something to put the chicken on. The answer, of course, was spaghetti. Because I have a lot of it lying around.

After tossing it with parsley and (say it with me now, folks) bacon fat, everything was ready to serve. And serve it I did.

Complete with a fistful of romano on top. That, my friends, is not bad for my first try.