From the Pinterest Files: Bun Cha

With gorgeous weather expected in the area this weekend (and not at ALL next week), I’ll be grilling as much as possible while I can. If that’s your plan, too, I have a great recipe for you. Instead of slapping another steak or some burgers on the grill, how about trying bun cha (Vietnamese pork meatball and noodle salad) for a light and refreshing, but still fire-kissed, meal?

I pinned the recipe from Saveur a while back, but promptly lost it in the morass of my Pinterest recipe board, which admittedly could use some culling. (Do you have the same problem?) But it popped up again when I did a quick search of my board a couple of weeks ago for something Vietnamese. Hey, I had a craving. Because a well-stocked pantry always helps, I had everything but the main ingredient on hand. Picking up a package of ground pork from Snoep Winkel Farm took all of two minutes, then I was back in the kitchen prepping the meal, which took almost no time at all apart from marinating the meat.

And the meat, oh, the meat! As soon as the meatballs hit the grill, I was blasted with a smell that turned me into a slobber machine on a par with Otis when we promise treaties; it couldn’t have been more embarrassingly textbook Pavlovian, really.

So if you’re still gathering meal ideas for this weekend, give this one a try. I couldn’t ask for a better summer (finally, summer!) meal and think you might just feel the same.

Support for Sandy

While Hurricane Sandy is already 10 days behind us, we’re still dealing with its effects here in NJ/NY and will be for some time to come. Many who weren’t affected by the tidal surge that destroyed entire communities down the shore find themselves without power even now. We sat in a chilly house for eight days before a crew from Ohio fixed the power lines and we counted ourselves lucky that dealing with a lack of power and crazy gas lines was the worst of it for us.

I may get into our personal story more later on, but today I want to share a little comfort food in support of Sandy’s victims. The brainchild of Jenn Cuisine and Creative Culinary, the food-blogging community is coming together today to offer support and make everyone aware of relief efforts.

Clicking on the badge above will take you directly to the Red Cross donation page for those affected by Sandy. Even easier, you can also text the word “Redcross” to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

If you’d like to donate but are looking for a charity with a more targeted focus, Charity Navigator is a good resource. The site rates charities on financial health and accountability & transparency, so you have a good idea of where your money is going and how much of it will get there.

Now for comfort food! As an enthusiastic omnivore with a paleo bent, I think roasts or braises are just about the best comfort food you can make this time of year. I made the dish pictured at the top of this post last winter, but plan to feature it heavily in the upcoming months. The dish is Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder with Savory Apple Gravy from Simply Recipes, one of my go-to sites for reliable, delicious recipes. Just so you know, that’s a pork butt pictured above, but the substitution was wonderful. And as you’d suspect, leftovers are fantastic.

On the shoulders of giants

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You guys know I usually like to wing it in the kitchen, right? It’s certainly not a surprise to poor Gil, who has to deal with my creations. (Btw — sorry for that particularly meh quinoa salad I made for dinner recently, honey!) But sometimes I do the thing up proper-like and follow real recipes from people who know what they’re doing — people like Mario Batali, Patricia Wells and Giuliano Bugialli.

Above, you see the first of two pasta dishes we’ve had in the last couple of weeks. Ground veal and ground pork sang a song of ragu from the freezer, and at their insistence, I did a web search for a real recipe to follow. The first link I clicked featured a video of Mario Batali making a traditional Ragu Bolognese. I’m so happy I followed the video’s instructions instead of the written recipe below; I never, ever, would have thought to cook each stage of the recipe for as long as instructed. But the prolonged cooking added a depth of flavor I’ve never achieved in my years of sauce-making. I might use slightly less wine next time because that flavor was especially strong (and not my favorite thing in the world, to be honest), but diffused with ample amounts of pasta, it was phenomenal.

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A few weeks ago, Gil and I got to spend three whole nights in the city during a pharmaceutical conference he attended for his magazine. I took full advantage of my time there and met up with friends on three consecutive nights for dinner and drinks. The first night I didn’t venture out of my work neighborhood, meeting my friend Scott at Bar Stuzzichini. I went mainly for the small plates (the arancini were disappointing this time, but I plan to recreate the zucchini alla scapece just as soon as my grill comes out for the season — possibly this very weekend), but the pasta dish we shared was the real revelation: macherroni alla chitarra, or pasta with pistachio and lemon cream sauce.

Once we made it home, I started researching recipes in my Italian cookbooks and decided to use a simple lemon-cream sauce adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria and Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli On Pasta. I toasted shelled pistachios, cooled and chopped them, the steeped the smaller bits (pistachio dust, really) in lemon juice and cream while I made the pasta with my brand new Kitchenaid Pasta Rollers. (I happened to find them fairly heavily discounted on Amazon, but they’re worth paying an everyday price for.) After cooking the pasta, I tossed it with the cream sauce and grated Parmesan over a low flame until the sauce had thickened. Just before serving, I added more Parmesan, chopped parsley and more chopped pistachios. It was a great success, but not quite as pistachio-infused as the original. I have more experimenting to do before I give you a real recipe, but I’m pretty happy with the results of my first go-round. It’s hard to go wrong when you listen to the experts.

Prudently porky

Well, it’s been quite a couple of weeks, once again. Though work continues to occupy most of my waking thoughts (and many of my sleeping ones), I’ve still managed to keep my pointy-headed geek side fed with election and economic news as well. And I’ve been cooking, turning out lots of comfort food, mostly. It’s the perfect thing for the moment, with the nasty economic downturn, uncertain times ahead for many of us, and winter coming on strong. Comfort food is accessible, imminently affordable, adaptable and delicious to boot.

I’ve really been making an effort to buy quality ingredients and eat locally since reading about the abuse at large-scale farms and slaughterhouses. I just can’t stomach the thought of contributing to that kind of depravity, so when I got an email from the Bobolink folks announcing the sale of their whey-fed pork, I placed an order for some of the nasty bits that are pretty hard to find, anyway — feet, knuckles, and necks.

For my first meal, I made a basic, but delicious pork neck ragu shamlessly ripped off from inspired by Jen‘s post from a few weeks ago. You traditional types out there will be horrified, but my family’s red sauces always started with a roux, so that was my jumping-off point; it really adds a depth of flavor you just can’t get otherwise. I heavily salted the pork necks and browned them very well in the dark roux, moved them from the pan, then sautéed chopped onion, celery, garlic, carrot and a bay leaf in a little extra olive oil added to the roux. Once the vegetables had softened, I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste to a hot spot in the pan, stirring until it caramelized; a few glugs of dry white wine, some fresh thyme springs, and two cups of chicken stock went in next, and once it came to a boil, I nested the pork necks in the sauce. After covering the pan tightly, I put it in a 325-degree oven for about three hours.

I took the necks out of the sauce and pulled the meat from the bones once they were cool enough to handle. Then I simmered the shredded pork in the sauce until much of the liquid had evaporated, set aside 2/3 to freeze for a later meal, and served the rest (loosened with a little pasta water) with penne.

Totally comforting, completely delicious, and didn’t break the bank. I’d call it a success.

And Happy Halloween, everyone! May your evenings be filled with candy and costumes.

More grilling? Well, if you insist…

I fully intended to give you a rundown of our July 4th menu today, complete with a couple of lovely side salads inspired by Mark Bittman’s picnics column from last week, but today’s fare was ribs and there’s just no way I can write about vegetables at a time like this.

Since I first posted about the grilled vegetable salad I found on The Kitchen Sink, it’s been a weekly fixture on our table, so I knew Kristin’s featured recipe for baby back ribs wouldn’t disappoint. As ever, through poor planning or simple willfulness, I adapted the recipe a bit, but can’t imagine them being any better even with the full complement of ingredients.

The adaptations were fairly minor, but worth pointing out. To start, as embarrassing as it is for a Southern girl to admit, I have no bourbon in the house. Lucky for me, there is a lot of Jack leftover from some party or other, so that went into the glaze instead.

Though I seem to have an extremely well-stocked spice rack (okay, well-stocked spice bins), my refrigerator is lacking in the saucy condiments department, so I went without the plum and hoisin sauces called for in the glaze. I thought the finished product would lack some depth because of these omissions, so I tinkered a bit on the front end, baking the ribs in a favorite marinade for flank steak — equal parts pineapple juice and soy sauce with a hefty dose of garlic — instead of the stand-alone pineapple juice in the recipe.

Gil and I ran out while the ribs were baking and we were treated to the most mouthwatering smell as we walked up to the front door two hours later. Poor Rufus was left alone with the baking ribs and was beside himself with pork lust by the time we got home; to reward his patience, I gave him a tiny piece of meat with a little fat attached, fresh from the oven.

And I’m not too proud to admit I rewarded myself, too. Mmmmmmm…

At this point, it was a simple thing to fire up the grill, brush the ribs generously with the glaze, and grill them until the crispy bits outnumbered the soft.

As Rufus would (and did) say, “NOM! NOM! NOM!”

recipe after the jump

Continue reading “More grilling? Well, if you insist…”

Pork & peaches, and some healthy stuff, too

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Though I hesitate to call it a resolution, we are trying to eat a bit healthier now that the holidays are over. I’m not going to extremes, of course, but I am trying to incorporate more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables into my cooking, so our crisper drawer is full and I’m working my way through it faithfully.

But getting back into the old routine takes time, so I started the weekend completely unprepared for our dining needs. Flipping through the pages of Cooking Light for inspiration, I ran across a wild rice salad that looked completely scrumptious and sounded like it’d be perfect with a little pork. As luck would have it, our freezer is stocked with obscene amounts of pork (and beef. and chicken) thanks to Gil’s company’s annual holiday gift of Omaha Steaks. There was also a jar of peach sauce from our last Trader Joe’s run, so all I needed was a recipe to tie things together. Inspiration for the pork came from the Epicurious website, where I found a recipe for pork with brandied peaches that called to me. I did change the recipe a smidge — I used peach sauce instead of frozen peaches and preserves, cooked the butter in the recipe a little longer than suggested for that rich, delicious, brown butter note under the fruit and brandy, and added cumin … because I’m incapable of not adding cumin.

The salad satisfied my non-resolution requirement for healthy dining, while the pork chops were just rich enough to keep us from feeling deprived. But the sauce was the real highlight of the meal.

It was all I could do not to lick the plate.

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recipes after the jump

Continue reading “Pork & peaches, and some healthy stuff, too”