Monday, March 30, 2009

Violets, Frogs and Woodpeckers

Three thrilling harbingers of warmer days to come:

The swoon-worthy scent and luscious color of Viola odorata.

The sound of frogs from the woods.

The rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers and flickers echoing around in the neighborhood.

Bonus: the emergence of trilliums.

Could this horrible winter finally be behind us?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cooking: Fig-Stuffed Roast Pork

I recently saw a recipe for a fig-stuffed pork loin in The New York Times, so I thought I would have a go at it. Here's my modified recipe:

Fig-Stuffed Roast Loin of Pork
serves 6 or more

1 Cup dried black mission figs
Port (either tawny or ruby; I used Jonesy, a blended port from Trevor Jones of Australia)
1 boneless pork loin, 2 to 3 pounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 or 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary, minced (about 1–2 Tablespoons total)

Cut stem tips off of figs, then place the figs in a tall drinking glass. Cover with port and let sit for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Stick a long, thin knife through the center of the pork loin (go in at one flat end and come out the other; I used a boning knife for this). Take a wooden spoon and insert the handle into the cut you just made, wiggling it around a bit to enlarge the hole somewhat. Stuff the figs inside this cavity. If you can't get them all in, you can add them to the roasting pan or reserve them for when you make the sauce.

Tie the roast with thick, cotton butcher's twine. It should be nice and plump. Place the pork in a roasting pan, then pour about 1/2 Cup of the port used to soak the figs over the pork. Season the meat well with salt, pepper, and the minced rosemary.

Place the roast in the  pre-heated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325° and baste the roast with either pan juices, or more of the fig-soaking port (do not let the pan dry completely—add water if you don't want to add more port). Continue to baste the roast every 15 minutes, until an instant read thermometer reads 145° or 150° when stuck into a think part of the roast (make sure it's not in the fruit stuffing, but actually in the roast). Remove the roast and tent with foil to keep warm.

Place the roasting pan on a burner and turn the heat to medium-high. If you have any fig-soaking port and/or figs left over, add to the pan. If there is no liquid in the pan,  you can add fresh port or water, about 1/2 Cup. Scrape up any congealed meat juices and brown bits, and boil the sauce until reduced and slightly thickened.

Slice the pork to the desired thickness (it will be moist and pale pink), then drizzle with the sauce. Serve extra figs on the side.

I served this with spaghetti tossed with some butternut squash that I had cut into bite-sized pieces, then roasted with sweet onion, garlic, fresh sage, salt, pepper and a healthy drizzle of olive oil. I reserved about 1/2 Cup of the pasta water, adding it, along with about 1/2 Cup of freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese (this was for two servings). I meant to add a handful of chopped Italian parsley, but it got forgotten in the end.

The pork was extremely moist and succulent, the port adding a complex fruity sweetness that was nicely offset by the rosemary. We're looking forward to having leftovers in sandwiches tomorrow.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Macs and PCs

There is nearly nothing as tiresome as the "debate" that rages online about the merits of Apple versus Microsoft (and vice-versa). Microsoft's latest ad salvo takes aim at the fact that if you have $1,000 to spend on a laptop computer, you have your choice of many Windows-loaded models (no mention of Linux here, natch), but Apple only sells one laptop in that price range. Fair enough: facts are facts. If your only criteria is price, you have more choices of Windows laptops than Apple offers. For some of us, though, price is not the only consideration.

People buy and use products for a delightfully large and complex range of reasons. I have always been drawn to Macs because they have enabled me to do the work I use a computer for in a way that has suited me and my preferred way of working.  Now, had the many Apple computers that I have used over the years not worked well or had been frustrating to use (and by this I mean for what I use a computer for, not necessarily what you use a computer for), I wouldn't have stuck with them. Could I have used a PC running Windows to accomplish everything I have done with my Macs? Absolutely. I just prefer the experience and stability of using a Mac. This doesn't make me an elitist, just a consumer with preferences. "Coolness" has nothing to do with it.

I don't care at all which computer people choose to use—they should use the hardware and software that best suits their needs, interests, temperaments, and budgets and we should all celebrate that there is at least some choice in this matter. Even if some consumers choose a product because of a perceived "cool" factor, so what? Let people decide for themselves. Some car buyers will choose a Kia, some a Ford, and some a BMW. Isn't it nice to have a choice?

What is tiresome about the new ad from Microsoft is 1) Microsoft already enjoys the largest share of the desktop OS market, and 2) the sneering implication that people who base consumer decisions on anything other than price are somehow elitist. Pretty ironic, coming from a company whose current and former executives are wealthy beyond understanding and often live like kings (unless you think that $147 million housesmega-yachts, and space tourism are not, well, somewhat elitist themselves). 

Microsoft, for all its strengths and weaknesses, seems unwilling to cede market share to anyone else. Their executives routinely spout the mantra of "Microsoft everywhere".  This is the core of my long-standing distaste for them—they simply don't want to share. (To be fair, I have also long squirmed at Apple's "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads as being too smug.)

What puzzles me is when a company that already enjoys a dominant market share takes a swipe at the rest of us who choose something else. I say having choices is a good thing.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cooking: Beef and Guinness Pie

I was browsing through The New York Times last week and came across a recipe for a pub-style beef pie made with Guinness. Here is the recipe, with modifications noted.

Beef and Guinness Pie
Serves 6

4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large red onions, chopped
4 gloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
10 mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thick (I used crimini mushrooms)
3 pounds beef brisket or stew meat, cut into bite-size pieces (I used grass-raised top round)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons flour
1 sprig rosemary (I used a fairly large one cut from the plant in our garden)
About 4 Cups Guinness or other stout (I ended up using just one "1 pint 6 oz" bottle)
4 oz freshly grated cheddar cheese (I used a medium, raw-milk version)

Preheat oven to 375°.

In a large, ovenproof pan with a lid (I used an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven), heat 2 T of butter over medium-low heat. Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 10 minutes.

Add carrots, celery, mushrooms, and remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are dark in color and the moisture released by them has evaporated, about 15 minutes.

Season the beef pieces with salt and pepper. Add beef, flour, and rosemary to the pan, raise heat, and cook over high heat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

Add enough Guinness to just cover the beef. Put the lid on the pan and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and give it a stir. Return to the oven for 1 hour longer. If, after a total of 2 1/2 hours, the stew remains thin, set pan over medium-low heat, remove lid, and reduce the liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

The stew would be delicious to eat just as is, but if you're going to go for the full pie experience, now is the time to fold in the cheese. (This creates a "mouth feel" that would traditionally be provided by using pig's feet or other collagen-rich meats.)

While the stew is cooking, prepare the pastry.

1 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour (or substitute whole wheat pastry flour)
2 1/4 teaspoons baking flour (I use aluminum-free)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 Cup (1 stick) very cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes

I put the flour, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulsed it to combine, then added the butter and continued pulsing until the butter was cut into the size of small peas. I then added enough ice-cold water, pulsing after each addition, until the dough just started clumping. I ended up using a little over 1/4 Cup, but the quantity will depend on the aridity of your flour(s). The trick to making pie dough in a food processor is to not mix it until it forms a single mass. When it starts to just clump together, I always remove the lid and pinch some of the dough between my fingers. If it doesn't crumble, it's done, even though overall the dough might look quite crumbly. Put a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter and dump out the dough, gathering it together into a loose pile. Fold the plastic wrap somewhat loosely over the dough, then press the dough out into the plastic wrap to form a disk. Don't handle it too much, or the heat of your hands will melt the butter. Flaky dough comes from chunks of butter layered in the dough—you should be able to see distinct lumps of butter in your finished pastry.

Chill the pastry for at least an hour. When the stew is done, remove the rosemary twig (all of the leaves will have come off), then remove the dough from the refrigerator. Put the stew into an 8 inch baking dish (I used a medium-sized oval ceramic baker), then roll the pastry dough out between waxed paper or plastic wrap to the size of the baking dish. Place the dough on top of the stew. Do something decorative with the edges, if you like; just make sure the stew is pretty much completely covered. Beat an egg yolk and brush it all over the surface of the pie. Try not to think of Sweeney Todd. Cut some decorative vents through the crust, then place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake it for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden and slightly puffy.

The final verdict? Excellent. The stew was rich and well-flavored. The crust, which, due to the baking powder, is reminiscent of biscuits, offered a delicious counterpoint to the stew. I served it with roasted fingerling potatoes and a medley of green peas, snow peas, and suger-snap peas, instead of a more traditional "peas and mash."