Friday, October 23, 2009

I’m Back In The Saddle Again…..

Seems like any interest in cooking or blogging pretty much went out the door when the summer heat rolled in.

I hate hot weather.

Hate it.

But I do love all the fresh food summertime has to offer… so I guess you take the bad with the good.

I decided to get back to blogging by writing up something that I know fairly well. Over the summer, I got hooked up on Facebook with a lot of old high school friends, in preparation for our 30th high school reunion. As we’ve gotten to know each other again, several have expressed some curiosity about my love of charcuterie in general, and making homemade bacon in particular. I realize I’ve already got a post about making bacon, but:

(a) I did it early on, and I’ve learned a lot since then
(b) I wanted to take the opportunity to do a lot more detail, with more pictures
(c) It’s my damn blog, and I’ll do another one if I want to

So… starting from scratch… first thing you need to do is find yourself a good supplier for the meat. This can be harder than it sounds. I live in a small suburb of the bustling metropolis of Tulsa, and believe it or not, I couldn’t find a single supplier for fresh pork bellies within the metro area. I eventually found a great source about 25 miles up the road, or essentially halfway to Kansas.

Oh, the sacrifices we make for good bacon….

Next thing is to get your curing ingredients. This is MUCH simpler, and a helluva lot cheaper. Basic ingredients are… you might want to write this down…

(a) sugar
(b) salt

Okay… you get all that? Just in case…. Here it is again…

(a) sugar
(b) salt

That’s it. Seriously… For real… that’s all you need to cure the bacon. You can add more stuff, depending on your taste, but that’s the basics. Every time I cure a batch of bacon, I vary something. Either ingredients or process. How else am I gonna get to Shangri Bacon? (for you unenlightened lot, that’s the state of pure bacon bliss… experienced only rarely by those of stalwart stomach, and an intense dedication to all things porky).

For this round, the cure consisted of the following:

(a) 3 pounds kosher salt
(b) 24 ounces white sugar
(c) 6 ounces sodium nitrate
(d) 4 tablespoons hickory smoked salt
(e) 4 cups maple syrup

That’s all. The dry ingredients are enough to cure almost 50 pounds of bacon. In this case, I'm curing 2 whole bellies, each around 12 pounds, so I'll use roughly half of the dry cure shown above. So either use the amounts shown and save the excess for next time (and trust me… there WILL be a next time), or quarter or halve the amounts shown if you’re just going to do the one or two bellies.

But before we proceed, a word about the ingredients. The kosher salt and sugar you can get literally anywhere. The sodium nitrate and dextrose are a lot harder to find locally, so I use a website called Butcher & Packer ( As one might surmise, it’s a website full of butcher, packer, and meat preparation and preservation products. It’s also where I get my natural casings for sausage, but that’s another blog entry.

The pink salt is optional, but the first time I made bacon, I didn’t use it, and was a little disappointed with the final product. When it cooked, it looked like cooked pork. Kinda brown. Not like bacon… which still has that reddish-pink hue to it.

That’s when I realized the difference the nitrate makes. And if you’re worried about the whole ‘nitrates causes cancer’ thing, stop it…. Recent tests have proven that there is absolutely no danger or increased chance of cancer in meats with nitrates. In fact, on a per gram basis, lots of vegetables have more natural nitrates than cured meat. Leave it in, or take it out, it really doesn’t affect the taste one bit. It's more of a cosmetic issue.

Either way, it’s your call, but I kinda like my bacon to look like bacon when I eat it.

The hickory smoked salt is something new this time around. I like a good smoky flavor to bacon, and it’s always a trick getting the smoke treatment just right. Smoker temps tend to get too high, or the wood doesn’t want to smoke enough, or my ADD gets me distracted by the closest shiny object…

Where was I?

Oh yeah… the salt. This is something I’ve started using in the kitchen in cases where I’m too lazy to hit the grill. And it’s not a bad substitute. So, using my knowledge about how the curing process works, I’m betting on the salt molecules to carry the smoke particles into the meat a bit farther than the actual smoking process will, thereby giving me a deeper, if not extra and distinct layer of smoky flavor.

We’ll know in about a week, won’t we?

As for the syrup… if you like maple flavored bacon… use it. If you don’t… don’t. Your call. Personally, I like it.

Oh… and let’s not forget the most important ingredient of all… two whole fresh pork bellies. Otherwise known as slices of porky lovin’…

This is a whole pork belly, skin off, about 12 pounds.

A lovely landscape of porcine pleasure.

The guy I get mine from usually sells whole bellies that weigh in around 12-13 pounds each. The ones I get have the skin removed. I like it that way. I like pork skin, but I don’t like the work involved in getting it off the bellies. Your preference… but without the skin is a darn sight easier. I always get 2 bellies.

Go big or go home, right?

Some things to think about before you just jump into this. Make sure you have a large pan/tray/something to dredge the bellies in. I use a large plasticware thing that was intended for large party trays or something. Whatever it was in a former life, it’s now my bacon curing pan. Also, whatever you use, you might want to make sure it’ll fit in the fridge. Preferably on the bottom shelf, or whichever one has a fair amount of vertical space.

Second, a large cutting board and large, sharp knife are a must. Clear a good workspace on your counter… you’ll be glad you did. And get some 2 gallon zip top freezer bags.

Okay… on to the fun…

Make the cure using the above dry ingredients. DON’T add the syrup, unless you really like being coated in a sticky, unmanageable mess. Trust me on this one. I did that once, and threw the whole mess out and started over again from scratch. (no, not the meat, silly… just the cure). The syrup goes on last, by itself.

Get the cutting board and secure it to the counter. I use a large, clean dish towel under mine.

Lay out one of the bellies on the cutting board and trim one end more or less square. This helps in the final cutting. Measure the size of your 2 gallon ziptop bag, and cut the belly more or less in half, so that each piece fits in a ziptop bag. Make whatever adjustments you need, but you want each bag to have 1 large piece of belly in it. Trim the other half of the belly to square also. Set these aside, and repeat the process with the second belly.

By now you have a pile o’ pork bellies, 4 in all, and a nice little pile of trimmings, which we’ll come back to later.

The 2 pork bellies, halved and squared.

Lots of lean on these bellies. Can't wait till they're smoked.

Get out your large pan to apply the cure. In a worst case scenario, you can use one of those large rectangular foil pans from the grocery store. I don’t like to, simply because I’d rather wash than waste. Also, get your 4 ziptop bags opened and spread out. Keep em close, because you’re gonna need em in a few minutes, and your hands will be covered with salt.

Put about 1 cup of your mixed up cure in the bottom of the pan, and spread it around. Don’t get too hung up on it being perfectly even. In a couple of days, you’ll understand why I tell you neatness and precision have no place in making bacon.

Toss in one of the half-bellies, fat side down. Spread another cup of the cure on top of the belly, and press it fairly firmly with your hand. This will also press the cure into the bottom side. Using your hand, spread the cure on all four sides too. Again, this isn’t critical, but you should at least make an effort. Hold the belly up by one end, and very lightly shake off the excess cure back into the pan.

A half belly in the curing pan, lightly coated with the cure.

Here's a good shot at how the belly should be covered with the cure. A heavy coating isn't necessary.

Transfer the belly to the ziptop bag. This sounds easier than it is if you don’t know ‘The Trick’.

G’head… ask me… you know you want to…

Okay… here’s ‘The Trick’… fold the belly in half, with both ends in your hand. Using your other hand, spread the ziptop bag open and slide the folded part in first. About halfway in, let one end of the belly go, and nudge the corners of the meat into the corners of the bag. If you measured properly in the beginning, it should be a nice comfortable fit without the belly sticking out of the bag. Don’t seal the bag, just set it aside for now.

Here's a belly in the bag, waiting for the syrup treatment.

Repeat this process with the other 3 bellies. I usually use just about 1 cup of cure on each half belly. I can’t stress enough that you’re not trying to entomb the meat in a salty sarcophagus… you’re just trying to get a generous amount of salt on the meat so that the salt molecules can adequately penetrate the meat and carry out the process of curing.

When this stage is done, you should have 4 ziptop bags, each with a decently salted half-belly inside.

Now is when you whip out the maple syrup. Also, if you want to take on a peppered bacon, or similar, you can spread the ground pepper across the top (meaty side) of the belly, and press it in by pressing on the outside of the bag. Less mess that way, don’t ya know?

I usually use 1 cup of good old imitation maple syrup to one half belly. I’ve tried the hoidy toidy Pure Vermont Certified Organic Holistic Extra Premium All Natural Maple Syrup before, and it isn’t any better than the good old run of the mill imitation pancake syrup.

Griffin's... it's what I grew up on.

One cup of imitation maple goodness.

Pull the bag open, and pour the cup o’ syrup onto the belly. Try to get as much air out of the bag as you can and close it. Don’t worry about achieving a total deep space vacuum. Close enough is good enough. With your hand, just gently spread the syrup around the top of the belly. Trust me… this is good enough. Repeat this on the other bags… and guess what? YOU’RE DONE!

See how quickly the syrup starts to spread around. No need to make a big deal of it.

Here's the 4 bags of bellies off to the fridge. Note the bag tops are folded up to help prevent leaks.

Just wrap up the leftover cure in an airtight bag or container for next time.

At this point the bellies will cure in the fridge for anywhere from 4-7 days. I overhaul mine once in the morning, and once in the evening. This means I literally turn the bag over, and then put it back in the fridge. This makes sure things don’t settle in the bag. The amount of curing time strictly depends on how salty you want your bacon. Since this bacon isn’t like your great grandpappy’s bacon, and will stay in a refrigerated or frozen state until it’s cooked, you don’t need to keep it in salt for 6 months. I’ll add a couple more tips in a few paragraphs.

Here’s some of the things that most of the blogs I researched didn’t mention…

During the curing process, as the salt and water in the belly trade places, the ziptop bag will literally be full of salty, syrupy cure water. This is a good thing. If this happens, it means things are working as they should. But this also means that any pains and efforts you took to get exactly 3/32 of an inch salt covering on all 6 sides of the meat, and a perfectly even distribution of maple syrup in the bag was pretty much a waste of time. As I said before, don’t sweat it. Let nature and chemistry do the work.

Here’s another little tip. Bags leak. Always. Even the expensive ones. So, when it comes time to put the bags of porky heaven in the fridge for the better part of a week, use a leakproof container (now you see why I mentioned making sure your cure pan would fit in the fridge).

I typically cure for 5 days. Then I do something that none of the blogs I researched mentioned. I ‘de-cure’ for 24 hours. Before I started doing this, the bacon was good, but damn it was salty. After talking with some older people who grew up curing meat the old fashioned way, I realized that the old country folks would boil or soak the salted meat overnight to draw out the excess salt, since it was really only there for the curing purpose. So that got me to thinking about a ‘de-cure’ step. I tried it, and it made ALL the difference. The salty flavor is still there, but it accentuates the meat, it doesn’t dominate it. So, on the day 6, I get 4 new 2 gallon ziptop bags. I remove each belly from it’s bag, quickly rinse it off, and put it in the new bag. Next I add about 2 cups of fresh water and seal the bag, removing as much air as possible. Repeat for all 4 bags, then back in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

On day 7, I take the bellies out of the bag, and arrange on racks in the refrigerator to give the surface of the meat a chance to dry out. This is a crucial step. This allows a pellicle to form on the meat. In simple terms, the pellicle is formed when the water soluble proteins and sugars on the surface of the meat are allowed to air dry. A good pellicle formation is dull and slightly sticky to the touch. Contrary to what you might think, the meat won’t be ‘dry’ to the touch. It just won’t be wet. If you can’t manage to adequately dry the bellies in the fridge, you can resort to drying them on the counter with a fan. But make darn sure the temperatures don’t get too high. Even with all the salt in the meat, bacterial contamination is an ever present danger. If your meat doesn't form a good pellicle, the smoke won't have anything to stick to, and your bacon won't taste nearly as good, nor will the color be nearly as uniform.

On day 8, fire up your smoker. At this point, use whatever wood/sawdust/etc you’re partial to. Applewood is awesome on bacon, just as hickory is. There are several places on the web where you can get sawdusts from different woods for this type of smoking. At this point, I’m going to assume you know your way around a smoker. If you don’t… learn. You’ll be glad you did. Smoke your bellies anywhere from 4-8 hours, depending on the smoke volume, desired flavor, etc.

There’s no rules here. You just go with what you like. The only real rule here is this: Don’t let the smoker get above 100 degrees and stay there. Actually, 90 degrees is pretty much as hot as you want it to get. You’re doing a cold smoke here. This means imparting the preserving qualities and flavor of smoke without actually cooking the meat in the process.

Once this batch gets smoked, I’ll post a follow-on entry to this one. Some things to think about having around for this step are (a) a good meat slicer, and I don’t mean a sharp knife; (b) a vacuum sealer. One of these is worth its weight in gold… trust me.

So… now you know all you need to know about the curing portion of making your own homemade bacon. It’s not magical, metaphysical, or really even difficult.

Tonight’s effort at curing took me about 75 minutes, including cleanup. I usually pay about $2.75 a pound for pork bellies, and have less than $5 worth of curing ingredients for 25 pounds of bacon. That’s about 20 cents per pound for the cure, bringing the total per pound to right at $3. And I know EXACTLY what’s in my bacon.

The trimmings; The small pile of fat gets saved for sausage... the pile of lean can be used for stirfry, or just fried in a pan for a snack, and the wrapped piece is going to get soft frozen, then sliced for fresh fried side meat. So... total meat waste.... zero.

Sure you can get some bacon at the store for less than that per pound, but if you’ve ever seen how commercial bacon is made, then you know why it’s that cheap. You also know it’s not worth the trouble it takes to cook it.

Plus, it’s way cool to be a Bacon Snob and turn your nose up at those store bought packets of porky paste.

More to come………………..

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rethinking some things...

I know.... you're telling me "don't think too hard, you might hurt something".... and usually you'd be right.

But this is a good rethinking...

I'm currently reading "
The Soul Of A Chef" by Michael Ruhlman, and must admit, it's a fascinating book. I'm only about halfway through it so far, but there's a section where Brian Polcyn is working through one of his CMC tests (that's 10 days of non-stop cooking), and Brian is explaining to his assistant how he intends to reuse ingredients through each course, doing it in such a way that you don't really realize he's doing it.

For whatever reason, that's been on my mind a lot the last few days. I'm guilty of overcooking, as I'm sure most of us are. I just can't seem to scale it down. I make Gumbo, I make enough to feed the Louisiana National Guard. I make Chicken Noodle Soup, I make enough to feed every dearhearted Grandma in town... I just don't know how to scale back.

Point in case... this weekend I made French Onion Soup (see earlier post). I ate a really good sized bowl, and put the rest in the fridge for later consumption.

Tonight, the menu was Ribeyes and baked spuds, with a side salad. I'm not a fan at all of bottled steak sauces, however I do realize that a well done sauce can make a meal 100% better. Usually, I try to whip up some reduced stock (chicken and beef to make a mock veal), add some chopped mushrooms and call it a sauce. But tonight... I got surprised. Mainly because I used all my ready at hand beef stock to make the blasted soup. So here I was with Ribeyes seasoned up and nothing to dress 'em up with.

Not to be deterred, I started nosing around the fridge, looking for something I could use... and lo and behold... I spy with my little eye the container of onion soup. For about 1/2 a second, my mind mentally ran down the list of ingredients in the soup and made a crash (I actually heard it) determination that this could work... Unlike the Bill Cosby 'Chocolate Cake For Breakfast" bit, these ingredients would actually work for me...

So... I blended up about a cup and a half of the soup and slid it into a warm saute pan to come up to temp.

While the steaks were cooking, I added about 1/3 cup of cream and a 1/2 tsp of butter to the sauce and whisked it in. About this time, the steaks were pulled and set under foil to rest for a few minutes.

Then I jacked up the heat under the sauce to medium/high and quickly thickened it up, stopping when it was actually thicker than I really wanted.

I had a plan.

Fear me....

Dropping the burner to low low, I tended to the plating of the steaks, spuds and salads. As the steaks came off the platter, I had about 1/4 cup of luscious, savory steak juice just sitting there...

Enter My Plan...

I drained all that liquid steak love into my sauce, and whisked it in to incorporate. The consistency thinned out just right, to a near nappe consistency. Drained the pan into a gravy bowl, and headed for the table.

How was it? (you notice I almost always ask this? I'm nothing if not consistent...)


The onion flavor accentuated the steak so well. And the sweetness from the caramelized onions offered up such an interesting counterpoint to the savory of the steak that it's kind of hard to describe. Just know that it was probably one of the best steak sauces I've ever had, let alone made. The addition of the cream gave it just the right amount of creaminess (duh) and richness to go along with the already richly marbled ribeye.

Truth be told, it made for a mighty rich sauce... almost too rich for this cut of beef... but I bet it would be downright poetic on a filet mignon, where you don't really have any fat in the meat to begin with.

So what's the point? Just that every now and then, something happens to make you pause and rethink, or maybe just pause and think. To take a different direction to get to the same endpoint. Whatever you want to call it, I liked this sauce enough that I felt like sharing...

And as Martha says.... "That's a good thing..."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Another notch in the belt...

I made myself a New Year's resolution (well, actually, I made several, but this is the only one I seem to be having any luck with...) to learn how to cook at least one new dish a month this year. And not just any dish, but one that I really like and have, for whatever reason, been reluctant to try on my own.

So far this year, I've knocked out the following:

  • Chile Verde
  • Chile Roja
  • Tonnato Sauce
  • Italian Sausage (well, sausages in general)

That's about 1 a month, so I'm more or less on track.

For May I tackled French Onion Soup.

Last week my bud and I had lunch at someplace that makes you think of Apples and Bees, but I'm not naming names or nothin'... I wasn't just really hungry, so I opted for a half Caeser Salad and French Onion Soup.

The salad was... well, unmemorable.

The soup was... well, passable. The stock was pretty nice, but a little too salty. But that got me to thinking that this was one of those dishes on my hit list... So when Saturday rolled around, and I had a little time on my hands, I jumped in with both barrels.

Basic recipe was:

  • 3 pounds sliced onions
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • Bread slices
  • Cheese of choice, just not Cheddar or something like that. I used a shredded mix of Parm and Moz.
There might have been a couple other ingredients, but they were inconsequential.

Sliced the onions... jeez, it looked like a TON of onions. Big saucepan on medium heat to melt the butter. I added a shot of extra virgin olive oil, just to temper the butter a bit.

Toss in the onions and garlic. Add a pinch of salt, but no more than that. If you use canned stock, they have enough salt.

Sweat/reduce the onions for a WHILE.... how long? A long time. Keep in mind, the brown-ness of the onions is what gives this soup it's characteristic color and sweetness. As long as you don't burn 'em, the slow caramelization of the onions is what gives you the sweetness. This is like smokin' meat... low and slow does the trick.

I actually split the stock into 1/2 cups, and deglazed the pan about 3 times before adding the rest of the stock and wine for the final push.

Simmer the stock about 30 minutes or so, and when it looks right, fire up the broiler.

Ladle soup into an ovenproof bowl, and top with a slice of bread of your choice. I had some buttermilk bread handy, so that's what I used. I would've liked some dark rye, but that might've been too rich. Top with cheese, and slide under the broiler.
I hate cleanup, so I placed a piece of foil on a baking sheet, and put the soup bowl on that.

When cheese is melted and bubbly, remove from the broiler. When it cools off a mite, serve it up.

How was this first run?
Pretty damn good.
As it turned out, I started this while I was cooking dinner (Fried Chicken and trimmings, thank you very much), and the entire process ran almost three hours long.
Again, low and slow on the onions. So, by the time the soup was done, it was essentially a dessert course for me. Which was fine... it was sweet enough to actually be a dessert course.
The soup was smooth, oniony, sweet and savory. The onions literally dissolved on the palate. The bread was just right as a topping, and the melted Parm/Moz was smooth, creamy and slightly nutty. The dish was slightly rich, and very satisfying.

After this attempt, I can make this version with my eyes closed now. Which means if there's anyone out there reading this who might still be where I was last night... get off yer duff and get cooking... because if I can do it, you bet your aspic you can too..........

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Long weekend, but oh so worth it...

Recently, I finally got around to taking a stab at homemade sausage. What took so long was the fact that none of the meat markets in my immediate vicinity sell fatback or even pork fat over the counter, or even to the weird dude that walks up to the counter and asks for it.

So... I had to wait until I was ready for another round of bacon (which is worth a post all it's own... the best I've done to date BY FAR). As it happens, the fellow I buy my pork bellies from had no problem selling pork fat. In fact, he had no problem giving it away. So along with 25 pounds of pork belly, I came home with 10 pounds of nice, clean, lily white pork fat to do with as I pleased.

And what pleased me was sausage. So I cubed up the fat, weighed it into 1.5 pound packages, and vacuum sealed it and chucked it into the freezer. Some of it got left out and went into Italian Sausage and Chicken, Basil and Tomato Sausage (both recipes from Charcuterie, and I HIGHLY recommend both). Only problem was the piece of crap sausage stuffer attachment for my KA mixer. I should've known that for $7.95 it would be a piece of crap, but I was banking on that KA reputation.

Won't make that mistake again.

To cut to the chase on THAT exercise, it was a disaster. I managed to get about 9 pounds of sausage made (5 ital and 4 chicken), but it took me HOURS to get it into the casings. And it was incredibly frustrating. So if you're thinking about getting one of those KA sausage stuffer attachments for your KA meat grinder... stop... just stop... turn away...

So now I had to get a new tool to stuff with. (If you grinned when you read that, you're a perve...).... so I did some looking. Found the really nice 5# model at Northern Industrial, but it was backordered over 30 days, and I'm not a patient sort. So I looked and found a really nice one on Amazon
. Cost a sight more than $7.95. but it also stuffed like a dream.

So, yesterday morning I started in... had two 6+ pound pork butts all ready for some lovin' attention by means of cuttin' and cubin'.

I decided to make a couple of variations, so I started with Boudain, using a recipe from Emeril Lagasse. I figured odds were it'd be at least edible, right? So I got the pork and veggies to simmerin on the stove, where they had to do their thing for a least a couple of hours.
Then I moved on to Bratwurst, ala Ruhlman.

Mix.... grind... stuff....

Once that was done, I slid in a little Shrimp Sausage. I found this recipe on the web, and while it called for 1/4 pound of salmon, I opted to just use shrimp and cod (1 pound, 1/4 pound, respectively) to keep it a light texture and color. I sorta winged it with the recipe, and threw in some lemon zest, dill, and a touch of cayenne. I also threw in a handful of the pork fat, just to toughen the meat up a little bit, since the fish flesh was very soft. I also thought the fat would help with the binding.
Grind it all up....
Fried up a little piece to test...
And stuffed....
Finally came the Boudain... not much to show... ground it all up, added cooked rice and some extra seasonings, and stuffed as well.
Here's the day's haul...

That's 6 pounds of Bratwurst (the pink stuff), 9 pounds of Boudain (upper left), and about 2 pounds of Shrimp (upper right).

Oh... and a sore back from standing at the counter for about 5 hours... but it was all worth it... trust me.
I'd thought about putting in all the details and tricks, etc... but heck... I didn't do anything that's not in Ruhlman's book... so why rehash what you probably already know.
This is the second batch of sausage under my belt, and I'm starting to really enjoy it... so look forward to more posts in the future.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What Was I THINKING.....?

Ever have one of those culinary moments where you're deep into a dish and suddenly start to question your sanity?


Too bad... sometimes the most delicious of results come from the wildest ideas. Take tonight for example. A friend and I have started a software business, and as you can imagine, time is suddenly a scarce commodity (as the number of blog entries will attest to...).

So tonight, after leaving work an hour late... dropping by the pharmacy to pick up some prescriptions... dropping by the bank to add some much needed funds (aren't they all?), and finally getting one of the kids from grandma's house, I arrived home just in time to cook dinner.

yee hah

I looked in the fridge, and lo and behold, I had 3 choices: Hamburgers... Hamburger Steaks... and Spaghetti. I floated the plethora of options past mamma (the final arbiter in these cases), and the vote went for the spaghetti.

I can make a really killer spaghetti sauce, time permitting, but I can also make a pretty fair one on the fly with just a little time... which is what I did tonight.

You're asking yourself "What's so daring, risky and downright maniacal about pusghetty?" aren't you....? Well, the answer is nothing... so keep reading.

Not really in the mood for the red stuff myself, I did a fast pantry raid (heh heh... you had to read that one twice, didn't you?) and came up with a can of tuna and a bold... no, a daring idea.
I'd long since known about the venerable tonnato sauce in Italian cooking, and started formulating my plan. I quickly found a couple of cookbooks with tonnato sauce recipes, and quickly discarded both, simply because the 'traditional' preparation was to puree the hell out of the tuna and supporting ingredients in a food processer until the texture resembled something you'd find in a toddler's diaper.

Sorry... I don't do tuna mayo....

So I decided to start with a sort of mock alfredo and incorporate the tuna into it. I figured that was pretty safe and sane place to start. It wasn't until I'd realized I was using a fish, an acid and a dairy all together that I started getting the shakes and questioning my sanity.

How'd it work? Well, in the words of the immortal Barry White: "Baby.... OOHHH Baby..."

It was spectacular. The tuna flavor was there, but the citrus backed off the fishy flavor. The garlic and pepper flakes provided a zesty undertone, and the cream made for a smooth, silky platform.

Who'da thunk it? Certainly not me... I mean, I'm not a chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I've been cooking long enough to sorta know what goes and what doesn't... and this wasn't one I'd have pictured working out to be edible, much less darn good.

So, here's the lowdown:
  • 1 12 oz can tuna packed in water
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3/4 - 1 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan or romano
  • Pasta of choice
Drain tuna, reserve water.
Heat medium sized skillet or saucepan, add olive oil and garlic. GENTLY saute garlic for 1-2 minutes.
Add tuna water, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Mix well with oil and garlic.
Slowly add cream, blending well.
Reduce heat to medium and begin reduction process.
When reduced by approx 1/3, add tuna to pan and mix gently. Break apart the tuna to desired consistency.
When reduced by approx 1/2, add cheese and mix.
When cheese is well mixed, and sauce has desired consistency, spoon generously over pasta and serve.

I didn't garnish it with anything, because, honestly, this was a throw together meal, just to provide some fuel. Next time I think I'll try a little dill garnish, but I'm not sure how that'll play out against the richness of the cream. Sounds good though.

Sorry, but the digital camera is on the fritz (if your name is Fritz, my apologies, but you oughta be used to it by now), so I don't have any pictures. Texture wise, it was about the same consistency as a good white clam sauce.

So, as the old saying goes: even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then......


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Looping back...

... to an earlier post. This isn't about food... directly. But a good sharp knife is essential to a good sharp cook.

A few weeks ago, my son and I attended a knife making class hosted by Tom McGinnis, owner of
Ozark Knife Makers just outside Springfield, Missouri.

Tom and crew are world class craftsmen who put on one heckuva two day class. The class itself is oriented to the novice who thinks knifemaking is some mystical art. As the following post will reveal, even a computer geek like me can do it... with a little help from someone who knows the ropes.

The following photos were taken when my son and I attended a knife making workshop at the
Ozark Knifemakers Shop in Ozark, Missouri, March 21 and 22.During this class, the students were all given a typical drop point knife pattern, made of Damascus Steel. If you've never seen a Damascus Steel blade, you're in for a treat.

These first few were taken with my cell phone, which explains the odd size and lower resolution. Apologies for some of the photos... the camera was having some issues focusing close up, and I had better things to do (like make my own knife) to really take the time to do good photos. I tried to get these more or less in order, but there's no guarantees....

Here's my son and Tom working on his knife.

Here's my son adjusting the blade blank in the knife vise. This knife vise is a very handy gadget made by one of Tom's crew and available for sale.

Here Ethan is doing some initial sanding on the rough blade.

Here's the blade after being shaped and rough polished.

Here's Tim McGinnis providing some help and oversight to Ethan as he works on the scrollwork on the spine of his knife. For this class, we used a scroll pattern called a 'thorn and vine'.

Here's some shots of the thorn and vine filework.

Here's a better shot with the digital camera, although the lens was a little fogged over. It was about 45 degrees outside, and we'd left the camera in the truck.

Here's my blade. I screwed up my filework... can you tell?
I actually did my 'thorns' bassackwards, but the final result still looks pretty awesome, for a first timer.

Still more detail. You can clearly see the 'vine' and the 'thorns'

Here's Ethan's blade with the bolsters dry fitted. The bolsters are pre-made to make the class flow a little easier.

Here's the cleaned and shaped blade, stamped with Ethan's initials, and the polished bolsters. The bolsters undergo a lot more shaping and polishing before we're finished. At this point, we're pretty much finished with day one.

The instructors then heat treat the blades in a furnace to 1550 degrees F, and oil quench to harden. Then, they drop the blade temperature to below freezing in a deep freeze.

Once the temp is cold enough, they get a bath in liquid nitrogen for about an hour. This drops the steel temp to about -300 degrees F.

Next, the blades are removed from the nitrogen and allowed to 'warm up' in a freezer, then warm up again to room temp.

Last, the blades go in an oven for a trip back up to 350 degrees for an hour or so, to temper the steel. Last step is to acid etch the blades. This is the step that really brings out the grain pattern that Damascus steel is so famous for.
Since this is all potentially dangerous stuff, the instructors do this after class on the first day. With the exception of the liquid nitrogen, all of this can be done in your own shop with nothing more high tech than an acetylene torch setup.

Tom takes care to point out that once the steel reaches 1550 degrees, the carbon molecules realign to form carbide, which is non-magnetic. So, if you don't have a furnace or kiln, just keep a magnet close to hand when you're raising the temperature of the blade. Once it's non-magnetic, you're there.

Day two starts with oohing and aahing over our freshly etched Damascus blades. The bolsters are given a preliminary shaping.

In the picture below, Ethan's knife has had the scales rough cut on a bandsaw and the mosaic pins installed (you'll see those in a few pictures too). The holes were drilled through the scales on a drill press, and the scales set with a 5 minute epoxy compound, with a black coloring added. The scale materials we selected were African Water Buffalo Horn, purchased from Jantz Supply before class, hence the black epoxy. One guy in class used ivory scales, so his epoxy was tinted white. Not only does the epoxy hide any imperfections or misalignments, but it forms an incredibly strong bond between the scale and the tang.

Here is John Fulks (one of the instructors) and Ethan mixing the tinted epoxy to secure Ethan's scales to the blade. That super awesome blade just in front of John is the one I made. John pretty much took us under his wing and made sure we had a great weekend, and a couple of beautiful knives to take home. I can't say enough good about John or the rest of the instructors.

Here, John is checking Ethan's blade to make sure the epoxy has properly cured and is ready for shaping.

Using a pair of vise grips to pressurize the epoxy during the curing process. Everything still gets shaped and polished, so no worry about scratches from the vise grips.

A closer, if not blurrier picture of the curing blade. You can make out the two mosaic pins in the handle.

Here's Ethan's blade all ready for the sharpening. At this point, everything is done except the sharpening of the blade edge. Note the details of the mosaic pins. This is a design called a 'Dogwood Blossom', due to it resembling the five petaled flower of the Dogwood Tree.
The masking tape around the blade was to keep it from being scratched by the sandpaper used in shaping the handle and bolsters.

Here's some detail on the pins. Not as much as I'd like though. I used the flash, and it overexposed. However you can see the undercut on the bolster, and the corresponding angle on the handle material. It doesn't really do anything to add strength to the knife or handle, but it really adds a degree of aesthetic that's hard to beat.
It makes the knife look tremendously more complex to build, when in fact, there really wasn't a lot more effort involved in the undercut than there would have been a straight butt joint. Cool, huh?

The other side of Ethan's blade.

Here is Ethan's blade, along with the one I made (on bottom). Due to the fact that I'm such a wonderful person, Tom let me make one a little different from the rest of the class. Note that my blade isn't the true 'drop point' design, and it's about an inch longer.

Here's a good shot of the mosaic pin. The pins were handmade in class as well.

And here's a great shot of the Damascus grain in the steel. This particular bar of steel had around 200 layers of steel. Damascus is made by layering multiple types of steel, with different carbon, nickel, etc. percentages. The sandwich of steels is heated, hammered flat and folded.

This process is repeated as many times as the forger wants to achieve the desired result. If the forger starts with 10 layers of steel, once it's heated and folded, he then has a bar with 20 layers. On the next fold, this is doubled, for 40 layers. The next folding gets 80 layers, and so on. Obviously, the more layers in a bar, the more work the forger put into process, and the more expensive, and potentially intricate the blade will be.

Here's some finished touches of my blade. I'd take some of Ethan's but I can't get it away from him.....

And lastly, a profound word of thanks and appreciation to Tom McGinnis and his instructors, John Fulks, Tim McGinnis and Mike McGinnis.

These gentlemen are not only craftsmen and artisans, but 'good people' in every sense. They took every effort and went well beyond the 'extra mile' to make sure every student walked away with a knife that they could be proud of and consider a family heirloom.

If you have the slightest interest in learning the steps that go into making a really fine high quality knife, and you're in the region, I highly recommend giving
Tom a shout. I won't quote rates or anything like that, since it's Tom's company, not mine.

But he made us the guarantee that if you weren't satisfied with your knife, you could leave it on the workbench when you left and he'd refund your money.

He has yet to issue any refunds.............

So... what's all this got to do with food?

Well, nothin' really... and everything.

Besides the fact that it was a darn cool weekend that I felt like sharing, I learned a heckuva lot about knives, caring for them, and how to sharpen them myself, which does relate to food. If you don't believe me, try carving up a cured pork belly with a dull knife.

However... Jantz Supply has a lot of kitchen cutlery blades in their catalog... all they need is finishing off by someone who knows what they're doing....

Chef's Knife on Foodista