Posts Tagged ‘beef’

Kitchen Staples: notes on staples and specialty ingredients


I’ve been in the habit of referring readers to my website for more information on the seasonings that I use and the ingredients that I don’t grow at home, but at this point it seems to make more sense to make the blog more independent. Therefore, here are some random jottings on what I keep in my kitchen and why.

Vegetables: Veggies are a primary and prime staple! During the growing season, I cook with what’s ready, but often I’m tired out by dinner and don’t want to spend more time picking, so I try to harvest and prep vegetables in the morning so that they’re ready in the refrigerator and can be prepared with little trouble. When I buy vegetables, I try to wash and trim them right away so that they’re near-instant gratification at dinnertime. Salad greens are soaked clean, rinsed twice, and stored in a large salad spinner-crisper. I try to think of vegetables first, meat or grain second, when planning meals. When I know that something is ripening, for example the first of eight broccoli heads is nearly ready to pick, I brush up on interesting recipes then, not a week later an hour before dinner when I’ve got three heads of broccoli in the refrigerator.

Meat: here in Albuquerque, I get most of my beef, fish, and lamb from the Fishhuggers, an energetic local couple who sell their family’s grassfed beef and lamb and the Alaskan salmon that Kenny catches every summer. Their meat is 100% grassfed, and unlike many grassfed operations, their meat is not overly lean and tough. Cooking grassfed meat is different, and I recommend getting some advice from them. Generally it cooks a lot faster than grain-fed meat and you have to get it off the grill promptly to keep it rare and tender. I get all my chicken from the Pollo Real people at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Their chicken is fed some grain but is raised on pasture. It’s healthier for the chickens and for you, and also it tastes like real chicken. I don’t know of a reliable local source for pasture-raised pork, so I get mine from the James Ranch people in Durango. Again, with regard to sustainability and health benefits, you can use the sources of info mentioned in “butter and Dairy” above. Most of the meat mentioned above comes frozen. If you want to buy fresh, be aware that “grass-fed” is not a legally controlled designation and there is a lot of meat in the meat cases around town labelled “grass-fed” that isn’t. One producer even told me that his meat was grass-fed “but I just finish them on grain for a month. That’s still grass-fed.” That isn’t grass-fed, and a well-designed study has indicated that the Omega3 content falls very rapidly during even a brief period of grain-finishing, eliminating the health benefits that you are paying for as well as the environmental benefits. I would only buy from a farmer that I knew personally and trusted. If in doubt, ask to visit the farm.

Butter and cheese: for the sake of the planet and the cows, I eat only pastured butter. The very best that I know of is from Pasturelands in MInnesota, and is 100% grass-fed, no grain supplementation, which makes it unique in the market. It comes frozen in styrofoam shippers, and they include a prepaid label so that you can send the empty shipping carton back and have it reused. I keep it in the freezer for up to a few months. They also offer 100% grass-fed cheeses. I especially like their mild Cheddar for snacking, and then they have complex cave-aged cheeses for special occasions. Why does 100% grass-fed matter? For quick info you can check out the Eat Wild site, or you can take more time and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, still the best book on ethical eating that I know of and far above later books on the subject (including, unfortunately, Pollan’s own later books.) I wish that there were a local producer of 100% grassfed dairy products, but until there is, I’ll buy by mail.

Parmesan: I am giving this imported cheese its own heading because there is no worthy substitute for the genuine Italian article. It’s worth buying the best that you can find. Discount stores like Trader Joe’s or Sam’s Club carry imported Italian Parmesan, but the quality is quite poor compared to really good Parmesan, and most domestic and Argentinian imitations that I’ve tasted have been appalling. Nobody will be more thrilled than me if American producers come up with a truly great Parmesan, but I would argue that it hasn’t happened yet. If you buy the good stuff, your pastas will benefit, and because the flavor is so pronounced you can use it the way the Italians do, ie sparingly. Pastas in America are too often oversauced and overcheesed. You’re supposed to be able to taste the pasta.

Capers: There is no question about salt-cured capers being the best. I’ve seldom met a caper I didn’t like, but my favorites are the “Wild Mountain Capers” that I get at The Spanish Table in Santa Fe. They are fearfully expensive but they have a wonderful herbaceous flavor and are less salty than other kinds. I buy them in 1 pound jars. When you are ready to use them, rinse off the surface salt and soak in cold water to cover for an hour, then drain and squeeze dry. In the summer I use capers so much during the summer that I often soak some when I’m working in the kitchen, squeeze dry, and pack them tightly in little plastic containers to use on the spur of the moment. They will keep 2-3 days this way, and they keep indefinitely in their salted state.

Anchovies: There is no better seasoning than anchovy for giving a meaty complexity and richness with minimal use of actual flesh. One or two fillets can give a complex undertone that can’t be identified as “fish” but which greatly improves the dish. I use tiny amounts in a wide variety of dishes. Salt-cured are the best if they are the lovely meaty specimens that you find in Italy, and in a very few specialty food stores in this country. Food “experts” frequently recommend the 1KG cans of salted anchovies that are readily available in the US, which makes me think that they themselves have never opened such a can to find the scads of teensy fish with no fillets to speak of that they contain. My experiments with those cans have been very disappointing, and I now use anchovy fillets packed in olive oil instead. Another product that I would never be without is colatura, an Italian “anchovy essence” of the highest quality. It is something like Asian fish sauce but darker, more complex, and richer in flavor. Zingerman’s has it. I don’t know of a local source.

Wine: all I will emphasize here is that if you cook with wine, it has to be good wine. If you wouldn’t drink it or serve it, don’t cook with it.

Eggs: I have my own laying flock now, but there are several people at the various local farmers’ markets who have real free-range eggs, not the ersatz kind that come from large producers. Be sure to save your egg cartons and take them back to the people who sell eggs. The growers are always glad to get them back, because they aren’t cheap, and reuse always beats recycling.

Olive oil: I’m sometimes shocked at how much of it I use in a couple of months. It loses flavor slowly but steadily in the bottle, so don’t buy more than you can use up in a few months, store it in a dark place, and buy from good sources where it isn’t displayed in a light hot place. Find a few kinds that you like. The easiest way to find out what you like is to taste a lot of them, and the most convenient way to get started is to go to The Spanish Table in Santa Fe, where knowledgable employees will offer you samples of oils that you are interested in. Or just let them surprise you. I try to keep a couple of very flavorful oils on hand for salads, and some less intense but much less costly oil for cooking.

Charcuterie: The excellent products of La Quercia last a long time when wrapped properly and refrigerated, and they are scrupulous about using humanely raised pigs. The prosciutto rosso is superb. I have not tasted any Italian prosciutto that was better, and no domestic product has been anywhere near as good. They also have a less expensive grade called Americano, and it’s very good, although it lacks the subtlety and finesse of the rosso. Their guancialle is a good staple to have around, and has been the start of about a zillion delicious pasta sauces in my home. For Spanish cooking I keep some Spanish chorizo around. This is a dry cured sausage, nothing like the fresh uncased chorizo found in Mexican groceries.

Herbs: I strongly recommend growing your own, even if you don’t grow anything else. The presence of fresh organic thyme, winter savory, sage, rosemary, basil, and parsley will inspire you to cook. They are easy to grow, and in our sun-drenched area will survive in partial shade if necessary. Having big pots of them around invites frequent use. I advise getting the culinary classic Simple French Food by Richard Olney and reading his notes on use of herbs. These are very strong flavors, and using them at random invites a muddled result. Once you have used them for a while, it’s second nature to create a balanced taste.

Grains: I like to have coarse bulgur, size 2, on hand because it cooks up with a more interesting texture than the finer grades that “gourmet” groceries tend to sell. Local readers here in Albuquerque can get it at Cafe’ Istanbul. Elsewhere, check your local Middle Eastern food source. I keep organic jasmine rice on hand at all times for Thai-influenced meals. I have never been able to take to brown rice, so I use white. I do love to use forbidden rice (black rice) on occasion. As you see above, it makes a dramatic deep-purple backdrop for bright green vegetables. I keep yellow, blue, and purple cornmeal. For baking, I always have coconut flour on hand to supplement white-flour products with a dose of fiber that doesn’t ruin the flavor. It’s tricky to work with at first, but as you learn its quirks it becomes easy to add fiber to your baked goods to improve the glycemic index. Coconut flour doesn’t ruin the color the way grain brans do.

Legumes: I cook these in my solar cooker and freeze them in containers. But if inspiration strikes shortly before dinner, a frozen block is daunting to approach, so I keep a few cans of beans and chickpeas on hand for the last-minute ideas.

Kitchen Staples: Broth


Few things will improve your cooking as much as getting rid of all commercial broth products and making your own. On my website I have extensive notes about broth-making, and you can read them here. In this post, I’ll just add a few notes about broth and its uses, and refer you to that site for the details.

Use very good materials to begin with. You can get lovely flavorful pastured chicken necks and backs from Pollo Real at the Santa Fe farmer’s market, and there is no better basis for chicken broth. Give the roasting step the time it needs, and the pay-off in flavor will be considerable. Don’t salt your broth, because you may want to reduce it later which will concentrate it manyfold. I pressure-can mine for later use, but if you have room in your freezer, that’s an easier alternative.

Once you have good broth on hand, you can use it to reduce waste and pick up some goodness from all kinds of things that you might otherwise discard. If I buy a pound of oyster mushrooms or shitake mushrooms to roast for a winter dinner, I put the stems and trimmings in a quart of broth to simmer for an hour, building the foundation for a great mushroom sauce or mushroom soup on another day. Chicken bones left over after dinner? Pop them in a quart or two of broth to simmer and enrich the flavor. Onion skins and ends on your cutting board? A slow simmer in broth will improve its flavor and give it a lovely gold color, and the rawness of the onions is lost en route.Many people save their bones and vegetable trimmings in plastic bags in the freezer, but I think the flavor is better if you simmer them while they’re fresh. The broth can be frozen more successfully than the ingredients.

Fish and seafood broths need to be cooked separately from other meats, naturally, and don’t include any salmon trimmings. I love salmon, but it does ruin fish fume’. But if you buy a few mild fish heads to start fish broth, then every time you have shrimp shells, crab shells, or any other flavorful but inedible seafood bits available, you can extract its flavor in broth and save the broth for a great paella or gumbo when you’re in the mood.

Once some good enriched broth is hanging out in your kitchen, what do you do with it? There is almost no pan-grilled or roasted meat that can’t be improved by a simple reduction sauce. Remove the meat from the pan, pour a cup of good broth into the pan over high heat, boil hard and scrape all the lovely browned bits into the broth, and when it’s reduced to a few tablespoons and has a syrupy consistency, swirl in a tablespoon of butter and serve immediately. A glug of good red or white wine, depending on the meat and seasoning, can be added to the pan for the initial deglazing, then add the stock and boil down. If you want to get fancier, most of the sauces of classic French Cuisine are at your command when you have really good broth to start with, and you can check out Glorious French Food or another cookbook to consider your options. Grains like rice and bulgur are delicious when ccoked in broth. If you’re a fan of Mexican cooking, you’ll want to try Zarela Martinez’s trick of toasting dried chiles of various kinds and then soaking them in broth rather than water before grinding them into a mole’ paste or other flavoring paste. Great stews like coq au vin are within your reach, although they will use up a lot of broth, which is why you make a lot in the first place. A paprikash like the one above requires little more than a meaty main ingredient, top-notch paprika, and really good broth (my own far-from-conventional recipe is below.)When I’m feeling dispirited and glum I revert to my Louisiana roots and make gumbo, and it invariably cheers me up, and usually cheers some other people too.

I advise avoiding strong-flavored vegetables of the cabbage family, such as broccoli and kale, for general-purpose broth. If you use leafy greens, they will color the broth, so don’t use them unless you’re willing to have green broth. Onions, carrots, celery, shallots, and leeks are aromatic staples that improve any broth. If you want to make all-vegetable broth, my favorite way is to roast the vegetables to bring out their flavor via the lovely Maillard reactions, and add a few mushrooms for the base note; dried shitakes are especially good for this, and as long as you don’t use too many, the flavor will not be identifiably Asian. .

If we can grasp some positive principle from the wretched ecomony, it should be to get the best value we can from everything we use. Nothing does that better or more gracefully than broth.
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