pulled pork, two ways

I have no hook—life or literary—for sharing these recipes with you tonight. I’m alone in my room, having bailed on a potluck invitation. A more social weekend and longer run than usual have left me spent. But I’m feeling pleasantly mellow after exploring Rock Creek Park in my running shoes this morning and bundling storm-damaged tree debris in the yard with the housemates this afternoon.

Now the spectacle of the closing ceremonies are on mute in the corner of the room, and I’m nursing a glass of Shiraz. the aroma of French Onion Soup is wafting up the stairs (my roommate has adopted my mother’s recipe, an honor that makes me feel warm inside). In this state of relaxation, I decided to release a post that’s been gestating in my blog’s drafts for a long time: pulled pork.

These recipes could inspire poetic musings about moving even deeper south, and discovering its unique cuisine. Pulled pork could serve as a segue into missing Dinosaur BBQ, and by extension Syracuse (which I do, from time to time). Perhaps the evolution of these recipes from blurbs heard on the radio to shared meals would be a good lead.

But I think I’ll stick with something nearer in time and dearer to my heart. Last weekend, my sweetheart carted a local, humanely-raised pork shoulder down to D.C. to cook up together on a Sunday afternoon. The only problem was, he forgot the liquid smoke—a niche ingredient we couldn’t easily substitute.

Off to Target we went (wary of the previous weekend’s Epic Eggplant Adventure), happy to find the lone last bottle with nary a glitch.

When you don’t eat a lot of meat, the good stuff is a true treat. I know the farmer who raised this animal: she sells her meat at the Syracuse Farmer’s Market and one of her chickens was one of the first meals to grace this blog in its toddler days. Syracuse introduced me to the wonders of good BBQ, and one of its signature dishes, pulled pork. (Or maybe I can credit the Philosophy department, where vats of Dinosaur BBQ‘s best are known to make an appearance.)

Since I don’t own a backyard smoker of my own, hearing about “Cheater Pulled Pork” on the Splendid Table made me itch with curiosity. The host interviewed some bona-fide BBQ snob/cookbook author who claimed that good BBQ could be achieved in a slow cooker. With liquid smoke. A travesty? Maybe. But I was willing to give it a whirl.

It was as easy as they said it would be: Chop chop chop, a sprinkling of spices, a splash of liquid smoke, and seven hours in which I had to do nothing but worry that our household dog—who has been known to eat cookies and their container, coffee beans, and popcorn kernels—would get into the slow-cooker. Aside from the pork being too salty (my fault, perhaps, for using the more potent and effective kosher variety), it was scrumptious with buns and baked beans. If you’ve never made tender, succulent, southern-style pulled pork for yourself, you’re missing out.

The second recipe has simmered away in my drafts for over a year now after a successful test run on the folks over Christmas 2008. We snatched this one from the same radio show.  It’s is a slightly more refined version of the same tender, shredded pork variety of the first. This one better struts its stuff in well-constructed burritos, or paired with sides like roasted broccolini, root vegetables Anna, and robust wine. Either one you choose, you can’t go wrong with slow-roasted, fork-tender pork that barely needs tending.

Our long winter is crawling to the finish line. There’s plenty of time for leaner meats and the fresher, vibrant meals of spring. In the meantime, don’t you deserve a comforting meal reminiscent of warm places where the beer and barbecue freely flow?

I think you do.

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lebanese-style stuffed baby eggplants

The city is finally shedding its white crust. Our luminous winter cover is turning to brown slush, as snow melts into blinding, sunlit puddles. After spending last Monday, Wednesday and Thursday working from home (or battling treacherous sidewalks hunting for coffee and wifi), I was craving company and food more nuanced than snowbound snacks of popcorn, toast, and leftovers.

Thankfully, Mark was on the way, offering not only companionship, but a car to chauffeur me around on my quest for baby eggplants.

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for some time; waiting, I guess, for the right opportunity to try it. Saturday seemed as good a day as any to host my first dinner guests since moving to Hyattsville in January. (I guess most weekends have had me out exploring the city, or more recently, surviving “Snowpocalypse 2010.” But as spring approaches, it’s high time I picked up the dinner party pace.)

The day provided the perfect foundation on which to build a good meal: A lazy morning, good coffee, an exercise day off, and a kitchen confidant/soux chef rolled into one. We set out around noon to explore the collection of international markets near my neighborhood.

Things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. The traffic was horrendous: I’m not sure if Marylanders were still dealing with these foreign driving conditions, or that people were venturing out to restock their shelves. Then, after sitting through about 10 cycles of green lights near our destination (where baby eggplants were not to be found), I had to make an unexpected trip home to troubleshoot something work-related. Disappointment threatened.  Frustration encroached on my formerly good mood.

When we set out again it was already two o’clock and I still didn’t have my main ingredient. Mark had been on the phone with the local grocery chains, only to be met with busy signals and reports of large eggplants. I started scheming Plan B. But Oh how I’d coveted those eggplants!

We weren’t ready to give up quite yet. Recently equipped with smart phones, Mark could drive while I perused the nearby grocery options. A Halal Meat Market showed up on my map, and I clicked their phone number. I was met with cheerful answers to my questions: Yes, they had ground lamb. What about eggplants? “Yes, we got a vegetable delivery just today,” came the reply. “I’m looking for the small ones, not the big ones…” I began. “The Indian eggplants, yes.” The voice sounded confident enough.

We fought more traffic to the little shop, aromas of patchouli and spice wafting out the jingling front door. Sure enough, there beside the limes and chili peppers a box overflowed with deep purple globes no bigger than a child’s fist. The proprietor had spoken the truth. I immediately squashed Plan B, and left with a warm samosa and plenty of time to make dessert.

The dish was a hit: Stuffed with raw rice, ground lamb, onions, garlic, pine nuts and allspice, a simmering tomato sauce slowly cooks the vegetables into tender purple dumplings. On the plate, garnished with saffron yogurt, goat feta, and parsley, each one bursts with robust and game-y flavors. I followed the eggplants with a lemon pie (post forthcoming), making the meal into a well-rounded foray not only into international flavors, but back into cooking and entertaining.

I can’t wait to do it all over again soon.

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punjabi spinach and chickpeas

This week has flown by. Reunited with my love of swimming (thank you, one-week trial gym pass!), I plunged into cool water on Tuesday night after two months of land-based workouts. I emerged an hour and fifteen minutes later with my sore muscles, a refreshed mind, and a hungry belly.

Thank goodness this was waiting for me when I arrived home.

On Monday night I’d finally gotten around to trying this recipe, collecting digital dust in my recipe bookmarks. It’s the kind of thing you just might already have everything on hand for, provided you’re a hummus, stew, and salad eater who always has garlic around.

In other words, me.

I don’t know why I bookmarked this particular recipe, and I don’t know what made me pick it out of my long list of delicious-sounding dinner candidates. It’s not that it looked that different—I make things with curry and tomatoes and chickpeas all the time. The appeal of habit? Perhaps.

Well, it turns out it lived up to its bookmark-worthy status. With a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as more “authentic” than my usual curry-powder based curries, this stew radiates turmeric, cumin, garlic, and ginger. I learned later that its author (the famed Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey) deems this dish characteristically Punjabi. Perhaps that’s why it seemed new to me.

And I always like a recipe that suprises: usually, you chop up the garlic and saute it along with the onions, right? Not in this stew. I had to re-read the recipe about four times until I believed that yes, putting garlic, ginger, and water in the blender would produce something I’d want to add to my dinner.

This frothy mixture, and the addition of lemon juice at the end, take this bright yellow curry to a whole new level: you just might want to back your chair up a little from your co-workers if you decide to take it for lunch.

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yosenabe (Japanese hot pot)

If there’s a life conducive to food blogging, it’s being unemployed in a college town and newly attached. Conversely, if there’s a lifestyle conducive to letting that blog go stale as an opened box of wheat thins, it’s a nine-to-five job in a full-fledged city with your mate 370 miles away.

These things—with all their promise, exhilaration, and loneliness—have wrecked the most havoc here on these pages.

The excuses fly in: I don’t have the time. I’m too tired and too transient. I don’t have a car. I already spend my days thinking about and working on food. With three new housemates, there’s no space in the fridge for leftovers.

But every good excuse has a better antecedent: I have my weekends. I need the energy and the sense of home good meals bring. I have my bike, the metro, and a great co-op nearby. I can never get enough of food. And lastly, when you share life with great people, there are seldom leftovers anyway.

Perhaps without knowing it, my new housemates have helped eased my transition back into domesticity after more than a month spent country, county, and couch hopping. (Shout out to my wonderful sets of parents, June and Raul, and Rebecca and her parents for their respective hosting!)

They’ve been there with cookies at midnight after long days exploring the city. They’ve offered liver and onions before a treacherous bike ride through D.C.’s morning traffic. They’ve shared roast chicken and salad after a long day at the office, and left notes on perfectly-ripe avocados to spread on my evening slice of supper toast. And they’ve introduced me to Japanese hot pot: a first, and a delight to come home to one chilly Monday night.

As the chef herself put it, nabe is a “true communist meal”: each diner gives and takes according to their ability and need. There’s one big pot in the middle, steaming and stewing away with fresh cabbage, spinach, and seafood. Rather than tending your own little morsel, as is the case with fondue, you simply toss things into the pot at will and fish them out as you so desire.

In the end, everyone is amply fed.

I’m slowly relaxing into life here: exploring the smooth corners and rough edges of the communities around me, giving my hours to this new world and taking from its pool when I need to. There will be times, I know, when take-out will triumph and I will succumb to canned soup. But because I believe in and love good food, my fully-stocked (and darling) kitchen will call me back to a place I hope to never unlearn.

Until then, I owe it to my housemates.

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Review: Rubi’s Cafe

Here at freshcrackedpepper, I rarely include pictures hawked from Flickr. In this case, however, the sandwich made me do it.

On the way back from our Berkshire winter escape, we decided to check out Rubiner’s cheese shop in Great Barrington. The resident food guru at my new workplace had recommended it, and we had some extra time for lunch en route to New Haven.

Photo by ★keaggy.com

We found a parking spot near the cheery main street, lined with all the shops and novelties we needed to combat road boredom. Rubiner’s blends in with the charm, yet stands out from behind the regal columns that mark the building’s past life as a bank. We were greeted by towers and slabs of the one food I’d eaten too much of over the holidays: cheese.

Matthew Rubiner, the shop’s owner, wasn’t in that day.  We were well looked after by Austin, however, who served us with knowledgeable congeniality. We browsed the cheese shop briefly, but on the instruction of our stomachs decided to get lunch at Rubi’s first, the shop’s adjoining cafe.

The Reuben we ordered was far better looking than this Flickr specimen—the closest I could find to the sandwich that held me captive. I should have sent Mark out to the car to grab the camera sooner. I should know better.

And because of that sandwich—the bread pressed into a crunchy, yielding crust, the meat falling apart under its blanket of saucy sauerkraut—all I have to offer is the aftermath of  our memorable lunch at the rustic cafe.

Rubi’s isn’t your standard sandwich shop. You won’t find much in the way of lettuce, tomatoes, or hummus. There aren’t rows of fillings or long lists of dressings. At Rubi’s, you’ll find bare, simple sandwiches, made perfect by their ingredients: cured meats matched with complimentary cheeses, dressed with things like cornichons, small-batch sauerkraut, or preserved lemons. Their strength is small and satisfying meals, delectable espresso, and rustic baked goods, which we tried in happy succession.

After deconstructing the Reuben and Cuban sandwiches we shared (how such perfect sauerkraut? I’ve never seen a baguette-panini!) we sipped cappuccinos and had a few bites of perfectly-sweet lemon pound cake.

We lingered for a while, watching as families, couples, and solo diners sat down together at the communal wooden table. Back at the main shop, I somehow found room to sample a variety of cheese, each one bearing a helpful label. There were cow and sheep and goat’s milk varieties spanning a full spectrum: dank and musty, fresh and tangy, creamy and crumbly. We took home a slab of Cheshire Cheddar and two domestic chocolate bars.

Our cheese treasure was later devoured by our friends’ dog, who I’ve concluded is my food-loving soul’s doggie doppelganger. She is too cute to stay angry at, and at least we had a few morsels before she nipped it from our grasp!

And of course, there’s more where that cheese came from: Rubiner’s will hopefully be waiting for us on our next Bay State adventure, however far in the future that lays.

spiced beef, old and new

I’m back from a birthday visit to Winnipeg, and feeling a little more reflective than usual. My great northern hometown, stretched out over empty prairie, seems more distant as visits become less frequent. It’s not that it has become foreign, just a little less familiar. It’s not that it has become alien; family and friends always welcome with wider arms than I sometimes feel I can fill.

Two hours in the air, two waiting to cross the border, and three more on the road delivered me to Syracuse. It feels more like home than I remember.  As I gear up to move to DC on Saturday, however, there’s a limbo quality to life right now. I feel like I’m floating, watching my life shift and change beneath me.

This past week has reminded me of the grounding power of family and friends, even when they’re far away, in space or in time. And that thought brings me, of course, to food. Almost exactly a year ago, my aunt Evelyn sent me a pretty special little recipe. I filed it away for a future post, and feel like it’s meant for today. It’s my great great grandfather, William Oscroft Ward’s recipe for spiced beef, republished last year in this culinary history newsletter by a cousin of my grandpa’s — Doug Ward senior, of radio journalism fame.

In case you’re wondering how I succeeded with floating a potato in a saltwater brine, the answer is no, I haven’t tested the recipe. I don’t eat a lot of beef, and while this preparation looks fascinating, I just haven’t gotten around to trying it out. The recipe I’d like to share with you today, however, offers a more modern take on spiced meat, inspired by this recipe of old.

This one came to me not along family lines, but local ones. At a harvest potluck put on by the Central New York Slow Food Chapter a few weeks ago, I sampled some spiced beef I could get behind. At the end of a long table boasting velvet beets, roasted fennel, and pumpkin bread, there was a rustic pot full of one of my least favorite ingredients: ground meat. Next to it there was a basket of soft Bibb lettuce leaves and a small, hand-lettered label announcing how to proceed. I took a small heap of the rice and beef mixture and a leaf or two of lettuce .

One bite and I realized I’d been too hard on ground meat. Spiced with the subtle fragrance of cardamom and cinnamon, and with velvety coconut milk holding it all together in creamy harmony, the whole thing was then encased in delicate green.

As I pondered the spice sensations, I discovered that I was sitting beside their creators: David and Karen Katleski, owners of the Empire Brewing Co. in downtown Syracuse. I learned that the dish was a cherished family recipe, but after a second helping and more doting, tentatively asked if they’d be willing to share. The Katleski’s were gracious, and we exchanged email addresses. A few days later the recipe arrived, in all its restaurant proportion glory (calling for 5lbs of ground beef!)

The Katleski’s know good food as well as they know slow food. That afternoon they were awarded the Slow Food Snail of Approval award, honoring their commitment to local farmers and food communities.

I performed some math on the recipe and using our favorite free-range bison meat, finally cooked up a batch for a crew of friends. One guest constructed a Moroccan veggie tagine right before our eyes, and another brought a decadent pear tart. The wine flowed, and so did the conversation.

This dish comes together quickly, and simmers for about an hour. It can be made a day in advance, and with its warming spices is a wonderful addition to any winter potluck.

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buttercup lentil soup

Squash is a rather deceiving name for the vegetable to which it refers. With pudgy approachability and even cuteness, the squash family is far from cushy. Take, for example, this buttercup. Looks delightful enough. With its little cap and almost folded-in appearance, it’s the grandmother of the fall harvest.

But set a knife to it and it sure puts up a fight. This hard fact is what led me to one of the most important realizations of my cooking life: squash need not be peeled before cooking. Nope. No matter what those recipes tell you, “squash, peeled, seeded, and chopped” need not require a follow-up cool down and protein shake.

The secret’s in roasting the squash first: Hack it up (or not, as some argue) throw it in the oven, and digging into that squishy soft squash-flesh will become one of your happiest soup making memories.

Lately I’ve been trying to venture out of my butternut rut. There are just so many other squashes to try: hubbard (not so impressed with my specimen), spaghetti, and acorn (one of my favorites to stuff), to name a few. I finally got around to this buttercup, whose dense, creamy flesh surprised me. I’ve also got two Delicatas on hand to try sometime this week.

There are as many ways to prepare squash as there are to love it, but one of my favorites has to be soup. I know I could have just substituted this buttercup into any squash soup recipe, but instead decided to do an off-the-cuff version with whatever needed to be used.

And it was good. Very good. With bright tomato red, spinach green, and buttercup orange, this soup is fall’s palate in a bowl.

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