Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A terrible thing to waste.

Thanks to my pal, Nick, for capturing the bird-brained side of me...

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009. Pan-seared pig's brain with potato pancake, scallion salad and mustard hollandaise.

My visits to the accommodating--if often crowded, Strip District Meats on Penn Ave. are invariably marked with a child's wonder reading the chalkboard beyond the meat counter listing their speciality items: varieties of wild game, offal extremes, bison gonads, rattlesnake egos, cutlets of muscly witchcraft, etc..

As adventurous a spirit as I feel I have I have to admit my adventures have been few--I have lived mostly aloof, and as often dishonestly.

I know, shocking...

Pig's brains at Strip District Meats sell at $1.99/lb--as opposed to the prized veal brains at $13.99/lb. I'm no vegetarian, but I do draw my line at eating the young. It just seems unnecessary and commensurate with the snuffing of young life, simply not fulfilling as an eating experience. That and, c'mon, pig's brains are two bucks a pound. I grabbed a pound.

My schooling on the subject came by familiar way of Simon Hopkinson and his essential food narrative/cookbook, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. His cervelles--he pussyfoots with the more euphonious--and frankly misleading, French name for the dish, but manages, in spite of this affectation, to produce a handful of appetizing recipes. More importantly he makes the process of brain preparation easy and coherent. The brain dish I produced is my own concoction but the fundamentals of the cooking are his.

Because the preparation requires two phases--an initial poaching, followed by a pan sear, there was a convenient pause in the process where I could taste the firmed up brain matter and get a basic idea of the texture and flavor. Of the former, brain has been accurately compared to scrambled eggs in the French style--which is to say custardy and not fully set; my pal, Wendy, still does them the best, having spent her schooling years at Tulane where such extracurricular lessons would've availed themselves.

Enthusiasts of Korean food who--like me, thrill over the silken tofu in soon dubu soup, will find similarities there as well.

It is, to be sure, a little jostling on first taste.

However comfortable one is with his omnivorism the ultimate sensation is one that prickles with philosophical misgivings. We are what we are, we eat what we chose, and if we are to taste some it we must certainly accept the lot it. Of course all of this is provided you've come this far...

Now of the latter, the taste itself, there is not a lot to say. Like tofu it is bland as can be. You will find Hopkinson really gets to show off his saucier skills in this portion of his book. So the exercise comes to concern window-dressing. These recipes are kindled ventures in pageantry.

Far be it for a short order cook of my station to match maneuvers with Simon--I chose a different tack.

Given that uncanny similarity to scrambled eggs I went with my gut and humble heritage. The most common response I got was that this was Eggs Benedict. Well, Brains Benedict. And rather than relying on an english muffin I opted to up the flavor and texture with a potato pancake redolent of onions, finely-shredded celery and plenty of roasted garlic. The scallion salad lent acidity and some much needed structure to the dish, and the hollandaise framed the breakfast impostor studiously.

There are fundamental divergences I made from Hopkinson's instruction, but in the end I suspect they were only minimally influential to the eating experience of a pig's brain.

First I opted for an initial poach in seasoned milk rather than the court bullion. For one thing I hadn't satisfactory spices to fabricate one, and as well, my utilitarian instincts require I soak all non-muscle tissue in milk to leach out the cadaverous elements--its what makes liver such a (less minerally) smash when done correctly.

Also, since I used a larger organ than the one Hopkinson prescribed--he chose a calf's to my pig's, I sliced it down to cutlet serving size prior to poaching. It is essential to the undertaking of this step to know the delicacy of this organ--as food stuff, that is. If you have a fish spatula I recommend using it to transfer the brain segments to and from the poach and skillet as nearly any aggressive jostling will break up the tissue.

Finally, taste it out of the poaching milk. Get to know it for yourself. I found my recipe to be fairly intuitive. Like filet mignon it's a vessel, a near blank slate upon which, not unlike the imagination, you are required to show some initiative.

You need to pile up the flavor on a pig's poor brain.

The ingredients and preparation.

Feeds 2.

1 1 lb. pig's brain
3 c. whole milk
1 bay leaf; cumin; salt and pepper (to taste)

1 medium white potato
2 medium red potatoes
1 small red onion, grated
1 stalk celery, grated
3 cloves of roasted garlic (with one healthy tablespoon of reserved oil)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 egg yolk, whitened with beating
1 tbsp. heavy cream

1 qt. cup heavy cream
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp. coarse mustard
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
a handful of finely chopped parsley..

A handful of scallions, chopped lengthwise and then into matchstick size
lemon juice
salt and pepper

The idea is to get everything hot and ready at once. So timing is very much a factor. Because a hollandaise--what I call hollandaise at any rate, is so temperamental you should save it for the final step--like any sauce it requires the most ingenuity of your labor, so on that premise too you should save the imaginative for the culmination.

Begin by soaking the brain, sliced into half inch cuts in whole milk, seasoned liberally with salt, pepper, and bay. Let it sit for an afternoon, no less than a few hours, refrigerated.

Prepare the potato pancakes. Boil three medium potatoes in heavily salted water--I find a mixture of white and red increases the textural bristle. Using a block grater grate the celery and onion, adding it, with juices, to a bowl. Add the roasted garlic and oil--mash the cloves first. Once the potatoes have boiled to doneness you want to incorporate the grated vegetables with them, adding beaten yolk and cream as you go. Form patties and reserve til you're ready to griddle-cook them. In a white hot skillet fry the pancakes.

At this point you'll want to either attend to some measly vegetable sidecar--I roasted carrots, or get on with the brains...

The brain filets should be dusted in flour, salted and peppered--like any oddity the guilty secret is that pig's brain has no genuine flavor of its own so here's where you begin to make it up.

Sear and cook them through--touch the filets in the process for doneness. Like anything you'll feel a decreasing give as they go--cook to your liking.

In the meantime get on with your salad and hollandaise. The scallions need merely be trimmed into matchsticks and dressed with lemon juice, salt and pepper--I did dash a teaspoonful of ghee into the dressing as well.

The hollandaise begins like a conventional salad dressing: Convene with vinegar, mustard, egg yolk and seasoning. Whisk to a loose slurry consistency. Then add oil as with a mayonnaise--whisking vigorously. Once the body of the mayonnaise has formed begin adding the cream. You will want a heavy surface--but not something oppressive. Bear in mind you're dressing a brain, it needs a voluptuous speech, but it also needs--and this is admittedly tricky, a finer word--something to allow for contemplation. You want a taste of buttermilk dressing with the warm unctuousness of turkey gravy. Add plenty of chopped fresh parsley. It will take on the characteristics of thin white gravy.

As the hollandaise firms up brown the pancakes in a free skillet. Warm, too, the segmented brains as well--if needed. Upon mutual heating stack the elements in napoleon-form. Beg for Christ's sweet forgiveness and--panting subsided, consume to a nice Hank Snow record. Maybe Wham!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fool's gold.

Sunday, December 13, 2009, 8:45 AM. First things first, I don't recommend you do as I have done. In fact let that stand as caveat emptor for not only this chronicle but for all expressions issuant. That said I spent the last 36 hours of my life wrassling with the vilest variety of a cold and flu combo yet encountered in my adult years.

I awoke this morning thinking about fire. I thought, more specifically about fighting fire with fire. Anything, my inclination went, a virus can do to me I can do better. I can out-destroy me. And so I did.

Gentle reader, I might have held my punches til everything was back to normal, sparing you the underbelly, but fair's fair: we eat beef Wellington together we eat, well, this shit together as well. You and me, we might as well be married. Seen here is one half a salami and provolone panini with about half a dozen pierogies from our beloved Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks. This lethal combination was complemented by a mixture of El Yucateco habanero sauce, Sriracha, chili flakes and cracked black pepper. Washed it down with New Castle's own Pasture Maid Creamery raw milk.

And yes, now that you mention it it is a bit odd that in a sickness delirium I not only unwittingly eat great local food but finally showcase it.

That established I must now chase the aforementioned Faustian heap with an Emergen-C drink and a melatonin tablet, ideally cleansing me of memories both ill and restoratively misguided. Tell you what, give me a gun loaded with blanks and I'll find a way to shoot myself in the foot. I think I'm gonna throw up (again).


More flattering recipes to come using Pasture Maid's incomparable milk. And do grab a bag of pierogies from Pierogies Plus before the gals hightail it back to Poland for the holidays...

Monday, December 7, 2009


"The a meta-archipelago...It has the virtue of having neither a boundary nor a center. Thus the Caribbean flows outward past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance and its ultima Thule may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern of circa 1850, at a Balinese temple, in an old Bristol pub, in a commercial warehouse in Bourdeaux at the time of Colbert, in a windmill beside the Zuider Zee, at a cafe in a barrio of Manhattan, in the existential saudade of an old Portuguese lyric. "
-Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island, 1996.

The author quoted above was drawing a broader observation on the manifold Caribbean identity, yet I in my natural bent could think of little but food. I could see in it-- for the purposes of this dish--one that not unlike chili, goulash, curry or gumbo is stupefying in its myriad origins and permutations, how Benitez-Rojo happened upon an essential puzzle piece of the contemporary food movement: the inclusion of the global in the local. As much as we regionalists, patriots, specialists and niche fetishists would like to think otherwise all cooking is fusion cooking.

As is so often the case one of the inaugural bonechill nights of winter last evening proved the ideal opportunity. Pepperpot is too common sense at its core, too irresistible to not be the subject of numerous national and ethnic claims. It has been prepared in so many variations that the very integrity of the dish's name is stressed to near meaninglessness. The consensus is that, by whatever route of emigration and trade, the Guyanese just north of Brazil lay the truest claim; being that their independent nationality is younger than my favorite Bob Dylan record its only fair they have something so hotly contested as their own. The culinary equivalent to a first round draft pick.

The irony of a global marketplace is that by laying so much extra-European bounty at our doorstep we are in a profound way removing ourselves from a long tradition of geographic and cultural dictates. And when tackling something so far removed from those dictates we become, in practice and expectation, a little lost. Truthfully, I didn't know what pepperpot was before last night. I made a grand old pot of some stuff and only then, after the fact--my septum scorched from blackened chilies and my senses ringing with a dozen toasted spices, did I break down and run a Wikipedia search. I made pepperpot.

Having spent the next morning searching out as many recipes as I could I found that the fundamentals are simple. First things first: pepperpot is a stew. Duh. And with the exception of a handful of American church bazaar-syle recipes nearly each involved a flavorant called cassareep, a cassava-derived syrup used to impart bittersweetness to the broth. Also, the meat aspect of the dish could be divided into two functional categories, the first a stew meat: this in my reading ran the gamut: pork, chicken, beef, goat--any and everything really. The second incorporation was of a collagen-rich meat: tripe, pig's foot, oxtail, soup bones, etc.. And finally, some vegetables--very few authors agreed on the combination, roasted with an earthy herb and chili mixture. From those general beginnings each took its own shape.

This vision of pepperpot was a wild success, and may even become an annual dish for the onset of true winter. Eat to the sounds of howling ice winds and Joy Division.


1/4 roasted garlic cloves--roasting oil included
6 large sage leaves
1 sliced yellow onion
2 skinned and chopped med. carrots
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise then cut crosswise into 1/4" half moons
3/4 frozen spring peas
10-12 baby yukon gold potatoes

2 lbs. fatty country style pork ribs (basically chops cut across the bone)

1 light dash of all purpose flour
1/3 c. sweet vermouth

1 tbsp. smoked paprika
1 1/2 tbsp. brown sugar
dried chilies, toasted til nearly black--how many and what variety is up to you.
1/2 lemon

4-5 cups of stock--I used turkey, but basically anything to keep you from running tap water into your pot.

This preparation requires stages of cooking--just consider that each vegetable cooks at a different rate and work accordingly. Begin with the basic aromatics: onion, sage leaves and roasted garlic, adding with a good measure of olive oil to a medium hot soup pot with a heavy-base. Brown and remove to a bowl. Raise heat to high, add zucchini. Caramelize both sides and remove to same bowl. Repeat with potatoes, cooking them to the point where the skins show charred spots by they're internally still mostly uncooked--letting them stew with the pork, along with the fat and bone collagen will thicken the pepperpot in lieu of that second meat--save you the cost of a pig's foot. All $.79 of it.

Since the potatoes will join the stew before the others remove them to a separate bowl. Allow the pot a return to a high, near-smoking heat. Season the pork and add. As an aside I must mention my latest fetish object in the kitchen: butcher's pepper. It's a specific grind--a crack really, of basic black pepper. Since the birth of time--well, the nineties at any rate, I've searched for that specific size of crushed black pepper commonly used in steak au poivre. Most consumer brand coarse grinds aren't coarse enough, and the grist on my pepper mill will only do so much. Oh yeah, if you're over that's sea salt in the pepper mill from now on. So I finally found what I was looking for at The Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the strip. They also call it coarse ground, but its size is bigger and adds an almost textural dimension. It's like caviar, it pops. Look for it.

Brown the pork ribs well--I think I gave them a little more than four minutes on each side. Remove to potato bowl. Darken the dried chilies--if you're using them, in the remaining fat of the pot. Occasionally remove one; when its ready you should first of all be well aware of it by aroma alone, but as well it should crumble into flakes easily. If you prefer to flake the chilies--I did, I think it intensifies their presence, do so, then add back to the pot. Add the flour, paprika til the aroma converges then deglaze the pot with vermouth. Add in the brown sugar and squeeze in lemon. At this phase of preparation I hesitated, thinking of the confusion of flavors I was dealing with: the vermouth, the chilies, the smoked paprika. In fact it is a broad order. Just keep tasting for the right chemistry, and of course sub out what you don't like for what you do--pay no mind to your Guyanese neighbor rolling her eyes.

Return the pork and potatoes to the pot and cover with with stock. Simmer for an hour. The pork should pull easily from the bone but not fall too easily apart, and the potatoes should be, depending on size, alternately fork tender and disolving into the broth. Add the browned vegetables, and finally the peas. Season once more to taste and serve with minced white onions and scallions in vinegar.

If you can stand it let it sit overnight in the fridge. A good night of sleep helps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The aftermath.

The smoke is clearing and the Gettysburg soil is drenched in blood. I paid my neighbors in yard work, shoveled sidewalks and some unspeakable favors of the bedroom to do my dishes as they were as revolting a heap as the food was revelatory. The truth of it is this thing, the aftermath, is far from over. We've begun a season so debauched and indulgent that once it's over it's common--hell, it's expected, that we make resolutions not to behave like this anymore. We do this every year. I couldn't tell you the number of stoic January 1st plates of hash browns I've stared into with all the gazing desperation of Narcissus and vowed, never again.

John and I planned what Avocado affectionately refers to as an orphan's holiday--no blood relatives, just a few stragglers from work and around the way. Ours began in the magic hour--if you don't count the daylong binge on deviled eggs so formidable that Cool Hand Luke himself would've genuflected.

You'll have to forgive my amateur excuse for photography. I'd blame the camera but truth be told I'm no better with a digital camera than I am with a 9 iron, which is to say poor and bordering on self-destructive. It was a beautiful light that seemed generously premature for the afternoon, one that carried on well past the expectation of dusk.

Four of us tackled approximately twelve dishes, not including the shrink-wrapped pumpkin pie John couldn't resist grabbing, on a last minute run to Shur Save for eggs. It remains shrink-wrapped on my kitchen table.

There was turkey: cajun deep-fried drumsticks; an olive oil and sage-rubbed breast; and my pal, Rick, from Right By Nature, prepared a stuffed bird that changed my mind for all times on the naysayer's resistance to stuffing before the roast. It was grand through and through. Not sure I'm ready to take that kind of chance myself, but Rick's butchering skills proved expert in cleaving enough of the bird to each side, open book-style that neither the bird nor the conservative lode of stuffing--itself a rather tasty side, stood a chance of compromised chemistry. They were good pals.

We had an orange-accented cranberry sauce that John seemed to simmer straight from the top of his head; the out-of-the-past deviled eggs--new foodyism seems to disparage what we truly love in favor of something we deign to call cosmopolitan; I tell you what, them eggs was penthouse and lighting Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills as sure s if they were caviar and foie gras on the lawn. And as I already noted we ate a lifetime's supply before the table was even set. John made chipotle mashed sweet potato, and brilliantly roasted brussel sprouts with baby carrots.

For my part I made an andouille and croissant dressing. The pan yielded a fond we deglazed with some basic turkey stock from some hot browns John made a few weeks back. Good gravy.

I had, in my sleepwalking way, concocted an untouched casserole several days earlier of baked rigatoni with broccoli and a vodka Camembert sauce. Just prior to baking I finished it with a fresh sage oil. The recipe will follow.

I suppose the litany could go through the night, like the list of ships in The Iliad, like the genealogies of the Old Testament, but you get the picture.

Besides, like I said, this isn't over yet.

Baked Rigatoni with Vodka Camembert Sauce.

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 large stalk celery, finely chopped
1 small Serrano chili, seeded, finely chopped
5 small oil-cured anchovies
4 roasted garlic cloves
1 lb. dry rigatoni
1 lg. can pelati (roasted roma tomatoes, ideally San Marzano)
1/4 c. heavy cream
6 0z. Camembert, torn in bits with the rind left on
1/4 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 c. vodka
1 med. head of broccoli, cut into florets and blanched.
6 leaves of fresh sage browned in 3 tbsp. olive oil

Begin by sauteing the chopped vegetables in a mixture of olive oil and butter over medium heat. Once vaguely softened remove to a bowl. In the skillet brown five small anchovy fillets and four cloves of roasted garlic. As they brown in the remaining oil mash them with the back of a fork. As soon as the aromatics ripen in the skillet add a large can of whole pelati tomatoes with juice.

Allow this to simmer, mashing the tomtoes as you go, reintroducing the sauteed vegetables a moment prior to satisfactory reduction--it should look like jarred spaghetti sauce. It'll taste better, but the consistency will prove similar.

Cook off one pound of rigatoni. Not al dente, a little short of it. It'll need to bake.

Add to the sauce, in slow feeds, the cream, Camembert, vodka and Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir til a orange sunset color is reached. Add the rigatoni and broccoli, turning over to coat. Add the mixture to a large buttered casserole. Bake at 350 degrees, brushing the surfac occasionally with sage oil. Upon the final brushing add the crisped sage leaves to the surface. Once suitably browned remove from the oven and after an impatient rest serve.