Saturday, September 19, 2009

Coeur de Porc a'Larmagnac

Didn't think I'd do it, did you?

Perhaps you are aware of the various recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook. Perhaps you own it. Perhaps you thought to yourself "nahh, she'll crap out before she gets to the hardcore stuff."

Perhaps you know what this is, and are blown away by my sheer audacity.

Or perhaps you are clueless and are thinking to yourself "doth my high school French deceive me? Is she cooking a coeur of a porc for REALS?"

The answer? Yes. Pig heart with Armagnac. There are a lot of interesting recipes in the Les Halles Cookbook, including an entire section labeled "Blood and Guts," which involves the cooking of various types of offal, or organ meats. Some of these recipes I know and love, specifically boudin noir (blood sausage) with caramelized apples. Some, however, are very exotic and include kidneys, livers, and in this case, a pig heart. So follow along as I man up to the challenge of my first "Blood and Guts" recipe.

First things first: secure a heart.

Well of course the only place to go is my trusty pork vendor, Cedarbrook Farm. I e-mailed them to ask if they had a heart available, and they responded that they had not one, but TWO, count them, TWO hearts, for $3 each. Can I just say, after the $15 roasted chicken, that this is probably the best bargain in the Les Halles Cookbook so far? I mean, pastured, farm raised organic pig hearts are incredibly freaking cheap. Perhaps because no one in their right mind would willingly put one in their mouths, but THAT IS BESIDE THE POINT. So heart problem solved. I got both, as one heart serves two, and I wanted to have enough for brave Neighbor C, who volunteered to try this potentially delicious and/or nasty dish.

Next, Armagnac. Armagnac is french brandy distilled from white grapes and aged in black oak casks for a minimum of two years. I'd never drunk Armagnac before, but now seems like as good a time as any to try. We have a pretty good liquor store just outside my metro stop (doesn't have awesome things like creme de violette and orgeat syrup, but does have my favorite absinthe and a good wine selection), and they had three types of Armagnac for my choosing. The sales guy told me he'd start me out with "entry level Armagnac," which made me giggle, and of course I chose the one that had a box with a guy sporting a rocking mustache on it.


That night Husband J and I cracked it open, and WOW. I'm normally not a huge brandy or cognac fan, but this Armagnac put both to shame with its smooth texture and delicious flavor, which I won't try to describe here because hello, pretentious liquor critics suck. But it's damn tasty, so if you haven't tried Armagnac, give ol' mustachio a shot, ok?

And next, chicken stock. I used up my last bit of stock in the soupe au pistou, and was looking forward to roasting another chicken and using the bones in another batch of stock. Fate, it seems, thought differently. When I took my nice organic Whole Foods chicken from the fridge and opened its packet, it smelled rank. The damn thing was rotten, and even had a week to go before its "sell by" date! Ugh. I chucked the entire thing, and ordered delivery fish curry.

Sunday morning arrived, and I rolled out of bed to pick up my hearts. The Cedarbrook Farm rep at the stand was very nice, asking me about the dish and wishing me luck. She handed me two nicely vacuum wrapped packets, beautifully labeled.

I headed down to the next meat stand, as they often sell chicken stock... but no such luck, they had none that day. Which is why, though I swore up and down I would use no shortcuts in this project, I am using... shudder... store bought chicken stock. Forgive me Tony, for I have sinned...

Anyway, no more crying over the chicken stock that was not meant to be. Time to roast some garlic.

Coeur de Porc a'lArmagnac requires the making of garlic confit from the "miscellaneous meez" section of the book. Garlic confit is essentially roasted, salted garlic, and is horrifyingly easy to make. Just chuck a bunch of unpeeled garlic cloves onto some aluminum foil, drizzle with olive oil, salt and add a sprig of thyme, roast at 350 for 30 minutes, and you are set. Makes your house smell awesome to boot. Husband J attacked the confit once it was made, and it was all I could do to save some for the sauce.



I also set up to make roasted fingerling potatoes, salad, and a plum tart with the Italian plums that I found at the market. I figured just in case the heart turns out to be horrible, we'll have something to wash away the taste... and if it's sweet, so much the better.

Apparently I have embraced the "elegant spiral" after all. Go me!

I know you are all thinking "Okay ENOUGH with the bitching about the chicken, the neurotic back and forth and the freaking garlic! We want to see the money shot, bitch, where is the fucking HEART?"

Here you go:

Mmmm doesn't that look tasty? Look at all those nerves, and veins and... stuff.

While the hearts defrosted in an ice bath, I utilized some leftover back fat (haha, back fat) from the rillettes, rendered it in a sautee pan and sweated some onion and herbs until soft.

Then I trimmed the fat from the top of the hearts, and stuffed them with the onion mixture.

I am so hardcore.

Well maybe not stuffed. The recipe calls for stuffing the ventricles with the onion mixture (pleasant thought, I know), but the hearts I have obtained are split down the middle, presumably for easier cooking. That's great, but now I have not much space for stuffing. I settled on stuffing what I could, and ladling the rest over the hearts to cover. Into the oven they went for 20 minutes (double the time for one heart).

I opened the oven once to check on their progress, and the smell that wafted out was, well, good. It smelled rich and meaty and hearty. It smelled like a good boudin noir smells.

After the hearts were cooked I covered them with foil to rest while I made the sauce. This part is a little dicey, as it involves cooking down the Armagnac in a pan over a gas flame. "The Armagnac will probably flame up," says Tony, "so watch out." Oh my god. I should note here that I'd already set off the smoke alarm with my roasted potatoes (remember why you never roast potatoes any more? Because that always happens.) I had visions of flames licking the kitchen ceiling. I called Husband J into the kitchen. "I'm going to need you to stand by with the fire extinguisher," I said.

"Are you kidding?" he asked, incredulous.

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" I shot back. He trotted off to get the fire extinguisher.

My best friend.

I heated the shot of Armagnac in the pan. Here my bravery gave out, and I controlled the temperature so that it reduced but did not flame up. Then I poured in the *shudder* store bought stock, reduced some more, and then stirred in the pan drippings from the hearts. The garlic confit went in next, as well as a hefty knob of butter. I may have reached a saturated fat event horizon with this sauce.

Finally, with the sauce made, I sliced the hearts very thinly until they resembled nothing so much as a nice fillet, instead of a scarily shaped organ. At this point, I decided to be brave again, so I grabbed a slice and popped it in my mouth. Husband J watched with wide eyes. "How is it?" he asked.

I chewed. "It tastes like... roast beef!"

And it did. Exactly like roast beef. With a little bit of a chewy texture, and an undertaste that signaled the organ-ness of the meat, but otherwise you could put it on a sandwich with mayo and provolone and never tell the difference.

No really, it's roast beef. Try it.

Over the slices went the sauce, and we trucked our dishes over to Neighbor C's for a double feature of trashy reality TV: TA2 and "My Antonio". Between the three of us we cleaned up the potatoes and most of the heart, and demolished a good two thirds of the plum tart, which was the favorite of everyone involved (thanks, Oprah!). But everyone went for seconds on the heart, which made me incredibly happy. Another success.

So, would I make it again? Well, honestly, probably not. It was a good dish, but more rich than I like my food (and that's before the butter sauce), and the special ordering of the heart tends to be something I'd rather forego. But I'm glad I made it and glad I ate it, as I'm well on my way to true culinary badassery.

Lessons learned: Just because "offal" and "awful" are homonyms does not mean they should be conflated. Heart tastes good, like roast beef, but slice it thin anyway so it doesn't look like you're gnawing on a big nasty organ. Armagnac is delicious to drink and to cook with, just make sure you don't start fires. Never roast potatoes, ever. Sauce is always better with roasted garlic and butter. Sometimes even the best of plans fall through and you have to use nasty store bought stock.

Next Week: Break time. I have a packed Sunday that involves other people cooking for me, so although I might consider doing a small dish or appetizer, it's more likely I'll take a break and return on October 4 with something new and delicious. Stay tuned, please!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Salade Niçoise

Okay yup, I copped out on the whole snapper, and am doing Salade Niçoise for this week's dish. But there is a reason for this... after a hard week at work, I limp-ragged it through Friday afternoon, necessitating Nepalese takeout for dinner, then headed up to Baltimore to go to a street festival, where I ate deliciously creamy penne alla vodka and various deep fried delicacies. After that I could barely eat for most of Sunday, and decided that the best cure for this weekend of culinary excess would be a fresh, salty, acidic Salade Niçoise for dinner. And anyway, it's not really a copout. I mean, Julia did an entire show about Salad Niçoise. It also involves two basic kitchen techniques that it's always good to feature: blanching veggies and hard-boiling eggs.

Salad Niçoise always seemed like a rather appealing dish, fresh and filling at the same time, but I've actually never eaten it. The reason is that I've always seen it served in places that sell their salads in plastic clamshell packets, and the contents--limp lettuce, grey grainy tuna, over-boiled eggs with that awful green ring around the yolk--never inspired me to want to eat, let alone make, any such concoction. It seemed like the salad would be overly oily, salty and gross, and looking at the recipe in the Les Halles Cookbook did not inspire much confidence. Oh well. Today is apparently my time for Salade Niçoise, so let's get to it.

First, take about 6 ounces of haricots verts--that's green beans to you filthy Americans--and blanch them in a pot of boiling water. Tony gives a few tips on this. "Anytime you blanch a green vegetable, the more water and the more room, the better...[t]hey need plenty of room to swim around." Sounds good. Into the boiling pot they go for 6 minutes, then into an ice bath. Blanching vegetables is a great technique to use when you need greens or veggies (such as spinach, green beans, kale, etc.) that need to be cooked a little so they're not crunchy and tough, but can't be cooked too much or they turn to mush.

Plenty of room... they were perfect!

Next, the potatoes cook for 20 minutes, until they are tender and can be pierced easily with a fork.

While the potatoes cooked, I hard boiled two eggs. I'm not much of a hard boiler, really. Husband J and I both hate hard boiled eggs. I'm not a fan of rubbery white and chalky, crumbly yolk. I prefer soft boiled or poached eggs, I love dipping bread into a runny yolk, preferably mixed with a generous amount of butter and salt (I am salivating just thinking about this) and often eat soft boiled eggs for breakfast in little egg cups shaped like fish. (I know, precious, but it really is the most delicious breakfast with buttered toast.) So I had to turn to Tony's instructions: "How to Hard Boil a Freaking Egg" featured under the recipe for Oeufs Perigourdins (hard boiled eggs stuffed with yolks, ham and truffles, dipped in egg white meringue and deep fried in duck fat. Can't wait to see me try that one, can you?). Anyway, take cold water in a small pot, add the two eggs, then bring them to a boil.

Boiling eggs

Shut off the heat, clap on a lid and wait ten minutes, then put the eggs in an ice bath to cool. Then peel, halve, and check to see if they are done well.

No yucky ring = hard boiled perfection. Kind of like Raymond Chandler.

Time for the salad dressing. Rub a garlic clove on the salad bowl, then add olive oil and red wine vinegar, and whisk with the fork, which should still have the garlic clove on it (mmm, garlic).

Then I took the bibb lettuce, peppers, potatoes (quartered), tomatoes, haricots verts, nicoise olives, and cut up pieces of anchovy, and tossed them in the dressing. Over this salad went the expensive yellowfin tuna packed in oil in a jar (not a can!!) and hard boiled egg halves.

Husband J and I took this dinner up to the roof for an al fresco dinner with a baguette and some cheese as a side.

The verdict: AMAZING. Anyone like me who thinks that this would be a weird, overly salty and kind of gross combination needs to shut the eff up and make this salad right now. It was an amazing meld of flavors that went so well together, it was like the veggies were expressly grown to meld with the dressing, fish, and eggs. The salad was a perfect main dish (as I suspected) nicely filling yet fresh at the same time. Husband J even ate his hard boiled egg half, and asked for (and dished himself) another half, which is an amazing feat for me. Yup, the eggs, cooked correctly, were not chalky or rubbery at all, but tender and creamy. While neither of us would eat the egg by itself, it tasted wonderful with the veggies and dressing to go with it.

Husband J opined that the salad was even better than our beloved tomato salad, because of the complexity of the flavors and the fact that it was more "main dish" than "side dish." We have both officially changed our tune about Salade Niçoise, and I can see myself fixing this dish again in the near future.

Lessons learned: Don't discount a dish just because it doesn't look good when it's takeout... buy the expensive tuna and anchovies, and give it a try. Properly boiled eggs make all the difference. Always make your own salad dressing by stirring it with a garlic clove.

Next week: I may try the whole roasted fish basquaise, or the skate grenobloise. But I may go crazy and cook the coeur de porc a l'armagnac. Keep an eye out for a middle of the week post... there's another chicken to be roasted, and I may try one of the potato recipes to accompany it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Soupe au Pistou and Basic Tart Dough

Last Monday after our extravagant turkey dinner in August, a day where we could hardly sit outside because it was so hot, the temperature suddenly dropped. I walked outside to go to work in a light summer dress only to find that outside, it was in the low 60s. I could not believe it... but it is a sign. Summer is almost over.

Husband J is thrilled. Fall is his favorite season, and he can't wait to break out sweaters, coats and scarves, and eat fall type foods like apples and sausage, roasted root vegetables, and rich braised meats.

I'm not so thrilled. Despite the oppressive humidity that characterizes D.C. summers, I really love the warm weather and the start of cold weather always makes me feel a little sad. It's time to have a last summer meal, veggie heavy, and full of the last of the best late summer produce. Soupe au pistou is definitely the best way to do that, as it is full of zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, and basil.

This weekend, Labor Day holiday weekend, was an odd one. I ended up heading home sick from work early on Friday, and stayed sick through Saturday, leading to a very low key video game playing day. Sunday I woke up feeling better and headed to the market for veggies. When I got to the stand that sells my favorite yogurt and butter, they had a big sign out front: "WE HAVE MASCARPONE!" so I couldn't resist getting a tub. That gave me an idea for a mascarpone fruit tart, so I grabbed a load of peaches and blackberries (I think those fruits go very well together). The soup and tart will be very delicious refreshments for tonight's activity--visiting neighbor C's apartment for a double feature of the second season of Tool Academy (Husband J terms it "TA2: The Reckoning").

First, the tart crust. I was hoping for a better result than the pie frankencrust from two weeks ago, which turned out dry and patchy, and not very photogenic. Tart crust is not made in the food processor, which is good, as I've decided I prefer making crusts with my own two hands. Tart crust is also softer, sweeter, and more delicate than pie crust.

I started out by sifting flour into a bowl, creaming butter and stirring it into the flour, then adding egg, sugar, and vanilla.

Crust ingredients in the sun.

I mixed all of these with a fork old-school style, and the crust came together easily. I took a taste of the raw dough, and it's just astoundingly delicious, like the sugar cookie dough my grandmother makes for her Christmas cookies, and which I can (and have) eat(en) by the handful (salmonella be damned). I wrapped it up and set it in the fridge to cool for an hour.

After the hour passed, it was time to roll the crust out. This crust was just beautiful... soft, rich, delicious tasting, and rolled out nicely in a circle. The only problem was, despite the generous flouring I gave my silicone mat and the rolling pin, the crust just did not want to transfer to the pan. First it stuck to the mat, forcing me to tear it up and re-roll it, then an attempt to transfer it into the tart pan caused it to tear in half. I ended up pressing the crust together in the pan again, creating a Frankentartcrust which ended up being a bit more photogenic than Frankenpiecrust, anyway.


While the crust baked in the oven, I made the custard, using the recipe called for in the Tart Alcasienne (apple tart), replacing the called for heavy cream with mascarpone. Only I screwed the filling up by adding the eggs before putting it on the stove, and realized my mistake before putting the whole mess on the stove to heat. I decided to try it, hoping the egg wouldn't curdle if I kept whisking. One sore forearm and a mess-o-curdle later, I dumped the pot and made another batch of custard, this time keeping the eggs separate until I boiled the cream. That seemed to work well. Once the custard was finished and cooling, I sliced the peaches, arranged the berries in the crust, and poured custard over the whole thing. Into the oven it went to set.

Time to make the soup! The canellini beans had soaked overnight, so they went into the pot for 10 minutes, 5 minutes less than their package said to cook them. While they cooked, I chopped the zucchini, onion, garlic, tomato and fennel. Onion and garlic sweat in the pot first, then I added the rest of the veggies to soften in the oil.

Gorgeous veggies!

Once the veg were soft, I added the chicken broth, a bouquet garni, the macaroni and the beans, and set the thing to simmer for half an hour.

Meanwhile I made the pistou (basically pesto, without the nuts). This involves mashing six cloves of garlic and a bunch of basil leaves into a paste with a mortar and pestle, then adding olive oil a bit at a time, mashing until smooth. "If you are criminally lazy," says Tony, "you can use a food processor." Okay, done!

Mmmm... criminal laziness....

A bit of Parmesan, salt and pepper, and the pistou was finished.

This is where the problems in the soup pot began. The macaroni started cooking nicely, and was soft and delicious in a few minutes. The beans, however, remained rock-hard and kind of disgusting. Full disclosure... I'm not the biggest fan of beans in general, since my early days when beans came in a can and were covered in slime, and I've never worked with dried beans in a dish before. Not a good day to try....the clock was ticking for Tool Academy to start, and the beans were just not cooking! Finally I decided enough was enough--the veggies and mac were turning to mush, and the broth was cooking out of the soup. I took the soup off the heat, stirred in the pistou, packed it into a tureen, and trucked it over to Neighbor C's for a night of tools and prosecco.

Despite the great cannelini bean disaster, the soup went over very well, with everyone having seconds and lapping up even the nasty beans (I warned everyone about the al dente nature of the beans, but it ended up being too much trouble to pick them up or eat around them). Everyone involved loved garlic, which is a good thing, since with the pistou the entire thing had eight big cloves. It really would have been great if the beans had cooked properly, but as it was, the taste was good, even if the texture was a bit off.

The tart was of course the hit of the night. In my opinion the fruit was the best, followed by the nice sugar cookie crust. The tarte alcasienne custard was a bit too eggy and rich for a summer fruit tart, but it didn't taste bad. Husband J opined that it was better than the usual too-sweet custards in fruit tarts, so all in all, it worked out.

I tried to arrange the peaches artistically, but it didn't quite work out...

It's almost time to start stewing and braising, which means I need to make some veal stock. Alas, no veal bones were to be had at the market today. It's kind of depressing that there are no real butchers to be found in DC, though I have a promise from one of the farmers market stands that I can e-mail them on Thursdays to see if I can find some bones at the next market. I'm not feeling too sanguine though, since veal is a spring thing, right? I'm running out of recipes that can be made without veal stock and demi glace, though, so if anyone knows where I can find some bones, please let me know...

ETA: Forgot my lessons and future plans! Here we go...

Lessons learned: Cannelini beans take for freakin' ever to cook and don't taste that good al dente. Everything tastes better with 8 cloves of garlic. Never put the eggs in the custard before you put it on the stove, they curdle no matter how fast you whisk. Mascarpone tart is ok, but there are better ways to showcase mascarpone flavor, next time just use cream. Tart crust is delicious but delicate to handle. Veal bones apparently do not exist in DC.

Next week: Possibly salad nicoise, or if I am feeling very ambitious, whole roasted fish basquaise which has the added bonus of leftover bones so I can make fumet (fish stock). The soupe au pistou used up the rest of my chicken stock, so we'll probably have to roast another chicken in the near future so I can have more bones. Who is up for a stock making party?