Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Italian Sausage

Making sausage has been on the to do list for a few years now.  I love sausage dearly in all varieties and the general idea behind sausage is how I like to cook: take the cheap cuts and make them into something tasty.  The main reason I’ve never made it myself, aside from some ground sausage I never put into a casing, is because I was never able to easily find casings.  Pretty stupid to actually put that in writing since anything I could possibly want can be delivered in two days via the internets, but it’s true.  I’d seen them in the supermarket in Middlebury once but failed to pull the trigger, so a couple more years passed and now here we are.

A month or so ago I noticed that sausage casings magically appeared in the deli case of my local Stop & Shop.  I pounced, thinking that there was a high likelihood I would miss my window again and spend years lamenting it.  Pounced may actually be underplaying it, I may have walked rapidly to the register hiding the casings in my coat nervous that someone would take them from me.

Nothing welcomes you back to Pete's blog after a multi-week holiday break better than a super sh*tty out of focus shot of a container.  You're welcome y'all!

Nothing welcomes you back to Pete’s blog after a multi-month break better than a super sh*tty out of focus shot of a container.  You’re welcome y’all!

The above statement isn’t entirely accurate, since if I remember correctly that was the same grocery store visit where I discovered Stop & Shop had a bit of a pricing anomaly on their salted fatback.

Another recent addition to the Stop & Shop shelves.  Salt pork (belly) has always been available, but the salted fat back made something that is usually not easy to find very accessible.  Plus, you know, it was two cents

Another recent addition to the Stop & Shop shelves.  Salt pork (belly) has always been available, but the salted fatback made something that is usually not easy to find very accessible.  Plus, you know, it was two cents

If I could have bought every $0.02 package of salted fatback without risking my marriage, I would have.  I knew I would never find a bargain like this again.  Ever.  A week later when I checked again the price had been raised to a nearly unfathomable $2.99 a pound and a I felt like a fool for not purchasing all ten packages previously.

Both the casings and the salted fatback would keep for months, so I left them in the fridge to occasionally stare at and daydream.  A few weeks later, whole pork shoulders were on sale for $.89 a pound and my fridge/freezer was officially loaded with the basics for some sausage making.  I got started by rinsing the excess salt off of the fatback and cubing it.

Pure snow white fat.  Lovely.  Like the ivory of fat.  Or me showering in February

Pure snow white fat.  Lovely.  Like the ivory soap of fat.  That analogy doesn’t work.  How about, “the whitest fat not attached to the author.”  That one stinks too, the humor in this post needs to improve and fast

Since most sausage recipes would call for normal fatback, you need to adjust your approach with salted fatback and remove the majority of additional salt you would add during prep.  Other prep items that were done off camera: deboning the pork shoulder and cubing the meat.  At that point, about 2 hours before the real business of sausage making would get started, the fat, meat, and the grinding plates for the Kitchenaid grinder all went into the freezer.

Quick note on the freezing of all items which was previously covered in (one hit wonder) Uncle Timmy’s Stupid Recipe’s For Jerks: keeping the fat and meat ice cold is essential for making good sausage.  In the case of Italian sausage, you want the fat and meat to be visibly separate inside the casing, not all smeared together.  Since grinders get very hot very fast, the freezing of the actual grinder in addition to the fat and meat helps keep everything as separate as possible.

Back to the sausage, all told I had 7-8 pounds of shoulder meat and a little over a pound of salted fatback.  That requires a lot of seasoning, so to start I lightly toasted a 1 ounce container of fennel seeds in a pan and poured them into a mortar with a few peppercorns.

I wish I used my mortar and pestle more but I don't.  Most of the time it's wear I rest my vegetable brush on the countertop

I wish I used my mortar and pestle more but I don’t.  Most of the time it’s where I rest my vegetable brush on the countertop

After a quick few rounds of pestle rotation in the mortar, the pepper and fennel seed were ground to a fine powder that would be easier to distribute throughout the meat.

Smelled pretty strong, but, again, I was seasoning a lot of meat with this stuff

Smelled pretty strong, but, again, I was seasoning a lot of meat with this stuff

The seasoning went into a bowl with the frozen cubes of pork and fat, a little salt, a few tablespoons of sugar, a couple chopped cloves of garlic, and a whole bunch worth of torn parsley.  Once everything was tossed and well combined, the bowl went back into the freezer for another hour.  And this was a very full and very large bowl.

Thought a human being would give a little perspective on the size of the bowl.  Sort of worked.  Thats a normal sized high school soccer coach if that helps

Thought a human being would give a little perspective on the size of the bowl. Sort of worked.  Thats a normal sized high school soccer coach if that helps

With the meat and fat nearly frozen again, I started assembling the extremely cold pieces of the Kitchenaid grinder  as quickly as possible to avoid them warming up too much.  Then, working fast, the frozen meat went through the grinder on a coarse grind setting since I wanted the finish product to be sausage and not a puree.  We’ve all seen me grind meat on this blog before, so no picture needed for that piece of the process.

Once the meat/fat/parsley mixture was completely ground, it went back into the freezer for a half hour, then into the mixing bowl portion of the Kitchenaid along with a cup of a dry red wine and red wine vinegar mixture.  I used the paddle attachment on the mixer to combine the liquid with the meat and make sure that all fat, meat, and parsley were evenly distributed in the sausage.

This was relatively unappetizing to watch for some reason.  It looked like the meat was trying to escape with every rotation before it was foiled and fell back into the bowl

This was relatively unappetizing to watch for some reason.  It looked like the meat was trying to escape with every rotation before it was foiled and fell back into the bowl

Once it was well combined, I separated the ground mixture into two approximately even portions; one which would go directly into casings (for sweet Italian sausage) and the other which would get added seasonings (for hot Italian sausage).  The hot Italian portion went back into the freezer.

With the grinding complete, I switched out the grinder plate with the sausage stuffing attachment on the Kitchenaid.  There are some people who go bonkers on the internets about not using these attachments because they can make the sausage too hot which will cause it to nearly emulsify instead of staying in sausage form.  This includes people I trust as sound food advisors.  But, it was what I had and I had to make do.

First step was removing one of the casings from the cold water it had been soaking in for a couple hours, finding an end, figuring out how to open it, and bunching it up on the stuffing nozzle.

You might feel like your mind is in the gutter for some of the associations this imagery conjures, but then you remember that you are looking at a whole lamb intestine bunched up on a plastic nozzle

You might feel like your mind is in the gutter for some of the associations this imagery conjures, but then you remember that you are looking at 15′ of hog intestine bunched up on a plastic nozzle.  I expected no aroma/flavor on the casing , but it was actually kind of nice, like griddle seared hog fat.  And yes that smells nice to me

We loaded the meat into the tray and slowly started pushing it down into the stuffer where I would carefully feed it into the casing.  Keeping the pipeline full of meat was a pain, as was trying to keep the thickness and density consistent.  At least for round 1, it was a two man job.

That's some clenched face effort right there.  I really wanted this to be the light hearted, polka soundtrack sausage making that Kramer and Newman did together, but it ended up being serious work

That’s some clenched face effort right there.  I really wanted this to be the light hearted, polka soundtrack sausage making that Kramer and Newman did together, but it ended up being serious work

The casings have a natural curve to them, which made it easy to coil the sausage as it filled the casing.  This was key since otherwise I have no idea where I would have laid down a 15′ stretch of forcemeat.

I think this isn't even the full coil, we had a couple more feet to go.  That chip bag clip in the middle was soooo unnecessary

I think this isn’t even the full coil, we had a couple more feet to go. That chip bag clip in the middle was soooo unnecessary.  Also unnecessary, the four extra casings in the background that I had no need to soak and went unused

Once the sausage was fully in the casings, we carefully went through and twisted the sausage every 4 to 5 inches to make the individual links.  Then went through and tied a knot between each link with kitchen twine to make it easier to hang.

Kristi found Conman's posing for the foto hilarious.  He does know the secret to good action shots

Kristi found Conman’s posing for the foto hilarious.  He does know the secret to good action shots (hint, no action).  Also, I guess the random items strewn all over the butcher block is telling of the number of hours we’d been hanging out and imbibing

With the sweet Italians fully prepped, they went onto a laundry drying rack to hang and dry for a few hours.  While the rest of the crew watched the NFC championship (yes, this all happened awhile ago), I ground up oregano and red pepper flake in the mortar and mixed it into the remaining near-frozen sausage meat along with paprika to make the hot Italians.

I then went about loading into the casings solo, which wasn’t as hard as I expected, but only in hindsight did I realize that I packed the casings much more dense and fat when working alone.  I’m guessing I just got distracted and wasn’t feeding out enough casing.  This meant that when twisting the sausage into links a couple links burst which gave me some extra sausage meat to eat.  But first, the drying rack.

Thing of beauty.  You can see how fat and stubby the hots are.  Kristi went into the basement and found me this rack to dry the sausage on.  We are unclear if it was left by our previous neighbors, or if our current neighbors currently hang dry their sweaters on it and stuff.  Not a good neighbor, folks.  Not a good neighbor

Thing of beauty.  You can see how fat and stubby the hots are.  Kristi went into the basement and found me this rack to dry the sausage on.  We are unclear if it was left by our previous neighbors, or if our current neighbors hang dry their sweaters on it and stuff.  Not a good neighbor, folks.  Not a good neighbor

The extra hot Italian sausage meat was fried up in patties and served on potato rolls with sauteed broccoli rabe and melted provolone.

The regular sausage was tasty and had a starring role in a couple of Sunday Gravies, but the hots were so effing good.  Really flavorful, but went so nicely with a little cheese and rabe

The regular sausage was tasty and had a starring role in a couple of Sunday Gravies, but the hots were so effing good.  Really flavorful and went so nicely with a little cheese and rabe

The sausage sandwich was delicious, as I’m sure you’d guessed I would say.  The hot sausage had a lot of heat and strong flavor which played well with the cheese and rabe.  Not a sausage you’d want to eat before riding in an elevator with coworkers or having a conversation with a close talker, but very tasty.

The cased sweet Italians and hot Italians went into a tupperware in the fridge for a couple days until I decided to freeze them all.

Thats about 4 pounds worth, and the hots were in a different container.  I made a lot of sausage

That’s about 5 pounds worth, and the hots were in a different container.  I made a lot of sausage

The regular Italian sausage was solid and worked well as an ingredient in a couple rounds of Sunday Gravy.  Nothing too notable about the flavor, just tasted like a good sausage.  Though, this whole sasuage making experience made me realize how much more fat is in the regular Italian sausages I buy and eat than what I made.  Not a bad thing, but it really does make those versions more enjoyable when grilled on their own.

Since then I’ve made more sausage, which I will likely document soon.  I wouldnt grade it as highly succesful as this round, but a good experience regardless.  Till then.

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Weird Crap I Cook: Beef Tongue Pizza

Due to the kindness of friends and strangers, and their love of giving me trash bags of offal, I have a lot of interesting meats in my freezer.  Tongue, from several different animals, is available in abundance in the freezer.  While I’ve found some good uses for lamb, pork, and goats tongues due to their small size and tender meat, I had yet to cook a beef tongue dish that I truly enjoyed.  I’ve stewed it (for too short) and grilled it, but I haven’t made a dish that had the tender texture that tongue is prized for.

I decided to change all of that a couple weekends ago and brought a tongue up from the freezer to thaw.  Not just any tongue either, this one was from Uncle Billy’s Crazy Cooler of Destiny, which I had in a vacuum-sealed freeze for about a year.  As I’ve referenced before, since this was a grass fed cow that was butchered in a non-commercial setting, the cuts were in a more, um, natural state.  As in I still needed to rinse some grass off the tongue once it had thawed.

Pretty sure a multi-colored tongue would be a great conversation starter for humans

Pretty sure a multi-colored tongue would be a great conversation starter for humans.  That’s all I got here.  Oh, and the black part felt like the scratchy side of velcro

I followed the same standard process for preparing beef tongue with this one even though it was a little different than any you would find in a store.  The tongue went into a pot of boiling water for 90 minutes to loosen the hard outer skin from the meat so it could be easily peeled.  As usual, I boiled it for the recommended amount of time, briefly rinsed it in cold water, and cursed the stupid internet as I burned my fingers unsuccessfully peeling.  Then, eventually, easily peeled it once it got started (like a stubborn orange made of skin and shaped like a tongue).

Sure, the zoo-reminiscent cover is gone, but it's still definitely a large animal tongue of some sort

Sure, the zoo-reminiscent cover is gone, but it’s still definitely a large animal tongue of some sort

To expound on what made this tongue different while you are staring at that unappetizing photo, it’s because unlike a store-bought tongue, this one included the “stump”.  That area required some trimming of fat and unsightly pieces before boiling, but still has some decent meat so I left it intact.  If you’ve ever looked at the underside of your tongue in a mirror, I’m sure you can guess how questionable that stump looked when this all started.

Anyhoo, with the tongue ready for further cooking, I heated up a few tablespoons of bacon grease in Lil’ Blue over medium heat and started browning the outside of the tongue.

Browning is never easy with something as oddly shaped as this.  Sadly, I have too much experience attempting to brown oddly shaped items

Browning is never easy with something as oddly shaped as this.  Sadly, I have a lot of experience attempting to brown oddly shaped items

Once browned on all sides (including some awkward balancing on the back of the tongue), I removed it from the pot and reduced the heat on the burner.  While it cooled a bit, I chopped carrots, onion, celery, and garlic in the food processor and dumped it directly into the pot to cook down for a few minutes.

This is becoming my go to braising and sauce base.  You will be seeing a lot more of it if I ever post regularly again

This is becoming my go-to braising and sauce base.  I think mire poix plus garlic is called sofrito, but I need some sort of clever nickname for sofrito + pork product (a la the regionally famous “Mire Pete”).  Suggestions are welcome

Once some of the liquid had cooked out of the veggies, I stirred in a few tablespoons of tomato paste, a little crushed red pepper, salt, and a handful of currants.  The currants were mostly to add some sweetness without using sugar and, as previously mentioned, Kristi bought a comedically large container of them a month ago.  Every day that passes with them in the cabinet stresses me out more.

After a little stirring, the tomato paste had well coated the other ingredients and I added a bottle of red wine to form the base for the braise.  While I waited for the liquid to reduce a bit, I preheated the oven to 300F and seized the opportunity for a little window-side photo shoot.

I never enjoyed the photo shoot scenes in the Austin Powers movies, generally the only part of those movies I didn't laugh hysterically at when I was 17.  However, I often find myself doing the same spoofs unintentionally by the window of my kitchen

I never enjoyed the photo shoot scenes in the Austin Powers movies, which were really the only part of those movies I didn’t laugh hysterically at when I was 17.  However, I often find myself spoofing that scene by the window of my kitchen with various odd foods

The browned tongue still looked a little funky, but smelled like roast beef with a little bacon aroma thrown in for good measure.  The tongue went back into the reduced braising liquid along with a few spoonfuls of liquid over the top.

I never even considered that this wouldn't fit but in hindsight it was a close call.  No post is complete without a close call!

I never even considered that this wouldn’t fit into the Le Creuset, but in hindsight it was a close call.  No post is complete without a close call!

The lid went back onto ‘Lil Blue and it headed into the oven for three hours of braising.  I’d like to say I paced the house the whole time, but I think we actually got outside and away from the kitchen so I wouldn’t obsess over it the whole time.

When we returned home, Kristi said something along the lines of, “I am disgusted by how good that smells since I know what it is”.  Which, I guess, is a good sign?  I thought yes, so I pulled the pot out of the oven to see what we had.

Pretty much what I expected, though I am always amazed by how much smaller meat is when it comes out of a braise

Pretty much what I expected, though braising makes food smaller which is not something I like to have happen.  Yet I continue to braise everything I have no other ideas for

The meat was extremely tender to the point that I was concerned it would fall apart when I removed it from the pot.  Which is what I was hoping for after my previous chewy experiences cooking tongue.

With plans to use everything in the pot, I removed the tongue carefully with a couple large spoons and transferred it to a separate dish.  Once the tongue and pot had cooled enough to touch, they both headed into the fridge to chill completely.  After a few hours, the tongue had firmed enough that it would be easy to slice without the meat falling apart, and the excess fat in the braising liquid had hardened for easy skimming.

Once skimmed, the liquid went back on the stove top to come back up to temperature.

Braising liquid makes an excellent pasta sauce.  All braised meats should be served with a pasta of some sort.  That is, if you want to achieve my current dimensions

Braising liquid makes an excellent pasta sauce. All braised meats should be served with a pasta of some sort.  That is, if you want to achieve my current dimensions

While the sauce simmered, I started the grill and began slicing the tongue into pieces that would work well as a pizza topping.  See, it wasn’t just a falsely titled post, it just took a while to get there!  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

The part of the tongue between the stump and the end sliced in perfect sized rounds.

When I sent my writer friend (and tongue enthusiast) Mirkel a text about this tongue and referred to the "stump" and the "tip", he responded "Awesome language!"

When I sent my writer friend (and tongue enthusiast) Mirkel a text about this tongue and referred to the “stump” and the “tip”, he responded “Awesome language!”

The remainder of the tongue I sliced over the following few days for a couple tongue sandwiches which were friggin’ delicious.  Even on stupid, evil sandwich thins.

I pride myself on my kitchen items and our many fine glass containers for storing food, but I still save every damned takeout thai food dish.  Kristi doesn't mind because all my offal goes in them

I pride myself on my kitchen gadgets and our many glass containers for storing food, but I still save every damned plastic takeout Thai food dish.  Kristi doesn’t mind because all my offal goes in them

When cold and in between two slices of (stupid diet) bread, the braised tongue can be enjoyed in all of its glory.  It was a combination of the flavor of rich pot roast with the texture of firm liverwurst in a sandwich.  So tasty, but no one else will think that sounds delicious.  Except, maybe, this one person I know…

THAT'S MY GIRL!!!  Grubbin like the greats and disgusting her mother in just a few speedy bites.  She wasn't sure if she liked it, then absolutely destroyed it in three huge quick bites

THAT’S MY GIRL!!!  Grubbin’ like the greats and disgusting her mother at the same time.  She wasn’t sure if she liked it, then absolutely destroyed it in three huge quick bites

Janet had her fair share of slices over the following few days, but my favorite moment was when our friend’s son Griffin took a piece out of her hand while we were visiting in LBI for the 4th.  He ate it in two bites while his mother Liz turned away in horror trying to avoid vomiting while saying through muffling hands, “It’s fine, it’s fine, he can eat it if he wants to.”  I am a great houseguest!

With the grill up to 550F and all of the ingredients prepped, I stretched out half of a pizza dough and brushed it thoroughly with olive oil. Then straight onto the grill oiled side down.

I have discussed my love for grilled pizza previously, but that love hasn’t faded.  It is the only way to get crispy, bubbly, and chewy dough cooking at home due to how much heat comes off the grill.  Here it is after about a minute and a half.

Usually when you open the grill the dough has bubbled an absurd amount then it collapses to this on the way in.  The shape should be blamed on me, not the grill

Usually when you open the grill the dough has bubbled an absurd amount then it collapses to this on the way back in to the house.  The shape should be blamed on me, not the grill

The raw side gets another brush of olive oil then the whole thing gets flipped so the grilled side can be topped.

The right amount of burn is a dangerous game to play and I've failed a few times, but it's almost always edible

The right amount of burn is a dangerous game to play and I’ve lost a few times, but it’s almost always edible and more often than not delicious

The crispy side was spread with the braising liquid, the tongue rounds, and a couple handfuls of parmesan and shredded mozzarella.  Then a couple dollops of additional sauce for good measure and back onto the grill with the boring pesto, tomato and cheese pizza Kristi made me make as well.

This foto was a huge point of anxiety for me.  The dough can only be on the grill for a couple minutes and that time needs to be trapping enough heat to melt the toppings.  So, normal overreaction from me

This foto was a huge point of anxiety for me.  The dough can only be on the grill for a couple minutes and that time needs to be spent trapping enough heat inside the grill to melt the toppings.  So, normal overreaction from me

After another few minutes on the grill with the lid closed, I burned my hands the usual extensive amount transferring the pizza back to a cookie sheet to bring inside.  A quick foto of the brief resting period so the cheese wouldn’t all slide off when I cut it.

That's right, THREE naturally lit shots in one post in honor of the THREE week break I took from writing without acknowledging to this point in the blog.  I hate every time I lead off a post with an apology but, my apologies

That’s right, THREE naturally lit shots in one post in honor of the THREE week break I took from writing this blog that I haven;t acknowledged yet.  I hate every time I lead off a post with an apology but, my apologies

As usual with the half dough pizzas, each was cut into eight, 5-6 bite rectangles.  The point of cutting to that size is so I don’t know how much I’ve eaten and no one else can really tell whether I am eating a lot either.  Strategy!

Luckily the beef tongue was tender and easy to cut unlike pepperoni, prosciutto and other toppings I have struggled to slice through previously.

Had to have a slice of the stupid Kristi pizza too, you know, to get my greens

Had to have a piece of the stupid Kristi pizza too.  You know, to get my greens

The pizza was very tasty.  Because the sauce was a reduced and concentrated blend of sofrito, red wine, tomato paste, and juice/fat from the beef, it had a ton of flavor.  It was very rich and pretty delicious.  The only mistake was the extra dollops of sauce since a little bit went a long way and I wanted it to compliment the tongue instead of challenge it.  As it was with the extra sauce, the flavor of the tongue was overpowered a little bit, but overall it still tasted how I hoped: pot roast pizza.  Next time around I would likely use slightly less sauce, use some shaved gruyere as the cheese, and integrate some caramelized onions.  Only reason I passed on the onions this time around is because they play a prominent role in my braised short rib pizza which would have been nearly identical to this.

Once again, I promise to right this ship.  For serious this time.

Pete’s Burgers: The Coq au Vin (feat. Pheasant)

Last summer I was in Las Vegas for a tradeshow and had dinner with one of Wayfair’s business partners, Good Ideas.  The Good Ideas guys know how to do a tradeshow dinner (amongst other things like innovative composters and chicken coops) and we enjoyed a couple hours of wine and massive amounts of Italian food.  During the course of the dinner I discovered Greg, the owner, has a sprawling ranch in South Dakota where he avidly hunts along with the Cary, Mike, and various other folks from the company.  I in turn babbled about my love of game meat and my complete lack of the necessary intestinal fortitude to hunt.  We found a yin and yang relationship there, and Greg agreed to send me a bunch of pheasants next time he went hunting as long as I came up with a good recipe for them.

Now, my teeth were stained purple and we’d all been on our feet for 12 hours, so I wasn’t exactly sure whether our agreement would come to fruition.  Then, a few months later, I got an email that I would be receiving a big box of birds in a few days.  Well then.

Here's a good trick to play on your wife: make friends with some hunters and have them send you a box of dead animals during the holiday season.  Don't tell your wife that it's coming and let her open it while you're at work.  Hilarity ensues.No, no, no.  Actually, I was in the dog house after that one

Here’s a good trick to play on your wife: make friends with some hunters and have them send you a box of dead animals during the holiday season.  Don’t tell your wife that it’s coming and let her open it while you’re at work.  Hilarity ensues.
No no, don’t do that actually.  I was in the doghouse after that one

A box of three gallon-sized bags with multiple frozen pheasants in each.  The pheasants were fully cleaned and skinned aside from one feather-covered wing that they like to keep on for identification purposes.  Definitely added to the slightly macabre scene and the general rage of my wife, though.  Since it was mid-December and we were planning to be out of town the next few weekends, I moved all three bags to the chest freezer in the basement.

In the following weeks, there weren’t many days that went by that I didn’t think about what the hell I was going to do with these things.  I originally wanted to make sausage but with how lean the meat was, I would need to probably go with a 1:2 ratio of pheasant to pork fat to make an enjoyable sausage.  So, it sat and I sat, and the weeks passed without me making a move.

Nemo got me housebound and antsy, so I thawed out a package and went with my original idea: fully prepared pheasant coq au vin, removed from the bones, ground, and formed into a patty.  Had no idea how it would work out, but what else is new.  Let’s start with some mirepoix.

I don't know why I need to show a photo every time, but I do.  This is carrots, celery, onion, and garlic

I don’t know why I need to show a photo every time, but I do.  This is carrots, celery, onion, and garlic in case you were previously unaware

I chopped everything shown on the cutting board and placed in a bowl to wait their turn, then pulled the birds out of the bag and laid them on the cutting board.

My guess as to how many birds were in each bag ranged from 1 to 7.  I had not concept of how big these things were since all I could see was feathers

My guess as to how many birds were in each bag ranged from 1 to 7.  I had no concept of how big these things were since all I could see were the feathers.  Turns out the answer is 2.  These both looked identical, the one on the right is just wing side down

The birds smelled clean and poultry-like, but not like the occasionally farty smell of thawed grocery store sweatshop chicken.  I was immediately struck by how much the body looked like rabbit, particularly the thighs.  The wing was an odd sight, but it was easy to remove which left me to try and figure out how to break the pheasants down.

Wings removed.  The bird on the bottom looked like the dogs got after it a bit during the retrieval process

Wings removed.  The bird on the bottom looked like the dogs got after it a bit during the retrieval process.  Either that or someone left loose change and their car keys in the shotgun barrel by accident

Since I was planning to braise bone-in, I wanted to break each bird down into two breast and two thigh portions.  I started by cutting perpendicular to the backbone and separating the thighs from the breast portion.  For the thighs, one cut through the center of the backbone was all I needed, but since the chest had to be cut on both sides, the breast bone was a little trickier.  The bones were thin and east to cut through with a little pressure, but I still felt like a I was mauling these things.    Eventually each bird ended up like this.

Very little trim away, mostly just the featery butt portion and the neck which I elected not to use after seeing the worm-like throat.  Let's move on

Very little to trim away, mostly just the feathery butt portion and the neck which I elected not to use after seeing the worm-like throat.  Let’s move on

It was around this time that I recognized the small tears in the flesh were likely due to the birdshot that brought the pheasant down.  I inspected each piece thoroughly but didn’t find any shot during the breaking down process aside from one small piece.  Made me a little wary about my teeth surviving the consumption of the finished product.

After breaking down the second bird, I had this pile of meat.

Been experimenting with shots by my window for less awful photography on this blog.  This one came out arty and oddly washed out

Been experimenting with fotos by the kitchen window for less awful photography on this blog.  This one came out arty and oddly washed out

With the ingredients all prepped, I heated up a few tablespoons of bacon grease in ‘Lil Blue.  After a good seasoning of salt and pepper, the pheasant went into the hot grease to brown in two waves.

Bottom right is the breast and tenderloin from my experiment with deboning.  Seemed like a huge pain in the ass given the size of the birds

Bottom right is the breast and tenderloin from my experiment with deboning.  Seemed like a huge pain in the ass and waste of time given the size of the birds

Once the meat had some decent color, I removed it from the pot and dumped in the mirepoix with a lot of dried herbs de provence.  After a few minutes of cooking they started to brown slightly around the edges and were pretty fragrant.

Again with the mirepoix, not sure what this shot proves or informs

Again with the mirepoix, not sure what this shot proves or informs.  For some reason the last batch of onions Kristi and I purchased delivered an equivalent experience to getting pepper sprayed when chopping

At this point I added a few bay leaves, a bottle of red wine (#3BuckChuckMerlot) and turned up the heat until the liquid started bubbling.  After lowering the heat a little,  I let the wine and veggies simmer for 15 minutes to reduce the liquid a bit.  Then the browned pheasant pieces headed back in.

I was already well aware that this meal was running the risk of being extremely dry

I was already well aware that this meat was running the risk of being “The Turkey in Christmas Vacation”-level dry

After topping off with a little chicken broth to fully cover the meat, the lid went on and the heat went down to low for 60 minutes.  Leaving me with this:

Amazing how much different it can look in a short time.  Braising is magic

Amazing how much different it can look in a short time.  Braising is magical and I’m a wizard y’alllll

I pulled the pot off of the heat and let it rest for a few minutes before transferring the meat to a cutting board.  While the meat cooled, I removed the mirepoix from the pot using a slotted spoon and into a bowl lined with cheese cloth.

More artsy window shots.  Even if they feel like they belong on a blog that has a cursive-written alliterative title instead of a fat person's face photoshopped on a pig, I still like these shots

More artsy window shots.  Even if they feel like they belong on a blog that has a cursive-written alliterative title instead of a fat person’s face photoshopped on a pig, I still like these shots

After a few minutes of cooling, I twisted up the cheesecloth tight while holding it over the bowl and started to press some of the excess liquid out of the vegetables.  Press, tighten the cheesecloth, press some more, tighten, etc.  Eventually, I was content with the amount of excess moisture I’d pressed out.

That liquid was like a flavor explosion.  That liquid is what I hope for in any stew broth and why I am so often disappointed in stew.  I am unpleasant to dine with

That liquid was like a flavor explosion.  It was what I hope for in any stew broth and why I am so often disappointed in stews that I don’t make myself.  I am unpleasant to dine with

The pressed liquid went into the braising pot with the reserved cooking broth and set over low heat to reduce for the next few hours.  Which brings me back to the braised pheasant.

Here's a little thing: do this at home and tell your young child these are chicken McNuggets.  Then  blame Ronald

Here’s an idea: I should do this again in a few years and tell my young children that these are chicken McNuggets.  Then eat all their chicken McNuggets when they refuse to eat them on future visits to McDonalds

With the meat cooled, I went through the relatively annoying process of pulling the meat off of the bones and trying to fish out any small bones and bird shot.  Although there are less gnarly tendon-y pieces than on a bigger bird like chicken or turkey, I couldn’t believe all of the tiny pinbones around and in the thigh meat.  After some lightly burned fingers and frustration, I had this bowl:

Even the thigh meat was extremely lean and white when torn.  I don't think it's possible to cook this bird in a short enough period of time to keep it moist

Even the thigh meat was extremely lean and white when torn. I don’t think it’s possible to cook this bird in a short enough period of time to keep it moist

With this stage complete, I moved the meat and vegetables into the freezer for 30 minutes to chill to an easier grinding temperature.  While that cooled, I put together the attachments for our Kitchenaid mixer that makes it into a relatively easy to use meat grinder.

Finally, it was time to grind.  I loaded a handful of the shredded pheasant and pressed mirepoix into the grinder, continuing by alternating handfuls of both.

The pressed veggies.  Still a little spoungey feeling, but I knew that most of the moisture that would make them unpleasant once through a grinder were gone

The pressed veggies.  Still a little spongy feeling, but I knew that the excess moisture that would make the final ground product watery was gone

I've shown this grinder in action a few times.  Since the meat was cooked, it was relatively easy, but it was still nice seeing the grinds that had equals parts meat and veggies

I’ve shown this grinder in action a few times, but I like sharing my multitasking skills with a camera.  Since the meat was cooked, it looked a little less appetizing, but it was still nice seeing the grinds that had equals parts meat and veggies

With the meat and vegetables fully ground the mixture looked a bit like sand, which had me concerned about how dry it would be.  So, I added some broken homemade mayo.

Quick sidenote: my lovehandles have lovehandles these days, so I’ve been dabbling in a few different types of cooking and/or diets.  Making homemade mayo isn’t healthy, but it’s healthier since it uses better oil and no preservatives.  It’s also extremely frustrating and doesn’t work (correct term: emulsify) 50% of the times I’ve done it.  In those cases, you end up with lots of broken mayo; essentially olive oil, egg yolks, lemon juice, vinegar and some seasonings coexisting unpeacefully in a small space.  Seemed like the perfect item to fatten up and bind my ground meat mixture.

Couple big spoonfuls and a heavy pour of sea salt and black pepper. The greenliness of the homemade mayo is the best part

Couple big spoonfuls and a heavy pour of sea salt and black pepper.  The green color of homemade mayo and the sharp olive flavor are the best parts

After a few minutes in the mixer, the ground mixture looked like this:

First big moment of doubt; looked more like lunch line tuna salad than what I was going for

First big moment of doubt.  It looked more like cafeteria tuna salad than what I was going for.  Mmmm, cafeteria tuna salad

The ground mixture went into the fridge for an hour long “gettin to know ya” sesh which I was hoping would bring the flavors together and firm it up a bit.

All the while, the braising liquid simmered.

Love the lines on the side, they are like merit badges for patience

Love the crusty high flood mark-type lines on the inside.  They are like merit badges for culinary patience

Once I felt the ground meat was ready for cooking (read: I was hungry), I heated up a round bottom pot on the stovetop and made a couple tablespoons of roux.  Once the flour had cooked for a few minutes and the roux had a little color, I whisked in the reduced braising liquid to make a poor man’s demi glace.

Demi Glace makes everything better and more palatable.  Kristi was not into this meal until she heard a demi glace was involved.  Then she still wasn't into it but wanted some of the demi glace

Demi Glace makes everything better and more palatable.  Kristi was not into this meal until she heard a demi glace was involved.  Then she still wasn’t into it but wanted some of the demi glace

With the sauce over low heat, I heated up a little olive oil in a pan and formed the ground pheasant meat into a patty.

Looks extremely high fat, but it clearly wasn't.  Had to avoid the rage I usually feel towards things that should be fatty that aren't

Looks like extremely high fat sausage, but it clearly wasn’t.  Had to avoid the rage I usually feel towards things that should be fatty that aren’t

Flip, fry, then smother with sauce.  That’s right, a burger post with no bun.  It was a friggin’ blizzard for cripes sake!  Trains weren’t running!  It felt like end of days outside and there was no chance I was hiking to 7-11 to engage in a knife fight over the last pack of hamburger buns.

Anyhoo, would have been a hell of a burger but,as it was, we had Salisbury steak.

Felt very old school.

Felt very old school, like I should have been giving Kristi a dressing down about not having enough starch in my collars while eating it

To get a key point out of the way, that sauce was absurd.  You could put it on pretty much anything and it would be delicious.  The burger also had great flavor, with the (slightly) gamey poultry and red wine cooked vegetables both clearly coming through in each bite.  Combined with the sauce, the flavors were rich and pretty awesome.

The only reason this wasn’t a complete victory were some texture problems.  The primary issue was that using a the broken homemade mayo threw off the egg to added fat balance a bit.  While the may was likely 3 parts olive oil, 1 part egg yolk, it should have been a half and half ratio to properly bind the burger and keep some density.  As it was, the texture was most similar to a crab cake, which probably would have been less of a big deal in a bun. The secondary issue was that  I missed some small bones and a few little ground pieces of them made it through.  Not a ton of pieces, but enough that you didn’t want to bite down too hard while chewing just in case you had one.

Oh well, all in all still a pretty successful experiment.  Thanks to Greg, Cary, and Mike for killing stuff and sending it to me.

Another weekend at home.  I have ideas.

Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Baba Ghannouj, Red Wine Poached Eggs, Venison

Over the past few weeks I’ve cooked a lot of stuff I’ve never attempted before, but nothing quite elaborate enough for a full post.  I’ve got a few other posts queued up for the next few weeks, but figured I’d clear out the backlog with this one first.  Sooooo, you’re ending up with another edition of Cleanin’ out my Cabinets that will show some of the more interesting recent dishes.  This category isn’t exactly a best seller on this blog, but oh well; you gotta take the bad with the… slightly less bad.

First up is baba ghannouj.  I love hummus but have definitely had some mixed experiences with baba since, while similar, the flavor and consistency seems to vary widely.  The ones I’ve always enjoyed the most had a lot of tahini, garlic, and lemon flavors, particularly the variety served at Magic Carpet in Philly.

With that in mind, I pierced a few holes in the side of a large eggplant and placed it in the oven to cook for 40 minutes at 375F.

Never cooked an eggplant whole before. It wasn't as momentous an event as you might have expected

Once the eggplant had cooled enough to be handleable, it was surprisingly easy to peel.  In other news, I see the little wiggly red line under “handleable”, and it certainly doesn’t look right, but I am going to stand by my belief that it is a word.

For some reason the bottom side, which was farther from the heat, ended up softer. Also, I couldn't come up with an interesting caption for this picture

Once the eggplant was peeled I placed it on some paper towels for 10-15 minutes.  Theoretically, this was supposed to drain some of the bitter juice from the eggplant but it didn’t really pull out any liquid.  It did give me a chance to get out the can of tahini and use a can opener to open it.

The first can of tahini I have purchased. Kristi hates this stuff, but my favorite Mediterranean food is always heavy on the tahini flavor

For anyone who hasn’t used it, its like a soupy thin peanut butter that tasted like roasted sesame.  When you open the can it’s completely separated into oil and solids, like organic peanut butter, and needs to be stirred heavily.

I sliced the eggplant into chunks over the blender the same way you would slice a banana over a bowl of cereal.  I then added two large spoonfuls of tahini, a handful of flat parsley leaves, juice from one lemon, a tablespoon of minced garlic, and lots of salt and pepper before pulsing the blender.

Been using the blender and food processor interchangeably lately, but generally the blender for anything saucy

A few more pulses and it was ready for a bowl.

One eggplant makes a lot of baba ghannouj, plenty for an appetizer at a party

As I said while I was eating it, I think I just don’t like baba as much as hummus.  My version could have used a little more tahini and lemon juice, and a little less garlic.  It also just didn’t have as much eggplant flavor as I wanted, which is surprising to me since it went in seeds and all.  Not bad, just not as good as I was hoping.

Next up was  some recipe writing for Pete & Gerry’s Heirloom Eggs.  The company is run by a few friends from college and I recently started writing recipes for their site in exchange for free eggs.  Works for me, since I love eggs and theirs are really in a different universe than the sad yellow yolked “sweatshop eggs” (as Kramer put it) you get in the cardboard cartons.  It’s also fun to have the challenge of making dishes that highlight an egg and aren’t just breakfast.

Anyhoo, when the temperature dipped last week, it seemed like a perfect time to make a hearty fall salad with steak tips, beets, mushrooms, and red wine vinaigrette.  I thought the addition of an egg poached in red wine would make the flavor richer and the dish much nicer to look at.  First step is dumping your finest bottle of Three Buck Chuck into a pot with a little chicken stock and bringing it to a boil.

Boiling red wine taps into my OCD side. I guarantee I was worried the red wine was staining the sides of my pot

While the wine rose to a boil, I heated a grill pan and mixed together some red wine vinegar, olive oil, honey, and garlic for the salad dressing (details are here).  Once the grill pan was hot, I put the meat and mushrooms on with plenty of salt and pepper.

The story of these steak tips makes me unreasonably cranky. Steak tips are flap steak, or sirloin tips, and should cost about $7 a pound in New England. These were $10 a pound at Whole Foods and were clearly just chopped skirt steak. As psyched as I was to see the new Whole Foods sign in JP, they're suspect

Once the wine was at rolling boil, I dropped in two eggs over the areas that were bubbling the most.

You can't really tell in this photo, but the Ameraucana Heirloom eggs are blue inside. Just a cool looking food

After 4-5 minutes, you had this:

I didn't take any of these pictures, Kristi was all about snappin' detail shots

Which worked perfectly as a centerpiece to the plated salads.

C'mon mehn, you know that looks wonderful

The best part was breaking into the yolk before mixing the salad up a bit to distribute the bits of egg and the rich yolk.

Kristi and I are on a serious beet kick at the moment. I can't get enough of them in my salads, especially when there's a little Annie's Goddess dressing involved

This was a really delicious dinner.  The red wine poaching mixed well with the vinaigrette and the rich yolk helped make the salad a lot more filling than your average salad.  I can honestly say I was stuffed after eating this, which I have never said about a salad before aside from those pseudo salads that come in the awesome fried taco bowl and are essentially a giant nacho.

Last up was a hearty venison dinner we had a few nights ago.  I haven’t cooked venison since last fall for a two reasons: it’s more of a cold weather meal and the last time I cooked it Kristi was two months pregnant, very nauseous, and made me wait until she went to sleep to eat it.  She’s had almost no interest in venison since then, but OK’d a trial run this week.

The traditional way Kristi’s family cooks venison is in a pan with butter and onions.  Pretty much can’t go wrong with that, since the butter and onions go great with venison.  I wanted to switch it up a little, so I went with a grill pan over high heat.  To add the other two key flavors, I caramelized a chopped onion and poured a melted tablespoon of butter over the meat along with salt and pepper.

Its amazing how there isn't even a trace of intramuscular fat in venison meat

From there, the meat went onto a hot grill pan for a couple minutes on each side.  Once the meat came off, the medallions went onto a celery root puree and were topped with a spoonful of the onions.

I really don't like peas, but they did add some nice color contrast to the plate

Once again, Kristi was going nutso with detail shots of the meal.

I mock her efforts, but that is a pretty dece detail shot

Another great, filling meal.  The puree almost made it too rich, but combining everything on the plate including the peas was awesome.  Big thanks to Kristi’s uncle Billy for the venison which he gave to us along with some homemade venison sausage.  Billy (and that sausage) will be discussed more in a future post.

I’m thinking the next post should be a WCIC, so it might be time to finally bite the bullet and buy that ox kidney I’ve had my eye on.  Something to look forward to.  Unless you happen to be hanging out in a bouncy seat in the kitchen watching my every move.

I have a feeling Janet's first words will be "no thank you"

Till next time.

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).