I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but thinking about it makes me really annoyed with myself...so it's been put off for a while.

I lost my first batch of sauerkraut.  Ever since getting my crock back in 2010, I've had it going with something; plain sauerkraut, red cabbage and apples, a mix of pickled vegetables in summer.  But at the end of last year I noticed the shredded cabbage was turning pink, sort of slimy, and not very crisp.
Pink sauerkraut is caused when the salt % gets too high in your brine, or the cabbage gets too much exposure to open air.  This makes the fermenting kraut a perfect environment for yeasts that can tolerate the high salinity.  I'd read about the yeasts spoiling kraut before and never had a problem, until this year.  Here's what I did wrong:

The local farmer's market was short cabbages, so I picked up one or two heads when they were available.  I shredded these, salted them, and started to fill up my crock for the winter.  Then there were no cabbages available, so I finished filling my crock with some really nice cabbages I found at the grocers.  Adding a cabbage here, two there, then some more later...clearly I had opened the crock to much more air than necessary.  Plus with these multiple additions of cabbage from different sources, I probably got the salt levels off.  The fresh cabbage from the farm is much moister than the grocer's cabbage, so they release different amount of water.  Excess oxygen and fluctuating salt levels sealed the cabbage's fate.

I hated throwing that pink kraut away (well, I actually dumped it off in the woods), but felt it was the right thing to do.  Reading about the pink kraut, some people said the yeast was dangerous and some said it was not harmful but just made a less-than-great kraut.  Finally I came across one post online that said it's not know if the yeast really is harmful, but it's just not worth the risk over $15 worth of cabbage.  This hit home for me, as there's still a lot about microbes we don't understand (heck, the USDA didn't list e.coli as a pathogen until 1994).  Fermenting vegetables is a very old tradition, but if that same tradition says "pink kraut's bad," then I'll go with it.
After I fell in love with the Maple Glazed Pig Head with Lobster, I had a problem: Gaspar Farms suckling pig heads come two to a pack.  Well-wrapped, the second pig head slumbered in the bottom of my deep freeze as I contemplated its fate.  Inspiration came at Christmas, when my parents gave me a PolyScience immersion circulator and Carla gave me a vacuum packer.  With these, I could cook the pig head sous vide in a water bath at a constant controlled temperature.

I resisted sous vide for a while, feeling that I might lose some connection to the cooking process.  But reading Thomas Keller's cook book Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide turned my thoughts around.  Cooking in a temperature-controlled water bath gives the cook a new technique, he explained.  It does not replace the more "traditional" methods of roasting, sauteing, frying, or steaming.  With sous vide, you have another tool to make the best of your ingredients.  It is still up to the cook to decide on the best method for any particular dish.  And in the case of a pig's head - unevenly shaped and full of fat, skin, tender jowls, dense tongue, and the cartilage of the ears - there is a real benefit to be able to cook all these meats to the same degree.  Immersed in a 165 F bath, there's no way for the meat to cook past that desired temperature.
My first task was to get the skull out of the pig.  With the skull removed, I could roll the head up into a solid, completely edible piece.  Taking the skull out of a pig's head isn't hard, it just takes time.  The only skill is to keep cutting right against the bone, following the natural curves of the skull and jaw.  As you can see in the photos, this turned out pretty good aside from a few knife holes in the thin layer of skin on the bridge of the snout.
After skull extraction, I heavily seasoned the inside of the head with garlic, rosemary, red pepper, black pepper, lemon zest, and salt.  I let the head rest in the fridge for two days to let the salt work into the meat and draw out any excess moisture.  To keep the ears from flopping about, I cut them off and layered them down the middle.  Then it was a simple matter of rolling up the pig head in cheese cloth and tying the meat tightly with twine.  I used cheese cloth after some internet sleuthing led me to the tip that the cheese cloth will help the head keep a neat shape and aid in removing any rendered fat or gelatin that builds up on the exterior of the heat in the cooking process.
Next, the head was vacuum packed and placed in a water bath at 165 F for twelve hours.  In that time, the head slowly cooked to perfection.  There was no need for me to worry about the thin end of the snoot over-cooking while waiting for the thick base of the head to finish cooking.  With a constant flow of 165 F water, every section of the head cooked to an even temperature.
Sliced thinly, the head was delicious on its own.  Eating a platter of paper thin slices reminded me of snacking on a rich salami cotto, or cooked salami, like mortadella.  The skin was tender, the meat succulent, and the ears offered a gentle crunch in the middle.
Porchetta di Testa with Capers
Happy 2015!  Of all the dishes I made last year, Cold Kidney Salad in Sesame Sauce from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook totally caught me off guard.  Delicious, intensely flavored, and with a texture like cooked shrimp, this was totally out of left field.  Kidneys are a hard sell, and sometimes I try a kidney recipe that ends up tough in texture and coarse in flavor.  But this dish was such a success that I wanted to share it with the world...discreetly.
So I brought it to a holiday party, calling it "Pork Lettuce Wraps in Sesame Sauce."  Bright notes of garlic, chile, and ginger seasoned the pork kidneys, while crisp Bibb lettuce and julienned cucumbers and carrots added crunch and texture.

Aside from a few friends who always avoid spicy foods, the wraps really went over well.  People were surprised at the end of the party when I told them it was sliced kidney, but no one found it anything to gag over.  My hope is that this might make a few people more open to trying organ meats in the future.

On a side note, the dressing for these kidneys came out much creamier than last time.  I'm still learning about all the different brands of Asian condiments out there, but clearly there was some variation from my first attempt, which was more of a thin marinade.
I received an e-mail from my eldest brother Mike last week, lamenting the state of holiday beers.  As this is the season for rich, hearty ales, he thought they'd all be largely of the same quality, but found several so bad that he condemned them to the sink drain, saying they tasted like "bitter ginger ale mixed with beer.  Really nasty."  He then suggested I do a blind taste test on various seasonal holiday beers.
Luckily for my brother, this was a Christmas wish I could grant.  Both myself and my brother-in-law, Matt, are avid homebrewers with birthdays in December.  As a birthday gift to us both, I picked out 12 seasonal beers to do a blind tasting.  Matt offered up another holiday beer he picked up en route to our house to make it an even baker's dozen.  With a hearty dinner of tourterie under our belts, my wife randomly picked out three beers at a time for us to judge on aroma, taste, finish, and year-round enjoyability versus plain seasonality enjoyability.  Here is the line-up:
DuClaw Brewing - X8 Spiced Winter Warmer
Susquehanna Brewing Co - Toboggan Lager Brewed with Cocoa Chocolate Dopplebock
Bells -  Winter White Ale
Sierra Nevada - Celebration Fresh Hop IPA
Dogfish Head - Piercing Pils
Weyerbacher - Winter Ale
Erie Brewing Company - Ol' Red Cease& Desist Wee Heavy Ale
Saucony Creek Brewing - Captain Pumpkin's Maple Mistress Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Samuel Adams - White Christmas Ale Brewed with Spices
Magic Hat Brewing Co - Snow Roller Hoppy Brown Ale
Anderson Valley - Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale
Atwater Brewery - Traverse City Cherry Wheat
Brooklyn Brewery - Winter Ale
Something that surprised me was that this year we saw a number of lighter, refreshing beers, rather than heavy, malty monsters with ABV's of 10% or more, even by breweries like Dogfish and Weyerbacher.  One beer that got a lot of attention was the tart and crisp Traverse City Cherry Wheat by Atwater Brewery.  Matt and I were sure it was some sort of shandy, mixing apple cider or another fruit cider with beer for a very subtle, natural fruit flavor.  Although it was not our favorite seasonal beer of the night, I'll definitely keep my eye on Atwater Brewery from now on.
For me, the highlight of the night was Magic Hat's Snow Roller, which I thought might have been some sort of variant on the American Brown Ale style of brewing.  I don't usually drink Magic Hat beers, and never seek them out, but the nicely balanced hop flavor and malty backbone will make me reconsider the brand in future purchases.  Hoppier than an English brown ale, this is a beer I'd welcome any time of year.  I also loved Sierra Nevada's Fresh Hop IPA, although the IPA is my go-to beer, making this an easy favorite.

Tasting just for seasonal beers, I went with Ol' Red Cease & Desist Wee Heavy Ale, which had a robust body and long, sweet and malty finish.  I actually thought it was a Belgian beer on my initial tastings.  On the negative, DuClaw was the worst offender for me, tasting like artificial flavoring that would make FourLoco seem like a better alternative. Matt's seasonal favorites were the Weyerbacher Winter Ale and Captain Pumpkin's Maple Mistress Imperial Pumpkin Ale.

The real surprise came the next day, when we opened a 22oz bottle of Satan's Bake Sale Mint Chocolate Chip Stout by Spring House Brewing.  It tastes like drinking a stout and eating a fresh-from-the-oven package of Girl Scout's Thin Mint Cookies.  It's smooth, rich, and exceptionally balanced for what sounds like a bizarre beer flavor attached to a wacky name.
Labels: , 2 comments | | edit post
My experiments in cooking often come from a range of influences, and it is interesting to see how different influences morph and combine to create something new.  In this case, it created a really terrible dish.
The last two cookbooks I read were Bitter by Jennifer McLagan and Daniel: My French Cuisine by Daniel Boulud.  In the former, Jennifer sings the praises of bitter foods, from endive and Campari to dark chocolate and tobacco.  She especially highlights the cardoon, a plant that looks like the prehistoric cousin to celery, but is actually in the artichoke family.  I've cooked cardoons a few years before, after reading about their use in the iconic Venice restaurant, Harry's Bar.   The cardoons made a very nice, artichoke-tasting soup, but fell off my radar as time went on.  Now, with cardoons fresh in my mind from Bitter, I snatched them up at our local grocers.
Overlapping escallops of scallops on greased foil
Trying to figure out what to do with the cardoons in my shopping cart, I saw medium-sized scallops on sale.  In Daniel, there's a beautiful technique of slicing scallops thinly into medallions, then overlapping them to create a rosette shape.  As the scallops cook, the thin slices seal together to create a scallop disc.  The image of sweet scallops resting on a bed of earthy cardoons began to form in my head.  In a later recipe, Daniel Boulud wraps seared scallops in a nettle-infused foam, giving the impression of a vibrant green spray of sea foam.
Whipping the morel liquid with soy lecithin to produce a foam
To help bridge the earthiness of the cardoon with the sweetness of the scallops, I toasted crushed hazelnuts and made a foam of dried morel mushroom's soaking liquid.  I was feeling very pleased with the dish.  At the base was a mixture of blanched cardoon slices, sauteed together with shallots and baby bella mushrooms.  On top was the rosette of scallops, which was just seared in a nonstick pan to set it together.  A scattering of toasted hazelnuts to finish, and then a spoonful of frothy morel foam on top and cradling the sides.
I put the plates down for Carla and myself and took a bite.  Wow...that's aggressively bitter...almost astringent... I thought.  But maybe I was being too hard on myself.  Maybe the dish is just "OK", but not as awful as that first bite.  I looked at Carla, who took her first bite.

"What do you think?" I casually enquired.
Her eyes bugged as she chewed.
"Have you tried this yet?" she asked, wondering if perhaps I was trying to poison her.
"It's that bad?"
"It's soooo bitter!" she exclaimed.

And it's true.  The dish was totally unbalanced.  The cardoon overwhelmed everything and blunted all of the other, more nuanced flavors I tried to include.  Honestly, the cardoon would have been better with equally strong ingredients; a base of cardoon and slivers of salty country ham, slices of sirloin on top, with broiled taleggio or some other pungent cheese on top.  That may have worked.  Maybe.

But I'll need to test it out myself next time, as I think my wife will be a bit wary if I place another plate of cardoons in front of her.