Quantum Meat Loaf

Most meat loaf are “comfort food” and really don’t amount to much but a lump of protein that plays well with mashed potatoes, reeking of caramelized ketchup or canned brown gravy. This meat loaf can be sliced thin into pita with yogurt sauce, sliced thick, cubed, and simmered into red sauce for pasta, cubed and simmered into something like wedding soup or slow cooked until it crumbles with smoked chili to serve over rice… you name it. This is the meat loaf that does not know what it will do until the observer opens the left overs carton and resolves the quantum uncertainties  You can cook this on Sunday afternoon and eat off it all week without ever having the same dish twice. I recommend cutting the cooked loaf into large portions and freezing them until you’re ready to consume just to ensure you get long life without any microbial mischief.

First, make sure the cat is or is not dead, and put it out of the room. Then…

Puree a white onion and a red onion, put into a screen and let the water drain out for at least 15 minutes (30 would be better).

Put the puree into a large mixing bowl… no, not that one, a really big one. No, seriously. A big one. *sigh* fine, it’s your counter top.

Put the puree into a mixing bowl and add proportional amounts of salt, pepper, garlic powder, sumac, smoked paprika, hot paprika, red pepper flake, dried oregano, dried thyme and ground fennel seed. Chiffonade a few handfuls of basil leaves, and add.

Work into this a pound each of ground lamb, beef and pork sausage (I like Italian sausage for this, the mild kind has a lot of fennel and will work well, but “breakfast” sausage will also work) and combine thoroughly — probably with your hands unless you have a stand mixer with some kind of very gentle paddle device.

Slowly work in plain bread crumbs until any remaining moisture from the onion has been sufficiently absorbed to allow the entire mass to form a free standing loaf on a hotel pan.

  • DO NOT ADD EGG
  • DO NOT PACK INTO A LOAF PAN
  • DO NOT MAKE ANY KIND OF GLAZE

Just don’t. You’re going to get something better than dry corners with this, and more of it, properly mixed and balanced meat loaf doesn’t need egg (which, according to Alton Brown, represents a health hazard, anyway), and we’re going to make gravy, so you don’t need a glaze.

Form an oblong loaf on the hotel pan, and surround it with course chopped carrots, small potatoes (or course chopped big ones) and either chopped fennel bulb or sweet onion.  Place under the broiler, low setting, and watch carefully. You don’t want the top of the loaf to burn, but you do want the entire loaf to brown and char as much as you can manage without burning any of it. How you shape your loaf will play a factor here. Too much dome will give you a burnt top and under-browned sides. Too flat and while you’ll get a nice even char, there won’t be enough tender interior.

Once you have your desired char, set the oven to 250 and cook until the loaf reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. It will easily coast, once out of the oven, covered in foil, well above the safety threshold for meat. Given you’re cooking a well over three pound loaf, this will take a while at such low heat. If you have one of those probe thermometers with an alarm based on temperature instead of time, I highly recommend that approach. Otherwise, begin taking soundings for doneness after 45 minutes.

Reserve all the vegetables and all the pan drippings. The drippings can be used to make gravy, or can be added to a red sauce, or  simmered to make broth for soups… almost anything you want to be heartrendingly delicious.

I recommend giving the vegetables (that have been roasting in the fat all that time) as rewards to children for A’s on quizzes and tests.

That outer char on the loaf will give you that flavor people love from dry corners without

  • having such a limited amount of dry corners to go around
  • ruining the texture of the meat by drying it out that much

 

You can probably modify this recipe only just slightly, especially if you can get (or make) finely ground meat, compress the loaf under pressure around a skewer and make a loaf from which thin slices can be carved for gyro sandwiches. The original recipe above will work, but will crumble up when sliced too thinly. A finer grind and a compressed loaf will hold shape better when carved.

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The Power of Pork Fat

Lent has ended, Pascha has come and gone, and Bright Week is upon us. Time to indulge a bit!

In a culture of “buzz word” ingredients where prosciutto and pancetta get all the attention, the venerable capocollo (or capicola, or if you ask an Italian American of Napolitan descent, gabagool) is often over looked.

Well, not in this house!

IMG_0876

You may not be able to see it, but this is something infinitely better than a pepperoni pizza. It is a pizza with hot (as in spicy, rather than sweet, as you can get both kinds) capocollo on the bottom. I put it under the sauce so the lean didn’t burn.

If you insist on pepperoni, at least look into higher quality salumi (either hard or soft) as an alternative. What you gain flavor far outweighs the increased cost provided you aren’t paying for “buzz word” hype.

 

 

Tenser’s Vegan Disks

Yes, I know that I have made this joke before. I don’t care, it’s funny anyway. Novelty as a benchmark is the primary rhetorical fallacy of the 20th Century.

Besides, we’re going to use pita, not tortilla, this time.

At a loss for what to do with left over, stale pita bread? Tired of making pita chips to choke down with hummus? Me too.

Here’s a quick, easy solution to the problem.

The quickest, easiest way is to cheat and do the following things:

  • Go to Trader Joe’s and get a container of these:
    • Bruschetta (in the chill case in a white plastic tub)
    • Artichoke antipasto (glass jar)
    • Olive tapenade (either glass jar or clear plastic tub in chill case)
  • Acquire jar of simple vinaigrette salad dressing
  • Combine the three items from Trader Joe’s with just enough dressing to make the result easily spreadable

If you’re a bit more committed than this, get tomato, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil, artichoke hearts [1], olives (mostly black and/or kalamata), olive oil, dressing vinegar (not white), and basic seasonings, and chop everything up finely (either by hand or in a food processor) and combine to recreate something similar to what is described above.

Variations on this topping can be made by including roasted red pepper spread (either including or removing the artichokes) and/or capers.

Spread the result of either approach onto old pita bread which are arranged on a baking sheet and slide into a 250 degree oven. Yes, that’s very low heat. The goal here is to drive moisture out of the bread and the topping without scorching the bread.

When the bread is nearly, but not quite, completely stiff, slide them back out of the oven, and top each disc with either a spring mix salad or simply baby spinach, change the oven into a broiler, and return the tray for just a couple of moments to wilt the greens.

I find it easier to slice the discs prior to cooking, rather than after, either in half or fourths. but you could just as easily serve the discs intact and let your adventurers sort it out for themselves.

What you end up with is something very much like a “fully loaded” veggie pizza, without any cheese. However, the oily texture and umami of the preserved vegetables ensure you won’t miss it.

 

If you’re interested in a dish which is not vegan, but is Lenten, you can add chopped, pre-cooked, crab or shrimp between the vegetable spread and the salad greens just before going under the broiler. 

 

[1] I don’t recommend buying fresh artichokes, steaming them and breaking them down yourself, it is an enormous amount of work and the results are rarely as good as what you can get in a jar (or can).

Turn Your Head and Kofta

One simple way I’ve worked into my food thinking to try to ensure that more and more of the meat that I consume is at least vaguely ethical is by going out of my way to have cuts from animals which are less popular with the general public, and thus through sheer economic principles are less likely to have been industrialized. Lamb instead of beef, quail or duck instead of chicken, boar instead of pork… that kind of thing.

The good news for me, is that attending a church full of people of Arabic descent means that discovering lamb dishes, how to prepare them, and places around the city to get good Middle Eastern food (which, when done authentically, is almost always lamb, not beef) has gotten much easier.

Always budget conscious, and recognizing that eating ethical meat means spending a lot more per pound, I always have my eye open for budget friendly options. The most obvious budget friendly lamb option I’ve found is kofta (or kafta, depending on regional transliteration). This is a ground meat preparation which sort of straddles the fence between a sausage and a meatball; traditionally oblong, not spherical, not stuffed into a casing, and yet not cooked loose like Western breakfast sausage or scrapple, either. This preparation is typically cooked as a kabob, which is to say on a skewer, on a grill.

Kofta is, for me, a shining example of how Mediterranean cuisine somehow manages to have strong flavors, and use a lot of spices, and yet somehow everything still tastes like “itself”. Kofta tastes like lamb. And yet, it is anything but “plain” or “bland”. These are the kinds of food traditions I enjoy the most, and so kofta has become a fast favorite of mine.

I have found a few places around the city which serve phenomenal kofta wrap sandwiches, but of course, cooking at home is always cheaper than dining out, so of course I needed to figure out how to make my own kofta at home. And of course, I knew better than to ask any of the jadda at church for their recipe because, well, I like my ears to remain their current size, and in their current location on my head. Clearly, some deep nerd R&D was going to be required.

The first thing you learn when you start looking into ground meat preparations from the Middle East (such as gyro and kofta) is that the meat is ground much, much finer than one finds for Western sausage or meatball/meatloaf/burger preparations. During my early experiments I was inclined to ignore this detail, and I paid dearly with crumbling meat during cooking, eventually resulting in not only bad texture, but poor flavor. Yes, it is a very tricky business to put meat into a food processor and not end up with “pink slime” or some kind of wallpaper paste, but if you don’t own a grinding attachment for your pasta maker or stand mixer (and I don’t even own this hardware, yet, let alone have grinding attachments) you’re going to need to bite a bullet, develop a very adept pulse button finger, and tighten up the grind manually.

Part of the reason for this is that some of the primary ingredients you’re going to add to the meat are pureed raw onion and fresh herbs — which have a lot of water in them. A loose grind combined with a high water content is going to cause the crumbling during cooking that I was seeing.

Note, that yesterday I was making a variation on Italian wedding soup, but using kofta instead of meatballs[1]. If you want kofta for sandwiches or an entree, use all lamb, rather than the combination I have below.

So, enough foreshadowing, here’s the rundown.

  • quarter pound ground lamb
  • quarter pound ground pork
  • quarter pound ground chuck (not highly lean ground beef!)
  • half white onion, pureed and left to drain
  • four cloves garlic, pureed and left to drain (or prepared minced garlic, well drained)
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • large handful of fresh basil
  • salt, pepper, hot and smoked paprika, and sumac (or at least a zatar blend which includes it)

Puree your onion and garlic and set aside to strain. Coarse chop your cilantro and basil. Put your meats, dry seasonings, fresh herbs and pureed aromatics into a bowl and combine as best you can with a big spoon. Then, in small batches, add to a food processor and carefully work everything together more thoroughly (while making the grind on the meat finer without pulverizing it).

Form golf ball sized meatballs with the results. Arrange in a cast iron skillet and place beneath a broiler on high heat, but at some distance from the flame. Once one side is browned, drain the fat into a large cooking pot, turn the meatballs over, and put back beneath the broiler until the second side is browned, then remove from heat, drain fat again, and set aside, covered. Carry over heat will ensure they are cooked through safely.

Cook a batch of short grained rice, barley, orzo pasta or pearl couscous.

In the large pot where you put all that meat fat, add three chunked carrots, three chunked celery ribs, and the other half onion chunked, with liberal salt, on medium high heat. Once well wilted and soft, add two cartons of low sodium vegetable broth and a third carton of water. Let simmer until the vegetables all want to fall apart. Strain into a large bowl, put the vegetables aside (either to compost or to puree into a sauce base if you just can’t bring yourself to “waste” them), return the broth to the pot and add a bag of chopped spinach (I recommend working through it by hand to remove all the stems). Once the spinach is soft, you can serve your soup by filling the bottom of a steep bowl with your rice (or pasta or whatever you made), putting two meatballs on top of the rice, and then filling the bowl with broth.

Note: this makes far more broth than it does meatballs. But, broth keeps, meatballs don’t. Be prepared to make additional batches of meatballs (and cook more rice/pasta) to finish off the broth — or to store the broth for later use in sauces and gravy.

[1] Traditional Italian meatballs are one part pork, one part lamb and one part veal. I refuse to eat veal, and so I substitute ground chuck (rather than a highly lean ground beef) to ensure that I have enough fat content to keep the balls moist during their time under the broiler.

What To Do With Too Much Produce

Right now I have way too much of

  • tomatoes
  • bush beans (green and purple)
  • pole beans (green and purple)
  • basil, sweet (I haven’t even begun to guess what to do with the purple and the Thai)
  • oregano
I also had left over macaroni which had been tossed with peas, blush peppers, kalamata, shallots and black pepper.
So I boiled up some basic lentils until they were mostly done, and then tossed in large diced tomatoes, large diced beans, salt, zatar and black pepper.
Once done, toss with the left over pasta.
Why do I keep saying toss?
Anyway, this was brilliant tasty, and Friday vegan for the win.

Everyone Should Have Fire Potions Handy

One downside with participating in a community garden and having a plot in that garden is that when produce comes in, produce comes in. Suddenly your house is full of bush beans, pole beans, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh herbs, bell peppers and hot peppers, and I mean full, all at the same time. I am a culinary spell caster who neither grew up in, nor received his training, nor has spent very much time at all for that matter, in what gardening people call “Zone 9a” but that is where I find myself at the moment. So rather than this avalanche of product happening in July or August, it has been happening for about the past month. I have literally sat at my laptop munching a cucumber I just pulled out of my garden while reading tweets from friends complaining about snow. This is deeply confusing if you aren’t actually a Southerner.

I am also not a seasoned (ha ha) green thumb. My Mom kept gardens when I was a kid, but as with most things I now enjoy, at the time I found it boring. So in some regards, I am winging it during this, my first season. Thankfully I am tag-teaming on my plot with another couple who have at least one year’s experience already in the bag.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my habanero hot peppers are coming in long since full grown, but are not changing color from dark green to anything close to orange. Recently I gave up and harvested a big bunch of them (about 40) that seemed to be about as big as one could expect them to get, but which were still quite green.

I also have piles of tomatoes. Sadly, not piles of Roma tomatoes just yet, they seem to be taking their time coming in, but piles of grape, cherry, some Roma and some of the more generic round ones I don’t know the particulars on. So in an effort to get some stuff used up, I decided to make a batch of arrabbiata.

Let me just say in passing that gutting grape and cherry tomatoes is incredibly tedious. People think spell casting is all glamorous fireballs and healing effects and illusions. Nobody stops to think about the finger grinding, brain numbing work of preparing physical components. Chefs get the glory, wait staff get the tips, but the morning vegetable crew does all the real work. Believe.

So, here’s what went into the whirling typhoon of mystical combining stuff:

  • fresh oregano (from my garden)
  • fresh sweet basil (from my garden)
  • olive oil
  • 3 habanero peppers, including seeds (from the garden)
  • roughly 40 assorted tomatoes, cored and seeded (from the garden)
  • balsamic vinegar
  • salt
I started with 3 peppers thinking this was conservative and I could add more to bump up the heat.
What I ended up doing was adding two cans of tomato paste in an effort to cool the results down, and we still had to eat dinner with handkerchiefs in hand when served over pasta without cheese (dairy buffers this kind of heat).
That being said, a dollop of it over roast beef, stuck under the broiler on slices of sourdough made for a truly sensational lunch.
Today I will be adding another 30 or so tomatoes to continue tempering the heat. I also plan to take all the peppers that have stems and string them to dry, since I now know that using them up is going to take FOREVER.
Meanwhile, if any orcs attack, I’m just going to spoon this stuff into clay jars and throw it.

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Beholder

Beholder

I have said it before, and I will say it again after this: I am not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan.

I have said it before, and I will say it again afte this: I am a huge snob when it comes to food and drinks.

Amusingly, this latter point crops up in some not so snobby ways, like “what is the best pizza” or “what is the best cheeseburger” not just “what is the best 18 year single malt scotch”. What it means in the upshot is that I have strong opinions both on how to correctly define various food terms, and on what the near Platonic actualization of that term then may be — whether you want them or not.

Being from New Jersey, and thus wedged between that holy junkfood trinity of Philadelphia, New York City and The Jersey Shore [1], I have especially strong views on the word “pizza”. A strong case can be made that of all the styles of pizza to be found throughout the United States, “New York style” is the closest to the Neapolitan original (yes, pizza is really a genuinely Italian food, believe it or not), and since this is the style one generally finds throughout the heavily Italian immigrant populated regions around the holy junkfood trinity, most notably the highly lauded “boardwalk pizza” of the Jersey Shore, those of us who grew up eating this style have a tendency to insist that this is “pizza” and that all else is at best inferior and at worst (like Chicago style) not pizza at all.

I say all this, and mention once again in passing that I am not a vegetarian/vegan because I am about to discuss something we cooked the other evening for dinner, and I am going to very deliberately not call it a pizza. While it did involve a traditional dough (purchased in a small, frozen ball from the grocer), fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh oregano, fresh “blushing beauty” bell peppers, and was cooked in a rocket hot oven on top of ceramic tiles, it did not have any cheese on it. None. And because of this, it was not a pizza.

So call it a veggie flatbread. And we had it on a whim, mostly. It wasn’t a fasting day in the Church cycle that required us to skip the cheese, we aren’t deliberately watching our dairy fat intake or anything like that. We just tried this to see how it would be.

In addition to the already mentioned items, all from my organice community garden plot, we also caramelized a red onion.

My primary concern was whether or not the veggies would stick to the dough without cheese. They did. Mostly. If I had rendered the tomatoes more into sauce, it is very likely this would have bound everything to each other, and the dough.

Tonight we are making another attempt, this time with a chunky sauce of fresh tomato and oregano, faux sausage crumble, black olives, and cheese.  In other words, we’re making pizza.

pizza

pizza

The really important thing here, when you have your oven up to 550 degrees and you’re cooking directly on ceramic tiles, is to actually sit and watch the thing cook after the first 10 minutes or so. I used a timer to do 10 minutes, and then a second timer to do an additional 5, which was about 2-3 minutes too long. Much of the crust without toppings on it was burnt. Thankfully, the crust was overwhelmed with toppings, so the loss was minimal.

My plan tonight is to do the first ten minutes, add the cheese, then watch from there rather than using timers.

[1] Please note that the cast of the TV show of that name are not from New Jersey. Most are from New York, at least one is from Rhode Island, and in any case, the entire show is set in a location that residents of New Jersey universally despise precisely because people like that from New York have completely overrun the place. When a resident of New Jersey says “the Shore” they are more likely to mean Wildwood, Ocean City, Atlantic City &c. rather than Seaside Heights.