Good Things Come to those Who Wait (and, in this case, pork shoulder)

If you read this blog and aren't familiar yet with my love affair of all things pork, well, I guess you must start somewhere.

And, if you have been reading my blog and have had enough with my references to the fantastic pig, well, I guess let this recipe change your perspective.

One of my favorite things in the world is slowly cooked pork shoulder (aka pork butt). I love how such a inexpensive yet simple cut of meat can be coaxed by flavorful herbs, aromatics, and liquids into a "melt-in-your-mouth" experience. Even in the case of the most basic carnitas - braised in a simple liquid, then deep fried and chopped and piled into a simple corn tortilla with the most meager of garnishes - I still start to salivate.

My obsession with pork shoulder, or trying to "perfect" pork shoulder, started after visiting a family favorite restaurant, Taleo, in Irvine, CA. Growing up in Southern California, where I feel Mexican restaurants out number every other type of cuisine combined, I had been over-exposed to traditional carnitas all my life. On one visit to Taleo, which is known for "authentic Mexican cuisine", using spices and ingredients from all of the Mexican provinces, my Mom asked if I had tried their carnitas yet.

"No, and I am not really in the mood for basic pork carnitas right now," was about what my response was. But, my Mom insisted they were "totally different" and that I needed to try them. I read further on the menu, and this excerpt, taken from, says it all:

"Carnitas, while a staple in Mexico City, are almost never found (properly executed) stateside. In order to be done right, they require more time and labor than other restaurants are willing to invest. It’s also a cooking technique that falls somewhere between art and science. Chef Jose’s pork comes out tender and juicy on the inside, crispy and sweet caramelized on the outside. It truly is a dish unique to TalĂ©o."

I was, in fact, in pork shoulder heaven. These carnitas were NOTHING like I had ever tasted. Caramelized to a light crisp on the outside, super moist on the inside, and the essence of citrus and spices permeated from the plate mixed with the subtle scents of cook pork and pork fat. I savored every bite, trying to figure out what exactly had been used in the marinade as it is a restaurant secret (even the owner, who is a friend, will not divulge anything to me about the process, rather he likes to leave me guessing everytime I ask). And, the entree portion is served whole, as in not shredded or chopped up, allowing you to pull the meat apart yourself by each tasty morsel.

Since then, I have been on a recipe/ingredient quest to try and emulate the carnitas from Taleo. I have tried everything from using spice rubs, different citrus juices, prepared sauces, alterations on cooking techniques, even adding a can of Coca-Cola at one point (all thanks due to BFF Lissa and her amazing pulled pork). But, alas nothing really mimicked the fantastic pork carnitas that Taleo serves up every day. Growing tired of buying pork shoulder and freezing leftovers after leftovers, I decided to throw in the towel on the perfect copy-cat version and rather focus on other proteins, knowing when I came back to cooking pork shoulder again, this time it would be on my cooking terms and uniquely my own.

This past weekend I was at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmer's Market, and I visited one of my favorite meat, pork, and poultry producers, Marin Sun Farms. Not only are their products all sustainably farm-raised, they are also fantastically delicious. I spotted some pork shoulder, and, having had about 6 months pass since I last bought any, I decided to pick some up and figure out what to do with it when I got home.

I will admit, I did open my spice cupboard, took one look at my spice blend and a can of pineapple juice and hesitantly considered one more try at Taleo's carnitas. In the next moment of sanity, I decided to keep it simple ingredient-wise, and decided to use what I had on hand, bringing out fresh and simple flavors to enhance the amazing pork. I pulled out a head of garlic, a lemon, white wine vinegar, dried oregano, salt and pepper. I had seen a recipe recently using similar ingredients, but my version was entirely different.

Here's what I did. Add the following ingredients to a food processor to form a loose paste/marinade:

* 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
* 1 1/2 tbsp salt (kosher or sea salt)
* 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
* 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
* 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
* 4-5# pork shoulder, cut into giant chunks

Here is the pork shoulder. I just cut it into 4 equal chunks (PS I was working with roughly 3# of pork shoulder. I "upped" the poundage for the recipe as I think it will work better with the level of acidity and garlic, or follow what I did).

I wanted to keep the pork in larger chunks and allow the fat to caramelize during the cooking as well.

Spread the marinade all over the pieces of pork, and place in a baking/roasting pan - you will use this pan to cook the meat. I prefer to use glass Pyrex baking pans. Marinate the pork at least two hours. Does not need to be marinated overnight.

Post-marinade being put on pork - smelled amazing!

Preheat oven to 350*F. Bring pork out to room temperature for about 20 minutes. Place a piece of parchment paper over the pork and then wrap with foil.

Ready to bake!

Place the parchment on top of the pork. The whole purpose is to contain the moisture as the pork cooks since we are not adding any liquid to the pan.

Once wrapped with foil, bake, covered, for 2 hours. After 2 hours, remove parchment and foil and add 1C chicken broth or water to the pan; bake, uncovered, for another 2 hours, flipping the pieces over every 30 minutes and basting with juices.

Meanwhile, I decided to saute up some onions since we were going to enjoy some tacos with this pork amazingness.

And, after 4 SLOW hours of cooking, I pulled my pork shoulder from the oven. Honestly, I wish I could have captured the smells coming from the pan. The fat bad melted and broken down with the garlic, creating this roasted garlic infusion; the dried oregano blended perfectly with the meatiness of the pork, and the acidity of the lemon and vinegar seemed to fold into the rest of the ingredients. And all of that was just from smelling my concoction.

I like to use 2 forks to pull apart the meat and shred it, fat and all.

One lucky piece that ended up immediately in my mouth.

Shredding up the pork goodness.

And plating an open faced taco - I just wanted to keep it simple, and I additionally made a spicy sour cream with Cholula, chipotle pepper powder, and garlic salt.

This pork was super moist, and the crust and fat was super caramelized. It may not be Taleo's creation, but finally, I was happy with MY pork shoulder/carnitas creation. I didn't overthink anything, as I had done previously trying to perfect a recipe. And, I felt complete having honored the pig and the way it was sustainably raised by the Marin Sun Farms co-op farmers by keeping the flavors simple and fresh, honoring the pork shoulder the way it should be.

** I would love to know if anyone adapts this recipe to use in a slow cooker, and, if so, let me know how it turns out!

Comforts of Fall

Sometimes, the simple things in life can be the most the soul, to the heart, and, in my case, most importantly, to the stomach.

It's finally Fall; time for leisurely Sundays spent watching Football, time for the leaves to start changing color, time for the weather to cool off and beg you to wrap yourself up in the blanket at the end of the couch, time for the smell of a fireplace burning off in the near distance (damn my studio apartment for not having one), time for putting away tank tops and t-shirts from the summer months and bringing out sweaters, scarves, and jackets to carry us through the Winter months.

Time for simplicity and satisfaction in the form of comfort food. And, in my case, this means whole roasted chicken.

I am starting to keep a food diary, and this is what I wrote the day I roasted this fantastic bird:

"It is a very rainy day here in San Francisco, and this weather only evokes the desire for me to be in the kitchen, cooking up a storm. Nothing is more pleasing than the sound and smell of rain mixed with the sounds and smells of a kitchen humming.

"Brett and I were just at the market, and he asked what was for dinner. I had begun planning a flavorful but lightened-up version of beef stew with white wine and Dijon mustard (a different stretch for me[recipe to come]), but he asked if I could make a roast chicken instead. He really wanted something comforting and loves how I do chicken. Enough said to convince me.

"I immediately thought of making a compound butter, but I wanted to keep it light and bright and not weigh down on our stomachs with the volume of rain falling from the sky. I decided on butter, parsley, shallots, and garlic with lemon..."

Well, I will just pick off where I left off. I am a huge fan of compound butters, especially when it comes to chicken or turkey. Any amount of flavor you can add to butter will only enhance the flavor of the bird, not only the roasted, crispy skin. Some find compound butters daunting; I finds them one of the easiest things to make and use (and freeze for future use!!).

One of my favorite, simple compound butters that works for everything from whole roast chicken, chicken breasts, turkey breasts, or, even Thanksgiving turkey is:

6 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, roughly chopped
1/2 C fresh parsley (as if it was packed into a 1/2 C measuring cup - just eyeball it)
1T olive oil
1-2 tbsp lemon zest
1/2 C (2 sticks) butter, room temperature (very soft)
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Place garlic, shallot, parsley, olive oil, and lemon zest in food processor and pulse together to a paste:

Next, add butter and continue to blend together until mixture is thoroughly combined into a luscious, aromatic, buttery paste:

From this state, you can put it in a plastic container and refrigerate or freeze (up to 2 weeks or 6 months, respectively), or keep about 1 C plus 2 tbsp out at room temperature for the chicken. The butter MUST be soft and at room temperature or it will seize up when you try to stuff the chicken with it.

So, onto the chicken; make sure to remove all giblets and anything else stuffed in the cavity of the bird before using. Also, make sure to rinse the bird thoroughly and pat dry.

Next step, loosening the skin between the breast and thigh meat with out tearing it off. You can start loosening the skin either at the neck-end or at the other end, as I have in the picture below. The point of this is to create a "space" to spread the butter between the meat and the skin, allowing the flavors to cook into the bird and outward to the skin.

Gently, without ripping, loosen the skin against the breast. Move your fingers under the skin down to the leg and thigh as well, making a sort of "baloon" under the entire breast-up-side of the chicken.

Using your hands or a spoon, smear some of the butter under the loosened skin; make sure to get the butter all the way down to the leg and thigh meat - you will most likely have to use your hands to get all the way around the leg and thigh meat.

Using the back of the spoon or your fingers, move the butter around under the skin covering the breast to evenly coat the meat. Use the rest of the butter to cover the skin on the outside of the bird as well to aid in creating a crisper skin (and more flavorful one at that!).

Almost ready to go. Note the lemon wedges sticking out the end of the breast bone? Well, I am getting to that.

Here is my "potpourri" of aromatics to stuff my chicken with, to include the lemon slices:

1 medium bunch of fresh parsley
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small onion, roughly chopped
8 VERY thin slices of lemon, and then the rest of that lemon roughly chopped

ALL of this goes in the cavity, except the lemon slices. Carefully place each of these slices on top of the butter under the skin covering the breast; this adds just a little more citrus flavor, but it make the chicken that much more visually delicious to eat when the bird is done roasting.

What's leftover of the potpourri can just be scattered on the bottom of the roasting pan:

And, once the chicken is trussed (sorry, no tutorial on trussing this time around...) I place it on a rack, pour about 1/4 C chicken broth or water in the bottom of the pan, and pop the bird in the oven to roast for 30-35 minutes at 450F. Then, reduce the oven temperature to 325F-350F for about 1.5-2 hours until a thermometer inserted next to the thigh bone registers 165F.

I did take some pics of carving the bird, slicing through the moist meat and crispy skin, making a pan gravy with the leftover butter drippings mixed with fresh mushrooms and shallots and parsley, but, alas, leave it to technology because all of the pics turned out a bit fuzzy. So, please try to savor each and every tasty morsel and each and every citrus-y, buttery scent that came from this amazing roast chicken.

One of the best things about roasting this chicken? During the time it took to cook, I poured a glass of wine, grabbed that blanket at the end of the couch and wrapped myself up in it, turned on some Monday Night Football, and listened to the cheers of fans on TV mixed in with the steady downpour of rain outside my window. Even without a fireplace, it all felt very reminiscent of Fall. It's important to enjoy the simple things, especially when they comfort every aspect of your life.

And once the chicken was ready? I peeled that blanket off of me, turned on some Frank Sinatra tunes in the kitchen to carve the bird to, and embraced the warmth that came from the oven's heat. Screw the fireplace, I thought in that moment. And we enjoyed every comforting bite of that simple, perfectly roasted chicken. And, once the dishes were done and the oven was done cooling off, I pulled that blanket back from the end of the couch, took a final sip from my glass of wine, watched the end of the football game, and comfortably fell into the rest of the evening, with the sound of rain still hitting my window, and my stomach happily satisfied.

Just because...

...I saw this today and just had to put it up. Love it!

Cookbook in the Making?

It's very rare that I EVER follow recipes to a "T", whether it be cookbooks, magazines, online recipes, recipes from friends, newspaper articles, etc. But, I am a creature of habit, buying food mags and cookbooks like they are going out of print (well, in this case, Gourmet magazine fell to the chopping block this week - so sad). I always seem to look to them for inspiration or a different twist on a new and exciting ingredient or way to cook something. Whenever I have a hankering for a specific dish or I just want to cook something different, I reach for my stash o' books and mags, including a possible visit to

Sometimes I will even dig out my old recipes from my catering days and play around with them a little to not only make the dishes a little more current but also to change things up a bit. These are recipes that I created or tweaked from other recipes or collaborations over the years; they were used over and over again as tried and true dishes for my loyal clients over a fantastic span of almost four years. I keep these "trade secrets" in a recipe index box, all hand-written, some placed in plastic covers, some stained with God knows what - soy sauce, olive oil; probably, in some cases, both. My "little black BOX" is filled with recipes; sweets to savories, salads to soups, appetizers to desserts. And, in 99% of all the index cards, all recipes are 100% written by me.

I haven't added any new recipes to this box since I stopped catering for work. It is kind of a lock-box of memories that I keep close to my heart.

Instead, I have embarked on a new avenue of transcribing my recipes: into a journal-like composition book. Over the last year, I have found myself on any given afternoon or evening thinking about a classic dish, such as Beef Bourguignon or a Fricasseed Chicken or Roasted Tomato Soup, and immediately pull out my tried-and-true cookbooks, mags, and saved recipes online to see if there is anything interesting I can combine looking at three or four ways to do the same dish. I then will combine my ideas with inspiration from the books and mags and write down what I think will be a great recipe. Then, I will follow my own "new" recipe and still continue to tweak it along the way.

Most of my friends still feel bound to cooking straight from recipes because it is "safe". While I totally understand this "feeling", I always encourage them to learn from cooking the recipe once, pay attention to the techniques the recipe calls for, and then make it their own another time around. For example, if you are doing a dish like Beef Bourguignon, the technique is "braising" the meat. There are PLENTY of recipes out there that call for different herbs, aromatics, wine or other liquor, bacon or no bacon, etc., when braising beef, and simply what I will do is look at about three or four recipes, look at consistent ingredients, see the additions that might add depth of flavor (i.e. one I have added is dark brown sugar...), and create my own, keeing the basic technique in mind.

For that, most friends will say, "Les, that's great and all, but will you just give me 'YOUR recipe' instead of me having to test recipes?" And, to that, how can I say No?

Well, it was that time of week again where I head out to Trader Joes to do my weekly shopping. And, once again, as I have written about in a previous entry (Thank you, Trader Joes, for Not Having Filet Mignon Yesterday..., I walked in wanting bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts and walked out with bone-LESS, skin-LESS chicken breasts as TJ's was, wait for it, OUT again of some protein I wanted. Alas, it was the makings of a great, newly "inspired", dinner.

I decided to get some capers, lemons, white wine (obviously), and do a simple version of Chicken Piccata, knowing I had some shallots, garlic, butter, and chicken stock to use in my fridge at home. Brown rice and roasted broccoli (yes, roasted) would round out the meal.

I got home, grabbed my Joy of Cooking, looked up, spent about five minutes looking for any inspiration to brighten up the dish, and decided to settle on making the most basic Chicken Piccata with a balanced and seasoned lemon-caper sauce, a basic recipe that I can ALWAYS build upon in the future. I began (with a glass of Chardo) to write down my simple recipe:

(Click on the picture for a bigger view, otherwise email me of you want the recipe)

...and pulled out my ingredients:

Chicken broth, capers (drained), shallot (minced), olive oil, butter (cubed and chilled), garlic (minced), white wine, lemon (juiced), and chicken breasts (pounded). Missing? flour for coating chicken.

Just wanted to show this picture too; here is a pounded chicken breast (between two pieces of plastic wrap) compared to a regular chicken breast IN SIZE.

Oh, and to clear answers for questions later, the wine I am drinking is in "THIS" glass.

First, heat olive oil in large skillet; season chicken breast with salt and pepper; dredge in flour, pat off excess, and add to heated oil; saute each side for about 4 minutes until lightly brown; remove from pan and rest on paper towels.

Meanwhile, take half of the capers that you are planning to use and set aside. Heat about 1 tbsp of olive oil in a small skillet over high heat. Add the capers to the oil and "fry" until caper berries burst and get slightly crispy and slightly darken; drain on paper towels. This is just an added texture and flavor to a traditional Chicken Piccata.

Capers are starting to burst, kinda like popcorn seeds.

In the same skillet used to cook the chicken, add the shallots and saute over medium low to soften.

Add the garlic and cook until you can literally smell the garlic. That is all the time you need. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up all of the bits at the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine until completely dry.

Almost dry...

Add chicken stock, lemon juice and reduce to half; then add capers and reduce slightly.

Finish sauce with cubed pieces of chilled butter; either remove pan from heat or reduce heat to LOW (has to be extremely LOW heat or the sauce will melt the butter = greasy mess). Technique is "whisk" the pan, not the sauce - the PAN. Constantly swirl the pan, moving each cube of butter around as it melts into the sauce. Don't add all the butter at once, add a few pieces at a time, and then add more as needed to thicken the sauce.

Action shot of swirling and "whisking" the pan....

Finished thickened sauce. Yes, folks, butter CAN thicken sauces! Oh, and make sure to season with salt and pepper.

I like to return the chicken to the pan to heat through before plating.

...And, plate...

..and the "plus"es of living in San Francisco where your counter in the kitchen is slanted and the sauce so happens to "shift" while taking a picture and get soaked up by the brown rice. Well, you all get the picture.

Anyways, it was a fantastic yet simple, clean approach to a classic Italian chicken preparation. In the future I might add some sauteed mushrooms or artichoke hearts, but this recipe is a great base and came from collaborating on different ingredients and amounts listed not only in books and mags but also in my head. Perhaps my "lock box" of catering recipes and composition book of new and improved ideas will someday be published. Until then, keep enjoying the recipes HERE.

"Cultural" Learning

There are places around the US and around the world that are known for or defined by a certain something culinary.

Some that I have had the chance to enjoy: Colcannon potatoes in Ireland; Haggis in Scotland; Fish and Chips in England; Prosciutto di Parma, Pesto, Fresh Porcini Mushrooms, and Buffala Mozarella in Italy; Lamb in Colorado; the ultimate Tex Mex, including Queso, in Texas; Conch chowder in Florida; Rainbow trout in Idaho; and then there are too many things to include from California that define the state from North to South.

Oh, and, of course, many Irish Coffees in Ireland and stateside, wines from around the world, some of the best margaritas from scratch, and the perfect Bellini made at the home of where Bellini's were created - Harry's Bar in Venice, Italy.

Yes, I am a very lucky culinarian and oenophile (to include "cocktail junky" when appropriate), but I am always overwhelmed when going out to eat with someone when I get to suggest where to go, what to eat, and what to drink when this "someone" has the upper hand on the actual culinary genre we are about to embark on.

So, I present you with this case study of a foodie, from lunch today.

Brett had mentioned plenty of times in the last few days that soul food was on his mind, specifially fried chicken. He would also include the craving for proper collard greens, sweet tea, and some mac and cheese. Being that he is born and bred from Atlanta, GA, I felt nervous mentioning, "well, there is this place, Hard Knox Cafe, here in SF, that is known for its amazing fried chicken and sides, and personally, I think it is the best in the city."

I mean, really, I live in California. I have never been to the South (well, other than Texas) to sample what I have seen on TV as authentic Southern fried chicken. The Colonel from the origins of KFC made it a staple back in the day (and I don't even want to comment on where the chain is now...), and as Brett picked up my iPhone, looked up the reviews on Yelp and decided that he really wanted to try this place, I was immediately happy that I knew I had made the right decision but absolutely terrified at the same time.

Terrified? Yes -I mean, are you KIDDING? I am a Cali girl - he is a Southern boy - he knows his stuff when it comes to fried chicken and appropriate sides. It was a bonus that I had eaten at Hard Knox before, but still, I tried to hide my fear of failure when it came to a California take on a Southern specialty. There was a lot to live up to, and I loved knowing that Brett was going to be the Simon Cowell of the meal. Traditional Southern fare in California - bring it on!

We got to the location (there are two) on Clement St. between 25th and 26th Avenues, walked in, and I held my breath. We sat down, looked at the menu, and both knew what we were going to order - I the fried catfish with collard greens and mac and cheese, Brett the fried chicken with the same sides. But, the first second that I took a breath was when Brett realized that they had Crystal hot sauce available at the table. This made him really happy. I took a drip of the sauce on my finger, and I have to say it was delish. Less hot than vinegary, it was a treat to try something new to me, yet so familiar to someone that was about 3,000 miles from his hometown.

Brett ordered the sweet tea, said it was pretty good, whew. Then the cornbread came, to which he said it was pretty good cornbread. It was cooked to order - slightly sweet but not floury at all; rather a bit crumbly, as we both agreed cornbread should be. Off to a good start.

I must add that he wasn't being a harsh critic at all - rather he was being a true critic, and I asked him to be so.

Our lunch entrees arrived, and Brett dove right in. Drumstick, then thigh, then breast, sharing some of the amazing crispy skin with me, as well as the meat. The chicken was the best part - moist and tasty, accented by the perfect frying temperature of the flour coating on the skin. My fried catfish was also a winner, battered in a light cornmeal crust and cooked to absolute perfection.

The collard greens? Both of us exclaimed that they were the freshest and tastiest, though they needed some salt. I was just so happy to see Brett scarfing down his plate. He asked the server for spicy vinegar, for the greens, and the server knew exactly what he was talking about - the vinegar tasted like a hot, pickled pepper vinegar and dressed the greens lightly yet pungently when dipped in. YUM.

Mac and Cheese? Just OK. But, the best was Brett's excitement that it wasn't a disappointment to what he knew as traditional Southern food here in California. When I asked him how does this compare to Southern fried food, keeping in mind that we were in CA, he said he would give it a 6 out of 10. I asked what the difference would be, and he said I would just have to experience it. Well, I will be there in November and will have more to report then!

Wherever you are in the US or outside, it's always interesting to see food and culture though another person's perspective. Can't wait to experience more!