A Hungarian gift

The word for paprika comes from the Hungarian paparka. A variation from Bulgarian piperka which in turn came from Latin piper, for ‘pepper’. In the USA paprika simply means any nonpungent red chili.

Today Hungary produces both pungent and sweet paprika. Originally all Hungarian paprika was aromatic and quite hot.

The hybrid that most use in today’s kitchens is a cross of the sweet and the pungent peppers to come up with the benign type that is neither hot nor sweet. It is usually used as a garnish, mainly to sprinkle on top of deviled eggs or potato salad to give it the festive look.

In my opinion any paprika that is worthy of its history of exquisite taste varies with its strength from hot to pleasantly mild. Smoked paprika has a pronounced flavor that starts with a wonderfully rich aroma when toasted with other aromatics (onions, garlic, a little lard, oil or pan drippings).  Wonderful in goulash, paprikash, and chili recipes.

That Warm Afterglow

The last few years I have reflected on what makes a meal satisfying. I have found out that it has nothing to do with the cost of the ingredients. It comes down to basic chemistry and understanding how one ingredient works with another.

On that note, I’ve been watching Chef John, host of the YouTube channel ‘Food Wishes’ for several years. He’s one of my favorites because the videos he does focuses on what he is doing rather than himself. It was quite a while before I ever saw what he looked like – and it wasn’t from one of his food prep videos!

His signature ingredient in most every dish was a dash of Cayenne pepper. I was always curious as to why. Well, I think I’ve puzzled out the answer.

Cayenne pepper originated in what is now French Guiana in South America. Today, it’s grown commercially from New Mexico to Japan. It can be used fresh in the immature green form in salsas, though it’s most commonly used in the form of dried and ground red pods.

So why would a renowned chef use this hot spice, apparently so indiscriminately?

Cayenne plays a very important part in aromatics. A pinch goes a long way in brightening a dish and bringing out the natural flavors of the what you are cooking when you make anything with seafood, chicken, beef, or pork.

The key is to use it only a pinch at a time until you get it right for the dish you are cooking. Remember, for most things you only want to wake it up a bit not make it so hot you can’t taste what you just cooked. What I strive for is a satisfying warm after glow when I finish a meal.

A Real Cut Up

One of the best ways to reduce the cost of meat is to buy larger cuts and do some very basic butchering at home. You can then bag all but the section you plan to use that evening for freezer storage. Your best bets for this method are items like boneless pork shoulder (also called pork butt or Boston butt), center cut pork tenderloin, and beef tenderloins.

Why these cuts? First off, they’re the easiest to cut up if you have limited or no meat-cutting skills. You won’t have to work around bone and most of the time you can just carve the meat to the thickness and portion size you desire. (On top of that, these cuts tend to go on sale a fair amount of the time!)

The portions shown in the picture above are taken from a boneless pork shoulder. I cut it up in preparation for a variety of meals (approximately seven) depending on the cooking method and ratio of fat to meat.

Starting from the left and going clockwise: Strips of pork belly, a small pork roast, thick pork steaks, thinner pork steaks, and a number of smaller odds and ends that will end up in stir fry!

By learning to do a little finish home butchering, you’ll be able to buy meat for as low as $.99 cents to 1.89 a pound and turn it into something you would pay $20 per plate for in a restaurant!

Cloth Napkins

Cloth napkins lend a note of fine dining as well as being eco-friendly. You wash them instead of throwing them away. They can be used a couple of times in between washing. Regular napkins can be expensive but I found a way to make them affordable. If you use different colors when there are several people in the family each one can be assigned a color.

One cost-effective method is to use cotton bandannas. The cost is about $10 for a dozen. You can get them in different colors, all the same or a theme. Amazon carries a large selection.

Two swans swimming

Small lettuce wedge and tomato individual salad. Easy and elegant presentation. Shown on a 6 inch salad plate. The stem makes the crown. The center is made by two slices on each side of the tomato.

Ingredients: 1 small tomato, 2 lettuce wedges

Dressing can be any you like but just drizzle it over the lettuce wedges.

Remove the seeds and cut around the stem base inside to form the head. The two halves are then sliced in ‘V’ shapes that intersect and then pulled out to form the wings; do this on both sides of the half.

Cut a slot in the center to fit the swan necks into. You can surround the swans with lettuce or other veggies: Cucumber slices, radishes, or whatever you like.

Thoughts on Beef Brisket v. Beef Rib

Two-and-a-half pounds of beef rib goodness from Valentina’s in South Austin, Texas. Magnificent.

Earlier today, I sampled some of the best beef brisket and beef rib from Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ in south Austin. Claiming that one place is better than another can be shootin’ words in Central Texas, so let’s just say that their flavor profile fit my palate best. The brisket and rib were both moist, tender, and balanced out the flavors of salt, pepper, and smoke.

This got me thinking a bit about my own recent experiments with brisket and ribs. Both are cuts of beef, but that’s really about where the similarity ends.

Brisket is comprised of a cow’s superficial and deep pectoral muscles. These are often sold together, but can also be cut and sold separately as ‘point’ and ‘flat’ cut briskets. The most important thing to note is that they’re weight-bearing muscles. Weight-bearing muscle come with a lot of connective tissue, so prep, cooking, and serving methods have to take this into account.

Untrimmed brisket with the fatty side down.

Prepping the brisket requires getting rid of some (or most) of the superfluous fat. This heavy, dense fat on the outside of the muscle is what goes into beef tallow. If it’s thicker than a half-inch it can often turn into a hard, smoky, and knobby substance that’s not very good to eat.

If you’re using a slow dry-heat method like traditional barbecue, then you’ll be leaving some of that fat alone, as it will help keep the meat moist as you cook it. Myself, I’ve ended up using moist-heat methods like braising and sous vide to tenderize the meat without the same need for the fat.

Slow-Braised Brisket slices.

Braising: With this version, I used an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Seasonings include a touch of heat from a half-teaspoon of cayenne mixed with kosher salt and black pepper. This was slow-braised in the oven for ~2 hours on a bed of sauteed onions, a dash of liquid smoke, and white wine. Once the brisket was removed from the creuset, I was able to add a little beef broth to make a kind of glace de viande from the brisket au jus and the now-caramelized onions.

Note: When serving brisket, be sure to cut against the grain for maximum tenderness.

Sous-vide brisket. Notice the difference in color and texture from the braised or BBQ versions.

Sous Vide: This version’s seasoning is simple: One package of dehydrated Lipton French Onion soup – yes, the old 70’s standby. The salt and dehydrated onion mades a nice ‘dry brine’ in which the meat marinates over night.

This is cooked with the sous vide method for 32-36 hours at 135 degrees. Then it’s finished on a hot grill for 75 seconds/side. This time, the final product came out with a marvelously savory onion flavor to compliment the beef.

Note: While you should still cut this against the grain, the brisket here didn’t ‘flake’ the same way. It was steak-like in texture and so tender you could cut it with a fork.

Beef Rib is (ironically) a completely different animal. It’s sliced from a different area, which means that it’s not a weight-bearing muscle. That makes it a little ‘easier’ to cook in that a beef rib can be cooked with dry high-heat methods like grilling. And speaking of making things easy, unless you have a full-sized BBQ and/or smoker, it’s best to purchase this cut as short ribs, where bone and meat have been pre-chopped for you.

Raw beef short ribs. Compare the fat pattern to the raw brisket above.

The rib also differs from the brisket in that the fat is softer and substantially more marbled. Instead of hardening into tallow-like blocks, cooking tends to gelatinize these, making the rib tender and savory.

Beef short ribs in the sous vide. Note the brownish liquid accumulating around the edges. This makes the absolute best beef stock!

Personally, I’ve never found an easier and more delicious method than using sous vide on beef short ribs. Start by seasoning your ribs with a rub of salt (smoked salt is best!), pepper, and garlic powder. Bag it, and then sous vide at 145 degrees for 48 hours. Yes, that’s two days. It’s worth it!

Finishing sous vide short ribs on the grill.

To add a little appetizing color, place the ribs on a high-heat grill for two minutes on a side and serve! The mixture of flavors and even a hint of smoke is amazing. It’s not BBQ, so I call it ‘BBQ-style’ in the sense that you won’t get as heavy a hit of smoke. But you’ll definitely get the concentrated beef flavor in a way you’ll never forget.

Note: Beef ribs are so tender that you can slice them with the grain. Better yet, simply dig in with a fork and enjoy!

Kale Salad Recipe

I used to hate kale.

But that was until I tasted this salad at Ostra, a restaurant on the San Antonio Riverwalk. It was a perfect balance of sweet, tart, savory, and crisp, without the heavy ‘green’ taste I associated with kale leaves.

I liked it so much, I went home and reverse engineered it. This is a delightfully robust salad that is easy to make. And if you are not a fan of kale, having it this way might convert you like it did me!

The salad the way it is posted and pictured here serves six small portions for about $1.00 each. It’s colorful, hearty, and it’s even Keto friendly!

Ingredients:

 4 cups curly green kale with ribs removed torn or chopped in bite size pieces.

6 oz total of blackberries and/or raspberries. Note: You can substitute strawberries, dried apricots, or cherries.

¼ cup chopped pecans . Note: You can substitute chopped walnuts.

¼ cup feta cheese crumbles

The dressing is a balsamic vinaigrette

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons of honey

1 clove minced garlic

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Place all ingredients save for the kale itself in a bowl and whisk until well combined.

Put torn kale in large bowl, pour a little bit of the dressing on it, and massage the kale with your hand for 2-3 minutes. This is the key step, as the massaging helps to break down the fibrous kale leaves, making it soft to the palate. It also seems to mellow out the taste of the kale so that it’s closer to baby spinach in texture.

Place the rest of the ingredients into the bowl and toss together.

Serve in portions but make sure that some of the berries, pecans, and feta cheese remains on top to give it a colorful punch!