Monday, April 11, 2011

Why do you cook?

Quick disclaimer:  There will be no recipes in this post.  This is a philosophical dive into the meaning of food and the chef creating the meal.  Enjoy!

Elegant? Yes.
Delicious? Yes.
Simple? Depends...

The soul of cooking lives in every person.  I grew up in a house where a home prepared meal from scratch was revered above all.  I love to cook and have a great passion for it.  My wife grew up in a house with two microwave ovens so the family of four could all eat hot food together.  She also (don't tell her) loves to create in the kitchen. So what is behind the internal drive that changes raw ingredients into food art?

I was recently watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in Paris, and it struck me how he was so amazed by all of the new focus toward chefs that were creating French food with external influence.  This really was amazing, because French food is revered by the French for its ability to persevere in the face of external influence and rely on its tradition.  This got me to wonder, how is any food worth having unless it was prepared with passion and innovation at its core?

Do you cook with a finished product in mind, or do you let the ingredients at hand guide you to the dinner table? That is a big question I face most every time I get down to serious food preparation.  

Half the fun of cooking, for me, is seeing what base ingredients I have that are fresh and ready to go, and what they want to do on the stove to get ready for me to eat them.  A base of vegetables, a main protein, perhaps some starch (a whole separate post here; as my wife often muses 'do we need starch with every meal?') all seem to talk to me and tell me how best to assemble them into a meal fit for my family.  Last, and absolutely not least, the sauce.  In my opinion, sauces are the stand up comic of the meal.  Always edgy in one way or another, usually adding a balancing flavor that was missing with the raw ingredients, making you think in a different way (and happier for the experience).  The sauce is also usually demanding of applause above and beyond what the main ingredients have to offer.  A little bit cocky.

Cleveland's West Side Market - Ingredients Galore. (Image courtesy of viCARIous

Several of my family members love to cook with a finished product in mind.  It looked good in a magazine, so they want their finished plates to look just like the picture on page 47 of the July issue of Such-n-such.  The challenge for them is to see if they can tame the process, tame their kitchen, and most of all, tame the ingredients to shape and bend and mold everything into the picture perfect meal.  Most times it is an awe inspiring journey for them and fun-fun-fun for everyone else to eat.  Perhaps I can't face such challenges, but for me the playing field is always more friendly if I let the food have its way with my kitchen (and me); almost unlocking the foods' inner runway model, showing off in front of the paparazzi.

So, I encourage you all to look at your food tonight.  What did it look like an hour ago?  Two hours?  A week ago?  What did you let the food do to you, and what did you do to the food?  Why do you cook?  Do you create, or do you like the challenge of duplication, emulation, honoring a favorite chef in your past (family or famous) while you cook tonight?  I won't apologize for the number of questions, but your responses may help me think of new ones...

Thursday, December 16, 2010


A friend recently asked me if I had a secret for great chili.  She had access to fresh elk meat, and she was asking me for help?

I started writing, then my response got longer and longer, and before I knew it, it was more of a cooking class than a recipe for chili.  The problem was, I don't do recipes and I don't hold secrets.  Food inspires me, so I look for things that people have written about or times when I have tried something and liked, and I put those things together in my head while I'm in the kitchen.  The ingredients fly out of the pantry, the refrigerator, the cupboards and line up on the counter, asking me to cook them.  When something happens at my stove and it's not complete gruel, I like to share with others.  So here's my non-recipe, non-secret answer to chili.

Gorgeous looking pot (the chili doesn't look bad either!) from


I have some general tips about cooking and some specific tips about chili that I employ.  If they are already common knowledge, don't take offence.

Never use water.  EVER.  There is always some more flavorful liquid that could take the place of any recipe's call for water.  Ugh.  Can't stress this one enough.  I use chicken stock, wine and beer probably more than anything else, but I have used somethings that sound way too odd for most people.  Look around your pantry/fridge and experiment.  imagine the flavors you are trying to create, and if you need to increase one of the flavor components of your dish, look for a liquid that will aid you.  Many times, I add several liquids, with at least one that will add a contrasting component to what I am creating.  If the dish has a lot of savory (salt) and sweet flavors already, I will add a vinegar based liquid to give the overall flavor some acidity.  My wife may cringe here and wish that I applied this more to every day life, but I think about balance and harmony at no other time in my life more than when I am cooking.

Maillard reaction.  It's a real thing, and one of the most important thing's that make vs. break a dish in the making-your-taste-buds-turn-into-a-temporary-erogenous-zone department.  In chili's case, caramelize the heck out of that elk. If you add fresh onions to your chili (vs. dehydrated onion chips/powder in the seasoning packet), make sure they get a healthy dose too.

Ok, that's enough general preaching.

Beautiful or Delicious?  Why can't it be both?

Not sure if you use ground elk meat only, but I typically have less than 30% of my total meat be ground.  Some is good, as I personally respond both to the visual impact of many different sizes of food in my chili (nothing appeals less to me than the stuff some people call "hot-dog" chili and comes out like watery brown hummus) and in my mouth different textures add to the fun.  Chili should be about many many different things going on at once and to a very introspective eater, no two bites should offer the exact same flavors.

What I'm trying to get to, is that cutting up two to three different cuts of the same animal or two to three similar cuts from different animals into bite sized pieces will make a great start to the main focus of your dish: the meat.  I have limited experience with cooking elk, so I'm assuming you use a tougher cut of meat and save tender loin type parts for "prettier" dishes.  Some fat is ok, and I don't think elk has many very fatty cuts, but stick with the parts of the animal that have good flavorful meat, but may not be suitable for steaks (quick, dry heat cooking) because they are known to be "tough" (collagen-wise, not tendon/sinew-wise).

Brown the heck out of all of your meats.  This should mean you can't do it all in one batch.  I make chili in a single pot, but the browning stage takes at least four and as many as eight-ten batches of browning the bite sized chunks, then setting them all into a bowl after they have been browned (they don't have to be cooked through at this point).  Take your time with the browning; it will be worth it.  HOT HOT HOT pot with a little bit of your cooking fat of choice, sear the chunks (leaving them on each side you want browned a minimum of 30 seconds W/O stirring!), then chuck each type of meat into it's own "stand-by" bowl.  Let the pot heat back up (don't rush this), add more cooking fat, sear batch #2.  Rinse/repeat until all meat is browned.  Do this for onions and any ground meat you are using. Ground meat goes into its own bowl as well, onions can stay in the pot.  I laughed when you said your mother "browned" the beef; too many people throw too much meat into the pot at once and it ends up "Greying" or sweat cooking, instead of true browning.  Ground meat browns fast if you don't make a thick layer of it on the bot bottom.  Allow room for the steam to come up/through, and with good high heat and a 'lil fat, you'll be brown almost crunchy in no time.

Once all meats are browned, get the sauce started.  If you have a recipe you like, follow it.  If you want the chili to taste it's best, every time you have an opportunity to use fresh over dried herbs, do it.  The only time I prefer a packaged product to a fresh version (this example comes up in chili) is for tomatoes.  If you are going to cook with tomatoes, not eat them raw/cold, there is almost no equal to high quality canned tomatoes.  Fresh tomatoes you buy don't have the luxury of tasting ripe and delicious when they are picked.  They have a much more important job of having to look good when they hit the retail shelves.  Canned tomatoes can be picked when they actually taste good, because they are going to be simmered and peeled and shoved in a can with sauce before they make it to your grocer.  It doesn't matter what they look like; well, not in the way it matters for a whole, fresh tomato.  Buy the whole canned version versus the chopped or diced or smashed because the whole tomato ensures just that: that you will get the whole tomato.  Cans full of diced can be full of tougher ends of tomatoes while the best, ripest "middle" of the tomato went on to another product that can fetch a higher price while you are left with a can of tomato "reject" parts.

So, buy them whole, with or without peel, and try to find the words "San Marzano tomatoes" on the label.  This is a region in Italy, and is something that I get a little bit snooty about.  Buy a can of SM and then a generic version of the same type (whole, peeled) and taste them side by side out of the can.  I get a big mouthfeel and taste difference.  If you don't taste a major difference, you can save money on the more generic sourced tomatoes.

Back to the actual chili.  Add all types of herbs and aromatics to the onions as early as you can and then add the tomato sauce base.  I've read about some people even caramelizing the tomato sauce or browning some tomato paste and adding it.  That is a nice touch, and you can do that, but I feel if the meat and onions are well browned, you don't need much more help.  I just crush up the tomatoes with my hands as I add them to the pot, because I like the non-uniform chunks that end up in the final product.  If you do beans in your chili, hold those off until the very end, but add everything else now.  If your recipe says to add water to your sauce, now is the time to add your replacement liquid.  You do have a replacement liquid in mind by now, don't you?  Ok, I'll help you out; I usually add a 12 oz bottle of rich stout or porter and some chicken stock if I need more liquid for the size batch I'm making.

Mix everything well, and then you will be ready to add all of the meats back into the main pot with the sauce.  Before this step, try a piece or two of each of the meats you are adding and have browned (or hopefully, you snuck a chunk or two right when they came out of the browning pan and were still hot).  Note the flavors you get off each type of meat, and make a big note of the texture of each.  If you have a type that is very tender and tastes incredible as is, you may not want to change that taste too much.  If you have another type that is tasty, but a bit chewy, add that bowl now as it will need time in the pot with the sauce on a low, slow heat to break down and become more like a stewed meat in texture.  The ground meat won't need any more cooking, and could get dried out if cooked much more (or at too high a temp), so add it toward the end.
Essentially, you will be adding to this base sauce the meats in order of those which need the most cooking, all the way up to those that are ready to eat as is after the browning, with the optional beans as a last step.  I usually do ground meat in with the beans on that low and slow temperature about 30 minutes before I want to be done cooking and start serving.  I'm not much more precise than that, so you'll have to play around with the tougher cuts to see how long it takes for them to break down and taste like you want them to be in the finished product.  Compare with what they tasted like right after the browning and you will figure it out in short order what's right for which type of meat/cut, and make some notes for the future.

Not sure if I missed much, or if you still have some questions, let me know.  I'm not a huge "here's my exact favorite recipe" kind of guy, so I don't have a step by step for you to follow.  For something as full flavored and rounded as chili (and the fact that it's a one bowl type food), I follow the ingredients as they come together through the process, and they tell me what else to give it.

Blog posts in the works:  Pancetta, Craft Beer, Duck Prosciutto, and Venison Sausage

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How to Brine (why should I brine?)

Have you ever brined?  Know someone who has? Wish you could unlock the secret to juicy chicken?

This is a topic that I cannot mention enough to people that like to cook (or even those that just like to eat). It's actually a fun litmus test to see who around me loves to cook.  Weddings are a perfect time for this.  Plenty of people sitting around tables; talking, drinking, laughing.  Dinner is served.  Several people looking at the dry chicken entree in front of them, stealing sideways glances at the person who ordered steak.  It's not the kitchen's fault.  You try cooking chicken breast meat for 100+ people! "If only they had brined..." my wife says to me at the table.  One or two other people look up at her and then ask me: "what is brining?" 

The Science

Brining is the transformation of raw meat that allows it to retain more moisture (juices) when fully cooked. The fibers (proteins the make up the fibers) of muscle tissue can't contract the same way anymore after brining and therefore more juice is left in the meat on your plate.  There.  That is all it takes to become the hero of your dinner party for not serving a dried up hockey puck of meat!

This is accomplished by soaking the meat in a saltwater solution for a period of time.  Your perfect brine will be dependent on a few variables:  size, weight and surface area of the meat, concentration of your brine (amount of salt to volume of water), and time left in the brine. Sounds complicated, but once you have the basics down, it is very easy and fun to shape those variables to meet your needs.  I have done brines in 30 minutes for small pieces of meat, and others that I left in the fridge for 24 hours.  Add twice the amount of salt, you can cut your soaking time in half.  Double/triple the water (or reduce salt) to slow the process down.  You can plan/prepare the food in advance to fit your timetable.

Simple Brine Ratios

Let's put the science to work for us in the kitchen.  A standard brine is just salt and water.  Don't stop there.  You are missing a great opportunity to get other wonderful flavors into your meat before you cook.  I like to use the following ratios because they encompass the four major tastes: Sweet, Salty, Sour, & Bitter (Umami is a fantastic fifth flavor, but I will honor this emerging flavor profile in a separate blog post soon!).  Main credit for my basic brine goes to Brian Polcyn and Michael Rhulman for their book Charcuterie.  I will refer to this book more than once on this blog and feel it is not only a great resource on protecting an endangered food art, but perhaps one of the most fun books I have ever read.

Back to the brine, this is a simple solution for two liters of water (and perfect for chicken parts):

The basics (how on earth was I almost out of garlic cloves for this picture?)

120 g of salt*
60 g of sugar
Juice from one large lemon (approx. 50ml or 3 tablespoons)
10 g fresh crushed peppercorns
3-4 smashed cloves of garlic
5-10 g of dried, whole aromatics (thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, tarragon, basil, oregano, coriander are typical choices for me)  

  • Pour 1 liter of warm tap water into a large non-reactive hard sided container (plastic bags could work, but I don't like taking the chance of raw meat liquid leak). 
  • Add sugar and salt, stir to dissolve.  
  • Add remaining items aside from the meat itself.  
  • Add 1 liter of cold water (colder the better - ice water isn't a bad idea once the salt/sugar are dissolved into the first part).  Your brine is ready for the meat if it is near or at refrigerator temperature.  
  • Add the meat (chicken breasts in my head right now) and seal the container. 
  • Place in refrigerator for desired length of time.

4 hours is generally enough for boneless chicken breasts.  More time for larger items (bigger mass, less surface area), less time for chicken tenders or smaller items.  Cube chicken for a dish ahead of the brine, and you approach the 30-60 minute "speed brine" when plans change and you have to whip up great food quickly.

After you brine, pull the meat out of the solution and discard the liquid.  Rinse the meat and dry it well.  it is ready to cook as you normally would for that cut of meat. The sugar added to your brine will help the meat caramelize under high, direct heat (like pan frying).

*I give weights for these measurements because a cup of table salt will not be the same concentration as a cup of kosher salt.  They are rough measurements, as well.  You will see what you like best; in fact I like to change my acids and aromatics depending on what type of meat is going into the brine. 

When to Brine

So, now you know how a brine works, when do you employ this cooking tactic?  Anything can be brined, and it is a great way to season your food before you cook it, but for many cuts of meat it isn't really necessary.  The deciding factor is pretty simple: How much fat does your meat contain (and where is the fat)?  I typically look for a very low amount of fat in a brineable chunk of meat. If the fat is contained in one area of the cut and won't add flavor to all parts of the meat when cooked, you can trim most of it off and brine to bring flavor to the large fat-less area that would otherwise be dry.  Great examples of this are whole pork loin (surrounded by fat & connective tissue, but the main muscle of the loin is very lean), beef brisket (you'll think about corned beef a whole new way now), or white meat of most poultry. In the end, brining really can't hurt any meat you would cook, but brining a well marbled steak just doesn't make sense from a time/effort standpoint.  Fat is a wonderful ally for cooking great meat; let it have center stage when the time is right.

My Cousin's chickens (Egg laying types; not for me to brine, I was told)

Points of Interest

-A note on whole spices (aromatics especially): Whole dried spices keep their flavors much longer in your cupboard than pre-ground versions and will provide great flavor if you grind only what you use for that recipe.  When fresh grinding, remember the finer the grind, the faster they will flavor your brined meat.

-Toasting whole dried spices can add even more new complexities to your dishes.  Very low heat for peppercorns, coriander seeds, thyme, etc develop amazing smokey qualities and enhance pleasant bitter qualities as well.  Watch them carefully and don't add green herbs until the very end.  Take them off the heat when they smell amazing, cool fully then grind away!

-Grinding whole spices can be fun with a mortar and pestle, but converting an old coffee grinder will run circles around the strongest arm in world and is very easy to use.  Just don't try to grind coffee with it ever again!

Breathing mask and goggles strongly recommended!

-If using fresh herbs, triple the amount you would use of dry ingredients.

-Acid comes in many forms.  Play with what you like, lemon juice is common  for me, but so are other citrus juices and vinegars from rice to balsamic to cider (mix n match too!).

-If you have time with your planning / cooking, let your meat rest after the brine.  stick it on a drying rack back in the fridge for a few hours.  This does several things.  The biggest help will be to evenly disperse the salt and flavorings you used during your brine throughout the entire cut of meat.  If your surface area was small (think: a large roast) this will be crucial to preventing a salty tasting interior and a less than full flavor middle.

The second thing this does is allow for a bit of dehydration.  Your refrigerator is a very dry environment, and anytime you have exposed meat in there, it will very slowly pull moisture off the meat, concentrating the flavors in your meal.  An hour or two won't do a tremendous amount of drying, but every little bit helps in my opinion.

If you are grilling brined meat, a third thing you will get from some post brine fridge time is a pellicle.  This is a thin, tacky film that forms on the surface of the meat.  Don't let that definition turn you away.  Hardwood grilling will produce delicious smoke, and many grilled meats benefit even more from this fantastic aroma.  Not hard to figure out that I wouldn't suggest using briquettes and half a gallon of lighter fluid for your grill with this technique.

Lastly, brine early and brine often!  Play with this a lot until you get comfortable.  Brine half of the chicken meat you were going to use for your next meal.  Cook them both and compare (Great if you are worried about over salting). Brine pork chops, then cook a small one plain and see if you like the flavor.  Brine it longer if it wasn't fully flavored/salted, or if too salty, cut the remaining chops open, stuff with an undersalted stuffing mixture and pan sear them all.  Even minor mistakes will turn out light years ahead of unbrined meat, and you can tweak the recipe next time to get it perfect.