More on Meatloaf

In my Quantum Meat Loaf post I talked about how malleable and flexible this preparation is.

One quick update. Do not skip including large quantities of at least one strong, green herb such as fennel, oregano, thyme or sage — unless you like a strong lamb flavor and only intend to use your loaf for Eastern Mediterranean style dishes.

Most of my loaves have included quite a bit of fennel, which doesn’t make the whole loaf taste of fennel, but does allow it to work both in Italian dishes and Greek or Syrian dishes. My most recent didn’t have any fennel at all (for reasons I won’t bother to get into here) and the result was still delicious, but had a strong lamb flavor that could really only be tamed by fresh curly parsley (such as tabbouleh) or tzatziki sauce.

I’ve begun getting my ground meat from a farmer’s market vendor who has block frozen beef, lamb and pork, and so I’ve switched to ground pork instead of pork sausage, because the beef and lamb aren’t 90+% lean the way they are from the fancy grocery store that offers grass fed meat. But, the loss of the seasoning from the sausage has to be accounted for with my own inclusions — which has often involved a lot of ground fennel for me, and now I know it is necessary.

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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.

Quicker, Easier Stewed Tomatoes

Although I did not realize this was unusual — or even something to cherish — until I was much older, I grew up in a household that made our own tomato sauce, and occasionally even our own pasta. As a kid, this mostly meant a lot of hard work, lost Summer vacation time I could have been spending on my bike, in the pool, or reading a book, and being in an un-air-conditioned house that now had a hot stove in it for an entire day. At that age I didn’t actually like the kind of sauce you end up with when you take two bussels of Roma tomatoes, crush them through a mill to remove seeds and skins, and then simmer them for several hours with spices. And so, this family ritual was not my favorite in spite of ready access to all the famous Jersey Tomatoes one could ever want within a mile of my home.

Today, of course, I lament my lack of insight and foresight at the time, and yearn for the days of such delicacies as fresh sauce and fresh pasta. Even buying so called “vine ripened” tomatoes at the organic grocery cannot produce anything remotely like a similar result.

Well, the last year and a half I’ve had a community garden plot. Last year we had six tomato plants, only one of which was Roma tomatoes, and it hardly bore any fruit. So this year we planted seven Roma plants and one grape tomato plant. Unfortunately, the Roma are again producing very little fruit (actually, quite large fruit, but not many of them) and they are leaping directly from green to rotten in most cases.

But about a week ago Liz went with me to the garden and set about to picking the over abundance of grape tomatoes which were more than plenty ripe and ready for eating while I was busy picking green beans and cucumbers and re-planting some hot peppers. The only problem is that I don’t actually like fresh tomatoes very much. The texture utterly freaks me out.

So what to do with a hundred grape tomatoes? Well, if they’d been cherry tomatoes, this would have been a real problem, because in spite of small size, cherry tomatoes have a lot of seeds and a thick skin. Not so with grape tomatoes. They are thin skinned and largely seed free.

Could they make a good sauce I wondered?

Into the Blendtec they went with a liberal amount of olive oil (cheap stuff!), a few of my Italian Rooster peppers from the garden, a large quantity of fresh basil from the garden and some other dried herbs. Just enough application of violence to produce a pulpy mess but not a smoothie and all of this went into a large pot over very low heat.

A few hours later (two with the lid on, two with the lid off) we had some of the best sauce I’ve had in a long time — and without having to actually process any tomatoes ahead of time. I’m sure that the Romas will make better sauce when they finally come in. But they’ll also require some processing.

So, if you find yourself wanting fresh sauce, but like me you have childhood baggage that prevents you from embarking on the rendering of two bussels of Roma at a go, see if your farmer’s market is offering grape tomatoes. They are the non-obvious, even counter-intuitive, option for quick sauce.

Better yet, look into the myriad of “one square foot” vertical gardening techniques that are out there and grow your own. A single grape tomato plant is high yield and doesn’t get nearly as unruly as the larger varieties do. You’ll need some kind of caging, but you won’t need seven feet of it.

If you don’t have vegetarians in the house, render down equal parts of lamb, pork and beef with a roughly 20% fat content and no bones, over very low heat until the meat is fork tender and the fat has completely liquified. Then add your Blendtec tomato preparation, sans olive oil. After more slow cooking (covered, then uncovered) you’ll have a fantastic Bolognese.

When Dragon Meets Pig

Dragons are notoriously hungry and they don’t approach their meals delicately.  So it is no surprise that they shred their victims prior to consuming them.  For me, to make this a little easier, I decided to slow cook it.  Descending upon it from on high and using my imaginary talons would not have worked so well.  And then I’d heve been yelled at for making a mess in the kitchen.

So, instead, I followed this recipe for slow-cooked pulled pork.

To top it, I read a few recipes and concocted this for the BBQ sauce:

  • 2c ketchup
  • 2T cider vinegar
  • 1T cumin
  • 1T garlic powder
  • 2t ground coriander seed
  • 1t chipotle powder
  • 1t black pepper
  • Put all in a pan. Mix. Warm over low/med-low heat until it bubbles. Stir. Cook for 15 minutes stirring occasionally.

I really enjoy pork and chicken in this stereotypical southern style.  This comes out as no exception to that.  The pork recipe yields a moist, slightly sweet, nicely seasoned meat.  The sauce has the right kind of heat and tang to it to make a perfect accent.  Not quite dragon fire, but heat is noticeable.  And so… dragon meets pig.

Bubbling Caldron of Enchanted Elixir

Lest you all begin to fear that this kitchen kleric is a kloset vegan, I offer you this tasty preparation.

Get a pork shoulder. If you can find it, get boar (darker meat, more flavor).

You will also need lemon grass, hot peppers and kaffir lime leaves. Chop the lemon grass coarsely.

Put the shoulder into a Dutch oven fat side down with the chopped lemon grass and leaves on top and the hot peppers down at the bottom (when the vessel begins to fill with fat and water, the capsaicin in the hot peppers will bond with the fat so that the heat can infuse the whole dish). Cover with the lid and place in a 250 degree (or lower if you have lots and lots of time) oven for at least six hours. If you can stand it, 200 degrees and 12 hours is better.

Open the vessel. You should have several inches of water, fat and gelatin. Use a pair whatever relevant tools you have handy to pull the pork into the liquid. If you’re having difficulty with this, you may want to actually cook it longer, not all the fat and connective tissue have melted yet. Once everything is shredded, add a generous amount of Thai basil leaves and return the vessel, uncovered, to a very, very hot (at least 450) oven.

Just get a vigorous bubble going, and then you’re done.

Serve the shredded meat in a small pool of the broth you have produced, but not as if this is a soup. Let people salt to their own taste. I happen to like it with almost none, myself.

It is also possible to use the broth to make a Thai style curry and then you can pair this with steamed Jasmine rice or rice noodles.

Sorry, I’m drooling, I need to stop writing.