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Curry Favor and Bury Flavor with Brine

26 Jul

I never liked pork chops much growing up. All-too-often overcooked to within an inch of their lives, I couldn’t understand why my parents loved them so much. But flash forward to present day and you’ll know that I adore all things pig, including the humble chop. Why the change of heart? What if I told you a simple bath in salty water and a gentle hand with a hot pan was all that stood between you and the juiciest pork chop you ever ate? Would that be something you might be interested in?

Brining, or the simple process of marinating a food in a salty liquid solution, is perhaps the simplest, most fool-proof means of keeping even the leanest cuts of meat flavorful and juicy, provided you don’t overcook them. The science is a little dense, but the gist is that the high salt content of the brine serves to alter the chemistry of the cells in the meat to the point where they want to hold onto as much moisture as possible. This makes for good eating.

The brine can also act, as any marinade does, to saturate the target with intense flavors impossible by simple surface seasoning. Toss in any spices you would normally use as a rub and watch those flavors penetrate every corner of your meat.

The second key to succulent swine is to take it easy with the heat.  The practice of using uncooked scrap meat as animal feed, coupled with lax meat-handling conditions from farm to table in years past lead to outbreaks of trichinosis, a pig parasite that causes intestinal maladies in most and severe reactions and even death in an unlucky few. While undercooked meat is nothing to joke around about, pork can take on a sear just like a quality steak and a little pink in the middle isn’t a bad thing. Buy fresh or keep frozen and out of the Danger Zone of 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit and most meat should be safe to sear. (Editor’s Note: Buying from a farm you trust can also help alleviate concerns.)

Brined pork chops have become one of my favorite cool-weather comfort foods, paired with braised root vegetables or earthy risottos, they make for comfort food of epic proportions.  A recent curry craving had me wondering how the bright flavors of the East might make for a more season-appropriate application of a Fall/Winter stand-by. A quick couscous salad later and I had my answer: great success!

Curry-Brined Pork Chop with Couscous Salad

Ingredient Rundown:

  • bone-in pork chops


  • water
  • ice
  • kosher salt
  • brown sugar
  • sweet curry powder
  • garam masala
  • cracked black pepper

Couscous Salad

  • Cooked couscous
  • finely chopped vegetables (I used red and green bell pepper, onion, carrot, tomato, garlic and cilantro)
  • lime juice
  • olive oil
  • white vinegar
  • curry powder
  • garam masala
  • powdered ginger
  • Sriracha or other hot chili sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste

How I do it:

Add about 2 cups to a quart of water (depending on how many chops you’re brining) to small pot and heat until nearly boiling. Add a few teaspoons of salt until the water takes on a seawater-like salinity. Add sugar and remaining spices and stir until salt and sugar dissolve. Add ice until brine is cooled to room temperature.

Place pork chops in brine in a sealed storage container or zip-top bag and marinate in refrigerator for 8-24 hours. Obviously, they will take on more salt and curry flavor with longer brining. I have found that 12 hours is a safe bet for a flavorful, yet not over-salted chop.

Prepare couscous salad by cooking couscous as directed (usually by bringing twice as much water as couscous to a boil with a pinch of salt and splash of olive oil, adding couscous and removing from heat to steam for about 5 minutes, fluffing with a fork).  I added a generous dash of maharaja curry powder with the water as to permeate the couscous as it cooked.

In a mixing bowl, prepare dressing by whisking together lime juice, splash of vinegar, Sriracha, spices, salt, cilantro and olive oil. Add vegetables, stir to combine, cover, and place in refrigerator to chill. Flavor will intensify the longer it chills.

When ready to cook, remove pork chops from brine and pat off excess liquid.  Season with a rub of cracked pepper, curry and garam masala. I sprayed each side of the chops with olive oil and added them to a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Depending on thickness of chops, 3-5 minutes per side should do the trick.  Don’t be afraid of a little pink in the middle.

Plate with couscous salad and serve.


Obsession: Three Cup Chicken

5 May

As I mentioned in my early piece on Natt Spil, their Three Cup Chicken (or San bei ji) is one of those dishes that worms its way into your head and demands being sated several times a year.  There’s nothing shy about this traditional South China/Taiwanese dish – obscene amounts of minced garlic and ginger, sesame oil, rice wine and soy sauce with a heavy-handed dose of fresh basil, paired with a spicy-sour salad of sliced cucumber and tomato.  Too much of a good thing means nothing in my book, so this dish is right in my wheelhouse.  And should be in yours.

Three Cup Chicken (San bei ji)

Ingredient Rundown:


  • Chicken thighs, de-boned and roughly chopped (3 healthy-sized thighs yielded 2 healthy-sized servings)
  • 1/3 cup sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce (I use reduced sodium)
  • 1/3 cup rice wine (I’ve used Dry White Sherry to fine results)
  • 1 large thumb-sized lobe of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 8-10 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Fresh basil chiffonade, to taste
  • 1 heaping tsp corn starch
  • 1 cup dry Jasmine rice

Pickled Cucumber/Tomato Salad

  • 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced into sticks
  • 2 roma tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges
  • 1 small onion, sliced thin
  • basil chiffonade, to taste
  • dash of garlic powder, powdered ginger
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • juice of 1 lime (or several small key limes in my case)
  • squirt of Sriracha
  • splash of soy sauce
  • pinch of salt and pepper, to taste

How I do it:

  1. Prepare pickled salad by marinating sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in rice vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce, Sriracha, soy sauce, basil, and spices.  Gets better with time, but give it at least an hour or two.
  2. Add sesame oil to large skillet or cast iron frying pan and saute minced garlic and ginger over medium heat for 5-8 minutes
  3. Add chopped chicken thighs, seasoned with kosher salt and saute with garlic and ginger for about 10 minutes until lightly browned
  4. Prepare 1 cup of jasmine rice, as directed on package (in general the rice should take 20-25 minutes to cook, so now would be a good time to start it so it finishes with the chicken)
  5. Add rice wine, soy sauce, most of the basil and corn starch (I made a slurry by mixing corn starch with an equal amount of soy sauce – this prevents lumps and allows it to incorporate better to thicken sauce) and cook for 15-20 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by 80-90% and a thick sauce remains.
  6. Serve with jasmine rice and pickled salad.  Garnish liberally with more fresh basil.  Bask in its effervescence.  Life is good.

I enjoyed this batch of three cup chicken with some delicious La Playa Sauvignon Blanc 2009 that I just picked up at Barriques Wine and Spirits. I really enjoyed the previous vintage this fall and the fresh stuff really went well with this dish.  Heavily acidic with the first glass I sampled the night before, the wine really opened up with a night under its belt and the fresh notes of lime and ginger shined through, highlighting those aspects of the food nicely.  A pretty nice way to spend an 70 degree evening in early May, I must say.

Let’s do lunch. Or dinner. Anytime, really: Seafood Pasta with Cream Sauce

16 Nov

Simple pasta dishes are always easy to throw together when time/ingredients/motivation/creativity/funds are low.  It’s really not hard to step up from boiled Creamette and and jar of Prego and whip up a homemade sauce in a matter of minutes.

Dish: Seafood pasta with cream sauce

Ingredient rollcall:

  • pasta (long format works well here, though any will do.  I like bucatini)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 1 heaping tbsp AP flour
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • splash of dry sherry or other white wine
  • salt, pepper, herbs to taste (I used some dried herbes de Provence and fresh parsley)
  • few tbsp grated parmesan
  • seafood (I happened to have some frozen shrimp and scallops on hand)

How I do it:

  1. Get that pasta boiling in some salted water.
  2. In a medium skillet, saute garlic in butter over medium heat.
  3. Sprinkle in flour, stirring quickly to create a light roux.
  4. Add cream, wine, cheese, seafood and spices.  Simmer until sauce thickens, 4-5 minutes.
  5. When pasta is about ~80% cooked through, drain and add to sauce for final couple minutes.
  6. Toss to coat pasta and serve.

It’s that simple. 15-20 minutes from start to finish.  Toss in some steamed veggies (peas, carrots, broccoli, etc) and you’ve got pasta primavera.  Add grilled chicken instead of seafood.  Endlessly customizable.  Incredibly satisfying.  No excuses.

New Brew: New Glarus Unplugged Cran-bic Ale

13 Nov


New Glarus Unplugged Cran-bic Ale

Cuz who doesn't love a pun?

The middle of November brings a timely new addition to the venerable New Glarus Unplugged line of experimental beers.  Dan Carey has always had a way with fruit, his Raspberry Tart, Wisconsin Belgian Red, Apple Ale, Cherry Stout, and Enigma all standout offerings showing a deft hand at masterfully blending fruit into solid beer bases that serve as a stage for showcasing the fresh seasonal fruits.  The newest addition to Dan’s fruity family is the Unplugged Cran-bic Ale.  Sounds like a perfect addition to finer Thanksgiving menus across the great state of Wisconsin.

Beer: New Glarus Unplugged Cran-bic Ale

Style: Fruit lambic

Vitals: 6.0% abv, “Sparkling and bright this is a Wisconsin original created for you in the traditional method employed by the Lambic Brewers of Belgium including five months of outdoor resting in oak barrels. Indigenous yeast and cranberries from the “wilds” of Wisconsin flawlessly pair to dance on your palette. You have discovered a rare and delightful treasure to be served cold in a fluted glass.”

My take: Pours a crystal clear shade of burnt amber (perhaps you were expecting cranberry red?) under a short-lived and loosely packed foamy white head.  Nose is dominated by the fruit, with a brown sugar and spice malty depth.  Primarily sweet on the palate, this is certainly not a super-dry lambic in the Belgian tradition.  The balanced tartness and crisp malt backbone falls somewhere between the Belgian Red and Apple Ale for me.  Often, Dan’s barrel-aged beers are very oak-forward, but the wood takes a backseat here.  What he has created is an immanently-drinkable ale that balances the sweet, sour and tart profiles of the fruit masterfully.  It also served as a perfect “dessert” for a light dinner salad of mixed greens from my CSA bonus box, dried cranberries, walnuts, feta, and a quick balsamic vinaigrette I whipped up on the spot.

"House" salad

Bonus Recipe!: Balsamic Vinaigrette

Ingredient Rollcall:

  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Dijon mustard
  • dash of salt, sugar, cracked pepper, herbes de Provence

How I do it:

  1. Pour vinegar (~2 tablespoons for 1-2 portions), mustard (~1 teaspoon), and seasoning in small mixing bowl.
  2. Begin whisking and slowly drizzle an equal amount of olive oil into vinegar mixture until well-blended and emulsified.
  3. That’s it.  Make your own dressing.  It’s so freaking easy.

Leftovers Reborn: Swedish Meatballs

26 Oct


Swedish Meatballs

bork, bork, bork



What do you do when a late night craving netted you 50 meatballs a couple nights back?  After as couple meals of meatballs and marinara, I needed a new application to spice things up.  One of my favorite applications for the versatile meatball has always been the Swedish variety.  Not simply confined to a chafing dish and toothpicks, the Swedish-style meatball works great over egg noodles as sort of Stroganoff spinoff.  While my aforementioned meatball recipe isn’t inherently Swedish with its herbs, cheese, balsamic and bell pepper, they will work just fine here.  If authenticity is something you’re particularly worried about (I’m not), simply omit them.  The following is a simple cream and beef broth-based sauce that can turn an Italian meatball Swedish in as little as 10 minutes.

Dish: Swedish Meatballs over Egg Noodles

Ingredient Rollcall:

  • 8-12 meatballs (leftovers work great here)
  • 1 cup beef stock or broth
  • ~1/3 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons bacon drippings or butter
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of flour
  • 2-3 mushrooms, diced
  • splash each of dry sherry, red wine, and Worcestershire sauce
  • dash of cracked pepper and (optionally) herbes de Provence

How I do it:

  1. Boil water and begin cooking egg noodles (should take around 10-12 minutes).
  2. Heat drippings or butter in medium sauce pan over medium heat with meatballs and mushrooms for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle flour into the pan, stirring into the fat until absorbed and a quick roux is formed.
  4. Splash sherry, wine and Worcestershire, waiting a second for some alcohol to vaporize, then add beef stock.
  5. Stir frequently for several minutes until sauce begins to thicken.
  6. Meatballs in sauceAdd heavy cream and cracked pepper. Continue to stir for 5 minutes or so until sauce is thickened to your liking.
  7. Serve over egg noodles.  Devour in 3-4 minutes.

Yes, I made this twice today.  For lunch and again for dinner.  Yes, I’m OK with that.  Don’t judge me.  Yes, I still have like 20 meatballs left.  I put them in the freezer so I don’t make this again for lunch tomorrow.  I see meatball sandwiches in the not-too-distant future.

Midnight Craving: Pasta and Meatballs

26 Oct
Pasta and meatballs

Tastes even better at 1:30 in the morning

Working 2nd shift has nudged my already late-skewed schedule even deeper into the night.  My daily meal and internal hunger schedules have so far struggled to sync up.  This means sometimes I find myself eating dinner on the other side of midnight.  As cravings go, the midnight ones seem to hit pretty hard and when I got the urge for pasta and meatballs the other night, well…that’s what I had to have.  Luckily, meatballs and marinara sauce are two things I can whip up without too much thought from the ingredients I tend to have around the kitchen.

Dish: Rigatoni and Meatballs

Ingredient Rollcall:


  • 1 lb ground beef (I usually use a mixture of ground beef/pork/italian sausage, but just had beef this time.  Works just fine.)
  • ~1-1.5 cups of brioche bread, diced, and soaked in enough milk to moisten (leftovers from work.  ~.5 cup of Italian breadcrumbs is what I usually use, but the brioche seemed like a nice upgrade)
  • 1 cup of minced vegetables, salted and sauteed in olive oil (any combination of onions, celery, bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic will do)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/3  cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • splash of balsamic vinegar
  • Dash of basil, oregano, thyme, parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • bowl of Italian breadcrumbs for coating
  • olive oil or bacon drippings (my personal favorite) for cooking meatballs

Marinara Sauce

  • 1 large can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • healthy drizzle of olive oil
  • Dash of oregano, basil, thyme, parsley
  • splash of balsamic vinegar
  • splash of red wine
  • salt and pepper to taste

How I do it:


  1. Begin sauce by sauteing onion and garlic in olive oil with dash of salt.  When translucent, add tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic, wine and herbs and simmer while meatballs are assembled and cooked.  Depending on your preference, you an leave the sauce chunky or blend to a smoother consistency.  I like to pulse a few times with a stick blender to achieve a mixed texture.
  2. Begin meatballs by sauteing minced vegetables for 4-5 minutes until softened.
  3. Dice brioche and soak in milk until somewhat mushy.
  4. Combine ground beef, vegetables, brioche, eggs, cheese, balsamic, herbs, salt and pepper until well-mixed.  Use your hands, Sally.
  5. Using a rounded 1 tbsp measuring spoon, portion out, roll, and coat meatballs in breadcrumbs, set aside.  I ended up making exactly 50.  Pretty impressive, huh?

Meatballs a-simmering

  1. To cook meatballs, heat oil or other fat in large saute pan over medium heat.  I used a nice, big electric skillet which heats nice and evenly.  I was able to cook 20 or so at a time, allowing 4-5 minutes on each side or until they achieve a nice golden brown crust.
  2. Depending on the pasta you choose, start the pasta while the meatballs are cooking so they are done around the same time.  This slipped my mind, so I had enough time to throw a few meatballs in the sauce to simmer for a few minutes and trade flavors while the pasta was finishing.

Remember these two recipes because I will return to them often.  They are extremely versatile and lend themselves to the endless tinkering that you all know I love.  They are also hardy enough to keep in the fridge for a few days or freezer for much longer.

Like the back of my hand: Mushroom Risotto w/ ’06 Anchor Old Foghorn

6 Oct

risotto and foghorn

Risotto has always been one of my favorite Italian dishes not only for its rich creamy texture and toothsome bite but for the wide range of flavors it can take on based on available ingredients.  It was also a dish that I assumed was out of my league to make for myself.  A little courage and a little research on my part rid me of my apprehensions and I have made several versions of this dish to date.  One of my favorites, both out at restaurants or in my own kitchen is mushroom risotto.  The savoriness and soft texture of the mushroom pairs perfectly with the creamy/al dente body of the risotto.  With a little practice and an attentive eye, the mystique of risotto can be dissolved even by an amateur like me.

Dish: Mushroom Risotto

Ingredient Rollcall:

  • 1 cup of  high-starch short-grain rice – arborio is the most easily available in the US at most grocery stores, though Carnaroli is more commonly used in Italy.
  • ~3 cups of stock – chicken is most common, though I used a 2:1 mix of chicken and beef stock for a richer flavor.  Vegetable stock could certainly be used to keep the dish vegetarian.
  • ~1 cup of wine – again, white wine is traditional, though I used a mix of red wine and dry sherry for color and depth of flavor
  • ~2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small white onion, diced (though I used green onion in a pinch)
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • large handfull of mushrooms, medium dice (any variety will do, I happened to have plain old button on-hand)
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

How I do it:

  1. In a large saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Saute diced onion, mushrooms, garlic, salt and pepper until onions are translucent, ~5-7 minutes.
  3. Add rice to pan and saute until translucent around edges, another 5-7 minutes.  In general, you don’t want the onions browning, as the caramelization will overpower lighter risottos, but the richer nature of this recipe can handle a little Maillard.
  4. In 1/2 to 2/3 cup doses, add stock to the pan and stir often.  Do not add more stock until the previous dose is nearly absorbed.  The rice should start to develop a creamy “sauce” as you continue to cook off the starch from the rice. This should take another 15-20 minutes to cook through all the stock.
  5. When the final liquid addition is nearly absorbed, remove from the heat, and quickly stir in the butter and parmesan until fully melted. The resulting texture should be creamy, but not soupy.  The risotto should spread on the plate, but not leave a puddle of excess liquid.  The rice should be al dente, with a toothsome bite, not mushy.

The key to a good risotto is a watchful eye and active stirring hand.  The more you stir, the more starch will slough off the rice, lending to a creamier texture in the end.  In fact, many recipes omit the finishing butter and cheese altogether, with sufficiently creamy results.  This is another option for the health conscious.  If you happen to know any people like that.


Coating the rice in olive oil

Anchor Old Foghorn, first brewed in 1975, was the first modern bareleywine brewed in the reborn American craft industry.  Its elder status among its peers is well-deserved as its depth of flavor is rarely matched within the style.  This bottle has been sitting for over three years and has certainly matured with age.  Notes of dark, overripe fig, raisin and black cherries are highlighted by anise and caramel.  The dry-hopping has imparted a predominantly herbal character as time has passed.  The dark fruity esters in this strong ale served as a great complement to the mushrooms, red wine and beef stock in the risotto.

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