Friday, May 30, 2008

The Saddest News I've Heard Today: From

Tonight for dinner, my father and I went to an Italian (snooze) restaurant called "Trattoria Alberto." Not a bad place (for an Italian restaurant, of which there are SO few creative ones), somewhere between F and G Streets on SE 8th Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Washington D.C. may be our nation's capital, but I can safely say that it's not a food capital. Not even close. That's all I have to say about that.

Regardless, SE 8th Ave is really cute and has lots of promising restaurants (though most end with the word "pub," indicative of at least two kinds of chili cheese fries on the menu) and Trattoria Alberto was pretty decent.

Our server told us the specials, and I immediately ordered the seafood linguine (I was already sad that there wasn't a seafood linguine on the menu, so I jumped at it as soon as the words died on her lips). It was a beautiful plate, I must admit - linguine in white wine sauce piled high with calamari rings (no doubt frozen), butterflied scampi, mussels (mmm...), a few overcooked scallops (retch), and the crowning jewel - half of a lobster.

Which brings me to my news article. Over 60,000 pounds of lobsters died today. That makes me doubly sad most of all because I have a very soft spot in my heart for the crustacean (following a tragic episode in my youth - but that's another blogpost), and also because that's SO many people in the United States who would have been eating the succulent little creature, but now won't be able to afford it. Since the loss, there's no doubt that the Market Price per pound is going to sky rocket.

So here's the article. If you want to feast on a hard-shelled crustacean, try blue crab instead. They're in season.

The Great Boston Lobster Fire

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tough as Nails: Part 2 - Slow and Low

The idea of a roast conjures images of Sunday evenings when a hunk of fragrant meat emerges from the oven in a transparent Pyrex dish, surrounded by potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery, then placed on the countertop to both rest the meat to retain the juices and to permeate the air with the smell of home, calling all to the table to feast. Once rested and sliced across the grain, the juices infuse the meat with rich and unique flavor.

Likewise, a one-pot meal in a Dutch oven cooked slowly over low to medium heat recalls images of the French paysanne (peasant) style of cooking, like the uber-traditional dishes coq au vin (rooster marinated in red wine with vegetables and served over egg noodles) or boeuf bourgignon (chunks of beef marinated in red wine and served with vegetables), both of which Alton Brown affectionately refers to as “big bowls of France.”. Every culture has its own one-dish braised meals, Peru has its seco de carne, Italy has osso bucco, and Mexico has mole.

These are two methods of tenderizing otherwise tough and/or gristly cuts of meat: the dry roast and the braise. Both have their merits, and both work in similar ways.

Dry roasting involves a large hunk of meat – a London broil, a large turkey/chicken, a rump roast of pork, or my favorite, a leg of lamb. The meat may be rubbed with spices or herbs before being subjected to the oven. Dried herbs usually work best because the delicate fresh herbs like basil, chervil, or parsley, when put in the oven, tend to burn easily and turn bitter. The exception to this is rosemary, which is stiffer and holds up better under the heat. The meat is then roasted without liquid for a generally long period of time, over an hour in most cases. The best recipes for this? Pork or brisket (see Mealtime in Melbourne for the address of Burrito Beach, where to find the best brisket burrito in the world), leg of lamb rubbed with garlic and rosemary, and Boston butt roast, studded with cloves and rubbed a paste of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, cumin, and coriander mixed with a little olive oil and S&P. The great thing about the dry roast is its versatility – not only can something be roasted in the oven, but a grill is also a great place for roasting, especially over smoke or charcoal to impart that woodsy, earthy, smoky flavor. The oven or grill is at a low temperature, breaking down the striated proteins in the meat and encouraging tenderization.

The braise is a similar method, the only difference being the use of a liquid (which, after the braising is over, can be reduced or thickened into a sauce for the meat – fabulous!) The meat, sometimes cut into chunks, is placed in a vessel along with some kind of liquid (called braising liquid) and then covered to avoid evaporation of the braising liquid and the gathering of moisture from steam coming from the ingredients. The best example of a common braising practice is the use of a Crock Pot. The Crock Pot cooks things for a long time over slow heat using a liquid to tenderize and infuse flavor. The great thing about braising is that there is not only a permeation of flavor from the meat, but the meat becomes like a tofu – sucking up whatever flavor is are surrounding it. Peruvian seco is a great example, chunks of (relatively inexpensive) chuck roast surrounded by a verdant cilantro sauce (also available from Goya in a fantastic bottled version that cuts down on time and is a great substitute), making for an explosive flavor along with extraordinarily tender meat. Braising goes where no dry roast has gone before – not just in the oven or on the grill, braising can happen on the stove, on low heat, of course, for over 45 minutes.

There is an ongoing war about whether or not the meat should be seared in a pan before going into the oven. Most professional and in-the-know at-home cooks will swear that yes, you must sear the meat before it goes into the oven or the heat is lowered for braising. I’m one of those people. There are several reasons why the meat should be seared before the low and slow cooking happens – there’s something really technical and scientific called the Maillard Reaction that happens to meat when it is seared, but you can read that on your own – there’s a great entry in On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (the chef’s Bible) about it. Simply put, the meat caramelizes to create a hard dark crust on the surface of the meat. This not only imparts great flavor to the dish, but also seals the juices into the meat, which is very important in dry roasting, where the absence of liquid can make for a very dry product if the juices aren’t properly sealed in. The other option, especially if working with a piece of meat that is far too large to be seared, such as a turkey or lamb leg, is to jack up the heat on the oven to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit to cook the outside of the meat (the skin of the turkey/chicken) to brown and crispy before reducing the heat to 275 or 300 degrees in order to cook the rest of the meat. Just do it somehow – sear it. You’ll be thankful you did.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tough as Nails: Tips for Tenderizing - Part 1

A few things have sparked my interest in cheaper cuts of meat and the best ways to get bang for your few measly bucks.

1. My aunt and I had a discussion about skirt steak today. She regaled me with an anecdote about how she wanted to make authentic fajitas for Cinco De Mayo, which feature skirt steak as the meat component. The steak, she lamented, was “as tough as nails.” Understood. Skirt steak comes from a highly-exercised part of the cow, part of the underside, or “skirt” of the cow. Because of this, the muscle in skirt steak is lean and tight, making for a characteristically tough cut of beef (for a really cool diagram showing where each kind of steak comes from, check out the Beef Map from Alton Brown).

I had to agree with her. I usually won’t order skirt steak on a restaurant menu because it’s just so easy to end up with something so difficult to chew that you’d rather throw it in the blender and have a steak smoothie. However, recently my boyfriend and I ate at a relatively new and wonderful restaurant in Orlando called Citrus on Orange Ave. He ordered the skirt steak, a bold move that solidified my current state of in-love-ness. When it came out, I couldn’t help but inch my fork over to his plate while he buried his nose in his raspberry-colored glass of Pinot Noir. I took a bite of what I anticipated to be a classic example of a meal-breaker, but instead the meat practically disintegrated on my tongue. I was floored. I asked our unbelievably accommodating server about it and I was told that the steak is marinated in balsamic vinegar for 17 hours. All I can say: go to Citrus and have the skirt steak.

2. According to the December issue of Gourmet magazine, third-world countries will pay 90 percent more for food this year than last year. That, to me, is unfathomable. That would mean, in this country, that, if last year, a loaf of bread cost $2.39, this year we would pay $4.58. I can’t say that I don’t see that happening, with the impending wheat shortages coupled with the fact that the price of eggs has jumped 70% since this time last year. Everyone is trying to get more for their money, so it’s no wonder that Americans are going to be drawn to cheaper cuts of beef. Usually, however, this beef comes from the hindquarters or the shoulder section of the cow, which are generally the toughest pieces of meat. However, if you know how to prepare these cheaper cuts in the right way, they can yield a lot more than a 6-ounce filet mignon could ever promise.

Over the next four posts, I’ll talk about the four laws of tenderizing meat. Four things to be used either on their own or in combination to ensure that when working with chuck, round, brisket, skirt or flank steaks, the end result will be juicy, flavorful, and fork-tender.

TIP #1:

Marinate: Like the skirt steak at Citrus, if you want to both tenderize and add mountains of flavor: marinate. I’m not just talking a ten-minute dip in the pool either. Hours, and hours of submersion in a slightly acidic liquid can unravel those muscle proteins and make for a tender steak. Try marinating flank and skirt steaks, though thinner (1-2 inch) slices of chuck or round will work as well.

Use this marinade for a little Asian kick:

1-2 cups low-sodium soy sauce

¼ cup sake

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

1 tbsp sweet chili paste

1 tbsp sesame oil

Juice of two limes

Marinate a minimum of 6 hours, but preferably overnight to achieve the best tenderization and flavor absorption. Oh, and with this kind of marinade – for the love of all that’s holy – it’s summer: GRILL.