Category Archives: Food

Brown Stew Turkey Necks

One of the things I love about Jamaican food is that it encourages and rewards a slow, patient approach to cooking, and the use of a wide variety of fresh ingredients. Like soul food many dishes are built around the philosophy that applying enough time, effort, and creativity one can produce a mouth-watering dish from the meanest of ingredients.  As I am sure is the case with most people I had never fathomed that those bony, slimy, thoroughly unappetizing turkey necks I have seen from time to time at the meat market and grocery store could be transformed into anything worthwhile. I assumed the best one could do was to smoke them and use them to flavor a pot of greens or blackeye peas. Oh how mistaken I was.

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I don’t recall exactly where I came across the idea of experimenting with turkey necks, but once the seed was planted in my mind I couldn’t seem to shake it. I am always a sucker for stews and using low, slow cooking to tenderize tough, inhospitable cuts of meat. And lately I have been dying to cook some proper Jamaican food. So naturally I decided to go with a brown stew, oxtail-style dish. Which is apparently something which is becoming a popular thing to do with turkey necks these days. As usual I didn’t bother finding an actual recipe to work off of, I just rounded up what ingredients I had on hand and went for it. The results were sublime.

I had bought a pound of turkey necks so I started by cutting these into one inch chunks. Cutting through those neckbones was no joke. Make sure you have a sharp knife. I rinsed the necks in water and vinegar and dusted them with a couple tablespoons of my house jerk rub. Then I added a couple tablespoons of JCS Boston Jerk Sauce and let everything marinate four a few hours. JCS Boston Jerk Sauce is a thick brown-black sauce which is more savory than your typical jerk rub or marinade. Basically I was using it as a substitute for browning sauce, And it did the job quite well.

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After marinating, I added the necks and marinade to a pot and brought it to a simmer. I let the meat simmer covered for about 45 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

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As I mentioned before I was not working off of a recipe so I just grabbed a bit of what I had on hand. This ended up being: a handful of fresh thyme, five culantro leaves, a bit of celery, half an onion, half each green and orange bell pepper, one scallion, one clove garlic, one scotch bonnet pepper, plus about a teaspoon each salt and ground ginger.

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Once everything was chopped/sliced and added to the pot,I added two more tablespoons of the Boston Jerk Seasoning and 8 ounces beer (Yuengling).

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Cover the pot an simmer for another hour or so. With about 20-30 minutes remaining, remove the cover and increase the heat to thicken up the sauce.

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Meanwhile, make up a batch of rice and peas. You could use plain Jasmine rice in a pinch, or make a roti if that is your thing, but as far as I am concerned this dish goes perfect with traditional Jamaican rice and peas.

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Recipe for the rice is below. The rice takes about 45 minutes to cook so you will want to get going on it as soon as you get the stew simmering away.

Recipes: Brown Stew Turkey Necks with Rice and Peas

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Brown Stew Turkey Necks
1 lb turkey necks, cut into one inch pieces
4 tablespoons JCS Boston Jerk Sauce or 2 tablespoons Grace Browning Sauce
2 tablespoons dry jerk rub (recipe here)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme
4-5 fresh culantro leaves, finely chopped
1 scallion/green onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, whole or punctured but not chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, sliced
1/2 green bell pepper, sliced
1/2 orange bell pepper, sliced
8 oz amber beer such as Yuengling Traditional Lager

Wash turkey necks and cover with jerk rub and 2 tablespoons Boston Jerk Sauce (or 1 tablespoon browning and a splash of vinegar). Cover and marinate in refrigerator for 2-3 hours or longer.

Add turkey necks and marinade to sauce pan or stock pot and simmer, covered, on low heat for 45 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer covered for an additional 45 minutes.

Remove cover and simmer on medium heat for additional 30 minutes or until stew reaches desired thickness. Remove and discard scotch bonnet pepper and thyme sprigs (if left whole). Remove from heat and allow to stand 10 minutes before serving.

Jamaican-style Rice and Peas
16 oz coconut milk
1 can kidney beans or small red beans
2 scallions/green onions, chopped
3 sprigs thyme (whole)
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 – 1  tablespoon salt
1 whole scotch bonnet pepper, whole or punctured but not chopped
2 cups white rice

Measure out 4 cups liquid using coconut milk, liquid from beans, and water. Add liquid and all other ingredients except rice to pan and bring to boil. Simmer five minutes.

Add rice and return to boil, stirring well.

Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until done (30-45 minutes). Remove from heat and allow to rest 5 minutes. Remove scotch bonnet pepper and thyme sprigs prior to serving.

¡Carnitas!

Mexican food is going through a bit of a renaissance in Tampa Bay right now, with Taco Trucks and restaurants popping up left and right. Historically, Mexican food and culture has had nowhere near the influence of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, or South American culture on Tampa. But there is a growing Mexican immigrant community and as of late the food seems to have caught on.  Long story short at this point there is a great variety of cheap, convenient local spots I frequent when I get a craving for a torta or a couple tamales.  Which means I don’t really have the motivation to try my hand at Mexican cooking too often, with the exception of a few semi-successful chicken tortas and one horribly failed attempt at mole.

One comfort-food standby and guilty pleasure of mine is crock-pot chicken tacos – nothing to brag about but so damn easy and quite delicious: throw a few chicken breasts in a crock-pot with some taco seasoning and a jar of your favorite salsa and voila. Eight hours later you have shredded, delicious chicken in red sauce to spoon over rice and stuff in a burrito or pile onto a tostada. Like I said – nothing to brag about but cheap, easy and satisfying enough to be a monthly tradition in our house.

I wanted to try something different this weekend and I stumbled upon a recipe for carnitas. Apparently carnitas are a popular taco filling on the west coast – around here pork tacos are usually made with either grilled or slow cooked pork like cochinita pibil – suffice to say I had never heard of, let alone tasted, carnitas; but it looked delicious and I liked the idea of slow simmering meat and then braising/frying it in the reduction. In fact this is similar to how I cook chicken breasts – sear the outside, cover and steam until water collects in the pan, then remove the lid and cook on medium-high until all the juices have reduced into a thick sauce and coated the outside of the chicken pieces.

My original plan was to buy some chicken thighs and make a sort of carnitas de pollo, and save the real deal for another time. But when I got to the grocery store the chicken was a bit pricey and they were selling 3lb half-pernils for about $6.00 – so that was that.  Despite not having any experience with this or any idea of what the final result should taste like I pretty much just winged it, borrowing the general ingredients and cooking times from a few online recipes. But the results were amazing. I don’t usually publish a post based on a first-time effort like this but I feel the need to share this with the world.

For seasoning I used a blend of homemade chili powder (made from ground ancho, chipotle, and cascabel chilis), cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano and salt. I didn’t measure the ingredients but had a total of about 1/4 cup seasoning. It was way too much. The meat has a ton of flavor, and the citrus flavor is going to be strong, so just a bit of seasoning will go a long way. I ended up draining some of the braising liquid towards the end and replacing with water to cut the seasoning. After which it was just right – but regardless use a light touch with the seasoning. Use a few tablespoons of your favorite homemade or store-bought taco seasoning.

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Juice an orange and a few limes, then add a bottle of beer. The acid is important to tenderize the pork. Set the liquid aside. Meanwhile, cut the pernil into 2 inch chunks, discarding the bones and skin (ok, ok, don’t discard the skin – fry it or broil it and make some chicharones. And I guess you could make stock with the bones if your into that). Season the pork with the taco seasoning. Heat a dutch oven or stock pot on high. Add the pork and sear for a couple minutes on both sides.

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When the pork is seared, add the beer, orange juice, and lime juice, and the rest of the seasoning (if you are worried about over-seasoning, hold back some of it and wait until the end of the process when you can taste the meat and adjust as necessary). Add enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Simmer for two hours.

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After two hours, crank up the heat to a high-simmer/low boil. The sauce will reduce over the course of about a half hour, Once the sauce has almost completely reduced, turn the pork to sear each side and coat with the reduction. Once completely reduced, turn down the heat and shred the pork with a fork or some tongs.

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Remove the meat from the pan and saute half an onion in whatever fat is left. Add oil if necessary. Once the onions are cooked, and the meat back to the pan and mix it around. Kill the heat.

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I am not going to tell you what to do with the meat – make a taco, stuff some tamales, make an empanada, throw it on some cuban bread, serve it over rice. Eat it with a fork straight out of the pan. I don’t think you can go wrong with this stuff. It is spicy, citrusy, fatty, meaty goodness. If I had to describe the flavor I would say it is like mojo-flavored, Mexican-style pulled pork.

I whipped up a batch of my Mexican-style yellow rice – saute half an onion, add garlic and sofrito; add two cups of rice with some sazon and adobo, then a can of Rotel tomatoes with green chilis, and some frozen peas and carrots, three cups of water – this is my standby anytime I make Mexican food. Also great stuffed in peppers and covered with cheese.

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We like to make tacos by layering a soft flour taco, a tostado, a bit of the Mexican rice, and the meat, and then topping with avocado/tomatoes/cabbage/salsa/etc.

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There you have it. I can guarantee I will be looking for any excuse I can find to make this again. My only complaint was that I only used a 3lb piece of pernil. I would have liked to have had more leftovers. But I guess that just gives me a reason to make it again…

Beer Battered Swai

My wife is an extremely picky eater when it comes to certain types of food. If it happens to be a type of food that I like to cook, that means I get a lot of practice refining my recipe until I get it right. And then I chisel that recipe in stone and don’t change it for years. Fried fish is one of these foods. Good beer-battered fish is one of her favorite pub/comfort foods, but only when it is done just right. In this case, “just right” means: sliced thin or in bite-sized chunks; enveloped in a crispy, not-the-least-bit soggy crust; and cooked well-done to the point that the flesh of the fish is flaky and free of moisture. This may not be what everyone looks for in fried fish, but these are the rules I follow when refining my recipe; and for what it is worth, I think I have gotten it down to a science at this point.

Fried fish is one of those foods, like buffalo wings, that are simple to prepare and anyone can do it and you can find anywhere from the local Chinese take-out to a fine restaurant. But once you find your favorite, you accept no substitutes. Fish and chips used to be my go-to dish at pubs and dives that I didn’t trust to order anything that could disappoint. Now I can’t order it anywhere; I have found my favorite version and refuse to choke down another basket of soggy, half-breaded haddock fillets till the day I die.

I used to use catfish chunks to make this until I discovered swai. Swai (aka Basa) is a Vietnamese relative of catfish (the Mississippi is not the only river known for catfish). It is light, flaky, neutral in flavor, and dirt cheap. A ten pound bag of frozen fillets can be had from around seven dollars at Wal-Mart and you can score fresh fillets for less than $2/lb. Catfish, tilapia, cod, haddock, pollock, any white fish will work, but I prefer Swai and keep my freezer stocked.

The beer batter recipe I use has not been modified much over the years and I probably pulled it from some corner of the internet or another so if this looks familiar to anyone, my complements and much obliged. The result is dark, crispy, and at that just-right level of spiciness that means that I can taste it, but my wife can tolerate it.

Beer Batter

1 1/4 Cup Flour (or flour/corn starch mixture)
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup beer (lager or pale ale)
2 tsp Crystal hot sauce
red pepper flakes to taste

Combine all of the dry ingredients, then mix in the beer. I have tried many different types of beer and rarely notice any difference but I usually use whatever lager or pale ale I have on hand. The type of beer is not that important, just avoid anything super-hoppy, high-alcohol, or dark. The consistency should be similar to pancake batter. Add more flour/beer until it looks right.

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Cut the fish into chunks or strips. Keep them small enough to crisp up but not so small as to make a mess of your fryer. Smaller pieces cook and taste better, but fewer pieces are easier to cook, so there is a bit of a balancing act.

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Deep-fry at 350’F for about 8-10 minutes. The batter will turn dark quickly due to the paprika and peppers but it will take a while to burn. For reasons stated above I err on the side of overcooking it, but if you like a soggier, less crispy fish pull them at 6-8 minutes.

Forget tartar sauce, instead mix up a spoonful of mayonnaise with a spoonful or two of hot sauce. The fish is already spicy so keep that in mind. But regardless of what type of hot sauce you go with or how spicy you like it, I guarantee you the result blows tartar sauce out of the water.

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That’s all there is too it – simple yet elegant; not much to photograph but I promise it will look awesome on your plate. I have always wanted to try making fish tacos out of these but I can’t talk myself into eating it in any way that adulterates, distracts from, or covers up its basic, primal perfection. I think most would agree.

 

BBQ Deconstructed, Part 2: Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs, Mac n Cheese, Smoked Stuffed Jalapeños.

In Part 1 of this post I gave a modest philosophical defense of cooking “the hard way” as the secret to good BBQ. I stand by this and will add that in my opinion spending all day sweating, chopping, shredding, and marinating is my twisted idea of a good time. In addition to getting you off your ass and making you work for your meal it is creative and challenging and gives you a sense of pride that you can’t get anywhere else. But I will skip the philosophizing for now and get to the food.

Smoked Stuffed Jalapenos a.k.a. Atomic Buffalo Turds.

I came across a recipe on the internet for something called Atomic Buffalo Turds, which are basically jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and “little smokies” sausages, wrapped in bacon and grilled or smoked. I am not a fan of the name or the little smokies but I used this as an inspiration to make my own smoked stuffed jalapeños as an appetizer for our July 4th BBQ this year.

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Ingredients.

20 Jalapeños
1 lb Colombian Chorizo
1 pkg cream cheese
20 slices bacon
About ¼- ½ lb cheddar cheese

I picked up about 20 large jalapeños at the local market, and decided to go with Colombian Chorizo in lieu of the little smokies. I also added some white cheddar left over from making macaroni and cheese (little white chunks in the zip lock baggie left over from hand-grating the cheese). I cut the jalapeños in half and removed the seeds and veins. Jalapeños vary wildly in terms of heat level but these were on the hot side and gave my hands mild chemical burns by the time I was done so I will remember to wear gloves next time.

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Chop up the chorizo (remove the skin if it is not too much of a hassle) and brown it in a saute pan. Once cooked add the cream cheese and cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. You need to let the mix cool down so do this part first and set it aside while you prepare the jalapeños.

Cut 20 slices of bacon in half. Stuff the peppers with a spoonful or so of the chorizo/cheese mixture, wrap with a half slice of bacon and use a toothpick to hold it all together.

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Smoke for about 2 hours or until the bacon is cooked. I threw them in a foil pan and added to the top warming rack of my smoker while the meat was smoking. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of the final product so you will need to use your imagination for that.

Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs.

The star of our BBQ this year was pernil ahumado, a specialty of mine to which I have dedicated a post last year. If you are going to make something like as succulent and elaborate as that you can’t just throw on some burgers to go alongside it. When people see that pernil on the smoker their eyes get wide and their mouths start to water (I myself can’t stop looking at the picture below). You either need to make enough pernil to feed everyone or you need to throw something equally eye-popping alongside it. For me, that calls for Smoked Jerk Turkey Legs.

pernil ahumado

pernil ahumado

I have posted a recipe for Smoked Turkey Legs before. I have also posted a recipe for Jerk Chicken. Each is a standby for me in its own right. But combine the two in an unholy matrimony and you get something sublime and unique and mouthwateringly delicious.

First I start with a brine. This step is not required but highly recommended as it will add flavor and make the meat more moist and tender. The jerk rub is not going to penetrate to the center of a turkey leg no matter how long you let it marinate. If you want to get those jerk flavors to penetrate deep into the meat, you need to incorporate them into your brine. I brined about 20 lbs of turkey legs in a gallon of brine. To make the brine, I boiled the water with ¼ cup kosher salt, 1 tbsp fresh ground allspice, 1 tbsp fresh ground coriander, 1 tbsp thyme, 1 tbsp garlic powder, 1 tsp black pepper, 2 scotch bonnet peppers, and ¼ cup Walkerswood Jerk Seasoning. Allow to cool and then pour into a brining bag with the turkey legs, and leave in the refrigerator or a cooler for 4-6 hours.

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Once brining is complete, drain the bag and remove the turkey legs. Rinse and pat dry if you want – this is always recommended but I never do it. This is a short soak in a relatively low-salt brine so it is really not going to make the meat that salty. Next you are going to rub the meat with the same dry rub/wet rub combination I described in my post on Jerk Chicken. Be generous with the rubs, these are thicker and more savory than chicken pieces.

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Allow to marinate overnight, then smoke at 250-275’F for 4-6 hours. Eat right off the bones like a caveman or chop the meat into a pan before serving.

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Macaroni and Cheese.

When I barbecue I don’t skimp on side dishes, and since most of the time I am barbecueing with a Latin or Caribbean twist that usually includes rice, beans, plantains, etc which I think most folks appreciate as a nice change of pace from the typical potato salad/cole slaw cookout fare. But at this point, regardless of what meat I cook or what other side dishes I whip up, it is becoming mandatory to include what has become my specialty – macaroni and cheese. It is the type of thing that people rave about, drool over, and from time to time stab one another with plastic knives over when the pan runs low. There are thousands of recipes online and everyone claims they know the secret so I will spare you all that and just give you my version, which at this point I am comfortable with saying I have perfected.

I will say I think there are three keys to making this really good. First, Velveeta is disgusting. But you need something to make this creamy, if you only use cheddar cheese it will be hard and look like a lasagna or something. Use cheddar cheese soup instead of Velveeta. It will make it creamy and you will not taste it. Second, gate your own cheese. I read that the packages of shredded cheese have some additives to keep them from sticking together that also makes them not melt as well. All I know is that once I started grating my own cheese (not easy, using the crappy mandolin I use) it really put it over the top. Buy a block of good cheddar cheese and grate it yourself. You can do it the day before to save time. Finally, add some pepper flakes or chipotle powder. Not enough to make it notably spicy (cheese really takes the edge off of the peppers anyway), but enough to give it some character. I have used red pepper flakes, homegrown ancho powder, and store-bought chipotle powder with good results each time. A couple tablespoons will usually do.

Ingredients.

1 lb elbow macaroni
2 lbs block cheddar cheese (Cabot White Cheddar works great), grated
2 cans Cheddar Cheese Soup
4-8 tbsp butter
1 can of milk (eh…pour the milk into the can, don’t buy milk in a can)
1 egg
Salt
Chipotle Powder or Red Pepper Flakes

Cook the macaroni per the directions on the box (I prefer to slightly undercook it). Drain and rinse the macaroni and return to the pan. Add the rest of the ingredients (save a cup or two of cheese) and stir until you have a creamy, gooey mess. Pour into a pan, top with the remaining cheese and a bit of paprika for looks, then bake at 350’F for 30 minutes.

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Make sure you make enough for everyone. Trust me if you don’t it will get ugly.

BBQ Deconstructed, Part I: Mojo Ribs and Jerk Chicken.

A proper BBQ involves hours of slow cooking hunks of meat over a charcoal fire, smoking and basting, brining and marinating. In Florida, in the summer, it also means sweating and suffering in front of a 250° grill in the 95° sunshine. Sometimes I will half-ass it and just throw something on the grill with little thought or effort. But more often I live by the motto that anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way. If you are going to spend 8 hours smoking a pork shoulder, why not spend four hours squeezing limes, mashing garlic in a pestle and mortar, and hand-grinding coriander seeds?  And as it has been a productive year thus far I thought I would document BBQ the hard way, with enough pictures to convince you it is worthwhile.

Mojo Ribs.

I don’t cook ribs too often so this was a bit of an experiment. I do make and cook with mojo quite often so I focused on that part of the process and let the ribs take care of themselves for the most part. Mojo is great on just about any kind of meat (not to mention yuca or potatoes) but is especially sublime on pork. So I figured I couldn’t go wrong marinating some pork spareribs in mojo and smoking them on the grill.

Mojo is a traditional Cuban sauce/marinade which is made from sour orange juice and garlic, and whatever other else you want to add to it. Cumin, olive oil, red pepper, vinegar, salt, pepper, and oregano seem to be popular choices. But as long as you have the sour orange and garlic you can call it mojo. In fact, since sour oranges are a bit tricky to find outside of Miami or Cuba most mojos are made from orange juice and lime or grapefruit juice. I went with what I could find at the farmers’ market, which turned out to be Valencia oranges and limes. Yes, they sell orange juice and lime juice and minced garlic at the supermarket. And yes you can make mojo by adding minced garlic to bottled orange juice and bottled lime juice. But that wouldn’t make much of a blog post. So if you feel like doing it the hard way, get yourself some oranges and limes and heads of garlic and clear your schedule.

You will need about 2 cups of orange juice to one cup of lime juice. This comes out to about 4 oranges and 16 limes. Get yourself a citrus juicing apparatus or cut the oranges and limes into quarters and start squeezing.

If you have an electric version, unplug it. Sweat is the secret ingredient.

If you have an electric version, unplug it. Sweat is the secret ingredient.

You can use one of these juicers on the limes as well, but it will wear you out more than just cutting them an squeezing them. You aren’t worried about pulp so use whatever method works best to liberate the juice from the fruit.

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Once you have your juice, pour it into a pan and add your seasonings. I went with salt, cumin, black pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes. Do not add olive oil since the pork will have plenty of fat. Wait until after the sauce is cooled to add vinegar so that it doesn’t boil off. Simmer gently for like a half hour until it has reduced by about one half.

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While the juice is simmering, mince or mash you garlic. Use as much garlic as you like. Pork can take a lot of garlic. If you are making a marinade for chicken or a sauce for yuca you would want to go easy (but not too easy) on the garlic. I used this much.

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That is about eight heads of garlic and it was a bit much. The meat tasted great but the smell was a little overwhelming for the uninitiated. Still came out great but I would dial it back next time. Again you can mince it if you like chopping garlic, but mashing it is a better way to free up all those fragrant essential oils or whatever. In my house, mashing means you grab the pilon and get to work:

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Yes, it is a lot more work than a blender or food processor. But also much more intimate. I also mashed some shallots since I happened to have some handy. Once the juice is done simmering, but still hot, add the garlic and 1/2 cup red wine vinegar (optional). Now you have mojo.

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I prefer to rub meat down with a dry seasoning prior to adding a wet marinade like mojo, so that the meat has a little time to absorb the salt and seasoning before soaking in the marinade. For ribs you only need a very basic rub. Combine a packet or two of sazon with some adobo and oregano, then sprinkle liberally on the ribs and give them a good rub down. Then throw them in a zip lock bag and throw them in the refrigerator until the mojo is ready.

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Once the mojo is ready, let it cool down and then add it to the bags with the ribs. Massage it in good and then let it marinate for at least a few hours. I usually marinate it overnight since that means you can do all the prep work the day before and only have to worry about the cooking the next day.

Heat your smoker to 250° and smoke for 4-5 hours or until the ribs are ready to fall off the bone, Chop them up and serve.

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Jerk Chicken.

You can’t go wrong with some properly smoked pork ribs, and you won’t get too many complaints if that is the only meat you serve. But if you are going to have a BBQ it is sort of bad form to not have some kind of chicken on offer. My stand by is Jerk Chicken. Not necessarily “the hard way” since there is a bottled sauce involved but this jerk chicken will knock your socks off regardless.

First, buy a whole chicken and cut it up into pieces. Cut each breast in half and separate the wings from the thighs. Smaller pieces are better. You can use just thighs and breasts or leg quarters if you want, But whatever you use, they better have bones and skin.

Some jerk recipes use a wet rub, others use a dry rub. Both are authentic and have their benefits. I prefer to apply a dry rub to the chicken, let it sit for 30-45 minutes, then cover with a wet rub and marinate overnight. You can buy a “Jerk Rub” from the supermarket, but I swear by my own homemade rub. It is simple and easy to make (of course you should buy whole allspice berries and crack them in your pilon, and make your own scotch bonnet pepper powder, but for now we will assume you just buy powdered spices).

Jerk Rub (makes enough for several batches of jerk chicken)

4 tbsp allspice
1 tbsp ground thyme
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1-2 crushed scotch bonnets
(or 1 tbsp red pepper flakes)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves

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Apply the rub liberally to the chicken. Cover every square inch, just don’t cake it on there and you can’t really overseason it. Rub it in good and allow to sit for 30-45 minutes. The salt in the rub will pull moisture from the chicken, which will be absorbed by the sugar and cinnamon in the rub and create a nice paste that will re-absorb into the chicken. Since I haven’t mastered any wet rub recipes, I use a store bought jerk marinade. Pour on some Walkerswood Jerk Marinade on the chicken and rub it all over. You can’t overdo this part either, but the more you use, the spicier it will be. Use just enough to coat each piece. About a third of a bottle is plenty.  Store in the fridge overnight to marinate.

Jerk Chicken

Grill the chicken directly over a medium-low fire (preferably charcoal), turning frequently and keeping covered to ensure the meat cooks through. The outside of the chicken should burn somewhat and grease fires should be a constant nuisance. That is ok. It tastes better with some char to it. If it burns too much, however, you will lose a lot of the flavor. There is a bit of an art to it, but you will get the hang of it after a few tries.

If you need some side dishes to complement your ribs and chicken, well first of all ask you guests to bring some potato salad, since you spent two days in the kitchen working on the meat. But if you have enough energy left to hand-grate a block of cheese, then my macaroni and cheese recipe (with which I have recently achieved perfection) goes great with BBQ. I will wait to share the recipe for that one until part 2. But here is a mouth-watering preview. Which does not even begin to do it justice.

Mac n Cheese

Relocated and Somewhat Constrained

This year I got a sudden urge to try my hand at gardening – something I have no experience in nor any innate talent for. But seeing as how I prefer to do everything the hard way and dive in head first whenever possible, I ordered a bunch of seeds, scoured the internet for information and grabbed a shovel. Growing from seeds was actually easier than it sounded, even with the peppers and tomatoes that had to be started indoors in seedling trays and moved back and forth to a windowsill everyday. Cucumbers, lettuce, and green beans, which could be sowed directly in the ground, were a piece of cake. The hardest parts, as far as my experience went, were (1) digging/constructing the gardens; (2) watering everything sufficiently to deal with the brutal Florida summer; and (3) dealing with weeds and pests.

The house I was living in had a large backyard with plenty of room but a very uneven lay and sandy soil. I grabbed a hoe and a shovel and dug out a nice horseshoe-shaped garden lined with 1x4s and filled in with compost and Miracle Grow garden soil. Then of course we dressed it up with some mulch and paving stones and an old fountain. This is back-breaking work made worse by the Florida sun, which is quite brutal even in March.

Now at this point I did some math and realized that this was going to be woefully inadequate for the amount of seedlings I had grown. Those green shoots on the two legs are cucumbers, in the back are the green beans and lettuce. In my seed trays I had 52 pepper and tomato plants. If I really packed them in I could fit about 16 in the plot above. So I dug another rectangular one. Then a couple small square plots. Then I started rounding up buckets and planters. In the end I had 36 pepper and tomato plants in the ground and 16 in buckets of some sort. Also 18 cucumber vines, 6 green bean vines, and a handful of lettuce plants.

To be honest I had initially only intended to grow peppers, but I am a big fan of fresh vegetables so it was probably a foregone conclusion that once I started gardening I would diversify things a bit. Poor planning in terms of how much space all this would take up is what led to the escalation from a modest pepper garden to a small plantation. What was nice about the variety of plants was that they all matured and produced at different times. The cucumbers took off first. By May I was drowning in cucumbers and making pickles three days a week. At one point I was eating cucumber salad for lunch everyday for two weeks. Green beans and lettuce were next. Tomatoes came in early summer. Peppers were producing like crazy from early summer through October or so. Once things cooled down and dried up the peppers slowed down and the sweeter varieties started to die off, but the hotter varieties – especially the ghost peppers – are still going strong.

Watering was tough. The summer was really hot and until July or so it was not really raining much. The dripper hoses I installed in the gardens didn’t really work. Which meant it was a daily chore to head out there with the hose and give everything a good soaking. Once the rain came i could count on a daily downpour so things got easier. But weeds grew like crazy and keeping them under control was a nightmare. Then there were the bugs. A giant caterpillar made mince meat of one of my cubanelle plants. Small beetles started boring into my tomatoes and ruining them (I had to start picking them green and letting them ripen inside). Then at the end of the season some other small beetles started swarming my poblano plants and – not eating them – just defecating all over them or something and making them foul. But all in all I think it was an extremely successful first year and I will probably try my hand at it again.

But not next year, as it turns out. Due to, say, circumstances beyond our control we had to move out of that house in November (which was unexpected but not necessarily unwelcome) and relocated to a townhouse with only a sorry excuse for a backyard. So my gardening days ended as abruptly as they began.  What remains are just a few buckets containing my favorite pepper plants, which I am hoping will make it through the winter and survive despite the lack of direct sunlight in their new home. On the upper left is a lone tomato plant which I sowed in August and transplanted to a bucket when we moved – it is actually producing tomatoes as we speak:

There is also less room for brewing, grilling and using my smoker, but I will have to make do for now. In the meantime all this talk about cucumbers has me in the mood for pickles. Here is my favorite recipe, a sweet-hot chipotle flavored concoction I threw together and absolutely loved.

Chipotle Pickles

1 cup white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup water
Approx:
2 tbsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup+ chipotle powder (smoke and dry jalapenos then grind to a powder….or you can look for see if you can find it at a store or something)
1/4 cup red pepper flakes
1-2 tbsp cayenne powder
1 scotch bonnet powder

Add all ingredients to a jar stuffed with quartered cucumbers and shake to mix. Refrigerate at least 5 days or until it reaches the desired heat and smokiness (both will increase with age),

El Alma de la Comida puertoriqueña: Pernil Asado

If you stop a random Puerto Rican on the street and ask them what is the one food that defines their cultural identity, the one food that evokes nostalgic memories of family and community and holidays, you will get the same answer every time: Pernil Asado. In case you take me up on that challenge I should warn the English speakers out there that the correct pronunciation is not “PER-nil a-SAD-o” – so save yourself the smirks and pronounce it more like “pen-NY a-SOU”. Pernil Asado is a roast pork shoulder slow cooked and dredged with a garlic-vinegar marinade – literally “Pernil” means pork shoulder and “Asado” means roasted – that is served at just about every Christmas and at any other celebration that can be used as an excuse to cook and consume large amounts of pork. If you go to a restaurant or bodega you can usually find pernil asado on the menu – and if you’re lucky it might even be not half bad – but you will never experience the sublime excellence of this dish until you have had a proper homemade version. And if you are not fortunate enough to get invited to any fiestas puertoriqueñas in the near future….you will just have to learn to make it yourself.

I am not Puerto Rican, so if you insist on getting an authentic family recipe from a true blooded boricua then you will have to move along. My wife is Puerto Rican and we have been putting on a party for friends and family around Christmastime every year for the last five years or so as an excuse to make pernil, coquito, pastelitos and all the other traditional holiday delicacies. And since i am the cook in the family that meant that I had to learn how make these things – and make them well enough to please a crowd of Puerto Ricans at Christmas. No easy task. But the consensus is that my pernil is somewhere between amazing and the best they’ve ever had, for what its worth.

Whenever I try to teach myself how to cook any traditional dish I follow the same general approach. First, eat some. Second, get on the internet and read a bunch of recipes. Third, I try to figure out what is the soul or essence of the dish – what it is that makes it what it is – and then I throw together a recipe. From there adjustments are just trial and error each time I repeat it till I have it down. I don’t look for one great recipe or follow any specific recipe or defer to some great expert – and in my experience, with any great traditional recipe, every family will have their own anyway. Best to unravel the secrets behind it and make it your own.

So what is the essence of pernil asado? First of all, the most important thing, is the cut of meat itself. You must use a piece of meat cut from the shoulder – a picnic shoulder or shoulder blade roast or boston butt all work fine. You can use fresh ham as well – which comes from the leg – but then technically you are making lechon asado. Whatever cut you use must have a bone in the center and a nice slab of fat on one side. The thicker the better. The thicker the cut, the longer you can cook it, and the crispier the outside will get. Just get the biggest, fattest cut you can find and invite enough people over to help you eat it all.

After the cut of pork, the next most important thing about pernil asado is the seasoning. The seasoning – which will serve as a marinade as well – must be loaded with garlic and contain an acidic ingredient like vinegar, lime, or sour orange. After that it is up to you – adobo and oregano, the cornerstones of pretty much Puerto Rican dish are of course expected, and sazon is always welcome. As far as I am concerned, sofrito is the key. Sofrito will add a savory touch that just perfectly complements the flavor of the roast pork, and it helps coat the whole thing in a crispy crust that you don’t necessarily get otherwise. At any rate, the key is to use a MASSIVE amount of these seasonings and dredge the pork in it, and let it marinate for at least 24 hours.

Finally, low and slow cooking is essential. Pork shoulder is loaded with fat and connective tissue that needs to break down to become tender. This is going to be an all-day (or overnight) project. The plus side is that it will make your house smell unbelievable. You won’t have to worry about anyone lacking for appetite when it is ready.

The ingredients are approximate – I never measure – I just make as much as I think I need and try to get the consistency right. Use enough garlic to kill a man.

Pernil Asado: Recipe
1 Pork Shoulder (pernil)
Approx 1 1/2- 2 cups Goya Sofrito
Approx 1/2-1 cup red wine vinegar
Approx 1 cup+ minced garlic
Approx 1/4-1/2 cup Adobo
Approx 1/4 cup oregano (optional – you probably won’t taste it either way)

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Consistency should be thick enough to rub on the pork so it sticks – too liquidy and it will all drain out during the cooking process.

Next, rinse and dry your pork shoulder. Lay it fat-side-up on a counter or cutting board. This is a shoulder blade roast.

Take a sharp knife and prepare the pork to accept the marinade. That means cutting the fat in a crosshatch pattern, and then stabbing or cutting the pork all over to create deep channels for the marinade to seep into. Cutting up the fat will help it to crisp up into chicharrones that everyone can fight over while you attempt to carve the meat.

Now slather the pork with the marinade. Push it into the cuts and holes you created and make sure you get it in there as deep as possible. Use all of the marinade. If it seems like too much, it is not. I have yet to overseason a pernil – and I tend to go heavy on the seasoning – and thus I am beginning to suspect it is impossible.

Now that your pork is covered in the seasoning, cram it into a large freezer bag or put it in a container of some sort and place in the fridge. Leave it alone for 24-48 hours. If you like you can flip it over every 12 hours or so to ensure even distribution of the seasoning.

After 24-48 hours the pork will have changed in color dramatically. The vinegar cures the meat, turning it a pale, grayish color. The deep red color of the marinade (from the sofrito) disappears as well – but I do not have an explanation for that. Don’t be put off by the change.

Let the pork rest on the counter for an hour or so to warm up to room temperature. If you go straight from the fridge to the oven the outside will heat up faster than the inside and it will not cook evenly. Place in a roasting pan in an oven preheated to 400’F or place on a grill preheated to 275′-325’F (indirect heat obviously).

If you are cooking in the oven, cook at 400’F for about 45 minutes to help crisp up the outside, then turn the temp down to 325’F. Cook at 325’F for about 8 hours. You can cook it lower and slower if you like, and if you have time to spare.

The last couple of times I made pernil I smoked it. Technically that makes it pernil ahumado rather than pernil asado – but if you don’t tell anyone you smoked it they will probably not be able to put their finger on what the difference is….only that it is unlike any pernil they’ve ever had. As long as you use a mild flavored wood and don’t overdo the smoke, the smoke will complement rather than dominate the flavors of the seasoning and it will taste like pernil rather than barbecue. But the results are just mouth watering. My favorite response, from a coworker with whom I shared some leftovers, was along the lines of “My mouth…is still just tingling…from the flavor…”

Traditionally you do not monitor the temperature of pernil to determine when it is finished cooking. You pull it when the fat has crisped to just shy of burning. It is very hard to overcook a pork shoulder, but if you cook it to around 190’F it will turn to pulled pork, and it tastes much better cut into chunks that shredded to try to stop it before that point. As a rule it will rise to 160’F and hold there for several hours. Once it begins to rise past 160’F the meat will have tenderized and you can pull it at any point after that. In the oven or in the smoker you are looking at around 8 hours regardless, so plan your day accordingly.

Is your mouth watering yet? This pernil was smoked – if you cook it in the oven it will look a bit different – darker and more uniform on the outside and without red tint in the meat. Once finished let it rest a few minutes before carving. If you are going to let it rest longer, wrap it in foil and a towel and stuff it in a cooler. It will stay warm for an hour or more but the chicharrones will soften a bit (solution? Eat the chicharrones first). Carve the meat into chunks and serve with arroz con gandules. Seriously, if you serve it with any other type of rice you will have committed an egregious faux pas. And I just so happen to have the perfect recipe for arroz con gandules.