Thursday, March 3, 2016

Prepping the Perfect Pot-Roast

What's the first thing people cook when they buy a crock-pot?  Pot-roast, of course.  Let's face it, any "Schmo" with a crock-pot can assemble a pot-roast, and it would be edible.  Wouldn't you rather take a few extra minutes of time to include a few crucial steps that would turn an "edible" pot-roast into an "unforgettably tender and juicy" pot-roast?  Of course you would!

You Will Need:
  • 1 Four to five pound Chuck Roast
  • 3 Cups small round fingerling or new potatoes
  • 10 Medium sized whole carrots, peeled and cut into 3" lengths
  • 1 and 1/2 bags frozen pearl onions
  • 1 Bottle of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (Very "Drinkable" but not too expensive)
  • 2 Cups of quality beef broth
  • 6 Whole cloves of garlic, crushed 
Disclaimer:  This recipe works for me because I think I have the largest crock-pot the average consumer can possibly get.  You may need to make adjustments, based on the size of your crock. Also, you may notice the plastic bag in this picture.  It's a crock-pot liner (my buddy Bill calls them "Crock-pot Condoms").  Don't knock them 'till you've tried them!  They enable you to clean your crock pot in less than two minutes after the cooking is done!

Haul out your crock pot, add the liner, and dump in enough potatoes to cover the bottom.  Give them a very light coating of salt, and dump in your garlic, and maybe even a small handful of chopped green onions (if you're feeling "sexy").

I'm just heart-broken that I can't find bone-in beef roasts anymore.  Bones are heavy, and they're eliminated in 99% of commercial shipments of beef nowadays, because we need to get that stock price up another penny or so, to satisfy Wall Street investors, right?  

...Sorry, I was back on my soap box again.  Get yourself a 5lb hunk of Chuck roast (or a couple of smaller Chucks that add up to 5) from your local meat dept.  Not a Rump Roast, or a "Top" roast... Get "Chuck!"  It's from the shoulder.  Chuck roast is beautifully marbled with gobs of fat and connective tissue, two necessary ingredients to a flavorful juicy roast (I didn't say it was 'lean,' I said it was 'delicious!').  If it does have a bone in it, the bone will look like a number "7" (cross section of the shoulder blade).  Get the one with the longest "tail" on the 7 (that will be the closest to the neck, and more tender).  Generously salt all sides of the roast.

Meanwhile, get a heavy pan (cast iron is best) and add some olive oil to the bottom and turn the heat to HIGH!  When it's super hot, lay in the roast and listen as it sizzles!  You want to put a nice brown crust on both sides, it should take about 4 minutes per side.  Use some long tongs to flip it over.  
Do not worry if your roast sticks to your pan.  In fact, get excited when your roast sticks to the bottom of your pan!  Why?  "Fond!"  The French call the burnt crusty pieces of "Stuff" that sticks to the pan, "Fond."  We want the fond in our crock pot because there's a ton of alcohol soluble flavors in there so... how do we get alcohol soluble flavors to unlock themselves?  

You want ALL of the juicy brown bits that are stuck to this pan to go into the crock-pot.  It's pure flavor.  How do you get it loose?  By deglazing it of course!  What's the best liquid to use for deglazing?  Say it with me.. "Alcohol!"  Pour about 1/4th of your wine into the pan.  Be careful, it will sizzle, pop, and steam!  Stir it all around and scrape the bottom of the pan with a heavy spoon to break everything loose.  Should it flame up, just put the lid on to snuff out the fire and then keep going... 

Now, pour about 1/2 of the remaining wine into the pot.  Stir and cook it until it reduces a little bit.  When it's ready, pour the entire contents of the pan over the roast.  You may need to arrange the onions around the side so the lid will fit.  Notice now, that you have a healthy glass of wine left in your bottle... This is an excellent time to pour it into the nearest glass and to begin to drink it!  Things are going so well, you've earned it, and you'll need fortification to clean up your kitchen soon so, bottoms up!

Time to talk about carrots.  Do I really need to convince you to use "real" carrots, instead of those waxy carrot-pellet things?  Honestly, fresh carrots are tender, sweet, flavorful, they taste like carrots and they impart some sugars and great flavors to the roast.  Those waxy "Carrot Nuggets" you can buy don't have any real flavor at all.  Avoid them.  You'll thank me...
Peel and cut your carrots and arrange them around the roast.  I like to build a "Carrot Fence" around the roast.  It leaves plenty of room for the onions to go on top!  Once the carrots are in, its time to pour on the broth! 
Don't ruin this roast with weak, canned beef broth.  Use some quality bouillon!  I love this stuff!  It has little bits of actual beef in it, the flavor is hearty, and it doesn't bring too much salt to the party.  Plus, most grocery stores carry it, so it's easy to find... bonus!  Mix up a couple of cups and pour it over your roast, just until the wine/broth juice creeps up to 1/2 inch below the lip of the pot.  

Add a bag and a half of frozen pearl onions, then season them with a bit of salt and pepper.  I like white pepper, and a bit of creole seasoning, but your mileage may vary.  

Turn the crock-pot on "Low" and walk away from it for 8 or 9 (yes, eight or nine) whole hours.  We're talking about 5lbs of beef here, not only do we want to cook it, but we also want to break down and render out the fat and connective tissues so... let the pot work it's magic!  After 9 hours, turn it down to "Warm" and leave it alone for another hour.  This will let it "rest" for a bit. When you're ready to serve it, gently take it out of the crock with a pair of tongs.  Be careful, it will probably fall apart.  Arrange it on a platter, and then arrange your vegetables around the edge.  Slice the roast coarsely across the grain so that people can serve themselves a portion (or two) using the tongs.  Pour a few ladles of au-jus over the top, and carry it to the table!

Notice that there is no recipe for gravy, here.  If you did this correctly, your roast will be wonderfully tender and very VERY moist!  There should be no need for gravy.  After all, a roast should taste like, well, "Roast!"  It shouldn't taste like gravy... 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Fantastic Fajitas!

I'm a bit of a "traditionalist" when it comes to fajitas.  The Spanish word "Faja" means, "strip" or "belt."  Cows have a diaphragm muscle that expands and contracts to help them breathe, just like we do.  The lower portion of this muscle is called the "strip."  Traditionally, this is called the "Fajita" and the Tex-Mex dish we've all come to love, is based on this cut of meat.

Now while I recognize that technically, chickens and shrimp don't have a "Faja" muscle and a sliced chicken breast in no way a true "Fajita" will make; BUT, you won't offend me if you call them "Chicken Fajitas" and serve them to me on a homemade flour tortilla with a bit of good guacamole... LET'S GET TO IT!

You Will Need:
  • Beef Skirt Steak (not Flank steak, and not Sirloin)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Your favorite steak seasoning
  • Chili Powder 
  • 4-6 Skinless Boneless Chicken Breasts

Other Elements:
  • Guacamole
  • Onion/Pepper medley (Grilled)
  • Sour Cream
  • Cilantro
  • Cheese
  • Pico-de-Gallo 
  • Flour Tortillas (Freshly cooked, homemade is best.  Go out of your way to find them)
Good fajitas start with good steak.  GREAT fajitas start with a good SKIRT steak!  Have a look at this gnarly belt of meat.  It's hard to believe that we're about to transform it into some of the most tender, spicy, and delicious fajitas you can imagine, but that's exactly what we're going to do!  Some stores will try to pass Flank steak off as "fajita steak" but don't you dare fall for it.  Ask the meat guy specifically for "Strip Steak!"
First things first; notice that there is quite a bit of loose fat, and probably a good bit of the membrane around this muscle.  It has to go!  You can peel most of it away with your bare hands, but you may need a flexible filet knife to "shave" off some of the more stubborn pieces.  Take your time.
Don't try to take all of the fat (fat = flavor), but you do want to remove the larger globs and as much of that tough membrane as you can.  Then, slice the strip into smaller 4-6 inch strips.  We'll eventually be slicing these across the grain once they're cooked, so you'll want to set your target to the size you want your fajita strips to be for serving.
Generously sprinkle each steak with Worcestershire, and a liberal shake of your steak seasoning, and some of the chili powder.  Make sure you cover both sides!  Stack them up on top of each other and set them aside to marinate while you concentrate on your chicken...
Chicken breasts are fairly thick when you pull them out of the package.  We want them to be as thin as the fajita steaks for even cooking and for a better presentation so... spread some olive oil onto each side, cover them with a layer of plastic wrap, and gently pound them out with the smooth side of a mallet.  Notice; my mallet (pictured) has some nicks in it.  My wife did this, pounding a nail into the wall to hang a picture.  I can't talk about it.....
Once your chicken breasts are nice and flat, season them with salt and a bit of the chili powder.  Stack them together so they can marinate while you get your fire going!
Time to make fire!  I believe that the flavor that a good wood/charcoal fire brings to the table is head/shoulders above propane gas.  This is 100x more true when it comes to fajitas!  You'll want a HOT fire here and the goal is to sear the outside quickly while the inside cooks up juuuust enough to be "done."
I do the chicken first.  About 3 minutes per side over a 700 degree fire brought my chicken's internal temperature up to 160 degrees.  Perfect.  Take them off and let them sit in a warmer while you do the same to the beef.
Lay out your steaks and let them sizzle for 3-5 minutes per side.  Keep an eye on the grain of the meat and which direction it's going.  After the meat comes off the heat, let it rest (wrapped in foil) for about ten minutes.
After a good rest, it is super important to cut the steaks into strips, across the grain!  The yellow cut marks in the picture should help.  If you cut with the grain, you'll be serving long strips of muscle that are difficult to chew.  When you cut across the grain, these strips are severed and they tend to fall apart much more easily!  This makes for an easier bite and a delicious "chew!"
Once you've sliced your steaks (and your chicken), they should be served immediately, while they're still warmed.  To add flourish, you can slide all of the slices into a hot cast-iron skillet and whisk them to the table while they're still sizzling!
The chicken should be sliced as thinly as your beef, just for a better presentation.  Personally, I prefer the beef, wrapped in a soft warm flour tortilla with some grilled onions, cilantro, and a schmear of good guacamole!