Friday, October 18, 2013

Of Mussels and Marinara...

"Comfort food."  Those two words illicit all sorts of marvelous images for different people.  Comfort food can be as complex as a casserole full of Lobster Mac-n-cheese, or as simple as a bowl of chicken soup.  For Italians, most comfort food starts with a good Marinara sauce.  One of my favorite Italian comfort foods is "Mussels Fra Diavolo," or Mussels in a spicy red sauce!  A good marinara sauce should balance the acidic tartness of tomatoes with the sweetness of diced carrots and onions.  Building on the sauce, any spicy heat that is added should help complement something subtle, like the lusty faint aroma of the ocean that you get from fresh Mussel liquor... :)

You will need:

The Best Red Sauce Ever:
  • 2 big cans (36oz) whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup good olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 entire head of garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 3/4lb of sweet onions (1 large onion) diced
  • 1/2lb carrots finely diced
  • 1.5 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 6oz can tomato paste
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
 Ingredients to Turn the Best Red Sauce into the Best Mussel Dish Ever:
  • 6 Cloves crushed garlic
  • 2-3 Teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 Dried Chipotle Peppers, cut in half or fourths
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 Cups of the Best Red Sauce Ever
  • 3lbs Medium Sized Mussels, scrubbed, and de-bearded 
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
This red sauce is a great building block to making all sorts of things. Personally, I think it's almost too good to just ladle over pasta, it should be sopped up and eaten with some great bread, and your plate should be shiny clean when you're done!  To get the most out of the sauce, make sure you extract as much sugar out of the onions and carrots as you can; don't be afraid to brown the heck out of them!  Break out your biggest pot or dutch-oven and be prepared to store the bulk of the sauce in stainless plastic-ware or mason jars.

Sauce first!  Keep the Mussels on ice.  Seriously, as soon as you buy your Mussels, get them into a crushed ice bath and store them in your refrigerator.  You want to make sure you discard any that are already open, as they're dead and they'll just stink up the works.  Look for Mussels that are heavy for their size and that are sealed as tightly as little black rocks. 

Now, cook the sauce!  Dump the cans of tomatoes into a clean bowl, wash your hands and crush the bowl of tomatoes into a bowl of tomato mush!  This is a great job for the kids, if you can convince them NOT to make a mess!  In your big pot, heat the oil over medium high heat until it's good and hot, then add the onions and carrots.  Stir them together, then add the garlic and bay leaves.  Cook and stir until they're well caramelized and nice and brown (15 minutes or so).  Add the tomatoes, their juice, 1.5 cups of hot water, the tomato paste, oregano, salt & pepper.  Stir some more and let it bubble and simmer until it reduces by a couple of inches.

Keep two cups of the sauce for your Mussels and store the rest in an airtight plastic container (or mason jars).

Let's cook the Mussels!  With 2 cups of your new sauce in your big pot, bring it to a nice simmering bubble and add the additional Garlic, White Wine, Chipotle Peppers, and Red Pepper Flakes.  Simmer this mixture, just below a boil, for about 20 minutes.  This will rehydrate the Chipotles and allow the Wine to break out some alcohol soluble flavors from the rest of the dish.

Moments before serving time, drain your Mussels and add them to the 2 cups of sauce you have in your pot!

Let them settle into the sauce with it boiling and bubbling around them.  Replace the lid and leave the Mussels alone for about 5 minutes.  Take the lid away and stir everything together for another 3 or 4 minutes.  The Mussels will be done when they're fully opened and a little bit firm.  This should take less than 10 minutes of total cooking time.

Remove from the heat, garnish with the Parsley, and serve!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grilled Salmon, YUM!

Grilled Salmon is one of things that restaurants have figured out, but that most people fail miserably at when they try it at home.  This is completely understandable.  After all, raw Salmon is a fragile and delicate thing, and grills are hot and mean and when the two of them get together, the result is often a broken mushy mess of burnt salmon, stuck to the grill grates to be burned to a crisp as the charcoal eventually fades.  Nobody wants that...

To grill Salmon properly, keeping the delicate texture together while infusing some sweetness, some spicy heat, and some aromatic citrus, is way easier than you think!

You will need:
  • 1 or 2 full SKIN-ON whole filets of Salmon
  • Non-Stick Aluminum Foil
  • 1 Lime
  • Olive Oil
  • Salmon Rub, Equal amounts of the following:
    • Fresh Chili Powder
    • Dark Brown Sugar
    • Fresh Ground Pepper
    • Kosher Salt
    • Garlic Powder
  • Chopped Cilantro 

First, some questions.  Question 1, "Is it that important to buy skin-on Salmon for grilling?"  Yes.  The skin is added protection against moisture loss and heat reflection.  You won't eat the skin, but it will serve an important purpose.  Question 2, "Non-stick foil?  Are you kidding me with this?"  No.  Non-stick aluminum foil is a marvelous invention, especially for grilling.  Always have some on hand, but know that it's more expensive than regular foil so you probably won't want to use it to replace all of your aluminum foil needs.

Roll out some non-stick foil onto a cutting board.  Lay your Salmon filets, skin side down, onto the non-stick foil.  Drizzle some Olive oil all over the top of the fish and spread it evenly around with your fingers.  Squeeze the juice from 1/2 of your lime onto the fish also, worth this around as evenly as you can.  Now, generously shake your new Salmon rub all over the fish.  Don't get too crazy, but don't be shy either.  Shake it on like you would shake on a liberal application of Parmesan cheese to a big plate of spaghetti.  Now, leave the fish alone on the counter to rest, while you get the fire ready.

Start a bunch of charcoal, then spread them in a big oval around the edges of your grill.  You'll be placing the fish on the grates over the middle, the idea being to make sure the Salmon isn't sitting directly over some super hot charcoal.  The foil and the skin will deflect most direct heat, but you don't want some of your fish to be over-cooked while the rest is perfectly done, so try to spread the charcoal to the back, or the front and/or sides of the grill.  Close the lid and let the grill pre-heat a bit.

The fun part begins...

You need to slide the foil off of your cutting board, and onto your grill (with the Salmon still on, of course).  The interesting part of this exercise is, the Salmon is slippery, and so is the non-stick foil, and you've added olive oil to the equation so... don't let it all slide onto the grill or it will all stick and gum together and you'll go hungry.  Your grill will be hot, but you should be able to slide the foil onto the surface, and then quickly slide it to position it so the fish is in the "middle" of the fire ring below.  Now, close the lid and let it "cook" in your new charcoal oven for ten or fifteen minutes before taking it's temperature.

A Word about Temperature and Doneness...

Our Food and Drug Administration says that Salmon is "Safe" at 145 degrees.  I agree, it's certainly safe at that temperature, but it's also dry, rubbery, and not something I'd be proud to serve.  If you purchase quality salmon from a reputable source, and you are grilling it within 24 hours of it's purchase, having kept it at a safe cold temperature prior to the cooking process, then 130-135 degrees is the perfect temperature for serving grilled Salmon.  Use a probe and take it's temperature in the thickest part of the filet.  If you want to use the whole filet for presentation, it should slide right off the non-stick foil and onto a platter.  When you cut the Salmon into portions, the portions of fish should slide right off the skin and onto your serving utensil!

Slice the other 1/2 of the lime for individual serving, and garnish the top of the Salmon with fresh chopped Cilantro and serve!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Hanger" Steak? YES! Hanger Steak!!

It is my opinion that the humble Hanger Steak is probably the most flavorful piece of beef that you can get out of a heifer, steer, or cow.  The problem is, you can rarely find them. There are good reasons for this, and once you understand the secrets of a good Hanger Steak, you'll want to find one.  Now!  Start asking your butcher, your grocer, your internet meat provider, etc, it may take some time, but your efforts will be very well rewarded!

Facts about Hangers:
  1. It is also called, "The Butcher's Cut" because traditionally, butchers would keep this tender and flavorful prize for themselves, rather than offer it for sale.
  2. There is only one "V-Shaped" twin-muscled Hanger Steak per cow.
  3. It is a twin set of muscles, connected in the middle by a thick and inedible membrane.
  4. Each half of a good Hanger weighs between 1.0 and 1.5lbs.
  5. Hanger steaks are "fragile" and must be cooked very quickly over high heat to an internal temperature of 125 degrees (Medium Rare).  If you cook them any longer, they'll become extremely tough.
  6. Hanger steaks lend themselves very well to a good marinade.
  7. Anatomically, this muscle "hangs" from the diaphragm of the cow, and helps with expansion/contraction as the animal breathes.
  8. Other names for Hanger Steaks include:  Bistro Steak, Arrachera, Fajitas Arracheras, French Skirt, Onglet, Lombatello, and Solomillo de Pulmon!
With a little extra prep time, you can cook up some beef medallions that rival the taste of a hearty Ribey or New York Strip, and that rival the cost of ordinary hamburger.  Scour your local meat providers for a Hanger Steak (or two) and grab a sharp trim or boning knife.  Your guests will have no idea how spoiled they're about to become!

You Will Need:

  • Two full Hanger Steaks (5-7lbs total weight)
  • Kosher Salt

For the Marinade:
  • 2 Tbsp Yellow Mustard
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 3 Tbsp Fresh Garlic (peeled, smashed, and minced)
  • Juice of 1 Lemon
  • Juice of 1 Lime
  • 1 Tsp of Chili Powder
  • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Whisk the marinade briskly in a small glass bowl until it all comes together.  Set it aside in the refrigerator.  Now, it's time to trim your Hangers.

Hanger steaks are cheap and there's a very good reason for this.  A lot of trimming and preparation is required for this cut of meat and most shops will leave that up to you.  No problem, it's easy!  Start with the first cut, right down the middle of the Hanger Steak, to separate the twins.  Follow the white line of a tough rubbery membrane.  It's easy to find because the grain of the muscle runs to the middle along this line (see the picture here on the left).  If you bought two Hangers, you'll end up with four long tubular steaks.

Now that you have your four steaks, you'll want to trim any excess silver-skin, membrane or fat away from the muscle.  Simply slide your knife under the layer of unwanted tissue, and "shave" it off of the meat.  You may need to hold one end tight, while you slide your knife to the other end to shave off the silver-skin while keeping as much red meat in tact as possible.  Keep your knife hand clean and dry, and use your other hand to handle and position the meat.  Greasy hands and sharp knifes do NOT a marriage make!

When you're finished, you should have four nice long portions of Hanger Steak!  Notice that they're extremely well marbled, and they're quite a bit darker in color than most cuts of red meat.  This will all translate into an impressive richness of flavor!  You may also notice that there is quite a bit of elasticity in these cuts.  Do what you can to keep them squished together, don't stretch them out!  They'll swell up a bit when they're on the grill and you want to retain those juices (and flavor)!  Season these beauties with a generous sprinkle of Kosher salt on both sides, then grab your marinade.

Let's talk about the marinade for a second.  Your brain might be thinking, "Ken is crazy, there is no way that mustard and red meat will go well together!"  Trust me.  Remember the Rib Recipe?  Remember how the heat from the grill transformed the mustard into an amazing crusty and sweet "bark" on the outside of the ribs?  The same thing will happen here, you will not taste any mustardy flavors... only a garlic citrus flavor with a sweet finish.  It's amazing!  Smear all sides of each Hanger loin with the marinade and park them, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a minimum of 4 hours.  Overnight is better.  Take them out and let them come up to room temperature while you get your grill ready.

Light up your charcoal (or pre-heat your propane... Honestly, have you not at least purchased a small, cheap, charcoal kettle grill yet?) and get the grill HOT HOT HOT!  Burn off any gunk from your last foray onto the grill and while it's hot, scrape it well and then brush it with canola oil.  Lay your Hangers across the hot part of the grill and watch for flare ups.  If a flame up occurs, roll the meat out of the way or immediately close the lid to snuff out the flame.  Continue to roll and cook these marvels until your reliable "Instant Read" thermometer says, "125 degrees F."

Remove them from the grill and cover them with foil, and let them rest for 10 minutes.  Slice them into medallions for serving.  Take a good look at the picture on the right.  Do you see any yellow mustard?  No!  Do you see all of that juicy goodness?  That was AFTER a 15 minute rest!  These are so good, they're a bit like Filet Mignon medallions but with a little more "bite" to them, a lot more juice, and a ton more flavor. 

I promise you, once you've had a good Hanger Steak, you'll keep looking for them and you'll want to keep them all for yourself!