Lowcountry Hoppin’ John and Cotechino

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Cotechino with lentils is the classic, but in the American south eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is the tradition. So, here the Hoppin’ John stands in for the lentils and a mighty fine stand-in it is too.

Making Hoppin’ John is not difficult but it does pay to have a solid recipe to follow and a good set of ingredients, namely the peas and rice. Ever since seeing chef Sean Brock on the excellent PBS show “The Mind of A Chef” and then reading through his book, Heritage, I have been ordering various grains and legumes from Anson Mills. The Sea Island Red Peas from them are as delicious as they are beautiful and they are great in Brock’s recipe for Lowcountry  Hoppin’ John.

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I soaked the peas overnight in water before cooking them in homemade ham stock along with chopped carrots, onions, celery, a jalapeno, thyme and bay leaves. They simmer until tender and really hold on to their shape. A cup or so is removed and blended with butter to make a red pea gravy. This gravy stays separate and gets seasoned with red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. At service time the Hoppin’ John is dolled out into bowls with rice and the gravy gets added to each bowl as needed. It’s a very comforting and delicious bowl of food and just feels very nutritious. Yeah, I know, “feels nutritious” is a pretty silly term…but well, not sure how else to describe it. It just does….and I can describe it any damn way I want on my little blog anyways.

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Now, onto the rice. It’s Carolina Gold rice also from Anson Mills. It has a lovely nutty flavor and good texture. I followed Brock’s instructions to cook it as well. First I boiled it in plenty of water like pasta until barely cooked. I drained it, spread it in a small baking sheet and put it in the oven at 300 F. I dried it for about 10 minutes, dotted it with butter and gave it a stir. After another 5 minutes or so the excess moisture was gone and the rice was perfectly cooked. The grains were cooked through with a slight toothsome texture and separate.

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I made the sausages the day before. I rarely make them the exact same way every year. This time I based them on a recipe from the Napa butcher shop called The Fatted Calf and their book, In the Charcuterie. I’ve been cooking them sous vide for a while as well. I did a side by side this year though just to see if anything is gained by cooking the sausage in a pot of water in the oven at a low temp. Well, sous vide wins. The one that went in the oven lost a whole lot more volume and was not as evenly cooked as the sous vide ones. It was not bad by any means but I will be sticking with using my precision cooker for upcoming Cotechino cooks. 

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Fresh Extruded Pasta: Rigatoni, Sausage and Ricotta

Making pasta at home is nothing new. I’ve been doing fresh egg pasta, flat, stuffed, hand-rolled or on a chitarra for years. However, making “dry” fresh pasta was not something I’ve tackled. I did not want to invest in a pasta extruder and was not sure it will be worth it. Also, most books never bother with extruded pasta. On a recent visit to William-Sonoma I noticed they had on clearance several small hand-cranked pasta machines that are used to make Rigatoni, Spaghetti and a few other extruded pasta shapes. The machine seemed like a very good deal at $19, so I picked one up to give it a shot. I tried it once using a  pasta recipe from Modernist Cuisine and it worked well. The resulting pasta was ok, but it lacked the “roughness” of good dried extruded pasta since it was made with regular all-purpose flour. Then recently, I got Mark Vetri’s latest book “Rustic Italian Food” and he devotes a good chunk of it to extruded pasta made with 100% semolina. None of my Italian cookbooks ever bother with that!

His recipe could not be simpler, just semolina flour and water. That’s it. He focuses on the importance of drying to obtain the proper texture. After extruding, the pasta is laid on a baking sheet uncovered and dried in the fridge for at least 8 hours. This removes excess moisture that could make it gummy, gives it more structure and helps build that highly-desired al dente texture when cooked. I had some homemade ricotta on hand when I made this first batch of Rigatoni as well as my homemade Italian sausage. So it only seemed natural to toss it all with a quick tomato sauce and enjoy it with a glass of wine. The fresh “dried” Rigatoni had a wonderful texture and held on to the sauce perfectly. I hope my cheap pasta machine will hold for a good while with repeated use (it is mostly plastic afterall). If it breaks, I think a small investment in the KitchenAid attachment for extruded pasta will be in order.

Cassoulet and Green Salad, Country Bread and Red Wine, Walnut Tart – A Dinner from Southwest France

A long titled post suitable to a properly labor-intensive and delicious cold-weather meal. Both the Toulouse-style Cassoulet and the Walnut Tart are based on Paula Wolfert’s recipes in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France“. The bread is the Pain de Campagne (country bread) recipe from Peter Reinhart’s “The Bread baker’s Apprentice“.

Making a proper Cassoulet is a good bit of work and to get the most out of this dish you really should not cut corners. Boiling some beans and adding in a couple of sausages might be good, but is really not the same animal. It’s almost “wrong” to make a Cassoulet that does not take a couple of days worth of work (mostly unattended simmering or resting). It’s part of the enjoyment that goes into it when you crack that crispy breadcrumb crust that you know how much work really went into making this sublime dish.

It helps a lot having a freezer and larder that is fully stocked. I already had home-cured pork belly (pancetta), home-cooked duck confit, good rich stock (venison in this case), trimmed and cleaned pig skins, home-made Toulouse-style sausage and a few pounds of wild boar. This means I could dive right into cooking the Cassoulet and putting these items together without having to worry about making confit or shopping for pig skins and duck fat.

So, what is involved in making a Cassoulet?

– Simmer pork shoulder (I used wild boar), pig skin, along with aromatics and vegetables (leeks, carrots, thyme, bay, a little tomato paste…)  until mostly tender.

– Add in a pound or 2 (Wolfert uses two for a HUGE Cassoulet, I used one to make half a recipe) of soaked white beans and cook until tender.

– Seperate the beans and stock from the meats. Store in the fridge overnight or for a few days.

– Enrich the stock by pureeing some of it with garlic and pork fat. Add that to the beans, rest of the stock and the pork chunks. Simmer for a little bit.

– Remember those Toulouse sausages I mentioned earlier? Cook those separately. I cooked them sous vide till done. Cut them into pieces.

– For the duck confit, just remove the skins, take the meat off the bones and leave it in big chunks.

– “Build” the Cassoulet by first laying the flat pieces of cooked pork skin (the one we simmered with the beans) in the bottom of a large pot. I used one of my Colombian Chamba clay pots.

– Top that with half of the bean mixture, then the duck confit. Top with the remaining bean mixture. Use a perforated spoon here so that you can control how much of the bean stock is needed. I ended up using all of it for the liquid to come up barely to the level of the beans.

– Bake the Cassoulet for an hour or two. A skin will form on the surface. Stir that “skin” into the Cassoulet. Bury the cooked sausage chunks in the beans leaving them slightly exposed. Top with a tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs and a drizzle of duck fat. Bake until crispy, bubbly and delicious.

– Let it rest for 5-10 minutes at least and dig in.

It really sounds like much more work than it is. Most of the cooking can be spread out over a couple of days and you will be rewarded with one of the most delicious of French comfort foods ever. It’s one of those dishes that if done right are satisfying and rich but not cloying. It should not be mushy or fatty. To get that result, one needs to pay attention to the small details.

Detail1: DO NOT let the beans boil like crazy. As soon as the stock comes up to a boil lower the heat to a very gentle simmer. This way you can control the cooking process better and can cook the beans perfectly. Rapid boil will almost insure burst beans. This will make for unpleasantly mushy beans, a thick cloudy stock and will emulsify the fat in it making it more difficult to de-grease.

Detail2: A key reason why a good Cassoulet should be stretched over a couple of days is de-greasing  the stock. Storing the beans in the cooking liquid in the fridge will form a thick layer of fat on the surface from all those meats. It’s easy to remove that before continuing with the cooking and baking.

What to serve it with? Other than red wine? You really don’t need much else, but a piece of good bread and a tart salad are excellent accompaniments. I shaped the bread specifically for the Cassoulet dinner into an epis (wheat tip) so we could just break off pieces instead of slicing…and it looks pretty neat. The salad was a simple mixed baby greens mix with a vinaigrette of raspberry vinegar and walnut oil.

It only seemed appropriate that to cap it all off, I would make a dessert from the same region. So from the same book, I made Wolfert’s walnut tart or as she calls it Walnut Tart from Masseube. This is not a typical tart, more of a cross between a cookie and a tart. The filling is a mixture of walnuts and a dark butter caramel. This gets poured into a tart shell lined with a sweet short pastry crust. Another layer of pastry goes on top and then it is baked. When the tart cools the filling sets pretty firm, like a pecan pie filling minus most of the “goo”. We really loved this with a cup of coffee and a touch of whipped cream.

Labor Day Bocks and Brats

We were in San Antonio this past weekend, so I did not have much time to prepare a full-fledged barbecue spread. San Antonio was a fun close getaway with the family and as usual we had a great meal at Dough Pizzeria Napolitana (might be one of the best of it’s kind in the country) and way too much ice cream at Justin’s and Amy’s. Anyways, back at home by Monday Labor Day, what I did have is some good homemade sausage. So I took out a pack of Bratwurst and the last couple of Bockwurst packs I had. Both sausages are made with a mixture of pork and veal. They also both include dairy and eggs. The Bockwurst includes more onions and more pepper, the brats have a more uniform emulsified texture not unlike that of a hot dog. The Bockwurst were cooked (poached) before freezing so they needed nothing more than grilling to heat up and crisp the casing. The brats were raw, so they were cooked sous vide at 61 C for about an hour before grilling and crisping.

I did go through the trouble of making some proper buns that will stand up to the wieners and not fall apart. I used a recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. A few of these were topped with poppy seeds and the rest baked plain. The buns turned out perfect for the substantial sausages. To serve them, I made a some sautéed onions, peppers, zucchini and tomatoes. Other accompaniments included a few different mustards and some pickled pepperoncini peppers. That was such a fantastic meal for so little work.

Super bowl XLIV: Gumbo and Sweet Potato Pie

I was pretty happy that the Saints made it to the Super Bowl this year, but I honestly did not think they would actually win! That was a fantastic game. Either way I knew I’d be making some good food to match the Saint’s home state. The main course was gumbo. This one is shrimp, sausage and chicken. I used a recipe from “Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of  New Orleans” for the gumbo and changed it up a bit. I used a bit less oil and added half a pound of okra in there. For the roux I used Alton Brown’s method of making it in the oven. Sure it takes more time but is very convenient and almost guarantees a perfect, dark but not burned roux.

For dessert I wanted to make a sweet potato pie, also based on a recipe from the same book. I made the dough with the standard 3-2-1 pastry dough recipe, the perfect ratio of flour-butter-water for a flaky and delicious pie dough. The filling recipe only made enough to fill half the pie, so I quickly decided that the sweet potato pie is now a sweet potato-pecan pie. Good and very tasty decision that was.

Cotechino with Polenta

Cotechino is a traditional sausage from Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. It is traditionally served on New Year’s Eve. Italians serve it with lentils (to bring rishes in thew upcoming year), potatoes or polenta. I make Cotechino once a year, by that I mean I make the sausage mixture once a year. That mixture however, produces two sausages each about 2 lbs. The blue print for Cotechino like any sausage includes pork, pork fat and a variety of spices like cloves cinnamon and mace. The key ingredient in Cotechino and what makes it a Cotechino is pork skin. A good bit of pork skin. That boiled chopped skin is very rich in collagen, that wonderful protein that melts when heated and gives good stews a lip smacking lusciousness. This means that a Cotechino sausage, sliced thick while hot has a beautiful melting texture like nothing else.

I normally cook one sausage for New Year and freeze the other one for later. This year was no difference. I made the Cotechini (for the past two year’s I’ve been adapting Jason Molinari’s recipe) and served one with lentils on December 31st. The other one I cooked it last week. This was served with polenta and a simple tomato sauce. An important factor in cooking a cotechino, is not to boil it. It should cook at about 190F for several hours in water until all the collagen is melted. What better tool to control the temperature this time around other than my immersion circulator. So, I packed the sausage in a FoodSaver bag and poached it sous vide for 3 hours at about 185F. The result was fantastic, perfect taste and texture. Cotechino should be served steaming hot, but leftover sausage once cooled and sliced thin is excellent on top of bread with a dab of mustard.