Weird Crap I Cook: Hogs Head Barbacoa II

The first post on this blog was my attempt to cook a whole hogs head buried underground whole on a camping trip.  For 24 hours.  It was quite a scene and it led to me posting my cooking adventures on a (semi) regular basis on this blog and helping you lose weight with every reading.  I assumed I would be back to cook another hogs head, just because I am cheap and they are $10 apiece at Meatland in JP.  Oh, and I have had one in my freezer for the past year.  I had to cook that one at some point.

This past weekend was blog character Dupee’s bachelor party on Webb lake in Weld, Maine.  And, since it is between May and October, it’s time for a refresher on how Maine is the most wonderful place in New England for a few months every year.

Ah, Maine.  It was a ridiculously nice day and I think we saw 4 or 5 people that weren't in our group all day.  How great is Maine?

Ah, Maine.  It was a ridiculously nice day and I think we saw 4 or 5 people that weren’t in our group all day.  How great is Maine?

With lots of fishing planned and steak tips on the menu for dinner, I wanted do something special for Dupe.  So, I decided to give him head.

When we got there the first arrivals were out fishing, so I decided to rinse and prep the hogs head on the dock.  Apparently while Grandma was watching.  Still an awesome houseguest!

When we got there the first arrivals were out fishing, so I decided to rinse and prep the hogs head on the dock.  Apparently while Grandma was watching.  I am still an awesome houseguest!  Yes, that is also in the shallow swimming area in front of the beach, right near where they draw water for the tap in the house.  Awesome, awesome houseguest!

Well, really, I was planning to give everyone some head.  Let’s just let that spoof stay where it lay and move on with the rest of the post.

When the first arrivals asked what exactly I was planning to do with a hogs head, Dupee shrugged and said, “probably make tacos”.  Correct!  In fact, I can’t figure out a damned thing to make with animal heads aside from head cheese and tacos.  And why fix it if it aint’ broke?!?!?

Let' be honest here, it's kinda broke.  I might need to make some guanciale or pig face cracklins or something

Let’ be honest here, it’s kinda broke.  I might need to make some guanciale or pig face cracklins or something soon.  Or just stop hoarding animal heads like a hoarder hoards computer monitors

Alrighty, here are some thoughts on the somewhat horrifying image above:

  1. The eye area was much cleaner and trimmed than the last one
  2. The ear area was far better cleaned too
  3. The skull was pre split for easy access after cooking
  4. There was a lot more meat at the back of the head than the last one
Whole lot going on in this shot and probably for the best that you can't zoom in.  That part of the head is best not closely examined or questioned prior to being dark and crispy

Whole lot going on in this shot and probably for the best that you can’t zoom in.  That part of the head shouldn’t be closely examined or questioned prior to being dark and crispy

After patting the head dry with paper towels, I did a little inspection for any nasty bits that would need to be trimmed off and eventually just accepted that nothing was nastier than anything else on the head.  I then moved on to removing the ears and stuffing them inside the mouth so they wouldn’t burn.  Then, I covered every square inch of exposed flesh with a rub of paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, brown sugar, and salt before squeezing it into a Pyrex.

The split skull is a bit more apparent in this picture.  I am sure this disrupted the Pyrex's plan to cruise through its remaining days baking brownies and maybe some chicken breast here and there

The split skull is a bit more apparent in this picture.  I am sure this disrupted the Pyrex’s plan to cruise through its remaining days baking brownies and maybe some chicken breasts here and there

I wrapped the head tightly with foil and put it into a preheated 300F oven to bake for 6-8 hours or until I figured out a way to smoke it.

While the head cooked we did some more fishing and horseshoe throwing.  But mostly fishing.

I didn't catch any of these and most were caught before I arrived and jinxed the whole thing Oliver-style.  These trout will play a role in a future post hopefully.  Here's a hint: a part of one of them has been sitting in one of my kitchen cupboards for 4 days.  And that cupboard be STANKIN

I didn’t catch any of these and most were caught before I arrived and jinxed the whole thing, Cousin Oliver-style.  These trout will play a role in a future post hopefully.  Here’s a hint: a part of one of them has been sitting in one of my kitchen cupboards for 4 days.  And that cupboard be STANKIN’

Around 6 hours into the cook time we came up with a plan to finish the hogs head in a smoker fashioned from fresh birch chips and a ‘Lil Smokey grill.  I proceeded to babble about it nonstop and lay some pretty poor groundwork for eventually executing it without actually getting started.  Then I got distracted, probably dug a hole in the sand with my feet, and eventually went up to check on the head and discovered it was already fully cooked.

I have 4 or 5 of these pictures and they all are oddly half focused/half unfocused.  It would be hard to figure out why that was happening if I hadn't needed to clean a thin sheen of pork fat off my entire phone the following morning

I have 4 or 5 of these pictures and they all are oddly half focused/half unfocused.  It would be hard to figure out why that was happening if I hadn’t needed to clean a thin sheen of pork fat off my entire phone the following morning

The skin was crispy, the meat was falling apart, and there were some delicious bits of meat to pick off the back of the head.  Considering that it almost fell into four pieces when I moved it three inches from the Pyrex to the plate and was completely cooked through, I abandoned the smoker plan and got started picking.

First up was the ears which were tender, sticky and falling apart.  Sliced these into little pasta-like ribbons.

Immediately brought memories of the 10+ bowls of unidentified items put on our table at the turtle hot pot dinner in Beijing.  Not sure I knew what these were then but I know now

Immediately brought memories of the 10+ bowls of unidentified items put on our table at the turtle hot pot dinner in Beijing.  Not sure I knew what these were then but I know now

The tongue was up next and was definitely more innocuous looking than the one I cooked a few weeks ago.

I originally put this into a separate bowl after slicing before deciding anyone who was willing to eat pig face wouldn't mind a little tongue in there too, and mixed it in with the regular meat bowl

I originally put this into a separate bowl after slicing before deciding anyone who was willing to eat pig face wouldn’t mind a little tongue in there too, and mixed it in with the regular meat

From there I got a stack of paper towels, brought over the trash bin and started the messy process of picking through all of the fat and skin to get to the tender head meat.  The bulk of the meat came from the cheeks, but there are also decent-sized deposits around the eyes, on the inside of the jaw, and multiple spots on the back of the head.  A couple shots of the carnage.

I steered clear of that whole teeth and sketchy lip area, but you can see how much meat is barely hanging on to that jaw bone

I steered clear of that whole teeth and sketchy lip area, but you can see how much meat is barely hanging on to that jaw bone.  Dag, looked at those teeth again.  Generally this is a much worse foto than I originally thought it was when I posted it

This is shortly before was able to crack the skull in half because of my incredible strength and manliness.  Then I removed the brain, washed my hands urgently, and screamed when I saw a bug on the window

This is shortly before I was able to crack the skull in half because of my incredible strength and manliness.  Then I removed the brain, washed my hands urgently, and screamed when I saw a bug on the window

With the meat keeping warm in the oven and my stomach stuffed with crunchy skin cracklins consumed while cooking, I moved on to the ears.  I heated up a few spoonfuls of rendered fat from the head in a pan and threw the ears in.  And I had a learning experience.

I once tried to make fried clams and had them all explode in the fryer covering my face with hot oil, but let’s give pan-frying ears its proper due as a close runner up to that.  The oil got way too hot too quickly and the slices of pig ear started exploding like crazy, covering my arms and face with oil.  I found out the following day that you gotta go the opposite way on the burner to get it to a temperature that won’t burn everything in sight.  Oh well, the pig ears stayed about the same level of edible.

fried ears on left, cup of fat in the middle, brains and eyes on the right.  That bowl on the right had nothing good going on, I've learned that pork is not the mildest eating brains and eyes and didn't touch this set.  Still left it out so someone else could make the same mistake I've made (and they did)

Fried ears on left, cup of fat in the middle, brains and eyes on the right.  That bowl on the right had nothing good going on; I’ve learned that pork is not the mildest eating brains and eyes and didn’t touch this set.  Still left it out so someone else could make the same mistake I’ve made (and they did)

That bowl of ears didn’t last long, which was surprising.  I think Dupe ate most of them but they were pretty much gone when I got back to the kitchen.

With dinner close, I heated up 24 corn tortillas in more of the pork fat for the tacos.

Not much to this one, I guess I wanted to point out how many rounds of tortillas I had to heat

Not much to this one, I guess I wanted to point out how many rounds of tortillas I had to heat

From there, it was pretty much serve and eat.  I setup the taco bar with the head meat, raw onion, cilantro, limes, crumbled goat cheese (because I couldn’t find queso fresco), and some hot sauce.  I probably could have cut the stems off the cilantro, but, meh.

I went with the double tortilla for authenticity but it was stupid then and it still looks stupid now.  Plus we ran out of tortillas and I had to heat more, so, even stupider

I went with the double tortilla for authenticity but it was stupid then and it still looks stupid now. Plus we ran out of tortillas and I had to heat more, so, even stupider

There’s not a lot to say here that wasn’t covered in the first post, but these were tasty tacos.  The meat was tender, flavorful, rich, and very very porky.  Hence the need for all of the fresh ingredients and other strong flavors to accompany it with.  I wish I had found a better way to serve the skin which I let go from crispy to soggy in the hour between when it came out of the oven and dinner.  Some crispy pig skin slivers on top would have been a nice touch.

Probably not my last venture with hogs head, but not sure I will be roasting it again.  Just not that much meat and my hands are still sticky.  But, a decent, odd meal in honor of Dupe.

Next week, mystery cupboard fish parts!


Major Dags: Volume 1 (feat. Cod Cheeks, Pasta Pizza, & Cuttlefish)

I was first introduced to the slang term “dag” when I was at the movies with a few friends (including regular blog character Mooman, known him a long time) at the age of 14.  We bumped into a former classmate that left for a new school a few years earlier and upon seeing us he exclaimed, “DAAAAAG! You guys got BIG!”  The comment was so absurd that it endured as a story we discussed and giggled about occasionally over the years.  15 years later, at a quiet bar in a nice restaurant where a few diners were enjoying their lunch, Marshall looked at the beer list and exclaimed “DAAAAG!!!” upon seeing the price of the beers.  Since there were 3 or 4 friends present to witness this, a catch phrase was born.

According to Urban Dictionary, dag means damn or is a general exclamation of amazement.  That’s about how we/I use it and use it often.  Anyway, this new segment on the blog is to capture the growing pile of meals that I only partially documented in photos, missed the key final shots that make a post work, or were just a complete failure.  You know, major dags.  Enjoy!

Cod Cheeks

One thing this blog has taught me is that all cheeks are delicious.  Beef, grouper, and pork have been documented here, along with collars from salmon and tuna.  So, when I noticed a fish shop on route 1 that advertised cod cheeks, I knew I would have to cook them at some point.  Only problem was that the only times I was 30 minutes north of Boston on Route 1 was when I was on my way out of town.  After a year of seeing the sign, I finally bought some and brought them to New Jersey with me.

After a rinse and pat dry.  This was around the time I realized it would be tough to keep up a conversation with Mommy Ryan while documenting a blog post

After a rinse and pat dry.  This was around the time I realized it would be tough to keep up a conversation with Mommy Ryan while documenting a blog post

The cod cheeks were medallions of meat about the size of a medium scallop and looked about how you would expect them to.  The color was a bit darker than regular cod fillets and had noticeably more fat than the usually lean cod meat.  Each piece seemed like a completely unique combination of shape and size.

I bought about a pound of the cheeks ($5.99!) and I would guess there were the cheeks of about 20 cod in there.  Excellent deal

I bought about a pound of the cheeks ($5.99!) and I would guess there were the cheeks of 20 cod in there.  Excellent deal

I’d never tasted cod cheeks before, but based on my experience with grouper it seemed like I should just treat them the way I would a scallop.

I heated up a couple tablespoons of butter in a pan then sauteed some garlic and a few capers over medium heat for a few minutes.  While that cooked, I dusted the cod cheeks with a little of flour, salt, and pepper and then added them to the pan.

Like scallops, but of all different sizes.  These might be the most innocuous looking cheeks I've cooked

Sorta looks like scallops, right?  Also could be sliced bulls balls based on the recent history of this blog.  Regardless,  these might be the most innocuous looking cheeks I’ve cooked

After a flip, I added a solid pour of white wine and lowered the heat to a simmer.  Since cod has a chewy, mushy, unpleasant texture when rare, I let the cheeks simmer for 8-10 minutes while the cooking liquid reduced and thickened around them.

A future signature of the Major Dag posts: abrupt final pictures that leave you hanging without any idea how this all came together in the end.  I blame Mommy for this one, I'm assuming she asked me a question about her Mac which derailed and beffudled me, making me forget I was documenting a post

A future signature of the Major Dag posts: abrupt final pictures that leave you hanging without any idea how this all came together in the end.  I blame Mommy for this one, I’m assuming she asked me a question about her iPhone which derailed and befuddled me, making me forget I was documenting a post

And that’s all you get.  I served the cod over some pasta with the cooking liquid as a sauce and paired it with asparagus.  The combination of butter, garlic, capers, and white wine rarely goes wrong and works with pretty much any seafood.  The cheeks were delicious, with a totally different texture than cod fillets.  Where cod is usually flaky and light, there was more density to the cheek and a more uniform, scallop-like texture.  Clever, 6 effing references to how they were like scallops, but I really got nothing else for you.  It’s accurate and annoying.

Linguine Pizza

I go through an obsessive pizza phase about once every 10 months.  No real reason for it, I just make pizza one day, it tastes really good, and then I proceed to make different varieties of it twice a week for the following 6 weeks.  The most recent incarnation of this obsession was pizza cooked on the grill, but prior to that wave it was all oven-baked and most of the creativity was in the toppings.  The pizza I made with shredded short rib and the reduced braising liquid acting as the pizza sauce was a personal favorite, but the oddest ones were based on leftovers.  Basically, roll out the dough and dump some leftovers on.

First, the dough.  For years I bought dough from local pizza shops because I assumed they use the same dough starter for years and the dough would have a nice funky bread flavor.  Plus, I never remembered to make it a day in advance.  Then I bought dough from a local place, discovered it was partially frozen and likely from a massive food service operation, and threw a temper tantrum.  The type of temper tantrum a normal babysitter would quit over, thankfully Kristi is my babysitter.

Nowadays I mostly make my dough 24 hours in advance, let it rise a couple times, then punch it down and throw it in the fridge.  Which leads to lots of situations likes this.

I consistently was terrified to remove these bags from the fridge since they both looked like they could explode in take out an eye at any second

I am consistently terrified to remove these over-inflated bags from the fridge since they look like they could explode and take out an eye at any second.  I am convinced that some morning we will wake up with the fridge doors wide open and the contents sprayed everywhere after one of these bags explodes

This has happened maybe five times, every time I’ve made pizza dough in the past year I would guess.  In each case, I punched the dough down and pressed out all air then wrapped them tight in a plastic bag.  Apparently that’s not gonna do it.  One night before hosting a party the following day, I put four doughs into a drawer in the fridge.  When we returned home, the drawer was off its track and looked like a hot air balloon inflated inside a VW Beetle.  The picture above captures the awesome inflating power of the dough.  The remarkable thing is that the dough found tiny holes and made tiny dough bubbles on the outside.

Anyway, during one of these pizza streaks I came back from a weekend in Maine with a lot of lobsters and a little bit of leftovers from a linguine with clam sauce.  The following day I was left to fend for myself for dinner and didn’t have enough pasta to make a whole dinner, sooooooooo….

The most offensive part of the oven-pizza-era was that every pizza ended up a rectangle.  I'd rather have an awful misshapen half moon (like my grilled pizzas) than something so geometric

The most offensive part of the oven-pizza-era was that every pizza ended up a rectangle.  I’d rather have an awful misshapen half moon (like my grilled pizzas) than something so geometric.  Just feels wrong

Stretch the dough out, coat well with olive oil, dump the leftovers into the center, evenly spread, then season the edges of the dough with lots of salt and pepper.  Oh, and “dust” (read: blizzard) pecorino romano plus a drizzle of additional olive oil over the top.

After 12 minutes in a 500 degree oven, I had this:

Yeah, not that different looking, but that's what you should expect from Major Dags: lots of repetitive and incomplete photography

Yeah, not that different looking, but that’s what you should expect from Major Dags: lots of repetitive and incomplete photography

I’ve made pasta pizza a few times since making this one.  Carb-wise, it’s the type of meal that makes construction workers whistle at me while I walk and ask if they can get some fries with that shake.  Flavor and texture-wise, it’s totally my fave thing.  All the flavor of the pasta dish you use, plus the crispy seasoned dough, tons of cheese, and the texture of the crunchy pieces of pasta on top.  The biggest plus is eating a bunch of pasta with only your hands and no need for a fork.  Pasta pizza is an open faced Italian taco, and the spaghetti calzone from Luigi’s in Lewiston, ME is the Italian gordita.  Need to document that one at some point.

Cuttlefish Pasta

This meal continues with the pattern of stuff I cooked when Kristi wasn’t home to make sure I ate right.

As discussed previously on this blog, the diverse inhabitants of JP leads to a lot of odd foods at the grocery store.  And pharmacy.  I found this can of shellfish at my local CVS.

I think i bought a can of octopus on the same visit to CVS.  These cans were in between the crackers and the hair gel.  100% serious

I think I bought a can of octopus on the same visit to CVS.  I used to take Playboys out of the dumpster behind CVS when I was 12, and now I am buying my shellfish there.  You and I have come a long way CVS!  Also, these cans were in between the crackers and the hair gel.  100% serious

I’ve only had a few small bites of fresh cooked cuttlefish during my travels and hope to someday purchase it fresh and cook it for myself.  I love squid and octopus, and cuttlefish seems like a close cousin of those two.  If I can’t get the fresh kind locally, though, I’ll happily give this questionable can of meat a shot.  Especially since they were packed in their own ink (supposedly), which is my fave thing.

Once I opened the can I was a little less excited.

I expected it to look more like the black squid ink I see in restaurants, not like awful sardine oil.  Shows how tough I am to please that seeing this mess just made me shrug and continue with food prep

I expected it to look more like the black squid ink I see in restaurants, not like cheap sardine oil. God that looks awful.  Shows how tough I am to please that seeing this mess just made me shrug and continue with food prep

I didn’t have the courage to eat this on its own, nor did I really want to, so I decided to make a pasta with the cuttlefish.  Started out by heating a little olive oil in a pan and adding onions, garlic, and, because Kristi was out of town and I like funky salty fish, a can of chopped anchovies.

Shoulda thrown the capers in there, another food I love dearly that I have pushed Kristi to the absolute limit on

Shoulda thrown capers in there too.  Another food I love dearly that I have pushed Kristi to the absolute limit on

While that cooked, I brought a pot of water to a boil and dumped in some dried shell pasta to cook about 3/4 of the way through.

Once the pasta was strained and the onions were translucent, I added in the cuttlefish, some salt & pepper, and a little bit of the “sauce” from the can.  After a couple minutes of cooking together I poured in about a half cup of white wine and let it simmer/reduce for 10-15 minutes.

A lot more promising than it looked in the can, but it still smelled a little bit like canned food despite all of the strong aromas.  Canned food is kind of the worst

A lot more promising than it looked in the can, but it still smelled a little bit like cat food despite all of the other strong aromas involved.  Canned food is kind of the worst

Once the sauce had reduced a bit, I stirred in the partially cooked pasta to cook the rest of the way in the sauce, which left me with this.

Shells were a terrible decision.  I think that this meal and the minimal documentation of it is as good of an example of a Major Dag that I have

Shells were a terrible decision.  I think that this meal and the minimal documentation of it is as good of an example of a Major Dag that I have

Overall, this meal was edible and I ate it, but it wasn’t exactly something that I looked forward to replicating for my friends at some point.  The flavor was fishy and muddy and had a faint taste that reminded me of the smell of a handful of change, likely from the canned fish.  The sauce looked creamy but it had a bit of graininess to it.  The cuttlefish was like squid that had boiled for a long time; some texture but disintegrated once you started chewing and not in a good way.  Because I was hungry and it had some enjoyable flavors for me, I ate most of it.  But it really wasn’t good.

I have lots of posts ready to go, just been swamped at work and haven’t had enough time to write.  I’ll try to do better.

Weird Crap I Cook: Pork Cheeks and Pancakes

This post will continue my long love affair with cheeks.  They look odd, come in unpredictable shapes and size, and I’ve only found one reliable location to buy them in the northeastern US: the Italian Market in Philly.  I’ve heard Savenor’s in Cambridge sells beef cheeks for $20 a pound and my other option is $100 for a 50 pound box in the warehouse district.  Neither of those works too well for me, so I will continue with an endless cycle of loading up occasionally, vacuum sealing and using the meat for a couple years.

Anyhoo, I’ve had these pork cheeks for awhile now and I’ve been looking for a good opportunity to use them.  With a reprise of the “Shhhh, Janet’s sleepin'” Oktoberfest party on tap this past weekend, I retrieved the cheeks from the chest freezer to thaw and started meal planning late last week.

On Saturday, I got going a few hours before folks came over by browning three sliced medium onions and some coarse chopped garlic in lard.

Went with lard because it was in the fridge and I was sick of having it in there.  An extremely common explanation on this blog.  Stop leaving me lard in my mailbox, everyone!

The goal was to give the onions a little color but not cook them fully since they would be braising in with the meat eventually.  While those cooked, I pulled the thawed 3lb package of pork cheeks out of the fridge.

Tim is incredibly wasteful with his food saver bag sizing which is completely contrary to his hippie “ohhh, I compost my coffee grounds and eggshells for my garden” persona.  In reality this thing was a football sized frozen brick when we packaged it and needed lots of room.  I hate when I bail him out

The cheeks were all given a good rinse, patted dry, and piled up on a plate for me to pick through and pretend I knew what I was doing when assessing them.

Cheeks are interesting, every piece looks and feels completely different, though I probably pretended I had opinions on each piece as I picked through them.  Grabbed your cheeks and moved your jaw around a bit yet?  I do that every time I see raw cheek meat

Unlike the beef cheeks from the Italian Market, these didn’t require an intense 30 minutes of finger endangering trimming.  Generally the meat looked pretty good, mostly trimmed of fat and with no extra silver skin or connective tissue hanging on.  The oddest thing was the broad range of size and shape for each piece of meat.

I end up having to scrub both cutting boards in the end but the pattern of stupidity just refuses to end.  Or I refuse to let it end.  Either way, you should fully expect to one day see a third cutting board on top which will go unaddressed for awhile before I start complaining about using three cutting boards instead of just two.  Basically, I foresee this blog capturing my slow decent into insanity

Quick aside: a lot of the bizarre shapes and sizes of the cheeks comes from where I usually get these.  I think the general process is that they butcher a bunch of the same type of animal and throw the cheeks in the same bucket before freezing them into a gigantic block.  My friendly butcher then slices the block while frozen so you end up with some full pieces and some halfies.  Now you know.

With the meat patted dry, the remainder of the ugly pieces trimmed off, and the onions browned, I moved on to seasoning the cheeks.  Nothing special here, just a good amount of light brown sugar, salt, and black pepper.

Got my ingredients in dat shot! Bonus items include half a brown banana for Janet (she eats equal parts expensive fruits and borderline trash), the video monitor (she was nappin’), and an extremely long receipt from Kristi’s pre-Sandy grocery run that we finished before Sandy hit

I seasoned both sides of the meat and in under a minute you could see the salt drawing out the moisture in the meat and the brown sugar trapping it.  With that process going, I removed the onions from the pot, flipped the cheeks and gave the meat another sprinkle of seasoning.

Nice to see that brown sugar melting in.  Also, helps clarify that there was a second plate of cheek meat, not just the cutting board pile.  I am extremely talented at thawing out the exact right amount of meat based on that meat being labeled properly

The cheeks went into the Big Yellow in two waves to brown on all sides and hopefully not build up too much burned sugar on the bottom of the pot.  Not browning the beef cheeks was the biggest mistake I made when cooking that meal and I have beat myself up for it at least once a week in the 22 months since then.  So, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

I failed at the “no burned sugar spot” attempt.  I have this issue every frigging time I brown stuff in Big Yellow but I’m too lazy to do it in a separate pan that would require separate washing and drying

After 5 or so minutes on each side the first batch came out and the next batch went in.  Eventually leaving me with a nice big pile of browned cheek meat.

Lookin’ dece, pig cheeks.  Some pieces looked like tenderloin, some like cutlets, but all totally different.  I can’t wait for Con to visit his Grandma so I can get more.  Con, go visit your Grandma!

Due to the amount of burned sugar caked on the bottom, I scraped a bit off with a wooden spoon and threw it away before properly deglazing with a solid pour of dry sherry.  The remaining good bits were scraped off the bottom while the sherry cooked down and after a few minutes I added a carton of beef broth and a beer.  As usual, it was the worst beer in my fridge.

This Kentucky Bourbon Ale four pack probably cost between $10 and $15 at our local boutique beer shop and was brought over by a guest weeks ago.  I’m sure it is brewed with love, but it tasted like the Milwaukee’s Best and Southern Comfort boilermakers I chugged in college on more than one occasion.  Had a damp belch just thinking about that one

The sweet bourbon flavored beer seemed like a natural match for the braise and the flavors I’d added so far.  After waiting out the initial foam-up from pouring cold beer into the hot liquid, I added a couple bay leaves, a clove, and turned the heat to medium to let the liquid reduce for about fifteen minutes.

I’ve finally beaten my urge to always make too much braising liquid.  Next up, my urge to eat to the point of sweatyness.  We can beat this thing guys!

Once the liquid had reduced by about 1/3, I added the cheeks back into the dutch oven and positioned them so they were all mostly covered with the liquid.  Then added back in the onions and garlic, poorly attempting to distribute them evenly.

I’ve gotten better at not doubting myself at the last second right before I put a pot in the oven to braise.  Always leads to major mistakes.  Though I am 75% sure most of my friends come here to watch me fail

With everything back in the pot, the lid went on and Big Yellow headed into a 325F oven for two and a half hours.  During that time I hid remotes and iPhones from Janet, tried to distract myself on my computer while she repeatedly hit the caps lock, and fed her dinner while asking her, “you think Daddy is a good cook, right?”

Finally, as people were starting to show up and Janet headed to bed, Big Yellow came out of the oven.  As usual, I stuck my dumb face directly over the pot as I removed the lid and was blind for 30 seconds from the steam burn.  When my eyes could see again, they saw this.

Braising is the best, you knew this was going to be tender and excellent without even sampling it

The dutch oven was set to the side with the lid half open to let the meat rest for 30-45 minutes.  One thing I’ve learned about cheeks and short ribs is they are always better after a rest of some kind.  Even though this turned out very tasty (spoiler alert!!!), if I had to do it again I would have cooked it the day before and let it all rest together for 24 hours.

While that rested I pulled the lid off of the batch of slow cooked Momere Beans (she turns 100 this weekend!!!!  I mean, wowzers!) and let some of the liquid cook off.

Not sure why I didn’t mention these before but they are a required side dish at Oktoberfest.  Momere and Joycie might have given me a good head shaking had they tried these since my lack of par boiling definitely had them less mushy than the standard baked beans, but most people seem to enjoy that little extra firmness

The beans ended up needing a little more time, so while they finished cooking I boiled a bunch of skin-on red potatoes and let them cool once soft.  Mashed those together with a little milk, a couple big spoonfuls of dijon mustard, chopped green onion, an egg, and lots of salt and pepper.

Hate that I got the basics for this recipe from the Down Home with the Neelys.  Their banter is infuriating but they do cook some delicious grub.  I have no idea how Tim lives with himself regularly cooking from recipes

Once the potato mixture had rested for a bit, I formed it into patties, rolled them in some breadcrumbs and pan fried in a little olive oil.

I love potato pancakes and regularly utilize leftover mashed potatoes for them.  I’m not saying that they are good or edible normally, just that I like the idea of them and cook them regularly

When the pancakes went into the pan, I turned on the burner under the cheeks to warm them up a bit.  As each pancake came off, it got a cheek (or two of the smaller cheeks pieces) on top, along with a ladle of braising liquid/onions, and a big spoonful of Momere Beans.

It’s a good sign when the food is good enough to not make me pause and take a mid-eating picture, but always makes the post feel a little incomplete.  This is the last foto, imagine bites that mash everything on the plate together accompanied with lots of grunts and heavy breathing

The meat was tender and cut easily with a fork without being overly tender and mushy.  Cheek meat doesn’t taste much different from a flavorful piece of pork shoulder, but the grain of the meat is distinct and the meat is less fatty.  You could taste the sweetness from the onions, beer, and brown sugar in the liquid, but the best bites had the added sweetness of a forkload of beans.  The pancake was a nice contrast to the beans and pork with the crispy starch and mustard flavor coming through.  All in all, very solid plate of food and I was stunned that the Oktoberfest crew was able to continue eating sausages after finishing their plates since it was true stick-to-your-ribs food.  Solid overstuffed night of eating.

Off to Momere’s birthday party.  It’s gonna be like the rave at the end of Go I think.  Spoof’n, but pretty amazing that she is 100 and still lives alone in a house heated by a wood burning stove.  I think I am going to be especially blown away when I see the full group of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren at the party this weekend.

Good luck to everyone in the Northeast recovering from Sandy.  LBI as many of you have seen already got hit very hard, but we have hope for our little bayside house and will keep you posted on how it fared when I know more.

Weird Crap I Cook: Goat Head Cheese

I think the name of this post gives a reasonably accurate impression of what will unfold, albeit in obnoxiously wordy fashion.

You know those Saw movies that they advertise once a year around Halloween?  The ones that make you wonder who the hell would choose to sit down and watch horrifically graphic gore for a couple hours of their precious free time?  That’s what this post may feel like at times, except if those movies ended with everyone in the movie becoming best friends and eating a surprisingly tasty meal together.

Before we get started, check out how cute Janet is these days:

Obsessed with her own looks at 7 months old. Maybe I should ask her about her favorite books like that uber preachy article that was re-posted on Facebook a thousand times tells me I should

Alright, now that we’ve broken the ice with that one, let’s get started on this journey.

While wandering through Haymarket with a few friends on the Friday before New Years, I stumbled upon a butcher shop that seemed to specialize in cheap cuts from goat and lamb.  When I saw a skinned goat’s head for $8, I knew I was incapable of resisting and purchased it after having the butcher split it in half with the bone saw.  The previous sentence has surely appeared in multiple serial killer autobiographies.

Once home it went into the freezer to wait for the right meal.  Originally it was going to be soup, but I saw some potential to make a head cheese/terrine and barreled ahead once I saw the minimal instruction available online.

That eyeball is like something out of a nightmarish Pixar cartoon. Way, way too large looking compared to the rest of the head. Remember, it is already split in half down the center at this point

Perfect Super Bowl Sunday food!  I’m the best host ever.

I got started by thawing out the head for a couple days.  Once I tore into the bag, I gave the head a good rinse in the sink and then used a small spoon to remove the brains.  My apologies in advance for what is the toughest shot in the bunch.

Look, this photo was important to setup the post but I sat here staring at it trying to think of something funny to say for 10 minutes. I got nothing, this is just how it looked

The brains were thrown in a bowl and placed in the fridge to wait for their time to shine.  The head got a thorough coating of cumin, paprika, curry powder, salt and black pepper.

Everything looks and tastes better with seasoning

At this point, I had no idea how much meat would come off of this head.  I was picturing the final terrine fitting into a small tin loaf pan, with it mostly made up of the small cheek muscles, tongue, and brain.  It’s hard to believe looking at it, but I seriously underestimated this head.

The seasoned head went into a 450F oven on the top rack to get some roasted color and flavor.  After about 15 minutes, I had this:

I'd feed you some bullsh*t like, "it looked delicious!", but in reality when I pulled the pan out of the oven, the change in temperature caused the right eye to rupture and spray various parts of my kitchen with boiling eye liquid. Even EYE wasn't ready for that one. Puns! Puns lighten the mood!

The head pieces went into a pot of boiling water with a couple dried cloves and a bunch of whole peppercorns to simmer for 3 hours.

While that cooked I hung out with my buddy Matt, originator of the increasingly famous Dupee Burger, and a completely fearless eater.  Perfect company and photographer for the halfway point in the cooking process when the goat tongue needed to be removed and peeled.

Tongue is already out and on the plate. At this point it looked like the terrine was going to be a single serving due to how much the tongue had shrunk

With tongue in general, the most common approach is what I did here; boil it for a bit, peel it, and cook it a little longer.  With the Hogs Head Barbacoa, the 20 hours of cooking made the area that needs to be peeled off melt away completely, but that wasn’t an option here.  I found a little excess on the end to grip and easily peeled from one end:

Good work by Dupe here, especially considering it was after 11, I was pouring IPAs freely, and he was dealing with the increasingly awful point and shoot camera in low light

The peeled tongue and head halves went back into the simmering liquid for another hour and a half while the DB and Dupee made our way through a Long Trail variety pack.

After fishing the head out of the pot with tongs once again, the meat was falling off the bone.

I'm anxious to get to the point in this post where I don't feel the need to apologize for every photo but it's not coming anytime soon

I let the bones and meat cool down for fifteen minutes but kept the pot of cooking liquid on the burner with the cover off so that it could reduce and concentrate for another hour or so.

Once everything was easy to handle, I started picking over the bones a bit.  There was a lot of loose cartilage, bone and skin that I immediately threw away.  The cheeks and tongue provided a good amount of meat, but I also found meat in random crannies as well as around the eyes.

I say "around the eyes" in hopes that some of the people who ate it don't read the captions. I actually took the meat around the eyes and the eyeballs as well. My guess is I am never allowed to cook for my friends again

After a few minutes, I had some piles of meat.

Clockwise from top left: palate, tongue, cheeks, and misc. Way more meat than I expected to come off of such a small, lean-looking head. That goat would be so flattered to know I described its head as "lean-looking"

This led to a little game Dupee referred to as “is it food?”  Basically, I tasted each bit of meat separately and decided whether it would be considered edible and also sorted out any bone or cartilage that snuck into the piles.  The answer is that most of it is food, except the palate which was the texture of a flip flop that had been boiled for three hours.  The other revelation was that the meat tasted far more like lamb than I expected.

From there I cubed the tongue and chopped the rest of the meat together.

Dupee really came up huge on a post that Kristi would absolutely want no part of. In fact Kristi saw the relatively innocuous looking roasted head and ran out of the kitchen shrieking "ooooooooohhhh, I saw it! I saw it! I saw it!" with her eyes tightly closed

With the meat chopped and in a bowl, I got started on the other key elements.  Most importantly, the brain.  You didn’t think I forgot it, right?  Silly you.

I started out by throwing diced bacon and chopped carrots in a hot pan together and letting them cook for 6-8 minutes.  While those cooked, I chopped up a pile of fresh mint leaves to blend into the meat.

I am far from a technically proficient cook, especially with a knife, but I blame that dangerously protruding pinky on the IPAs

I had purchased cilantro too, but mint seemed like the right call with the flavors in the rub and the strong lamb-like flavor of the head meat.

With the herbs chopped and the bacon rendered and crispy, I threw the two halves of the brain into the hot pan and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Brains are cool looking food. I believe what I am doing here is called "gilding the lily"; basically surrounding something that will look foul to most people with delicious looking items

After a few minutes on one side, I flipped the brains and added a long pour of white wine, (about 3/4 cup) and turned the heat up on the pan.  The goal was to poach the brains and let the carrots soften while the wine reduced.

Carrots, bacon, and white wine can make anything look and smell delicious

After another 10 minutes, the wine had reduced and I pulled the brains out of the pan and transferred to a cutting board.

I cut off small pieces for Dupee and I, and found the texture and flavor to be a better version of what I ate in Morocco.  Very soft and creamy, like Laughing Cow cheese.  Tasted strongly of lamb/wine/carrot/bacon but with a metallic aftertaste.  Not iron-y, almost copper-y?  Not sure, something like that.  The rest I chopped to add to the head cheese ingredients.

The brain really reminded me of the awesome, "This is your brain on Long Beach Island" florescent shirt I wore growing up. I wish I still had that shirt and some of those insanely stupid Big Johnson shirts

Along with the drained carrots and bacon, a small splash of apple cider vinegar (no more than a tablespoon), and salt & pepper, the chopped brains headed into the bowl.

The head cheese mixture smelled great at this point, but there was still a lot of doubt in my mind that it would be in any way edible

The reduced cooking liquid is an important part of head cheese (or any meat terrine) since the liquid has gelatin-like characteristics from boiling the bones and skin.  Mixing in a few ladles of the liquid helps the head cheese/terrine bind together into a loaf when it cools.

I was hoping to avoid using this loaf pan again since I wanted thicker slices, but there was way more than I expected

I'd tasted every ingredient and smelled how good the seasoning was, yet I was still completely terrified by what I had made

I covered the loaf pan and the head cheese went into the fridge to set for 12 hours.  It was during that time that I realized the perfect condiment to serve with it.  An item that had been in my fridge for longer than Janet has been alive: homemade kimchi.

I prepared this back in June. Every few weeks I sent Conor a text message to the effect of, "Con, I think the kimchi is ready!" then forgot about it in the back of the fridge for another ~20 days. I have an above average sense of humor

I’ve only had kimchi a few times in my life and from what I can tell it’s just spicy pickled cabbage.  So that’s all this is.  I had an extra half head of green cabbage leftover in early June so I sliced it, tossed it with a little sugar, salt, cayenne pepper, siracha and lots of rice wine vinegar and packed it in a tupperware.  Then it sat in my fridge for 8 months.  But, I tasted it last week and it had all the contrasts the head cheese would need with crunch, spiciness, and a little acidity.

So, on Super Bowl Sunday I ran the bottom of the loaf pan under hot water (brilliant call by a still horrified Kristi), flipped it upside down and tapped the head cheese out of the pan.

Cut it in half so that I could get this shot and also to send half to Cambridge with Dupee so he could share it with our friends on the wrong side of the river. Oh, and ruin the day for my vegetarian friend Taylor

As everyone arrived, I pulled the slab of head cheese out of the fridge and cut a couple slices off expecting the usual; Conor and I eat a bunch of it and Buschy has a tiny taste with his eyes closed.  Until I tasted it on some toasted bread and was a little surprised.

The texture was creamy, but not in a bad way; just different from what I expected since the tongue, cheek, and bacon played a prominent role.  The flavor was surprisingly good; not too strongly funky, just rich lamb-like flavor complimented well by the mint and sweetness from the wine & carrots.  And that was before I put on a spoonful of the chopped kimchi.

Still in disbelief that not only did this end up being eaten instead of thrown out, but it ended up playing a crucial part in some deliciously unique food too

The kimchi pushed it over the top.  All of the contrasts I noted before worked perfectly without overpowering the flavor of the head cheese.   More amazingly, it made the head cheese look appetizing to people besides Conor and I.  Against all expectations, everyone except Kristi (traumatized) ended up trying it and most had seconds or thirds.  I only ended up throwing away two small slivers!

The white is the brain. That wasn't how I pitched it to people. Also, toasted bread was just to sound like I actually present things elegantly. It was actually toasted, thin-sliced, day-old everything bagels from the bakery department at Stop and Shop. Giant bag for $1.99 was tough to refuse

One of the best parts of writing this blog is that it has forced me to experiment a lot with building flavors and working with meat I’ve never handled before.  It’s pretty awesome when it works out that I can transform something no one would try on their own into tasty food that people eat seconds of.  Another best part is that I can normally get them to eat it before posting and letting them know what they really ate.  I am an ass.

Next week, the rest of what was served at the Super Bowl party and particularly my cabrito sliders.  It was a “no animal left behind” theme and we covered goat, venison, pork, chicken, and lamb.  Not too shabby.

Conch Fritters

In Long Beach Island, we’ve had a conch shell as a “decoration” for as long as I can remember.  As a kid I would stick my ear against it and listen to the ocean, or at least thats what I was told I was listening to.  I was completely unaware how much better they taste than they sound.

At some point in my teens, I tasted conch for the first time at The Crab Pot, a now defunct restaurant in West Palm Beach, FL.  It was in the form of a fritter, and I was immediately hooked.  Little fried balls of dough with chewy, flavorful chunks of conch mixed in; kind of like a Caribbean version of takoyaki.  I order them whenever I see them on a menu, which is quite often now that Mommy Ryan has moved to Naples.  Kristi, Tim, and I visited her this past weekend and I finally had a chance to cook my own version of one of my favorite foods.

On Saturday morning, Tim and I drove down to Everglade City to check it out.  Mom had been before and Kristi had no interest due to the presence of alligators, which I mocked her about.  Then we drove down there and I had to lift my feet off the floor of the car in terror when I saw sights like this out the window.

I had my face and both hands pressed against the window as we passed gator after gator on the drive. I am pretty sure I wasn't spoofing

Tim and I had two goals: buy a bunch of stone crab claws at a seafood market Tim had visited previously and find a place that serves up authentic Everglades seafood for lunch.  I had one additional goal: find something to cook that I could use in a blog post.

After visiting 3 or 4 restaurants and coming up with excuses to leave after seeing the menu (example: “its kind of chilly out here, I think we’re going to head to the inside dining room” then bolting for the car), we discovered City Seafood.

Beyond the awesome menu, we knew we'd found the right place when we saw a line of locals and the complete lack of cheesy decorations that the other restaurants showcased. Just picnic tables and food

You wait in line, order your food, grab a beer out of the ice chest, then anxiously wait for them to call your number.  It reminded me of all of my favorite shellfish places in New England and LBI.

With all the Rolling Rock gear I still have and use from my time working for them, I figured I would have my first Rock in 8 years. It was as god awful as I remember it being

Al fresco dining and swamps don’t usually go together, but it was a surprisingly pleasant view and had none of the mosquitos I expected.  Also, I was extremely excited to try two items I had never seen on a menu before: fried whole cracked conch and grouper cheek sliders.

The conch served with tartar sauce. You can kind of see the pink area that is the outer seal that keeps the conch in it's shell until the shell is cracked

The grouper cheeks served with remoulade. Disregard the squirt of mustard on the side of the plate that I was hoping would be the same as the mustard sauce served with stone crab, but was just generic Frenchs

The fried conch is basically everything that comes out of the shell except for a couple inedible parts.  Its quite chewy, but the flavor is great; very similar to the belly portion of whole fried clam bellies.

A seen in the fishing post, grouper have large flat heads with decent sized cheeks and each slider had four.  Much like other cheeks I’ve tried, they were moist and tender.  Tons of grouper flavor and very fresh.  I haven’t included any pictures of the stuff Tim ordered because it was boring.

After lunch, we visited Grimm’s Stone Crab to pick up a couple pounds for an appetizer that night.  Upon arrival, I discovered they also sold raw conch meat and my goals for the road trip were officially accomplished.  We bought half a pound of frozen conch meat and headed back to Naples.

The following afternoon, I decided to make an attempt at homemade conch fritters.  I had a few things going against me, mainly that I didn’t want to go through the process of deep frying the fritters and that I refused to look at a conch fritter recipe.  So, I decided to make a basic hush puppy batter, mix in the conch and other additions and pan fry them.  The batter started out simply with corn meal, flour, and baking powder.

Does that look like too much flour and corn meal for a half pound of conch? Exactly. I was totally guessing on the proportions and this didn't look at all out of whack

Threw in an egg, milk, salt, and half a diced red onion.

Pretty straightforward hush puppy batter. This came together nicely with a whisk

With that ready to go, I pulled the conch out of the fridge to cut it up and add to the batter.

That's some weird looking food, but all shellfish is really

The white parts are where all the flavor is, but the colored areas are just a thin membrane that covers the meat.  Its all edible, so I didn’t try to do any elaborate butchering, just chopped the meat up into small cubes and added it to the batter.

Again, the proportions look pretty good

After a few shakes from a bottle of Cholula, some lemon juice and black pepper, I whisked the batter a little more then let it rest while I heated olive oil in a pan.

The first batch was a test batch.  I dropped varying sized spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil to A) see how the fritters taste and B) see how big the fritters should “B”.  Wokka wokka.

Good composition and lighting on this shot, Tim. Were you planning on using it for a moody film noir companion piece or actually helping me with my food blog? Jerk

After tasting the first batch, we decided the batter was definitely under seasoned.  The meat to dough ratio wasn’t out of whack with what I’ve had in restaurants, but the dough was lacking a complimentary shellfish flavor.  I added more seasoning, but noted that in the future I should replace some of the milk used in the batter with clam juice or fish stock.

Once the seasoning was as good as it would be, I cooked the remainder of the fritter batter.

I love cooking with red onion in stuff like this. Good flavor, less likely to completely lose its consistency, and it looks nice

I was a lot better at judging when these were golden brown than I was with the fish cakes.

I like frying in other people's homes, but not mine. I prefer that my clothes and jackets don't smell like I left them at a dim sum restaurant

We kept the early batches warm in the oven while everything cooked and eventually ended up with quite a large bowl full of fritters.

Thats a bowl full of fried happiness

We served them with some sauce options: tartar sauce (made with dill pickles, the obvious best way), cocktail sauce, and the stone crab mustard sauce I mentioned earlier.  I thought they were delicious, though definitely different than the restaurant variety.

You can see the conch/dough balance. Hungry

I really enjoyed the fritters, there were just a lot of them.  The sweetness of the corn meal worked well with the shellfish and the cocktail sauce in particular matched up really well with the taste.  If I did it again I would make the same amount of batter (with some seafood stock mixed in) but probably add three quarters of a pound of conch.  I’d also like to make these again with other types of shellfish and can’t wait until I am at somebody else’s house to try a bay scallop and shrimp version.

More indecision about next week’s entry.  Will have to hit the Italian market this weekend.

Weird Crap I Cook: Beef Cheeks

Over the past seven months, I have gone pretty cheek crazy.  It all started with the cheek meat from the hogs head barbacoa, which was incredibly rich, tender, and delicious.  Since returning to Philly, I’ve had my favorite appetizer at Monks, the beer braised veal cheeks, a few times and a great beef cheeks entree at Noble in center city.  But the one thing I haven’t been able to pull off was purchasing and cooking them for myself.

I’ve called Tim’s grass fed beef guy, 10+ butcher shops in Boston and NJ, and researched online.  Nothing.  So, basically, I attend graduate school, consider myself smarter than you, yet never thought to contact any of the 20 butcher shops in the famous Italian Market one mile from my apartment.  When I finally did contact them it was the day before I was leaving Philly for two weeks and only one butcher shop, Los Amigos Meat Market, could help me.

Ever seen a kid get a Power Wheels for Christmas and take it for that first joyous spin around the backyard or living room?  Thats how I looked for the entire two hours that I drove to Tim’s house with 8 lbs of beef cheeks and 3 lbs of pork cheeks.  I think I called seven people, including Kristi, to tell them about what I purchased.  No one actually cared.

Two days later, Tim broke out his brand new Food Saver (Kristi and I give great presents) and we broke the beef cheeks up into four, 2 lb packages for freezing.  Here are mine (we divided evenly):

Food Saver is the best gift for anybody you know who loves to cook. When Tim first got his working he repackaged everything in his freezer, which I thought was weird... until I tested out the one I got for Christmas and repackaged the 10 lbs of venison, 3 lbs of short rib, 2 lbs of duck breast, and 1 lb of ground goat in my freezer. Its really fun

We froze the packages for later use: mine for a new years eve meal in Boston, Tim’s TBD.

After thawing for a couple days, and about 24 hours before they would be served, I pulled the cheeks out for trimming.  To dispel any questions/concerns, the cheeks have no skin attached, they are just the muscle from the jaw area of the cow.  They can look a little gross in their raw form.

Kristi watched me trim these after a wine-heavy dinner party at the Emyonarty's. She was 50% interested in the process, 50% interested in me not losing a finger due to poor motor skills

Underneath all of that hardened fat, silverskin, and connective tissue there are some incredibly nice looking pieces of meat.  You just need to carefully trim for an hour and hope you don’t cut yourself.

I wish I had butchering skills but I don't. Otherwise that jagged surface on the right side wouldn't be there

I have never purchase raw Kobe or Wagyu beef, but from what I’ve seen on TV and in the store, beef cheeks seem to have a similar level of marbled fat.

This picture may gross out half the readers of this blog, but to me it looks delicious

My goal was to braise the meat slow enough that the fat melted away without overcooking the outside of the meat.  In the Le Creuset I sauteed carrots, onion, celery, and garlic on the stovetop before adding a bottle of red wine, a quart of beef stock, 8-10 thyme branches, and two bay leaves.

Went with a merlot. Odd choice, but it was available and I thought the fruityness and sugars would give the meat the touch of sweetness I was hoping for

While the braising liquid reduced a little, I prepped the beef cheeks by adding a little salt to the outside of the meat.

Still a little funky looking despite the trimming. Some pieces moreso than others

The meat fit in nicely with decent spacing between each piece

Once the cheeks were added to the liquid, the lid went on and the pot headed into a 200 degree oven for the next 13 hours.  During that time I slept for nine hours, had some breakfast, and picked up a few extra supplies at the supermarket.

At noon I removed the pot from the oven, took the lid off and let the pot sit for 4-5 hours so that the fat could be skimmed off easily.  The liquid reduced less than I had expected.

Smelled like beef stew

While the cheeks settled, I started prepping a brisket to be braised.  I used a slightly different approach than the cheeks for prepping the meat and rubbed the brisket with salt, pepper, and light brown sugar.

Nice lookin' piece of meat

I browned the brisket, removed it from the pot, added carrots, onions, celery, and garlic and then removed those once they cooked for a bit.  Deglazed the bottom of the pot with red wine, reduced it by half, added thyme, a bay leaf, and a quart of beef stock.  The brisket was then added back in with the vegetables.

Unlike the cheeks, this prep was extremely easy and quick. Almost no trimming required and only had to cook for a few hours

The lid went on the pot and it headed into the oven for three hours at 300 degrees.  Which gave the new years revelers, including Marshall, Kim and Mooju who drove up for the weekend, a chance to walk down to James Gate in JP for a few pints and a warm fire.

Once we got back, I scrubbed about 6 pounds of yukon gold potatoes and peeled two large sweet potatoes.  All were cut up for easy boiling.

I love skins on mashed potatoes and don't like mashed sweet potatoes, but the combination sounded like a great compliment for the meat. I am a pretty complicated person

The potatoes all went into a pot of boiling water along with some crushed garlic cloves.  While those boiled I got the mushroom mixture that would top the dish started.  They began with chopped shallots carmelizing in olive oil before adding about a half pound of cubed portabellas, a pound of sliced shitake mushrooms, salt and pepper.

Looks like way too much for the pan but they cook down quick

While the mushroom mixture cooked, the cheeks went back into the oven, after skimming the fat, uncovered at 350 degrees.

Once the mushrooms reduced a bit, I added a pour of red wine, some thyme leaves and turned up the heat on the pan.

This is basically how I make my mushroom bruschetta also

Once the potatoes were mashed and the pony keg of Switchback (brought down from Burlington, VT) was tapped, we were ready to start eating.  The final lineup:

The mushrooms. Used to make this mixture with onions and garlic, but switching to shallots cut out a step

The mashed potatoes. The sweet potatoes add a nice color and touch of sweetness

The brisket. It overcooked a little bit but was still very tender and flavorful when sliced

...Aaaannnnd the cheeks. They looked exactly how I wanted them to. I was nervous they would completely fall apart and leave me with stew

Here’s the final plating: a base of the potatoes, a cheek (or a few slices of brisket for those that preferred it), a spoonful of the mushrooms, and a little of the braising liquid over the top.

I know I don't make pretty plates of food, but this serving method worked best for getting a little bit of everything in each bite

Bushy ran out of bowls. Also, I'm not sure why thought a second image was necessary

The cheeks were so tender that the meat fell apart when you touched your fork to it.  Because so much fat had cooked out, the meat had very little density and was light tasting despite being quite rich.  The flavors complimented each other well and I was happy to see people picking at the remaining brisket and cheeks until everything was gone (except the potatoes, made WAY too much of those).  I do wish I had salt/pepper/browned the cheeks in advance but, all in all, pretty dece.

Every time I visit Boston I start thinking about all of the cooking gear we have in storage and the stuff I want to make when I get back.  But, thats just nerd talk, I will thoroughly enjoy my last few months of business college and get back to the more elaborate cooking when the time comes.  Also, Kristi will be 8 months pregnant by that point soooooo its unlikely she’ll be too excited for the duck and lamb sausage or the Jamaican goat skewers I’ve been planning.

Anyhoo, without an awesome kitchen I am back to looking for different bloggin’ ideas.  Next week will be a new one, currently in progress and not that enjoyable (for me).