Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bison Burgers - A Rant.

Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Bison-Feta Burgers
If you're going to eat a burger, bison is a better choice than beef. (Photo: Ian Knauer)
I write this as a true-blue patriot. Sometimes I even like to say it out loud: I love America. Still, there are so many things I just don’t understand about this country. I don’t get why so many of my fellow Americans make the choices they make.

Here’s an example: Why would anyone choose not to vote? That’s just nuts! People die, DIE (not just in a figurative way, but in a very real way) for the right to vote. Yet, many of us make a choice not to vote because we’re disenfranchised or busy or lazy or just don’t care. What’s worse is when our elected politicians actually don’t want us to vote and publicly say so, like my home-state Senator Mike Turzai recently.

I just don’t understand why those of us who do vote would vote for someone who doesn’t want all of us to vote. It’s so not the democratic way! (For the record, I happen to think showing ID to vote is not a bad thing. After all, we have to show ID to exercise other constitutionally granted rights, like buying guns. We should focus on getting everyone an ID and encourage people to vote. God Bless America!)

Here’s another thing I just don’t get: Why don’t we eat more buffalo? 

American buffalo have been making a resurgence recently after near extinction in the 19th century. That’s good news, not only for the buffalo, but for those of us interested in sustainable eating. It’s also good news because bison meat is delicious. I mean, really, really delicious.

Bison is considerably less fatty than beef (2.42 grams of fat to beef’s 10.15 grams), partially because it’s grass-fed instead of corn-fed. That means it’s not only better for the environment, but a bison burger brings all the satisfaction of a burger without that familiar gut-bomb feeling.

(For the record, I happen to love a good burger like any other true-blue patriotic American, but don’t like feeling sick after I eat one.)

Take this as encouragement to make all-American bison burgers tonight for dinner—and also, to vote.

Bison-Feta Burgers
Makes 4 burgers
1 garlic clove
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1 pound ground bison

Accompaniments: hamburger buns; lettuce; sliced tomato; sliced cucumber; mayonnaise; ketchup

Preheat grill.

Mince and mash garlic to a paste with a generous pinch of salt then transfer to a medium bowl. Stir in shallot, Worcestershire, pepper flakes, feta, salt and pepper, then mix bison into feta mixture. Form 4 patties.

Grill bison burgers to desired doneness, 6 to 8 minutes for medium-rare.

Serve burgers on buns with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, mayonnaise, and ketchup.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Newest, Greatest Thing - Ratatouille Pizza

Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Ratatouille Pizza
Roasting the vegetables separately gives this veggie pie unexpected depth. (Photo: Ian Knauer)

We have come to the time of year when farm stands and gardens are busting at the belt. There are so many zucchini and eggplant and tomatoes that we can’t eat them fast enough. Yesterday alone I picked 13 ripe tomatoes from two plants in my garden. This is what I’ve been waiting for all year. We have entered the age of ratatouille.  

Chefs think ratatouille is a bit of an art and I agree. Taking the lazy approach by tossing all the veggies together in a skillet brings on a muddied result. It’s watered down pasta sauce with some zucchini thrown in. The key to great ratatouille is cooking each vegetable separately. Tomatoes take longer to roast than zucchini; eggplant loves the grill.

By treating each veggie as an individual, you coax their best forward. That’s how I say it. Here’s how Chef Joel Robuchon says it (read outloud in thick French accent): The secret to good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately so each will taste truly of itself.

Oh, the French.

To get my veggies to taste truly of themselves I think about my favorite versions of each. Nothing beats a roasted tomato, so for my ratatouille I roast my tomatoes. Eggplant, when grilled, is a sponge for smoke and char. I’m a sucker for caramelized onions, one of the cheapest flavor tricks of all time. All these steps are taken one at a time, ensuring maximum flavor.

The other secret to good ratatouille is to serve it on pizza.

Ratatouille Pizza
Serves 4
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
5 medium tomatoes
1 medium zucchini
1 medium eggplant
1 frozen pizza dough, thawed and at room temperature
6 ounces shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
Fresh basil

Cook onions in 2 tablespoons oil with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently until onions are deep golden colored, about 35 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 500°F. Preheat grill.

Cut tomatoes in to 2-inch chunks and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Roast in oven until blistered and blackened in places and when juices have evaporated, about 30 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, cut zucchini crosswise into 1/4-inch slices and place on another baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and sprinkle with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Roast in oven with tomatoes until golden, about 20 minutes. Set aside.

Slice eggplant crosswise into 1/2-inch slices and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Grill eggplant, turning occasionally, until charred in places and tender, about 12 minutes. Set aside.

Everything in the recipe up to this point can be made a day in advance.

Toss the pizza dough with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and slowly stretch it to fit a baking sheet. Place eggplant on dough and sprinkle evenly with onions. Top with tomatoes, zucchini, and cheese. Bake pizza until crust is golden and cheese is melted, 15 to 18 minutes. Top with fresh basil.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Cookin' Like A Baller

It's been called
It's been called "the caviar of the East."Photo: Melissa Hom
The idea behind most of the items featured in this column is that they're secret ingredients: You put a little Maggi in a salad dressing to covertly pump up the flavor of the salad, not to make it taste like Maggi. You add a few dashes of Angostura bitters to a stew because it accentuates the beef, not because it makes the stew taste like a Manhattan. You want to make the food better, not to show off the ingredients. But XO sauce is different. It's got class; it's got panache. It's a sauce with credentials and you want to put it on display.
XO sauce was first created in Hong Kong — at either the Peninsula’s Spring Moon restaurant or at one of the many totally awesome fish restaurants in Kowloon — sometime in the early eighties. In China, as in every Jay-Z song, cognac is a status symbol, and the sauce was named in order to leverage the prestige and panache associated with "XO," the esteemed cognac designation. There's no actual cognac, or brandy of any kind, in XO sauce — but its off-the-charts-expensive ingredient list means it is fairly pricey ($15 for a few ounces) and, more important for our purposes, absolutely packed with deep, rich, smoky intensity. In fact, Vogue China once called it the "caviar of the East." The sauce is primarily a chunky combination of dried seafood and Chinese ham (though store-bought brands might omit the ham): Dried scallops can easily cost $100 per pound in the U.S., and a layperson in America would have to smuggle a good Yunnan ham.

In other words, even though there's no cognac in XO, it is still fancy stuff. And American chefs have taken to it: At the New York location of Hakkasan, a plate of stir-fried dover sole with XO will run you $46. (A whole Peking duck with XO and Chinese caviar will set you back $295.) David Chang's Ssäm Bardresses up market greens with XO. At Momofuku Ko, Chang's team serves XO with duck heart and tofu. In Chicago right now, Alinea serves grilled razor clam with a dose of homemade XO.

You can buy decent XO sauce in any Chinatown (or online), and it's worth the cost. But if you're going all the way to Chinatown anyway, the better option is to buy the necessary ingredients and make your own — get the highest quality dried scallops you can find, and use good prosciutto or speck in place of the Yunnan ham (unless, of course, you have some secret source smuggling the real thing in for you).

Whether you buy it or make it, you can treat XO like a sort of super-powered soy sauce: In the recipes below, the sauce amps up pan-fried eggplant and grilled steak, but you can even just toss something simple like roasted broccoli in a teaspoon of XO. Plus, it keeps basically forever so you'll always have some on hand in case dinner needs a dash of class.
Homemade XO Sauce
Makes about 2 cups
2 oz dried scallops
2 oz dried shrimp
3 oz Yunnan ham or proscuitto
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 heads garlic, peeled
1/2 cup chopped, peeled ginger
15 dried whole red chiles or 1 tablespoon dried red chile flakes
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Place scallops and shrimp in a bowl and cover with water. Let soak overnight, then drain.
Pulse ham in a food processor until finely chopped. Heat 1 cup oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat until hot, then stir in ham and cook, stirring occasionally, until ham is browned, about 4 minutes.
Pulse drained scallops and shrimp along with garlic, ginger, and shallots in food processor until finely chopped, then add to skillet. 
Finely grind chiles in a spice mill, then add to skillet with salt and sugar. Cook XO sauce, stirring frequently, until browned, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a container and add remaining 1/2 cup oil. Keep refrigerated.
You've never had fancier eggplant.Photo: Ian Knauer

XO Eggplant
Serves 4
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, sliced
2 lbs Chinese or Japanese eggplant, cut into 2-inch pieces
5 whole dried chiles
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon XO sauce
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Fresh basil leaves
Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add onion and cook, stirring, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add eggplant and chiles and cook, stirring frequently, until eggplant is browned in places, about 6 minutes. Stir in soy, vinegar, sesame oil, XO, salt, and pepper, then cover skillet and lower heat to medium. Let eggplant cook until tender and sauce is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Transfer eggplant to a serving platter and garnish with basil leaves.
This sauce packs an absolute ton of flavor.Photo: Ian Knauer

Grilled Steak with XO Chimichurri 
Serves 4
1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup cilantro
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons XO sauce
1 teaspoon dried red chile flakes
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 (1 lb) rib eye steaks
Finely chop parsley and cilantro then stir herbs together with oil, XO, chile flakes, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Preheat grill.
Season steaks with remaining 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then grill, turning occasionally, 6 to 8 minutes total for medium rare. Let steak rest 10 minutes then slice and serve with XO chimichurri.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Heat-beating - Thai Style

thai curry
It's science: Heat makes you sweat, and sweat cools you down. (Photo: Ian Knauer)
The cuisines of Mexico, Southeast Asia, India, and the Caribbean all have one thing in common: they’re often quite spicy. Chiles originally grew in the Americas, so one wonders how they have infused themselves so seamlessly into some of these other cuisines. Spicy Thai food would be considerably less interesting if it had no spice, and the same is true for Indian food. Jerk chicken without chile peppers would just be grilled chicken. Yawn.

All of these places also have something else in common: Hot climates. It might seem counterintuitive to want to eat spicy food in a hot place, but there’s real purpose to the capsicum. Chiles, when you eat them, make you sweat, and when you sweat, your body cools off. Spicy food actually makes you feel cooler.

The whole point of the last two paragraphs is to convince you that you should be eating spicy food in the summer. You’ll save money on electricity by not using your air conditioner. After all, this is a column about being cheap and good to the environment. You’re welcome.

The only question you’re now faced with is what kind of spicy food you want to make. For that, let’s turn to Chef Andy Ricker and his quickly growing Thai food empire, Pok Pok. The chef has cleverly carved out a niche for himself by serving Northern Thai food. These are not the coconut-based curries we all know and love; these are intensely aromatic, often very spicy, intriguing combinations that we are only just learning about in this country.

Of course, you can find Northern Thai food here, but really only in places like Flushing, Queens or other ethnic communities. Chef Ricker is bringing this cuisine mainstream by catching the attention of food writers. And food writers are bringing it mainstream by supplying you with a totally awesome recipe for Northern Thai vegetable curry. Make it tonight for dinner and bask in the delicious, cooling heat of one of the world’s spiciest cuisines. You’re welcome.
Spicy Thai Curry
For the chile paste:
8 dried red chiles, broken into pieces
1 tablespoon dried shrimp (optional)
2 large shallots, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro stems
2 fresh red chiles, such as bird’s-eye
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 fresh lemongrass stalk, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 cup water
For the curry:
1/4 cup oil
1/3 cup julienned fresh ginger
8 ounces green beans, trimmed
8 ounces baby corn
1 1/2 pound Asian eggplant, cut into 1-inch diagonal slices
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons fish sauce
basil leaves
cilantro leaves

Make the chile paste: Soak the dried chiles and shrimp in warm water to cover, 20 minutes. Drain.

Puree dried chiles and shrimp with remaining chile paste ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Cook the curry: Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over high heat. Add 1/3 cup chile paste (or more if you like very spicy food) and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes.

Stir in ginger, beans, corn, eggplant, stock, and fish sauce and cover skillet. Cook vegetables until tender, 6 to 8 minutes, season with salt to taste, and then sprinkle with basil and cilantro leaves.

Serve curry with cooked white rice.