Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vietnamese Spare Ribs with Caramel Sauce

Vegetarians may want to avert their eyes. I’m back in the barnyard, and boy, is my butcher psyched.

Why? When? Because of Thing One, a picky eater who hates fish and orders burgers in restaurants every chance she gets. It occurred to me as the tears streamed down her cheeks, a lump of pecan crusted catfish turning to ashes in her mouth, that she’s barreling toward that age where young girls can become very psychotic about food.

It occurred to me that maybe if I was eating the red stuff too, I’d be more inventive in my preparations, and perhaps that would limber up her stubborn palate.

It occurred to me that Greg had encountered plenty of responsible, humane farmers while researching Pig Farm, people who treat their animals well. I swore off of meat and poultry because an interview with the artist Sue Coe convinced me it was immoral to support the industry known as “factory farming”. Click that link and the creators of the Mootrix might have themselves another convert. While you do that, I’ll march my drumsticks on over to Staubitz, Los Paisanos, Perelandra, or the farmer’s market, all reliable sources of responsibly raised meat.

Oh Christ, these ribs are good!!!! But you know, I bet this caramel marinade wouldn’t be half bad on tofu, for those wiggly vegetarians who have no moral qualms about overlooking a quarter cup of fish sauce.

Vietnamese Spare Ribs with Caramel Sauce

Put on your coat, open the windows, and dig the fan out of storage. I don’t want to scare you, but neither would I want you to stink up the joint and set off the fire alarm. This caramel sauce has a tendency to smoke. So do doctors. Just take a look under the awning of your local medical professionals building, if you don’t believe me.

Still with me? Okay, then, Tough Monkey, let’s see you caramelize some sugar!
Put 1/3 cup of white sugar in a thick-bottomed little saucepan over low heat, stirring and shaking all the while so it doesn’t burn. Look alive when it starts to brown up. Turn your back for a second and you’ll have Pompeii in a pan.

When your white sugar could pass for brown sugar, remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1/4 cup of fish sauce. It’ll bubble and spit like evil incarnate, but that’s okay. Don’t feel like a failure if it starts solidifying into chunks of fish flavored rock candy. They’ll dissolve when you throw that pan back on the burner. Try one. They’re compellingly addictive, in an obscure corner of Chinatown kind of way. Better fire that pan back up, lest you’re tempted to eat them all. Three minutes over low heat should return things to a sticky sauce-like consistency.

Remove the pan from the heat and add 4 thinly sliced shallots and a few grinds of black pepper. Voila. Caramel Sauce. Invite a child who annoys you over for sundaes!

Moving on to the red blood cells, tell your butcher man to put his knife to good use by carving that two pound slab of lean pork spareribs into individual ribs. Wait until all the other customers have cleared out before asking him if any of his providers are known for raising and dispatching their stock humanely. The big mook at Paisanos patronized me in the nicest way, and Mr. Staubitz revealed that one of his daughters is a vegetarian!

Treat those ribs like the sacrifice they are by anointing them with a perfumed elixir. There’s no way of telling how such good-smelling anoinment affected the innumerable virgins who’ve gone down the hatches of the world’s volcanoes over the years, but as far as spareribs go, we’re looking at a real finger licker:

The finely chopped lower halves of 2 stalks of lemongrass
4 roughly chopped shallots
4 roughly chopped garlic cloves
2 small, roughly chopped, seeded jalapenos
Grind them into a rough paste in the grinding mechanism of your choice (a pig-shaped mocajete works good).

Stir the spice paste into the cooled caramel sauce and pour it over those pampered ribs, who can spend anywhere from an hour to an entire, romantic night basking in it in an appropriately refrigerated chamber.

As the dinner hour approaches, line your broiler pan with foil and preheat the oven to 350˚. If I was at the summer palace, I’d fire up the grill and skip down the hill to pick mint for mojitos, but actually, the broiler, though less picturesque, is also less hassle.

Scrape the marinade off the ribs, but don’t throw it away, as you’ll be painting that sizzling flesh with it several times before you start gnawing at them bones like Fred Flinstone working his way through a family-sized rack of extra-lean brontosaurus.

Line the ribs up on the broiler pan, but don’t stick it in the broiler right away. Instead, give ‘em 30 to 35 minutes in the oven, basting with the reserved marinade every ten minutes or so.

Then, ten minutes before serving, transfer the pan to the broiler and crank the heat as high as it will go. Flip the ribs at the five minute mark, to give both sides that mouth-watering , fresh-from-the-barbeque-pit glaze.

Too damn good to waste time taking pictures. Just imagine me smiling as I gnaw on a big ol' bone, heedless of a mounting need for napkins and a half dozen toothpicks.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bloody Mary!

I always associate Bloody Marys with New Year’s Day. Like lemon squares, toffee, smoked almonds, incredibly stressful preparations and eggnog, they were an indispensable part of the menu for my mother’s annual New Year’s Day open house.

I also associate them with Buddy’s, a defunct Chicago gay bar, that leavened many a brunch-time hangover with the ridiculousness of the garnishes crowding its Bloodies – boiled potatoes, pepperocini, cross-sections of sausage, big ol’ leafy stalks of celery.

But I wasn't taking three of my college friends, two husbands and seven children to a defunct gay bar, now was I? Not that it would have been any less logical than hosting a crew of that size / age for a New Year’s Day brunch in my 800-square-foot apartment… Fortunately, Gary and Amanda don’t drink, which left more for the rest of us, especially me and Greg, who managed to stretch that pitcher well into the night.

This is my mother’s recipe, tailored to fit the idiosyncrasies of my panty.I mean pantry. What is wasabi, after all, if not green, Japanese horseradish paste?

Bloody Marys

(They’re the girls I love, boom, boom, boom, boom)

See? They’re so easy, I can sing show tunes while I mix them up! Perhaps I’d do well to try something a little more challenging…

Get out your pitcher!

Dump in one 46-ounce can of tomato juice!

2 teaspoons of wasabi
4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (now there's a word to f you up in the final rounds of the Nat'l Spelling Bee...)
2 teaspoons of hot sauce
1 teaspoon of sea salt
3/4 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper
and the juice of 3 limes.

Recovered alcoholics and nursing mothers can hang it up right here, but those with a taste for vodka (and adventure!) should keep going.

Now here’s a little trick I picked up recently, over dinner with Sam and Nelle, the cultured palates behind Lunch for Two, a project that strikes me as way too classy for this gutter tip! I don’t know if either of them has actually tried it, but you bet it made my to-do-immediately list. First day of the new year, there I was, pouring cheap vodka into my Brita pitcher, eager to see if it would make it taste all expensive.

And you know? I think it did. I don’t know if it’s because I was so desperate to believe, or what, but I did a little before and after taste test and after seemed much less harsh (possibly because the second sip just naturally goes down smoother at 10am…). Anyhoo, I’ll do it again, especially if some bartender friend is willing to slip me an empty Grey Goose bottle into which I might decant my homemade shine. It’s good to know I can always fall back on bootlegging if this writing thing doesn’t work out.

(Hint: don’t forget to rinse the Brita pitcher and run a couple of quarts of water through the filter after you’ve worked your magic, unless you want the kiddies getting an unexpected bang from their Kool-Aid.)

Back to the Bloody Marys (boom, boom, boom, boom), a couple of minutes before you’re ready to serve them, empty the ice cube trays and as much “Grey Goose” as you see fit into the pitcher, stir ‘em up with a handy, long-armed implement, and don’t pull a Buddy when it comes to the garnish.

In other news, issue 33 of my zine, The East Village Inky is back from the printers and ready to take its rightful place on the back of your toilet tank. Why not subscribe? You'll be glad you did, especially if your bra's been giving you trouble of late.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hash Brown / Latkes Good To Eat

Seems like most people who a) celebrate Christmas and b) like to cook plan their Christmas dinners in advance.

By the time we’d unhusked the gifts, gotten dressed and stumped around the misty schoolyard on the wooden stilts that Santa laid on the kids, we were powerful hungry, but wouldn’t you know it? The pantry was bare and the chef felt semi-embalmed.

Many would consider this a neon-sign urging us to honor the Jewish side of the family with a trip to Chinatown, but some stilt-related father-son tension had put a lien on Big Daddy’s limited reserves of holiday cheer. Given Inky’s finicky palate, Milo’s capacity for whining, and Greg’s aversion to crowds, I reluctantly admitted that pushing for this could be a mistake.

But what the hell do you do with a bunch of dried legumes, some frozen shrimp, an elderly head of lettuce, and four Idaho spuds?

As long as no mold has formed in the half-empty containers of sour cream and applesauce quietly living out their shelf lives in the back of the fridge, LATKES, that’s what! The children’s Polish rabbi great-great-grandfather would have been so proud of his godless descendant’s shiksa wife. (Dude, I could just have easily served shellfish.)

I decided to go with the recipe on the last page of Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat,which a friend of my mom’s picked out for the children one year, to balance out Merry Christmas, Strega Nona, which has enough Baby Jesus talk at the end to make Greg's horns curl up. See? Even a faithless interfaith marriage like ours can present etiquette dilemmas! (And then we’ve got to browbeat the young into thank you notes. Thanks … for NOTHING!!!)

No, no, no, I very much appreciate such fairly weighted gift-giving, even if the Greg half is poorly illustrated and not nearly as engaging. That latke recipe’s a keeper, anyway! I modified it a bit because we didn’t have parsley, and even if we did, the goal was to get the children to eat the damn things, not turn their noses up at them. I would never have made latkes at all if Inky hadn’t had some at a party and hated them, but then later sampled a batch that she claimed to have loved (possibly because they were brought into class with much fanfare by the friendly mother of the well-liked new girl).

Mine weren’t quite as big of a hit, but I done my duty. She ate the side of applesauce and that’s saying something. I wonder if she’d give them another whirl if I served some for breakfast, billed as hash browns…


Peel three big Semitic Idaho potatoes. I don’t know if today’s child would have much connection to the image of k.p., but I clocked enough Gomer Pyles and Sad Sacks growing up to feel like a genius for realizing I could make light work of this by deploying a vegetable peeler. You’d think the military would spring for a couple hundred of those devices, instead of making our boys hunch iconographically over with paring knives.

Grate them taters then, quick, run some cold water over them so they don’t turn an unappetizing shade of slug. Man, for something so rustic and dumpy, potatoes sure know how to rock the diva behavior. When my friend Martha was volunteering in Columbia under the auspices of the Episcopal church, she conceived of an inexpensive holiday craft project whereby her child charges would carve candleholders out of raw potatoes. Apparently they were adorable, until a few days later when they started to stink like all seven stages of hell. Good thing she wasn’t trying to convert anybody.

Chop up enough onion to yield a quarter cup. Reserve the rest for another recipe, or a candleholder or something.

Beat 2 eggs in a large bowl.
Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons of flour
& one crack of pepper for every candle in the menorah. (That’s eight for those of you non-Jews who didn’t marry into the tribe or study Chanukah in Episcopal Sunday School, like I did.)

Use your hands to squeeze the infant beejesus out of the grated potatoes. When they’re nice and dry, dump them into the bowl and give them a stir.

Fire up some vegetable oil in a skillet set over high heat, then spoon in some potato batter. It’s much firmer than your average pancake, so you can fool with the shape, give ‘em some Goyishe Mouseketeer ears or whatever it is that helps you gain purchase on the tastebuds of the picky young. Brown one side and then the other.

Serve with applesauce and sour cream on the bed, if you’re an adult, or, if you’re a spill-prone kid, that paint-stained Ikea parson’s table that was too small for you last Christmas. (Who cares, as long as it’s in front of the TV!)