Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pernil, cubanos, and rice & beans

Want to know the most cost-effective and delicious way to feed a crowd? I’ll let you in on a secret. Don’t let those massive bone-in, skin-on pork shoulders at the supermarket intimidate you. For less than ten bucks, these picnic roasts can feed a hungry crew of four to six for dinner and then be re-purposed into hearty leftovers in the following days. The Puerto Ricans have known this secret for ages and pernil, Puerto Rican slow-roasted pork shoulder, just happens to be my favorite go-to recipe for company. Especially since I know I’ll have enough meat leftover to be able to make a week’s worth of cubano sandwiches.

Pernil takes a bit of planning ahead. Buy your pork shoulder a few days before you plan on roasting it so you can marinate it in a flavorful wet rub (the Puerto Ricans call it an adobo mojado). I loosely follow Daisy Martinez’s recipe for a wet rub, which you can find here. Daisy suggests pounding garlic, peppercorns, and oregano to a paste in a mortar and pestle, then stirring in olive oil and white wine vinegar. But keep in mind that the recipe is very flexible. Instead of the white wine vinegar, I’ll use orange or lime juice if I happen to have some citrus fruits hanging around in my fridge. I also love to use naranja agria (bitter orange) juice, which you can find bottled under the Goya label in the “ethnic” foods section of many supermarkets.
Next it’s marination time. I make deep slits through the skin of the pork shoulder with a sharp, pointed knife, making sure the knife penetrates the flesh. Then I jam a bunch of marinade into the slits to ensure that the adobo mojado reaches the interior of the meat and flavors the entire shoulder. The meat gets rubbed with the rest of the adobo, covered tightly with cling wrap, and popped into the fridge until the day you’d like to roast him.On the big day, take your pork shoulder out of the fridge an hour or so before you’d like to roast him. I like to let it sit in a super low, say, 270 degree, oven all day long – I’m talking six to nine hours here – so the meat comes out tender as buttah. There’s an excellent, comprehensive recipe for pernil here.

The tastiest part of the whole ordeal is the transformation of the skin into crispy chicharrones, or cracklings.I usually serve my pernil with fried plantains or boiled yuca along with some Puerto Rican rice and beans –all also extremely cost-effective dishes.But… back to that leftover pork. I take all the meat off of the bones and save it for cubanos.
Again, I use Daisy Martinez’s recipe found here. Her recipe calls for leftover pernil, ham, pickles, and swiss cheese to be layered on mayonnaise-lathered bread. I especially like her method of wrapping the sandwiches in foil, then placing a heavy weight on top (I use a couple of cast iron skillets) before baking them in the oven. I think this is much less messy than using a panini press. The cheese doesn’t melt all over the place, and the bread forms a nice crisp outer crust.The cubanos are served with leftover rice. My grandma Mimi has been making rice and beans for me since I was tiny and this is her secret family recipe.Mimi’s Puerto Rican Rice and Beans
If I could choose one recipe that reminds me of home more than any other, this would be it. My paternal grandfather Bopi came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when he was a teenager, and over the years my grandmother Mimi has perfected her recipe for Puerto Rican rice that surely reminds my grandfather of his sunny childhood on the Caribbean island. This is real comfort food for me, and Phil loves it almost as much as I do. (He better, because I make it so often!) Recently, on a rare occasion when my cousin Celeste and I were both in Ohio at the same time, we helped Mimi make her classic rice. I made her stop after each step and took detailed notes and measurements so Celeste and I can be sure to carry on the tradition! I often make variations of the below recipe, sometimes adding tomato paste to the sofrito of peppers, onions, and garlic. Other substitutions are noted where applicable, but it’s certainly worth trying the authentic Mimi version. Your tummy will thank me. Serves 6 as a side dish, with leftovers.

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup green bell peppers, chopped
½ cup onions, chopped
½ cup pepperoni, chopped (I usually substitute with diced pork shoulder, ham, or chicken breast)
1 bulb garlic, cloves peeled and pressed through a garlic press
3 packets Goya Sazón con achiote(a seasoning found in the ethnic foods aisle)
1 ½ tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp Goya Adobo con pimiento (also in the ethnic foods aisle)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tbsp salt (or more to taste)
2 cups long grain white rice
1 can small red beans (I sometimes substitute with a half a can of gandules [pigeon peas] and a half a can of garbanzos [chickpeas])
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat vegetable oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot but not smoking, add peppers, onions, and pepperoni (or other meat) to oil. Saute until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic, Sazon con achiote, cumin, Adobo con pimiento, oregano, salt and pepper and stir until spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add rice to the vegetable mixture and stir-fry over medium-high heat, stirring only occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes.

Pour 4 cups hot water over the rice, then add beans (with a little liquid from the can). Bring rice to a rapid boil. Cover, and continue to boil rapidly over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. After 5 minutes, stir the rice and turn the heat to the lowest setting. Let rice simmer for 20 minutes without removing the lid.

Once rice is cooked, fluff with a fork and stir in cilantro. Allow rice to rest for at least 10 minutes (Mimi keeps the rice warm on the stove, covered, over low heat for up to an hour, or transfers it to a crock pot set on low).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Hanukkah

One day this summer when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, I decided to make an Indian feast. After pulling the skin and fat from a mountain of chicken thighs for a recipe that called for them to be free of such obvious goodness, I found myself with an unappealing pile of slippery, yellowish chickenness. Not being one to waste anything when it comes to food, I asked myself, “what does one do with an unappealing pile of slippery, yellowish chickenness?” My good friend google was quick with the answer: make schmaltz. And thus began a week of adventures in Jewish cooking.

Hanukkah began at sundown last Friday, Dec 11th this year, so I thought this post was appropriate for the season. I’ve had some great Jewish friends over the years and while reading a book on the history of gastronomy in grad school realized that I knew very little about the often complex culinary rituals and traditions associated with the religion. It’s all still very new to me but I definitely related to the dishes I made as having the potential to be the ultimate comfort foods.

My foray into Jewish cooking began with making schmaltz with the aforementioned chicken skin and fat.

Schmaltz is animal fat rendered over low heat. There’s a comprehensive, illustrated recipe here. Because I also had a pile of chicken skin, gribenes were the tasty byproduct of my rendered chicken fat. I cut the chicken skin into small pieces and tossed it, along with a sliced onion and some salt and pepper, into the pan with my fat. Turned the fire on low, stirred occasionally, and about twenty minutes later had a pan of crispy chicken cracklings and fried onions. Here’s a recipes for gribenes on Epicurious.

The gribenes were good by themselves (who doesn’t like fried chicken skin?!) and I stirred them into a warm German potato salad later in the week. Not something I’m going to make every week, as I’d like to live past the age of 30, but I thoroughly enjoyed the crispy crunchy little cracklins.

With the cup of clear yellow schmaltz sitting in my fridge, I elevated one of my favorite recipes to new heights. I have loved Martha Stewart’s mom’s potato latkes (crisp potato pancakes) recipe since I saw her prepare it on her show years ago. There's an excellent illustrated, step-by-step version of Martha’s recipe here. Instead of simply frying the latkes in vegetable oil, I fried mine in half vegetable oil and half schmaltz in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.

They were impossibly crisp and flavorful and best eaten hot, straight out of the fat. Boy I wish these were a tradition in my family so I had an excuse to eat them at least once a year!

What to do with the remaining schmaltz? I remembered an article I’d read in Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about a dish he grew up with called kasha varnishkes. I loved the way the dish sounded and repeated the name over and over when I read the article – must be why it stuck in my brain. Bittman waxes on about the combination of kasha (toasted hulled buckwheat groats), bow tie noodles, and onions slow-cooked in schmaltz. I’d never even heard of buckwheat groats before, but I easily found kasha in my grocery store in the “ethnic” foods section near the matzo.

The final dish (following Bittman’s recipe) was subtle, slightly sweet from the caramelized onions, and comforting.

Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Oh dear. Has it really been two months since my last post?

It is finally time for me to get back in the game. I submitted my Gastronomy dissertation the day before Thanksgiving and thought the second my clicker finger hit the “send” button I would utter a casual “ta ta” and immediately transition to relaxation mode. Not so, my friends, not so. Thanksgiving was busy with family and turkey in Ohio and we left St. Augustine the following weekend to move north to Jacksonville. Phil and I are now proud residents of the Riverside neighborhood – eclectic people, historic homes, excellent pubs, diverse restaurants… but more on that later. I can’t wait to jump into the local restaurant scene and share my Jacksonville dining and drinking experiences with you.

But for now, I’d like to take you to Chicago.

I spent a long weekend there with Leena over at Leena Eats and her husband Adam back in October, and visited a number of friends along the way. It was my first time visiting the capital of the Midwest and I wanted Leena to show me “her” Chicago before she moved West to San Fran. As you can imagine, Leena’s Chicago involves a whole heck of a lot of good food. Check out her take on our eating adventures here, on her blog. My first night in town, we headed to a local Korean barbecue place called Cho Sun Ok Restaurant on North Lincoln Ave. I knew we were in for a treat when we could smell enticing aromas from three blocks away, and the line snaking out the door further heightened my excitement.
My excitement turned to anxiety which turned to starvation when we were still standing and waiting for a table after an hour and a half. We tried to pass the time by making outlandish bets on which table would finish first, but that game got old after forty five minutes. Thankfully the food made up for the wait and by the time the waitress came around with our second platter heaped with raw sliced beef for cooking on the table grill, I had forgotten all about the murder plans I had silently been plotting for eliminating the patrons smart enough to arrive early.

We ordered bulgogi, sliced beef marinated in a house sauce and cooked in front of you on a charcoal grill. I love interactive, help-yourself dining, especially if you’re out with a large group. I promotes conversation and sharing and passing and tasting – all the good things about eating out!

We also ordered my and Adam’s favorite, galbi gui (beef short ribs). They were so good, so meaty and tender and salty, that we ended up ordering another batch. Also on the table was jab chae, stir-fried vermicelli noodles with shredded beef and vegetables. The noodles didn’t seem to be as popular as the meat, but I’m a huge noodle nut so probably ended up eating half of them.As you can see we were really loading up on the beef. Good thing the grilled dishes come with rice and a variety of banchan, little plates of (mostly pickled) veggie sides, to complement the meat on offer. There were pickled cucumbers, carrots, and bean sprouts, along with spinach and of course an abundance of kimchi.All in all an excellent and affordable place for Korean barbecue and one I wouldn’t mind having just down the road!

Leena also loaded me up on Indian food on Devon Ave. Being of Indian descent, Leena has frequented this neighborhood since she was a kid and even purchased her wedding sari at one of the many colorful shops on the street. She took me to Patel Brothers grocery shop so I could stock up on cheap bulk spices, Indian flours, and other goodies like pappadums and tamarind paste.

We also popped into Sukhadia’s, a sweets, snacks, and catering shop just down the road.I was craving samosas and theirs were as large as your fist and dense with spiced potatoes and peas.Continuing our ethnic tour, Leena and Adam took me to a busy Vietnamese eatery popularly called Tank Noodle but officially called Pho Xe Tank Restaurant. Leena and I met in Adelaide, South Australia, and one of my first weekends there she introduced me to a pho shop right around the corner from my flat. So, it was very fitting that she take me for a hearty noodle soup for one of our last meals together in Chicago. I ordered pho with beef meatballs and it came with a platter of bean sprouts, basil, culantro, sliced jalapeno, and lime wedges for garnishing however I saw fit.On a more local note, I couldn’t leave Chicago without trying Chicago-style deep dish pizza. One of Leena’s favorites is Lou Malnati’s, a chain with locations across the city and into the ‘burbs.Leena insisted we order ours with sausage and pepperoni, and boy did she know what she was talking about! The sausage seemed absolutely necessary and formed a solid base for the sauce. In case you’ve never had Chicago-style pizza (this was my first time!), you might not know that it is more of a casserole than a pizza, with crust on the bottom topped first with cheese, then toppings, THEN sauce. I am glad I tried it at its source but am an East Coast girl at heart – I just don’t think you can beat NY-style pies with thin, crispy crusts and brown, bubbly cheeses.The crowning eating experience of my weekend in Chicago was without a doubt Blackbird. It’s a fancy dancy place, all stark and modern and clean, and Leena’s favorite in all of Chicago. That’s saying a lot. We were a group of six so I got to try six appetizers, six mains, and six desserts – whoopee! – so I’ll provide photos with descriptions but sorry if I don’t go into sensory details. It was a long time ago, and their cocktails and were good and strong.

Appetizers… the house special is an endive salad tucked into a crispy potato nest and topped with warm pancetta, basil, Dijon vinaigrette, and a poached egg. The salad comes to the table all cozy and picturesque in its nest, and the waitress bursts the poached egg tableside and mixes the whole lot together. Excellent.

I had the Caseificio Gioia farm burrata cheese salad with parsnip cake, pickled green tomatoes, mache and candied coriander. I really can’t tell you how much I love burrata cheese. It’s soft and delicate in both texture and flavor and was well complemented by the sour green tomatoes.Leena started with the malted apple bisque with smoked sablefish, granny smith apples and hickory. It was served cold and was my least favorite appetizer… but still good. Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I'm turning out like my dad. He doesn't like "white" food, and I couldn't help but wish this soup had a little more variety of color and texture.Adam had the lentil-crusted Louisiana frog legs with chanterelles, local crabapples and medjool dates. Yum.My favorite appetizer was the sauteed veal sweetbreads with golden beets, perigord black truffles, molasses and pine aioli. The dish was dusted with some sort of coffee powder that really made everything come together. A perfect autumn dish.For the mains, I’ll start with my favorite and work my way down. Adam’s grilled Iberico pork collar with fresh black beans, cipollini onions, honeydew melon, poblano pepper and brioche was absolutely sublime. You mostly can’t go wrong with Iberico ham and this dish was incredibly rich and complex.My grilled prime beef short rib with cauliflower, sesame gnocchi, ground cherries and sarsaparilla root was almost as tasty. The ribs were marbled with fat, very rich, and more firm than the ones I make at home.Also excellent - roasted Wisconsin veal chop with salsify, braised artichokes and pumpkin jus.Leena had a wood-grilled California sturgeon with cucumbers, squash, bbq onions, zucchini bread and candied olives. Sturgeon is her favorite fish and this did not disappoint.And, my least favorite was the turbot with spaghetti squash, pickled ramps, mandarin orange and popped sorghum. The fish was almost sashimi style – raw and cold – and I just didn’t think it worked well for this dish. All the other plates were warming and autumny, and this turbot was a bit too tropical sweet for the season and for my tastes.And…. don’t forget the desserts! All were excellent, but especially the sweetcorn bavarois with cornbread pain perdu, candied pecans and bliss maple sherbet. Oh dear, perfect combination of Southern and northern US!Here’s the warm spice bread with candied carrots, pickled gold raisins and saffron ice cream. Oh my.The walnut cake with NY674 apples, brown butter gastrique and fromage blanc sorbet – gosh golly.A rich chocolate-pistachio cremeux with chocolate sorbet and red verjus… mmmmmm…And my choice, the seasonal sorbet – concord grape with peanuts. No joke – it tasted just like PB&J! Clever and fun.Also notable was Leena’s homemade Mexican feast – which you’ll have to check out over at her blog. I really know how to pick my friends. Thanks, Leena, Adam, Josh, and Christina, for sharing YOUR Chicago with ME!

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant

4200 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60618-2902, (773) 549-5555

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant on Urbanspoon


619 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661, (312) 715-0708

Blackbird on Urbanspoon

Patel Brothers

2610 W Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659-1804, (773) 764-1857

Patel Brothers on Urbanspoon

Sukhadia’s 2559 West Devon Ave, Chicago, IL, (773) 338-5400

Sukhadia's Snacks & Sweets on Urbanspoon

Lou Malnati’s

Many locations around Chicago

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tank Restaurant)

4953 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60640-3001, (773) 878-2253

Tank Noodle on Urbanspoon