Friday, November 9, 2012

Brussels Sprouts

DuBois, PA Late Nixon Administration The benchmark, established at a Formica and chrome kitchen table in the real not Instagram early Seventies, is a bland, mushy bitterness, battered, green and soggy, throat-closing and frightening.  Common practice at 523 Burt Street DuBois, PA and at Grandma’s house the next block over on Reams Street (in retrospect, more an alley than a street but I think it has been paved since) was to cook a vegetable into complete defeat.  I can’t blame my family; it was common practice then in many households.  The mandatory splat of four or five sprouts on a Thanksgiving plate otherwise filled with happy, brown, carbohydrate-centric foods disrupted our turkey Zen, scratching the Polaroid holiday memory yet to be realized.  No matter how much gravy and bread awesomeness went into my mouth, I knew that the slow static warfare over the sprouts had begun.

Of course, I grew up and left DuBois primarily to escape vegetable persecution.  I avoided Brussels sprouts for many years.

The Occidental, Washington DC, 1986 During the peak of the al dente vegetable, the Brussels sprout was simply another veg. on the Enterementier station to blanch, shock, dry, and cut before service.  I’d trim the roots and outer leaves, drop them in boiling slated-‘till-it-tastes-like-blood water, and gamble on when to pull them out.  If not blanched long enough, the warmed but still raw cores would brown halfway through service, causing our hostilely narcissistic, compulsively abusive sous chef to throw them across the kitchen and screetchinlgy mock me.  If cooked too much, they’d dissolve into mush when they hit the butter of the finishing skillet before served on a plate of lamb chops with piped sweet potato puree and rosemary-scented jus.  This mushy mess would also end up decorating the wall over the dish station to cigarette-breath expletive-laden barrage of same Sous Chef. 

I can’t remember a day I got it correct.  The arrival of asparagus season, while presenting a separate set of issues, brought happiness to me that had nothing to do with the arrival of spring.  I received a six-month reprieve.

Berkeley, CA 1994 As I am exiting the Graduate program in the Chemistry Department, finishing my coursework and collect my consolation prize Master’s degree from the top Chemistry program in the world.  As an adjustment to my return to cooking, I picked up a cook’s job at Baywolf Restaurant in nearby Piedmont.  I liked the place, Mediterranean-California cuisine focusing on seasonal ingredients, local products, and tasty but accessible wines.  (Sound familiar Highland Ave?) It was fall, and even though everything gowns all the time in California, the East Coast rhythms of harvest and planting still showed through menus. 

Needless to say, it was Brussels sprouts time.  We served them with the duck that came off my station.  Before service, I’d sear them with a little reserved duck fat, season them with salt, pepper and fresh thyme, barely cover them with duck stock, and allow them to bake, self-glazing in the oven.  Unfortunately, while I now understand the idea, it was impossible to accomplish the goal without reducing the sprouts to mush.

Pittsburgh, 90’s After moving back to Pittsburgh, fusing with big Burrito, ferreting out a lot of awesome local farmers, and re-discovering my connections with the seasons, topography, and generally awesome mojo of this region, I undertook the project of Brussels sprout realization.  It seems to me, a fan of rapini, mustards, cauliflower, and any other Brassica that passes my way that I could grow to love the sprout.  Here are my findings:

  1. It likes the fat, preferably swine.  Duck fat and schmaltz are good, but butter doesn’t have the heartiness for it.  Olive oil is good if you want.  But why not lard?
  2. They need to be cooked thoroughly, but not to mush.  To that end, I quarter or half them as I clean them so that all members become approximately the same size.  This ensures even cooking.  The want to be well seasoned. 
  3. Brussels hate to be blanched and shocked and view it as an insult.  If you need to pre-cook them for service, better to pre-roast, or to cook them in batches and finish them ala minute with some fresh heat and seasoning. 
  4. They want a lot of flavor with them.  Salt them well.  They like a little acidity and the faint slaughterhouse porkiness of cured pig parts.  Black pepper, red pepper flakes, any dry, hot chili goes well.
  5. Don’t tell your kids that their name is Brussels sprouts.  I made this error and, if a time machine is invented in my life, I will go back and correct that moment.  “Broccoli Spheres” seems like it could work.

SPQR, San Francisco, Summer 2007 Invited to attend a 3-day potato conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, I add a day at the beginning, rent a convertible Miata, and blast around the city myself checking out restaurants.  Of course, San Francisco in the summer is freezing in a convertible, but it was worth it on the drive up the coast and across to Napa.  I stopped in at SPQR, a tapas-style Italian place.  I ordered a couple of small plates and a glass of frizzante.  The mussels and warm salad were excellent, but the fried Brussels sprouts with lemon and white anchovies floored me.  A whole new wrinkle in sprout deliciousness!  It has inspred a sixth rule of sprouts:

  1. Fry them raw.  Quarter or slice them and fry them in nice hot oil until well cooked.  When you first want to pull them out, let them fry.  They are done when there is a lot of delicious Brownness, some really crispy blackness, and a little residual greenness.  Shake off the oil, season quickly, and eat them before your friends see them.

I hope you and yours have an awesome Brussels sprout season.  Following are two simple recipes if you want to give it a shot.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

½         #          Piece of uncooked pancetta, diced small
1          ea.      Medium onion
1          Tbs.    Duck fat (you probably don’t have rendered duck fat at home so use your favorite oil)
3          #          Brussels sprouts
½         C.        White wine
Black pepper
Salt to taste (be careful)

  1. Dice ham into 1/8” dice.  Be careful and use a sharp knife as the ham has a very heavy texture in this state.  Dice onion small. 
  2. Trim hard root ends off Brussels sprouts.  If they are not small, halve or quarter.
  3. Place pancetta in a shallow pot.  Render. 
  4. When rendered, scoop out pancetta and set aside.  Add onions.  Place on medium flame and bring up to a sizzle.  Sauté/sweat onions until lightly browned. 
  5.  Add Brussels sprouts and wine.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Lightly season with pepper.
  6. Cook with occasional stirring until Brussels sprouts are tender and cider is evaporated (20 minutes to half an hour).
  7. Season with salt only at the end and only if necessary.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts, White Anchovies, Lemon Vinaigrette, Parmigianino Reggiano
2       #          Brussels sprouts
12     ea       White anchovy filets
Oil for frying
Lemon Vinaigrette (see below)
Chunk of Parmigianino Reggiano

1)    Quarter or eighth sprouts. Discard ugly outer leaves and dark stem tips.   
2)    Heat oil in a heavy skillet or home deep fryer to 350۫º.  Fry Brussels sprouts in batches until dark brown on leaf tips. 
3)    Lift out with a slotted spoon or round Chinese strainer and place on paper towels. 
4)    Season with a tiny bit of salt immediately after frying.
5)    Arrange on plate.  Drizzle with vinaigrette.  Drape with anchovies.  Shave parm atop.

Lemon Vinaigrette
Zest and juice 3 lemons
1       ea.   Shallot minced
½      C.      Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

1)    Place lemon zest and juice in a stainless steel bowl.
2)    Whisk in extra virgin olive oil.
3)    Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Year's Eve, Cops in The Kitchen

New Year’ Eve first appears in my memory as the sounds of cops in the kitchen.

I wake up on the couch, TV going and the ball already dropped.  The kitchen light is on and there are men's voices, barely muted for sleeping children and sleepy wife.  I get up and wander out to the clatter of cuffs and creak of thick belts.  Four or five policemen are standing there, my father one of them, loading plates with pork and sauerkraut from the oval aluminum crock from the oven. 

They take great bites, bits of kraut hanging in mustaches trimmed sharply above the lip.  Conversation is small, centered on discussion of the events of the night.  Smells of cigarettes, black leather, and Old Spice foul the sweet roasting softness. Bright yellow walls, color chosen to compliment Sears oak veneer cabinets and just-lighter-than-Army-green appliances, serves only to increase their presence. The color can barely get around the negative space the consume.  They all have guns, billy-clubs and saps, hanging by my face.  I wonder at them, whether they get used, and why and how. 

They eat quickly, in good humor, pile their plates in the sink.  They thank my mother, the more familiar of them hug her, and they all head back out on duty.  I can’t remember if any of them noticed me.  They have been in the house maybe five minutes.  In the stillness after they leave Mom shuts off the TV and ushers us to bed. 

Pork and sauerkraut is my tradition for the first food to be eaten in the new year.  It is eaten to bring luck in the coming year.  Both my Father’s side (Polish, Stanislaw Okinski became Stanley Fuller on Ellis Island) and Mother’s side (Maiden name Zemak,  Pennsylvania Dutch which means German) follow the tradition and until long after I left home did I believe that every person did the same thing.  Pork roast, cook long and low, with kraut and sometimes potatoes added later in the process.  In some families, sausage would be added, or even take the place of the roast.  I had no Italian friends (they lived in different neighborhoods than we), missing the delicious love of the Seven Fishes until I moved to Pittsburgh at age 27. 

My father was a police officer in DuBois when I was a child.  He invited all the local police, City as well as from outlying Sandy Township, and the few Staties with which he was friendly, to stop by our house for pork and kraut.  Police cars would fill little dead-end Burt Street, and everyone would hope for a better new year in that tiny kitchen.  We kids would have some too, a little bit before bed then full steaming plates for lunch the next day, added insurance I suppose. Seemed to work for me. 

I still keep the faith.  And, like Steeler fandom, I am devoutly indoctrinating my kids. Attached is a good approximation of my recipe (family cooking lost to us already).  Start it at 6, you’ll be sure it will be ready by midnight.   And if you are working, as I and many of my friends will be, share it with your co-workers.  They need the luck too.  
Pork and Sauerkraut
I make pork and sauerkraut every New Years Eve make sure that there is a batch in the corner of an oven at the restaurant as well as in my house.  Everyone needs the good luck it brings to eat pork and sauerkraut for the first meal in the new year.
1          ea.        5-7# piece bone-in pork butt
½         C.        Brown sugar
½         C.        Salt
½         C.        Black pepper
2-3       Tbs      Dried thyme
1          ea.        12 oz dark beer, Porter or Stout
3-4       C.        Cider
At least 2 # sauerkraut
2-3       #          All-pork sausage, hopefully Serbian Kielbassa, cut into 1” chunks.
1.     Mix sugar, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl.
2.     Place pork butt in a deep baking dish with room around.  Rub cure mix into meat on all sides. Place in baking dish with fat side up.  Let pork butt cure in refrigerator overnight.
3.     Scrape excess seasoning from pork butt.  Remove pork butt from dish.  Rinse dish.
4.     Return pork to baking dish fat side up.  Season top well with dried thyme. 
5.     Pour beer and cider around pork.  Cover and place in a 325° oven for 4-6 hours. The pork butt is ready when the bone pulls out of the meat easily.
6.     Add kraut and kielbasa.  Allow to cook for another 30 minutes.
7.     Eat at 12:01 January 1 for good luck all year.