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  • pineapple vinegar 2

    When I think of Mexican cuisine, I think of balance. Mexicans love acidity in their cooking, and that's what makes it so appealing to eat. Though it's a function of living in a warm climate--the same reason Thai cuisine is also fond of citrus, it's a necessary form of preservation--the culinary benefit has outlasted the necessity.

    When you have something rich and heavy in your taco--like, say, hunks of pork shoulder that have been slow-cooked in lard to become authentic carnitas--it is always accompanied by a bright, refreshing salsa to counterbalance it. That's something that's unfortunately lost in translation with so much Americanized Mexican food: the acidity. Americans aren't as fond of it. The typical Mexican restaurant, like the one in my college town of Greencastle, Indiana, serves rich, heavy food that sits in your stomach for hours. Cheese, beans, ground beef, all of it flavorful but nothing to set it all in relief. Your tongue just gets tired.

    A well-made guacamole is a perfect example of this necessary balance. Avocados are wonderful things, creamy and rich, and when you add salt their flavor deepens and becomes round.  But a guacamole really sings with a proper squeeze of lime juice. I've written before about the importance of acidity in seasoning, as important as salt itself, and Mexican cuisine intuitively understands this.

    I'm taking a cuisine of Mexico class right now in culinary school, and one of the things chef continues to refer to is the frugality of Mexican cooking. The frank reality is that most of Mexican cooking was developed by people who didn't have a lot of money. They made use of everything, including the seeds from dried chiles (they can be charred until black and crumbled into salsas to add a complex smokey flavor). And one of the biggest surprises was that the acidity in their cooking doesn't always come from limes.

    Limes and Mexican food seem inseparable, but the reality is that a lime tree can be a luxury, and most families didn't traditionally have more than one. Yet every dish needed that crucial acidity. So what did they do? They made fruit vinegar.

    pineapple vinegar 1

    At the start of our class chef brought in a huge plastic bucket full of homemade pineapple vinegar, and we have used it for many of the dishes as a seasoning. The process of making it is simple: you simply combine the peels of a pineapple with water and brown sugar (actually, the tradition is to use a Mexican sugar called piloncillo, but brown sugar works just as welll) and allow it to become vinegar over the course of a couple weeks. Once you have the "mother," which is the good culture that has hence developed, it can be used to transform more water/sugar into yet more vinegar. It becomes an ever-replenishable well of acidity to be used without much worry of cost.

    My own homemade back of vinegar has just finished, and I just bottled it up. Here's a documentation of the very simple process...which is basically to dump everything in a container and wait around.

  • Cockaigne: an imaginary land of great luxury and ease.
    —Merriam-Webster Dictionary

  • By Blake Royer I recently took a 3.4 pound pork...

    homemadebacon1

    I recently took a 3.4 pound pork belly, rubbed some salt and spices on it, and a week later, it emerged from my refrigerator as the most awe-inspiring bacon I've ever eaten.  I feel simultaneously triumphant and confused: why is this so good, and why was this so easy?

    I knew I was going to make bacon at some point once I began curing meat. People devote entire blogs to the subject of bacon; it's considered a pinnacle of eating, and a vegetarian converter.  But if you haven't made your own bacon, you're missing out on even further worlds of deliciousness. It's like going from a store-bought pie to a real one. Have you seen the way commercial bacon is made?  Huge brining machines filling the bellies with liquid to speed up the curing process to the shortest time possible.  Then, liquid "smoke" goes in.  It's an unnatural process.  Making it yourself, after your first time, seems the most natural thing in the world.  Yet hardly any of us know how to do it.  Bacon comes from the grocery store.

    Again, like all of our meat-curing projects so far--and this is probably sounding like a broken record--homemade cured meat is remarkable not only because of its superior flavor, but also its confounding easiness.  To make homemade bacon, I did almost nothing, except find myself some pork belly and decide on some spices. 

    Which isn't always easy--though any butcher would probably order it for you, and many ethnic markets stock it.  I'm lucky to have access to meat from Fleisher's butchers, a purveyor of exceptional pork and other meats in upstate New York, through Tom Mylan at Diner/Marlow & Sons.  Fleisher's are real trend-setters specializing in organic, pasture-raised meats that are raised kindly and sustainably, and therefore have a superior taste. They sell Berkshire pigs, the pig equivalent of Kobe beef, whose meat "is dark, meaty and richly marbled with a distinctive lush, juicy taste," compared to regular commercial pork which, in comparison, tends to be white, lean, and flavorless.

    Every week Tom gets his meat from them for his restaurant group by ordering entire animals and butchering them in-house--so I called ahead, then stopped by to pick up my belly that same day.  When I arrived, he was moving at high speed because his meat order had come in late.  As I stood in a tiny square foot corner of the butchering room, just behind the door to the walk-in cooler, Tom took an entire half pig, which had been split right down the middle, and, using a combination of a saw and knife, broke it down into ham, shoulder, ribs, a stretch of pork chops running the entire back length, and finally, the belly.  Seeing this happen so matter-of-factly in the back of a restaurant felt very unceremonious.  But it was also an astonishing sight: here was a pig, and minutes later, here was a rack of ribs and some pork chops.  The pieces of meat I was seeing weren't abstracted; I saw, literally, where they came from. 

    Tom needed most of the belly for the restaurant, but he sliced me a 3.4 pound triangle from one end, and sent me on my way.

  • bangkok chicken 3
    The crackliest chicken you can imagine.

    I caught your attention with that title, didn't I? Well, the same thing happened to me, when I stumbled on a recipe in The Atlantic.com's food section in a post about Bangkok street vendor fried chicken--the recipe for which the author cajoled from the street vendor, then scaled down for use in the kitchen. And yes, he called it better than Southern fried chicken here in the U.S.

    Bangkok is a fascinating place which I'd love to visit someday. The cuisine there encompasses not only the various styles of Thai cooking--Southern, Northern, Northeastern, and Central--but also neighboring cuisines from Burma, Malaysia, and especially China. I became particularly fascinated with the place upon reading a recent piece in a recent issue of The Art of Eating, the always-thorough and thoughtful food magazine that we've recommended in the past.

    From the author's passionate words about this fried chicken, I was convinced to try it. He wrote about this food with deep feeling and respect, recalling the chicken's superbly crackly crust, a flavor imbued with fish sauce and cilantro and a hit of black pepper, and painting an image of a mysterious man on a bicycle with a propane tank who prepared it right in the street.

    bangkok chicken 2
    I went for the cheapest bag of rice flour

    The key difference between Southern fried chicken and Bangkok fried chicken is rice flour. Rice flour produces a lighter result than wheat, and can give food a remarkable crispness (It's popular with gluten-free eaters, and some people even prefer a pizza dough made from rice flour because of that crispness). But it's been used in Asia forever in all kinds of dishes, and batter for fried chicken is one of them.

    I don't know much about rice flour, but it wasn't hard to find at the local Korean market. I saw prices for the same amount of rice flour as high as $5.99 and as low as 99 cents.

    bangkok chicken 1

    I prepared the recipe with great anticipation, allowing the chicken to marinate in heady mixture of cilantro stems, black pepper, fish sauce, garlic, chile flakes, chicken stock, and the all-important rice flour for 24 hours. Then I got some hot oil going in a Dutch oven and even dug up my thermometer to make sure I had the temperature right. I cooked it up and it looked fantastic.

  • jerk chicken 19

    My first bite of jerk chicken, fresh from two hours of mingling with smoke, was everything I wanted it to be.  The rub of allspice berries and black peppercorns mixed with fresh ginger and thyme and created this incredible aroma --one that I couldn't help but adore.  I was completely happy and content until quickly, and without much warning, the spice hit.  A double dose of habanero cut through all of that complexity, ringing my lips with intense heat that unleashed the first of many small tears to drip down my face.  I took a drink of wine, which only seemed to ignite the pain even more.  I reached for a glass milk to squelch what I could, but it only delayed the onslaught.  Against what should have been better judgment, I dug back in for another bite. 

    I had been interested in jerk chicken ever since watching Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations eat some out on the nighttime streets of Jamaica.  These roadside stands cooked them in enormous old oil-drums that had been retrofitted into smokers.  The chickens were rubbed with a jerk spice mixture of allspice berries and scotch bonnets (a relative of the habanero), among many other things, that turned the flesh a deep, dark brown, just one shade away from black.  But when Boudain bite in, the flesh shone white and juicy.  I wanted some.

    For help I used this New York Times article that explored the jerk chicken available around Brooklyn.  It was then that I found out what was in the spice rub.  The predominant ingredient was allspice, something I don't really use that much.  But it seemed to be absolutely crucial to the dish.  In fact, on the island of Jamaica they use the wood from the allspice tree to cook the meat.  Something, unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to use.  Oh well.  I used some nice and mild apple wood.   The rub also included black peppercorns, thyme, ginger, garlic, scallion, and brown sugar.  I could smell it already.

    I also found this recipe from eGullet, and I loved how they traded the dried and ground spices for fresh ones.  They toasted whole allspice berries with black peppercorns and then ground them fresh.  What it honestly reminded me of was the care and patience that goes into a good barbecue rub. 

    jerk chicken 02

    But its insane heat sets it apart.  Mixed in with all of these spices were two habaneros.  The spice of these is unlike that of, say, a whole bunch of blunt jalapenos.  Those are nothing.  One of these little orange guys can completely change the feeling of a dish, and two, well, is just crazy.  I thought about adding that third one, but I might not have lived through the experience had I gone through with it.  Surely, this is not a dish for those who don't really like spice, or who think jalapenos to be a tad risqué.  I shirk such thoughts.  Give me more.

  • how to make paneer 1

    The concept of making cheese has always fascinated me, the idea that you can take milk and add a little acid (or rennet) to magically separate it into curds and whey. Milk seems like such a stable liquid, a wholesome elixir of childhood, but with a little citric acid, lemon juice, yogurt, or rennet it completely de-stabalizes into thin, watery whey and fat chunks of curd.

    What you do with the curd presents endless possibilities. In Montreal they stud it into gravy-covered fries to make Poutine, a glorious dish I had the pleasure to sample in a search through Montreal. But usually what the curds become is proper cheese, pressed into molds to age with various bacterial cultures, becoming anything from Cheddar to Parmesan.

    There are many cheeses, though, that require no aging or bacterial cultures: ricotta, for example, or Greek feta.

    Though Nick has explored making ricotta cheese using citric acid tablets, I was on the search for something made more easily with household ingredients. Ricotta is sometimes made with lemon juice, and I thought about exploring that--but I've recently become fascinated by paneer, which is an Indian cheese that's heavily pressed into cakes and fried.  While ricotta is meant to be fluffy and creamy, all the liquid is mercilesly pressed from paneer to make a dense, crumbly cake. Its taste is clean and milky, and I love how it can be caramelized in a pan -- the combination of savory and dairy is intriguing.

    how to make paneer 8

    A while back, a good friend of mine in New York from India had his parents in town visiting, and they cooked a lavish meal for a handful of friends. One of the dishes was Mattar Paneer, a simple curry with peas and  paneer (the literal translation is "Peas and Cheese"). His mother was kind enough to email me the recipe, both for homemade paneer and the curry.  The paneer recipe is the only one I've seen that uses yogurt instead of lemon juice or vinegar.

    What follows is a step-by-step, fully photographed overview of the process.  It's pretty foolproof, and a lot of fun.

  • bratwurst01

    I have been thinking about bratwurst for days.  What started as an idea for a simple cookout on my little Webber Grill has now completely consumed me because I simply can't find the right recipe.  The question eventually led me to walk into Hot Dougs on a recent Wednesday and ask Mr. Doug himself what was in the sausage. 

    But first, do you know?  What is it, exactly, that makes a bratwurst a bratwurst?  I know this sounds like an obvious question, but really...think about it.   I've been eating them since I was a little kid and they've always been huge off-white sausage stuffed into a bun and slathered with mustard.  I know what to expect when I eat one.  And they certainly don't look like a hot dog.  But I don't honestly know what it is that makes them unique.  Is it the combination of spices, certain kind of meat, or the cooking method? 

    I thought the answer would be simple when I began this search.  I started in the natural place, with Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie.  His bratwurst recipe is a mixture of pork and veal with the "traditional sweet-spice bratwurst flavors of nutmeg and ginger".  But as I read on I realized that there was something awfully different about the resulting sausage.

    The ultimate fresh bratwurst, this is one of the richest sausages here, given it's generous use of cream and eggs.

    Say what?  I wanted the sausage that is stuffed into a casings, poached in beer, and then grilled until crispy on the outside.  The more I looked into it, the more I realized he was probably describing the original German version of the sausage, which I'm absolutely sure is delicious.  But it's not what I wanted. 

    I realized that what I wanted was a Wisconsin bratwurst, the kind that is stuffed in a big bun, and topped with sauerkraut and grainy mustard.  You eat these fresh off a grill with a beer in your hand.  Unfortunately, though there is loads of praise for the Wisconsin specialty, there isn't much talk about what goes into them.  In fact, most recipes out there are for how to cook pre-made sausages, not how to make them from scratch.  That's when my search really began. 

  • 50_1

    Just like your grandmother, I now own a cast-iron skillet.
    by Nick Kindelsperger
  • By Nick Kindelsperger I tend to get caught up on...
  • 50_1

    How to eat fish regularly, economically, with consistent results?