Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spit Roasted Game Hens and Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

With crisp but pleasant Autumn air around I'm still roasting on the grill. Today I'm preparing spit-roasted Cornish game hens, which I discussed in more detail previously.   But those were oven roasted hens and I thought the smell and taste of fire roasted hens turning on a spit sounded particularly nice. I enjoyed sitting outside with the birds while they roasted, even though they needed no attention from me.

Half Spit-Roasted Game Hens with Brussels Sprouts and Rice
Roasting game hens is a simple task. I did two 22 ounce hens and cut them in half for serving to four adults.  Just wash, dry and then rub the hens in melted butter. Coat with your favorite rub or other seasoning and mount of the spit. I preheat my gas grill to 400F and also use the smoker box when I can. Then when the birds are mounted over the fire, I reduce the temperature to about 325F and let them slowly cook for 50 minutes or so before finally turning up the temperature to crisp up the skin. In all they were on the grill for about an hour.

I remove them from the spit and let them sit while we are having our first course. This assures the juices stay in the meat when the birds are cut for serving.

Julian's 22 Ounce Game Hens on the Spit
Sauteed Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts always seem like a good fall food to me, although they are widely available year around and always of the same high quality. In any case, since I often prepare them other ways, today I thought I would give you the easy, classic technique that I often use when I don't want to turn on the oven. As the game hens are roasting on the grill it seems like quite a waste to heat up the oven just for the vegetable side. So instead I'm going to par boil then sautee the sprouts.

Par Boiled Sprouts Get a Warm Up in Seasoned Butter
Clean your sprouts by trimming off the stem end and any loose leaves. Cut a deep 'X' into the stem end to permit the water to penetrate. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the sprout. Stir them periodically during the 5-8 minutes of cooking time to ensure even cooking. Test a sprout by sticking it with a fork or removing it and cutting it in half. You want them to be firm but nearly done. Do not overcook them as you do not want them to be mushy.

Note:  I leave them whole but you can just as easily cut them in half which means you do not need to cut the 'X' into the stems.

When the sprouts are just fork tender, transfer them into a dish of cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and rinse with cold water and set aside. You can prepare the sprouts to this point well ahead. Immediately prior to serving, melt some butter in a saute pan. Toss in the sprouts and cook turning several times in the melted butter. Season with salt and pepper, or other spices of your preference. Cook until wamred through and serve.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Butter - it's all about the flavor!

Most of us are not used to the taste of really good butter. Given the flavorless ubiquity of most American brands, it’s not a surprise we didn't mind giving it up for margarine and have little brand loyalty if we do buy butter. That's a shame really, because butter is so very good and makes good food taste even better. One of the best ways to enjoy butter is simply served at room temperature on a biscuit or piece of bread, where you can really taste it. And what should it taste like? The New York Times described the taste of good butter as "a combination of creme fraiche's slight sourness and fresh cream's sweet wholesomeness." I think that about sums it up!

Amish Country Butter on Julian's Autumn Table
Most butter has little to no flavor, and cooks and bakers often don’t mind. Its purpose in cooking is to enhance other flavors. In baking it is to provide plasticity, which gives cakes and pastries nice texture. Typical makers of butter often add heavy doses of salt, partly to improve flavor and also to add shelf life. During the months it sits in storage prior to sale, butter can begin to turn rancid even before the sell-by date, especially if storage conditions are less than perfect. In your refrigerator, butter also easily picks up the flavor of onions, mushrooms and whatever else it is stored near. So most of our experience with butter flavor is a little salty, slightly rancid, and tasting mildly of whatever else is in the refrigerator. No wonder we don’t really enjoy eating it.

So how do you select and keep the best tasting butter?  You might think looking for higher fat content on the label would help.

Recently higher-fat (lower moisture content) butters have become available on the American market under brands such as Plugrá, (whose name comes from the French for "more fat"). Even brands such as the widely available Kerry Gold or President brands (both European imports) have more fat than most American butter. American standards call for butter to contain a minimum of 80 percent butterfat. As the fat content goes down, the water content goes up further diminishing flavor. Even small differences in the amount of fat noted on the label will perform better when making sauces as they can provide a more satiny feel on the tongue. But fat and texture on the pallet is not all we are seeking for good taste. Higher fat helps, and I do suggest buying the highest fat content butter you can, although this alone is not the total solution.

“I can already hear some of you saying that butter is bad for your health and instead you are on a Mediterranean diet consisting of fats from olive oil only.  Well I've traveled the Mediterranean and much of Europe extensively, and I can assure you they eat good butter and plenty of it. While good butter is 86-90 percent fat, oil is 100 percent fat. And when something has real flavor, it takes only a small amount to satisfy you. As my physician friends would agree, if you can eat only a little bit of something, it might as well be the very best, and the real keys to good health are a balanced diet and exercise. So let’s not worry about the fat, and move on.”

Before industrialization, farmhouse butter was almost always made with matured cream. The cream was stored until there was enough to churn and you had the time to churn it. So it naturally developed flavor from bacteria. Sweet-cream butter as it's called, is largely a postwar phenomenon and the result of industrial-scale dairies, which churn cream into butter just as soon as it is separated from pasteurized milk.

Butter Sprinkled with Sea Salt
Looks Nice, Tastes Wonderful!
Sweet-cream butters, the only kind we can buy in most American markets, are generally rather bland, despite that tasty sounding name. Butter of course comes from cream, and as noted above to meet safety regulations and reduce spoilage, commercial dairies heat cream to a very high temperature (pasteurization) so that it will last for weeks without souring, hence the term 'sweet cream'. The many strains of good bacteria that can give flavor to butter are destroyed in this process, along with the few bad bacteria that causes spoilage. This is why small artisan butter makers use cream inoculated with specially selected strains of bacteria that has been treated using a slow/low temperature pasteurization process. Cream of this sort must be made by the dairy specifically for this use, raising the ultimate cost of the butter but greatly improving its taste.

Proper Storage and Serving Temperature
Most experts agree that freezing butter in an airtight bag (to prevent moisture loss) works just fine for longer term storage. Storing it in your refrigerator for cooking purposes and until you are planning to use it at table or for baking is fine too, so long as you place it in the butter keeper of your refrigerator and away from anything that might flavor it. Although butter is a dairy product, it's high in fat and also has a relatively high amount of salt added, and as noted herein is almost always made from pasteurized cream. These factors help prevent butter from spoiling when left out on the kitchen counter when you home is a moderate temperatures. I generally say if you are too warm, so is the butter and it should be refrigerated if not being used. But most of the time, I leave butter in a dish on the counter for use on biscuits, toast and other table uses (think pancakes.) The worst thing you can do is serve cold, hard butter to anyone at the table. At the same time, you don't want rancid or worse yet, spoiled butter that makes people sick. For extra safety, I never place whipped butter or no-salt butter on the counter for long period.

Favorites for your Table

Remember to purchase salted butter for table use, and unsalted for cooking purposes. Look for a high fat content (84%+) as well as 'cultured' on the label to give it a slightly tangy flavor.

Available Online and Near the Butter Maker
Walnut Creek Foods, in Ohio’s Amish country, makes a good tasting butter from pasteurized cream. Not as tangy as the Organic Valley below, it still always garners positive comments when served at my table. I also like the rolled hand-made shape and golden color. Like most butter sold to consumers, this is grade AA butter, the highest rating available from the FDA, which indicates it has received a score of at least 93 out of 100 points based on its aroma, flavor and texture. Available online in quantity, or at the store.

Straus Family Creamery chooses not to add bacteria into the organically produced cream it uses, pasteurizing the cream at a lower-than-usual temperature to make fresh-tasting sweet-cream butter. It immediately freezes and ships the butter to several western states and is available online if you pay shipping costs. The dairy is located about an hour drive north of San Francisco.

Burro Occelli, who still makes butter in hand-cut wooden molds in Italy is sometimes available stateside. Formaggio Kitchen (617-354-4750) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, receives shipments frozen. If you are willing to pay the highest price, you will be rewarded with a tangy, nutty, deep, creamy flavor. Also widely available throughout Italy.

Widely Available in the USA
Organic Valley European Style Butter: Available at Whole Foods stores, this Organic Valley award-winning "Old World" butter has an exquisitely tart, nutty flavor and 84% butterfat. Excellent for eating and baking. The best widely available butter I've found, I use this for dinner parties if I do not have the Amish Walnut Creek butter.
Kerrygold: Available in most super markets, this may be your best option if you can't get any of the above. Grass-fed cow’s make this Irish butter taste silky and creamy and give it a rich, golden yellow color. Kerrygold salted butter is a good all-purpose, all-natural butter that could easily be your standard daily table butter. I always also keep their Garlic & Herb butter on hand for use on vegetables and potatoes. This variety contains a mixture of chives, parsley, garlic, fresh herbs and spices and is highly recommended as an addition to your standard butter supply.

President, is France's #1 butter and comes from Normandy. Noticeably more pale than Kerrygold, it still has a nice flavor with a very slight cultured tangy taste. A good second choice if you can't find Kerrygold, although it seems to have a higher moisture content than other brands.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Baked Corn Au Gratin ~ Consider it for Thanksgiving

With good seasonal sweet corn still available in our area, I'm making what you may call a corn casserole or just your favorite side dish.  Whatever you call it, today I wanted to share my sister's recipe which everyone in your family will enjoy. You'll note I listed it with 'potatoes' in the category tags, which you may find odd. But it really does replace the potatoes or rice in your meal, and really shouldn't be thought of as a vegetable side. For info on my other favorite gratin, see this posting on scalloped potatoes.

Julian's Corn Au Gratin Ready for the Table
With sweet corn still season in North America, you can and should use fresh if you have access. If not, then frozen corn is preferred over canned. The recipe takes only 10 minutes or so to prepare and another 50 minutes to bake, so it couldn't be easier and gives you plenty of time to make your main dish while it's in the oven.

Choose your Style: The amount of baking time will determine the style of the result. A shorter time will yield a creamy, delicious pudding-type dish. A longer baking time, where the knife comes out clean upon testing, will yield a firm result that can be cut nicely from the dish. People have their own preferences on this and I suggest you try both to see what your family likes best.

16 ounces corn, whole kernels cut off the cob (4-5 large ears)
1 (15 ounce) can cream-style corn
1 (8 ounce) package corn muffin mix
1 cup sour cream
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
6 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup panko style bread crumbs

Note: The amounts noted above are approximate. Cans and bags of corn vary slightly in size, as do the amount of corn you remove from fresh whole ears. If using whole fresh corn, plan on about 4-5 ears to yield the necessary amount.

We prefer ours a little on the creamy side.
Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Spray a 2 quart casserole (usually a 9 x 9 inch glass baking dish or an medium oval au gratin as shown) with food release or coat with butter. 

Mix together the corn, muffin mix, sour cream, black pepper and 4 tablespoons butter in a bowl. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Pour into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. Stir together the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the bread crumbs. Sprinkle on top of the corn mixture (this is what makes it au gratin).

Bake for 45-60 minutes (see Choose Your Style above) and the top is browned. If the topping browns too quickly, cover with foil during the remainder of baking. Uncover for the last 5 minutes of cooking to ensure a crisp topping.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

St. Louis Style Ribs

It's a great time of the year for grilling even though Autumn weather is upon us, and what doesn't taste better on the grill than ribs. Today I'm making St. Louis style pork ribs, which are a common cut of pork in that city.

Julian's St. Louis Ribs on the Gril
They are differentiated from other types of ribs as they are spare ribs with the sternum bone, cartilage and rib tips removed which creates a more rectangular-shaped rack. I usually prepare baby back ribs but as the local Costco had these on hand today, I thought I would prepare them instead.

Like most cuts of pork, the meat is not naturally highly flavorful as you find in beef. As such we typically cook pork with a variety of seasonings or other foods to render more flavor into the meat. For baby back ribs I generally use a wet barbecue sauce. So today for these St. Louis style ribs, I'm instead doing a dry rub that requires no sauce at all. You can prepare your own or purchase any number good rubs at the store.

2 Tablespoons dried crushed red peppers
4 Tablespoons brown sugar
4 Tablespoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
2 teaspoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger

Whatever type of rub you use, it's best to do this at least 24 hours in advance. Lightly oil the ribs and then rub them thoroughly with your rub of choice. Wrap them in plastic wrap and place them back in the refrigerator.

For extra flavor, I like to use the smoker function in my Weber grill particularly for ribs and BBQ'd pork shoulder, as both benefit greatly from the flavor. As ribs require a long, slow roast on the grill, this is a perfect time to use the smoker box. I generally use pecan wood chunks although most varieties will render good flavor. Just make sure you have soaked the wood chunks for at least an hour in advance and that you have a sufficient quantity wet and ready to go, as the long roasting time will need to have additional wood added throughout cooking.

I would not recommend you follow the instruction you often find on the package of ribs. Rather, lightly oil the grill grates to prevent the meat from sticking. Place the wet wood chips in the smoker box (or in a foil tray inside the grill if you don't have a smoker box). Then heat the grill to about 400F degrees and place the seasoned ribs inside. Turn off most of the burners except the one nearest or under the smoker box/foil tray of wood chips.  Watch the grill temperature carefully as it should be reduced to 250F degrees. At this temperature it will take 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours for a full rack of ribs to cook completely. It hard to get an accurate temperature on ribs, so instead I use the 'tong technique' to know if they are done. When you lift the ribs in the center with tongs, they should bend into a nice arch. This indicates they are tender, but not falling apart. The temperature should be around 180-190F degrees. But as I said, that's difficult to know because the meat is thin and close to the bone.

Julian's St. Louis Ribs
Unlike baby back ribs, these ribs are longer and as such should be cut into individual rib pieces for serving. They really do not require any additional wet BBQ sauce. Just a side of a couple good late summer fresh vegetables and you are ready for a feast.