Annals of the Overly Involved

May I just point out that I am awesome?

I made corned beef! From scratch! Starting with a raw beef brisket and some salt!

Okay, YES. People have been making corned beef from scratch for centuries, even before they found out about saltpeter (which was quite a while ago, actually — almost a millenium). But still: how many people do you know that have any desire to do it now?

I don’t mean to suggest that I am the coolest person in the entire world. I could stand to be better at almost everything I can think of. And probably “awesome” is taking it a little far.  But I made corned beef from scratch! And it was GOOD! I don’t think it’s too surprising that I’m excited.

Last year we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and I made corned beef and cabbage using an organic corned beef from a local market. It was really good, probably the best corned beef I’d ever eaten, but for some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to try to corn beef my very own self. I’d actually thought about making it from scratch for that very party, but given that I was going to be feeding 20 people, I didn’t want to make a mistake and possibly doom them all to an Uncomfortable Demise. This year, though, I would only be feeding Teacherman and myself, so I was braver.

About two weeks ago I bought a 3 lb beef brisket from the market, and brought it home to corn. I thought that I had a Tupperware container big enough to cure it in, but when I got the container out of the cupboard I realized that I had been vastly inflating its size in my mind, and it wouldn’t do at all — the Tupperware wouldn’t even hold the brisket by itself, let alone the quarts of saltwater brine that would be necessary for corning. Instead, after consultation with Teacherman about metals and salts and chemical reactions, I hauled out a biggish stockpot and used that instead.

I put six quarts of water, 2 cups of kosher salt and about 1/3 cup pickling spices into the stockpot and brought them to a boil. (Corned beef spices and pickling spices are so similar that, since I already had a big jar of pickling spices, I didn’t bother to buy the more specialized corned beef spices). I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, watching the salt dissolve and the spices dye the water an odd purplish color. After no more than five of those minutes, I turned off the heat and let the brine cool. When it had come down to room temperature (which took more than the 3 hours I had before I went to work–8 would probably be more like it), I put the whole pot into the fridge to chill.

The next morning I put the brisket into the cold brine. It seemed inclined to stay submerged by itself, but just in case, I filled a freezer bag with some more water and salt — in case the bag leaked, I didn’t want plain water diluting the brine — and put it on top of the brisket. I put the lid on the (VERY full) stockpot and put the whole thing into the fridge. (I was petrified that the weight of the water and pot and beef would collapse the top shelf of my refrigerator, the only place it would fit, but my fears were, thankfully, unfounded).

I left the stockpot there for 5 days, occasionally lifting the lid to make sure that brisket was still submerged and that everything still smelled good. On the morning of the sixth day I removed the brisket from the brine, rinsed it off under the tap to remove any lingering salt, and put it into a zip-top bag, then into another zip-top bag on the outside of that. This package went back into the fridge. It was still five days before St. Patrick’s Day at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I should put the corned beef into the freezer or just leave it in the fridge. After considering history, and throwing caution to the winds, I decided to leave it in the fridge.

At about 12:30 today, Teacherman (who, being a teacher, is on spring break and does not have to work All Week) put the corned beef into the inevitable stockpot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil. He turned it down to a simmer, then left it for 2 hours with the lid on. After this time he checked the broth–it was salty, but not unpleasantly so. When we talked about it ahead of time, I’d suggested that if the broth was horrifically salty at this point, he should toss the liquid and use new water for the last few hours of boiling. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.

At this point, he added two carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, and a small cabbage, cut into eight wedges. He put the lid back on and simmered everything for 2 1/2 more hours. He turned the heat off, removed the corned beef to a plate to rest, and let the vegetables and broth cool down a little bit. After about 20 minutes, we sliced the meat across the grain, and served it up in big bowls with broth, carrots and the cabbage, cooked into silken shreds.

It was, in an overused-by-me word, fabulous.

The broth was saltier than I might have liked, but only a TINY bit, and I have to question whether or not I noticed the saltiness because I was expecting it to be overly so. The corned beef, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned. It wasn’t too salty at all, but beefy and robust in flavor, with added dimension from all the spices used in the brine. Even knowing which spices were used, I was unable to identify what each specifically added to the flavor, but I was in no doubt that every single one contributed.

The texture was also stellar: the corned beef was tender and melting, but not so soft that it dissolved in the mouth It was meaty and muscular, but yielding to the tooth. We each ate far too much — I think I may have consumed more than half of the entire cabbage — but it was worth it. Even better, we have about a pound of meat leftover. If I can wrest some of it away from Teacherman, I may make hash, but I’m afraid that his spring break freedom speaks of unending, indulgent Reubens. I can probably forgive him. After all, now that we know how to corn beef, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it again.

Note: Some of you, those who have seen other corned beef recipes in the past, may have noticed a significant ingredient missing from the corned beef brine: ‘pink salt,’ or nitrates, the modern equivalent of saltpeter. It’s used to prevent botulism (very important) and provide an apparently appetizing pink color to cured meat (not so important). It’s also incredibly toxic in large quantities.

I’ve tried to use pink salt in cured meats before, and every time I’ve tried it the result has been inedibly salty and chemically tasting. After so many failures, I have no desire to use pink salt, and, luckily, I’ve seen a couple of reputable modern recipes for corned beef that leave it out. Given that we were planning to keep the corned beef in the fridge at all times, and use it in short order, I felt no qualms about not using the pink salt.

Published in: on March 18, 2008 at 7:35 am  Comments (1)  


I work at a library. Believe it or not, though, it is still extremely difficult to find anything to read during my lunch hour. In spite of the fact that I am surrounded by books, and in spite of the fact that I usually have stacks of the things to take home with me at the end of the day, I cannot read any of them at lunch. Why? Because people want to talk to me. Or talk to each other. Or turn on the lunch room television set and watch some horrific daytime show. It isn’t possible to concentrate on a book while this is happening. Sometimes it isn’t even possible to concentrate on a cookbook.

This convoluted story is by way of explaining why it was that I found myself reading a diet/exercise magazine at lunch yesterday. The lead article proclaimed, with shock and outrage, that the average American gained five pounds during the winter months; we should be doing everything humanly possible, they urged, to combat this! Here were their exercise tips and 2-calorie, out-of-season meals to prevent this revolting and pointless weight gain!

Hmm. Pointless? My immediate thought upon hearing that most people gain weight during the winter is to remember–oh yes, that used to be an evolutionary advantage. Want to live through the winter? Pad yourself out. These days, we insulate our houses; even just a hundred years ago, we insulated ourselves. Admittedly, the people of the western world don’t live in paper-thin shacks or eat at the subsistence level, but I still think it makes a sense to take into account those centuries of history.

I live in a modern house with central heating, but I walk three miles a day, outside, to get to and from my train station. This isn’t back-breaking farm work, but it is exertion — exertion that requires more energy when it’s extremely cold. (And extremely cold it has been: three blizzard-level storms in less than a week? Whose idea was THAT?).

On a day when you’ve plowed through miles of unshoveled sidewalks covered in calf-deep snow, something like a barely-dressed seafood salad isn’t going to cut it, no matter how much I might love it in July. A lot of the time, I want soup, and a lot of the time, I want meat. Something juicy, something fatty, something comforting and something filling.

Teacherman and I know that we eat a greater quantity of meat and stodge during the winter, and we’re happy with this. We know this, and thus, when we were presented with a unique and related opportunity, we immediately took advantage of it.

In December, we noticed that a vendor at the downtown farmer’s market was selling spaces in a winter CSA. We were intrigued, given how difficult it is to find local anything during the colder months (in the Midwest, even a heated greenhouse might not do you much good). The CSA in question, though, was not the type that everyone has heard of — no boxes of vegetables delivered to your grateful door. Instead, the boxes would be full of meat.

Yes, really: meat and meat alone. The farm sells chicken, pork, beef and lamb (and woolen yarn) at the farmer’s market, and, given that they sell everything frozen, it’s easy enough for them to continue to sell all through the winter. The farmer’s market closes between December and June, though, leaving them out in the cold (as it were). The solution? The aforementioned CSA. You pay them a criminally low fee, and they deliver 25 (or 12) lbs of free-range, carefully raised, local meat to you every month. Teacherman and I signed up as soon as we heard the schpiel. (We did sign up for the 12-lb half-share, though. We may love meat, but there ARE only two of us).

We got our first box two weeks ago: twelve pounds of ground beef, pork chops, pork cutlets, nitrate- and sugar-free bacon and three kinds of sausage. For the first box the farmer gave everyone safe cuts (in America ground beef is king), but in the future we’re allowed to make requests. We have, of course, requested all sorts of bizarro cuts (pork belly, lamb neck chops) and cannot wait to see what we’ll get next time.

In the meantime, though, we’re delighted with what we have. The bacon glorified two different Sunday breakfasts, the ground beef was made into beautiful burgers, and the pork chops went into one of the most simple and satisfying meals we’ve had yet this winter.

I sprinkled the pork chops with salt and black pepper, then seared them in a big skillet until browned on both sides, and no longer squishily-raw when I poked them with a finger. I deglazed the pan with a heaping tablespoon of whole grain mustard and a cup of the apple wine Teacherman made earlier in the year (technically it’s hard cider, but it fermented itself into a delicate effervescence that’s more reminiscent of a sparkling wine than anything else). I turned the chops in the sauce a couple of times, then took them from the pan when they had lost all but a trace of pink in the center. I reduced the mustard-apple wine mixture until the sauce was thick and syrupy, then poured it over the chops.

They were delicious. It’s hardly a surprise that the flavors of apples and pork work well together, but the match is well known because it can be so good. The pork was flavorful and juicy, plump and resilient, the edges of each chop caramelized and glistening. The sauce was as light as a white wine sauce, but with the subtle, unmistakable sweetness of apples. The mustard emulsified the sauce into a creaminess that almost seemed dairy-based, and added a textural contrast to the unctuous pork with the crunchiness of the whole mustard seeds.

There were only three ingredients, but the dish was perfect. Yes, there was a layer of fat around the edge of each chop. Yes, we ate it (with great relish, even). I don’t think we’ll die. If we gain five pounds, so be it. (If it makes me warmer, I’ll be ecstatic). Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy eating real food, and living through the winter the way many many people have before.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 8:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Food and Memories

The other day I was reading a collection of American food writing—a massive tome, actually, comprising examples of such from the entire history of America.  One of the essays mentioned the fact that, apparently, every person who cares about food has had a ‘food epiphany’ at some point in their lives.  Naturally, I started casting about in my memory to see if I had anything of the kind. 

I don’t really think I did—not the way the author meant it, anyway.  There was never a moment at which I thought “I will now CARE about food!  I will now only eat The Best Foodstuffs and PITY those who don’t!”  Well, probably the author didn’t mean it to be quite that harsh, but it did come off that way in writing. 

I have, however, had two tiny moments of what I suppose you might call clarity: moments where I suddenly realized that a certain food was good and that it had flavors that I’d never noticed before.  I don’t know if these count as epiphanies, but they were certainly formative experiences. 

The first one is rather embarrassing.  I was living away from home for the first time, and making all of my own food in my own kitchen in the requisite grad school tiny one-room apartment.  I was mostly subsisting on ramen (as one does) with occasional forays into chicken baked in canned soup and things like that.  I didn’t particularly mind.  The meals were satisfying, in their way, and I used the herbs and spices I had to vary the flavors from night to night.  Also, though, I was reading cooking magazines.  I’d gotten a subscription to Gourmet as a reward for something—good credit, I think—and I’d become fascinated by the pretty pictures.  Most of the recipes were too elaborate for my budget, if not my ambition (I’ve always had a complete inability to grasp that a recipe is too advanced for me—when I decide not to make something it’s usually from laziness, not defeatism) but every month they had one article devoted to a recipe using five ingredients.  Five ingredients, unless the five included saffron and truffles, was something I could handle. 

One month’s recipe in particular caught my eye—Chicken Piccata.  Chicken, lemon juice, capers (what were those?), parsley (and something else, surely, though I don’t remember what).  I could easily obtain all of these ingredients.  When presented with the price of capers, though, I was taken aback.  These days, three dollars for a jar of capers does not cause hyperventilation, but at the time it was so much that I almost sat down in the aisle of the market.  Even in my inexperience, though, it was obvious that capers were the point of Chicken Piccata, so HAD to buy them.  How to justify the price?  Back went the lemons—I had a few drops left in the squeezy bottle at home.  Back went the fresh parsley, and into the basket went a tiny bag from the bulk section, filled with about a tablespoon of dried parsley.  I’m sure that if someone had asked me at the time if I thought bottled lemon juice and dried parsley were as good as fresh, I would have said something like “Probably not, but it doesn’t matter.” 

And it didn’t matter, because the dish turned out beautifully.  It was delicious, and started me on a caper addiction that continues to this day, but what I really noticed about the meal was the parsley.  Yes, really—the dried parsley.  I remember the actual sentence in my head after my first bite: “Parsley has a flavor.”  I wasn’t excited: I was astonished.  After years of dealing with my sister’s and my refusal to eat anything green, I’m sure my mother had given up on fresh herbs altogether (at least on our food), and I don’t think that I’d ever eaten any kind of parsley before.  I’d smelled dried parsley at my friends’ houses, and it had smelled like grass; I’d ignored it thereafter.   This must have been fresh dried parsley, because it smelled astonishingly like the bunch of live parsley I’d almost purchased in the produce section, and it tasted just like it smelled. 

I know that I’m opening myself up to the scorn of thousands by admitting that one of my most formative food memories is based upon dried parsley, an herb widely renown as tasteless dust when dried, but there it is: it’s a true story.

My other formative food moment came earlier in my life.  I was fifteen—not “cool” by any means, but at least mildly aloof.  I was fifteen, and my stomach hurt.  My stomach hurt so badly that I began to scream and cry and call for my parents, who came running from each end of the house, convinced that I had broken a bone or put my hand through a window or something—my tolerance for pain is pretty high, and they knew it couldn’t be something tiny.  But no, no horrible disaster had taken place, my stomach just hurt.  After a few minutes of questioning it became obvious that it wasn’t my appendix or a broken rib or anything that would require a visit to the emergency room, but no one knew what it was.  My mother put me to bed with a heat pad, a cat and some Tylenol.  I sobbed for an hour or two, while my family ate dinner very quietly downstairs, speaking in whispers.  At about 8 pm, the stomachache began to wane, and by 8:30 it was gone, with absolutely no sign that it had ever been there. 

I came downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother was grading papers at the table.  She got up and handed me my leftover dinner, a bowl of rice and black bean picadillo.  I’d never much liked picadillo before, but I can remember the flavors of that particular rendition perfectly—how the tomatoes softened the beans, the juxtaposition of the hot green chiles and the sweet chopped apple, and the way that all of the ingredients melted into each other, and melded with the rice.  I had never noticed the way flavors worked together until that night and I had never been so comforted by familiar flavors.  Because of that moment alone, black bean picadillo has become, for me, the most perfect comfort food ever invented.  Even thirteen years later, if I’m craving comfort, I crave that particular picadillo recipe more than any of the typical comfort foods.  Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes: none of these can hold a candle to it. 

Herewith, therefore, I will give you an actual, written-out recipe for my mother’s black bean picadillo.  I don’t know where the recipe originally came from (a cooking magazine? the back of a can?), but I’ve never been tempted to try any of the trendier, more modern, and infinitely more authentic versions I’ve encountered since.

Black Bean Picadillo
(serves 4-6)

1 14-oz can of diced tomatoes (these days I use fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes)
1 15-oz can black beans
1 lb ground beef (round, not chuck or sirloin)
1 small chopped onion
1 small can of chopped mild green chiles (fresh work, but roast and peel them first)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp orange peel (dried, but fresh would be fine—just use a light hand)
1 tsp cumin
1 finely chopped apple (I’ve always used Rome apples in this even though I prefer incredibly tart apples for everything else—the soft sweetness is important)

Sauté the beef and onion together until the beef is no longer pink.  Add all other ingredients and cook over low heat, uncovered, for half an hour to forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve over rice and melt back into your childhood.

Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 1:48 pm  Comments (3)  

No Excitment

After Sunday’s proto-nuptial feast, nothing has been very exciting.  The meals have all been good–entirely comforting and satisfying–but no dish has made me want to leap up from my seat and run to the computer to tell everyone about it.

There was a chuck roast rubbed with chipotle powder and cooked with tomatillos, zucchini, carrots and tomato sauce: spicy but mellow and perfect for leftover lunches with a crisp salad.  There was a cherry-yogurt panna cotta with vanilla cherry sauce that made an indulgent, creamy breakfast.  There were the fish cakes so full of herbs that they were virtually green, with a lemon-horseradish sauce and a radicchio-endive-arugula salad (too bitter for Teacherman, but just right for me).  Tonight there were ample bowls of tofu laksa, slippery with shiritake noodles and bean sprouts, silky with coconut milk and tofu, with a faint memory of chile and utterly lacking in verve. 

This cannot go on. 

Comforting fare is all very well and good, but it isn’t enough.   Unfortunately, though, Teacherman and I will be away from home for both lunch and dinner tomorrow (more wedding-related meetings)  which considerably reduces my immediate scope for shocking our meals back to life.  There is, however, tomorrow’s breakfast. 

Teacherman does not know it yet, but that forthcoming morning meal will be arresting, invigorating, and above all, exciting.  I have no firm plans, but after a concentrated period of opening cupboards, my brain is spinning with ingredients, equipment and ideas.   So many ideas, in fact, that they may spill over onto Sunday’s breakfast. 

And I think I see a jar of harissa off in the corner. . . .

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  


My boss is afraid of meat.  She is so repulsed by the idea of raw meat, and the idea of having to touch it, that she just can’t bring herself to eat it anymore and has become a vegetarian.  She never had any problem with the taste, and even admitted to enjoying a passing bite of her sister’s steak on occasion.  It was just the visceral idea of raw meat, which soon became associated with cooked meat–beef, pork, and sometimes even chicken–that disgusted her.

I used to be afraid of meat, too, but in a completely different way.  I was afraid of wrecking it: afraid of cooking it too long and drying it out, or otherwise mistreating it to the point of rack and ruin.  When I was growing up, my family ate plenty of beef, but I only recall three cuts that I had any experience cooking myself–round roasts for pot roast, chuck arm steak for beef stroganov, and ground beef (which is, I suppose, not really a cut, per se) for burgers and picadillo.  I was never afraid of those, because I’d already cooked them.  I was, however, absolutely petrified at the idea of cooking a steak, even a flank steak, simply because I never had.

In my unending perusal of cookbooks I’d come across so many interesting sounding recipes for beef-based dishes using cuts I’d never laid a hand on before.  Beef shanks, short ribs, flank steak, tenderloin.  I formed the idea that cooking beef was extremely hard, and, since steaks were so expensive anyway, not worth messing up, so not worth trying.

I was well on my way to an entire life of this, eating chicken, fish and pork most of the time, and eating hamburgers whenever I felt a beef craving.  “What do you want for dinner on your first night home for vacation?” my mother would ask.  “Something with BEEF in it!” would be my inevitable reply. 

Teacherman, on the other hand, couldn’t be less afraid of meat.  He has a massive grill and, though he doesn’t do so to the exclusion of all else, he loves to grill a steak.  He was mystified, though accepting, when he discovered my weirdness, and would have happily cooked all the beef to cross our threshold.   Having been shown, though, that beef cookery was possible, I refused to allow myself the luxury.  Through his tutelage I’ve become much more comfortable with cooking beef myself, working my way through previously dismissed cuts.  Flank steak is now a menu staple, brisket has made an appearance and indeed, last night I made short ribs for the first time, for company, even.

In spite of my newfound beefy courage, I’m still more comfortable with braising than with any other cooking method.  Provided that one uses the right cut, braising is extremely forgiving and almost always turns out a good result.  The short ribs–arresting, near-magenta, 3-D rectangles of the exact dimensions as the building blocks I had as a child–were browned along with cubes of bacon, then both were removed from the pan.  Into the (somewhat depleted) fat went lazily chopped onions, garlic, carrots and red bell peppers.  They softened a bit, then I added chicken stock, red wine and what seemed like over-exuberant quantities of peppercorns, bay leaves, fresh parsley and dried whole ancho chiles.  The (by now enormously heavy) Dutch oven went into the oven and stayed there for nearly 4 hours.  I took a nap. 

When I finally roused myself, I skimmed off all the fat (I really, REALLY need a fat separator–why do I keep doing this with a spoon?), removed the short ribs, added a bit of sweet smoked paprika to the pot, and blended the vegetables and broth into a thick maroon sauce.  It was spicy (the anchos and paprika), sweet (the onions, carrots and bell peppers), perfectly salted (in spite of not adding any) and velvety in the mouth.  The short ribs were melting, delectable, and as good a result as could be wished for, but it was the sauce I kept snitching dips of.  I slipped the conquered beef back into the pot, covered it, and waited for my guests.

“The sauce is made of vegetables?  Actual vegetables?” asked one of the party.  “Well then, I’d better make sure to clean my plate.”  And how could anyone be afraid of the instigator of that?

Published in: on April 3, 2007 at 7:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Party Day: Three Hours to Go

Who knew that corned beef could shrink so much?

Yesterday I slow-cooked a corned beef brisket all day long while I was at work. When I arrived at home, the two and a half pound roast had merrily cooked itself down into two fist-sized pieces of finished beef. Delicious, yes; tender, no doubt, but tiny. With twenty people to feed, this would not do. I was not planning to feed twenty people on only two pounds of brisket, but I was planning to feed half of them thusly. With premonitions of doom, I slow-cooked my second brisket overnight in the same way. It didn’t shrink quite as much, but it still lost half of its starting weight.


To the grocery store! (Insert Batmobile theme music here).

A third corned beef brisket has been purchased and is simmering away, this time with its cabbagey cohorts in the same pot. (I had been planning to roast the cabbage, but if I have to mess with a corned beef on the day of, I might as well put the cabbage in with it anyway). As of three hours in the pot, it hasn’t become appreciably smaller (though it is still distressingly tough), so there is yet hope.

Instead of hovering and gnashing my teeth, however, I’m focusing on the most positive part of the day: the mustard. Over the last year I’ve made mustard from scratch several times, with an almost 100% success rate. When I decided to make a spicy horseradish mustard to accompany our corned beef, I brought all of my accumulated knowledge to the bowl with me.

The recipe I used was from Epicurious, albeit one that the comments section indicated had a few problems. The ingredients were simple–cider vinegar, mustard powder, mustard seed, garlic, horseradish, salt–it was the proportions that presented a problem. Apparently the finished product was too thin and liquid to really be considered a mustard; the cooks who left comments tended to solve this problem by adding three times more mustard powder than called for.

To my mind, though, the real problem wasn’t with the ingredients, but the technique: the mustard wasn’t cooked. In all of the successful mustard recipes I’d made, after the ingredients were mixed and left to settle for a few days, they were blended, then simmered down to the cook’s favored consistency; only after appropriate reduction was the mustard potted and aged for anywhere from a few days to a few months. For this recipe I decided to follow the same route.

I put all the ingredients into a mason jar, lidded it, shook it, then put the jar in the back of my refrigerator for two days. After that time was up, I poured the contents of the jar into my food processor and buzzed it until it the mustard seeds, softened by two days soak in cider vinegar, had been completely pulverised. I decanted the blended mixture into a small nonstick pan and turned the flame onto lowish heat for about 30 minutes. I stirred it once or twice, walking by the pan on my way to another task, but mostly it minded itself.

When it was about as thick as the Dijon I buy at the store, I turned off the heat and poured it back into the mason jar. I let it cool for about an hour, with the cap on, but with the ring screwed on but loosely. Once it had cool, back into the fridge it went to be ignored for two weeks. Today I tried it for the first time–quite perfect. Some might argue that it’s too much work to make mustard when it’s so easy to buy hundreds of flavors thereof, of good quality even, at every dinky supermarket. I’m certainly not above buying mustard; I do so 90% of the time. I also don’t claim that the mustard I make is infinitely better than the mustard one can buy in the store. I do, however, claim that it is equally as good, sometimes at least a little better, and the fun of Making My Own trumps what paltry kitchen work it requires.

It’s a good thing I love it so much, though. I might have more mustard than I do corned beef.

Published in: on March 17, 2007 at 2:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Cacao Nibs and Cocoa

Lately I’ve been interested in cooking savory dishes with chocolate. This isn’t exactly a new idea–Hispanics have been making mole for more years than I would care to estimate, and I’ve seen recipes for cocoa-crusted proteins in various high-end cookbooks for years. I always resisted these, precisely because of mole; or rather, because of my one experience with mole.

My father is originally from Albuquerque, NM, and when I was young and he still made dinner occasionally, he would often make Southwestern (or at least Southwestern-esque) dishes. For a Fancy Grown-Up Dinner Party once, he made real mole. I’m sure, given that it was the 80s in the midwest, he didn’t toast and grind all of his spices from scratch, but I remember the ingredient list being prodigious, and that it contained one square of unsweetened chocolate. I was in the kitchen when the sauce neared completion, and he offerred me a taste. I don’t know why I acquiesed–I was an incredibly picky child–but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember that I hated it. This was not run-of-the-mill hate, the way I hated lasagne and enchiladas (two things that I have since grown to love), this was a revulsion that was actually shocking and arresting. I think I may even have run from the room to rinse out my mouth. The adults at the dinner party loved it.

Because of that lone incident, one that most likely took place before I even reached the age of ten, I absolutely refused to have anything to do with savory chocolate for nearly 20 years. Even after I grew up and became a voracious devourer of cookbooks and an eater of bizarre foods, I utterly rejected the idea of chocolate in savory preparations. I would read the recipes and curl my lip, thinking: “This chef, in spite of his years of culinary training and critical and popular adulation, is obviously an idiot.” I felt vindicated when I read a Nigella Lawson recipe for a spice-coated salmon in which she confessed that she’d adapted it from another author’s book, removing that author’s addition of cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder on SALMON! The lip curled further). I was comfortable in my superiority.

But at the beginning of February I unexpectedly began to think about savory chocolate. I’d like to say that it was inspired by the Valentine’s week episode of Iron Chef, or by the lovely new Scharffenberger chocolate cookbook that I just checked out of the library, but the interest arose before I ever saw either. I was making an otherwise unexceptional salad with avocados and oranges the other week, and for some reason threw in some cacao nibs.

It was very good.

I didn’t have a revelatory experience that caused me to fall to my knees and recant, but I did enjoy the flavors. And when I saw a Cooking Light recipe for a beef stew that included cocoa powder in the spice rub, I thought for a moment, then gave it a try. Also very good. The cocoa doesn’t add anything like an aggressively chocolate flavor (if I hadn’t tossed it in myself, I’d never recognize the cocoa) but in combination with what are really prodigious amounts of coriander, it adds an ineffable _something_. It being a stew, there was a vast quantity left over, and I’ve been eating it all week long for lunch, enjoying it just as much each day. Like all tomato-based stews, the flavors mellowed and melded, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

It still wasn’t a religious conversion, but I’m now definitely in favor of trying more savory foods with chocolate–or at least with cocoa. Maybe I’ll even add the cocoa powder back to Nigella’s recipe for salmon.

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment