Gettin’ Cheeky with Beef – And in a Slow Cooker, No Less

Guance di Manzo Brasato

Let me say from the onset that this is not a Bartolini family recipe. In fact, I can say with some certainty — feel free to back me up, Zia — that beef cheeks never graced a Bartolini dinner table. This all changed the last weekend of last October. That was the weekend the vendor with certified organic meats returned to the farmers market.

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Beef Cheeks 1*     *     *

You may recall that I had been waiting for him to return because he sold goat and, even though I’d found some at a nearby market, I prefer to buy organic when its available. As it is, I buy chickens from him all Summer long. It had been weeks since he last set up his stall and I was, frankly, surprised to see him. The following weekend was to be the market’s last for the year and I thought him gone until 2014.

His stall, for lack of a better word, is a set of folding tables arranged in a “U” shape. On them he’s places about 6 ice chests in which he keeps the week’s frozen inventory. That week there wasn’t any goat meat but I was surprised to find a package labeled “beef cheeks.” I bought it, along with a chicken, and placed both in the freezer when I returned home.

Well, as this Winter unfolded, I exhausted my repertoire of comfort foods. Last week’s tuna noodle casserole was proof that I’d run out of options. It was about that time that I remembered that there were beef cheeks in the freezer, though they had somehow managed to work their way to a back corner. Another Sunday braise was suddenly in the offing.

Although still below freezing, that Sunday turned out to be the warmest day of the month to date. Since there was no real need to heat the kitchen, I switched gears a bit and opted for using the slow cooker rather than the Dutch oven. Best of all, with a fridge well-stocked with braising vegetables, there would be no last-minute trip to the grocery that morning — until I realized that I’d need side dishes. Curses!

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This braise is like most, with one minor exception. I started by making a form of battuto, an Italian soffrito. In our part of Italy, a battuto consists of finely diced onion, parsley, garlic, and salt pork. Battuto is the first thing into the pan, after the olive oil is heated, and will flavor the dish as its aroma fills your kitchen. Here, I made my battuto with guanciale, parsley, and garlic. (Yes, this recipe mixes the cheeks of both pork and beef. Shocking!) The onions were added with the other braising vegetables, once the battuto was cooked. The rest of the recipe is easy enough to follow and you should have no problems.

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Beef Cheeks Braising*     *     *

Braised Beef Cheeks Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 beef cheeks, approximately 1.2 lbs (540 g)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 oz guanciale, chopped – pancetta or bacon may be substituted
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 c parsley, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, leaves included, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3/4 c red wine
  • 3/4 c Madeira
  • 1.5 c beef stock
  • salt and pepper
  • lemon zest

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Battuto*     *     *

Directions

  1. Combine chopped guanciale, parsley, and garlic on your cutting board and chop them together until uniform. This is the battuto.
  2. Warm oil in a sauté pan over med-high heat. Add the battuto and sauté until the guanciale’s fat is rendered, about 5 – 7 minutes. Do not allow to burn.
  3. Add onion, carrots, and celery to the pan and sauté until the onion is translucent.
  4. Add the rosemary and thyme to the pan. Continue sautéing until both begin to wilt.
  5. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pan’s contents and place all into the slow cooker. Do not drain the oil.
  6. Season beef cheeks with salt and pepper before placing into the hot pan. Turn when brown, about 5 minutes. Remove when both sides have been browned. Place into the slow cooker atop the other ingredients.
  7. Add the tomato paste to the pan and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  8. Use wine to deglaze the pan.
  9. Add the Madeira and beef stock and bring to a boil to burn off the alcohol.
  10. Add the liquid to the slow cooker. (See Notes)
  11. Cook on high for one hour before reducing to low for another 6 hours. Turn over the meat occasionally, about once every 90 minutes, or so. (See Notes)
  12. Remove meat and cover while the liquids are strained and the sauce prepared. (See Notes)
  13. Just before serving, garnish with a bit of lemon zest.

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Beef Cheeks 2*     *     *

Sides

As pictured, there were 2 sides served, neither of which is complicated nor difficult to prepare.

  • Mashed Potatoes and Parsnips with Roasted Garlic:Parsnip-Potato Mash
      Prepare mashed potatoes as you would normally, substituting 1/3 of the potatoes with peeled, chopped parsnips. Once boiled and drained, mash before adding warmed heavy cream into which butter and roasted garlic cloves have been added. Serve.
  • Sautéed Broccoli Rab (Rapini) with Pancetta and Garlic:Rapini with Pancetta
      Sauté chopped pancetta in a bit of olive oil to render its fat and until it’s not quite fully cooked. Add garlic and, after about a minute, add the broccoli rab, season with salt & pepper, and sauté until cooked to your satisfaction. Serve.

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Notes

The braising liquid should not be so deep that the meat is totally submerged like you would do for a stew or soup. When using a slow cooker. the liquid should come about half-way up the side of the beef cheeks. When using a Dutch oven, I use enough liquid so that it comes up 2/3 of the side of the protein to allow for evaporation. Use more or less liquid to arrive at the recommended level. Just maintain the same ratio of the braising liquid’s ingredients: 2 parts beef stock to 1 part each of Madeira and red wine.

A slow cooker works by applying a low, even temperature over a long period of time. Do not uncover the cooker unless necessary or you’ll run the risk of extending the cooking time.

Parsnips are a bit more firm than potatoes. When preparing them, chop the parsnips in pieces that are slightly smaller than the potatoes to insure that all will finish cooking at the same time.

Once you’ve strained the liquids and removed the fat, you can:

  • serve the sauce as-is;
  • reduce it and serve; or,
  • use a thickening agent — flour, corn starch, or arrowroot — to make gravy.

No matter how you finish the sauce, be sure to taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

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When blogs collide

On the very day that I was cooking my beef cheeks, Phil, of “Food, Frankly“, posted his recipes for preparing an ox cheeks dinner. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to check out the delicious meal that he prepared.

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And finally

In the Comments for last week’s post, my Cousin mentioned that there’s a recall of beef that was processed by a California company and sold across the US. Though the beef I purchased was locally grown and processed, that is hardly the case everywhere. You can read about the recall and the reasons behind it in this USDA News Release, dated February 18th, 2014.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

Tricolor Risotto 4It won’t be long now before we are once again celebrating St. Joseph’s Feast Day. Today’s look back will show you how to prepare a risotto of 3 colors, each of which, not so coincidentally, corresponds to one of the colors of the Italian flag. You needn’t be Italian to make this expression of Italian pride and you can learn how to do it by clicking HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Chocolate Torte Preview 2 Gluten-Free Chocolate Torte

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Engineering the Standing Rib Roast

In the past, I’ve mentioned how my family traditionally cooked porchetta, a fantastic pork roast, on New Year’s Day. To be sure, that is a remarkable main course for a New Year’s Day dinner — but it’s certainly not the only one. A number of years ago, I started serving standing rib roast for my dinner on New Year’s Day. At first, not knowing any better, I prepared it like I would any beef roast and, though the results were good, I was expecting fantastic. In the years to follow, I tried different roasting temperatures and even starting on a high temperature before shutting off my oven and letting the roast sit, undisturbed in the oven for 4 hours. Yes, that roast was cooked well but all the dinner’s side dishes had to be cooked on the stove top because the oven door was not to be opened under pain of poorly roasted meat. After I cooked a second standing rib following that method, I decided I wanted to try something else. Luckily, I stumbled upon a different approach. Analytical.

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Engineers can cook. Who knew?

Engineers can cook. Who knew?

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On another sleepless night — it’s 4:15 AM as I write this, by the way — I went surfing for a way to cook the perfect standing rib roast. I soon came upon a website, Cooking For Engineers, where an analytical approach is used for cooking — or so the site’s header claims. Well, I may not be aware of the analysis, if any, that lead them to this recipe but I do know a perfectly cooked roast when I see one. I have followed their instruction now 4 times and each roast has been roasted evenly throughout. There are no well-done slices at either end or gray area on the edges of each slice, with a medium-rare center.  As you can see in the photos, it is medium-rare throughout. And the best part of it all is that this is one easy roast to prepare. Incredibly so.

Day 1: Tsk. So young

Day 1: Tsk. So young.

One of the keys to this dish lies in the aging of the meat. As much as one week before the dinner, you’ll want to select your roast. Once you get it home, unwrap the roast and place it on a rack, bone-side down, over a baking sheet in your refrigerator, where it will age for at least a day and no more than 7. Don’t be surprised if the aging causes changes in the roast’s appearance. It’s normal for it to darken and to lose from 10 to 15% of its weight, depending upon how long it is aged. According to our Engineer friends, aging will lend a “buttery texture” to the already richly flavored meat. Believe me. You do not want to skip this step.

Day 5: Aged & ready to go.

Day 5: Aged and better than ever.

Once you’ve aged the meat, you’ll need to prepare it for roasting. Remove the roast from the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter top for a couple of hours. For an evenly cooked roast, it must be at room temperature throughout. You may notice some unusually dark spots on the roast. These should be trimmed away. Use butcher’s twine to tie the roast lengthwise, in-between each pair of bones. This will help to ensure that the roast’s shape is maintained during the cooking process. Once the roast has been brought to room temperature, place a roasting pan on to the stove top and begin heating it. When hot, add a little olive oil to the pan. Place the roast into the now hot oil and sear it on all sides, spending about 3 minutes on each side to do so. Pre-heat your oven to 200˚ F (93˚ C). That’s right: 200˚ F (93˚ C).

Remove the seared roast from the hot pan and place a wire rack into the roasting pan. Heavily season the roast with salt & pepper on all sides. Place the roast on to the rack, insert a meat thermometer into its center, away from any bone, and place the roast & roasting pan on to the lowest rack in the oven. Set the thermometer for 125˚F (52˚C) for rare; 130˚F (55˚C) for medium rare; 145˚F (63˚C) for medium. Sorry but you’re on your own if you want to cook a fine piece of beef like this beyond medium.

For roasts under 5 pounds, it should take about 45 minutes per pound to roast. For roasts greater than 5 pounds, it will take between 4 and 5 hours to cook properly. Once your target temperature has been reached, remove the roast from the oven, place it on a cutting board, tent it with aluminum foil, and let rest for 20 minutes. In the meantime, you can deglaze the roasting pan and use the drippings to create a sauce or add flour to make a roux before adding beef stock to make a gravy. Once rested, use your carving knife to first trim the entire roast off of the rib bones. If you prefer, you can also trim off the fatty end of the roast. Once trimmed, slice the roast in however many slices as are needed to serve everyone. Serve with a little horseradish sauce on the side. (Recipe to follow.)

Now, I ask you. Could it be any easier to cook standing rib than to age, season, sear, and roast at a low temperature? Once again, look at the photos. Each time I’ve listened to the Engineers, I served a roast that was evenly — dare I say perfectly? — cooked throughout.

Oh, one more thing. Leftovers. If you’re blessed with an extra slice, it will make a delicious sandwich the next day. Just sauté it in a little butter until heated through and serve on a favorite bun with a bit of horseradish or horseradish sauce.

To make horseradish sauce: combine equal amounts of plain yogurt (Greek pref.) and sour cream. Add horseradish to taste, some brown whole grain or Dijon mustard, a dash or two of Worcestershire Sauce, and salt & pepper to taste. Mix well and set aside. Serve at room temperature.

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Notes

The original recipe specifically mentions to leave the roast uncovered as it ages. I’ve never aged it less than 3 days and certainly not more than 7, as the Engineer states. I’ll replace the fridge’s box of baking soda a day or two before I start the aging process and have never noticed any scent in my fridge. Of course, that just as well might have been the case had I not replaced the box. I guess I’ll never know.

Roasting a piece of meat at a low temperature means that its surface may not color as it would if roasted at a higher temperature. This is why the meat is seared before going into the oven. Just be careful to only sear the meat for 3 minutes per side. Searing it for longer periods will begin to cook the meat on the roast’s inside. Later, when the roast is carved, the end pieces will be cooked more than the rest of the roast, defeating the purpose for roasting the meat this way.

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You can see the original recipe on the Cooking For Engineers website by clicking HERE.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

More gravy, please.

More gravy, please.

Since we’re starting the year off with a beef rib recipe, I’ll use another to end this post. With Winter here and snow having reached as far south as Texas, there are few better ways to heat up the kitchen than with a delicious braise in the oven. These beef short ribs will not only warm your kitchen, their aroma will fill your home like only good comfort food can. Be sure to serve them with mashed potatoes or polenta because you’ll want to take full advantage of that gravy. Click HERE to view the recipe.

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Mom’s City Chicken and Grandpa’s Water Works

Funny how this Summer has worked out. At its start, I’d planned to continue making cheese with you, sharing some seasonal recipes, posting more ice cream flavors, and sharing photos of “my girls” and their companions in the garden. Suddenly, Labor Day is here and I’ve run out of time. We’ve still not made Italian mozzarella, I’ve a couple of tomato recipes to share, and there’s still a custard-based peach ice cream to make. Oh! Mustn’t forget the cobbler. Fall will just start late this year. To further complicate my schedule, today’s post was reserved for a special pasta celebrating the US Open Tennis Championship. That was before I saw a package of veal at the market. That changed everything.

Last year, Linda posted a recipe for City Chicken on her wonderful blog, Savoring Every Bite.  At the time, I commented that I’d not thought about City Chicken in years. Mom prepared a version but it’s been some 35 years since I last tasted her City Chicken. Had Linda not shared her recipe, who knows when I would have remembered Mom’s? Anyway, after Linda’s reminder, I decided to put City Chicken on the schedule — last Summer! Well, as you know, it never made it but I had every intention of sharing Mom’s recipe this Summer — and then it again got lost. Last week, however, I saw veal cubes at the market and immediately thought of City Chicken. Since it would make a great dish for the coming holiday weekend, Mom’s City Chicken was suddenly on the schedule. Its addition pushed my special tennis pasta back a week and, well, Fall’s arrival, at least on this blog, has been delayed yet another week. By the way, don’t be surprised if Thanksgiving and Christmas are celebrated in one post this year. Hopefully, I’ll then be able to start the New Year sometime in January.

((cue the harp))

Throughout my childhood, Mom served us City Chicken almost exclusively on Wednesday or Sunday, when Dad was home to work the grill. Although I’ve already mentioned The Barbecue, I’ve not talked much of the rest of our yard. You see, the two-flat was built on a vast expanse of land, in the very center of which was the beautiful, privately owned, Lake Bartolini (pictured below, click to enlarge). While we kids frolicked, Dad was likely at The Barbecue, grilling that night’s meal, City Chicken being a family favorite. In the years following the barbecue’s construction in 1959, Grandpa would build a garage with an enclosed patio, attach a grape arbor, and plant his tomatoes on the lawn just beyond The Lake, after the first of what would become yearly land-grabs. (His tomatoes needed more land, always more land.) When The Lake was lost, the much larger and deeper Bartolini Sea, was erected and filled. As we would all come to learn, ripening beefsteak tomatoes can somehow attract errant pool toys, especially whenever Grandpa strolled through the yard. When the Sea gave way to what must have been near tectonic forces, it was replaced by the even larger and more formidable Bartolini Ocean, the last of the series.

OK, that is the official account of the Crystal Blue Waters of the Bartolini, the version you’ll see on the historical markers that dot the area. Here, for the first time anywhere, is the real story.

Grandpa wanted a garden, desperately, and even though Lake Bartolini stood in his way, he would never do anything to disappoint his adoring Grandchildren. No, not Grandpa. His was a problem that would have befuddled Solomon. You can well imagine, therefore, Grandpa’s relief the morning we kids awoke to find Lake Bartolini had been completely drained. Upon close examination, we saw that one side of  The Lake was inexplicably peppered with holes, while the most attentive among us claimed to have overheard our Parents whispering something about buckshot. Grandpa’s subsequent claim that one of us kids was to blame fell on deaf ears. Our Parents, calmly and coolly, bought and built the Bartolini Sea. With walls made of corrugated steel, the Sea glistened just to the West of the where the original Lake once stood. Grandpa got his garden and we kids had a new, buckshot-proof, Sea in which to swim. All went well until that thing about tomatoes attracting pool toys was discovered, much to Grandpa’s great displeasure.

Not but a couple of years after it’s installation, again we awoke to find that our gorgeous swimming hole, the Bartolini Sea, was but a mere puddle. On one side of the Sea, in the corrugated steel, was a gash of not quite a foot long. Bent inward, the steel pierced the Sea’s lining and flooded the yard. Depending upon which Parent asked, Grandpa said that my Youngest Cousin or I did it with the lawn mower. In our defense, I will merely point out that an old push mower was used to maintain the lawns. Even if we teamed up, together pushing that relic and with a 100 foot running start, never could we two young boys get up enough steam to create so much as a dent, let alone pierce, that steel siding. Our wise Parents, though they never determined “the how”, quickly surmised “the who” and soon thereafter we were erecting the bigger, better, and even sturdier Bartolini Ocean. It remained in our yard until it died of natural causes, some years later. Grandpa, too, remained in his garden, ensuring both he and his tomatoes never went thirsty, for years to come.  Though this marks the end of Grandpa’s Water Works, this is hardly the end of his story. Frankly, I’m just getting started.

Now, back to the Present. Mom’s City Chicken couldn’t be any simpler to prepare. Equally sized cubes of veal, beef, and pork are marinated, skewered, wrapped with a rasher of bacon, and grilled. It really is that easy. I don’t give any amounts in the recipe to follow because so much will depend upon how many skewers are to be prepared. You can add, or subtract, spices to the marinade. Just be sure to make enough so that some can be reserved and later brushed on the skewers as they come off the grill. (Something I forgot to do for the photos.) Although the FDA no longer requires pork to be cooked well-done, many still prefer it cooked more than beef or veal. To accomplish this, I always place 3 pieces of meat on each skewer, pork always being the last/top one. As you’ll see in the recipe to follow, this will allow you to keep the pork closest to the fire, assuring it is cooked more than the other meats.

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Mom’s City Chicken Recipe

Ingredients

  • Beef, cut into approx. 1½ inch cubes
  • Veal, cut into approx. 1½ inch cubes
  • Pork, cut into approx. 1½ inch cubes
  • Bacon, 1 rasher for every skewer
  • marinade

Marinade

  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • rosemary, chopped
  • garlic, minced or grated
  • Italian seasoning
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Directions

  1. Add all the marinade ingredients to a bowl, whisk to combine, and set aside, reserving  a ¼ cup for later use. Place the meats into the bowl, mix until coated, and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight
  2. Soak wooden skewers overnight. (This will prevent their burning during grilling.)
  3. When ready, light the grill.
  4. Using one thick skewer or 2 thin for each city chicken, pierce one end of a bacon rasher, followed by one piece of each type of meat. Be sure that the top piece of meat for each skewer is pork. After the pork is in place, wrap the meats with the bacon and secure its remaining end by piercing it with the skewer(s) tip(s).
  5. Once finished and the grill is hot, shut down part of the grill to facilitate  indirect grilling. Use a rag dipped in oil to grease the grill plate.
  6. Place the skewered meat on the grill with the pork closest to the fire/heat.
  7. Turn the meat after a few minutes, more or less depending upon the grill’s heat. The object is to cook the skewered meat without torching the bacon. The pork, being closest to the fire, will cook faster.
  8. With the meat still very rare, move the skewers directly over the fire/heat. Now the object is to crisp the bacon and to finish cooking the skewered meats. Turn the skewers occasionally to ensure even cooking.
  9. When grilled to your satisfaction, remove to a  platter, brush with reserved marinade, and serve.

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Variations

Although Mom used all 3 meats, you needn’t if you prefer otherwise.  Use whatever meat(s) you like. The same is true for the bacon. I’m sure turkey bacon could be easily substituted.

Mom used 1 short, thick skewer for each of her City Chickens, skewers she got from her butcher. Try as I might, I’ve been unable to find them. Instead, I use 2 of the more readily available long, thin bamboo skewers. Before soaking, I trim off about 4 inches from each, making it much easier to grill them, especially if you’ve a small grill surface.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

Although some have already reached the end of tomato season, many of us are still harvesting the red beauties. One of my first posts featured Mom’s Tomato Antipasti that she made with Grandpa’s tomatoes. This time of year, his vines produced enough fruit to keep both families well-supplied and rarely was an evening meal prepared without tomatoes playing a role. Those who missed it the first time around  can find my post for Mom’s Tomato Antipasti by clicking HERE.

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By any other name …

“Don Juan”

This tour of roses began on one side of my yard with “Opening Night”, a red hybrid tea rose, and ends on the opposite side of my yard with “Don Juan”, a red hybrid tea rose. (Who better to indulge my girls?)

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The Kitchens Have Gone To The Dogs: Jerky Treats For Your Pupster

As many of you know, I share my home with Max, a boxer-mix that, despite being 4 years of age, remains more puppy than dog. I’m told it is the boxer in him and that they never grow up. What luck! Now, I’ve no intention of using today’s post to detail his many transgressions. Rather, since tomorrow is the 4th anniversary of his adoption, I thought I’d share the recipe for one of his favorite treats, jerky.

When Max was a puppy, I decided to switch him to a grain-free diet once he outgrew his puppy food.  I regulate his diet in other ways but I’m no expert and this is not the forum for that discussion. (If anyone is interested, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to explain what Max is fed and why.) The only grain Max eats now is the wheat flour in the peanut butter biscuits I bake for him (recipe courtesy of Linda at Savoring Every Bite).  He, and all of his mates, love those biscuits and I’m not about to deprive him of them. Much to his delight, he also gets one “all natural” Bully Stick per day and a couple of jerky-type treats. It’s the jerky treats that bothered me. Speaking with my Traveling Companion, we were both concerned about the meat and preservatives being used to make them. The brand that I had been purchasing, for example, was an American-owned company but the jerky was processed elsewhere. I didn’t like the sound of that and decided to see if I could make my own. As it turned out, making dog jerky at home is a surprisingly simple endeavor, although some web sources insist on complicating matters. Some, for example, soak the meats in marinades and almost all season them  before baking in a very low oven. Although I tried one such recipe for my first batch, I never did it again. My jerky treats are 100% meat that is intended for human consumption and absolutely nothing else. The next batch I made was beef, followed by one of chicken. Both were baked on cooling racks that were placed on baking sheets. I thought that this would help the meat strips to dehydrate more evenly — and it did. The problem came when I removed the second batch, the chicken, from the racks. Some of the racks’ non-stick coating stuck to the chicken strips. It may have happened with the first batch but, being beef and dark-colored, I hadn’t noticed. So, rather than risk my canine tasters’ health, both batches of jerky and the racks were taken to the garbage. I now have new racks but they aren’t necessary to get the job done, as you’ll soon see.

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The Bartolini Kitchens’ Canine Tasters, Bea and Max

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Home-Made Jerky For Dogs

No matter what type of jerky is to be made, I find it easier to partially freeze the meat before cutting it into strips. I buy chicken tenders when on-sale and use them for Max’s chicken jerky, but any skinless, boneless part of the bird will do. Try to slice equally sized pieces and always cut with the grain. When using tenders, I cut each in half, creating 2 long strips of about equal size. (Exceptionally large tenders can be cut into 3 strips.)  When making beef jerky, use the cheaper cuts of beef. No dog will mind if you use chuck instead of tenderloin. Cut the meat against the grain into thin strips, equally sized. No matter the kind of meat you’re using, once it’s cut and fully thawed, place some of the strips, evenly spaced, between sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper. Use a meat pounder, rolling-pin, or even a frying pan to flatten the strips until they are all of equal thickness. This will insure that they will cook evenly. Place the strips on baking sheets that have been lightly sprayed with cooking spray. If using racks, spray the racks with cooking spray, place on baking sheets, and place the meat strips onto the racks. In both cases, no strip should be touching another.  Place the baking sheets in a pre-heated 170˚F (my oven’s lowest temperature setting). Bake 6½ hours, turning over each strip every 2 hours while rotating the trays. When finished, remove, cool, and store.

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Notes

Being I don’t use a dehydrator nor preservatives, I’m very careful to ensure the jerky doesn’t spoil. Using airtight containers, I store in my refrigerator only as much jerky as will be used in a 3 day period. All of the rest is kept in the freezer until needed. Do not make so many that they’ll be in the freezer for more than a month. Of course, if your dog is at all like Max, there’ll be no need to thaw the treats. Now he comes running every time he hears me open the freezer door.

Every dog owner learns that abrupt changes to the pet’s diet can result in digestive problems. That’s because it takes time for a dog’s digestive system to develop the necessary bacteria to properly process a new food. Depending upon your dog and its diet, you may need to introduce these treats to it slowly to give its digestive system time to adjust. This is especially necessary if you’ve chosen to season or marinate the meat before cooking. It shouldn’t take any more than a couple of days for the dog to get “acclimated” and then you’re free to give your pet as many as you like.

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 The lion sleeps tonight.

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Before You Buy Another Bag Of Jerky Treats For Your Pooch

Although I wrote this entry several weeks ago, I scheduled its posting to coincide with Max’s adoption date. Unfortunately in the interim, a friend sent me a link to this MSNBC article of March 13th, 2012, which seems to confirm our worst fears about some brands of store-bought jerky treats. Be aware: just because the packaging says it is an American-owned company does not mean that the meat or finished product originated in this hemisphere, let alone country. Google is your friend.

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Beef Short Ribs

Short ribs weren’t on the menu when I was growing up. No, I had to wait until I was well past my youth, living here in Chicago, to discover them and even then it was purely coincidental. I had just moved into an apartment on The Lake and was checking out the neighborhood one Saturday when I “discovered” a Hungarian restaurant. Having looked at the menu, I was ready to order the paprikash when my waitress announced that the day’s luncheon special was short ribs. I opted for the special and that split-second decision became a life-altering event. For well over a year afterward, I dined there frequently and never sampled the paprikash, but I did order the short ribs every time. I introduced friends to my “discovery” and urged each to try the short ribs. You see, I was in heaven and was happy to share my good fortune with everyone — until  that  day.

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Beef short ribs served over polenta, with grilled asparagus & horseradish sauce

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I was having lunch with a good friend and we were marveling about — you guessed it — the short ribs when the check came. My friend was surprised to see how little our lunch cost and I mouthed the words that I would soon come to regret, “I don’t know how they do it?” During my very next visit to this little gem of a restaurant, we overheard a patron at a neighboring table question the waitress about the restaurant’s future. She replied, assuring them that the restaurant wasn’t going anywhere. At the end of our meal, one of my lunch party, a friend who had come to love the place as much as I, asked the waitress whether the place was closing. Again she said, “No way!”

The following Saturday the place was closed, never to re-open.

In the years since, more than a few of my favorite restaurants have closed, each after I uttered the fateful incantation. Once I realized the power of those words, I did my very best to avoid mouthing them but if you’re going to serve potent margaritas or top-shelf sake at below market prices, well, I can hardly be held responsible. Anyway, through the years, I’ve seen my favorite Chinese, Mexican, and Sushi restaurants all close, not to mention great little diners and hamburger joints. Perhaps the most painful closing of them all was my neighborhood Thai restaurant, which served the best Pad Thai on the planet. I was known as “Mr. John.” Since its closing 8 years ago, I’ve never repeated those powerful words in reference to any restaurant that I’ve liked. (Interesting to note that I have tried to use the magic on restaurants that should be closed as a service to my fellow diners. The fact that these businesses have continued, uninterrupted, mocks me to this very day.) So, aside from ruining the businesses —  and dreams — of a number of immigrant families, just what does any of this have to with short ribs?

Well, once my Hungarian restaurant closed, I took it upon myself to learn how to prepare beef short ribs. Mom, my first resource in such matters, suggested making them like a beef stew. So, my first attempts were cooked in a slow cooker and pretty much looked like a stew. Looking back, my experiences preparing short ribs pretty much mirrors my growth as a cook, such as it was. Over the years, I learned to brown the meat first, make a roux and a sauce, use the vegetables for the braise only, added wine, moved the braise from the slow cooker to a Dutch oven, and, finally, added some balsamic vinegar to the pot. The spices, also,  changed and, somewhere along the way, I began making horseradish sauce. The recipes I share today are the last of a long series.

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Beef Short Ribs Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 – 4 lbs (approx. 1.8kgs) beef short ribs — 6 to 8 rib pieces
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups red wine
  • 1½ cups low-sodium beef broth
  • ¾ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 or 4 fresh thyme stems
  • 2 fresh rosemary stems
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Horseradish Sauce – recipe follows

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325˚F (160˚C).
  2. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with a lid over med-high heat.
  3. Meanwhile, use paper towels to pat dry the short ribs, season liberally with salt & pepper, and place into the now hot oil. DO NOT CROWD. You will probably need to brown them in 2 batches. Once the meat has been placed into the pot, do not disturb for about 3 minutes. Check one to see if it has browned. If so, turn each piece to brown another side, If not, continue cooking for another 2 minutes before checking again.
  4. Brown all sides of each rib before removing them to a platter and repeating the process with the rest of the ribs.
  5. Pour off excess grease, leaving 3 tbsp in the pot. Add the celery, carrots, and onion to the pot and begin sautéing. Season with salt & pepper.
  6. When the onion is translucent and the vegetables have softened, add the garlic and continue sautéing for about a minute.
  7. Add the flour to the pot, stir, and cook for two minutes.
  8. Use the red wine to deglaze the pot. Once finished, add the balsamic, beef stock and tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper and stir well.
  9. Add the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves. Return the ribs to the pot, bring to a boil, cover, and place in pre-heated oven.
  10. Continue to cook for 2½ to 3 hours or until meat is fork tender and falling off of the bones. Carefully remove the ribs to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
  11. Pour the braising liquid through a strainer and place resultant liquid into a grease separator.  Wait a few minutes to allow the grease to rise and then pour off the sauce.
  12. Depending upon your preference, you can
    1. Serve the sauce as is.
    2. Place the sauce into a small pan so that it can be further reduced and thickened.
    3. Add more wine or beef broth and then reduce.
  13. No matter the choice, be sure to taste the sauce to see if additional seasoning is needed.
  14. The sauce may be used to cover the ribs before serving or left on the side.
  15. Serve immediately with mashed potatoes, buttered broad noodles, or polenta, as pictured.

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Horseradish Sauce

Combine equal amounts of plain yogurt (Greek pref.) and sour cream. Add horseradish to taste, some brown, whole grain or Dijon mustard, a dash or two of Worcestershire Sauce, and salt & pepper to taste. Mix well and refrigerate until needed. Be sure to make extra for the cole slaw.

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Pulled rib sammich with horseradish slaw & corn relish

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Notes

I always try to make extra ribs, gravy, and horseradish sauce. Not only are the ribs even tastier the next day, the meat can be pulled apart, similar to what is done with pork, and used with the extra gravy to make sandwiches. The extra horseradish sauce can be used as a dressing for cole slaw to top off the sandwich, as pictured, or as a condiment. If used to dress slaw, you may wish to add more yogurt, sour cream, or a little mayonnaise, to suit your tastes.

Be sure to come back next Wednesday when, as promised, I’ll show you how to make mascarpone.

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Steak Pizzaiola

This is not one of my family’s recipes and I only started cooking it a relatively short time ago. Sure, I’d heard of steak pizzaiola but, for some reason, I always assumed that it was too complicated for me to attempt. Then, one night I saw a rerun of an “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode in which the recipe was a point of contention between Debra & Marie. After the show, I searched the web for the recipe and was surprised to learn just how easy the dish is to prepare. Basically, it’s a steak and marinara sauce served over pasta. Well, I decided to give it a try and I’ve continued to make steak pizzaiola ever since. It is one of those recipes where a minimum of effort results in a great dinner — and it’s a bargain to prepare, as well.

Exhibit A

Searching the web, I soon learned that, as easy as it is, there’s no one way to make steak pizzaiola. It’s as if there’s a different recipe for every cut of meat, especially since the better the cut, the less time needed to cook it. As a result, some recipes feature a steak that’s braised slowly in the sauce while, in others, the steak and sauce are cooked separately, to be combined just prior to serving. Although there’s something to be said for the “fast approach,” I very much prefer a slow and steady method of cooking for this dish. So, I look for a cheaper cut of meat, preferably “bone-in” for added flavor, and let it braise for a couple of hours in the oven. The sauce itself is uncomplicated and there’s no need for a lot of herbs and spices. The braising will do the work for you and infuse the sauce with a rich beef flavor. Now, my family uses very little oregano in its dishes but so many of the web recipes call for it that I’ve listed it here, among the ingredients. Use it instead of, or in combination with, the Italian seasoning, if you like. In fact, if oregano is a favorite of yours, you may want to increase the amount listed in the recipe below. As for the type of pasta to use, I prefer serving it with rigatoni, penne, or cavatappi but feel free to use whatever works for you and your family.

Exhibit B

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Steak Pizzaiola Recipe

total time: about 2 1/2 hours.

yield: about 8 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 – 3 pounds chuck steak, bone-in
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/8 – 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, depending upon taste
  • 1  medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
  • 2 – 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 large can (28 oz.) tomatoes (I prefer diced or crushed)
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning or dried oregano or any combination of the two
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 lb pasta, cooked al dente per package instructions, reserve 1 cup of pasta water
  • grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Exhibit C

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325*
  2. Heat oil in large, oven-proof, frying pan with a tight-fitting lid, over med-high heat.
  3. Season meat liberally with salt & pepper and sear in frying pan, about 4 minutes each side.
  4. Remove meat to a platter and add red pepper flakes to the pan. Cook for about  2 minutes.
  5. Add onions to the pan, season with salt & pepper, and sauté until translucent, about 6 – 8 minutes
  6. Add garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes.
  7. Add tomato paste and continue cooking for 1 – 2 minutes.
  8. Add tomatoes, parsley, Italian seasoning and/or optional oregano, and stir to combine with pan’s contents. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. Return meat to the pan, cover the meat with sauce, cover tightly with lid, and place in center of oven.
  10. Braise meat for 2 hours, checking it every 30 minutes or so. Either flip the meat over or spoon more sauce over it.
  11. After 2 hours, begin heating water for the pasta and remove the lid from the pan in the oven. This will allow the sauce to thicken while the pasta cooks. When the pasta is al dente, reserve a cup of pasta water, drain the pasta, and check your sauce. If your sauce is too dry, use the pasta water to compensate.
  12. Place drained pasta in a large bowl. Take sauce out of the oven, remove any loose bones, and combine with cooked pasta. Garnish with basil and grated Pecorino Roman cheese.
  13. Serve immediately.

Exhibit D

Variations

As was mentioned earlier, some recipes call for using better cuts of meat than a chuck steak. Normally, those recipes do not need a long braise like the one that I’ve shared; the cut of meat is far more tender already. I very much prefer the long braise method, however, for it not only renders the meat fork-tender but the sauce’s flavors are more developed.

Notes

At one time or another, we all have some left-over pasta sitting in our fridge. Re-heating it can be a problem, unless you use Mom & Zia’s method. Rather than use the microwave, place about a tablespoon of butter and about 1/4 cup of water into a frying pan over med-high heat. Add the left-over pasta and sauté until heated through. Add a little more water if the pasta is too dry. Serve immediately, garnished with Pecorino Roman cheese. Understand that the pasta cannot possibly be al dente — that ship sailed the minute you put the left-overs into the fridge. This will, however, re-invigorate the sauce in ways that a microwave never could. As they say, “Try it. You’ll like it.”

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Slow Cooker Beef Stew

Yes, you read that correctly: beef stew is next on the agenda. We’ll get to that but first I’ve got some ‘splaining to do. One of Chicago’s grocery chains has closed selected stores around town, renovated them, and is now re-opening each in grand style. One such re-opening occurred recently in my neighborhood and, of course, I attended and brought a friend. While there, he took advantage of one of the sales, buying a 4 lb bottom round beef roast. As you may already know, this cut of beef is not particularly well-marbled and isn’t the most tender of cuts. As such, it responds well to stewing or braising and is perfect for slow cooker stew. My friend asked if I had a recipe and I sent him this one in an email. Since I have the recipe handy, I might as well include it here now rather than later.

Before I share the recipe, however, we should probably look at a few of the ingredients. First off, I tend to avoid the grocery’s beef that’s pre-cut into chunks and labeled “beef for stew”. When I make stew, I prefer pieces that are 2 – 3 inches in size and those that are pre-cut are usually about half that size. So, I buy a 2 – 3 lb chuck, top round, or, as already mentioned, a bottom round roast. Once I get home, I cut the roast into chunks the size of my choosing. Of course, if you prefer smaller pieces, by all means go for it.

Zia and six-month-old Max.

Next, let’s look at the vegetables. If you’re considering making stew in a slow cooker, chances are you’ll be setting it up before leaving for work. Unless you have a sous chef, the last thing you’ll want to do is spend time chopping and cleaning your veggies. That’s why I recommend a small bag of new red or Yukon gold potatoes,  frozen pearl onions, and organic baby carrots. Only the potatoes need washing and everything can be thrown into the slow cooker as-is. If you prefer, feel free to use any type of carrot, potato, and onion that’s available. Just be sure to cut them into approximately equal-sized pieces so that they cook evenly.

Last to be mentioned is the wine. Although I use a few ounces of wine in this recipe, it’s not necessary and can be skipped, if you like. This isn’t boeuf bourguignon, after all. If you live alone, like I do, opening a bottle of wine just to use a few ounces in a recipe isn’t practical. I certainly don’t want to drink the rest with my dinner and watching it degrade on a counter or in the fridge is not the answer. I’ve found that the mini bottles of wine — about 5.5 ounces each — are the perfect solution. Our supermarkets sell them in sets of four and offer a variety of grapes. I buy one set of red and another of white. If a recipe calls for wine, I can use one of these bottles and have little, if anything, left over. Granted, these wines aren’t going to be of the same quality as those found in my wine rack but, then again, I’m not about to open an expensive bottle of wine just so that I can pour a few ounces into a stew. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether to use wine and, if you do, which one to choose. A general rule of thumb, however, states that if a wine isn’t good enough to drink, one shouldn’t cook with it. So, avoid the “cooking wines” at your grocery.

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Slow Cooker Beef Stew Recipe

yield: 6 – 8 servings

prep time: approx.  30 minutes

cook time: 8 – 9 hours

Ingredients

  • One  2 – 3 lb beef roast, cut into 2 – 3 inch chunks (less expensive cuts of meat are fine for this recipe)
  • 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small package of new red or Yukon gold potatoes.
  • 1/2 small bag of organic baby carrots
  • 1 package frozen pearl onions
  • 1/2 package (about 4 oz) button or crimini mushrooms, quartered (more/less may be used according to your preference)
  • 1 small bottle (5..5 oz) red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 – 4 sprigs of thyme
  • One 32 oz. box low-salt, fat-free beef stock
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Spray the inside of the slow cooker with your favorite cooking spray.
  2. Place olive oil in a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat.
  3. Meanwhile, use paper towels to pat dry the beef chunks, season them with salt & pepper, and place them into the now hot frying pan. DO NOT CROWD. The pieces should not touch each other or they will steam and not brown. You may need to do this in batches. Do not disturb the meat. After 3 minutes, gently lift one piece to see if it has browned. If not, return the piece as it was and wait another few minutes before checking again. Once it is browned, turn it over, as well as all the other chunks in the pan, Repeat this process until all the meat is browned on all sides. Remove the meat and place in the slow cooker. If needed, add a little more olive oil to the frying pan before browning the 2nd, or 3rd, batch of meat.
  4. Remove the frying pan from the heat, add the wine, and return to medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to scrape off any residue from the pan’s bottom. Once the pan is “clean,” reduce heat to low.
  5. Sprinkle the flour on top of the meat in the slow cooker. Add the bay leaves and thyme sprigs.
  6. Add potatoes, carrots, onions, and mushrooms, in that order, to the slow cooker.
  7. Season with 1/2 tsp salt & 1/8 tsp pepper (more/less if you prefer).
  8. Pour the now-heated wine over the slow cooker’s contents.
  9. Add enough beef stock to cover the beef chunks. It’s OK if some of the mushrooms or carrots are above the liquid.
  10. Set slow cooker on “high” for one hour and then “low” for another 7 hours. Alternately, you can set your cooker on “low” and cook for 9 hours.
  11. Remove bay leaves & thyme sprigs before serving.

Variations

Although not really a variation, I have made this recipe but without the potatoes. I then serve it over a bed of plain rice or one of buttered, wide egg noodles. Before doing so, I check to see if the gravy is thick enough for serving this way. If not, I use a slotted spoon to remove most of the cooker’s content’s to a platter, leaving the liquid behind. Turn the cooker to “high” and while the gravy heats, mix a couple tbsp of corn starch into about a 1/4 cup water. Add to the slow cooker, stir thoroughly, and heat on “high” for 10  minutes before returning the stew meat & veggies to the cooker. By the time everything is heated through, another 5 – 10 minutes, the gravy should be thick and ready to serve.

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