March 2010


Apologies for the less than appetizing photograph.  Sausage isn’t the most photogenic food.  But it is delicious, especially when you take the time to make it yourself (and extra-specially when you manage to do it without a proper grinder!).

I use a food processor all the time to grind chicken thighs for meatballs, burgers, and sausage, but I wasn’t sure it would work with pork.  Chicken thighs are naturally lean and have little connective tissue, but the cuts of pork often used for making sausage — butt and shoulder — are tougher, more sinewy, and usually require slow, moist-heat cooking to make them tender.  Could my trusty Cuisinart chop the meat finely and evenly enough to make a tender sausage?  A 12 dollar slab of pork butt and an hour or two of my time seemed a reasonable gamble.

There are a few hard and fast rules for making sausage.  The meat has to be very, very cold so that it’s chopped, not mushed.  Once it’s ground and seasoned, it needs to be mixed vigorously — this makes the mixture sticky so it holds together.  And sausage has to be fatty — a ratio of 3 or 4:1, meat to fat — which usually means you have to grind some fat back into the mix.  (Full disclosure:  I broke this last rule.  The piece of meat I bought was pretty fatty — 5:1, maybe — and the sausage turned out fine.)

You can stuff the mixture into casings, if you like, or cook it as bulk sausage, which is less time intensive and just as tasty.  I cooked most of the sausage in patties (for the freezer) and browned the rest for dinner tonight (with broccoli rabe and barley).  It received rave reviews from the whole gang.

Pork sausage with garlic and herbs

Yield:  About 3 lbs. bulk sausage

3 lb. boneless pork butt (the fattiest one you can find)

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

1/4 c. minced garlic (6-8 cloves)

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme leaves

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh sage leaves

3 tsp. kosher salt

3 tbsp. white wine (or just use water)

Freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Using a very sharp knife, cut pork into cubes no larger than 1-inch square.  Place in a gallon-sized, zip-top plastic bag and freeze for at least an hour, or until meat is fairly firm but not frozen solid.  (When the meat is partially frozen, the food processor will chop it.  If the meat is too warm, you run the risk of processing it into a gooey paste.)

While pork is in freezer, warm a skillet over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onions.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender, about 8 minutes.  Stir in garlic and herbs and cook two minutes more.  Transfer onion mixer to a small container with a lid and refrigerate until cold.

Using a food processor, grind pork in three batches.  Hold the machine steady with one hand while you push the pulse button with the other.  Process, scraping down the bowl once or twice, until meat is well-chopped (but still chunky) and cohesive but not so long that it becomes pasty.  Transfer ground meat to a mixing bowl and repeat with remaining batches.

Add onion mixture, salt, wine or water, and pepper to ground meat.  Mix very well with a spoon, your hands, or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until seasonings are well-incorporated and mixture is sticky.  Refrigerate the mixture overnight, if possible, before cooking.  You can freeze the uncooked sausage, stuff it into casings, or form it into patties.  Cooked sausage freezes well, too.

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If you think of pot roast as dry, tough, and tasteless, think again.  With the right cut of meat — a well-marbled chuck roast is best — and a few flavorful accompaniments, it can be soft, succulent, and richly satisfying.

Unlike sirloin and rib roasts — tender cuts of meat cooked quickly in a hot oven — pot roasts are tougher cuts, cooked slowly at a lower temperature, partially covered with liquid.  This low and slow, moist-heat cooking method is called braising.  The long cooking time and gentle heat break down the connective tissues that bind the muscle fibers, rewarding the patient cook with a tender, delicious, and economical supper.

I like to braise beef in wine, or beer and vinegar, or with other acidic ingredients (like tomatoes) that stand up to and cut through the richness of the meat.  Though you can cook a pot roast on the stove, I prefer the even heating and fine temperature control of the oven.  Never let a pot roast boil, and don’t overcook it — it’s done when a knife or carving fork slides easily into the center of the meat.

Pot roast with onions and beer

Yield:  Serves 6

For braising:

2 tbsp. canola oil

3 1/2 – 4 lb. boneless beef chuck roast

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

2 lbs. yellow onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced lengthwise

1 bay leaf

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme leaves

1 12-oz. bottle dark beer

1 c. chicken stock or beef broth

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

For thickening sauce:

2 tbsp. butter and 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour

or

2 tbsp. cornstarch and 2 tbsp. cold water, stock, or broth

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Warm a large pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat.  Season beef all over with salt and pepper.  Drizzle oil into pot.  When oil is hot but not smoking, add beef and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Remove to a large plate and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium and add onions and bay leaf to drippings in pot.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are very tender and browned, about 25 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and stir in thyme.  Pour in beer, raise heat to medium-high, and stir, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan.  Stir in stock or broth and vinegar and return beef to pot.  Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and put pot in the oven.

Cook for about 3 hours, turning beef once after an hour or so and checking periodically to make sure braising liquid is at a bare simmer.  If it’s boiling, reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees.  Pot roast is done when very tender — you should be able to pierce it easily all over with a carving fork or knife.  Let meat rest in the pot for 30 minutes, then remove to a cutting board.

Skim fat from surface of sauce.  Taste, and season with pepper and additional salt as needed.  If you’d like a thicker sauce, you have two options:  a beurre manie or cornstarch slurry.  To make beurre manie ( or “kneaded butter”) work butter and flour together with your fingers until evenly combined.  Bring sauce to a simmer and add beurre manie in little pieces, stirring to dissolve.  Cook gently until sauce is lightly thickened.  To make a slurry, whisk together cornstarch and cold water, stock, or broth until dissolved.  Bring sauce to a boil.  Stir in slurry and cook 1 minute or until thickened.

Slice or shred roast and serve with onion sauce, mashed potatoes, and green beans.  Refrigerate or freeze leftovers in sauce.

Make it gluten-free: Use your favorite gluten-free beer, or use 1 1/2 c. white wine instead of beer and omit the vinegar.  Thicken sauce with cornstarch, or make a beurre manie with sweet rice flour instead of all-purpose.

Three days into a nor’easter, the library books have been read, the blocks built and rebuilt into every possible configuration, and the crayons (and everyone’s patience) are worn to nubs.  I have a few trick up my sleeve for coping with the monotony of indoor days like these.  Some of them happen in the kitchen.  Many come from memories of my own childhood.  Today’s activity involved both: we baked my grandmother’s mouse cookies.

The stiff, workable dough can be shaped however you like — no need to limit yourself to mice — or just rolled into balls and crisscrossed with the tines of a fork.  Grandma decorated hers with minced raisins for eyes and noses, peanut halves for ears, and red licorice laces for tails.  I subbed sunflower seeds for peanuts, and decided against trekking out for licorice (which didn’t sit right with the budding naturalist, who decided to stick an extra sunflower seed in the rear and call it a hamster).  However you adorn them, these soft, tender cookies are simply delicious.

Brown sugar mice

Yield:  Makes about 4 dozen

1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 c. dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 tsp. almond extract

1 tsp. vanilla extract (or omit the almond and use 1 tbsp. vanilla)

3 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. fine sea salt

Chopped raisins, sunflower seeds or peanut halves, and red licorice laces cut into 3-inch lengths, for decorating

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, combine butter and sugar.  Beat on high speed, scraping down sides of bowl and beater every so often, until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add egg and extracts, beat until well mixed.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour and salt.  With mixer running on low speed, gradually add flour mixture to butter and egg mixture, scraping bowl and beater as needed, until evenly incorporated.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll rounded tablespoons of dough into 1 1/4-inch balls.  Taper balls at one end to form teardrop shapes.  Press in sides a bit to raise back and pinch in front to form snout.  Push in sunflower seeds or peanut halves to form ears.  Use small pieces of raisin for eyes and noses.  Press in licorice a bit to make a tail.  Bake for about 12 minutes or until tops are set and bottoms are lightly browned.  Let cool briefly on pan, then remove to wire racks.  Store at room temperature in a tightly sealed container.

Make it egg- and dairy-free: Use dairy-free margarine (I like Earth Balance Buttery Sticks) instead of butter.  If your margarine is salted, reduce salt in the recipe to 1/2 tsp.  To replace egg, add 2 tbsp. water along with vanilla extract and add 1/2 tsp. baking powder to dry ingredients.

sheet  Press in sides a bit to raise back and pinch in front to form snout.  Push peanut halves in to form ears.  2 pieces of raisins for eyes.  Press in licorice a bit to make a tail.  Bake 9-12 min. or til lightly browned on bottoms.  Makes 45 mice.

Best-quality canned tomatoes are key to this simple, well-rounded soup.  Roasting the tomatoes in a hot oven with a little sugar before adding them to the pot concentrates their flavor and caramelizes their juices.  If you chop and saute the other vegetables while the tomatoes are in the oven, the soup comes together in under and hour.  With a thick wedge of toasted cornbread and an apple, it makes a lovely lunch.

Roasted tomato soup

Yield:  Makes about 10 cups

2 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes

1/4 c. olive oil, divided

1 tbsp. brown sugar

1 Spanish onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

2 c. chicken or vegetable stock, plus more as needed

2 tbsp. butter (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Drain tomatoes, reserving about 3 c. juice in a large liquid measure.  Halve and seed the tomatoes (hold the halves cut side down and squeeze gently to remove seeds and pulp).  Arrange seeded tomatoes in a single layer on lined baking sheet.  Drizzle with 1 tbsp. olive oil and sprinkle evenly with brown sugar.  Roast until juices are evaporated and tomatoes begin to color, about 30 minutes.

Warm a soup pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Drizzle in remaining 3 tbsp. olive oil, then add onion, carrot, and celery.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes.  Add garlic and thyme to pot and season with salt and pepper.  Cook 2 minutes more.  Using a wide spatula, remove roasted tomatoes from foil and add to pot.  Pour in stock and reserved tomato juice.  Raise heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until all vegetables are very tender and soup is slightly thickened, 15-20 minutes.

Puree soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a food processor or blender.  Return to pot.  Stir in butter, if using.  Season with additional salt and pepper, if needed, and thin to desired consistency with additional stock.

This is my all-time favorite family dinner.  Not because it’s the most delicious or quickest meal I cook, but because nobody complains about it.  Even the one who habitually glares at every plate like I’m trying to poison her can’t muster a grimace.  And why would she?  Scallion pancakes are everything kids love:  mildly flavored, wedge-shaped, and dippable.

This version of the Chinese restaurant favorite is surprisingly easy to make at home and, less surprisingly, much healthier than take-out.  We like them with a huge plate of raw and steamed vegetables (carrots, red peppers, snow peas, and broccoli are good) and a tangy sauce or two for dipping.

Scallion pancakes

Yield:  24 wedges, serving at least 4

1 1/2 c. unbleached, all-purpose flour

1 c. white whole wheat flour

1 c. warm water

3 – 4 tbsp. canola oil, for brushing and frying (or use toasted sesame oil for brushing)

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

4 scallions, tender green parts only, thinly sliced

Measure flours into a large mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon.  Pour in water and stir again until dough comes together into a shaggy ball.  Turn dough out on a clean counter and knead until smooth but still tacky, adding a bit more flour if necessary to prevent sticking.  Lightly oil bowl, then drop in dough ball and turn once to coat.  Cover bowl with a clean dish towel and set aside to rest for at least 20 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured counter and roll into a long rectangle of roughly 12 x 20-inches, dusting with additional flour as needed to prevent sticking.  Brush surface of rectangle with oil (canola or sesame) and sprinkle evenly with salt and scallions.  Starting at one of the longer edges, tightly roll dough into a rope.  Divide rope into four equal lengths.  Tightly coil each rope into a spiral, tucking open end under to make a round shape.  Flatten each round with your palm, then, adding flour as needed, roll from the center outward in all directions to make a flat pancake roughly 9-inches wide and 1/8-inch thick.  Lightly flour each round to prevent sticking, and stack between pieces of wax paper.

Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Drizzle in just enough canola oil to thinly coat the bottom of the pan.  Lay one pancake into the hot skillet and cook until lightly browned on the bottom, 2-3 minutes.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Remove to a cutting board and slice into 6 wedges.  Keep warm in a towel-covered bowl or plate while you cook the remaining pancakes.  Serve hot.

Soy-ginger dipping sauce

3 tbsp. tamari or other soy sauce

2 tbsp. rice vinegar

2 tsp. brown sugar

1/2 tsp. finely grated, fresh gingerroot

Whisk all ingredients until sugar is dissolved.

Ersatz duck sauce

1/4 c. apricot preserves (look for one without high-fructose corn syrup)

2 tbsp. rice vinegar

1/4 tsp. finely grated, fresh gingerroot (or more, to taste)

Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan or microwave-safe bowl.  Whisk well and remove from heat.  Cool to room temperature.  (If your preserves are very chunky, you can puree your sauce for a smoother texture.)