New Tastes & Techniques: Heirloom Tomato Sandwich

This is the first post in a series that highlights new tastes and techniques, which will feature delicious things that are new to me and I think are of value to other home cooks to consider. Of course, you may already know about such things. If that is the case, please share your twist on these favorite recent discoveries!

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Peak summer heirloom tomatoes from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market

Melissa Clark inspired me to think about the best way to approach a tomato sandwich last year, and it was one of the best things I had last year that was new to me. Tomatoes that grow in the north are very special. The quality and availability of summer produce started to peak in Minnesota a few weeks ago. This means heirloom tomatoes are in season and are abundant. During a recent trip to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, at least a half dozen farmers offered heirloom tomatoes. I remember a few years ago when arriving early and knowing who had what was necessary to get the best tomatoes. Or any heirloom tomatoes. We bought a pile from four producers who we known for at least a few years. One tomato was ready for a sandwich the day we purchased it and the rest were ready within three or four days. The sandwich pictured below used a tomato from Mhonpaj’s Garden.

As my cooking evolves, simplicity has become increasingly important. It is very easy, and flavorful, to hide behind a robust ancho and paprika based rub but it is more satisfying to complement and intensify the flavors of featured ingredients instead of competing with them.

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This version of the sandwich allows the main ingredients to shine and involves acidity (the perfect tomato that is enhanced with layers of salt), which dances with something tangy (pickled red onions or ramps), and is supported by flavorful fats (a thin layer of Dynasty Thai Hot Chili Mayonnaise and great olive oil, ). These flavors combine and overtake two slices of Levain bread from Patisserie 46. The bread is spongy, absorbent, and has a crust that stands up to the messy goodness while the interior yields to the crushed tomato, oil and mayo, and acid from the pickled ramps or red onions.

The tomato sandwich is so simple it doesn’t really need a recipe.  However, here are two versions that are worthy of consideration:

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  1. If you are lucky enough to have pickled ramps: spread a thin layer of thai mayonnaise on the bottom layer of the bread, stack layers of very ripe heirloom tomatoes while sprinkling with a little salt and drizzling with the most fabulous olive oil you have. Crush the tomatoes with the back of a spoon as you go to release some juices. When the stack is high enough that you can barely get your mouth around it, top with pickled ramps. Slice in two and enjoy the messy goodness.
  2. If you are not lucky enough to have pickled ramps, follow the above instructions until you have a piece of bread with stacked tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Rub some crushed garlic into the top piece of bread and cover the tomatoes with pickled onions. This one inspired enough tomato lust that I didn’t think to take a picture until the sandwich was long gone.

What to do with the rest of the tomatoes? Try gazpacho (chop everything by hand for the best flavor and use a little sherry vinegar) and go for the simplest version of sliced tomatoes with a little salt, great olive oil and a few leaves of basil that is complemented with a small piece of grilled meat.

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Tomato Sandwich Adapted from Melissa Clark

 

 

Hearts & Kidneys: Completion of the Duck Whole Animal series…. and the Beginning of the Lamb Series

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The duck fat has been rendered (see this great, simple recipe) and the leftover confit sits in the back of the refrigerator protected by the fat in which it was cooked. This contributes to an easy weekend salad of duck confit, spinach, and whatever vegetables are on hand. All that remains are the hearts and kidneys.

The next whole animal series will be with lamb, so this post will wrap up the duck and start the lamb.

A goal for this project is to cook with the whole animal, and all that is left of the ducks are the hearts and kidneys. It has taken me a while to get here, and my procrastination has allowed me to have some great conversations about their use. I was also in Montreal earlier this year and had a brilliant braised lamb heart that was stuffed with sausage at Joe Beef. So this is no longer theoretical.

It was time to put the plan into action. To start, I put the duck and lamb hearts and kidneys together in a marinade, and finished with simple braise and then a quick sear in a hot cast iron pan. The marinade was simple – olive oil, salt, fresh thyme and a small amount of wine.IMG_1838.JPG

The result? Borderline edible but definitely not delicious. Chalky. My neighbor ate most of what was prepared but I stopped after a few bites. By far the least delicious thing on the table that night. A fail.

What did I learn?

  1. Organs are tricky, and sausage alone won’t get me where I need to be
  2. The marinade plus the braise broke down the meat beyond what was intended, which resulted in overcooking. The acid in the marinade likely compounded the problem. Next time I will probably try just a marinade plus a quick sear.
  3. Procrastination has an effect. Offal must be very fresh to have a chance at creating something that exceeds mediocrity.
  4. My neighbor must have been raised in an exceptionally polite family

Pairings: High proof bourbon to mask the flavor and texture. If that doesn’t work, shots of bitters, Washington Isle style like they do at Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Pub.

 

Duck Liver Mousse – Whole Animal Series

IMG_2022.JPGThe concept of whole animal cooking is intriguing and satisfying but it does take me out of my comfort zone. One of the few things I don’t naturally enjoy is organ parts, so using them when cooking is a stretch for me. But the whole point of this adventure is to figure it out, not waste food, and create great flavors.

I started with the easiest parts and will go from there. Foie gras is one of the few organs that I have enjoyed, so as part of the duck whole animal series I made a mousse. Even four ducks from Bar 5 Meats did not give me enough liver to take an honest try, so I supplemented with organic chicken livers.

If you are going to bother to make a mousse, you should also make a gelle to seal the deal and find a presentable container. The Wedge Coop has a number of nice glass containers near their produce department. Both are an easy step and add some serious class to the endeavor.

I often adapt recipes or am inspired by them. In this case, a knowledgeable butcher recommended a recipe from the Meat Hook Meat Book which I followed verbatim. I also found a gelle recipe online. 

The result was silky with a layered flavor. Definitely a good start to adventures in organs.

Mousse – From the Meat Hook Meat Book

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2014/08/twenty-minute-chicken-liver-mousse-from-the-m.html

Gelee (I only used the gellee portion of this recipe, and substituted Cynar for Riesling to offset the silkiness of the duck with a bit of bitter flavor)

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/chicken-liver-mousse-with-riesling-thyme-gelee-368955

 

 

 

Stock – Whole Animal Series (I wish that I had duck feet)

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During a great conversation with Lenny Russo a few years ago, when he was hosting Lidia Bastianich, we chatted about some of his tips for home cooks. He really urged making stocks and cooking simply with the great flavors of the Midwest. He loves duck stock, and emphasized finding duck feet for the base of the stock due to their level of collagen with a few carcasses for the best flavor. This conversation stuck with me, and if you get to know a duck producer you may be able to get your hands on some really nice duck feet. Having home made stock in the freezer makes me feel more connected to my cooking, and I was thrilled when my young daughter developed a stock habit. Initially it may feel a little weird to have a freezer full of bones, and may take a little explaining to guests searching for a bottle of vodka, but this is absolutely part of the adventure.

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Recently I had a stock day where my freezer was emptied of mushroom parts, chicken, duck and lamb carcasses. I decided to also make beef stock and Jonny Hunter of Lowry Hill Meats kindly sold me a beef leg cut to order. Butcher shops that purchase whole animals are worth seeking out because of the flexibility in what they can cut for you on the spot.

My basic stock recipe is to roast bones for ~30 minutes at 400 degrees and then bring a healthy amount of aromatics to a simmer with the bones. Heavier meats like beef and lamb could use a bit of tomato paste in the roasting process to bring out flavor. Aromatics could include onions (with skin), celery, leeks & fennel – especially with birds, some carrots but not too many to keep stocked balanced, a few whole black pepper cloves, a few bay leaves, parsley and/or thyme. Sometimes I will add some chicken wings and lamb necks to the stock, and sometimes I just use the bones.

Since this is the whole animal series, this round of stock started with whole duck carcasses from Bar 5 Meats. I have found that poultry stock needs 4-6 hours, lamb stock needs 6-8 hours and beef stock could go 10+ hours. If you really get serious you could use a large pressure cooker. Strain it through cheese cloth and a strainer and allow it to cool – you may use an iced water bath if you like – prior to freezing for future use. I tend to store my stock three ways in the freezer: ice cube tray sized portions,  pint sized portions, and heavily reduced portions that I can spoon out and add water to for a quick pan sauce.

My favorite non-meat stock is mushroom stock, and I save stems, clippings from interesting mushrooms that don’t quite make the cut as meal worthy, and dried mushrooms. 30 minutes in the pressure cooker with aromatics does the job. I like leeks, a little garlic, some white onion, and thyme as my aromatics but you can really use a wide variety. Just maintain a balance, and don’t use too much of something with a strong flavor.

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Homemade stock in the freezer is the secret weapon of a home cook, especially in the North where we rely on soups, stews, sauces, and braises for much of the year. Our two year old daughter is also a big fan, and “soup” was her favorite food group this past winter.

 

 

Duck Two Ways – Whole Animal Series

IMG_1266_edited.jpgThis is the first installment of a whole animal series. In this case, I purchased a few ducks from Bar Five Meats, which is about an hour southwest of the Twin Cities in Sibley County, MN and is a sixth generation operation. They do their own butchering and smoking, stress 24 hour pasture access, and everything I have had from them has been of the highest quality. They sell at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market year round, along with a few other markets.

As I seek a greater connection to where my food comes from and have tried some excellent dishes prepared with lesser used parts, it only seems natural to learn how to cook with every edible part of the animal. Future posts will cover stock, rendered duck fat, and organs. After wrapping up the duck series I will move on to lamb.

Earlier this year I learned how to properly break down a chicken. When I cooked a whole chicken it was often “under a brick” or smoked and pulled, which required less break down. Previously it was just one of those things I struggled through when I had to do it without knowing to “follow the knife” and find joints, which a fellow cooking class participant kindly taught me. Of course, he then taunted me with a video from local temple of fried chicken Revival that featured a trained assassin breaking down a bird in less than 30 seconds. Watching it still humbles me. 

Ducks are a little more of a project to break down than a chicken as their bone structure is thicker and the flesh is much tighter than on a chicken so “following the knife” is not quite enough to get the job done. After thinking about this it was clear that birds that fly are built differently than those that don’t.

IMG_1262_edited.jpgConfit was a new technique to me and was really easy, and just required a day or two of inactive time with salt, parsley, shallots, and thyme rubbed into the skin, and then covered and kept in the fridge. I then covered the legs, thighs and wings in rendered duck fat. (Lowry Hill Meats is a great resource to purchase rendered duck fat if you don’t have it on hand.) The rendered fat was warmed until liquid, and then the parts were added after rinsing. Then into the oven at 225 for about three hours. I now have some of the leftover confit in the back of my fridge protected by the fat that was used in the process for future use.

The breasts did not require much active time either. Score the skin side of the breast and cover in salt and pepper. The easist way is to cook on the stovetop, starting with a cold pan at medium to medium high heat, with caution not to overcook and a quick flip near the end of cooking (not more than 130 or 140 degrees internal temperature for rare to medium rare). I have also gone the sous vide route and cooked them to 110 degrees with some duck fat and thyme and then finished in a skillet that started cold. The fat then rendered over medium heat until a nice crisp ensued, and I gave the other side of the breast a quick sear and finishing around 130 degrees. In this case sous vide seemed like overkill given how well the stovetop breasts turned out. 

The breast and confit were served on a bed of risotto with a garnish of a sage leaf fried in duck fat remaining in the pan. Depending on the season I will throw in a nasturtium leaf from the garden. More on the risotto, a favorite recent find, and herb garden in future posts.

At the end of the day, the result was a very elaborate meal that did not require a lot of active time. 

 

Winter Root Vegetables from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market

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Winters are long in Minnesota. To thrive here, it is important to embrace winter. For me, this means cross country skiing, playing with our daughter in the snow, and walks around Lake Harriet with a stew in the oven that will be ready when we arrive home. It also means limited fresh vegetables. The easy answer to limited vegetables is to buy from other climates. Leafy greens like chard and spinach are a fixture at coops and our winter table.

It is also still possible to find good local root vegetables in the winter, and a fixture at the winter market in St. Paul is Schwartz Family Farm. The owners of the farm have figured out how to preserve their harvest throughout the winter by keeping it in soil. While we’re seeing signs of winter departing, this year’s root vegetables are still months ahead of us. They also brave the weather on Saturday mornings to provide access to their pristine produce in the dead of winter.  On Saturday mornings at the St Paul Farmer’s Market, you will find a variety of food treasure, including amazing sheep milk cheese from Love Tree, fresh root vegetables from Schwartz, and a variety of meat and eggs from Bar 5.

Schwarz Family Farm.jpgBy limiting focus to what Schwartz has available, I have learned to love turnips this winter. Baked in thick slices, pan fried in cubes or smoked in planks or half moons. Piccolo,  a champion of seasonal cooking, often has smoked turnips on their menu in the winter, which has been a great inspiration. Schwartz also has beets, carrots, potatoes and rutabaga throughout the winter.

IMG_1836.JPGGo simple, and roast some beets, carrots, and turnips covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe some Aleppo pepper at 425 until soft with a slightly charred exterior. This might take a half hour, depending on thickness. You could cube and serve at this point, or mix with a cooked grain and a light dressing (apple cider or champagne vinegar would work well here). Throw in a handful of fresh herbs if you have them. Wheat berries are very inexpensive and add a nice crunch to the experience. For a real treat, smoke half of the vegetables and roast the other half.

What will you be doing with the last of your winter vegetables?