Tag Archives: cooking

A Foray Out – A Bento Picnic

I was invited to attend a picnic this weekend and I was delighted to accept because the weather during the day has been so un-San Francisco like, warm and sunny, almost like summer!

 

The night before, however, I was beset with anxiety. How would I get there? Where could I sit? Would I be able to access the picnic area? Was there an accessible restroom nearby that I could get to? Would I be able to stay out in the sun the whole time? What could I wear to cover up? Where is my hat? What can I make to bring? Would I be a burden to the other people? Would I have a good time?

 

Oh, anxiety, you are such a demon. I supposed all this comes from feeling helpless and vulnerable during this healing period. It’s only temporary but the lack of sleep the night before and the insurmountable hurdles some of these questions posed felt quite difficult.  Happily, it all worked out beautifully.

 

Fortunately for me, in San Francisco, there are places where a disabled person can picnic and have a good time! We went to Chrissy Field and my friends picked me up in their car. Thanks to my temporary handicap placard we were able to party pretty near to the picnic area. There was a decent dirt path that led to the lawn and we found a nice spot with amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Angel Island and the curve of the city to the Bay Bridge.

 

NHK picnic

 

The purpose of this picnic was more than just friends getting together for the afternoon.  My amazing friend Biggie was being interviewed by NHK World television for a program about foreigners making bento.  She is the original bento food blogger and received much acclaim for her website Lunch In a Box.  I personally use her website frequently to find recipes because she’s an amazing cook and when I get home I wonder, how did she make that Thai curry?  Or what is in that sanbaizu sauce?

 

This is such an exciting time for her and so wonderful that the Japanese film crew flew out to watch her make bento and then observe the bento picnic and then (gulp) interview her friends about bento and Biggie.   I grew up eating Japanese food, thanks to my neighbors and living where I did, but I never made or enjoyed a homemade bento before my friendship with Biggie.  It has really expanded my world.

 

NHK picnic

As Biggie says, bento crosses all cultural lines and anything can go into a bento, and it is the best way to use leftovers!

 

With my weird food allergies, I can’t tell you how many times I have ended up in the emergency room because something I purchased for lunch was contaminated by egg.   Bringing a bento box not only is an economical way to use leftovers but makes lunch feel special.  This is a direct-from-Biggie-quote.

 

NHK picnic

For her special picnic I wanted to bring something tasty and special and happily I had enough goodies in the fridge for a special bento.  The focus of my blog and locus of my food preferences are items that are local, sustainably sourced and grown.  The harmoniousness of my bento happily reflected this mindset.

NHK picnic
(my bento is in the little metal tin at the bottom!)

 

Happily, everyone enjoyed my humble bento, especially the Japanese film crew who polished off every last bit except for a sprinkling of red onion.  I also brought a container of Costco’s smoked pulled pork doused in bacon hot sauce (my favorite sauce) and some fresh rice, which got polished off.  Cold bing cherries were the perfect finish to my contributions to the picnic.

 

The other bentos were truly fantastic and I am sorry I didn’t take pictures of them.  Because I was sitting up in a camp chair (the current gimp factor did not permit me to join the others on the picnic blankets), my angle of photography was pretty poor.

 

Biggie made her incredible Spam musubi, the best spam musubi on the planet, I might add (see her site for the recipe); little liverwurst and sweet pickle roll up sandwiches, maki style; a bento filled with rolled local sliced salamis, prosciutto and bresola; Tillamouk extra fancy white cheddar; a fancy prepared bento with fruit and vegetables and the maki sandwiches; and a bento of hot rice and mapo dofu, a spicy pork and tofu dish made extra spicy with lots of Sriracha sauce; and a huge Louisana crunch cake.  It isn’t a picnic without cake!  Friends brought a bento made especially for a child with fried fish, vegetables and fruits, a bento with fried polenta squares drizzled with pesto (amazing!), edamame and vegetables.   We washed all of this down with lots of wine, hard cider and beer, and juice boxes and chilled water and juices for the kids.

 

As one parent said, bringing bento to a picnic is a perfect thing, because it can be eaten alone or shared and it’s not like a huge bowl of food that can get tipped over or go off.

 

We hit that wonderful peaceful lull that comes to every picnic when everyone is sated, the sun feels fantastic and one gazes out over the incredible views with perfect contentment.  Like a bento, it was a perfectly encapsulated moment of enjoyment.

 

NHK picnic
(the fog, rolling in a bit)

 

The interviews were handled with great care and consideration and did not feel at all intrusive.  We really enjoyed getting to meet the crew and chat about food cultures, eating habits in California and San Francisco and how we knew Biggie.  It was such a fun day!

 

Soon the program will be aired and I am excited to see my dear friend on television – soon the world will be sharing in her wonderful food!

 

Later, at home, I reflected on how enriched my life is by knowing extraordinary people like Biggie and the parents from her child’s school, our mutual friends and new friends, and the access to scenes and food like today.  Despite being disabled at the moment, I feel like a very lucky lady.

 

NHK picnic

Sunday Cooking

Sundays are a great day to bond with your couch, and often I like to putter a bit in the kitchen in between.

Like any “normal” person, I tackled the pile of dishes in the sink that built up during the week. Somehow every coffee cup ends up in the sink instead of the dishwasher. After KP is completed I pulled out the produce that was waiting in the fridge.

I am cooking for breakfast and lunches during the week. Dinner tonight is already sorted out, minestre from Nonni’s recipe and meatloaf that I made on Friday night.

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It helps me figure out what to cook when I see what I’ve got to work with, so I heaped everything on the stove and decided I would make:

o Melitzanosalata or Greek eggplant salad
o Broiled tomatoes
o Sautéed chard
o Gratined chard stems and leeks
o Rainbow quinoa
o Lemon tarragon vinaigrette

The eggplant gets baked until very soft and a bit smoky from the browned skin, so I pricked it all over with a fork and got it settled in a hot oven on a piece of foil.

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The quinoa was next, it’s extremely easy to make, just boil water! Add a bit of salt and while you’re waiting for the water to boil, measure and rinse your quinoa. I use a cone shaped strainer that gets used for everything from straining stock, sifting flour and draining pasta.

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I set the quinoa to simmer while I prepared the tomatoes.

The tomatoes are an heirloom variety from a local organic market, so they’re especially juicy and flavorful, yet another reason to love California produce in the spring. I cut off a tiny sliver from the bottom and removed the stem end and halved them, and nestled them in a gratin pan. I sprinkled them with a sea salt blended with bell peppers and dried onions, and a grind of pepper and a pinch of harissa spice. Then I sprinkled over a little bit of bread crumbs from one slice of bread chopped in the food processor. A hearty drizzle of local, peppery olive oil and they are ready for the oven.

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The timer for the eggplant sounded so I pulled it out of the oven to cool, and popped in the pan of tomatoes.

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The eggplant is cooked when it’s sort of collapsed looking and is as wrinkled as a surfer after a long set.

I cut it in half while it was hot, and trying not to burn my fingers and with the help of a paring knife, I flipped over the eggplant and peeled off its skin. The skin comes off easily with a tug from the knife.

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The eggplant needs to have all of the liquid removed while it is still warm, so using my trusty strainer I put in the peeled eggplant and used a spatula to squish out all the liquid I could.

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The eggplant cooled off in the strainer for a while to drain a bit more while I removed the quinoa from the stove.

I let the quinoa cool for a few minutes then fluffed it with a fork. The quinoa still had a bit of texture to it, not mushy, but nutty and fluffy, and it absorbed the lightly salted water and was perfectly seasoned.

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The timer went off for the tomatoes and I pulled them from the hot oven. The tomatoes were still holding their shape but soft and bursting with juices under their crispy breadcrumb topping.

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Back to the cooled eggplant, it was a small one so I put it in my mini chop with a small clove of garlic and enough plain yogurt to help the mixture purée smoothly was added, along with the juice of a lemon. Since my lemons were minis, I used three!

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When the eggplant was perfectly smooth, I poured in some olive oil and let it purée a bit more to emulsify. A quick check for seasoning a added more lemon juice and then decided to eat it right away. All of this cooking is making me ravenous.

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Before I had my snack, I cooked the chard quickly. A quarter of a slivered onion went in the pan first with olive oil and was sautéed until soft. The rinsed and chopped chard leaves went in next with a splash of water to cook until they are tender, this takes just a few minutes.

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When the greens were cooked I put them in a bowl to cool with a bit more olive oil and crunchy sea salt. The chard is tangy from the lemon and I think they taste far better than spinach.

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I rinsed out the pan and added the halved leeks and chard stems with a little broth so they could simmer until soft.

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While they simmered, I had my little melitzanosalata and pita bread for lunch and watched the rest of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The eggplant is light and lemony with a pleasant earthiness from being roasted. It tastes fantastic at room temperature or cold. I also like to put inside sandwiches but I polished off this batch quickly. Next time I will buy a larger eggplant so I can use the melitzanosalata for other purposes.

Since the lemons were so tiny, I abandoned my plans to make a vinaigrette and saved the last one for a cocktail.

The leeks were finished cooking by the time I was done with my lunch. Using a spatula, I lifted them out of the skillet and placed them in a gratin pan, added cream and a heavy grating of Romano cheese and put them in the oven so that the cream thickens and the cheese browns. I saved the 1/2 cup of broth leftover from the braising leeks and added it to my minestre; it had great flavor and would be a shame not to use it.

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The gratin smelled divine, the leeks are sweet and meltingly tender and the chard is toothsome and coated in rich cream and the savory, salty browned cheese on top was the perfect mouthful.

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When the gratin was done I had a glass of wine before tackling the KP duties again. All this lovely food was done and cooling.

Tonight I will have half a tomato with my meatloaf and a cup of soup. For breakfasts I can have the quinoa topped with chard or with a tomato half. For lunches I can have the gratin with a the leftover meatloaf or a tomato half. They all work together in various combinations, and it’s comforting to know I don’t have to worry about going out for a meal at work and accidentally eating eggs. Plus, all of these dishes are nutritious, besides being very tasty.

It’s still early on Sunday, there’s time for a nap or some knitting or some more bonding time with my couch or perhaps all three!

Recipe:    Melitzanosalata – Greek Eggplant Salad/Dip

Gratineed Leeks and Chard Stems

 

Sharknado Pizza Party

Luna sent me a note on Facebook that said, “There’s this crazy movie coming up on the SciFi Channel called Sharknado, we have to do this.”

sharknado-poster

A bit of backstory, we had an absolutely hilarious time watching Snakes On A Plane together, screaming every single time a snake shot out of someplace unexpected, which was about every 3 minutes once the movie got started, so of course I invited Luna over to have a Sharknado party! Then more friends joined in and next thing you know my apartment is full of hungry ladies, sipping on some great wine and ready to be vastly entertained by what could be one of the best-worst scifi movies ever.

There were sharks eating people as they flew by, seemingly unfazed by the lack of water, sharks whapping people across the face and removing most of said face, and sharks eating through cars and bar stools. There was fabulously deadpan acting by Tara Reid and dialogue that was probably written by kindergartners (with apologies to the kids).

And there was pizza. Being flat broke and yet needing to be a good hostess I made up a giant bowl full of pizza dough which rose and rose and rose as we nibbled on treats from the freezer. Yes, we had foie! There was a rather sizeable foie gras mousse from a splurgy purchase in the recent past, and sparkling wine and wonderful red wine from a recent shipment I received that day and Anna brought an amazing assortment of crackers. Everyone brought various treats to top the pizza so we were set.

Making pizza

To have a successful pizza party you need lots of toppings. We had a great assortment but really the toppings can be anything you like on a pizza. You need a sauce or two, many cheeses, vegetables and lots of other savory things:

  • fresh tomato sauce canned by Anna
  • pesto sauce
  • buffalo mozzerella cheese
  • feta cheese
  • Parmesan cheese
  • ricotta cheese
  • basil
  • arugula
  • slivered asparagus
  • Sweety Drop peppers
  • crispy freeze-dried onion slices
  • assorted olives
  • Bacon Hot Sauce
  • capocollo salami

We would have had sauteed leeks and bacon but the movie was about to start and we felt like we had enough options at this point. The oven was roaring at 500 F, all the windows were open and the wine was flowing freely. I tore off an orange-sized ball of pizza dough from the massive bowl heaped with dough and helped each guest quickly form it into a round which was draped on my makeshift pizza peel – a flat-edged cookie sheet well sprinkled with cornmeal – and then they were free to top it with their choice of sauces, cheeses and tidbits.

Anastasia's pizza

(Anastasia’s pizza – pesto, olives, cappocolo, ricotta, basil, crispy onion)

The prepared pizza was slid carefully onto the super hot pizza stone and baked 10-15 minutes, then we cut it into wedges and everyone got to try a slice. Multiply this by five, we made a lot of pizza that night!

Pizza making hands

(post-pizza making hands)

Each pie was really fantastic, the crust was chewy and blistered black from the stone and crisp on the edges, the cheeses were browned and gooey and buttery and salty and the toppings made it all really interesting and unique.

First pie in the oven

(first pie baking away, despite the crappy apartment rental electric oven they bake up really nicely)

My pizza

(my pizza: tomato sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, asparagus, Sweety Drops)
Luna's pizza

(Luna’s pizza: pesto, cappocolo, mozzerella, Sweety Drops, arugula)

Anjali's pizza

(Anjali’s pizza: feta, pesto, cappocolo, asparagus, tomato sauce, Sweety Drops, crispy onion)

Near the end of the movie as we were mostly sated, a bit tipsy and reeling from laughter, the final pizza of the night was put in to bake, a dessert pizza!

Strawberry balsamic glaze ricotta basil dessert pizza #pizzaparty #Sharkado

Don’t knock a dessert pizza until you try it! Anna’s creation of roasted strawberries, the sweet, creamy ricotta, the tang of the basil and the rich, chocolate jimmies from Copenhagen made this the best pizza of the night.

The movie was over and the apartment was dusted in flour and wine corks. We quickly tidied up the kitchen and inflated the aerobed and those who stayed over fell asleep almost immediately. What a great night and what a tasty dinner! I can’t wait for the next cheesy scifi movie, Koalacane?

P.S. Sharknado II is coming in 2014!

Bursting with Bacon

Oh man, the bourbon maple is so intense.  The herb-pine syrup is heady.

Last month I had the pleasure of being invited to purchase a share of a Mangalitsa pig. The Mangalitsa is one of those wonderful heirloom breeds where the fat is not bred out of the animal like our modern day pork, in fact this breed of pig has a prodigious fat layer and is one of the most prized breed of pork in the world.

acorns

This particular pig was finished on acorns, which means for the last few weeks of its blissfully unaware life he was fed mounds and mounds of acorns. To us humans acorns are unconscionably bitter but pigs eat them up like potato chips.    Besides the no doubt gustatory delight of crunching them up in their forceful jowls it has an ancillary benefit of infusing the meat and fat with a delightful nuttiness reminiscent of hazelnuts. An acorn finished pig is a marvelous thing and I bought lots of it.

My modest meat budget was consumed by this purchase but the enormous 10 pound side of pork belly, a sizable pork loin, a tub of creamy, pure lard and a substantial pork neck was enough to pack my freezer and will provide me with porky enjoyment for quite some time.

My plan was to cure the pork belly in two ways, one with maple, bourbon and brown sugar and the other with a more traditional fresh and dried herb and spice blend.

To approximate the effect of smoked bacon, for which I completely lack the facilities to achieve, I used crushed black pepper that had been smoked over defunct bourbon barrels and a simple syrup infused from local pine trees from Mount Tamalpais.

I never really realized how easy it is to cure bacon.   The most difficult part was cutting the massive 10 pound pork belly into two pieces  because the skin is so very tough. 10 pounds of pork belly is quite large.

10# Mangalitsa pork belly I cut them in half, look at that glorious fat!

Pork belly, cut in half and trimmed

I had two ziplock bags, one for the sweet cure and one for the savory cure.  I  chucked in the ingredients into each bag and shook them around to mix.

The cure

On a clean cutting mat I arranged the pork belly, skin side down, poured over the cure mix and patted it around a bit before sliding the belly into the same bag.

The traditional cure

With both pieces of pork belly rubbed in their cure and sealed in their bags, I massaged them a bit and put them into the fridge.  See you in a week!

See you in a week!

That was not hard at all, nor was it hard to pick up the bag during the following week and give it a little massage, flip it over once in a while and just admire it.

To make the slabs even I had to do a little bit of trimming.  The skin side of these pieces had the nipples of the pig!  Well, we all know that pigs are animals and are mammals and that mammals have nipples but nonetheless it was a tiny bit of a surprise.  However, I am at the top of the food chain and have butchered my own animals for food, in my distant past, so it just made my eyebrows rise a moment then I continued on with my trimming.  I used these pieces, which weighed about a pound and a haf, into red cooked pork belly last Sunday.

The trimmings, includes the nipples!

A week later it was time to cook the cured raw bacon.

In lieu of smoking, I used the aforementioned flavorings in the cure to provide a smokey flavor and set about baking the slabs in the oven on low heat until the meat reached 150 F.   This was last Sunday during my cooking explosion and it wasn’t much work to add baking the bacon to my list of cooking projects that day.

I removed the raw bacon slabs from their curing bags and gave them a good rinse.  They certainly didn’t look like much but their aroma was fantastic.  The peppercorns discolored the skin, which I found interesting.  I used my nonstick cooling rack for cakes set inside a half-sheet jelly roll pan.

Cured and rinsed raw bacon

 

(Note the peppercorn stains on the skin, interesting!)

Cured and rinsed and ready to bake!  I poured in a good slug of bourbon into the bottom the the baking sheet before sliding it into the oven.  I was hoping this would add extra aroma to the finished bacon.

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After baking, not a lot of fat was in the bottom of the pan as you can see, and the slabs looked just as they should, very bacon-like.  I slid a meat thermometer into the sides of the slabs at various points to check the desired temperature of 150 F.

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Check out the thick layer of fat!  I could really smell the difference between the two slabs with their very different cures, but overall there was a rich nuance of nutty fat that I have never detected with ordinary bacon.  This is the delectable Mangalitsa acorn enhanced fat.  Wow.

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(these look like small pieces but my carving knife is 14″ long!)

I cut the bacon slab in half and then sliced off the skin to reveal the pearly, nutty fat. The meaty underside was particularly gorgeous too.

The same process was repeated on the other slab of bacon.  I wrapped two of the half-slabs in plastic wrap then secured them airtight in a ziplock bag for the freezer.  The other two half slabs went into the fridge for immediate use.

It was immediate too, I sliced off two slices of the herb and spice cured bacon with the pine syrup, and one slice of the bourbon maple pepper bacon and fried them up.  Just these three small slices gave off a lot of fat, which I saved for making my steak dinner later that night.

You can almost hear the sizzle.

Morning snack before brunch, Mangalitsa bacon

My own bacon, fried up and gorgeous.   The pine syrup and herbs really shone and matched well with the rich fat.  The bourbon flavor was very strong in the bourbon maple slice and it tasted too salty to me, but I have never minded a strong bourbon flavor nor salty bacon and it certainly didn’t deter me from enjoying this wonderful treat.

My recipes were inspired by a lecture I attended by Michael Ruhlman for BlogHer Food a few years ago.  When I talked to him after the lecture and mentioned my hesitation over making bacon without a smoker in my very urban apartment (aka no ventilation in the kitchen other than a window on the far end of the dining nook), he assured me that baking it off is just as wonderful as smoking and never to fear the bacon.   His book on charcuterie is fantastic and one day I will indulge myself.

Making your own bacon is much less expensive than buying it already cured and prepared, and you get to customize the flavors just the way you like it.  Even if you can’t find the luxurious Mangalitsa bacon, any fresh pork belly from your butcher or Asian market will make fantastic bacon.   It was so easy too, the hardest part of the entire process was being in my apartment as it slowly cooked in the oven. The aroma of the bacon was incredible, and if you are a restaurant in San Francisco, it can cause your neighbors to try to shut you down.

Better Bacon

5# fresh pork belly, skin on
large ziplock bag

Basic cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt (Diamond salt)
2 tsp pink curing salt or sodium nitrite (not Pink Himalayan salt)  (I got mine here)
1/4 cup sugar (brown, maple, honey, agave)

Additions – These can be anything you fancy, but here are some good basic recommendations:
4 T ground or crushed black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
5 cloves of garlic, smashed flat
5-10 sprigs of fresh thyme, or any herb you like
1/4 cup booze

My savory herb and spice cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup June Taylor pine syrup
4 T bourbon barrel smoked course ground pepper
4 dried California bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme, spanked between my palms
5 cloves of garlic – smashed flat and skins removed
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

My bourbon, maple, pepper cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 T brown sugar
4 T whole peppercorns, crushed coarsley with a mortar and pestle
1/4 cup bourbon

Mix together the bacon cure in the ziplock bag and shake or squish well to mix. Put the pork belly on a cutting board and pour over the raw pork belly, massage in and place the belly back in the bag (with any of the cure that might remain on the cutting board. Remove all the air from the bag, seal and store in the fridge for at least 7 days. Every few days massage the pork belly a bit and return to the fridge.

On the day to cook the meat (oven method), turn on the oven to 150-200 F. Put a rack on a baking sheet large enough to hold the raw bacon. Rinse the bacon well, pat try with paper towels and place on the rack.  Pour a good slosh of bourbon into the bottom of the pan.  Place in the cold oven and set the timer for 3 hours.  Add more bourbon to the baking sheet every hour or so, if desired.

Check the temperature after 3 hours to see if the meat has reached 150 F.  If not, give it another 15-20 minutes or until it reaches 150 F.   Allow to cool, trim off the skin and chill until ready to eat.

When ready to eat your bacon, slice of a thin or thick slice, add to a cold skillet with a dash of water and fry until as crispy as you like.  If your bacon tastes too salty for you, add more water and cook for a few minutes, then pour off the water and fry until crisp.

Another advantage to having slab bacon is to make your own lardon.  A lardon is a pinkie-sized rectangle of bacon that is delicious in a warm salad or in soups or just eaten out of hand.  Cut the bacon 1/2″ thick then again into large even matchsticks, add water, and then drain and fry on all sides.  Delectable.

Makes 5 pounds of bacon
(printer friendly recipe)

A note about the pink curing salt, or sodium nitrite.  It is a naturally occurring salt found in many vegetables and is also used for curing meats and is approved by the FDA.  The salt inhibits the growth of certain nasty bacteria such as botulism and listeria and it is highly recommended when making charcuterie and bacon.  But because bacon is cooked again after its curing and baking, aka in your skillet, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.  You will find that your bacon tastes more like ribs or roast pork than bacon and will not be pink but will be grey or brown.  That’s perfectly fine bacon, however, it is really easy to buy a bag of pink salt and you will have it forever.  I bought a pound bag for around $6.00 and used 4 teaspoons for this batch of bacon so I have plenty left!   If I ever wanted to make other cured meats such as salami or guacinale or any cured meat that is not cooked or smoked, the it is really crucial for the success of the recipe and one’s health to use the small amount of sodium nitrite.   It does not cause cancer, like many incorrectly people assume; sodium nitrate or saltpeter is toxic but it is a very different thing altogether.  

Happy baconing!

Victory Blackberry Pie

I made a victory pie, a blackberry pie to enjoy on Superbowl Sunday. Sadly the 49ers lost (even though they shouldn’t have but I don’t want to get into *that*) the pie was still a win because it was my own victory.

I have long had an irrational fear of pie crust, any kind of rolled dough just doesn’t work for me. I never get the consistency of the dough right, it sticks, it rips and tears, it bakes up wrong, it tastes wrong or pasty, it’s just stupid and scary. For years I have struggled with my hot, not made for pastry, hands and have grumpily given up to buying premade pie crusts and hated them.

Meanwhile my mOm bangs out perfect pie crusts with her elegant, cool hands like she’s making a bed, smoothing out the pastry with effortless strokes. I have watched her and helped her year after year and I’m still a failure.

Then a great lady in town started her handheld pie business. Natalie Galatzer of Bike Basket Pies delivered her mini sweet and savory pies using her cute bicycle and the pie crust was the bomb. I met her when I was doing culinary tours during The Great Unemployment. I couldn’t really afford them but loved the samples she gave during the tour.

When I got a job I would order her pies for myself and then I started ordering them for the office and we all scarfed them up marveling at her great crust and divine fillings. How on earth did she make her pies so well and make so many of them? Practice obviously, and a great recipe.

When she stopped her business due to exhaustion and burnout I was glad for her for taking a rest and selfishly a tiny bit sad because how could I possibly live without her Shaker lemon pies? But then, a fabulous email arrived! Natalie had written a recipe booklet!  It is probably the most adorable recipe book I have ever seen, the illustrations are so adorable and really capture the joy of Bike Basket Pies.  The instructions and recipes are well written and explained and are a joy to use.

http://bikebasketpies.com/index.php/bike-basket-pies-booklet/

But I was still afraid. Then the Great Allergy/Intolerance arrived and fruit was banned from my life, along with many things I loved, nuts, potatoes, eggs, who all knew what else. The doctor still doesn’t know why but one day I could eat raspberry jam, then cherry, then walnuts, then fresh berries (but not strawberries) and the occasional potato chip. This summer I ate about six pies, mostly blackberry, and life was good again.

Last year Natalie announced she was teaching a pie crust making class. I had to go! With a very gimpy ankle I got to the darling Pot and Pantry for her class and made pie crust. It was great, we all had to make a batch and it felt good. I froze the pie crusts from the class since I had yet to go grocery shopping alone.

In early February, after a month of heinous flu and secondary sinus and ear infections, I made it to the farmer’s market with D___ and bought great vegetables and $15 of blackberries and Buddha’s Hand citrus. It was fantastic to shop without a cane and not feel so petrified of being knocked over. I was weak as a jellied eel after a long fever but the sunshine felt great. The moment I got home I went hope to bed and slept for 3 hours. I sugared down the berries though before going to bed for the evening and resolved to bake a pie for the Superbowl.

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On Superbowl Sunday I made breakfast and had a nap and tried to knit but that didn’t work, too tired still, but I did get up to make soup from all my vegetables, a minestrone of sorts, and to roll out the pie crust.

I was nervous but just did it, using a Silpat on my kitchen table. It rolled out pretty nicely, cracking here and there but it went okay! I made a rustic pie/tart using a tiny tin, just enfolding the giant berries inside the dough.

I brushed the crust with milk and a generous sprinkling of coarse sugar, and just remembered to add a pat of butter on the fruit. Into the oven it went.

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The juices were thick and bubbling, the crust was nicely browned, it smelled good. I was excited.

The game was sad but I thought consolation by pie would be nice. It was better than nice, it was perfect. The 49ers should have won that game but it cut as keenly because the pie was my victory.

The crust was crunchy and yet flakey, it held together, the fruit was delicious and not too soggy or sweet, it was just perfect. I still have one crust left to make a savory pie this week, greens and goat cheese I think or perhaps a winter squash. I can make pie now!

My pie.

My victory.

Natalie’s pie recipe booklet for Bike Basket Pies is available here, I have given away several copies as gifts so I would recommend you buy several.

My First Tagine – Chicken with Preserved Lemon

A beautiful Emil Henry tagine found its way to my home and I was so excited to wash it up and begin my maiden voyage of Moroccan tagine cooking.

My apartment is so tiny and I have enough kitchen equipment to stock several large homes, so my new tagine gets to live under the antique Japanese slat table I use as a coffee table. It’s such a gorgeous color, it looks like sculpture nestled under the bench.

My new tagine, which gets to live under my coffee table. #cityliving

The tagine gets to keep my vintage Taylor and Ng chicken roaster company along with my massive Irish cut crystal ice bucket that currently houses yarn.

Tagine and Chicken, good neighbors :)

This lovely gift also included a jar of preserved lemons from Tunisia, a large jar of saffron from Spain and some fancy couscous. I started with browning the chicken in some deep green olive oil from Lodi.

Heating the deep green olive oil.

The base of the tagine holds 6 cups of stew and is larger than my Caphalon searing pan. It did a tremendous job slowly browning the chicken to the perfect golden hue.

This tagine is amazing for browning chicken. I'm smitten.

(My, what big thighs!)

I used a 5 pound 6 ounce chicken, on sale from the Unsafeway for $6.00. What a whopper of a bird! I could have fit in all of the parts at once but I didn’t want to crowd the pan. While the chicken was searing, I chopped up some onions, garlic and ginger. I fished out three preserved lemons from its jar of brine and rinsed them a little. Then I cut the lemons into quarters and removed the pulp, and finely shredded the rind. Preserved lemons, if you aren’t familiar with them, are simply lemons preserved in coarse salt and a touch of water, and jarred until the salt completely melts into a brine. The lemons have a unique flavor, lemony but mellowed, and are essential to the recipe. You can make your own like Anna and I did one day.

Making chicken tagine for lunch today!
Three large onions and all of the aromatics and the saffron threads went into the tagine base until soft and gently browned. The aroma was heady. I have adopted Molly Katzen’s dogma that if you don’t know what to make for dinner, start by sauteing an onion. The scent will inspire you.

Sautéing onion, garlic, ginger in Lodi olive oile
The vegetables had softened and were golden so I added in the browned chicken, some artichoke hearts in lieu of olives, water, the preserved lemons and artichoke hearts.  I used artichoke hearts because I had them and did not have green olives, which are the traditional accompaniment to this dish.  I really don’t care for the flavor cooked olives, however, and the brininess they add to stews but that is just my preference, and it was my lunch, so I went with what worked for me.

I also added a splash of wine, it may not be authentic but the spirits moved me! On went the adorable cone lid and I relaxed for half an hour while it gently simmered.

My tagine's maiden voyage.

(Ready to simmer, and it already smells great)

After 30 minutes, I flipped over the chicken pieces, basted everything a little, tasted for salt and pepper and added pinches of each, and a good squeeze of fresh Meyer lemon juice and let the tagine cook for another 15 minutes.

I also started water boiling to make the couscous. Couscous is a fine pasta that is shaped into small grains. Traditionally one makes the couscous in a coucousiere, which I happen to have, and it is steamed and fluffed in the top section of the pot while a stew (or just boiling water) simmers in the base. We are fortunate today to have basically instant couscous that only needs to be added to boiling water, returned to a boil, removed from the heat with the lid on to rest for 15 minutes, and voila! Perfect couscous and no effort. The couscous that I received as part of this gift was particularly cool, larger sized shapes but not as large as Israeli couscous. It was *fancy*.  I let the couscousiere languish and used a 2 quart saucepan instead, super fast and so tasty. Why don’t I make more couscous?

m'hamsa couscous

The timer went off, and it was time for my Moroccan lunch! I heaped my bowl with some couscous, pulled out a tender and moist piece of chicken breast and a rich spoonful of vegetables and sauce. The chicken was gently flavored with lemon with the earthy undertone of the saffron and a zip from the ginger and garlic. I was surprised the chicken was a bit spicy but then remembered the lemons were preserved with some beautiful crimson chile peppers, no doubt the peppers infused the lemons with a bit of their heat. I was supposed to have added parsley or cilantro but did not have any and the dish did not suffer from the lack of it. It was a frigid and moist afternoon but inside I was enveloped in a fantasy of dining under azure skies, feeling cool breezes through twisting stone alleys and buildings, hearing exotic foot traffic behind ornately carved screens and wearing embroidered caftans and leather slippers. I nibbled at my beautiful lunch and sipped some rose wine and felt quite pleased with myself for making a hot cooked lunch on a weekend. And it was so easy!

Chicken tagine complete, I must say it was quite tasty and easy.

When I make this again I will use the fresh baby artichokes, quartered, because the canned and frozen ones really lacked the lovely artichoke flavor I was hoping for but it did add a lovely subtlety to the tagine regardless. I set aside some of the couscous and chicken in small containers for the freezer for dinners on another night, and packaged up the rest to take to work for lunch for the next few days. At my office, reheating the chicken and couscous in the work microwave the aroma of lemons, saffron, ginger and spice filled the kitchen and my coworkers were quite complimentary on my humble repast. I made myself a cup of mint tea and relaxed for a moment at my desk, enjoying my desk-chair visit to Morocco in rainy San Francisco.

(Recipe here)

Sweet Potato Biscuit Love

This time of year the markets are overflowing with different varieties of sweet potatoes: large, orange-sherbet colored, sea lion shaped sweet potatoes, palm-sized pale yellows and the deeply orange garnets.

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(little yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes, about 4″ long – babies!!)

Instead of covering them with gooey marshmallows as a Thanksgiving side dish my family usually prepares an elaborate sweet potato souffle with an orange sauce, dotted with buttered roasted pecans.

This is a bit too rich for every day, so I get my fill of roasting them and eating them split and mashed with butter and sea salt, and as crunchy oven-baked fries or simmered into softness in a zippy Thai red coconut curry.

My absolute favorite way of using up the bounty of sweet potatoes is to make them into savory and sweet biscuits. They are like soft little pillows of love and comfort, crunchy on top and moist and fluffy inside.

This week I received about 8 tiny little sweet potatoes with the palest yellow flesh, and last night I got the craving for my sweet potato biscuits, so I popped into the kitchen and started my preparations.

I preheated my convection oven and started a pot with a steamer insert on the stove. About four of the baby sweet potatoes were scrubbed and peeled and cut into small chunks and steamed until very tender, about 15 minutes. I let them cool and then pureed them in my minichop.

Meanwhile in a mixing bowl I dumped in the flour, brown sugar, leavenings, salt and stirred them up, and then added cold butter that I had diced up. I also measured out some milk and added some lemon juice for a quickie faux-buttermilk.

The “buttermilk” and the sweet potato puree were mixed together and poured into the butter and flour and were quickly mixed into a soft dough.

I patted out the dough with my hands and used my ancient biscuit cutter to punch out about 12 pretty pale yellow biscuits. They went into a well oiled cake tin and were baked for about 25 minutes.

I actually got really caught up in watching the Monday International Mysteries on tv – Inspector Morse this week – and let them go just a minute longer than they should have so the tops were deeply browned this time. I keep forgetting that convection ovens cook faster than regular oven. These biscuits brown a lot more than regular biscuits due to the sugar content in the mixture plus the natural sugars in the sweet potatoes. It is also what makes them so delicious!

The timer dinged and I pulled a few hot biscuits out of the plan, split them open and buttered and slathered the halves with dollops of the last of my Potrero Hill honey, and I ate them, slightly singeing my fingers and tongue as I nibbled away watching the whodunnit.

The murderer was caught, the biscuits were delicious and a hot cup of tea finished off my impromptu snack before bedtime.

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Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2″ chunks – enough to make 3/4 cup puree
1 3/4 cups flour
2 T brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
6 T unsalted butter, diced
1/3 cup buttermilk*

In a small pot with 2″ of water in the bottom, add a steamer insert and then the sweet potato cubes. Bring the water to a boil and steam the sweet potatoes until they are very tender when stabbed with a fork. Mash until smooth or puree in a food processor. Let cool before using. (Sometimes I fudge this step a little by just spreading them out on a plate until they stop steaming and then puree and add them to the buttermilk while still a bit warm.)

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder and mix well. Add the diced butter and combine and mix until the butter is mixed into the flour about the size of small peas.

In a measuring cup mix together the buttermilk and the sweet potato puree until smooth and pour into the flour/butter mixture, and mix until a soft dough is formed. Knead gently in the mixing bowl for a minute or two, then pat the dough out onto a floured cutting mat or cutting board, the dough should be about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut into rounds using a biscuit cutter or use a knife and cut them into squares.

Arrange in a buttered or oiled round cake pan and bake for 20-25 minutes until the tops and bottoms are golden brown.

*If you don’t have any buttermilk in your fridge, you can make “faux buttermilk” by adding 1 T of lemon juice or plain vinegar to regular or skim milk. Stir the milk and let it sit for at least 5 minutes and it will thicken up pretty well to approximate buttermilk.

Bridging the Seasons: Eggplant and Squash Gratin

Summer in San Francisco decided to not show up this year (again) and fall is decidedly here.  I am pretending that the beautiful clear weather outside equates to Indian summer and that the balmy air I feel isn’t coming from the radiator.

Happily for us fog-bound people we still have an abundance of summer vegetables coming in from the farmer’s markets.  It was quite the treat to see a fat, tissue wrapped, perfect eggplant and the last of the  heirloom tomatoes  in my produce box and a few squash – pale green fat and stubby zucchini varieties – and pretty red bell peppers.

Pinnochio lives, or rather did...
(no comment…)

My mind instantly flashed to a new porcelain baking dish my dear friend A___ gave me for my birthday.  I am quite partial to Royal Worcester and the beautiful harvest fruit design is one that makes my heart sing.  It is an inherited passion.   It is also the perfect size for the quantity of vegetables I had on hand and was time for it to be christened with a beautiful eggplant and squash gratin, so I invited A___ over for dinner.

While A___ and I sipped red wine and caught up on the past few months, I sliced the eggplant and squash.  The eggplant was briefly fried in a touch of olive oil in my non-stick skillet and the squash was liberally sprinkled with salt and set out to drain in a colander in the sink.  As the browned eggplant came out of the frying pan I stacked up the floppy slices on a clean cutting mat to rest briefly.  In between flipping the eggplant around in the frying pan and drinking wine I quickly minced up a fat shallot and grated a clove of garlic and tossed them together in a small bowl.  The bell pepper was thinly sliced and set aside in a pile next to the cooked eggplant, and several of the tomatoes were roughly chopped and set out on paper towels to dry out a bit.  The preheating oven warmed the room, as the wine and conversation warmed our hearts.

Finally the eggplant was done frying and the salted squash had exuded some liquid and had drained sufficiently.  I began an assembly process in my new pretty dish.

I laid down a layer of eggplant in slightly overlapping circles, then tomato, a sprinkle of the shallot/garlic mixture and bell pepper.  I topped this with salt and pepper and about half of a 4 ounce log of goat cheese flavored with lemon zest.  Honestly it was all that the grocery store had that day and I am very happy about that now.

I repeated the process until I ran out of vegetables and cheese.  The final coup de grace was fresh mozzarella, sliced thickly and the discs spread over the top of the gratin and finished with a dash of Maldon salt and a few grinds of pepper.

It slid into the oven while we sat around munching on those crazy bright green Spanish olives and some Rainforest crackers.   We talked over all the goings-on over the past few weeks since our last dinner, opened another bottle of wine and relaxed in the perfumed air of the Roost as the gratin bubbled, sizzled and melted under its soft blanket of gooey cheese.

Finally the timer went off and then began the torturous wait for the gratin to cool and firm enough to be scooped out of the pan.   We admired the beauty of the gratin and completely forgot to take pictures!

Sometimes it is just nice to enjoy the company and enjoy the food without having to wait to photograph every step and every spoonful, it is called living in the moment, and we did just that.

Despite our precautions of draining the tomatoes and salting the squash the gratin was still a bit watery, but the leftover gratin the next day had completely absorbed the liquid which makes me think I should have made this dish the day before my pal came over for dinner!

The flavors of the vegetables really shone and the touch of lemon zest in the cheese was wonderful.  The best part, of course, was the richly browned cheesy mozzarella blanket covering the dish and we fought like pumas over bits of the cheese.

Making Evelyn's briami, with @damnfibebacon, because I can
(a version with potato)

Eggplant and Squash Gratin

1 eggplant, sliced thinly
1/2 pound zucchini, sliced thinly lengthwise
1/2 pound tomatoes, sliced thickly
1 red bell pepper, cored and thinly sliced
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
4 oz goat cheese (I used goat cheese with lemon zest, if you cannot find this add 1 tsp of grated lemon zest)
6 oz fresh mozzarella, thickly sliced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 F and oil a baking dish with olive oil.

In a skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and fry a few slices of eggplant at a time until they are browned.  Set aside.

In a colander, arrange a layer of sliced zucchini and salt them well, and repeat; let the squash exude liquid and drain for 30 minutes or so.  Pat the slices dry with a paper towel and set them aside.

Arrange the tomatoes on a paper towel to drain.  Mix together the bell pepper slices, the shallot and the garlic in a small bowl.

To assemble, lay down a layer of the eggplant, followed by the squash, then tomatoes then a sprinkling of the pepper/shallot/garlic.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover with slices of goat cheese.  Repeat until you have used up all of the vegetables and cheese, and top the final layer with the mozzarella.  Add salt and pepper to the top of the mozzarella.

Bake for 40-45 minutes until all of the vegetables are very tender and the cheese is browned.   Let sit 15 minutes to allow the gratin to firm up.  Better if made the day before and brought to a bubbling temperature in a 300 F oven for 20 minutes.

Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a vegetable side.

This is a very forgiving dish, if you don’t have bell peppers or want to substitute an Anaheim chile or add potatoes anything goes!

Moray eel potato
(Moray eel potato)

Feel free to play around!  I have also made this with smoked fontina as the top cheese and mozzarella as the “inside” cheese.

Fall Produce Explosion

My CSA delivery today was an explosion of all the bounty that is Fall…

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  • A Sugar Pie pumpkin
  • Curly kale
  • Ruby red beets with greens
  • Nantes carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Green leaf lettuce
  • Garnet sweet potatoes
  • Yellow onions
  • Fennel
  • Red radishes

My brain is swirling with ideas for this produce. There is so much of it that I have to take it home in two batches!

For the Sugar Pie pumpkin, it will grace the counter in my day job’s reception area until after Halloween next to the cauldron of Sees Candy halloween treats. We do Halloween right at the office!

But after Halloween I think I will make my favorite chicken pumpkin soup with Marsala. The broccoli is dinner tonight with cauliflower left over from last week; a quick stir-fry with some hosin sauce should do the trick.

The kale and beet greens sauteed together with garlic and ginger will make a nice side dish to a roast chicken. The carcass of the chicken and the leftover meat will become the soup.

I am also in the mood for a Thai curry so perhaps some of the pumpkin will be used for that, thinly sliced with the rind on.  Many salads will be created given the size of this head of lettuce and I have some lovely Italian tuna packed in olive oil and the fennel for one night.  Carrots will  be put into everything.  There are never enough carrots.

But now I’m running out of ideas…

What on earth am I going to do with two large bunches of radishes?   Help me please!

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Slow Roasting a Thick Cut of Meat

Lately I have been buying wonderful T-bones from 4505 Meats, both beef and pork cuts.  Their email newsletter advertises from time to time specials on aged grass-fed beef or local pasture-raised pork cuts from a whole animal that they age and butcher themselves.  The meat quality is divine.

But when one is presented with a 3″ or 4″ hunk of steak or monster pork chop, how on earth do you cook it?

Here’s my foolproof method that turns out meat that is perfectly cooked from edge to edge with a nice crispy sear on the outside.

I must say that this method is completely counter-intuitive to what I have been taught when preparing and cooking a steak but it is so simple and never fails.

Step 1:  Bring Meat to Room Temperature and Season

Here is the two-pound beef T-bone from 4505 Meat that I cooked a week ago – what a massive steak!

Before - @4504_Meats

It was about 4″ thick and a full 11″ long hunk of luscious, 28 day dry aged grass-fed beef.  Talk about gorgeous meat!

I patted it dry and placed it on a plate and seasoned it with a dry rub.  My dry rub had powdered smoked red onions and a dried chipotle from Tierra Vegetables, a powdered shitake mushroom, all of which I blitzed up in my food processor,  then added sea salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme from a friend’s garden and some paprika.

For the pork T-bone that I cooked on Sunday I used a dry rub that came from Golden Gate Meats, which had dried onion, paprika, orange peel, sage and some other herbs.  I added salt and pepper to the pork steak first, then the dry rub.

The meat came to room temperature snuggled under its savory seasoning for about an hour, meanwhile I preheated the oven to 275 F.

Step 2:  The Slow Roast

Once the oven was hot and the meat was at room temperature I placed it on my roasting pan and anointed it with some olive oil and bunged it in the oven.  I set the timer for 45 minutes and started some potatoes to roast in my convection oven.

After 45 minutes I checked the temperature of the meat with a digital thermometer.  I was looking for 125 F for the beef which is for a medium rare steak.  For this particular steak I roasted it for a total of 55 minutes.

The pork T-bone also weighed 2 pounds and roasted for 65 minutes until it reached 135 F.

Step 3: The Sear

I heated up my largest skillet under medium high heat and added a good splash of grapeseed oil and watched the oil until it started to shimmer.  Using tongs I placed the steak in the pan to sear quickly on all sides, including the fat side and the bone side.  It took about 2 minutes per side to get a nice deep brown.

Here is the pork T-bone getting its sear.  Can you see the thick fat ring? It was 2″ thick of glorious pure white fat.  Later I removed the fat and rendered it down for other nefarious purposes.

It's huge! Browning the fat side first.

Once the meat had achieved the deep golden brown color I was looking for it was time for the final step.

Step 4:  Resting the Meat

This may be the most important step in any meat cookery, letting the meat rest.  I removed the T-bone from the skillet and set it on a heat-proof plate and rubbed the top with a thick dab of unsalted butter.  I set a sheet of foil lightly on top of the meat, not sealing it with the foil but just letting the foil rest on top.  Then I set a timer for 10-15 minutes and walked away; I had a glass of wine and left the kitchen while the meat rested.

Whatever you do, do not poke, prod, cut or otherwise molest the meat while it is resting!   Just leave it alone!

When meat is cooked under direct heat the juices rise to the outside of the meat.  If you cut open the meat without resting it the meat will look dry and almost dull in appearance by the time you get to the halfway point of consuming your portion.  If you let the meat rest for the appropriate period of time, the juices have time to redistribute themselves to the center of the meat, ensuring a juicy and perfectly pink interior.

This resting stage can take 5 to 10 minutes for a normal steak, up to 20 minutes for a chicken and 30-45 minutes for a large roast such as a prime rib cut.

If you feel that the meat has cooled too much during the resting process, I have a trick to fixing that.  I melt butter until it is very hot and then pour it over the cooled meat, just a tablespoon or two will do the trick.  It will warm up the meat just enough and adds so much flavor.  If you have ever wondered why the steaks at an expensive steak house taste so good, a lot of it is due to this final application of butter. If you have maitre d’hotel butter then more’s the better (I will post this recipe soon).

When the timer went off I dashed to the kitchen and grabbed my carving knife and voila!  Perfectly cooked meat!

After- 4505_meats

Feast your eyes on this perfect steak. It is medium rare throughout the entire cut, a perfect rosy pink and super juicy. You can see the rich fat on this beef T-bone and there is no grey ring or unevenness of any kind.  It is a meaty miracle.  I was too hungry on Sunday to snap a picture of the pork T-bone but it was pale pink, extremely juicy and tender, everything a perfect chop should be.  And I ate it *all*.

This slow roasting cooking method is perfect for apartment dwellers like myself, or for cooking perfect steaks in the dead of winter when grilling outside is not an option.

So don’t be afraid of ruining a whacking great cut of meat like these monster T-bones, it is really foolproof and I guarantee your steak will come out perfectly.

Resources:

4505 Meats
San Francisco Ferry Building
Saturday market between 8 and 2
Thursday market between 10 and 2
Shop online at 4505meat.com

Golden Gate Meat Company
Retail shop at the Ferry Building
goldengatemeatcompany.com (catchy song too!)