Turkey & Shrimp Gumbo

Sick of turkey yet? Chances are good you’ve gotten through all of your thanksgiving leftovers by now, but if you were smart, you saved that carcass. And there’s still plenty of goodness to mine from that pile of bones.

I made gumbo sometime over the summer, so already had a bunch of foundational items leftover in the freezer. But I’d say some of these are optional, but also mostly easily procured at your grocery. When summer was still on and okra prices were as a low as a dollar a pound, I blanched and froze a couple of quarts of them to eventually end up in a gumbo sometime over the winter. After stockpiling shrimp shells for the better part of a year last year, I also had an ample supply of shrimp stock made from boiling the shells from about 2 pounds of shrimp for more than half and hour. And I still had one lonely andouille link leftover from the first go-round. I even had some leftover pickled shrimp from thanksgiving that ended up in the pot.

But back to that turkey carcass. And a bag full of vegetable scraps – mostly celery, onion, parsnips, and parsley, again leftover from the many thanksgiving sides we prepared. Besides being the base for a ton of stock, you’ll also be surprised how much meat you’ll end up with when your stock is done. Brown the bones, skin, and other turkey scraps in your largest stock pot. Throw in your vegetable scraps and cover with water. I used close to 15 quarts of water that reduced by a couple of quarts by the end. Simmer – somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees – for a long time. I went about 5 hours because I still had dinner to make, but you could go for much longer. Strain it with a fine mesh strainer and strip the bones of all its meat. I ended up with nearly 2 pounds.

But, now onto the gumbo. First off, get a roux going. Equal parts fat and flour that cooks for a while and takes on glorious colors and flavors. I used about 4 tablespoons each of bacon grease and flour and cooked this very slowly for about half an hour, stirring very often. But you could and should go much longer and darker than I did. Then add your stocks and any additional spices (i.e. Old Bay, file gumbo, pimenton, cayenne) and boil for a while till it thickens, at least another 30 minutes. Make sure to whisk in all of that roux. Once it’s thickened up, start adding all of your remaining ingredients – shredded turkey, shrimp, andouille, okra, and anything else you got laying around that might be good in that pot. 5-10 minutes later when your shrimp is cooked and everything is heated through, the gumbo is ready.

Turkey & Shrimp Gumbo

  • 4 tablespoons fat (turkey, butter, bacon grease, whatever you’ve got)
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 3 qt of stock (turkey, shrimp, chicken, veg, water, whatever you’ve got)
  • 1/2# andouille
  • 2# leftover turkey
  • 1# shrimp, cut into bitesize pieces if they’re big ones
  • 1# okra, cut into bitesize pieces
  1. Make a roux. Over low to medium low heat whisk the flour into your hot fat. Stirring often, cook for at least 30 minutes until the roux darkens. The darker the better, but don’t burn it.
  2. Turn the heat up to medium high and whisk in all of the stock and boil it till it thickens. At least 30 minutes.
  3. Once your stock is to the desired thickness, turn down the heat to a simmer and throw in the remaining ingredients to cook or heat through, another 5-10 minutes.

a $2 bunch of mint yields at least 3 different applications (and then some)

While gathering ingredients for some homemade summer rolls (another story unto itself, I suppose,) I procured the most seemingly innocent bunch of fresh mint at my local market. When I got it home, I unpacked the bunch for washing and discovered this tiny looking bunch ended up being about 10 cups worth.

As I really only needed about 2-3 sprigs for the summer rolls we were making for the next few nights, that means I had the rest of the bunch to use up. My first thought was for a basic mint pesto (throw in some walnuts, a little oil, some citrus and whizz it up) but then my mind immediately went to a more obvious pairing (and one which I already had everything I needed in the pantry) – pea and mint dip. Dip chips, vegetables, a spoon. This stuff is way tasty and will go fast.

Pea & Mint Dip

makes about 2 cups

  • 10 oz. frozen peas
  • 1/2 c. packed mint leaves
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • splash or two of water
  1. microwave the peas or about 60-90 seconds till they’re just barely warm and thawed
  2. add everything in a blender (or use a hand-blender) and salt to season and blend. Add just enough water to help with blending and to get the right consistency. The resulting dip should be smooth and of hummus consistency.
The next application was probably the most satisfying in its results. Again, my mind started in one direction, then immediately went in another. When I think of fresh mint, I mostly think of it steeped in milk for 10 minutes or so and then used as a basis for ice cream. But, honestly, I didn’t feel prepared to make any ice cream, so instead, I packed up a small food processor with as many mint leaves as it would hold, then covered with sugar, and processed for 60-90 seconds. Wowee! The sugar tastes undeniably of mint and will end up infusing all sorts of true mint flavor in a number of applications, but probably a whole mess of ice cream.

Mint Sugar

  • fresh mint leaves
  • sugar
  1. pack a food processor with fresh mint, top off with sugar and process till mint is well distributed in the sugar.
From here it was another obvious leap to create another flavor infuser, namely some mint extract. Most flavoring extracts are alcohol based, so another real simple “recipe” here. Your average 2 oz. bottle of mint extract costs at least $5. I’ll end up with about 8 oz. and it’ll cost me about 50¢. Take some mint, through it in jar, cover with alcohol, and let it steep for a few weeks. Up to you whether you want to leave the mint in after the few weeks or not. I ended up emptying a bunch of old bottles of rum and vodka I had laying around. Again, this is all about getting some fresh mint flavor injected in all sorts of things. But, probably a whole mess of ice cream.

Mint Extract

  • 1/2 c. packed fresh mint leaves
  • 1 c. vodka (or any other alcohol you’ve got laying around)
  1. pack the mint leaves into a clean glass jar.
  2. cover with the alcohol and let it steep for a few weeks.
And, while mint is sure to be amply available throughout the current months (even in our backyard garden,) my pantry is well stocked with memories of that magical $2 bunch of mint. (And soon, my freezer with mint ice cream.)

Ricotta and Bacon-filled Kale Ravioli

Another year, another triumph.

My beloved and I have developed a bit of a Valentine’s Day tradition. Either on the day, but typically a weekend day shortly before, we forego the usual formalities of a hard-to-get dinner reservation (which are also often crowded and disappointing) and plan and prepare our own elaborate meal. And there is one course that appears every year – ravioli. With a few years under our belts, experience and creativity are on our sides, so the ravioli course while a constant, is also constantly changing from year to year.

ready for their bath

ready for their bath

Accompanying this year’s ravioli were a first course of La Tur – a soft, buttery mixed-milk cheese – with homemade quince paste and crusty no-knead bread. Next was a mussel and winter root vegetable soup enriched with bacon fat. Dessert was fudgy, from scratch brownies with raspberry frozen custard from our our neighborhood scoop-shop, the Dairy Godmother.

But, ok, the real reason we’re here is to talk about ravioli. For the last several years, we’ve been using various round, square, and of-course, heart-shaped cookie cutters to form our ravioli. And the results, while really good and satisfying, have been, well, maybe a little amateurish, admittedly. So, in an attempt to up the ante, we splurged for a ravioli maker to add a little legitimacy to this operation.

ravioli all in a row

ravioli all in a row

In the weeks leading up to the dinner, ideas are thrown out regarding what we’ll do this year. I wanted to try a flavored pasta, so I proposed using kale as a base. Then, as we contemplated a sauce, we naturally tended toward something smokey and porky. And then, as if it were staring us right in the face, we thought, “what if we put bacon on the inside of the ravs?” And so it was decided. And this was no ordinary bacon. This was Benton’s bacon, one of the best bacons around from Tennessee  that we smuggled back from a recent trip to New York City. Seriously, this stuff is just about the pinnacle of all bacon, but that’s another story.

The operation was pretty simple and along with our new fangled ravioli press, we also employed a food processor for the first time in our dough making. It all just came together relatively quickly. The only laborious part being the rolling of the dough. The end result was by far our finest performance. Not just uniformly shaped and filled, but the filling was simple, but fluffy and exquisitely bacon-y.

we couldn't forget a couple of heart-shaped ones

we couldn't forget a couple of heart-shaped ones

After they were filled and boiled, we sauced them with some rich tomato sauce that was leftover from the summer that reduced on the stove slowly for several hours.

ravioli and tomato sauce

ravioli and tomato sauce

Ricotta and Bacon-filled Kale ravioli

makes about 36 ravioli, about 4-6 servings

the dough

  • 2-3 c. uncooked kale
  • 9 oz. AP flour (more as needed, also keep more on hand for dusting)
  • 3 eggs
  1. Remove and discard the stems of the kale, and cook the leaves in a about 1/4 c. of water in a covered pot until they’re tender – about 20-30 minutes.
  2. Squeeze all of the liquid from the kale and let it cool. You’ll end up with about a cup.
  3. In a food processor, chop the kale and add the eggs and give it a spin for about 20 seconds.
  4. Add most of the flour and process. The dough should start to come together after a minute or so. Continue to add more flour until the dough comes together in a ball but is still the slightest bit sticky.
  5. When the dough is formed, dump it out and pat it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least an hour.

the filling

  • 16 oz. ricotta
  • 1 egg
  • 3-5 strips of cooked bacon, crumbled
  1. Put the ricotta and bacon in a bowl.
  2. Beat the egg separately and then add to ricotta.
  3. Mix to combine, then whip vigorously with your spoon for about 30 seconds till the filling fluffs a little bit.

the ravioli

  1. Cut your dough into 6 equal portions and roll out sheets in a pasta machine. They should be as thin as you can get them without tearing. Set each aside in a floured towel.
  2. Fill your ravioli. If going free-form, lay out one sheet of pasta and spoon about a teaspoon of filling equally spaced on your sheet and then lay another pasta sheet over, pressing out the air around the filling and cut out ravioli with a knife or cookie cutters, pressing on the edges of each ravioli to be sure they’re sealed. If using ravioli maker, just follow the instructions provided (like we did.)
  3. Flour the ravioli and return to the floured towels.
  4. Repeat 2. and 3. till you’ve used all of your pasta sheets and filling. You can roll out any scraps of pasta you accumulate along the way to extend your production.
  5. Cook as many ravioli as you plan on serving in gently boiling salted water for about 5 minutes till the pasta is cooked through.
  6. Freeze any leftover, uncooked ravioli.

about a year’s worth of mustard

Another in my series of simple recipes with lots of variation  – a basic spicy, grainy, beer-based mustard that is versatile in all sorts of ways. Hot dogs and sausages, corned beefs sandwiches, encrusted fish, soft pretzels, salad dressing. You name it. Play with the seasonings and alter to your tastes or the final application.

the sum of its parts - a whole lot of mustard

the sum of its parts - a whole lot of mustard

The gist of the recipe is this – put everything in a jar, let it sit for 2 days to soften the mustard seeds, then blend for several minutes to the desired consistency.

This recipe’s going to make about 3 cups of mustard, so consider making a 1/2 or 1/3 batch. But, this stuff survives the passage of time quite nicely. Keep in mind, in the first couple of days, this will be pretty intensely spicy and, well, mustardy. After a couple of days it’ll mellow out.

hibernating for a couple of days

hibernating for a couple of days

My variation for this batch were an old bottle of Bell’s HopSlam – an intense imperial IPA that comes around only once a year, smoked salt, and a few dashes of cayenne. I used about 2/3 brown mustard seeds, and 1/3 yellow. And half the vinegar was cider vinegar for some sweetness and the other half was red wine.

Spicy Mustard

  • 12 oz. beer (whatever you’ve got, dark is good but not a necessity)
  • 1 c. vinegar (red wine, white wine, cider, again, whatever, just not balsamic)
  • 1 1/2 c. mustard seeds (brown and/or yellow)
  • 1 1/4 tbsp. salt
  • up to 2 tsp. of any other seasonings (think spicy like clove, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper)
  1. place all ingredients in a quart-sized jar, cover, and leave to sit on counter for at least a couple of days to soften mustard seeds
  2. after 2 days, blend with hand bender or food processor for several minutes till you achieve the consistency you want – go smooth or leave it grainy

makes 3c. of mustard

My Fakesgiving

Thanksgiving’s always been my favorite holiday, when the foci are food, football, family, and friends. Because of some good planning, some years I get to celebrate Thanksgiving multiple times, as is the case this year. Sunday would be the first for the season – a Fakesgiving, as it were, joined by some of our best friends (and some of the best cooks we know.) I give you a story rife with challenges, but long on success.

the impressive spread (and chefs)

the impressive spread (and chefs)

Not one to shy away from cooking challenges, I took it upon myself, as one of the hosts for this year’s Fakesgiving, to my first whole turkey. No practice run. No nets. Do or die. Obviously, I would smoke it. As I am oft to do, I consulted by main smoking resources – Charcuterie and the Virtual Weber Bullet for the best approach. After some runs around town – including a short-term relationship with a cheap-o self-basting bird from the local Giant, I ended up with fresh, free range turkey from the local Whole Foods.

this 15 pounder barely fit in the smoker

this 15 pounder barely fit in the smoker

Next up was putting this bird in a salty brine. After struggling to fit this 15 pounder into a 2 ½ gallon Ziploc, there was only one remaining option for vessels large enough to hold the bird. So, it was into the cooler with 2 gallons of brine  and 8 pounds (equal to another gallon of water.) The brine was pretty much as Ruhlman prescribed, except I tuned down the salt since most of the other brine recipes I read had about ⅓ less salt than his. And so she sat in the basement, in water and ice for about 30 hours, from Friday night to Saturday night.

the long soak

the long soak

One more important lesson to learn. Trying to find charcoal when it’s not summer is a challenge. Sure, you could be 4 pound bag of lighter fluid injected briquettes for 10 bucks, but I was not going to settle. After visiting 4 or 5 different supermarkets, I ended up driving to my nearest Lowe’s where they had a near endless supply of 16 pounds of the old standby, Kingsford, for 8 dollars a bag. I got two, just in case the smoking itch arose during the dead of winter.

Sunday morning, I fired up the bullet and took it to places I never took it before. Usually, “smoking”  (or barbecue) happens around 200°-250° Fahrenheit. All recipes I looked out suggested getting your smoker up to the 325°-350° range. Sounds simple enough, but it turned out not to be. The first difference was to not put water in the water pan (water in the pan helps hold the lower temperature.) Instead I lined the empty pan with foil (which would then catch any drippings that would go into the gravy.) The rest of the next 2 or so hours was spent regulating temperature. And it wasn’t easy to keep that thing so hot. I was seemingly constantly feeding it with fresh briquettes, wood (cherry, maple, and pecan), and opening vents to get it hot enough. I actually never it got it to hold at 350°. It spent most of the time closer to 300°. I was nervous this would dry out the bird (lower temp, meaning longer cooking time) but hopefully the brine would save me. After about 2 hours, I decided to check it’s internal temperatures for the first time. And wouldn’t you know it? It was only about 10 degrees from done. In the next 30 minutes, it coasted right up to 160° in the breast, 175° in the thigh.

perfect

perfect

When I pulled it out, it was a thing of beauty. Just perfect looking. It took maybe an hour for me to give in and say, “F’ it, I’m carving this up,” using the excuse that it would heat up more easily for our guests, if I cut it up beforehand. And, you know what? I nailed it. This turkey was seasoned, cooked, and tasted just perfect. Tasty, smokey, and moist. Despite the uphill battle, in the end, it all seemed so easy and so rewarding.

The rest of the items I prepared for the meal were cider vinegar braised mustard greens with speck and prosciutto (recipe below,) smoked almonds (that had to be enriched with some smoked salt to actually get any smoke flavor in them), and smoke-roasted potatoes (that kind of just tasted like potatoes from a campfire.) Lastly, was the gravy.

The gravy started a couple days earlier when I made a makeshift stock comprised of the neck and butt of the turkey and some vegetable scraps (leeks, carrots, and parsnips) from the bag of scraps in the freezer for just this purpose. Again, with some help from Ruhlman, I started with a roux of some of the turkey fat from the stock, some butter, some onion, and 5 tablespoons of flour. Then whisked in a quart of my stock and added a handful of quartered mushrooms. When the turkey was done, I poured some of the drippings from the smoker, and the gravy was complete.

As expected, our dinner guests rounded out the rest of the meal just as boldly as I had. Our table literally could not accommodate everything we had, which meant the coffee table had to double as a buffet station for the things that wouldn’t fit. A killer Thai-influenced sweet potato soup, a from-scratch green bean casserole, buttery and cheesy mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts with grapes, sausage prune and kale stuffing, pumpkin cheesecake, pecan pie, and pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.

And because I waited too long to find a cheap plane ticket to see my family, I’ll find solace in the leftovers that crowd the fridge and will feed me for at least the next week.

In addition to all of the leftovers, I’ve also now got a large ziploc (yes, the same bags the whole bird wouldn’t fit in) full of bones and assorted scraps – the makings of what I can only imagine will be some amazing smoked turkey stock.

A couple of basic recipes, so you can try to throw some of this together for your Thanksgiving. Enjoy.

Basic Smoked Turkey

(lovingly adapted from Ruhlman’s Charcuterie)

2 gallons water
3 cups kosher salt
3 oz pink salt (curing salt with nitrite)
¾ cup sugar
5-10 garlic cloves
2-3 bay leaves
4 tbsp black peppercorns
large handful of assorted herbs (I used tarragon, thyme, and rosemary)

1 gallon (about 8#) ice
15# turkey

  1. Combine first 8 ingredients in a large pot and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Let chill overnight.
  2. Put turkey in a cooler and pour over the brine and add the ice. Let the turkey soak in the brine for 24-48 hours. (If you’ve got another large vessel and space in the refrigerator, feel free to replace the 1 gallon of ice with water and you can brine in the fridge.)
  3. Remove turkey from brine and leave uncovered in the refrigerator for 6-12 hours.
  4. Remove turkey from refrigerator and bring to room temperature.
  5. Get your smoker up to 350°
  6. Smoke / roast for 2-3 hours until internal temperature of the breast hits 160° and the thigh 175°
  7. Let rest for at least 30 minutes before carving.

Cider vinegar braised mustard greens

2-3 oz of smoked or cured pork product, diced (prosciutto, speck, bacon all work)
3-5 cloves of garlic
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 large bunch of mustard greens, chopped (substitute kale or collards)
¼ c. cider vinegar
¼ c. water

  1. In a large pot on medium low, render the pork (about 8-10 minutes)
  2. Add the garlic and red pepper and saute for about a minute
  3. Add the greens, vinegar, and water.
  4. Cover the pot and braised the greens until they tender (about 45-60 minutes)

Parsnip soup (or any cold weather vegetable, for that matter)

One of my favorite things to cook and eat is soup. In cold months, it’s hot soups made of root vegetables, in the warmer months it’s cold soups with ingredients like tomatoes or peas. A lunch of soup and crusty bread is just about one of the most satisfying meals ever. And I’ve found that the soup actually improves after a day or two in the refrigerator.

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Parsnip soup garnished with crispy red onions

Most Saturdays particularly in the fall or winter, after a morning visit to the local farmer’s market, I put a pot on for the day’s lunch. Whether it’s winter squash, sweet potato, or carrot, this basic recipe suits them all and is rife with possibilities for variation and experimentation. Vary the main ingredient with any root vegetable or squash. Vary the herb selection. Thyme is always a good choice, but so aren’t sage and rosemary (but use either sparingly) or bay or chives or parsley. Add heartier herbs at the beginning; softer herbs at the end. The recipe below doesn’t have much in the way of spices, but you can use all sorts of spices from cayenne or paprika to ginger or cinnamon depending on what you want in the end. How about Spicy Sweet Potato with cayenne and cinnamon and coriander?

Use stock. Use water. Or, as I did here, use a combination. Lastly, consider an interesting garnish. Some crunchy contrast to the smooth, blended soup is always nice. Crackers, croutons, or crispy, sauteed vegetables like your main ingredient, or mushrooms, or shallots all provide some contrast in texture.

This time out there were some good looking parsnips at the market, so it seemed like an obvious choice, as it is one of my favorites. My not-so-secret (and completely optional) ingredient here is some serrano ham (courtesy of Cheesetique, by way of a 99¢ “serrano butt”.) You can use bacon or some other smoked pork product in its place, or just leave it out entirely.

Note there’s no cream or dairy in this recipe. That doesn’t mean it isn’t creamy. The potatoes are the key. Their starch helps thicken and smooth out the soup. But, by all means, leave them out and add some cream or milk or yogurt at the end instead.

As with all of my recipes, seasoning throughout the process with salt and pepper is implied.

'Snips and onions sautéing away

'Snips and onions sautéing away

Parsnip soup

  • 1 1/2 # parsnip, diced
  • 2 c. onion, diced
  • 1/2 # potatoes, diced
  • 4-5 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tbsp. chives, chopped
  • 3 sprigs of tarragon
  • 1/2 tbsp. butter
  • 2-3 c. chicken stock
  • 2-3 c. water
  • 2-3 tbsp. serrano ham, sliced thinly (optional)
  1. Heat a large pot over medium-low heat and add the ham, butter, and onions and cook for a couple of minutes. Then add the diced parsnips, and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft.
  2. Add the water, stock, thyme, and potatoes, and turn the heat to high to bring just to a boil. The liquid should cover all of the vegetables by about 1/4″ – 1/2″ depending on the size of your pot.
  3. Once the soup has reached a boil, turn the heat down to low or medium-low until it is barely simmering.
  4. Simmer the soup for at least an hour, maybe even two. I use a piece of parchment paper cut to the size of the pot to cover, but you can achieve the same effect by partially covering the pot to allow some evaporation, slowly.
  5. After your soup has simmmered for a while, add the chives and tarragon, and blend with a hand-blender.
The parchment lid

The parchment lid

Gnudi, the new day after Valentine’s Day tradition

Let’s say you’ve got a yearly tradition of making ravioli with your sweetheart every Valentine’s Day. And let’s say that tradition usually involves making more ravioli than any couple could eat in one night as well as even more of an excess of the filling. And, finally let’s just say that while always delicious, you’re looking for a change of pace from the baked pasta with leftover ricotta filling. Well, if all of this applies to you, I’ve got a new alternative for you. Gnudi.

Huh?, you say? In Italian, it’s a derivative of naked. In reality, it’s basically a ricotta-based gnocchi. It’s pretty simple if you’ve already got the leftovers from filling ravioli or a lasagne.

This year’s Valentine’s Day ravioli featured a filling of broccoli rabe, ricotta, eggs, and lemon zest (served with an arugula pesto, alongside a tiny wild boar roast.) The day after, I simply added a little flour to the mixture (about 1/2 c. flour to the 1 c. of filling,) let that sit for a couple of hours, then rolled out little dumplings and boiled them gently for about 6 minutes.

The result was light, fluffy, almost matzo ball-like, but tasting very much of the main ingredients of the filling. I served this with a simple tomato sauce and penne. It was so good and easy, this is likely to become a new tradition in its own right.

Broccoli Rabe and lemon Gnudi

Broccoli Rabe and lemon Gnudi

Slow Cooker Pork Belly Confit

Some people’s holiday wishes are about fancy new cars or expensive vacations or ipods or video games. Mine tend to be far simpler. They usually involve pork, and it’s usually cooked for a long time.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I opened a Hanukkah gift — a crock pot. It pretty quickly conjured up one image. Confit. Confit of something. Anything. Then I started thinking about pork belly. Pork Belly anything. And thus, the vision was complete. I turned to my seemingly most often referred to cookbook, Ruhlman’s Charcuterie, and sure enough, there’s a recipe for pork belly confit which is actually borrowed from Jim Drohman.

The prep work started Wednesday afternoon when I placed an order at my local butcher, Let’s Meat on the Ave, here in Del Ray, for a crazy amount of locally raised pork belly. Half would go in the crock pot for confit, the other half in the freezer for bacon futures.

On Thursday afternoon, I picked up the belly, threw together the simple cure (which included such sweet and spicy ingredients as clove, cinnamon, and allspice,) and put the belly and cure in the refrigerator to cure for the next day.

all the cure ingredients

all the cure ingredients

And Friday night is when I deviated from the original recipe. Drohman’s and Ruhlman’s  version has you putting this in a 250° oven with rendered pork fat. Lacking sufficient lard and wanting to put my slow cooker to the test, I put my pork pieces in the slow cooker and topped it off with olive oil. 2 hours on the high setting, 2 hours on low setting. (Or, you could do 6-8 hours on low, if you wanted to leave it unattended.) Then I let this cool overnight. And, finally Saturday night, pulled out two portions and crisped them up in a saute pan.

cured belly ready for the slow cooker

cured belly ready for the slow cooker

More than a week had passed since the first inception, and preparation and anticipation lasted 4 days. But here I was with a crisped up confitted pork belly which I served with a reduction of apple cider, cider vinegar, and the last of the New Year’s Eve champagne from the night before. And, boy, was the wait worth it. Tender, but still meaty, and not greasy in the least. The remaining pork fat that didn’t render off was soft and pillowy, and the meat itself was deliciously spicy  from the cure. Six more portions left to sit in the fat/oil in the fridge for another day. Now, I’m thinking cassoulet for at least a couple of them…

crispy pork belly at last (with glazed carrots, parsnips, and turnips)

crispy pork belly at last (with glazed carrots, parsnips, and turnips)

Slow Cooker Pork Belly Confit

(from Ruhlman’s Charcuterie book, and slightly adapted for a smaller yield and available ingredients)

  • 10 grams ground black pepper
  • 3 grams ground cinnamon
  • 1 gram ground cloves
  • 1/2 gram ground allspice
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 25 grams kosher salt
  • 3 grams pink salt (curing salt that includes sodium nitrite)
  • 3 lbs. fresh pork belly, cut into eight 6oz. portions (about 1″x2″)
  • white wine (I used a gewurztraminer I had on hand)
  • olive oil or rendered pork or duck fat
  1. Mix the first 8 ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Toss the belly pieces in the bowl with the cure.
  3. Place all of the belly pieces in an airtight container, cover with white wine. Let sit for a day, day and a half.
  4. After the pork has cured, remove the pieces and wipe off any excess cure.
  5. Place in your slow cooker and cover completely with oil or rendered fat.
  6. You can set your slow cooker to low and cook for 6-8 hours. Or run it on high for 2 hours, and then low for 2 more hours.
  7. After the all of the total cooking time, remove the pork and rendered fat or oil to cool. Place in an airtight container in the refrigerator overnight.
  8. When ready to serve, crisp each piece in a hot pan. You shouldn’t need to add an oil to the pan.
  9. The remaining pieces should keep in the oil in the refrigerator for several months.

over and over again

Perhaps this is the post you expected all along.

In the past, oh, four years or so, I’ve developed a pattern of suddenly discovering I’ve outgrown my entire wardrobe, then spending a month or two losing enough weight to get down to a healthier weight, and then spending the next 10-11 months stuffing my face until I can no longer fit in my pants again. The first time this happened was fairly extreme. I had managed to reach a weight and pant size that it took 2 months to lose about 30 pounds and 3 inches off my waist.  Subsequent years have not been so extreme, but are usually around 10-15 pounds in about a month. So, here I am in the middle of the cycle, trying to drop a few just so I don’t have to break out the fat pants.

I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on losing weight —  otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be stuck in this never-ending cycle, and I would just remain at my ideal weight — but I have developed a decent program that works for me. I’m not going to say it’ll work for you, but it should. The basic idea isn’t a new one, really. Eat less. Seriously, this is one of those tried and true methods that just works. Ok, I’ll add a little nuance to this.

You should eat less or fewer of the following:
  • calories
  • refined carbohydrates (i.e. flours and sugars and beer)
  • fat
  • meat and cheese (because they can be both high in calories and fat)

Also, not quite so obvious is that you should actually eat more often. When I was younger, I was a skinny little kid with the appetite of a prospective sumo wrestler. And yet, I continued to weigh the same throughout high school and most of college. The big difference between then and now (besides the long bike rides) is my metabolism. This is a key component to losing weight. If you’ve got a speedy metabolism, your body can whip through those calories in no time. One way to get your metabolism back up is to never be hungry. Your metabolism will eventually realize that it constantly needs to work to process all of that intake. If, on the other hand, you endure long periods of hunger, your metabolism becomes dormant, since there’s nothing for it to do. Important note though. Don’t just stuff yourself at every possibility. Rather, ration out your caloric allotment across several meals and snacks. Portion size is important here. Two other little tricks that have helped are that cayenne pepper and green tea can also help to increase your metabolism. Not sure of the science behind this, but that doesn’t keep me from putting cayenne pepper or hot sauce on just about everything.  Soups are also another great way to fill you up without a lot of calories.

So, to summarize, you should eat or drink more of the following:
  • often
  • fruits and vegetables
  • beans
  • nuts
  • soup
  • water (sometimes your hunger is really thirst)
  • cayenne pepper
  • green tea

One thing I’ve found really helpful is actually keeping a log of what you eat during the day. It really keeps you conscious of the effect that any given food can have on your weight loss goals. I use an app called Lose It which also has a web interface. They’ve got a huge and growing database of everything you could possibly imagine and allows you to enter in your own, as well as recipes that you can then portion out throughout the week without having to enter in each ingredient every single day. It also helps you determine the right number of calories you should consume to achieve your goals.

Lastly, it should go without saying that exercise is key, but since this is a food blog, and I’m no exercise guru, I’ll leave that to others.

Over the years, I’ve developed some decent recipes that abide by the above rules that I go to all of the time whether I’m trying to lose weight or not. And, actually, before I mention any of those, I’ll reveal a dirty little secret about what I have for breakfast when I’m trying to lose weight. About 10 baby carrots and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. It ain’t pretty, but damn effective, and honestly, the carrots are merely a necessary delivery mechanism for the peanut butter. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to ever start their day off this way. But it honestly satisfies me, and is often the meal I look forward to the most, since it’s just short of just using a spoon. Now, some worthwhile recipes to help you achieve those New Year’s resolutions that are bound to appear come January the first.

chickpea or White Bean salad

makes 2 servings, about 300 calories each

  • 1 15 oz. can of chick peas or white beans
  • 1/4 c. onion, diced
  • 10 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 c. radishes or bell pepper, diced
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • chopped herbs
  • salt to taste
  1. Put everything in a bowl.

pea soup

makes 4 servings, about 100 calories each

  • 1/2 c. onion, diced
  • 1 16 oz. bag of frozen peas, thawed
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • chopped mint
  • 3 c. water
  • salt to taste
  1. Put the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Put in the onions and let them soften. Takes about 5-8 minutes.
  3. Pour in the water,  add the peas, and turn the heat to high.
  4. Simmer away for about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the mint. Then blend with an immersion or regular blender.

Pretty Spicy chili

makes 6 servings, about 500 calories each

  • 1 lb. ground pork, beef, chicken, or turkey (or just omit)
  • 2 15 oz. cans of kidney, pinto, or black beans (in any combination)
  • 1 c. onion, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, diced
  • 1  sweet bell pepper, diced
  • 1-2 poblano peppers
  • 1-2 chipotle peppers, diced (optional)
  • 3 15oz. cans of diced tomatoes (Muir Glen has a lot of interesting varieties, some with green chiles, for instance)
  • 1/4 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. cayenne (to taste)
  • salt to taste
  1. Roast the poblano peppers either over gas burners or under the broiler. Once completely charred, put in a covered bowl and set aside to cool. Once cooled, peel away the charred skin and dice, discarding the seeds.
  2. In a large pot or dutch oven, brown the meat if you’re using it over medium high heat. Once browned, set the meat aside and discard most or all of the grease.
  3. Turn the heat to medium and add the onions, bell pepper, chipotles, and jalapeno to soften. After a few minutes add the spices.
  4. Add the remaining ingedients, as well as the meat and poblanos, and simmer away for 20 minutes until the mixture is fairly thick.

huevos rancheros with “Refried” Beans

“refried” beans

makes 3 servings, about 150 calories each

  • 1/4 c. onion, diced
  • 1 tsp. oil
  • 1/2 jalapeno (optional)
  • 1 15 oz. can pinto or black beans
  • 1/4 t. cayenne, pimenton (smoked paprika), or any other spicy spices (optional)
  • water
  • salt to taste
  1. In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the diced onion and jalapeno. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the spices.
  2. Drain the can of beans and add to the pan.
  3. Add water to cover the beans, and turn heat to high. Boil vigourously until the beans soften, about 5 minutes.
  4. With a potato masher or the back of a spoon, mash the beans until you get something that looks, well, like refried beans. They should have some chunks, but also be fairly smooth.
Huevos Rancheros

makes 3 servings, about 300 calories each

  • 1/2 c. onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp. oil
  • 1 jalapeno (optional)
  • 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 t. cayenne, pimenton (smoked paprika), or any other spicy spices (optional)
  • 6 eggs
  1. In a saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the sliced onion and jalapeno. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the spices.
  2. Add the can of tomatoes and simmer for 10-15 minutes until a lot of the liquid is evaporated.
  3. Transfer the sauce to a large saute pan with a cover over medium heat.
  4. Crack the eggs and add them one-by-one into the sauce. You’ll be poaching the eggs in the sauce, so just crack them onto the surface. Don’t stir them in.
  5. Cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes or until your eggs are cooked to your liking. Serve with the refried beans.

with tiny pickled green tomatoes

There will likely be no more ripe tomatoes this year. At least not any from around here. The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and it’s only a matter of time before the squirrels or other local rodents devour what remains of a patio garden past its prime.

We’ve established I love pickles. When I think of preserving, it’s the first preparation I turn to instead of just simple canning or jamming. I’ve covered what to do with the remaining herbs and peppers. The last thing are the little cherry tomatoes that didn’t make to full ripeness in time.

Tiny unripe green cherry tomatoes

Tiny unripe green cherry tomatoes

I pulled of the remaining couple of handfuls of tiny green tomatoes, mixed up a simple brine of half water, half white vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar, a tablespoon of salt, and a teaspoon of some pickling spice from the Ruhlman Charcuterie book (that I used earlier in the year to make corned beef.) And that’s it.

The tiniest pickled green tomatoes you'll ever see

The tiniest pickled green tomatoes you'll ever see