Kafta – Ground Meat with Onions and Spices

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Kafta is a Lebanese kitchen cornerstone. Like Kibbeh it’s a dish, a recipe and a staple that can be made into various preparations. For minced meat to be Kafta it has to be spiced and flavored with onions and plenty of parsley. I am sure this is not written in stone anywhere and someone else’s Lebanese mom probably makes it a bit differently but this is the version I know and love.

Ideally, I like to grind my own meat. It makes for a better product but of course store-ground meat works fine as well. What type of meat? Beef, lamb, goat or a mix of these is all good. I really like a 50/50 mixture of beef and lamb. I suppose you can use a percentage of chicken in there too but I do not do that.

Kafta

Texture is an important factor here especially if you want to form them around a skewer to grill them. The onions and herbs need to be very fine. I usually grate the onions on the coarse side of a grater and mince the parsley very finely. If I was grinding my own meat I would pass the vegetables along with the meat and kill 2 birds with one stone.

Spices is where the recipes for Kafta mix can start to vary a lot. Some are heavily spiced with lots of allspice, cumin, paprika (hot or not), cinnamon, black pepper….Well again, I like what I am used to and what my family has always made. It leans towards a lighter hand with the spices and letting the main flavors be the meat and the onions. That being said, if I am not cooking for a crowd who is averse to spicy food, I do like a pinch of cayenne in the mix.

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Once the mix is done we have several methods to cook it and dishes to use it in. The first thing to try though, is the grilled Kafta. That is probably by far the most popular method to cook it even in Lebanon. Usually they are formed into long sausage shapes on skewers and grilled over charcoal. This could be just a touch tricky to get the meat evenly on skewers so don’t sweat it. Just make rough sausage shapes about 5 inches long and about 1 inch in diameter. Get a charcoal grill (or if you are in a pinch you can use the oven’s broiler) very hot and grill the Kafta to you preferred doneness. I like to cook them to about medium. That is another reason to grind your own meat. The perfect and traditional companion to Kafta? Hummus bil Tahini. The recipe for awesome Hummus is right here and you really must have it if you make grilled Kafta kebabs. They are a great match. I also like sliced onions tossed in sumac and parsley, grill-roasted (or just raw) tomatoes, various sour pickles, shredded lettuce and soft pita bread. Ideally you smear hummus on the bread, top it with meat and veggies, wrap and tuck in.

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Another favorite is to make baked Kafta casserole. This is the definition of comfort food for me. To make it form the meat mixture into small oblong shapes, maybe 2 inches in length and pan fry them in olive oil for about a minute or two per side. You do not want to cook them all the way through, just get them browned and adding flavor. In a casserole baking dish, lay thickly sliced tomatoes in the bottom and add the browned Kafta. Next add a layer of thinly sliced onions, potatoes and bell peppers. Season with salt and pepper as you go along.

Kafta-Casserole

There are no real measurement or rules here and you might need to repeat the layering depending on the size of the dish and how much filling you have or how much you like onions versus peppers,….I try to at least finish the dish with a layer of tomatoes because I like how they dry up and concentrate their flavor. Mix a cup or two of water with a tablespoon of tomato paste per cup and pour all over the dish. Again, depending on size you might need less or more. You want the liquid to barely come up about 3/4 of the way up the filling and not cover it. Bake in a 375 F oven for about an hour until it is bubbly and brown. This is delicious with a side of white rice.

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Kafta Mix

  • 1000 gr ground beef, lamb or a combination
  • Parsley, 1 bunch, minced
  • 1 onion, about 250 gr, grated
  • 1 tsp Allspice, 3 gr
  • 1 tsp Pepper, 3 gr
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 10 gr Salt

Mix everything very well. For the grilled Kafta, form them into sausage shapes about 5 inches long and no more than an inch in diameter. As you form each one, lay it in an oiled pan. Grill over medium high heat to the desired doneness. Alternatively, these can be broiled.

Serving options:

  • With Hummus, pita bread, pickles and veggies
  • In a tomato, pepper and tomato casserole
  • Form into small meatballs and cook in a rice pilaf
  • Spread thin raw mix on pizza dough with thinly sliced tomatoes and onions and bake for an awesome pie
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Equilibrium-Brined Pork Belly

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Brining has been in the culinary home cook’s lexicon for the better part of maybe 15 years now. I first heard about it in a beloved episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” where he brines the Thanksgiving turkey. It sounded so damn cool and science-y. It is a powerful trick that anyone can do and can make the difference between a tough dry pork chop or a juicy succulent one. It’s a cheap and easy process too, all you really need is salt, water and some time.

The basic idea is that soaking a protein in a salt solution will make for a juicier meat and makes it more forgiving should you err on the side of overcooking, especially for a piece of very lean meat like a chicken breast. The benefit of the addition of some sugar or other flavorings is debatable but I usually add some too. I’ve come to learn over the years of different types of “brining” besides dunking the whole piece of meat into a vat of salt and water. There is dry brining, rubbing the salt/flavoring mixture all over the meat without any added water. I like this a lot for whole birds. It does not make for a rubbery flaccid skin like the traditional immersion brining does. The main downside is that it typically takes a longer time (up to 3 days for a whole turkey).

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Another type is injection brining. I started using it after trying the excellent roast chicken from “Modernist Cuisine“. Just like it sounds, the brine is injected using a syringe at various spots in the meat and it diffuses and flavors the whole thing. Flavorings make an excellent addition here. This also preserves the skin of a chicken or turkey and is pretty quick. Injection brining is my preferred method to prep our Thanksgiving turkey.

Now all of these three brining methods share one important drawback. They lack precision. You are dunking, rubbing or injecting and hoping that the brine does its job in the time frame required while also trying not to leave the meat in the brine too long. Leave it too long and you have a salty piece of meat on its way to becoming a ham. The other challenge is that different parts of the meat can have different salt levels due to varying thickness. This is especially true for stuff like chicken or turkey breasts. Enter the precise process of equilibrium brining. It even sounds cool.

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This is a process I learned about also from “Modernist Cuisine” and it is the ideal way to brine meat, especially whole boneless muscles with no risk of oversalting. Just like cooking in a precisely controlled water bath (sous-vide) is a slow gentle and even process that gives you exactly the result you want, equilibrium brining is the slow precise salting of meat. Dunking the meat in a very salty brine (traditional brining) is more like cooking a steak on a hot pan. They work but need a whole lot more care and attention. Even with all the care and attention an unevenly thick protein like poultry breast will be saltier towards the tip than it would in the thick end.

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I use it a lot to prepare chicken breasts, pork chops, pork belly and to make awesome deli-style turkey breasts for sandwiches. You do need a scale for this one (but you should have one anyways!). The idea is to add only the right amount of salt that will season and never over salt the protein. What is that amount? typically a tasty steak of chop does well with about 1.5% salt for my taste. So you want 1.5% salt by weight of the combined meat AND water. It’s as easy as this:

  1. Weigh the meat and the amount of water required to keep it submerged. More often than not I use a freezer Ziploc bag for my brining. For the pork belly here, it weighed 1000 gr and the water weighed another 1000 gr.
  2. Figure out the salt percentage for the combined weight. So, (1000 + 1000) * 1.5% = 30 gr.
  3. dissolve the salt in the water and add any other flavor components you want, sugar, spices, herbs, crushed garlic, citrus zest…If you do add stuff like herbs and such, it’s a good idea (but not essential) to bring the water to a simmer and turn off the heat. Let the flavors infuse and cool COMPLETELY before brining.
  4. Add the meat to the brine and park it in the fridge. Depending on the thickness of the meat this could be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. I typically let it sit for a good 48 hours if it is 2 inches or so thick. The beauty of this process though is that the most salt the meat can ever have in it is 1.5%. It will reach that equilibrium between the water and the content in the meat and stay there. After a few days in the fridge you will still have a perfectly seasoned juicy breast of turkey from its thin tapered end to the thick rounded edge. No risk of over-salting ever.
  5. Take the meat out of the brine, pat dry and cook it. I highly recommend cooking it sous-vide to the right temperature at this point. This is an ideal method to make delicious deli-style turkey for sandwiches.
  6. For the pork belly, I cooked it at 70 C for 24 hours to get a perfect tender meat. Usually with brined meat the juice in the bag is on the salty side. In this case the unctuous rich pork stock in the bag is a delicious side benefit. I save it and use it in all kinds of dishes. It’s a flavor bomb.

I use this type of pork belly in all kinds of dishes like tucking in buns, searing and serving on top of beans or greens or as I did in this case, in a savory bowl of soup. To make the dish doctored up some homemade pork broth with a few Japanese ingredients like mushrooms, green onions and kombu. I seasoned it with soy, mirin and sugar and I pretty much had a nice Shoyu ramen broth.

Udon-Broth

To get another texture on the meat I made cross-hatch shallow cuts in it and seared it well on the fat side. At the same time I blanched some greens to go in my soup bowl as well and seasoned them with soy sauce. I wanted noodles because, well, they make any bowl of soup better and my kids love them (who doesn’t really?). I went with hearty and thick udon noodles for this. A quick sprinkle of Togarashi spice in my bowl and this was a lovely dinner that took some “time” to make but very little effort.

pork belly udon

Oven-Roasted Cod, White Bean Relish and Cabbage

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Cod is a bit tricky to cook unless one wants to batter it and deep fry it. We love the mild flavor and large tender flakes of a well cooked piece of cod. Cod has very little connective tissue and large meat “flakes”. So it tends to fall apart if you handle it too much trying to flip it a couple of times in a pan. I tried cooking it sous vide a couple of times and was not crazy about the result either. This method of starting it in a pan and finishing it in the oven following a short salt cure is the ideal way to get it done.

I sprinkled the fillets with a good layer of kosher salt and let them cure in the fridge for 20 minutes. This seasons and firms the fish up. I rinsed them in cold water, patted them dry and let them sit in the fridge while I prepared the rest of the dish.

Cod

The fish is the star of this plate but I wanted something sharp to offset it and a couple of different textures. I went with vaguely Spanish flavors here. I roasted red peppers, peeled them and sliced them into thin ribbons. I sauteed some diced Pancetta with onions and garlic. Then I tossed in the peppers and cooked white beans. I finished the ragout with sherry vinegar, maple vinegar, olive oil and parsley.

The cabbage was even simpler. Just thinly sliced savoy cabbage sauteed gently in butter with a little salt and pepper. Since this was part of a four-course dinner I wanted the cod’s accompaniments to function as tasty and substantial garnishes and not as filling “sides” as they might’ve been if this was a one plate dinner.

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To cook the fish I heated the oven to 375 F and got a pan going on the stove top. I seared the fish in clarified butter in the pan over medium heat for about 8 minutes. I turned it over and transferred it to the oven to finish cooking for another 8-10 minutes. The fish fillets got a very small squeeze of lemon, some thyme leaves on top and went in the center of the plate with the beans and cabbage around it.

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Manresa: Assorted Potatoes, Curds and Whey, Norinade

Potatoes-Curds-Norinade4The Manresa cookbook from the three- star restaurant of the same name in California is a beautiful, inspiring and thoughtfully written book. I read it cover to cover and frequently flip through it to read various parts every so often. Chef David Kinch got my attention when he was featured on a season of The Mind of A Chef on PBS especially the episode about how he builds a menu. It’s fascinating stuff to me. I had not cooked anything from the book until now though.

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It immediately captured my attention when I saw the picture and read the name. Norinade? What the hell is that. This is basically a dish of potatoes and cheese, but Norinade just had a nice ring to it. It’s a play on the traditional tapenade, the Provencal dip made of mashed up olives, capers and anchovies. Instead of olives though, chef Kinch makes it with seaweed, specifically nori sheets like the ones used in sushi rolls. It is deep black in color, looks like tapenade but tastes very different with brightness and sea flavor. It perfectly accentuates the freshly made curds and dense potatoes.

To make it I simmered shallots, garlic and onions in plenty of olive oil before adding minced toasted nori sheets and allowed the mixture to cool and infuse. I drained the solids and minced them very well to a chunky paste before loosening with the reserved oil and seasoning with soy sauce and Champagne vinegar. The idea is to get a sharp and pungent mixture so that only a few drizzles are enough to add a kick of umami flavor.

Potatoes-Crispy

 

Potatoes-Norinade

The potatoes are cooked in two ways. First we have the soft ones. I used a mixture of colors of small specimens. These are simmered in salted water with aromatics (garlic, thyme, rosemary…) until tender. I then peeled them and tossed in a little oil. The other batch is cooked in very little water but plenty of salt in a pressure cooker for only a few minutes. This makes them very soft, seasons them and does not allow them to absorb a lot of water. I then tore them to rough 1-inch pieces and let them dry on a plate in the fridge uncovered. When ready to serve the potato chunks are fried in oil to get lovely crispy nuggets.

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It is so easy to make a simple fresh cheese at home that I always wonder why I do not make more of it. Just mix in some whole milk and a little cream along with a tablet of rennet (or liquid rennet drops) and gently warm to about 180 F or so. Do not boil it or the enzyme will deactivate and not work properly. When the curds form a solid mass, let the mixture sit for another hour, then strain into a cheesecloth. The longer it sits in the cheesecloth to drain the drier it gets. This one sat for about 20 hours and was the texture of firm ricotta. I also reserved the whey that was produced since it is effectively the sauce for the dish. Whey is a great medium to cook in as well, like braising some pork in it for example.

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The whey goes in a small pan with lemon juice and some salt. Using my stick blender I frothed it up very nicely as it warmed up and added in a couple of tablespoons of butter. For the larger sized potatoes I cut them in half and the others remained whole. These got warmed up gently in the microwave and were the first items to go on the plates. I divided up the crispy potatoes next and 5 or 6 nuggets of cheese in each bowl. Then I sauced with some of the Norinade and the frothed whey mixture. A final garnish of thyme leaves finished the dish up.

Whey Foam

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Hummus bil Tahini – Creamy Chickpea, Lemon and Sesame Paste Dip

Hummus6 Having grown up eating chickpeas (hummus in Arabic) mashed with garlic, lemon juice and the all-important sesame paste (Tahini or Tahina) on a regular basis it was really interesting seeing how this dip took off in the last 10 years or so. It’s everywhere now, on every other restaurant/pub/diner/health food restaurant’s menu. This is both a blessing and a curse. When done well it is so damn delicious and satisfying. More often than not it is garbage. Sold in tubs at the store or from that crappy brand ubiquitous in every grocery store (I’m talking about Sabra) it’s a sad imitation of what it should really taste like.

At best you find it to be edible and at worst it is a crusted over, chalky paste of little flavor besides the citric acid that manufacturers dose it with instead of real lemon juice.
What’s worse (ok, maybe not worse, but still irks me) is how the name became synonymous with almost ANY dip that is not guacamole or sour cream-onion! We have everything from beets to black beans to lentils to peas and even chocolate going into the food processor and emerging as “hummus”. Seriously? What if we go ahead and blend some cauliflower with cilantro and call it “cauliflower guacamole”? Again, the word Hummus does not mean “shitty dip”. It literally means chickpeas. So if your dip -as delicious or crappy it might be- does not have chickpeas it is not hummus.

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Now really, what is more annoying is that people go and buy the mediocre to horrible product instead of making it themselves at home. It is probably one of the most simple, easiest fool-proof things you can prepare at home and can be done in 10 minutes if you use canned chickpeas. It is also light years better than anything you can buy. I love my recipe below so start with that. However, some people might like more or less lemon juice. More garlic? Add it and see. My brother includes no garlic (crazy I say). Hate cumin? Get rid of it. The constants have to be the chickpeas, lemon juice and good tahini.

 Tahini used to be a bit trickier to find and you had to go to a middle eastern grocery store for it. Now though, I see it everywhere, from my local grocery chain here in Texas to Whole Foods. I like a Lebanese brand called “Al-Wadi” that I buy locally in Houston. See what brands you can find locally or just get it online. Make sure it only contains sesame in it and it is not made from toasted sesame. The toasted sesame ones will give it a much stronger and overpowering taste. Either way stir the paste in the jar really good before using it because it does settle and separate.

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Other than chips, pita chips, celery sticks…what can you serve this lovely creamy dip with? A traditional way is alongside grilled kebabs, especially Kafta kebabs. I’ll be posting a recipe for that soon as well. Feel free to add toppings to it and make a meal out of it. A traditional topping is minced lamb, onions and pine nuts browned in plenty of butter and drizzled on top while still sizzling.

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Hummus bil Tahini

  • 1 can chickpeas, 29 – 30 oz.
  • 150 gr Tahini
  • 1 large garlic clove, about 6 gr, minced.
  • 1 tsp Cumin
  • ¼ Cup water
  • ½ Cup lemon juice, or more
  • Salt to taste
    Blend in in a food processor till very very smooth and creamy. Just when you think it is smooth enough, scrape the sides and process it some more. Total time of processing should be around 8 minutes. Taste and season with salt and more lemon juice if needed. Serve it drizzled with good olive oil and garnished with hot or sweet paprika.

Citrus-Cured Salmon, Parsley-Chive Coulis

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Seafood gently poached in fat is a great way to cook. Lobster poached in butter and tuna in olive oil are both such examples. The fat slowly cooks the meat and is kept at a relatively low temperature, about 44 C to 52 C (110 to 125 F) depending how you like it cooked, leaving the seafood juicy and reducing the risk of overcooking. On top of that the fish usually looks great and has a good flavor from the fat without coming out oily or greasy. What’s not to love!

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In this recipe, adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook I started with a nice piece of fresh salmon and removed the skin. I employed my 14 year old to grate the zest of lemon, orange, lime and grapefruit. The zests get mixed with salt, sugar and pepper and sprinkled all over the fish. This is basically the first step to making gravlax or smoked salmon. In this case though the fish only marinates for about an hour while we prepare the rest of the dinner.

Citrus Cure

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Making citrus confit is pretty simple. It’s not cooked in fat like what a duck confit would be. In this case it is referring to cooking the orange segments in a sugary syrup. In the good old days fruits would be cooked in a whole lot of sugar to confit them and preserve them. Here, the syrup is relatively on the light side made with sugar, water and white wine vinegar. While the syrup cooks to a simmer I supremed a couple of oranges. This means cutting a citrus fruit into segments with none of the white pith. This has some good instructions on how to do that and of course you can find a bunch of YouTube videos about the process. I poured the hot syrup over the orange segments and let them marinate and infuse.

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Chef Keller uses a pea shoot puree to go with this dish (and a scoop of caviar, but I guess…I was fresh out of that this week). This was a regular weekday dinner for the family and I did not go shopping for pea shoots. I did like the idea of a green sauce with the citrus salmon though. So, I blanched a bunch of parsley and chives in salted boiling water and cooled them quickly in ice water. I blended until smooth with a bit of water . I really should’ve passed the green coulis through a sieve at this point like the recipe recommends but I skipped that and my end result was less smooth than it should be. Right before serving I warmed the sauce in a small pot, whisked in a few knobs of butter and seasoned it.

Salmon-Citrus Cure-Coulis

I rinsed the fish fillet before cooking it and cut off the thin edges and tail end. These pieces became a nice little treat in the form of salmon tartar. I cut them up and mixed them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, chives and pepper. I snacked on the tartar on top of toasted sourdough with a spoon of creme fraiche.

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To cook the fish, I cut it into even portions and bagged it with a good dose of olive oil. I dropped it in water set to 51C for 20 minutes. That was it. To plate I arranged a few orange confit segments and topped with a piece of salmon then drizzle (or smeared) green parsley coulis around it. It’s a wonderful way to cook salmon and a good basic preparation to keep in mind. Below is the recipe for salmon.

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Citrus Marinated Salmon Poached in Olive Oil

Adapted from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook

  • Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
  • Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
  • Zest of 1 lime, finely grated
  • Zest of 1/4 grapefruit, finely grated
  • 75 gr kosher salt, about 1/4 cup Morton’s Kosher salt
  • 20 gr Sugar, about 1 Tbsp
  • 1 Tbsp black pepper
  • A large Salmon fillet, about 1.5 – 2 lbs
  • 1/3 Cup olive oil, or enough to cover fillet if not using sous vide equipment

Mix the citrus zests, salt, sugar and pepper together. Sprinkle all over the salmon and cover with plastic wrap. Let the fish marinate in the fridge for at least one hour but no more than 3.

When ready to cook, heat a water container to anywhere from 45 to 52 C using an immersion circulator (I use the Anova precision cooker) depending how you like the fish. The higher end will give a fish that is obviously cooked but very juice and tender. On the lower spectrum the fish is semi-cooked and closer to raw. Both are great but different. Divide the fish into portions and seal in freezer Ziploc bags with the olive oil. I used two bags for this amount of fish with 2 or 3 portions in each. Drop the bags in the water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the fish, pat dry gently and serve.

Cooking in olive oil option: This will need a good bit more oil but if you do not want to use sous vide this is the traditional option. Warm olive oil in a pot to the desired temperature (again, no more than 52 C or so). You need enough oil to cover the fish. Gently slide the fish in the oil and cook for 15-20 minutes. Remove the fish, pat dry gently and serve.

Brunch Gazpacho

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Two “Spanish” dishes in a row? well, actually my favorite go-to gazpacho recipe is not from a Spanish book. It’s from David Leite’s lovely The New Portuguese table cookbook. So, let’s say this is Portuguese. As a blueprint it is very much like a typical Spanish gazpacho; tomato based with supporting summer vegetables, herbs and plenty of olive oil. It is all held together and made velvety with a few chunks of bread.

Egg

I like this recipe even though it is similar to many others because of the balance it shows. For example it does not use raw onions in the mix like many others do. Onions, even in small amounts, always seem to stick out for my taste and leave an unpleasant after taste. I like that it uses fresh oregano in the mix, it’s lovely. The proportions of everything is just right too. So, I add all ingredients into my Vitamix blender -tomatoes, water-soaked bread, cucumbers, red bell peppers, oregano, little bit of garlic- and let it rip until it is all nice and smooth.

Bacon-Croutons

Poached Egg-Garnishes

Towards the end I drizzle in olive oil and vinegar and let is blend some more. I also love this recipe because it gives you permission to use canned tomatoes! Yes, most gazpacho recipes ask for peak summer tomatoes preferably of an heirloom variety. Truth be told these things are amazing fruit, but they are almost like unicorns where I live and with my schedule. Sighting one and acquiring it is very difficult out there. Once you find them they are usually pretty expensive and because they are not bred for travel the quality is not great. All that is to say that it really is OK to use canned good quality canned tomatoes. The key here is the good quality stuff like the San Marzano imported tomatoes. So, cheap here will not work.

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I make a pitcher and enjoy it over a couple of days since no one in my household enjoys “cold tomato soup”. For a lazy Sunday I dressed it up a bit and made it a brunch course of sorts. I poached an egg perfectly and cleanly placed it in the bowl along with bacon pieces, bacon-fat crisped croutons and pickled onions. I poured the gazpacho around it, drizzled it with good olive oil, garnished it with more croutons and thyme and dug in. The simple refreshing soup, the contrast of textures and temperatures transformed the humble cold soup to an elegant satisfying meal.

Brunch Gazpacho