Beer-braised pork shoulder

010d1a6ff0aae3d8680ae5f1ba5be9f3d8c33c4efcAfter a long, gloomy week that saw the people of Arkansas wondering if we’d ever see the sun again, we finally got a clear day — and even better, it was a Saturday. It had been some time since I trekked up to the Hillcrest Farmers Market, mostly because cold, cloudy weather brings me down to the point where I just want to stay inside under a blanket, preferably with a cat curled up next to me.

But this past Saturday was a perfect day for getting out and about. Sure, it was still a pretty cold morning, but with the sun out, I felt rather invigorated, and so I made my way up to the market at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church to see what I could see. As luck would have it, Freckle Face Farm was set up and ready to go with some bone-in pork shoulder cuts that I just couldn’t pass up. I’ve sung the praises of Freckle Face’s pork before, and since it had been awhile since I cooked up some really high quality local meat, I grabbed a two pound package to make for Sunday dinner. Now, a lot of folks use shoulder for pulled pork, and that’s certainly a wonderful thing to do; however, I lack a smoker, and pulled pork that hasn’t been smoked would have just been a crime against this particular cut of pork — so I decided to braise it in some beer, pot roast style.

Beer-braised pork shoulder

  • 01d53a8ffaf6746d210cd0137e577186d73bbe27812-4 pounds of pork shoulder. The particular cut I used was right at 2 pounds, and still had the bone in. In this day and age, most of our meat comes to us completely boneless, but I prefer to cook my meat bone-in whenever possible. The bone provides some nice collagen to your pan juices, giving them a more velvety texture — not to mention the marrow adds flavor like you wouldn’t believe.
  • 3 tablespoons oil, shortening, or lard for searing
  • 1-2 bottles of beer. Use a malty, low-hop beer. Abita Amber is fantastic for this purpose, as is Diamond Bear’s Irish Red. In a pinch, using a cheap mass-produced lager like Pabst Blue Ribbon is just fine, too. Save the IPAs for drinking, though — they’ll make your braising liquid too bitter.
  • 4 cups chicken stock. Store bought is fine, homemade is better.
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 2-3 large carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Take your pork and pat it dry with a paper towel. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet until almost smoking, then sear the shoulder on both sides until you get a nice, dark crust (going heavy on the pepper makes this crust even better). Transfer the seared pork to a dutch oven and pour in one bottle of the beer and 3 cups of the chicken stock. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and cook in a 350 degree oven for 2-3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Check the pot periodically to make sure there’s still enough liquid to keep the meat almost covered; add the reserved chicken stock and a splash of the extra beer if needed (go ahead and drink that other beer if not needed).

Once the meat is pretty tender, I like to remove it to a platter and strain all the vegetables and herbs from the braising liquid, reserving the liquid and tossing the veggies. Place the meat back into the dutch oven, then pour the braising liquid back in, and add potatoes and fresh carrots for a one-pot meal. You can eat those old vegetables, but most of their flavor has already been transferred to the liquid; adding fresh vegetables and cooking until they are tender will give you much brighter flavors.

I served my roast tonight with some honey-ginger glazed carrots and a fresh spinach and herb salad — I was lucky to come across some early spring carrots and spinach from Willow Springs Market Garden after I got the pork, and man were those fresh veggies good. The result was a meal that was almost entirely local, and quite entirely delicious. Happy cooking!

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Making a hash out of everything

chuckIt pains me to admit this, but Jess and I are terrible when it comes to leftovers. Oh, sure, we always start off with the best intentions, swearing that we’ll eat those leftover peas, cold spaghetti, and other ephemera that wind up tucked into plastic dishes and stowed in the fridge. All too often, though, that’s where it ends — or rather, it ends with those same dishes being emptied into the garbage disposal after days of marinating in neglect behind the milk and the eggs.

It’s just me and Jess for the majority of our meals, and while I’ve become pretty adept at cooking for two over the years, there are still times when I make too much. Case in point: I found a good deal on a huge chuck roast at the market yesterday and decided to make one of our favorite dishes, beef bourguignon. It turned out great, and we ate our fill of the red wine-braised beef, but there was still quite a bit remaining. I put it in the fridge and swore that I’d do something with it — you know, for real this time.

So today, the conundrum: what to do with the beef. Jess recalled that her mom used to make roast beef hash out of their leftovers when she was a kid, and a couple of text messages confirmed that it wasn’t hard to make. A quick trip to Target for some pre-shredded hashbrowns (and some Twizzlers, but I digress) had us ready to make dinner. The result…was delicious. It’s not an attractive dish, but the taste is excellent.

Roast Beef Hash

  • photo 1(7)Two cups shredded or diced potatoes
  • One onion, diced
  • ~2 cups cubed roast beef
  • Pan sauce gravy. If you made gravy the day before with the first round of beef, use the leftovers — just thin with some water and re-heat. I used the beef stock/wine mixture I had left for a classic gravy: make a butter and flour roux, stir in the stock, stir until thickened.
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a non-stick skillet, saute your onions until they become opaque. Add the potatoes, and some salt and pepper, and stir to mix. Allow your potato and onion mixture to hang out for awhile — you’ll need to do some minimal stirring, but you want to give everything time to get a little browned and crispy.

When the potatoes have reached your desired crispiness, add in the roast beef and one cup of the gravy. Stir until mixed, then cook on medium heat until everything is nice and hot. The result is a wonderfully gooey dish that will satisfy with its hearty flavor. We served ours up with some steamed broccoli, and it was a nice meat-and-potatoes meal that served our leftovers nicely. Enjoy!

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Savory onion soup

photo 1(4)I hesitate to call the soup I made tonight “French onion” because while it A) is a soup that B) contains onions, it deviates from true, honest-to-Voltaire “French” onion soup in a couple of ways that make me just refer to this soup as a savory onion soup. And if you make it, you won’t really care what I call it because you’ll call it one thing only: delicious.

Traditional French onion soup uses clarified beef stock as a base, but seeing as though I happened to have some really dank, dark chicken stock made from a large hen we roasted this weekend…I decided that we could go the chicken route. Stock made from a roasted bird is always darker and richer than stock made from raw chicken, and if reduced, it’s very close to beef stock in the depth of flavor (and even better in this case, since it was homemade). I did squirt one of those beef “flavor booster” packets into the pot just to add some beef flavoring to the mix, but that was more as a shortcut to add some quick and dirty umami flavor to my pot of soup. Also of note: for traditional French onion soup, I usually reduce my stock with red wine. Of course, this isn’t traditional soup, so in this case, I reduced my stock with a bottle of Goose Island Honker’s Ale — which did just fine.

Savory onion soup

  • photo 2(6)1 quart chicken (or beef) stock. In this case, I was poaching a leftover roasted chicken to make stock and get the remaining meat ready for a chicken salad. If you want to use the store-bought stuff, buy a couple of boxes of it, add some carrots, celery, onions, and garlic to it along with a cup of red wine and simmer for half an hour. You’ll be fine.
  • 2-3 large onions. Cut these from stem to root.
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Fresh black pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • Bouquet garni — bundle up some thyme, parsley, and bay leaves in a cheese cloth or coffee filter.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Sourdough bread (VERY important)
  • Gruyere, Swiss, or other delicious nutty cheese

In the same cast iron skillet I tell you to use for nearly everything I post, heat three tablespoons of oil. I like to use olive oil for this, because I think it gives the onions a nice flavor, but canola or any other neutral oil is fine. Throw your onions in the skillet and get alarmed by how high they are piled up. Now stop worrying, because these bad boys are going to reduce down quite a bit. Cook the onions on medium-high heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring every few minutes so that the onions get brown but not burned. If you want to add a tablespoon of sugar to this process, feel free — it adds some nice flavor.

Once you’ve caramelized your onions, toss them in the stock with a little salt, pepper, the vinegar, and the bouquet garni and simmer for 20 minutes. Don’t go crazy with the salt — the soup will reduce some, concentrating whatever salt is present. Cream the flour and butter together to make a beurre manié, stir into the pot. Simmer for another few minutes, mostly until the butter/flour mixture dissolves to thicken your soup and add a luscious level of flavor to the proceedings.

Make some toast with the bread and cheese; put it under the broiler and cook the hell out of it. Float a piece of the toast in the soup, and enjoy your not-quite-French onion soup. Happy cooking!

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Prosciutto stuffed chicken

photo(28)Anybody who tells you that they don’t like prosciutto has either never tried it or is insane. Of all the foods that exist on this planet, prosciutto might be the most perfect: salty, slightly sweet, unctuous, and perfectly balanced in fat-to-meat ratio. It’s a lovely, wonderful thing to eat, and our admitted favorite way is to just cram the stuff into our faces by the fistful — but sometimes it’s nice to sit down to a meal that’s eaten with a fork and a knife. You know, civilized. To that end, we decided to take some prosciutto, wrap it up with some cheese and basil inside a piece of chicken, then bake the lot into a gooey pile of fragrant deliciousness.

When it comes to prosciutto, we’re big fans of La Quercia, an Iowa meat producer known worldwide for their quality pork. “But Michael,” you say. “Isn’t prosciutto supposed to come from Italy?!” Well, yes, it’s a style that originated in Italy…but I promise you that the folks at La Quercia know their business.

Prosciutto stuffed chicken

  • IMG_07942 boneless chicken breasts, or 4 boneless chicken thighs
  • 6-8 slices of prosciutto. Seriously, go to a meat market or deli and buy the good stuff. The six pieces I bought tonight was only $3.50, and it was so much better than the pre-packaged stuff from the grocery store. Buy extra if you’re a snacker.
  • 4 pieces provolone cheese
  • 12 basil leaves
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Pound your pieces of chicken until they’re around 1/4 inch thick. Lay the prosciutto on the underside of the chicken, then the provolone, then a few leaves of the basil (according to how much basil you like to taste). Roll each piece of chicken up and place in a baking dish. Slop a generous dash of vinegar onto the chicken, then hit the dish with healthy glug of the olive oil. Finish with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, then bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Serve.

Now go find a pig and thank it for being so delicious. Happy cooking!

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Seared scallops with pancetta-braised chard

IMG_0478We developed a taste for scallops during our recent sojourn in Florida, so now that we’re back we decided to try our hand at making them in our decidedly more land-locked surroundings. Our local Fresh Market had some pretty large specimens on display tonight, which gave me the idea to try out a recipe I first read on the Food and Wine Magazine website: pan-seared scallops with a bacon and chard base. I don’t cook with chard often, and I don’t like it as much as the kale we used in our last scallop dish, but I figured what the hell — let’s get some rainbow chard and get cooking.

Seared Scallops with pancetta-braised chard
(inspired by Food and Wine Magazine)

  • img_53474 slices pancetta, cut into lardons
  • 2 large shallots, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, stems cut into 1/2″ strips, leaves cut into 1″ strips
  • 1 medium tomato, diced and de-seeded
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 8-12 sea scallops
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

In a deep cast-iron skillet, fry the pancetta until crisp. Add the shallots, sauteeing until they become soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for 2-3 more minutes (being careful not to brown the garlic). Add the tomato and cook until it begins to break down, then add the chard stems. Cook the stems until they become tender, then add the leaves. Cook until the leaves are wilted; season with salt and pepper.

For the scallops, make sure they are very dry and dust them with a coating of salt and pepper. In a separate (screamingly hot skillet) sear the scallops in olive oil for 1-2 minutes. Flip the scallops, adding the butter to the skillet. Spoon the butter over the scallops as they sear on the other side. Arrange seared scallops on the chard mixture, and serve.

This is a fine and quick recipe, and if you do all your chopping and mincing in advance, you should have no problems juggling two pans. The sweetness of the scallops goes nicely with the earthiness of the chard, and this is sure to be a great main course (with sides) or a light starter to get things rolling. Happy cooking!

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Greek yogurt pizza dough

photo(20)Ah, pizza. I haven’t met many people who don’t like at least one form of this dish, from thin, crispy crusts to thick deep dish pies, from the meatstravaganza Godfather variety to lighter fare made with zucchini and artichokes — people love pizza. Jess and I are no different. I like to make pizza from scratch, and since I’ve got a stand mixer with a dough hook, it’s pretty easy to do.

I stumbled across this idea of making pizza dough using just two basic ingredients — self-rising flour and Greek yogurt — and figured it was worth a try. The science makes sense, since the leavening agents in the flour require something acidic to get them going, and yogurt fits the bill nicely. But how would it taste? Well, the resulting pizza was pretty good, and while I’m not 100% satisfied with the crust, I think this basic recipe has enough potential to warrant further experimentation. I’d love to hear tips from any of you that have tried this, because I think this is a light, tasty way to have your pizza and eat it too.

Greek Yogurt Pizza Dough

  • photo(19)1 cup Greek yogurt. Be sure to get the authentic kind (we like Fage brand) because there are some Greek-style yogurts out there that are thickened with corn starch and other additives — they aren’t bad for eating, but not great for baking.
  • 2 cups self-rising flour (plus extra for surfaces). All-purpose won’t work for this unless you add in some baking soda and powder. I’m lazy, I just buy the kind that already has leavening in it — works like a charm.
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil.
  • 1 healthy pinch of salt.

Dump all of your ingredients into your stand mixer, or get to mixing by hand. As the dough kneads, it will become elastic and stretchy — just like pizza dough should. If it seems too thin, add a bit more flour; too thick, add a touch of yogurt (or water). Roll your dough out on a floured surface to your desired thickness (we’re thin crust folks here) and pre-bake in a 400-degree oven until the crust has set and begun turning golden brown. Pull the crust out and let it cool on a wire rack for a few minutes; then top as you’d like and return to the oven until your toppings are done and the edges of the crust are brown and crispy. The dough is light, has a good flavor, and I think it will lend itself to some modifications in the future. If you try it, let me know how it went — and happy cooking!

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Orzo salad with sockeye salmon

IMG_0249For Jess and me, summer is a time where we crave lighter foods, like fish, and foods served cold — like salad. Green salads are wonderful, but we get bored with them, and when we do, we turn to the pasta salad as our next favorite thing to eat. Normally, I use those multi-colored corkscrew noodles (fusilli), but the rice-shaped pasta known as orzo also makes a fine-tasting salad. Orzo cooks up just like any other pasta, but its small size means you definitely need to keep an eye on it — anything beyond al dente with this stuff means a sloppy, soggy mess.

We paired our salad tonight with some sockeye salmon, which is my favorite kind of salmon. Be aware that sockeye filets are sold with the the pin bones still in, so have a pair of needle nose pliers handy to make short work of those bones and get to cooking.

Orzo Salad

  • IMG_02318 oz. uncooked orzo. Cook according to package instructions (or until it’s as tender as you want), rinse with cold water, and set aside.
  • 1 cup black olives, sliced.
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced.
  • 1/2 cup artichoke hearts, chopped.
  • 6 oz. feta cheese (sheep’s milk if you can find it).
  • Salt, pepper, and dried oregano to taste.

It’s almost too simple for words: mix your chopped ingredients with the orzo. Add salt, pepper, and oregano to taste. You can hit this salad with a glug of sharp olive oil, splash of lemon juice, or any other herbs that you like. The neutral flavor of the orzo picks up the briny flavor of the rest of the ingredients nicely, creating a balanced dish that looks nice on the plate and tastes even better. Happy cooking!

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Pan-seared trout with buerre blanc

IMG_9985As you can see, the first gardenias of the year have just come into bloom — a noteworthy occasion to me, since gardenia is one of my favorite smells of all time. This being a food blog rather than one about horticulture, however, I couldn’t just get a picture of my favorite flowers without including one of my favorite dishes: pan-seared rainbow trout with buerre blanc.

“Buerre blanc” in French translates simply as “white butter,” and while it isn’t considered to be on quite the same level as classic sauces like hollandaise or bernaise, it’s still a simple, yet versatile addition to your culinary repertoire. The sauce is formed by the creation of an emulsion, one of our favorite food tricks that forces oil (melted butter in this case) to mix with liquid (a white wine reduction). The result is a luscious, tangy sauce that won’t overpower our fish, but will add a great deal of flavor. I especially like it with trout, because while trout is a wonderfully flavorful fish, it isn’t a very fatty one — and the addition of this buttery sauce is exactly the kick it needs. To cook your trout, simply heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a skillet, pat your filet dry, then salt and pepper both sides. Start skin side down, flipping the fish when the edges begin to brown, then turning again after about 3 minutes — simple as that. Now, the sauce:

Buerre Blanc

  • IMG_99954 tablespoons white wine. The traditional wine used is Muscadet, which shares a home in the Loire Valley of France with this sauce. I used a semi-sweet Mount Bethel wine, and pretty much any wine that pairs well with fish will work here.
  • 4 tablespoons white vinegar, rice vinegar, or lemon juice. Depends on how tangy you like your sauce.
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallots.
  • 14 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into pieces. Keep it chilled until you are ready to use it!
  • Salt and pepper. Some folks like to get fancy and use white pepper, so do that if you want.

IMG_9987Put your wine, vinegar, and shallots into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cut the heat down to a simmer, and allow the liquid to reduce to approximately a teaspoon and a half of liquid. Remove the pan from the heat and swirl in two pieces of the chilled butter, whisking so that the butter does not melt but rather emulsifies with the wine reduction. The tricky part of this sauce is the balancing act that takes place now: you must keep the sauce warm enough to slowly melt the butter, but not hot enough to cause the butter to separate — which will break the sauce. I place the sauce pan on a very low flame and swirl the butter in one piece at a time, raising the pan off the burner whenever the butter seems to be getting too frisky. The end result should be a light, airy sauce that coats food well. The tangy flavor and velvet mouthfeel of this buttery concoction are fantastic.

If you need to hold the sauce you can put your saucepan into a larger pan of warm water. The addition of herbs such as tarragon or dill to the reduction can take this sauce into entirely different (and wonderful) directions. Some people prefer to remove the shallots for a smoother sauce, but I like the stronger flavor that comes from keeping them in. Good luck, and happy cooking!

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Beer-braised chicken with fennel

IMG_9950 (640x427)Any of you who have kept up with this blog for awhile know that Jess and I love our beer. And while drinking the stuff is normally just fine with us, we also like to cook with beer. Brown ales and porters are some of our favorite cooking beers, and tonight’s dish uses Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale as the base for a braising liquid that it quite potent and savory. Sammy Smith’s might be a little bitter for some of you out there, so feel free to substitute any other brown ale, amber ale, or porter in this dish — pick something without a strong hops profile that you like to drink and you’re guaranteed a good dish. The addition of fennel to the mix adds a nice layer of complexity to the sauce, not to mention a tasty addition to the finished dish.

Beer-braised chicken with fennel

  • IMG_9955Four chicken thighs, skin on.
  • One bulb fennel, julienned.
  • One bottle brown ale.
  • One cup chicken stock.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Two tablespoons cider vinegar.
  • Two tablespoons butter.

Salt and pepper the chicken thighs. In a deep skillet, brown the thighs on both sides until they’re nice and golden brown. Remove chicken to a platter. Deglaze your pan with the chicken stock, then add the beer and fennel. Add the chicken back to the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and let the chicken work until it’s nice and tender. Remove chicken and add the vinegar, cooking the liquid until it has reduced by half. Adjust seasonings to taste, then swirl the butter into the finished sauce for a nice, glossy look and luscious taste. Serve with sweet potatoes or over wide egg noodles. Happy cooking!

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Reverse-seared Freckle Face pork chop

IMG_9631Some days, it feels like Hillcrest Artisan Meats invented pork. I know some of you out-of-town readers might not understand that, which means you need to get to Little Rock quickly and have lunch at the place so that all will become clear. Today was one of those days –  I stopped into H.A.M. to grab a pork loin sandwich (breaded pork loin, Dijon, aioli, LTO) which was, of course, fantastic. As I stood at the counter waiting on my order, I took a look in the fresh meat case to see what goodies might be found…and I saw some of the prettiest, thickest, most delicious looking pork chops ever to exist on this planet or any other. And like any good impulse shopper, I had Brandon wrap a couple up for supper later that night. Turns out that both the chops and the pork loin in my sandwich came from the same local grower, Freckle Face Farm in McRae. I’ve talked to Mitchell from Freckle Face a couple of times, and he’s one heck of a nice guy in addition to raising some of the best food around. Freckle Face is on a lot of menus here in Little Rock, and their meat is also available at several of our farmers markets, at fine establishments like H.A.M. and also online. Since these were thick chops, I used a method known as “reverse searing” on them, a method that turns the usual way of cooking meat on its head by starting in the oven and finishing in a hot skillet. It’s a fantastic way to get a thick piece of pork completely cooked while not drying it out.

IMG_9638To reverse sear your chop (or steak, but we eat our steaks so rare that a regular sear is enough), pre-heat your oven to 225. Salt your meat and allow it to come to room temperature. I know that bringing meat to room temperature seems like a gross violation of the Laws of Food Safety, but the salt is going to slow the growth of any nasties, it isn’t going to be nearly enough time to spoil — and room temperature meat cooks more evenly. Take your chops, pat them dry, and season with some fresh-cracked black pepper. You might be tempted to add some sort of bottled seasoning or some chili powder: stop yourself. These pigs are raised right. They have flavor. Don’t cover it up.

Put your chops in a cast iron skillet and let them cook in the oven for 30-45 minutes. The chops will be pretty much cooked through, but they should still be quite juicy. For you science folks out there, what we’re doing is allowing enzymes known as cathespins to break down the connective tissue in our meat, which will make it more tender. These enzymes don’t work above about 125 degrees, so low heat is vital. In addition, lower heat will cook without a lot of moisture evaporating, so our meat stays juicy — it’s a win/win.

Of course there’s another science term involved in good meat, and that’s the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction occurs when dry heat reacts with sugars and amino acids in meat to make that delicious caramelized crust that’s so good on steaks and chops. Cooking at low heat won’t give us this, so this is where the sear part comes into play. Remove your chops from the skillet and add a glug of olive oil (the more pungent, the better). Pat your chops dry, and when the oil is hot, sear them until they’re nice and brown. Let them rest for a few minutes and then serve. Savor the flavor of excellently raised free-range pork and don’t worry about anybody seeing you gnaw that bone. Happy cooking!

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