Weird Crap I Cook: Shad Roe & Veal Brains

Last weekend we headed down to Naples to visit Mommy Ryan and get away from the cold weather in Boston.  If you’ve briefly visited Naples before, you might not think highly of the food scene there; lots of small strip mall restaurants or overpriced large restaurants downtown.  But, after a few years of visits to Naples I can confidently say it is one of my favorite places to eat despite then having to go shirtless at the beach and pool.  The food is diverse, high quality, and spans regional cuisine from across the country and other cultures as well.  Makes sense considering people move there from pretty much everywhere and want their favorite comfort foods nearby.

While visiting I sampled some incredible pastrami from Pastrami Dan’s (a retired New Yorker), fried sheep’s milk cheese with chicken livers and tender octopus from Pelagos, upscale Mexican from Masa, and traditional seafood at Kelly’s.  The bakeries and raw materials to cook at home are equally as diverse and awse.  A few examples:

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Bells beer.  Tough to find outside of Michigan but available in pretty much every grocery store around Naples.  Not a huge fan of the Oberon, but the Two Hearted Ale is a top 10 beer for me

Those strip malls house small restaurants that make items like pissaladiere from Paris Bakery.  That's a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you've ever had

Paris Bakery lives in one of those anonymous strip malls and serves a mean pissaladiere.  That’s a croissant-like pastry rolled out and topped with onions that have been cooked down in olive oil and anchovies.  Like the most confusing and buttery delicious pizza you’ve ever had

Wagyu ribeye from Jimmy P's butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn's seafood market

Wagyu rib steak from Jimmy P’s butcher shop and a never frozen tuna steak from Wynn’s seafood market.  I took this after already coating the tuna steak with chili oil for the grill if you’re wondering what that bizarre orange stuff is

Jimmy P’s and Wynn’s have supplied the ingredients for previous blog posts including lamb kidneys and all posts involving head-on shrimp.  So, in addition to the two delicious pieces of meat shown above, I also tapped them for two odd items I’d never sampled before: veal brains and shad roe.

Veal brains are pretty self explanatory, but shad roe is the roe sack from a river herring that is usually only harvested for a brief period every year.  I learned all of that just now from Wikipedia, but I had long been interested in shad roe since Mooman has raved about it for years.  I was very excited when I saw it at Wynn’s, even though it is funky looking stuff.

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

I knew there was zero chance I would convince Kristi to eat this once she saw it

Funky looking stuff, and apparently this wasn’t even half as bad as it looks when it is very fresh.  What’s in the container represents the two roe sacks from one fish, connected by a membrane in the center.  At this point I couldn’t understand what all the fuss (primarily from Mooman) was about; it looked just like any other roe sack from a fish.  And those other roe sacks tend to cook up mealy, flavorless, and insanely dry.

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason's fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison

Just looked like a larger and less fresh version of the Tilefish roe sacks retrieved from Jason’s fish in Eleuthera.  Not a promising comparison since that just tasted like salty sand

While a few pats of butter melted in a sautee pan, I separated the roe sacks from the center membrane and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper.  Once the butter started to brown slightly, I added the shad roe to the pan.

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn't promising food for anyone but me

The smell was entirely just butter and garlic (I threw a sliced clove in), but this still wasn’t promising food for anyone but me

After a few minutes of saute time, the roe sacks appeared to be firming up a bit so I flipped them and squeezed a little lemon juice into the pan as well.

Color and everything was looking solid, but the shape and visible texture makes this a not easy entry point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I've never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later)

Color was looking solid, but the shape and visually concerning texture makes this not an easy entry-point food.  Me, I was ecstatic to eat something I’ve never eaten before.  It could have looked awful (as I will prove later) and I would still excitedly eat it in that scenario

After a few more minutes, I divided each roe sack in half and moved them to pieces of toasted baguette.  The remaining butter stayed over medium heat with an additional splash of white wine and a squeeze of additional lemon juice.  After a couple minutes of reducing the sauce while stirring constantly, I poured a few spoonfuls over each of the pieces of shad roe and served.

I could not come up with a vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explainst the jagged edges

I could not come up with a creative vehicle to hold the pieces of shad roe and also absorb the sauce.  Mommy Ryan had some leftover bread from a recent dinner which explains the jagged edges

Definitely the best fresh roe I’ve ever tasted since it didn’t have any of the negatives that you usually get with fish roe; not fishy, no mealiness, and the eggs still had a little pop to them.  The flavor was very mild and had a little clam-like flavor.  The brown butter, wine, and lemon sauce was a nice complement without overpowering the flavor of the roe.  The bread was probably a little unnecessary, but it did a good job of absorbing the sauce and minimized the need for utensils.  As usual with the odd stuff, Janet enjoyed it.

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person since she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she is in her PJs, I'm guessing a significant amount joined her in the crib that night

Not the cutest picture, nor the greatest moment in person because she was mashing each piece into hundreds of tiny eggs on the way to her mouth.  Since she was in her PJs, I’m guessing a significant amount of eggs joined her in the crib that night

Now on to the veal brains.  The moment you’ve been waiting for!

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one

Jimmy Ps has a whole freezer case full of items that qualify for WCIC posts, but I liked the small size and price of this one.  Also, I love the comical brevity of meat labeling.  I feel like organ meat labels should hem and haw like someone trying to hide what the meat truly is until you sample it

I’ve had some ups (goat) and downs (sheep) with brains over the past few years, but I thought veal would be a solid choice since I assumed the flavor would be mild.  The brains went into a cold water bath for about 6 hours, changing the water regularly.

Once the water remained relatively clear after 30 minutes, I removed the brains to dry them and lay out on the cutting board.  You knew this foto was coming at some point and it ends up being pretty brutal.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let's get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately.

Worst shot of the blog!  Let’s get through this quickly.  I would have preferred that it was a couple distinct brains but these were clearly separated from their surrounding membrane pretty indelicately

The brains were soft and there was a fair amount of brain stem pieces.  Good god this sucks to write about.  Let’s fast forward to when I was done cutting into individual pieces and tossing in flour seasoned heavily with salt and pepper.

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

Phew, much better.  Further proof that frying makes everything better, even just the process of frying

I coated the pieces in flour and fried in two batches.  While I was in the process of trimming and coating, I had a pan of vegetable oil and some bacon fat heating on the stovetop.  Once a small piece of bread browned within 30 seconds when dropped in the oil, I added the brain pieces to the oil.

I was hiding from the oil as usual at this point.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else's home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

I was hiding from the oil at any time that I wasn’t taking pictures.  Also, this was my 4th or 5th consecutive deep frying in someone else’s home.  Screwing over friends and family with oil stank since 2010!

After 3-4 minutes I flipped each piece then cooked for a few more minutes before transferring to paper towels to drain off any excess oil.

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

Very happy with the frying, these were solid and crispy.  Kinda limping to the finish line here

The next batch headed (wokka wokka) into the oil and went through the same flipping and draining process.  Originally I had hoped to drizzle a little butter, lemon, and caper sauce but I forgot about it while it was on the stove and that didn’t really work out for me.  So. instead, I squeezed a little lemon over the pieces and topped with chopped parsley and shredded parm.

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when about 30 whole fried sardines were served this way

Toppings that work with pretty much any savory fried food.  Learned that one in Sovicile, Italy when I made it through a gigantic plate of whole fried sardines served this way

I was relatively confident that these would be tasty but I was surprised they turned out as well as they did.  The coating was salty and had some smoky pork flavor from the bacon grease.  The texture and flavor of the brains was almost identical to veal sweetbreads, with a crunchy fried exterior.  The meat was soft and creamy, which might sound off-putting but it is why it pairs so well with a crunchy coating.  The flavor was very mild and only slightly beef-like, which also makes it very difficult to describe.  Just try sweetbreads next time you see them on a menu and you’ll get what I am talking about.

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren't that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

After biting into this one I was horrified to realize that they weren’t that far off from the beloved dark meat chicken McNuggets from my youth.  A little creamier, but similar fat flavor and texture

I was most impressed with how much of that pile of fried food we went through.  Janet had been in bed for a few hours so she was of no help, but between me, Tim, and Mommy Ryan we made it through all but a couple of these.  Kristi pretty much sat out all adventurous foods in this meal.

I need to take a few weeks off from WCIC after this one.  This one was odd even by my standards.

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: Hunters Pie with Roasted Bone Marrow Gravy

I wrote this entire post and wordpress reverted back to only the first sentence despite saving often.  I don’t think the original was brilliant, but my rage in the aftermath didn’t lend itself to good writing.  My apologies in advance.

Every once in a while I get stir crazy to use some of the awesome things I keep in my freezer.  This post is about one of the meals that came out of those fits.

I pulled a pound and a half of ground venison and a stick of beef marrow out of the freezer to thaw for a few days and thought about what to make.

Didn't bother showing a shot of the marrow since I covered that a couple posts ago

Ground venison is extremely lean which makes it dry and chewy when cooked.  A variation on shepherds pie seemed like the best way to hide some of the texture issues.

Before I dive into the cooking, my friend Annie is selling pies to raise money for charity through the Pie in the Sky program.  It’s an awesome cause, pie is delicious, and… pie is delicious.  Click here to buy yerself a pie.

I started out with the ingredients that would take the longest to cook.  In this case, the celery root that would become the top layer of what I decided to call “hunters pie”.

Won't dwell on the celery root prep process too much, it's been well covered in my recent celery root blitz

Along with a peeled yukon gold potato and a half onion, the cubed celery root went into a pot of boiling half milk/half water and salt to cook for thirty minutes.  I was hoping that the celery root puree would be smoother than the traditional mashed potato layer but also thicker than the layer I added to the moussaka.

While that cooked, I started working on the middle layer of the pie that would have been corn in a normal shepherds pie.  With the top and bottom layers featuring strong savory flavors, I needed a solid contrasting sweetness.  Cooked carrots seemed up to the challenge.

I had an extremely random Danity Kane reference in the previous sentence before I decided I was trying too hard to be funny. So, that actually does happen occasionally, but obviously not enough

The plan was to dice the carrots small, season them with salt, pepper and equal parts maple syrup and olive oil, then oven roast over high heat.  My goal was to have the carrots cook completely with a crispy outside to give an additional contrasting texture to the pie.

Hate using tin foil like this, but you can destroy a pan when maple syrup is involved

With the carrots ready to go, I prepped the ingredients for what would eventually become the gravy.  Pretty simple really, just tossed some thick sliced mushrooms with olive oil, salt and pepper and placed them in a pan with the stick of bone marrow.

To clarify the Danity Kane comment (thus eliminating any trace of humor from the reference) I had a former coworker that sang parts of the song constantly, particularly an upstate New York accent take on the line, "Baby, are you up to the challenge?". Danity Kane was a group created on a P. Diddy reality show. I really have no easy out from this caption

Both pans headed into a 425F oven on the top rack to cook for 20 minutes, including five minutes under the broiler to add some color.

Will never get used to sending a whole frying pan into the oven. Not because of the cooking, but just because I am pretty stupid and forgetful so I will try to remove it from the oven by the handle without a towel

With the carrots and the gravy base almost complete, I began work on the ground venison base for the hunters pie.  Sticking to all that I know about venison and how well it goes with onions, I started off with caramelizing a medium chopped yellow onion in a little bacon fat and butter.  Once the onions had some nice color, I added a little more butter and 3/4 pound of the ground venison.

Never ceases to amaze me how deep red in color raw venison is. I love this meat, thank god I am friends with people who choose to hunt in their spare time instead of spending a majority of their Saturday trying to remember who the winner, runner-up, and sneaky stars were on each of the first 7 seasons of American Idol

A few minutes later, all ingredients for the pie and the gravy base were done simultaneously.

When I saw this I sounded like Dr. Dre at the start of "Dre Day". Way too many stupid music references in this post but this one is incredibly accurate

That crazy char bubble on the front side is why the foil was necessary. That pan was going to end up in the trash otherwise

This obsession will end soon, but celery root puree is really the bee's knees

The fat had rendered out of the marrow and that remaining lump in the center is actually hollow. Smelled awesome

With all of the layers prepped, they all headed into a casserole dish for baking.

Easily one of the most boring fully assembled final dish shots I've ever taken. Completely anonymous pile of food. That could be an iced carrot cake under there

The whole dish went into a 350F oven to cook for 20 minutes together.  While that was going on, I pulled the mushrooms and remaining marrow solids out of the pan and transferred them to a cutting board.   The remaining fat and juices went over medium heat on the stove top with a hearty sprinkle of flour to cook for 6-8 minutes stirring regularly.

Gravy making is impossible to photo document as a one man crew; too much whisking involved. Kristi was exempt from action shots due to a fussy Janet

Once the color of the flour and drippings had darkened a little bit, I poured in a good splash of dry sherry, probably around a half cup, whisking constantly.  After the clumpy remaining mixture cooked for another minute or so, I whisked in an additional half cup of beef broth and added the chopped mushrooms and marrow solids back in with salt and pepper.

That's a nice looking gravy. Gravy is the friggin' best

And, sadly, with that the photos are done for this blog post.  I somehow never took the time to snap a shot as I spooned out each bowl.  In a bowl, the components were all clearly visible, with the ribbon of bright orange carrots clearly dividing the celery root mash from the ground venison mixture.  Wasn’t visually stunning or anything, just nicer looking than the white on white contrast of the last picture in the blog.

The pie was one of the best things I’ve made in a long time.  The ground venison had just the right amount of caramelized onions and saltiness to make sure it stood out among the other ingredients.  The carrots didn’t have quite as much texture as I had hoped, but the sweetness and carrot flavor was a a great contrast to the salty layers.  The celery root was like creamy mashed potatoes with a strong black pepper and celery flavor.

Despite being the most balanced dish I had ever made, the true hero was the roasted bone marrow and mushroom gravy.  The sherry flavor was rich, sweet, and wine-y, and the mushrooms had taken on a flavor that was close to truffles during the roasting process.  A perfect topping to the dish.

Thanks for reading, will share my first experience with slow roasted bolognese next week.