Saturday, April 16, 2005

What we had for dinner last night: Brined pork

Yes, really, just the sort of annoying blog post to inflict on loyal readers! But why not? In the best-case scenario, these posts will give some inspiration to other cooks. In the worst-case scenario, no one will ever eat at my house again. But these posts will all have the same title so you can read or skip at will.

The premise of these posts will usually be “clutch cooking.” That is when you notice that it is 5:30 and you haven’t planned anything for dinner and have a few stray ingredients around the kitchen. (I am in charge of feeding four people, so have some responsibility to perform in this area.) I love the kind of problem where you think, “what can I make in 15 minutes with a lemon and feta?” or “tomatoes and stale bread?” I usually get out a few cookbooks, look up the ingredients in the indexes, and improvise from there. Cooking a planned meal does not have nearly the same creative rush, unless it is a new experimental dish as below.

In England, there was a television show called “Ready, Steady, Cook!” with just this premise. Chefs were given four or five ingredients and had 15 minutes to make a meal. Rees and I would often watch it (it was on at 5:30) and he is now an extraordinary bruchetta chef as a result. Tip: if you want good bruchetta, give a 3- to 5-year-old a clean paintbrush, some olive oil, and some sliced bread. They do a great job and don’t skimp on the oil at all. Yum!

Anyway, I hope to share some of my better clutch cooking results or the better meals in general. Last night was not a clutch meal, but it was good and experimental. The key was brining the meat.

Roasted pork loin (brined)
Oven roasted potatoes and purple onions
Homemade applesauce
Fresh, steamed green beans
Salad with apples and scallions
Frozen yogurt pie

Greg’s sister Felicity and her fiancé, Dan, and Greg’s cousins, Gardiner and his wife, Marcie, were all here for dinner last night. Did I mention how much I like living near family? It was great to be with all the Tuckers and the kids were thrilled.

The meat-and-potatoes menu was a real departure from our usual vegetarian fare, but I was inspired to try meat. I had heard an interview with a mystery writer on the radio earlier in the week and the writer talked about “brining meat.” The main character in her books is a caterer. The basic idea is to soak the meat in a mixture of salt, water, and sugar (or maple syrup, or honey, or molasses, or vinegar, or wine) before you cook it. The salt sort of pre-digests the meat so that it is moister and more tender. And the sugar makes a wonderful, crispy crust. We had some pork loin in the freezer (from an earlier time when we experimented with eating more meat and decided we didn’t like it), so I thought with guests coming, I could cook it and we would eat it up. The previous pork I’d cooked from that batch was sort of tasteless, so I was inspired by this brining idea.

I soaked the pork in a big bowl with 3/4c kosher salt, 3/4c sugar, and filled with water, for about 36 hours in the fridge. Then I rinsed it well, patted it dry and broiled it for a bit in the oven on both sides, then baked it on high until the meat thermometer said it was done. It was tender and tasty, as advertised. On the radio, they said they do this with whole chickens and even turkeys. Worth a try, I’d say.

I also made oven roasted potatoes and purple onions (just realized, carrots would have made a nice addition to that, but didn’t think of it at the time!). This is an old standby that we often made in England. Basically, cut the vegetables into large chunks (about home-fry size), toss them in a bowl with olive oil and salt, then roast at 400ºF or 425ºF for an hour or so, stirring every once in a while and adjusting temperature so that in the end you have tender, browned vegetables (as opposed to crunchy, browned vegetables—temperature too high—or tender, soggy vegetables—temperature too low). We use this technique to make “oven chips,” basically big French fries, and also to make “roasted root vegetables,” which is the same idea with any root vegetable you can think of. Big favorites (in addition to the necessary potatoes, onions, carrots) are sweet potatoes, parsnips, and garlic.

Had some cut up apples in the freezer left over from Thanksgiving, so those alone in a pot on medium heat made the applesauce. The mystery writer said they always have apples with pork and mint with lamb. That's where I got that idea.

Steamed green beans—easy.

A fancier salad in England would often have apples and scallions added to it. Nice contrasting flavors. It is sort of the English equivalent to a Boulder salad that would have avocados and oranges in it.

For the pie, I simply made a graham cracker crust and poured in raspberry yogurt. I topped it with walnuts, strawberries, and chocolate sauce then put it in the freezer. It was a hit. There is something about the combination of raspberry yogurt and walnuts that I like a lot.

Bon apétit!
(Cathy, did I spell that right?)

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