If you use a plate, you use a fork.

Buttermilk Fried Vehicle for Fried Buttermilk

I know next to nothing about the South. Why would I? I recoil from sun and heat, reserve physical affection for family, the Hamiltons, and Jess D, and prefer not to make eye contact with strangers, especially in crowds. When I first became aware of the “see something, say something” campaign at train stations and airports, I was slightly taken aback that the administration would assume I was in the habit of taking stock of my fellow passengers. Once the practice of noticing people becomes acceptable etiquette, the terrorists have won. No, I’ll keep my eyes quietly glued to my Maugham novel all the way to my grave, thank you very much.

As mysterious and stressful as I find Southern culture, the food is another story; I can be bought with fried chicken. My first successfully fried chicken (I usually wind up with fried chicken and fried flour) is courtesy of Simply Recipes, a site that garners more of my trust with every new recipe. I was nervous that the eight hours my refrigerator invested soaking the chicken in herbed buttermilk might be wasted, but the payoff was nothing short of magnificent. There was little conversation at dinner this evening, and both Mr. P and I were relieved that our new rice cooker botched the starch, opening up some unexpected gastronomical real estate. It’s not at all greasy, no small feat considering the two cups of oil you get going, and if you use grape seed oil without actually reading the recommended article on its health benefits, the sky is the nutrient-rich limit! A squirt of lemon juice rendered the whole thing intolerably good — so good that I’m still just a little furious.

We have to stop eating like this.

Really? Malta Short Ribs

Like many Americans, we don’t watch TV anymore; we watch laptop. We have a Roku box hooked up to the TV, to which we stream our Netflix account and Amazon On Demand purchases, but since I spend most of my day in the living room, I like to move into the office for a change of scenery in the evening. Ultimately, Billy the Kid has a wall-mounted flat-screen HDTV, and his parents watch the majority of their programs huddled around a 17″ computer screen. Of the handful of shows we follow, the most painfully awaited each week is, without a doubt, Top Chef.

We are obsessed with Top Chef, and by we, I mean Mr. P. I deem the Bravo reality show solid (and hunger-inducing) entertainment, but in the absence of cable television, my husband has redirected the zest he would have invested in football toward competitive cooking. I usually draw or decoupage for the beginning of the show, focusing in mainly when a final dish is plated or a winner/loser announced; my husband not only ranks his favorite seasons and players/chefs within each season, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each, but also validates his appraisals through sites like this. Wait for it…there’s even more.

I had never heard of short ribs before I started watching the show, but it quickly became clear that the rib/plate/chuck combo cut could either open new doors for contestants, or windows out of which to throw them. While watching a back episode from Season 4, in which the particularly brazen Richard Blais wins Round I of the finale (held in Puerto Rico) with his Pork Ribs with Malta and Soy Glaze, I searched online for a similar recipe, and found one that looked fairly reasonable on this visual trainwreck of a site. I’ve typed out the recipe below, since the contributing chef seems too distracted to actually get all his ingredients into the dish. To his credit, his ribs are absolutely delicious, and so succulent you can leave the knives off from the place-settings. But really, can there be true redemption from such abhorrent self-editing?

3 lbs short ribs (by definition, beef)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 packet Goya Sazon
1/8 to 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cachucha peppers, minced (or any small, mild peppers)
1 12-oz bottle Goya Malta
1 1/2 C beef stock
1 small can Goya Spanish-style tomato sauce
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Set your oven to 350. Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high, and dry the meat off on a paper towel. Rub the ribs with salt and pepper, then brown them on each side for 4 minutes. Remove them from the pan, add the onions, and cook for about 4 minutes, until they start to soften. Add the peppers and garlic and cook for 2 minutes, then add the tomato sauce and cook for 2 minutes more.

Return the ribs to the pan, add the Sazon, cayenne pepper, Malta, and beef stock, and stir it up until combined. Add salt if you didn’t adequately cake your ribs prior to browning, and cook the whole thing for another 3 minutes, then cover the pot and stick it in the oven for 3 hours.

These were superb with Puerto Rican-style white rice, and I have a feeling they’d also pair well with boiled Russett potatoes. Unfortunately, I’ll never know, since I now have a tilde in my last name.

Mary’s had a little lamb.

Lemon-Pepper Lamb Chops

While I thought my days of ovine infanticide were behind me, I found myself standing in front of an almost completely barren meat counter at my Hannaford last night, save for an abundance of “Manager’s Special” lamb chop 4-packs. After gazing covetously at the bounty while absent-mindedly stroking my rapidly-increasing belly for several minutes, I submitted to temptation, shamefully buried the thickest cuts I could find under some paper towel rolls, and the Peña’s proceeded to heartily enjoy the tastiest of Easter metaphors.

To my chagrin, my spice cupboard has hit an embarrassingly low supply, and I’m fresh out of parsley, sage, rosemary and, you guessed it, thyme. So I shook a little lemon-pepper powder on each side of the chops, rubbed on some olive oil, and tossed them under the broiler for 5 minutes, then flipped them over and gave them another 7. Not wanting to detract from the headliner, I plated the chops with baked potatoes and a Fresh Express BLT Cesar Salad, a product that widely surpasses bagged salad expectations. Unfortunately, I was unable to contain myself long enough to take any pictures.

Mr. Peña and I spent dinner (all 6 minutes of it), in lama-like communion with our plates, and for at least 10 minutes afterward, I felt almost alive for the first time since I undertook my latest chromosomal oeuvre. There’s no way to convey the delicate gaminess of the wrongest of meats, the slight rose-petal quality of the ruddy medium-rare flesh, the enthusiasm of the fat as it bows cheerfully for your knife. If you’re as evil as I am underneath it all, go ahead and make it a yearly transgression. Whatever your religion, atonement will be worth it.

A Beefy Return

Ladies’ Beef Stew

My favorite place is my local Hannaford market. While the main Lowell store is larger with a bigger selection, Billy the Kid and I prefer the closer and smaller Dracut location, with clerks that know us by name and two buggy-carts, one of which is almost always available at 9:20 in the morning. Last week, while BK unpacked the cart into a precarious tower on the belt, I noticed the in-house publication, “Fresh,” for the first time, free with a purchase of $25. It’s done shockingly well considering its primary value as marketing collateral, with little self-aggrandizement and absolutely no paid advertising. The January/February issue features a bunch of soups and stews, as well as various comfort foods and chocolate desserts.

The first recipe I chose to execute was for Cinnamon-Spiced Beef Stew, an odd title for the corresponding anise-explosion. Fennel seeds are usually used in moderation, but creator Nina Simonds is not taking any chances that you might miss the parfum. I followed the recipe below exactly, but next time I’ll halve the fennel, as I don’t need to address my dinner as “madam.”

2 tbsp olive or canola oil
2 lb Angus round stewing beef
2 tbsp flour
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 onion, each cut into 6 wedges
1 1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cut in quarters
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp fennel seeds
3/4 C full-bodied red wine (Shiraz or Cabernet)
1 lb peeled baby carrots
3/4 C reduced-sodium beef broth
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp salt (a charming but ridiculous suggestion – use 1 tsp)

Put the flour and beef in a large mixing bowl and toss with a wooden spoon until the meat is completely coated. Heat up 2 tsp of the oil a large pot over medium-high. Add half of the beef and sauté until golden-brown on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the seared meat to a bowl, add another 2 tsp of oil to the pot, and throw in the remaining beef. Repeat the sauté, then transfer to the cooked-meat bowl.

Add the last 2 tsp of oil to the pot, give it a minute to heat up, then add the garlic, onions, mushrooms, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds. Sauté over medium heat for 1 minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add 3 tbsp of the red wine, and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Cover it up and cook until the onions are limp, about 3 minutes.

Return the seared beef and any juices to the pot, and add the carrots, remaining wine and broth. Stir everything up well, bring the liquid to a boil, cover it back up and turn the heat down to low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beef and vegetables are tender. I must intercede here; the author estimates cooking time to be 1 hour 15 minutes after the final covering, but your meat will not be tender for at least another 45. Plan accordingly.

Stir in salt and pepper before serving (unless you’ve been adding them all along the way), and serve with potatoes or crusty bread.

I love the twentieth century.

Exactly Nine Spectacular Meatballs

The first time I made meatballs, I took the name at face value, balled up and fried some ground beef, and wound up with leaden orbs more suitable for sport than supper. Over the years, I’ve tried countless recipes and made dozens of balls, the majority of which have been inedible; I can’t get the soak-bread-in-milk-and-then-squeeze technique to result in anything other than frown-inducing weirdness. The successful exceptions have problematically yielded enough meat to feed a hockey team of third-trimester expectant mothers.

Perhaps I’m the last to discover the miracle of “meatball blend,” a mix of ground beef, pork and veal, combined and packaged in convenient one-pound units. No longer must a family of three ball in bulk. Last night, for the first time ever, I executed a leftover-less spaghetti and meatball dinner. May I present exactly nine spectacular meatballs.

1 lb meatball blend ground meat
1/3 C plain breadcrumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano (use fresh if you want, and have fun with that moist bag of wilted herb in your crisper)
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Skin-to-raw-meat-contact alert! Mix everything up in a big bowl, combining first with a fork, then going in with your hands. Knead until you can’t detect any egg slime, then knead a little more. Roll up 9 3″ balls, and pack them tightly or you’ll end up with more of a meat-scone.

Heat 1/4 C vegetable oil in a large pan over medium-high (a cast iron seasoning opportunity, perhaps?) and add the balls once it’s hot but not smoking. Let them fry for 1 minute, then gently give each a quarter turn, and fry for 1 minute more. Keep quarter-turning in the same direction every 1 minute until the balls are brown around the middles. Then give each ball’s two remaining pink areas 1 minute, and your meatballs should be nicely sealed. Turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook and turn for about 5 more minutes (once brown, the meatballs will be much easier to move around without compromising their shape).

Now it’s time to sacrifice a ball. Remove one from the pan and cut it in half. It might be done, but it probably needs a few more minutes. After you determine the time left, throw the two halves back in the pan, cut side down, so they brown before going into your sauce.

Once you’ve transferred the meatballs to the sauce, pour most of the fat out of the pan, but leave 4 tbsp behind and use a metal spatula to scrape off anything stuck to the bottom. You say sludge, I say ambrosia. Either way, it will transform a jar of supermarket pasta sauce into something of which you’ll be eating much more than you had  planned.

A Beefy New Year

T-Bone Peña

My resolution for the new year has been to expand my sauce repertoire, from béchamels and gravies to reductions and compotes. I’m also striving to take more risks with bottled staples and spices, so hold onto your hat, Mr. P! Speaking of whom, my doting and cultured spouse was the fortunate recipient this Christmas of four perfect T-bones from my father, Mr. S. We had the final steak last night (our cheeks have never been rosier), and I was delighted that the following tastes as good as I had imagined.

1 1-1/2″ thick T-bone steak
1 12-oz pkg white button mushrooms, sliced with stems
3 tbsp salted butter
1/2 C sherry
1/2 tsp nutmeg
4 drops Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper

Position the top oven rack so that the meat will be 2″ from the flame and turn your broiler on to high. Season the steak on both sides with salt and pepper and place it on a rack over a roasting pan, then stick it in the oven directly under the fire. 10 minutes per side should do it, as it will sit for a few minutes out of the oven while you finish the mushroom sauce.

Melt 2 tbsp of butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. When the foaming subsides, add the mushrooms and toss to coat. After a few minutes, put the remaining 1 tbsp chunk of butter in the middle of the pan and swirl it around the bottom, through the mushrooms, as it melts. At this point, your mushrooms should be sufficiently buttered. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until they release quite a bit of water. When most of it’s evaporated, sprinkle in the nutmeg and stir briefly before pouring in 1/4 C of the sherry. Boil down the liquid until the mushrooms are dark brown and just moist, then transfer them to a bowl and set it on the stove top to stay warm.

Ding! Did you manage to complete the above paragraph in 20 minutes and remember to turn the steak half-way through? If so, you should be pleased with yourself. Park the steak elsewhere and pour the fat out of the pan, then place it on a burner set to medium-high heat. Once it’s hot, pour in the other 1/4 C sherry, and swirl it around in the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen anything sticky. When it boils, incorporate the Worcestershire, throw in the mushrooms, stir, and continue cooking until they’re hot through and the sauce has thickened slightly, about 3 minutes. Serve atop your T-bone, and don’t worry about a starch, though a salad actually works well here, bite my tongue.

Who’s got my hanger steak?

Come On, Martha, London Broil

Once a month, I browse the menus section of marthastewart.com for the latest trends in American WASP fare, which frequently involve anglicizing up a European, Asian, or South American dish based on an uncommon cut of meat. So I should have braced myself for disappointment before heading out with Billy the Kid to pick up the ingredients for her French Hanger Steak with Shallots. Now, BK loves a trip to Hannaford. He inspects the apples and pumpkins if in season, checks the swing-back on the frozen foods doors, and enjoys trapping an unsuspecting bagger into a game of “hiya.” However, after two Hannafords and a Market Basket in search of the elusive steer diaphragm, we were both cranky and in need of a doughnut. Alas, these are not Butcher Boy times. So, I used a London broil instead, and since I have no idea what hanger steak tastes like, nor its formerly conjoined twin, the skirt steak, I didn’t miss the aromatic “trace of kidney” reported by admiring butchers. Both Mr. P and I agreed that this is even better than Spot-on London Broil, but then again, we’ve had that a lot lately; it’s a cheap cut and I’m strictly pro bono at present.

1 London broil
1/4 C olive oil
2 tbsp butter (come on, Martha, you want me to sauté shallots in oil?)
1/4 C cooking sherry
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
5 shallots, quartered
salt and pepper

Whisk together the oil, sherry, garlic, mustard, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. Marinate the meat for 2 hours, sealed at room temperature.

Set the highest rack to allow for two inches between the meat and the flame, and turn the broiler onto high. Transfer the steak to a wire rack over a roasting pan or a broiler pan. Broil for 7 to 10 minutes (depending on thickness), turn with tongs, broil another 7 to 10, and the internal temperature should be just under 140. Take it out of the oven (is that condescending?) and let it stand on the rack for 5 minutes before slicing it into thin strips parallel to that infernal diagonal fat ribbon.

While the oven does its job, heat the butter in a skillet over medium and when it stops foaming, add the shallots. Separate the layers as they soften, and cook them until they caramelize, then turn the heat down to warm until the steak is done. We had no problem polishing off all the shallots with a modest steak, so don’t hold back while piling them on.

We’re having pork for dinner. Yes, again.

Cuban Roast Pork Loin

In mental preparation for Billy the Kid’s introduction to trick-or-treating tomorrow, Team Peña will sit out this particular date night and pack it in early after a big hot supper. It’s a great season for loin, and this is an easy way to pull of an unconscionably succulent piece of meat. As opposed to Pork Tenderloin with Guava Chutney, this recipe uses the intact, unsplit tenderloin and roasts rather than broils it. The resulting presentation is more handsome than dainty, but surprisingly light due to the not-too-sweet citrus marinade.

1 whole pork tenderloin
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 C fresh orange juice
1/4 C fresh lime juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter

Combine the garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and 1 tbsp olive oil in a small bowl and mash them together with a fork to form a paste. Go ahead and rub that all over your loin. Put the seasoned meat in a gallon ziplock bag and pour in the lime and orange juices. Seal it up and stick it in the fridge for 2 hours.

Set your oven to 325. Put a medium roasting pan over two burners on your stove and turn both to medium. Heat the butter and the remaining 1 tbsp of oil in the pan until the foaming subsides, then brown the pork on all sides (this takes about 8 minutes in total). Turn off the stove, pour the marinade into the pan, and cover it up with aluminum foil. Roast the loin for 45 minutes until cooked all the way through (always 160 degrees for pork), then let it stand for 10 minutes before slicing into 1/2-inch rounds.

I’d like to take a moment to remind everyone to inspect their garlic at the store before checking out. In my hustle to complete today’s grocery trip quickly and spare my favorite market from a certain grabby-hands, I selected what appeared to be a perfectly healthy bunch from the bin. Back at the kitchen, I broke off the first clove and my eyes immediately teared up from the physical smack of Satan’s breath mint. I  consider myself fortunate to have lived this long without encountering bad garlic, and after one more hour airing out the house, this lesson should hold me indefinitely.

If you made bread out of meat, you wouldn’t need sandwiches.

Fortified Meat Loaf

About once a month, my body sounds the scurvy warning, necessitating consumption of green vegetable. “But what about the children?” you might worry. No need, as vegetable is the one food group that Billy the Kid seldom sends back to the kitchen, and he gets some with two meals every day. He distrusts sandwiches, automatically vetoes red sauce, and becomes livid upon discovery of other than potato inside a battered and fried stick, but he’ll put away a bowl of canned peas like nobody’s business. So put the phone down, we don’t need to involve the state. Ground chuck is the Borg of the food universe, incorporating unsuspecting ingredients into its mass, extracting any useful flavors, and overwhelming the rest with its relentlessly rich beefiness. Please note that I am not a huge Star Trek fan, I just admire the stoic hustle with which the Borg implements its business plan.

2 C finely chopped onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 finely chopped celery stalk
1 finely chopped carrot
1 finely chopped broccoli stalk, no florets
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2/3 C ketchup (to be used in 1/3 C quantities)
1 1/2 lb ground chuck
3/4 lb ground pork
2 egss, beaten
1/3 C minced fresh parsley
2 tbsp butter

Set your oven to 350. Heat the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Cook the onion, garlic, celery, carrot, broccoli and scallion for 5 minutes, until they start to soften. Stir 1/3 C ketchup and the salt and pepper into the pan, and cook for one minute. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl, draining any remaining oil back into the pan. Mix the Worcestershire sauce and eggs into the mixture and combine thoroughly.

If you’re a hypochondriac, now’s the time to grab a fresh pair of polyethylenes. Put the chuck and pork in the bowl and use your hands to mix it up. I use Mr. P’s noise-canceling headphones for this step, as the sound of a baby alien clawing it’s way out of someone’s midsection makes me gag. Once it’s ready, pack it into a standard glass or metal loaf pan, brush the remaining 1/3 C ketchup onto the top, and sprinkle with parsley. Bake it for an hour, and use a meat thermometer to check that the center has reached 160. You’ve got pork and eggs in there, let’s not play with fire.

I’ll admit to making gravy from a McCormick packet for this one. You’re not left with any drippings in the cooking process, so you really don’t have much of a choice. But instead of adding water directly to the powder, heat 2 tbsp of butter in a pan over medium heat and once the foaming subsides, stir in the powder to form a roux. Then add the water slowly, stirring constantly to maintain an even, lumpless consistency. Let the finished gravy simmer over low for ten minutes to thicken completely.

This little piggy has chutney…

Pork Tenderloin with Guava Chutney

I cry every time I watch Babe, but a little less if I’ve just eaten good pork. A Peña favorite is bone-in, thinly sliced pork chops with caramelized red onions and white rice, but every few months we’ll upgrade to a tenderloin. Pork, generally a husky meat, is at its most elegant when presented in medium-rare medallions, and this cut’s relatively little saltiness makes it the perfect vehicle for a brazen topper.

1 pork tenderloin (you can buy an individually wrapped half, which feeds 2 people generously, or a split whole tenderloin for up to 5)
1/4 C guava paste (Goya is the easiest to find)
1 large red onion, finely chopped
1 tsp dried cilantro (1 tsp for a half tenderloin,  2 tsp for a whole)
1 tsp crushed red pepper
salt and pepper
olive oil

Set the pork on a rack over a roasting pan. Drizzle the tenderloin with 2 tsp olive oil. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and cilantro onto the top and rub it in with your fingers. You don’t need to do the bottom, as the meat will be broiled, so when you flip it over in the oven, the bottom will be moist. Leave the rubbed pork at room temperature while you prepare the chutney.

Start your broiler. Position the top rack so that there will be two inches between the top of the pork and the flame. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil over med-high heat in a medium pan. Cook the onion until it softens, turning frequently, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to low, add 2 tbsp more olive oil, then add the guava paste to the pan, and break it up with a wooden spoon or spatula.  It will take about 10 minutes for the paste to melt into a thick, syrupy liquid. Once it does, add salt, pepper and 1 tsp crushed red pepper. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and let it sit at room temperature while you cook the pork. Waiting until you’ve finished cooking the chutney to start the pork will give the former just the right amount of time to set, both in terms of flavor and texture.

I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re doing the half-loin. Stick the pork in the oven, so that the flame bar spans the length of the tenderloin (if using a whole, it will take about twice as long to cook, and the halves should be positioned 2″ apart, parallel to each other, equidistant from the flame). Broil the pork for about 10 minutes, until the top begins to brown, then pull the rack out and use tongs to turn the meat over. Give it another 10 minutes to finish cooking. The meat should be completely cooked, just barely rosy in the center. Take it out of the oven and let it stand for five minutes so it reabsorbs some of the juice. The surface will have crisped, so use a super sharp knife to slice the tenderloin at a slight angle into 1/2″ rounds.

Transfer the chutney to a serving dish, skimming off any oil that has accumulated at the surface. This should be an on-the-side option, considering the widespread disdain for public onion consumption. Since you’re serving a starch as well, five end or four center medallions are sufficient for the average dinner guest. Fan them out on the plates if you don’t mind appearing fancy – I certainly don’t. I usually serve this with crispy tinned potatoes; pan-fry drained canned sliced potatoes in HOT vegetable oil with salt, pepper, and fresh parsley, then drain on paper towels before plating.

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