Saturday, March 22, 2014

7 Years of The Essential Rhubarb Pie (Now With Cassoulet)

I have to start this blog by wishing The Essential Rhubarb Pie a happy birthday.  It has been exactly 7 years since my first post.  I can't believe I have been around this long.  I do love having this blog.  I love having a recipe archive of my ideas.  I love being able to review publicly my food experiences. Most of all, I love the friends I have made in the food blogging world.

There is a new term out there in the food world these days.  It’s called “food gentrification”.  It relates to the fact that once a food that was once the territory of the lower socioeconomic classes becomes trendy, it becomes expensive and soon only those higher on the socioeconomic ladder can afford it.  Think of food like short ribs, quinoa, kale, and most recently collard greens.  Prices for these items has skyrocketed due to demand from privileged foodies.  

I don’t think food gentrification is anything new.  Dishes that were considered “peasant food” in other countries are seen as exotic and high-end by American foodies.  What does an American pay for osso bucco at an Italian restaurant?  How about coq au vin?  What a European peasant might have seen as an economic, one-pot meal designed to make the most of tough meats and a lack of time to spend fussing over the stove, has become haute cuisine for contemporary Americans.  Who is home for hours at a stretch to cook a stew or a pot of dried beans?  What if you can’t afford a slow cooker?

I didn’t mean for this post to sound too political, but I couldn’t help thinking of these things as I made my very first cassoulet this weekend.  Somewhere in a farmhouse in the French countryside, a farmer’s wife throws her homegrown beans in a pot, she stews some tough cuts of pork in a bottle of plonk from a neighboring vineyard, and she throws in some duck confit that she made herself from the ducks in her backyard pond.  Maybe I’m romanticizing it a bit, but the idea is that a cassoulet was once a dish made from foods that were readily available, chosen for their flavor, and not meant to be expensive. 

Since I started experimenting with cooking my own beans last year I have wanted to try my hand at cassoulet.  I began compiling recipes and ideas for how I could make it myself. 

Making cassoulet is no simple feat for a suburban dwelling, full-time-employed American.  It is no cheap feat either.  One issue I bump up against is the ever-present duck confit.  That is not an easy ingredient to find.  None of the stores near my house carry it.  There are two sources in the city where I can buy it.  One sells it for $8 a leg and another sells it for $13 a leg.  The cheaper of the two stores tends to run out.  As luck would have it, the cheaper store had only one left, so I had to buy the other three at the more expensive store.  That's another factor that gentrifies cuisine.  I have been told that even though plenty of French home cooks don't regularly make their own duck confit, it's easily and cheaply available in all markets.  Also, to make the dish feel more authentic, I used imported cannellini beans.  I made the pork stew with loin because it's hard to get small amounts of shoulder unless you have access to a butcher willing to cut up just a pound of shoulder for you.  

With all that in mind, I started on.  I cooked my beans with herbs and fatback.  I stewed pork loin in wine, chicken stock, tomatoes, and garlic.  I browned some hot turkey sausages and threw them in the pot with duck confit legs, pork stew, and the beans.  That went into the oven for two hours before I covered it with buttery breadcrumbs and put it in another five minutes.  

I didn't cook everything in one pot.  I used a stock pot for my beans, a sauté pan for my pork, and put everything together in my Romertopf clay pot.  Not very French, but it worked for me.

My duck fell off the bones while I was serving and so I have that unattractive bone sitting in the pot for this photo.  

I thought my cassoulet was a bit dry.  At least it wasn't soupy.  

(dis)Ordered Cassoulet

For Beans

  • 1 pound cannellini or other white beans
  • 7 cups of water
  • 3" piece of fat back
  • Several sprigs of thyme and rosemary
  • 1 onion, halved
  • 2 whole cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

Carefully sort through beans for unwanted debris.  Soak beans in water overnight.  Drain and add 7 cups of fresh water, onion, garlic, herbs, and fat back.  Bring pot to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cook about an hour or until beans are tender.  Remove the onion, garlic, and fatback.  Remove the stems of the herb sprigs.

For pork stew

  • 2 Tbl duck fat or olive oil
  • 2 oz. pancetta, cut into small pieces
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 ribs of celery, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 pounds pork loin (or shoulder) cut into chunks
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 15 oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 2 cups of chicken broth

Heat the fat or the oil in a large pan.  Add the pancetta and cook until crisp.  Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the carrots and celery and cook until they take on some color.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.  Remove from pan and cook the pork chunks until they are browned on the outside.  Add the vegetables back to the pan with the wine, tomatoes, and chicken broth.  Simmer for about an hour.

For final assembly

  • 4 duck confit legs
  • 4-6 turkey (or preferred meat) spicy sausage
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbl butter

Brown the sausage on all sides.  Gently heat the confit legs.  Place about a third of the beans at the bottom of a casserole, dutch oven, or clay pot.  Place the legs on top.  Place another third of the beans on top and pour the pork stew over it.  Place another third of the beans on top and nestle in the sausages.

If you aren't using a terra cotta pot, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  If you are using a terra-cotta pot, soak it in water, put it in a cold oven and bring the temperature to 350 degrees.

Cook for about two hours.  While it is cooking, heat the butter in a pan and add the breadcrumbs.  Cook until crispy and buttery.  Cover the top of the cassoulet with the breadcrumbs and cook and additional 15 minutes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Essential Rhubarb Pie's Biggest Sugar High Yet

I’ll start this post with a joyful announcement about something completely unrelated to the main post topic. 

Hmmm…”Joyful announcement” sounds like something else entirely doesn’t it?  Like something not related to food.  Let’s tone this down a bit.  I had a very happy food occurrence.  

Last week we had  Mardi Gras/Carnivale/Shrove Tuesday/Day Before Ash Wednesday.  Various types of fried pastries and leavened breads are what many folks like to chow down on prior to Lent. Some people do pancakes. I know that doughnuts and fasnachts are popular because they require leavening.  I don’t know where the pancake thing comes from.  All I know is I jokingly asked Sir Pickypants if he wanted pancakes for dinner Tuesday night and he jumped all over it.  

Taking aside the fact that I’m not one of those people who thinks eating breakfast for dinner is the greatest thing ever (I’m just not all that enamored of breakfast foods that I want to eat them all of the time), I am also terrible at making pancakes.  

That’s not true.  I’m not always terrible.  Sometimes it’s okay.  It’s just I never know whenever I make pancakes if they will be good pancakes or bad pancakes.

I made the pancakes.  They were the best pancakes I ever made.  They were thick and super-fluffy and sweet and studded with blueberries.  They gave me hope that I will continue to make good pancakes in the future.  

But that’s not what this post is supposed to be about.

If I were to list the main guidelines for the (dis)Ordered kitchen, there would be three.  The first is that the best foods are made with high-quality ingredients and that I shouldn’t skimp on what I use in my recipes if it can be avoided.  The second is that homemade food always tastes better than shortcuts.  The more love and effort that goes into a dish, the better it tastes.  The third is I do try to aim for good nutrition.  Sure I like to make junkier foods for certain occasions, but usually I’m all about fresh, unprocessed foods.

I threw most of that out the window this weekend.

Periodically my theater group has Open Mike nights as a fundraiser.  They’re not any big production.  People just come into the hall, pay $5, and if they wish to perform, sign up for a time slot.  Sometimes I get up and sing.  I am almost always the emcee. This time I didn't just sing, but did a duet with SPP.  We sang "Falling Slowly" from the movie and musical Once

Since we need to raise as much money as possible, we also sell snacks, soda, and coffee.  We will resell store-bought stuff, but those of us who want to bake are always greatly appreciated.  I try to bake every time.  

I wanted to do something different this time around.  I have done homemade chocolate chip cookies in the past, but everyone does chocolate chip cookies.  I wanted to make something that would raise a few eyebrows.  I wanted to stand out in the middle of a generic food table.  

I ended up inventing these bars.  They are not nutritious, they contain tons of white sugar and processed ingredients, and they contain a shortcut or two.  They were also such a popular item at the open mike night that I don't think I saw an single person in the crowd not eating one.

I started with pretzels.  I learned a long time ago pretzels make a great crust.  I crushed a bag of pretzels and mixed them with butter and sugar.  I baked them up and had my base.

Next I cooked up a batch of caramel.  I suppose if I really wanted to “cheat”, I could have used a jar of caramel sauce.  I find it’s easy enough to make, so I cooked up a batch and let it cool enough to spread over the crust without soaking into the pretzel layer.I covered that caramel with a bag of shredded sweetened coconut.  

Finally I added a layer of fudge.  This wasn’t the slow-stirred corn syrup kind.  This was simply a bag of chocolate chips and a can of condensed milk.  Then I topped the fudge with toasted, salted pecans for a little extra texture and flavor.

I had no idea what to call these bars. At first I thought I should call them Calorie & Cavity Bars, since there is so much sugar that they would provide plenty of the former and give you the latter.  I wasn’t sure if that would hold much appeaI for people considering eating them.  I considered just saying what’s in them and calling them Pretzel-Caramel-Coconut-Fudge-Pecan Bars.  That was just too much of a mouthful.  I thought about calling them German Chocolate Pretzel Bars because they contain caramel, chocolate, coconut, and pecans, but German Chocolate treats should have the pecans in the same layer as the caramel, no?  I finally decided on Five-Layer Pretzel Bars.  It worked as well as anything else.

Five Layer Pretzel Bars

For Crust
  • 4 cups mini pretzels
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 sticks butter, melted
Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Spray the bottom of a 9"x13" pan with cooking spray.  Line with foil leaving an overhang on the sides.  Spray foil.

Crush pretzels into crumbs in a food processor. Combine crushed pretzels with sugar and butter. Press pretzel mixture into the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan to form a crust. Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.  Set aside to cool.

For Caramel Coconut Layer
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 Tbl butter
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup shredded, sweetened coconut
In a small saucepan heat sugar over medium heat.  Give the pot an occasional swirl and a stir to evenly distribute melting process.  If crystals form on the side of the pot, wash them down with a brush dipped in cold water.  Heat until all sugar is melted and is a dark amber color.  Stir in butter.  Remove from heat and stir in cream and salt.

Cool the caramel until is is no longer a thin liquid, but is still soft and pourable.  When cool, spread over crust and cover with coconut.

For Fudge Pecan Layer
  • 3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
  • Dash salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped pecans, toasted and lightly sprinkled with salt.
Heat chips, milk, and salt in a small saucepan until chocolate is melted.  Stir in vanilla.  .

Quickly spread the fudge over the top of the caramel and coconut layer.  Press pecans into the fudge.

Refrigerate until set.  Use the foil to lift the bars out of the pan and cut into squares.  Keep cold or the top layers will separate too easily from the base.