Caprese Salad and Boiled Sweet Corn

Last weekend my wife and I visited her parents in Illinois. On Saturday morning we went to the farmers market in Davenport. It’s one of the bigger markets I’ve been to. 100 vendors? Maybe more? I don’t know. The point is, we drove home on Sunday afternoon with some Iowa sweet corn (did you know that Iowa is known for its corn? HA.) and 3 giant heirloom tomatoes: one red, one yellow, and one orange. The lighter colored tomatoes are apparently lower in acidity, so their flavor is milder than a bright red tomato. The more you know.

After a long day of traveling we wanted to keep dinner simple. An hour in the kitchen slaving over some extravagant was out of the question. We had corn, we had tomatoes, we had some fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and our basil plant was continuing to produce an abundance of leaves. Caprese salad and corn. A simple summer dinner.

In the summer I usually prefer grilling my corn, but lighting the grill (I use charcoal) was too much of a chore. Boiling some water? Easy.

Laziness comes in bunches. I only took one picture of the meal. And instead of searching for a record, I turned on the last thing I had been listening to in the car, the new album from The Walkmen, Heaven.
ImageGreat album. One of my favorites of 2012 so far. Catchy, well-written, and equally engrossing whether you’re listening with headphones or your windows down. I think The Walkmen are a grossly underrated band and I think this album is a big step forward for them. It’s a departure from their previous work, but for me, in a good way. It’s easily accessible and repeatable. Try it. Key track: Heaven.

 

I took this photo. Ok, I’m lying.

As I listened to the album I opened the fridge to find a pretty thin stock of beer. There was a handful of New Belgium varieties from a mix pack I had purchased the previous week. I chose a bottle of Belgo Belgian Style IPA. Light, refreshing, a touch fruity, and well-hopped, it ended up being a fine complement to the sweetness of the corn and lightness of the caprese salad.

 

 

 

But enough. Let’s make the meal. It’s a simple ingredient list this time. To feed 2, here’s what you need:

  • 2 or 3 ears of sweet corn, husked
  • 2 medium heirloom tomatoes (try to find a couple of different colors)
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella (the tiny balls work great, or you can dice up a bigger block of it)
  • handful of fresh basil
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • unsalted butter
  • extra virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Don’t add salt. Salt water sucks the moisture out of the corn, and it’ll taste awful. Some people like to add a few pinches of sugar, but when you have great sweet corn at the height of the season, why add extra sugar?

Meanwhile, core the tomatoes and chop into bite-size pieces, retaining the pulp and seeds. Toss the chopped tomatoes in a bowl with the mozzarella, basil, a pinch of salt, and some cracked black pepper (if desired). If you have small basil leaves you can keep them as is. Otherwise, stack your basil leaves on top of each other, roll them up like you’re rolling a… cigarette (uhh…) and then slice thinly. This is called chiffonading. Here’s a great look at how to do it.

Keep in mind, this is the classic style caprese salad. A lot of us Americans think adding balsamic vinegar is the final step. Don’t do it. If all you want to taste is balsamic vinegar, by all means, be my guest. But if you want to enjoy the taste of your fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozz, leave the balsamic out of it. It ruins the caprese salad. Do you want to know what I really think?

Oh, and here’s another tip: Get your fresh mozz out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you work with it. Bring it up to room temp. It’ll taste better.

While your caprese salad is resting, drop the corn into the boiling water. If the water stops boiling, bring it back to a boil as soon as possible. Once the water is rolling again, cover and boil for 4 minutes. That’s it. Get the corn out of the water, put it on your plate, and let the excess water dry off for a minute. Then get your butter, salt, pepper, and whatever else you like on your corn, coat it up, and spoon some caprese salad onto your plate. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the caprese salad if you’d like. Just don’t add it before you’re ready to eat because it’ll turn your tomatoes to mush. Boo, mush.

Tasty.

Get it while you can. Summer’s almost over.

Old Rasputin Braised Bison Shanks

At the local farmers’ market a few weeks ago I actually remembered to bring more than my usual pocket change. Instead of leaving with nothing more than an heirloom tomato and a few ears of corn I stopped by the Lakeview Buffalo Farm stand and picked up a couple of shanks. This was my first time cooking with buffalo, so I was pretty stoked to see what I could do.

The folks at Lakeview recommended using the shanks in a stew or braising them. I’d been occasionally drooling on myself during the previous week thinking about braised meat, so the choice was easy. Let’s braise these suckers.

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I’m a big, big fan of North Coast Brewery’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. A year or two ago I came across a recipe for Old Rasputin braised short ribs. With that as my inspiration, I decided to use a bottle of Old Raspy as part of the braising liquid for the shanks.

Let’s get to it. Here’s what you need to round up:

  • 2 bison shanks, about 1 lb each
  • 1 bottle of Old Rasputin
  • 4-6 cups stock (chicken, beef, and/or vegetable)
  • 6 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (substitute dry if necessary)
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme (or fresh if you have it)
  • 12 tellicherry black peppercorns
  • 4 whole allspice berries
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper

Before I got started on the shanks I spent about 5 seconds thinking about what I wanted to listen to before I settled on this gem. Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie.

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Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear / Bitin’ on a bullet, pullin’ out all of his hair… 

Just a fantastic opening line to this album. This one’s easily my favorite Willie album. Can’t say I know his entire catalog too well, but for my money, this one is damn good.

The beer choice was an easy one too. I bought a 4-pack of Old Raspy and had three left after setting one aside to use for the shanks. Old Rasputin was one of the first craft beers I really fell in love with. It was my introduction to the incredibly powerful world of Russian Imperial Stouts. Motor oil in a bottle? Yes, please. Old Raspy is really, really good. It’s strong and flavorful, so paired with a lighter meal it might be overkill. But up against a rich braised meat it’s perfect. Also goes well with a cigar. Keep that in mind.

Let’s cook these shanks already.

A quick note before we start: This is going to take two days to cook. Ideally. You can definitely eat it after the first go around in the oven, but letting it sit overnight and reheating the next day will make it taste even better.

First, preheat your oven to 275. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat 4 tbsp of the butter over medium-high heat. Dump the flour onto a plate. Sprinkle a good pinch or two of salt on all sides of the shanks and grind some pepper onto them. Dredge the shanks in the flour and brown them, one at a time, in the butter. When all sides are browned, set the shanks aside on a plate.

Deglaze the pot with a splash of the Old Raspy, scraping up the tasty brown bits on the bottom. Then add the remaining 2 tbsp of butter followed by the carrots, celery, and onion, stirring occasionally for 6-8 minutes until softened.

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Place the shanks on top of the vegetables. Carefully pour in the Old Rasputin along with enough stock to not quite cover the meat. Also add the rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, and allspice berries. What we’re doing is making a flavorful braising liquid that will then be strained and reduced to a thick sauce for the final product.

Bring the liquid to a boil. When it’s there, cover and transfer to the preheated oven. Braise for 4 hours. Relax. Drink another Old Raspy or two.

After 4 hours, turn off the oven and leave the pot in the oven for an additional hour.

Here’s where it gets crazy: take the pot out of the oven and put it in your fridge overnight. It’s flavor-melding time.

(Alternatively, you can eat it now and it’ll taste awesome. It’s just taste awesomer if you wait overnight and reheat the next day. If you’re intent on eating it now, skip ahead to the part where you strain the liquid.)

The next day, 3 hours or so before you’re ready to eat, warm your oven to 250 degrees. If you’d like, scrape off the hardened layer of fat on top of the braising liquid. I scraped off about half of it as I wanted to keep some of the fat for flavor. Put the pot back in the oven, uncovered, for 3 hours. After 3 hours, remove from the oven. Carefully pick out the shanks, which will be falling apart into delicious pieces, and put them on a plate. Don’t forget the bones. There’s a tasty marrow treat in there.

Get a fine strainer or china cap, place it in a large pot or bowl, and pour the braising liquid through the strainer. Discard the solids and return the liquid to your Dutch oven. Boil the liquid rapidly and reduce until it’s almost thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If you can’t quite get it there, dissolve a spoonful of corn starch in a tablespoon of cool water and add to the liquid. That should thicken it up. You’ll want it to be the consistency of a moderately thick sauce, but not gravy-like.

Once the sauce is thickened, remove from heat. Add kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Place the shanks back in the pot, and spoon some sauce over them to reheat them.

Get two plates and place some meat and one bone on each plate. Spoon some sauce over the top. You can serve the shanks with any side you’d like, but I’d be inclined to go with some garlic mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus, or roasted fingerling potatoes.

As you’re enjoying the shanks, don’t forget to try some of the marrow from the bones. I know. It sounds gross. And the consistency takes some getting used to. But the super-concentrated meaty flavor from the marrow is awesome. Trust me. If you want to cut the richness of the marrow, whip up a quick gremolata (minced lemon peel – yellow part only, 3 cloves minced garlic, and 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley) and use as a garnish.

There it is. Crack open another Old Rasputin, turn up Shotgun Willie, and enjoy. Image

Hello?

I know. Another food blog. GREAT. Just what we need. 

Here’s my plan: I’ll be different. Or at least I’ll try. There are three things I love to do when I have some free time: Cook, drink beer, and listen to music. 

I like to experiment in the kitchen. I reference recipes all the time, but a recipe, to me, is a guide rather than a binding agreement to cook in a certain way. Some of the recipes and ideas I post will be mine; random concoctions I dreamt up on a drive home from the office. Others will be hodgepodges of other recipes. I’ll cite my motivations when applicable. But sometimes ideas just come to me based on something I may have read in passing months or years ago. I’m not professionally trained, but I read a lot about cooking, I practice a lot, and I really can’t think of a more cathartic thing to do after a long day of work than spend an hour in the kitchen throwing together a meal for my wife and myself. Sometimes the kids will reap the rewards too.

When I cook I like to drink a beer or two. I might be a bit of a beer snob, but I know the value of a can of PBR or a bottle of High Life. Sometimes I’ll pair my meals with whatever’s in my fridge. Other times I’ll choose a beer that makes sense with a specific dish. The point is, when you catch a good buzz your food usually tastes better. Right?

Music. I wouldn’t be spending time on this blog without music. When I cook and I drink I also like to have some music helping me along. Each meal will be paired with an album. Depending on my mood and the meal I’m cooking, I’ll choose one of the thousand or so albums from my iTunes library (or sometimes vinyl or maybe Pandora if I need to mix it up) and fire it up while I cook. You’ll get a breakdown, and then you should probably listen for yourself.

Good to have you here. Enjoy.