I also enjoy cream-colored ponies and crisp apple streudel.

Porker Schnitzel

Each winter I inevitably start a torrid affair with a particular dinner, and by the time the ground begins to thaw, neither I nor Mr. P want to eat it ever again. It took several years for us to warm back up to pork chops fried with onions, and then there was the dark nothing-but-casserole period a while back. Presently, nothing can to fill my existential void save for pork schnitzel (Schnitzel Wiener Art).

My parents, the jet-setting Mr. and Mrs. S, spent several years early in their marriage teaching at a boarding school in Germany (which, of course, was run in a converted medieval castle, and their living quarters were the tower). My father had been working there for a year before he spent a vacation back home in the US and then reappeared at the new term with a new bride. He had previously developed a penchant for the schnitzel served two doors down from his place/the tower at the Anker Bar, run by the cheerful Annie and mischievous Hans, who, having lost his ring finger down to the second knuckle in WWII, took delight in scrutinizing the face of a patron shaking his hand for the first time as he wiggled the stump good-humoredly against an unsuspecting palm.

My father, a creature of unfaltering habit, would have a schnitzel for dinner, and another for dessert. Upon the newlyweds’ first visit to the Anker, Annie took my mother back into the kitchen and taught her how to make the schnitzel Herr Smith enjoyed, so that the young bride might better please her new lord and master. The ever-gracious Mrs. S stifled all smart remarks and I subsequently grew up eating professional-tier schnitzel at home. It’s my ultimate comfort food, and my comfort tank’s running on E these days.

Nothing conveys comfort like hammering the crap out of some pork, coating it with starch, protein, and more starch, then frying it up in a nice half inch of hot oil. Take heed; without lemons, you will not be able to move after consuming this meal. I was out of lemons and made do with some bottled juice, and now I’m looking at an 8 PM bedtime. While I wish I could boast about my homemade green beans and spaetzle, I use the frozen Bird’s Eye package (but follow the stove-top directions, not those for the microwave), and while I’m disclosing, the wild rice is Uncle Ben’s. I buy it by the six-pack from BJ’s and hide it in the back of the pantry. Mr. P won’t say exactly what Benjamin did to him, but I’ve seldom seen him hate someone with such elan.

6 boneless pork chops, fat trimmed, pounded until you can almost see through them
1/2 C flour
2 eggs, beaten, in a shallow bowl
1 C breadcrumbs, on a plate
salt and pepper
2 lemons, sliced into thin rings
1 lemon, quartered, for squirting
vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter

Heat up about a half inch of vegetable oil over medium-high in a wide skillet (I believe my mother uses butter, but I live for the crunch). Combine the flour, some salt and some pepper in a medium bowl, then spread it out on a plate. Dredge a pounded chop through the mixture, coating completely, then in the beaten egg, dripping off any excess, then lay it down in the breadcrumbs. Cover up every millimeter of that bad Larry with crumbs, and immediately place it into the piping oil.

Repeat with two more chops, or as many as you can fit in the pan while maintaining personal space. Do not get all the chops ready first; this is not an assembly line. Fry the pork for 2 to 3 minutes, then flip and fry for 2 to 3 more, depending on how much pride you took in your pounding. Transfer the cooked pork to a plate lined with a paper towel, add enough oil to the pan to get back to half an inch, then cook the remaining chops.

Once round 2 is complete, transfer the pork to the stand-by plate, and add the butter to the pan, still over medium heat. Cook this heavenly sludge for a few minutes and drizzle it over the schnitzel once it’s plated. Follow the drizzle with a squirt of lemon, and arrange a few lemon slices on top. Go ahead and treat yourself to some boxed sides — tell em Mrs. P said it’s all right. But just this once.

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.

Sometimes you want your dinner in a bowl.

West Meets West Rice and Sausage

Thanks go out to Sra. C for this hearty, sinus-clearing, one-pot meal. My mother in law freely admits that she’s an easily distracted cook, but when it comes to white rice, she’s always on her game. Plain Puerto Rican white rice is one of the most difficult things for an outsider to master, but that will be an entirely separate post, and a snarky one at that.

The base for this button-popper is a sort of sauce called sofrito, a Puerto Rican staple used in many rice dishes, soups and stews. Every home cook on the island has their own signature recipe for the blend of peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro, but the two essential ingredients are an herb called recao, and ají dulce, a sweet pepper grown on the island. The red color comes from the annatto oil in which the vegetables are cooked, and oh yeah, that stain’s not going to come out. Since I have neither access to the necessary peppers nor a life-long cultivated sense of pride in the matter, I use Goya sofrito, which comes in a jar found in, you guessed it, the international section.

1 16-oz pkg spicy Italian sausage
2 C uncooked medium grain white rice
4 C boiling water
1 8-oz can Spanish style tomato sauce
1/2 C sofrito
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 tbsp capers
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper

Slice the sausage into 1″ rounds, keeping the casing intact on as many chunks as possible. Heat 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium-high, and brown the meat on all sides (it does not need to be completely cooked), then transfer the sausage to a bowl. Leaving the drippings in the pot, add the tomato sauce, sofrito, oil, capers and spices. Mix everything together and cook it over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the sausage and rice, then pour in enough boiling water to come up 1″ above the rice. Stir once, and boil uncovered over medium-high until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and cook for another 30 minutes.

I trust that by this point I’ve got you feeling appropriately nervous about undercooked meat, but I assure you, this method gets the job done.

Here’s what you should have done.

The Wood Sisters’ Pork Stuffing

This Thanksgiving I stuffed my vegetarian, pasture-frolicking, creep-free turkey with one of my most delicious family traditions. Standard fowl treatment for my great-grandmother, grandmother, aunts and mother, this classic French-Canadian stuffing tastes best when made by the lovely and benevolent Mrs. Smith, or as my father and I refer to her, the Saint. Her genuine faith in humanity, a career dedicated to improving the lives of others, her healthy lifestyle and a distaste for inappropriate men’s jokes can occasionally make us look rather bad in comparison. As you can surmise, we do not poke fun at my slightly terrifying mother.

This is a versatile recipe that can, with one alteration, fill a phenomenal pork pie. My mother used to work with a few gentlemen from the enigmatic French Canada, who fondly recalled stories of their time as altar boys in a Franco-American parish; “at midnight mass on Christmas the locals, having celebrated all night with brandy, cognac, and cigars, and fortified with a couple of pork pies, would present themselves at the communion rail, gaze heavenward, extend their tongues, and bowl the altar boys over with their breath. And there isn’t even any garlic in the recipe.” It’s truly a happy Thanksgiving when you head to bed not only with a delightfully distended belly, but also the assurance that your food coma won’t be delayed by any misguided amorous propositions.

2 lbs ground pork
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 sleeves saltine crackers, finely crumbled
2 tbsp shortening
2 tsp Bells Seasoning

Heat the shortening over medium-high in a large saucepan. Once it’s hot, add the onions and sauté until they’re soft, but don’t let them brown. Then crumble in the pork , mix it in with the onions, and cook it until there’s NO PINK to be found. Recovery from undercooked ground pork is a miserable and unattractive process. After browning (graying, actually), add enough water to the pot to cover the pork completely, reduce the heat to low, and simmer it for an hour. Then cover the pot and stick it in the fridge overnight.

Good morning! Time to pick off any visible fat deposits from the top of your cold meat mass. Proceed to sprinkle in the Bells, and mix in; you’ll notice that the hunk crumbles easily when jabbed. Stir in the cracker crumbs, and use your hands to mash everything together. Pack up your washed and dried bird, and bake any extra in a heat-proof dish for a half hour. You can either serve two separate stuffings (bird-in and bird-out), or you can combine them to give the whole thing a subtle crunch. Who doesn’t want that?

Note: You may omit the crackers from the recipe to make filling for pork pies, in which case you would double the recipe for standard pie crust to allow for a top crust.

She might as well call them oriental.

Tiny Meatballs

“Amuse bouche” is a term that makes me want to pistol-whip the utterer. I love the French language, the cheeses, the handful of representatives that I’ve met, but there is a dainty threshold, and “amuse bouche” crosses it. When “nibbly num-num” provides a less infuriating alternative, it’s time to consider reining in the cuteness. Or, we could just stop the categorizing at hors d’oeuvres and call individual items what they are. This self-explanatory HD is my simplified version of Martha’s Asian Meatballs on Snow Pea Picks, the introduction to which begins, “meatballs are an important part of classic Chinese cooking.” Her switch between the continental and national as synonyms troubles me, but we’re all bigots on some level(s), and I’ll own up to cleaning my house extra hard if my Puerto Rican in-laws are coming to visit. I can’t help it, their spotless floors put me to shame.

1 pound ground pork
6 oz sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing (I suspect this may be where Martha’s recipe veers from the traditional Chinese)
1/2 C chicken stock
1/4 C finely chopped water chestnuts
1 small shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
4 tsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 tsp brown sugar (preferably dark)
1 tsp ginger (powder)
1 tsp dried cilantro
1 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp chili paste
salt and pepper

Set your oven to 400. In a large bowl, combine the pork, sausage, shallot, water chestnuts, ginger and cilantro, and 2 tsp soy sauce with your hands, squishing the meats into one another until no distinction remains. Roll the mixture into 1″ balls and put them in a roasting pan. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes, shaking the pan at 10 and 20 to encourage even cooking. Take the meatballs out and cut one in half to verify that they’re done, then transfer the balls to a heat-proof bowl and put them back in the oven at 200 to keep warm.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 1 tbsp water. Set the roasting pan over a burner and turn the heat on to medium. Add the garlic to the pan, then the chicken stock, and whisk well, scrapping the bottom and sides to loosen any sticky bits. Stir in the rest of the soy sauce, the brown sugar and the chili paste. Once the mixture reaches a boil, whisk in the cornstarch liquid and cook to thicken for about a minute. Take the meatballs out of the oven, put them in a serving bowl, and pour the sauce over them, stirring gently to distribute.

You’ll see I’ve omitted the snow peas from Martha’s recipe. They’re an unnecessary and tropey distraction, since we’ve already established that we’re going for “asian-ish,” what with the Italian sausage. If you must, go ahead and throw some finely ringed scallions over the whole thing. Make sure that toothpicks and small plates are within reach of these, as they’re sticky and you don’t want guests getting creative about wiping their fingers.

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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