Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Clearance Rack

I know, I know-- covetousness is a sin. But I admit I've had my eye on something for a while now.

It's expensive. It's heavy. It's pretty. It's expensive.

Oh and also, it's expensive.

It's a Le Creuset Dutch oven. Or, as they call it, a French oven. It's essential for all those cuts of meat that get cooked for hours until they practically fall off the bone. It can be used on the stove top, the oven, or both for a single meal. Plus, it comes in a dizzying array of colors, nearly all of which I would be happy with, should one just happen to fall in my lap.

Actually, having a Le Creuset fall in my lap might break both my legs. But you know what I mean.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a store brand Dutch oven on sale for 40% off at Sur La Table.  As all mathematicians know, [Totally Ridiculous] x 0.40 = [Still Pretty Ridiculous], but the store brand's original price was Reasonable, not Ridiculous. It was available in only one color, but it happened to be a color I especially love: a deep, dark burgundy. So as not to be impulsive, I made a mental note of the item and kept walking.

I wondered, though, why is the SLT brand so much cheaper than Le Creuset? Its starting price was a mere forty percent of Le Creuset's for the same size, and the only visible differences were a shinier finish on the SLT and a stainless steel lid handle, not a composite handle. The SLT pot's weight was about equal to that of the Le Creuset, so I knew it was cast iron all the way through, not filled with aluminum or steel or some other muck.

China may have something to do with it. As I read the fine print, I noticed the SLT pot was made in China. Le Creuset pots, on the other hand, are still made in France (their bakeware is now made in China, just like everything else).  I would prefer to purchase things that are made just about anywhere but China. But I couldn't force myself to be quite stoic enough to shell out 60% more for the Le Creuset, especially when I returned to Sur La Table about ten days later.

A large sign outside the door of SLT called to me, "TAKE AN EXTRA 20% OFF ALL CLEARANCE PRICES!" Well, ok, if you insist.

The sale brought the price of the Dutch oven down to less than 50% of its original price, and to about twenty percent of the original Le Creuset price.

So far, my Dutch oven seems to perform well. The metal handle does get hot, so I must use a towel or pot holder each time I open the lid, but this is not a major disaster. I'll spare my readership a soap box speech on the downfalls of cheap consumer goods, though it plays in my head often, because for now the pot is a way to cook well, eat well, and be well.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Want Some Coffee With That?

Thumbing through John Ash's Cooking One on One, the Texan and I both said, "Oooooh!" when we turned to the page with a recipe for brisket braised in coffee.  Neither one of us knew exactly who John Ash was, but we figured he knew what he was talking about with that recipe, which combines two Really Good Things.

Wouldn't you know it that John Ash has had a restaurant and a radio show here in northern California for a few years. Or 30. He does the whole fresh/local/seasonal thing a la Alice Waters, only in Santa Rosa, and his dishes are created to match the wines being made in that region. He also does a few other things. Like teach at the culinary academy in the Napa Valley. Whatever.

Wouldn't you also know it that the Texan and I have somewhat different definitions of brisket. His version involves a barbeque and slicing the beef. Mine involves simmering in a Dutch oven for hours on end, a tomato-y braising sauce, and meat that just falls apart when it's done. So imagine his surprise when I spend all day simmering the meat, he spends all day thinking about the barbecued flesh he's about to eat, and he sits down to a meal that has no slices in sight. Poor thing.

With The Texan's homemade bread and some sauteed vegetables with toasted pecans.

Whatever our differences, we agreed that a) the meat was ridiculously tender and flavorful; b) we couldn't really taste the coffee, but perhaps its job was simply to tenderize, not to flavor-ize;  c) there is more than one way to cook brisket. In fact, the Texan liked it enough to want it for dinner the following evening, as we were getting ready to go up to our local observatory for a meteor shower. There was just one small problem:

I'm the blue. He's the white.

His surprise was not due to my having eaten the brisket for another meal. His surprise was due to the cut of meat I used WEIGHING TWO POUNDS and there being so little left that it wouldn't satiate him for dinner. As in, "Where the %@*# did you put it? Your hollow leg? Or are you now thirty pounds heavier?"

He swears he would love me at any weight. To which my response is, "Really???"

Brisket Braised in Coffee
adapted from Cooking One on One by John Ash
serves 6-8
(I cut the recipe in half)

4 lbs beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
4 TBSP olive oil
3 yellow onions (1 1/2 lbs total), sliced
1/4 C sliced garlic
2 TBSP powdered chiles, such as ancho or Chimayo (this is NOT the same as chili powder, which is a blend of several spices and flavorings)
2 tsp whole fennel seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
2/3 C packed brown sugar
2/3 C apple cider vinegar
4 C strong brewed coffee
1 C chicken, beef, or vegetable stock (or use canned broth)
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
salt and pepper to taste

1. Season meat with salt and pepper. Heat 2 TBSP olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot. Brown brisket on both sides over high heat. Remove meat from pot, discard excess fat, and leave about a tablespoon in pot.*
2. Saute onions and garlic in fat over high heat until they just begin to color. Add powdered chile and saute another minute. Add fennel, cumin, sugar, vinegar, coffee, stock, and tomatoes, and bring to a simmer. Return brisket to pot, cover, and let simmer over a low flame for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until meat is very tender. 
3. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Allow brisket to sit (e.g. on an unheated back burner) for 15 minutes. Serve. 

*You can discard all meat fat and saute onions in olive oil if you prefer, but using the fat already in the pan yields more flavorful results.