Merguez Sausage

February 24, 2008

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I decided to start my sausage-making attempts with merguez sausage because, not only does it incorporate some of my favorite flavors – spicy and lamby with North-African influences, but you can’t find it around where I live.  It didn’t hurt that I could cheat on grinding the meat as my local butcher, Danny Rohrer, carries ground lamb.  The way I saw it, I was going to attempt to make and stuff the sausage, and learning one step at a time was enough.  

With preground meat, the sausage-making was a snap.  I tossed the spices into my KitchenAid, mixed in the lamb, and incorporated the red wine and water until the mixture had achieved what is called its “primary bind.”  All this means is that the spices and meat have come together in a sticky ball.   I tried to work quickly to keep the meat well-chilled, apparently a key point in sausage-making.  Charcuterie warns often that letting the meat get warm will affect the final texture of the sausage, and recommends chilling between steps of the process.  

So warned, I put the bowl of sausage in the freezer to get cold again and pulled out the sheep intestines, “natural casings”, I had received in the mail earlier in the week.  And this is where things began to get a bit dicey.  You can at this point merely portion your sausage and use it loose in recipes or in patty form, freezing what you will not use in the next day or so.  Or you can attempt to wrangle it into a sheep intestine to form links.  Upon my first whiff of the casings, I will admit to having doubts about the whole process. 

But the book said to soak the casings and so after separating out 3 strands from the salty lump of intertwined casings, I put them in water and walked away for a half hour or so.  Which vastly improved my state of mind.  I came back ready to rinse and rerinse the casings, determined that I could do this.  The smell having dissipated rendered the casings much less scary, kind of slippery and wiggly and amazingly strong for something so thin.  It wasn’t until I started to rinse the insides of the casings that they began to knot up on themselves, which made the process an exercise in patience.  Finally (and more quickly than it seemed, I’m sure), the casings were ready.

I hooked up my KitchenAid food grinder attachment with the sausage stuffer, slid one of the casings up over the tip, and promptly had to call for help.  R. obliging left his accounting homework behind and came to the rescue.  Between the two of us, we wrestled the sausage into the casing, though it was not an easy job.  We have some ideas for the next round (freezing the meat in indivdual balls or tubes that would fit into the feeder tube?), but if anyone has any suggestions on how to sucessfully tame a KitchenAid sausage stuffer, they would be much appreciated.

To celebrate the sausage wrangling, we took the last of the unstuffed sausage and fried it up with potatoes into an impromptu hash.  The spicy red-pepper flavors of the lamb merguez mingling with the crisp potatoes.  Along with eggs sunny-side up, yolks golden and still runny, we sat down to breakfast for dinner, always a comforting reward at the end of a hard job…

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Merguez Sausage

     adapted from Charcuterie, makes quite a bit of sausage

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced 
  • 3/4 cup roasted red pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon spanish paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced

combine all above ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on.  add

  • 3 pounds ground lamb

mix until incorporated and add

  • 1/8 cup dry red wine, chilled
  • 1/8 cup ice water

mix on medium ~ 1 minute until mixture has a uniform and sticky appearance.  place bowl in refrigerator to chill.  portion lamb sausage.  stuff into casings if you dare.  double wrap any sausage you are not going to use within 3 days in cling film and freeze.

Guiness Cakelettes

February 21, 2008

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This was a project with many inspirations.  I had been thinking about doing one of the chocolate cakes from Nigella Lawson’s Feast for a while now.  I mean, how can you not love a cookbook that has an entire chunk in the middle devoted to chocolate cakes of various descriptions?  It’s always the section I ended up in when I flipped through the book.  I’ve been keeping up with Kate’s adventures in Ireland over at Accidental Hedonist and pining to be over in Ireland again myself, happily ensconced at a tiny pub with a creamy Guiness in front of me.  Plus it was someone’s birthday at work and I had volunteered to make a cake.  I felt like a chocolate Guiness cake was meant to be.

Apparently not.  Let me get this out in the open right from the start – my first attempt at this cake was a complete failure.  Dashing around trying to bake (and even more intimidatingly, ice) a cake before work was a bad place to start.  I was trying to get the cake in the oven so it could cool in time to ice it, and, in the rush, added two and a half tablespoons of baking soda, rather than two and a half teaspoons.   Trying to mix the flour and baking soda into the rest of the ingredients, the whole thing started foaming, which I assumed was just the Guiness at work.  As the batter threatened to come up out of the pan I was mixing in, I began to worry that I was overmixing and would toughen the cake.  I decided to go with a pancake batter theory that any lumps of flour would take care of themselves and dumped the whole thing into the springform pan I had so carefully greased and shoved it in the oven. 

Twenty minutes later, I smelled the peculiar odor of burning Guiness as the cake crept up and over the edge of the cake pan and began to burn to the sides of the pan.  “Nevermind that,” I said to myself, “I’ll just turn it out of the pan when it’s done and it will be fine.”  When the cake had finally set in the middle, I pulled it out and put it outside on the back porch (in the twenty-degree weather) to cool quickly.  Despite the burned-on cake on the outsides of the pan, the springform came off perfectly and I set to making my icing.  It was only as I was icing the cake that I filched a crumb from the bottom, thinking to myself – “That tastes a bit odd, maybe it’s the Guiness” – before realizing my mistake with the baking soda.  I cursed my inability to read and follow recipes as I finished the icing, then stepped back.  It did look good and maybe it wouldn’t taste so bad after all, I justified.  I had promised to bring in a cake and there was no time (or sugar in the house) to start again. 

So I took it in, warning the lucky birthday recipient after he blew out the candles that I was unable to vouch for the cake’s edibility.  The cake was cut as my coworkers gathered around in a tight huddle to taste what was truly an awful cake.  The baking soda made it taste like brushing your teeth with Arm and Hammer, while little lumps of flour, far from having taken care of themselves, floated like little starch bombs throughout.  One of the girls asked me what kind of nuts I had used, still trying to be polite.  “Nuts?” I replied, before realizing she had mistaken the flour lumps for nuts, giving me the benefit of the doubt.  Once it had been determined that the cake was to be headed for the trash (though some of the icing was eaten off the top first), everyone shared stories of their own worst kitchen mishaps, which of course made me feel much better.  What else are friends for?

Nonetheless, I felt the Guiness cake had to be redeemed, so two days and a trip to the grocery store later, I started the whole process over again.  I refined the process to eliminate flour lumps, excess baking soda, and sour cream (which I had forgotten to buy at the store, but thankful again for my store of powdered buttermilk, a cook’s best friend, simply substituted to no ill effect).  I couldn’t face up to the whole cake again so soon, so I decided to take the cupcake route.  And give myself plenty of time. 

This time the results were solid.  The cupcakes had a deep chocolate taste, moist texture, and no faux nut flour bombs. The Guiness was subtle, more of an extra hint of bitter that really complimented the chocolate, than a flavor of its own. The cream cheese icing, which includes heavy cream to, ironically, make it lighter, was creamy and not too sweet.  Not quite the same as sitting over a pint in a proper Irish pub, but satisfying still.  

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Guiness Cakelettes

     adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast, makes 24ish cupcakes

preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  set out cupcake pans with liners/bake cups.

  • 1 cup Guiness
  • 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

place the guiness and butter in a large saucepan; place over medium heat until butter is melted.  remove from heat.

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

whisk together in a large mixing bowl.

  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 2 cups sugar

add to mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate.  add the guiness butter and incorporate.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

sift into the mixing bowl, stirring to prevent lumps from forming.  mix until throughly combined.  pour into cake pan and bake 20-25 minutes.  Check the centers of cupcakes with a toothpick.  When toothpick comes out clean, remove from oven and place on a rack to cool completely before frosting.

  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar

place into the bowl  of a food processor and pulse to remove any clumps. 

  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

cut the cream cheese into large chunks.  toss into the food processor and blend, slowly adding heavy cream and checking consistency.  frost cupcakes. 

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I adore shopping at asian groceries because of the element of suprise, those moments of “what is this?” and “how could I use up this?”.  I always end up with something I haven’t had the chance to cook with before.  Usually I end these trips at home curled up with Asian Ingredients by Bruce Cost, which provides clear explanations, pictures, and recipes of many things I can’t even begin to pronounce.  Wheeling my cart around the produce section, I came across kumquats.  Charmed by the idea of tiny citrus and having no idea what to do with them, I took them home with me. 

This time though I thought of Chez Panisse Fruits, a cookbook I always flip through with good intentions, happily browsing the stylized relief prints and reading the essays before giving up because I live 300 miles from the nearest Meyer lemon.  I rushed home with my kumquats, sure that Alice Waters would approve and I would finally cook something from this beautiful cookbook! 

I was right – Alice had some great ideas for me, from a spring onion kumquat relish to candied kumquat slices.  Apparently, kumquats are the only citrus in that the skin is sweet and the flesh is tart, which sounded perfect for marmalade to me.  The thin skins also mean you don’t have to go through the blanching step that other citrus marmalades require.

Thankfully, I hadn’t bought all that many kumquats, so I didn’t have to feel bad about not actually canning anything, just making a jar to keep in the fridge.  The recipe only calls for two ingredients: kumquats and sugar, though I added some lemon juice for brightness, and couldn’t be any easier.  The results were stunning, a sweet-tart marmalade with an unusual flavor…

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Kumquat Marmalade

     adapted from Chez Panisse Fruits, makes a couple of cups

  • 1/2 pound kumquats
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

cut off the stem end of the fruit, then split each lengthwise.  slice each half into 1/8-inch moons, removing and discarding the seeds as you slice.  place the kumquats into a small saucepan and just cover with water.  add sugar and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, skimming off any foam that comes to the top.  reduce heat and continue simmering until the marmalade thickens to the consistency you like.  add the lemon juice and stir. let cool, then put in a pretty jar and refrigerate.

The marmalade came out so well that I decided I needed something to eat it on and with a quickness.  For me, that means biscuits, probably my favorite quickbread.  I used to be intimidated by biscuit-making and, trust me, I had made my share of hockey pucks to prove why.  Two things have revolutionized biscuits for me: powdered buttermilk and a really good recipe.  I stand by them both and I now make darn good biscuits to prove it.  Ones that are pretty enough for a photo shoot, if they last that long…

I discovered the powdered buttermilk when I was packing foods up for my dad to take on a long hiking trip and I haven’t looked back since.  I occasionally buy buttermilk for projects like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, but it never seemed like I had any around when I needed it for baked goods.  If I did buy it for biscuits, I would use half a cup and then the rest would slowly, despite my best intentions, go bad in the fridge.  Now I can whip up a batch of buttermilk biscuits without running to the store.  Completely worth it, I promise.  Go buy some, toss it in the back of your fridge, and you will be amazed how often it comes in handy. 

The recipe comes from The New Best Recipe from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, a cookbook I turn to regularly for baking, and produces the best biscuits I have ever made.  Using the food processor, it takes me six minutes flat to get these biscuits in the oven and another ten to bake, which makes them possible for everyday, rather than just special occasions or Sundays.

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Buttermilk Biscuits

     adapted from The New Best Recipe, makes 8 biscuits

adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. line an ungreased baking sheet with a piece of parchment (optional).

  • 1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) plain cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

place into the bowl of a food processor, blitz ten seconds to mix dry ingredients.

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

sprinkle the butter cubes evenly over the dry ingredients.  process in twelve 1-second pulses. add

  • 3/4 cup water

process until dough gathers into moist clumps, about eight 1-second pulses.  transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gather it into a loose ball, being careful not to overmix.  cut the ball into quarters, then split each quarter into eighths.  with floured hands, shape a rough ball of each piece and place on the baking sheet, about a half-inch to an inch apart.  bake for ten minutes, check and put in for a minute or two more if needed to achieve golden biscuit perfection.

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I was reading Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home yesterday – in bed, I might add.  At five pounds of large-format hardcover, this is not the perfect book to cuddle up with.  I had put down this book for too long though, and glimpsing it on the shelf, I grabbed it on the way upstairs.

I like this cookbook for the back-and-forth bantering exchange between two such amazing chefs.  First, Julia will say “Well, when making such-and such, I like to…”, then on the opposite page, Jacques will say “Julia likes to do it this way, but I prefer…” and come up with a completely different method.  It reminds me that there is always more than one way to do something and do it well. 

My scrambled egg technique (from Jacques) is flawless.  They were, in fact, the first thing I ever cooked for my boyfriend (intimidatingly at the time, a professional cook).

This go around, the book threatening to suffocate me if I fell asleep and the snow falling outside, I was looking for recipes to use some of the beautiful savory bacon I had cured.  Flipping through, I came across a recipe for potato salad that included bacon and had the added advantage of tossing the hot potatoes with cider vinegar, a technique I’d never considered. 

So this morning when I woke up, I wasn’t too suprised that I had a serious jones for some potato salad, even if it wasn’t picnic weather.   It’s one of the first things I can ever remember making, probably in first grade, with some precooked potatoes and illustrated recipe cards.  I might have added too much vinegar then, because ever since, I have been a fan of tart potato salad.  This one completely fits the bill.

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Classic American Potato Salad

     adapted from Julia Child in Jacques and Julia Cooking At Home, serves 2 or 3

  • 1 pound Yukon Gold, or other waxy variety, potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt

peel potatoes and slice into 1/2 inch chunks.  put in a saucepan and just cover with water.  add salt.  bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 6 to 7 minutes.  check potatoes to make sure they are tender and cooked through.  drain and toss with

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

let sit 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, to absorb the vinegar.

  • 1/3 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 slices bacon, crisped and chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons cornichons (or dill pickles), finely chopped
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped, including some of the greens

combine and toss gently with potatoes. 

  • 1/3 cup mayonaise
  • 1-2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

fold into potato mixture, tasting and correcting for balance.  refrigerate at least an hour to chill and retaste for seasoning and acidity.

Avocado on the Half-Shell

February 13, 2008

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 I’m not sure if this qualifies as a recipe, more a technique really, but it is my new favorite.  And it is beyond simple.  The only real requirement is an avocado in its perfect state, which isn’t hard to find right now.  I had almost given up on avocados through the fall; the ones we were finding were stringy and spotted.  But then I spotted some on sale last week and bought one.  It was everything an avocado should be: creamy and smooth, rich and still somehow green tasting – in a word, perfect.

 Since that find, I have eaten at least six avocados I can account for.  A couple in guacamole, true, but most eaten out of hand with a spoon, a drizzle of fresh lime juice, and a sprinkling of kosher salt.  I find them most pleasing when the flesh has been scored with a knife, allowing me to scoop a couple of chunks out at a time. 

 I have no problem polishing off a whole avocado by myself this way, but if you are feeling aesetic, or merely want to extend the joy to another session of standing in front of the kitchen sink, savoring each spoonful, you can wrap the half with the seed still in it tightly in plastic wrap, and it will keep for a short bit. 

 Eaten this way, an avocado is a secret pleasure, one that creates no dishes or mess.  Unsullied by competing flavors, one can comtemplate an avocado at its peak, spoonful by each perfect spoonful.  Consider it a love letter to oneself.

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 Last week, I found another cracker recipe on 101 Cookbooks and decided to take it as a sign. I love crackers and should probably buy some stock in the producers of Triscuits as many as I go through. And I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that making a batch of my own crackers wouldn’t be too hard – no yeast or rising required, but cracker recipes are relatively few and far between. When Heidi first published a recipe for crackers made with polenta, I was, of course, without polenta in the house. By the time I bought some, the cracker project had been forgotten. So last week’s post on semolina crackers was a nice reminder of that original mission and I happened to have some semolina sitting aimlessly in my pantry.

 The cracker dough couldn’t have been easier – all-purpose flour, semolina, salt, extra-virgin olive oil and water – mixed together, portioned out and let to rest. Glossy and pliable, the dough was easy to roll out; I used my pasta roller, which I adore and love any excuse to use, to thin the dough evenly. Using smaller balls of dough than Heidi reccommended, I was able to roll them thinner for a more crisp snap and then finished them in the oven on a hot baking stone.

 One of the strengths of this recipe, as Heidi notes, is the ability to play around with flavorings. I started with plain sea salt and fresh-ground black Tellicherry peppercorns, moved on to red pepper flakes and parmesan (which didn’t stick very well), and ended with balti seasoning, a spice mix from Penzey’s that contains coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, dundicut chilies, Ceylon cinnamon, and quite a few other indian-inspired spices. The balti crackers were my favorite, delicately scented with just a hint of heat.

 After finishing the crackers, I wanted to pair a spread with the indian flavors of the balti spice without overwhelming the crackers I had just spent an hour rolling out and baking. Looking through the pantry, I decided on a classic hummus. It’s one of my go-to recipes, something I’ve been making regularly since I discovered it in college, one of my first culinary epiphanies. Concerned about my large consumption of hummus from tiny tubs in the grocery store, my friend Abby dug up a recipe for me. I can remember the awe I felt upon first making it – “This is so easy! And it tastes better! And it’s cheaper! Why didn’t anyone tell me this was this easy?” (I guess Abby did.) And I’ve been making this hummus ever since.

Hummus Bi Tahini

     thanks to Abby, makes ~ a little less than a quart, which goes pretty fast at my house

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

sprinkle the minced garlic with a pinch of kosher salt, then scrape/press it across the cutting board with the edge of a knife to form a paste, breaking down the individual bits of garlic. add to the bowl of a food processor along with

  • 2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup warm water

process on low until oil is incorporated.

  • 2 lemons
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teapoons ground cumin, optional

add the juice of one lemon, salt, pepper, and cumin if you are using it. process until smooth and creamy. taste. add more lemon juice and seasoning to taste. the tasting part is key, as is a bit of restraint with the garlic and lemon. I’ve gone overboard with both in the past in this recipe and I’ve found that tasting carefully for balance between the ingredients is key here. you can also add a bit more warm water if you are looking for a creamier, more dip-friendly texture after you have got the acidity right.

for a pretty presentation, spoon into a serving bowl, make an indentation in the center, pool extra-virgin olive oil in the indentation and sprinkle with za’atar, a middle-eastern spice blend, or a bit of cayenne.

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 Looking for a way to highlight some of the bacon I just finished making, but not feeling in the mood for anything too heavy, my thoughts turned to a southern classic – wilted spinach salad.  I always love the premise – bright green spinach, softened slightly with the heat of the warm dressing, contrasting with the snap of crisp bacon and creaminess of a perfectly hard-boiled egg. 

 I think the key is in getting the spinach to wilt and gloss over with the warm bacon grease in the dressing, rather than just coat the leaves and clump up.  Cooled bacon grease = bad mouthfeel. 

 Leafing through an old Cook’s Illustrated, I found a solution.  By tossing the aromatics in the dressing recipe into the hot pan with the drippings from the bacon and building the dressing around them, the dressing is able to retain enough heat when tossed with the cool greens to successfully wilt the spinach.  Think of each bit of onion and garlic as a tiny hot water bottle warming up the greens.

 The results were fabulous.  The bacon was crisp and perfectly salty, ensconced in greens wilted just enough for contrast. 

Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

     adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, serves 2

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • couple of grinds of black pepper
  • pinch of salt

 mix vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. set aside.

  •  4 slices thick-cut bacon

slice into 1/2 inch lardons.  fry in medium skillet over medium-high heat until crisp ~ 10 minutes.  remove bacon from skillet with slotted spoon.  pour bacon fat into a heatproof bowl. measure 2 tablespoons of the fat back into the pan. 

  • 1/4 of a medium red onion, chopped (~1/4 cup)
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced

add onion to pan & saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened ~ 3 minutes.  toss in the garlic, stir 15 seconds.  add cider vinegar mixture & remove pan from heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all the good, browned bits.  swirl and quickly toss with  

  • half a bag of baby spinach (~3 oz)

until spinach is slightly wilted.  garnish with bacon and

  • 2 hardboiled eggs, quartered or diced, if desired

 serve before the bacon grease can cool.