Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Anticipating St. Paddy's Day with Locally Corned Beef

When Richie Vought was a kid growing up in National City, he used to visit his dad's workplace, Stan Glenn's meat palace in Chula Vista. Two memories stand out: the hot dogs that Glenn used to give away to kids and the line of wooden barrels in a corner of the walk-in cooler in the back, all holding large pieces of meat brining into corned beef.

Decades later, Vought, a second generation meat cutter (Dad was a meat cutter and Mom was a "butcherette" during World War II), is master meat cutter at Iowa Meat Farms, working under Glenn. And, those barrels? They're no longer wood, instead your basic 32-gallon plastic trash cans, but inside is the beginning of a most delicious corned beef based on years of playing around with the brining recipe to replicate those flavors Vought remembers. Iowa Meat Farms and its sister shop, Siesel's Meats, sell between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of corned beef a year, mostly around St. Patrick's Day but they do carry it year round.

Corned beef got its name because the beef was preserved with coarse grains--or corns--of salt, going back hundreds of years before refrigeration. The technique could also be applied to pork. Brining has since replaced salt cures, but the name remains. Now, is it truly an Irish dish when paired with cabbage? The website Irish Cultures and Customs provides research that they say shows that it's about as Irish as spaghetti and meatballs; beef was just too pricey and pork was the preferred meat, particularly bacon joints. Irish immigrants to the U.S. found that beef was cheaper than in the mother country. But the newcomers treated the beef in the same way they did the bacon joints, soaking off the excess salt, and then boiling or braising the meat with cabbage.

At Iowa Meat Farms, the process begins with trimming the large brisket of excess fat and separating the two overlapping muscles--the round and the deckle, or point.

The round (left) and the deckle, or point of the brisket
Then they prepare a salt brine that includes sodium nitrate, phosphate, pink salt, sugar, pickling spices, garlic, and water. In go the pieces of meat with the brine into those containers to brine for six weeks. This breaks down the muscle and lets the meat absorb the brine's flavors.

This is one of 10 barrels in the cooler at Iowa Meat Farms, each holding about 350 pounds of meat, and weighted down by water-filled containers.
Once the meat comes out of the brine it's ready for cooking. Here's what you do:

1. Place the meat in a pot, with just enough water to cover. If you want, you can add a few fresh cloves a garlic, but that's really it.

2. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. Tender = inserting a fork into the meat and trying to lift it out. If the meat comes up with the fork, it's still not ready. If it falls off immediately, it's done. Vought tells me that it should take about three hours for a two-and-a-half-pound point and two hours for a five-pound piece of round.

3. If you like to boil vegetables to accompany the corned beef, Iowa Meat Farms suggests that you cook the meat first and keep it warm in a low oven, covered with foil. Then layer the vegetables--potatoes, carrots, cabbage--into a pot with the potatoes on the bottom, covered by the carrots and then the cabbage. Then strain enough of the cooking liquid into the pot to cover the carrots. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, and cook until tender--perhaps 30 to 45 minutes.

The round, cooked and ready for slicing into a sandwich.
The point, also cooked, and perfect accompanied by boiled cabbage and potatoes, slathered in Irish butter. Be sure to cut against the grain.
Alternatively, you can cook the meat in an oven, placing it in a covered roaster and adding enough boiling water to nearly cover the meat. Tightly cover the roaster and place in a 350-degree oven. It should take roughly the same amount of time to cook. This is a good method if you have a particularly large piece of meat.

Now for serving. The smooth round makes for wonderful sandwiches. I pulled out a couple of slices of rye bread, slathered them with deli mustard mixed with horseradish and had a delicious lunch. At the shop, the folks used the point for their sandwiches and they looked equally good.

Vought told me his favorite way of preparing corned beef for his family is to blend together French's yellow mustard, a couple of teaspoons of horseradish, and honey. Then he smears it over the top of the cooked corned beef and runs it under the broiler for about three minutes. You pull it out just as it starts to bubble and glaze. Let it cool, then slice and serve with cabbage, boiled potatoes, and butter.

Iowa Meat Farms will have its first batch of corned beef ready March 9 and they're holding their 2nd Annual Barrel Festival to offer tasting the next day, March 10, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at both their store and Siesel's Meats.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Grey Kabocha Squash Soup with Kaffir Lime and Ginger

Winter squashes are the perfect base for a winter soup--but they can tend to taste alike. I, at least, find it challenging to make them distinctive no matter what additional ingredients I add.

But when I came across kaffir limes at the Schaner Farm's booth at the Little Italy Mercato last week, I knew I had a match in the making. There's no disguising the powerful, astringent aroma and flavor of kaffir limes. In fact, you have to have a restrained hand to ensure that they don't overtake whatever else they're paired with. Kaffir limes are beloved in Southeast Asian and Thai cuisine. You'll find the leaves and zest used in soups, curries and curry pastes. Pair with ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk, and other regional ingredients to get the most out of them.

At home I had an unusual looking grey kabocha squash I'd gotten at OB People's Co-op. So, on a rainy evening I took a look around and pulled out a yellow onion, jalapeño peppers from my garden, garlic, chicken stock, fish sauce, spiced vinegar (easy to find at 99 Ranch Market and other Asian markets), and a chunk of ginger. I wish I'd had lemongrass and coconut milk, but no--and I wasn't about to go out in a big storm--so I made do.

The result was a thick, fragrant soup redolent of ginger and kaffir lime. Not too much. Just enough to give the mellow squash a terrific ping of flavor. A warming, spicy soup for a rain-soaked February night.

Grey Kabocha Squash Soup with Kaffir Lime and Ginger
Makes 10 cups
(printable recipe)

1, 3-pound Grey Kabocha squash (or other hard winter squash), peeled, seeded (keep the seeds), and cut into one-inch pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
3 jalapeño peppers, diced
2-inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil
1 kaffir lime, zested and then juiced (save the juice)
32 ounces of chicken stock or broth
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons spiced vinegar (available at Asian markets)
salt to taste

1. Heat oil in a large pot and add onions. Saute until translucent, then add garlic, ginger, and jalapeños. Saute another couple of minutes.
2. Add squash chunks, half the kaffir lime zest, stock, fish sauce, and vinegar. Bring to a boil.
3. Reduce heat, cover the pot, and simmer for an hour.
4. Remove from heat. Puree in the pot with a stick blender or carefully transfer to a blender to puree. Add the rest of the kaffir lime zest and all the lime juice. Add salt to taste.


P.S. I always save the seeds from winter squash to toast. Just put them in a colander and rinse/pull the fibers off, dry the seeds, toss with oil and salt, then roast at 300 for about 15 minutes. (Check on them frequently; they can burn in a heartbeat)

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Series Begins for The Boulevard Cooking Class

I love hearing about new venues for cooking classes. Here's a series that gets into the heart of a community--specifically El Cajon Blvd. The Boulevard Cooking Class series, organized by Beryl Forman of the El Cajon Blvd. Business Improvement Association, includes eateries from Park to 54th St.

Photo by Beryl Forman
"One of the most exciting sectors of El Cajon Blvd. is the mom and pop restaurants so we wanted to call them out," she explains. "We had no problem rallying businesses to participate. Both the restaurants and the BIA like this approach. Instead of holding an annual grand slam kind of event, this is a way for business owners to have a one-on-one connection with customers."

April will mark the first anniversary of these classes, but this latest series begins Feb. 27 with a class at Flavors of East Africa. The price is right: $150 for all six classes:

Feb. 27: Flavors of East Africa
March 5: Tiger Tiger
March 12: Mama's Bakery
March 19: Eclipse Chocolate
March 26: El Borrego
April 2: Apertivo

The classes run from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at each restaurant and--very important--they're limited to only 10 people. Forman says there are still a few spots open, but you'd better hustle to get a spot.

Forman says the the chefs teach one or two dishes and in the process tell their stories about their work and their culture.

Here's a sample video of Edward Haidar, owner of Mama's Kitchen, demonstrating how to make his hummus (he'll also be teaching his baba ganoush recipe).

In the past, Ken and Janie from Apertivo sat everyone around a table and walked the group through making ravioli.

Photo by Beryl Forman
Photo by Beryl Forman
To learn more about the series, visit the website. To sign up, contact Beryl Forman at

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Be Mine: Four Local Valentine's Treats

This is the time of year I get flooded with PR emails touting special romantic dinners at various restaurants. Ah, if only...

I long ago gave up trying to keep up with the tsunami of Valentine's day romance packages, but I do love a heart-felt gesture. So, I thought I'd mention several delicious edible Valentine's Day options for gifts that I've come across.

First up is cheese. Cheese? Yes, Taste's Mary Palmer pulled this out of a cooler at the Little Italy Mercato and, oh, did I want it. It's a Coeur Fleuri Chevre--a heart-shaped French goat cheese decorated with dried pomegranate seeds and rose petals. Truly seductive for the cheese lover. $13.50 at the Little Italy, Hillcrest, and North Park farmers markets.

Then, there's gelato. Not just any gelato, but Millie's vegan gelato--or as owner/gelato genius Susan Sbicca says, plant-based. She's made four special Valentine's Day flavors: blood-orange creamsicle (perfect topped with fresh blood orange marmalade), chocolate mint swirl (I top this with Jackie's Jams new Stehly Farms raspberry jam), coconut bing cherry (lovely with chocolate syrup), and lemon raspberry (crazy good alone but reaches a whole new dimension with Katherine Humphus's balsamic port reduction). (Sbicca may also have a passion fruit gelato. Be sure to ask.) $10 a pint at the Leucadia farmers market.

Finally, chocolate. Well, of course, chocolate! Here are two of my very favorites with some intriguing variations on an age-old theme:

Caxao holds a special place in my heart. You know that saying that you can feel the love in food? Yeah, yeah, but with Beatriz Ledezma's confections, I really can. There's something so pure and soulful about what she creates. Maybe it's just the combination of ingredients, but I think she could be a character in Like Water For Chocolate. There's something of the magic realism in her that is expressed through those truffles and caramels.

For Valentine's Day Caxao has what Beatriz calls the Je Thé Adore Collection--a seven-piece box of ganaches infused with various teas, fruits, and spices. Je thé aime, for example, is an infusion of green tea, papaya, peach, oranges, and marigold petals with a white ivory ganache and covered in 70 percent dark chocolate. $18

Then there's her delightful Pink Champagne Heart Box--11 pieces of silky white chocolate ganache and pink champagne truffles. $35

Her yet-to-be named crispy treats in a take-out box (puffed rice, puffed quinoa, rice cereal, caramelized sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, and organic 75 percent chocolate) are dressed up for V-Day and are $6.

And, if you just want to give a little bitty truffle treat, give an Emperor Truffle--dark chocolate ganache covered in 70 percent dark chocolate. All of $2.50.

All of these are available online or at her booths at the Little Italy Mercato and Hillcrest farmers market.

For a very different kind of chocolate, you'll want to try David Bacco's truffles. He's got a beautiful 12-piece assortment for $26.95 (at Seaside Market, Albertson's Del Mar, and online). These hand-crafted sweets feature the glossy  heart-shaped incantato, a blend of passion fruit, caramel, and milk chocolate ganache.

Then, there's his extravagant hand-painted edible heart box filled with two incantatos, serene (milk chocolate caramel ganache), citral (a fusion of lemongrass and 71 percent bittersweet chocolate, euphoria (a dreamy Hazelnut gianduja), and montserrat (Caribbean spices with ancho and chipotle). This package is $29.95.

Bacco is also collaborating with Sea Rocket Bistro for Valentine's Day dinner, with executive chef Tommy Fraioli using chocolate in each course, with a dessert created by Bacco that incorporates Sea Rocket's bacon jam.

Now, I'm sure I missed a lot. So fill in the gaps with your favorite Valentine's day edibles!
P.S. My buddy Sam Zien, "Sam the Cooking Guy," is doing a special event on February 18 at 7 p.m. called "Sam Live." He'll be on the stage of the Joan Kroc Theater doing live cooking, showing video clips, telling behind-the-scenes stories, taking audience questions, and then signing books. You can learn how this frustrated biotech exec ended up with a TV cooking show. And, opening for Sam will be Australian bartender Hayden Wood from Woody's Liquid Kitchen (featured on Oprah and known as the most entertaining bartender in the world).

Here's the link for tickets--the big deal about this is that a portion of the proceeds will go to support Salvation Army/Kroc Center scholarship programs. General admission tickets are $60.

I've got two tickets to give away to this event. Just write a comment about the best edible Valentine's Day gift you ever gave or received. I'll pick what I think is the most moving (or funny) comment. The deadline for comments is noon PST on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012.

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