Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Perfect Hash Brown

There's been an ongoing debate between a group of us. A line has been drawn, and each involved has chosen a side where they have remained headstrong and steadfast in their convictions. The debate is of course whether bacon is better crunchy or soft. Ali and I maintain that crispy bacon is the only way to go. I don't want a flaccid, chewy fat piece of bacon on my plate or in my mouth. Our two good friends both maintain that crispy bacon dries out all the flavor and desired texture. Obviously you can go to the extreme on either side - bacon can be too underdone and too overcooked. We've realized neither of us will ever win, its a matter of preference and hopefully you can reach a happy medium. But what can I say, I'm a peace-keeper. Eat your soggy bacon, but I will silently judge you.

There is another brunch favorite that I've never heard anyone argue the texture of however - and that is hash browns. Hash browns are supposed to showcase a layer of crisp matchsticks browned in butter and then give in to a fluffy core. I don't care if you like breakfast potatoes, shredded or scalloped - a crisp outer layer should always give way to fluffy goodness. The problem is, potatoes can be hard to finagle. Sometimes they refuse to brown and crisp up - leaving you with steamed potato mash. Or worse, they do brown but then the brown goodness sticks to the pan and never reaches your plate. Sometimes the potatoes wind up absorbing the oil or butter and all you taste is mushy grease - mmmm no. So I've studied up on how to achieve the best hash browns that will give you the desired crunch and hopefully avoid the mess of spilled oil and wayward flung potatoes.

The keys: a cold water bath, bacon grease and an uncrowded pan on high heat.

Perfect Hash Browns:
1/2 - 1 lb Russet or Yukon Gold Potatoes (will serve 2-4 people)
1/3 C Onion, diced
1/4 C Red or Yellow Pepper, diced
2 Cloves Garlic, minced
1-2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
Salt and Pepper to taste 
3 Tbs Bacon Grease and/or Butter

Whether you're grating your own potatoes, finely slicing them into matchsticks (painstaking but great) or pulling them from a freezer bag you must submerge in cold water for 5-10 minutes. This releases extra starch in the potatoes that prevents them from browning nicely. Continue to change water every 3-5 minutes until water remains clear rather than cloudy. Place a few layers of paper towels on top of a clean dish rag. Strain potatoes and place on top of towels, wrapping them tightly up into a bundle. Squeeze as much excess water out of potatoes as possible and pat dry. The dryer you get your potatoes the crispier they will be in the pan.

Bacon grease adds a ton of flavor, so I suggest cooking your bacon first and saving the grease in a measuring cup. No bacon (blasphemy)? Just use melted butter instead. Place dry potatoes into a bowl and toss with onion, peppers, cayenne and S&P. Now you get to choose your own adventure in hash brown making...

Oven Hash Browns - Set oven to 450 degrees. Pour bacon grease or melted butter onto hash browns and toss to coat. You want the hash browns to be coated but not sopping with grease. So if you need to add more or less just keep a watchful eye. Spread hash browns evenly onto baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, stirring and shaking up the pan ever so often. For extra crispness, turn oven to broil after 20 minutes and allow hash browns to continue cooking on the middle rack for up to 5 minutes. This cooking method will yield more loose and overall crisp hash browns. 

Pan or Griddle Hash Browns - Set heat on high and add bacon grease or butter to pan. Allow to simmer for a minute and add your hash browns in an even layer. Try not to crowd the pan. Allow to cook on one side for 5-7 minutes, don't fuss with the hash browns except to check on the browning with a spatula. When browned on one side divide browns into manageable halves or fourths so you can scoop and flip without losing too many potatoes to the stove top or floor. Don't be a hero and try to flip the hash browns with a flick of your wrist. It sounds fun and impressive but more likely than not you will lose half the batch and maybe wind up with a hash brown burn on your forearm. Maaaybe that's happened to me, whatever. Save yourself and your hash browns and use the spatula.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pork Shoulder & Crock Pot: A 9 Hour Love Story

I haven't had a long lazy weekend day at home in a long while. Every weekend in February I was off in a new place - doing research in Salt Lake City and Portland, visiting friends in San Francisco and celebrating the 1 year anniversary with my boyfriend on Whidbey Island. I've had a lot of amazing food (epic 7 course meal at The Inn at Langley (I should really post about that)). I've had some delicious but not-so-good-for-me food like the A Bomb of a sandwich from Giordano's, whose french fry and cured meat fillings soaked up every ounce of my hangover. Furthermore, I've had some afterthought food - the fill that keeps you moving as your go from hotel to meeting or keeps your fingers typing on the keyboard as you finish up a deadline. 

I've been craving conscious eating cooked by my own hand. It's therapeutic and gratifying to make, dish up and savor the goofy satisfied grin from your companion as he takes a bite and you dig in as well. So before boy and I headed to Pike Place for a rare sunny Sunday, I made a dry rub for a pork shoulder, seared it in a cast iron skillet and put it to work in a crock pot with onions, broth, mustard seeds and apple juice. As the day went on, I lost my fleet in a game of battle ship that accompanied a Northwest wine tasting flight. We looked for the honey lady we know but found graffiti art around the market when couldn't find her. And I spent much too long  oggling pickled vegetables to serve with dinner at DeLaurenti's, landing on pickled watermelon rind, apricots, cornichons and cipolline.


By the time we got home the hallways of my apartment building were fragrant with simmering meat. The pork shoulder easily shredded with a fork into luscious ribbons that I drowned with barbecue sauce. We served our lot with corn bread and pan fried broccoli. Each of the pickles I brought home added a different sweetness or vinegary acid that cut the richness of the pork. Pickled watermelon bites like a firm gelatin and tastes like candy. The apricots were speckled with peppercorns and made each fork-full of meat more tangy and sweet. It was a perfect way to cap a long few weeks in the shortest month of the year.

Pork Shoulder Rub:
1/4 C Brown Sugar
1 tsp. Cinnamon
3 Tbs Cumin
1 tsp. Cayenne
2 Tbs Garlic Salt
3 tsp Black pepper
1 Tbs Oregano

1 C Beef Broth
2 Tbs Mustard Seeds
1/3 C Apple Juice
1/2 Onion, sliced

4-5 lb. Pork Shoulder

Take a 4-5 lb. natural Pork Shoulder and trim excess caps of fat. Massage in dry rub with unabashed amounts of the mix. Get it dirty. Pour 2 Tbs of olive oil in a caste iron or heavy based skillet and sear meat on all sides in the screaming hot pan. Place meat in crock pot and add the bathtub ingredients. Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours, shred meat and serve by itself or with your favorite barbecue sauce... you should probably have some hot sauce on hand too, but that's a given.