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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Sous Vide Corned Beef and Great Colcannon

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For St. Patrick’s Day we had corned beef and cabbage. Not the stinky slow cooker pot of meat and mushy vegetables, but some awesome home-cured perfectly cooked beef with “The Best” Colcannon. making corned beef from scratch is time consuming but pretty easy to do. I used the recipe and process from ChefSteps.com and it all starts with the brisket. I trimmed it a bit and left about a 1/4 inch fat on the beef. The process is very similar to pastrami, really identical except for the smoke part.

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I made a brine with water, sugar, salt and a boat load of spices (coriander, mace, bay, star anise…) The cure also has pink salt or cure #1 which is Sodium Nitrite. This is essential for the proper color and flavor of cured products like corned beef. The brisket sat in the brine for about a week. Really 9 days would have been better since it had a very small dime size center piece that the cure did not get to in time, but I wanted to cook it for St. Patrick’s weekend so it got rubbed with more spices and into a vacuum bag it went.

Red Potatoes

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I cooked it at 63 C for 48 hours. The brisket, roughly half of a full one actually, was too big. So, I had it bagged in two bags and cooked them both. That was a good idea because now I have a nice ready to eat corned beef chunk in the freezer. I had two options for serving the beef, a classic Reuben sandwich with Russian dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese on homemade rye bread. The other option was with a nice helping of Colcannon.

Colcannon is a traditional humble Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage. I like most versions, even those that have the whole thing mixed together into a lovely mess. This time I tried Letie’s Culinaria Best Colcannon recipe, adapted from the book, Victuals by Ronni Lundy. Judging by this recipe I might have to get me a copy of Lundy’s book.

Beef-Colcannon

The red potatoes are cooked separately and mashed skin on with butter and cream. Where the recipe shines is with the cabbage and the addition of kale. They are cooked with plenty of onions, butter, spices, beer and broth until perfectly cooked. To serve, I mounded the potatoes in a bowl and topped it with the cabbage mixture. Thick slices of moist corned beef went on top and a pint of Guinness stout on the side. A perfect and comforting dinner.

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Lomo al Trapo – Beef Tederloin Wrapped in Cloth, Salted Potatoes, Chimichurri

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I have cooked meat -usually fish- and vegetables in a salt crust before, but not like this. I saw this Colombian dish on Kenji’s Food Lab and it immediately caught my attention. It is too cool, too old and new at the same time and just plain wild. Christmas dinner seemed like an excellent occasion for this. It is a luxurious cut of beef but also most of the attendees -Diana’s family- would be Colombian. So curious to try it out but not wanting to screw up Christmas eve dinner I made a trial run first to make sure. It was a good idea and made the second time I cooked it for a crowd much easier. The concept is pretty simple; wrap beef tenderloin in a salt crust encased in a towel (that’s the Trapo), throw it on a pile of hot coals until done, remove, crack the crust away, slice and enjoy. A few details are important to note though.

Beef Tenderloin

The middle of the tenderloin is the best part to use here. I bought whole tenderloins and trimmed them myself. I managed to get three semi-even cylindrical pieces and the rest of the meat went in the freezer for other uses. To wrap each one, I laid a cotton kitchen towel and covered it with about 1/2 inch of kosher salt and a scattering of herbs (thyme, marjoram, rosemary). This carefully gets wrapped around the trimmed beef tenderloin. It’s a bit tricky to do and needs some practice to make sure the salt does not clump in one area or falls off the sides. A quick confident roll is key. I tied he rolls with twine and they were ready to go on the charcoal.

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Lomo al Trapo

When I say “on the charcoal” I literally mean that. Directly on hot fully ashed-up coals. It is impossible to tell how done the meat is in the salt cocoon. That salt gets hard very fast and that is what you want. It just makes it tricky to figure out when the meat is rare and to account for carry-over cooking. So, of course you need to use a thermometer. After 10 minutes on one side, I flip the meat over and started taking the temperature. I over shot a bit the first time and the meat that came up beautiful off the coals, but a little overcooked by the time it was sliced. To get the nice medium-rare final serving temperature, you need to shoot for about 92 F when you take it off the grill. Let the meat rest until it reaches 125 – 130 F and crack the salt crust open.

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By now the towel is mostly burnt away and a few taps with the back of a knife is enough to reveal the amazing burnished and very savory beef. The smell is really phenomenal at this point and the whole spectacle is too much for any of the guests not to stand, stare and “oooh”.

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I served this very simply and triditionally with boiled salted marble potatoes and a sharp chimichurri sauce (parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar). The potatoes were boiled with lots of salt until the water evaporates and the salt remains. This was another recipe from Kenji (and also a traditional Colombian preparation) but they did turn out a bit too salty so they need some work. By contrast the salt encrusted beef was delicious, perfectly seasoned and perfectly cooked. It really is a show-stopper of a roast.

Steak and Guinness Pie

Beef and Guinness Pie-VegBritish food is good. It could be great. To me, it is comforting, historic, classic and kind of cool in a way. Thankfully over the last few years chefs like Fergus Henderson, Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver and many others are making it a point to celebrate the classic food of Britain. In some cases chefs like Blumenthal are digging very deep (I have a post about that coming up soon) into the roots of historic English foods and modernizing them. That’s exactly what Chef Blumenthal is doing at his restaurant Dinner in London.

This post is not about modernist takes on British food though. When I think of British food something like this delicious comforting beef and Guinness pie come to mind. There’s a whole slew of meat-in-pastry type pies in this cuisine that range anywhere from crayfish to steak and kidney. This particular recipe is from Jaime Oliver’s Great British Food. Oliver actually calls it “Will and Kate’s Steak and Guinness Pie” in honor of the royal wedding a few years back. He puts a few twists on the recipe like including barley and cheddar cheese in the filling. That was part of the reason why chose to give his version a shot.

Beef Shanks2 Beef Stew

The beef shanks from Yonder Way Farms are one fantastic cut of beef. I use them for everything from beef stew to beans and even Osso Buco. They are rich with a lot of flavor and lots of collagen that makes great braising liquids. More often than not, as I did here, I slip the marrow out of the bones and save it for another use. The filling of the pie is a stew with the beef, lots of red onions and some barley cooked in Guinness and beef stock.

Beef and Red Onions

When the stew is done I added in shredded sharp cheddar cheese. This touch is very nice. It makes a savory stew even more so, adds creaminess and substance. While the stew cooked and cooled I made the pastry.

The pastry is made very much like a pie or tart dough but instead of butter it uses suet. Suet is beef fat from around the kidneys. It is very firm and can actually be grated like butter or cheese. No one really sells suet in Houston and I did not want to pay for it online from some source (I might give that a shot at some point to see how different it is). What I do have is plenty of pork lard. So, the suet pastry became a rich pork lard short pastry. It was easy to work with and had a great flaky texture with a deep savory taste.

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To serve it, what better and more British side to go with this pie than steamed veg? The key here is to put the vegetables in the steamer based on how fast or slow they cook. I steamed carrots with some peas and some Romain lettuce at the end. These got tossed with a bit of butter, a drizzle of vinegar and salt. They were perfectly cooked with great texture and flavor, a perfect accompaniment to the rich beef and ale pie.

Cheers!

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Dry-Aged Strip Steak, Carrot and Sour Onions

Steak-Carrots-Onions3On more than one occasion I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “Oh what’s the big deal with dry-aged beef…I got a couple of steaks and they are not that different that the run of the mill steak from Costco”. Well, these guys are either not really buying dry-aged steak or have some taste buds missing. A proper dry-aged steak is a thing of beauty, expensive but worth every penny for a special occasion like a Valentines Day dinner for two.

Dry aging beef is a process where large primals (like a whole side of strip loin) is left at a controlled temperature in an aging room uncovered. The meat usually hangs from hooks and is left anywhere from a couple of weeks and sometimes up to  months! During that time the meat loses a lot of moisture. This translates to water weight loss (one reason why it starts getting expensive) and concentrating of flavor and minerals in the meat. Another thing that happens is that the enzymes in the meat start breaking down the flesh making it very tender. That is why the meat has to be kept at a specific temperature (again that costs money), too warm and the meat would just rapidly spoil, too cold and the enzymes would not function. Last, but not least is that the aging process is basically a controlled “spoilage” in a way. The meat develops a lovely flavor as it matures and for really long aged beef it is sometimes describes as funky or similar to cheese! I have not had any of the latter, but I can certainly tell that the steak we had was tender and superbly flavorful with a brilliant savory taste due to the aging process.

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Hopefully my cursory summary of the dry-aging process as I understand it was helpful, but if not there are a lot of good resources out on the interwebs and many books on the subject. So what did we do with this nice steak? The meat was cooked very simply. I cooked it sous vide to medium rare and then finished it off in a very hot cast iron pan with some butter.

The onions are my attempt to try the sour onions from Magnus Nielssen’s Faviken. Magnus gently cooks thinly sliced onions in a mixture of whey and butter until the liquid evaporates and the onions are soft. The onions end up wonderfully tart and very deeply flavored with the whey (I used some from a cheese batch I was making) and butter. Unfortunately I could not manage to keep the onions intact in their original shape of thin rounds. I have no idea how the chef at Faviken manages to do that but I could not.

The other two items on the plate were marble potatoes and pureed carrots with vadouvan (an Indian spice mix heavy on coriander and citrus notes). The potatoes were just steamed and then crisped up in olive oil and herbs. The carrots were cooked sous vide with plenty of butter and a good pinch of the vadouvan spice mixture. When fully tender, I pureed them and passed them through a sieve. I prepared a sauce with reduced beef stock and red wine and finished it off with a bit of butter.

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Braised Short Ribs in Cepe-Prune Sauce and Cornmeal Cakes

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The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert is really one of my favorite books in my collection. It’s a book I’ve used so much over the years and have never been disappointed (like this Cassoulet). Another reason I love it is that I helped test some of the recipe in there for the revised edition and it is the book that made Paula a friend of mine who loves to discuss food over email and certainly enjoys a conversation about a new clay pot I acquired or the recipes of my grandmother. Now, this recipe was the first recipe I tested for Paula and it is a marvelous dish for this time of year where even in Houston, it is cold and a bit dreary.

Short Ribs Marinade

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Sometimes I try to modernize recipes and maybe find more efficient methods to cooking certain dishes. Not this time. I love this dish and I love the process from start to finish. So, I chose to apply Paula’s meticulous instructions to the letter.

This is a classic  no frills French dish that delivers a ton of flavor. The beef short ribs (using boneless ones here) are marinated in plenty of red wine and aromatics including a good dose of dried Porcini (Cepes in French) mushrooms. After 12 hours or so, the meat is browned in duck fat. the marinated veggies; carrots, leeks,onions and celery; also get browned after meat. The meat and vegetables go in a nice clay pot and then get gently braised in stock and plenty of red wine for a few hours.

Short Ribs

When the meat is cooked it is reserved separately from the cooking liquid and the vegetables are discarded. To finish, the meat is combined with the reduced de-greased cooking liquid and sautéed mushrooms, pearl onions, glazed carrots and halved pitted prunes. The mixture is allowed to simmer for 10 -15 minutes while I prepared the cornmeal cakes.

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The cornmeal cakes are what Wolfert recommends to serve with this. My kids love those ever since I made similar ones to accompany the pork cheek recipe from The French Laundry. So it was a no brainer that I would make them. Just cooked and set polenta, cut into rounds and coated in flour before being pan-fried in duck fat.

This really is a sublime dish that is rich but not cloying. It is perfectly balanced with meaty flavors and jolts of sweetness from the prunes and acid from the large quantity of wine in the braising liquid.  The polenta cakes are the ideal accompaniment. they are mild, a bit crispy and fluffy enough to sop up the cooking juices. This recipe is but one of many superb recipes in this classic of a book.

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Red Wine Pappardelle with Oxtails and Carrots

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It’s been a while since I posted about a homemade pasta on these pages. Not because I have not made any but the majority is stuff I’ve posted about before or similar to what I’ve posted about before. Well, here comes something I made recently and was so sublime that I had to post about.

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The blue print is really a traditional dish of fresh pasta and braised meat. The emphasis is on bold flavors with a recipe courtesy of the book Collards and Carbonara from Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. It’s a perfect title for a book where the authors put their American south spin on Italian flavors. This is a hearty dish with lots of red wine. It is everywhere. The pasta is actually made from eggs with a good helping of red wine – almost half egg and half red wine. The end result is not so much red as brownish. What I really loved about the pasta is the thickness. Instead of rolling them relatively thin as usual, the authors instruct us to roll them to the 4 setting on the pasta machine. This results in noodles that are relatively thick. I honestly had my doubts here but I figured I’ll give them a go and see what happens.

Pappardelle

I should not have worried. The cooked noodles were the perfect foil to the rich hearty oxtail stew.  They had a lovely texture to them that is equally soft, substantial and chewy. I started the oxtails basically a week before by making a beef demi glace. I prepared a big batch of beef stock in my pressure cooker and allowed it to sit in the fridge until the fat solidified. I removed that and reduced the stock with more aromatics (shallots, thyme, black pepper) and red wine until I got about a pint of the most amazing beef reduction.

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The stew is pretty straightforward. Brown the meat and cook it for a long time with some garlic, mirepoix, a whole bottle of red wine, the demi glace and water. When the meat is fall off the bone tender it is removed and picked from the bone. The cooking liquid is reduced and strained. The meat and cooking liquid are stored separately. Again, this is an important detail that I think makes the recipe much better during the finishing steps. Meanwhile I prepared a mix of small purple and orange carrots by cooking them sous vide bagged with butter at 85 C. They were cooked till tender but remained firm and retained a nice color.

Pappardelle-Oxtail

To bring it all together while the water came to a boil for the pasta, I sautéed the halved carrots in oil until slightly charred. To that I added the oxtail meat and browned slightly, then a whole lot  of chopped herbs (rosemary, parsley, thyme) and more red wine and allowed that to reduce. In went the reserved braising liquid and the whole thing reduced slightly to get a nice consistency. I tossed in the freshly cooked pasta and some splashes of the boiling water and served. It was a really comforting, rich and beautiful bowl of pasta. The handfuls of fresh herbs in there brought a fresh and bright note to the bold flavors. That whole was perfect for the cold weather we had been getting and the leftovers were just as good.

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