Ham Shanks and Ham Hocks

Ham Shanks and Ham HocksThe colder months of winter are the perfect time for slowly-simmered soups to warm you up. One of the easiest and best ways to punch up the flavor of any soup is to add a ham hock or ham shank into the pot. While the soup simmers the smokey flavor of the ham permeates the soup while adding a little salt. A meatier shank can also be a perfect way to add extra protein by way of the cooked meat falling off the bone. But is one better than the other?

From a culinary standpoint, ham hocks and ham shanks are essentially interchangeable with just two differences between the two. Ham hocks tend to be bonier and have less meat on them because they come from the area of the leg that is closest to the foot of the pig. Ham shanks, on the other hand, are meatier because they come from the area just below the shoulder or the hip. Both contain a considerable amount of collagen which adds richness to whatever recipe you are making. And, both require long cooking times using methods like braising or stewing to break down the tough meat into something that can be eaten.

Ham hocks and ham shanks are widely available and inexpensive—though, the shanks tend to be a little bit higher priced. Both freeze really well. They are almost always available smoked but occasionally you will see unsmoked ham shanks. If you do, grab them and throw them in your freezer for another time. You can cook the unsmoked shanks the same way you would cook a lamb of beef shank. Served alongside some creamy white beans and sautéed greens, they make for a tasty satisfying winter dinner.

Gam’s Navy Bean Soup
Yields 6 to 8 servings Read more…

Porchetta

PorchettaFor a show-stopping holiday meal, nothing beats a porchetta.
Porchetta was introduced to the US by Italian immigrants who brought the tradition with them when they came to the United States. At it’s most basic, porchetta is an Italian pork roast that is seasoned generously with garlic, fennel, and other herbs then rolled, tied, and roasted. Traditionally it’s made with a skin-on pork middle and roasted until the skin turns a dark brown so it breaks off into crunchy hard-to-resist pieces of pork flavor. Porchetta can be a huge piece of meat which makes it perfect for a large crowd. And, because of the high quantity of fat found in the belly section, the meat is moist and flavorful. The leftovers also make the base for some amazing sandwiches.

Making an authentic porchetta can be challenging for the average home cook for a couple of reasons. The first is that finding a skin-on pork belly at your typical store or butcher shop can be difficult. It usually requires a special order to bring on in. If you are willing to think a bit outside the box, you can still make a moist flavorful porchetta that is just as tasty bu using other parts of the pig that are more readily available—such as a skin-on pork shoulder or a boneless half leg of pork. Or, for even more variety, you can use a boned-out rabbit to make a smaller version. Turkey is also an option.

The second reason porchetta can be challenging is refrigerator space. Porchetta can require anywhere from 1 to 3 days in the refrigerator to ensure that the flavors penetrate throughout the meat. The wait is worth it but it’s is best to plan ahead. Also, even if you decide to go with a pork shoulder, remember that this is still a big piece of meat and your refrigerator needs to be able to handle it.

The traditional flavors for porchetta consist of garlic, fennel, and rosemary. But, you can definitely get creative and substitute those flavors for something more Cuban with cumin, orange zest, and pimento. A little lemon zest and thyme would be tasty as well.

If you’re up for the challenge and looking for something different for your holiday dinner, check out our recipe for Porchetta Pork Roast. It’s a simplified version of the classic.

Porchetta Pork Roast
Adapted from NY Times Cooking
Serves 8 to 12 Read more…

Goose

GooseThanksgiving means turkey.
But, what do you do if you or someone in your family doesn’t like turkey? There are any number of possible replacements for a roast turkey. Plenty of people cook a ham or roast some beef along with their turkey. A large number of us in the Bay Area have Dungeness Crab with our turkey, assuming it’s available. You could still go with something from the poultry family just a bit more exotic.

What about roasting a goose for Thanksgiving?

Geese, much like duck, have a large amount of fat on them which must be rendered out during cooking to make them edible. It is the fat content that makes the goose meat rich and flavorful but also a dish more suitable for holiday celebrations. Also, like duck, goose is a red meat. This means that the breasts are traditionally cooked until medium-rare, unlike turkey which needs to be cooked through and may lead to dry meat. Even better, the fat can be saved and used in other dishes like roasted potatoes.

Most butcher shops carry geese on a year-round basis. But, they will almost always only be available frozen—which is something to consider when deciding on cooking a goose. You can defrost it in the refrigerator or by using cold, running water.

When deciding what size goose to get you should allow for 1-1/2 to 2 pounds per person (unless you have big eaters). An 8-pound goose will serve 4 to 5 while a 12-pound goose should feed 6 to 8. You can always get two smaller geese and roast them together.

There are a number of ways to prepare goose for dinner. It can be roasted whole in a low oven over a long time. This produces a goose that is crisp and crackling-like and the legs become melt-in-your-mouth tender. But roasting the goose whole can also run the risk of over-cooked breast meat. Another approach would be to cook the different parts of the goose separately by roasting the legs and thighs slowly in the oven and sautéing the breasts quickly on the stove. The presentation of a whole bird may be lost but the meat itself will be perfectly cooked. Goose can also be wonderful when braised but again, if you’re going for the wow factor of bringing a goose to the table, this may not be your best option.

There are numerous recipes available on the internet for you to try if you decide to go with goose this Thanksgiving. All of them require rendering out the fat in some way shape or form. One of our favorites is this one adapted from Food & Wine Magazine…

Roasted Goose
Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
Yields 6 to 8 servings
This recipe requires you ben the day before roasting the goose. You separate the skin from the meat and then steam the goose. This technique is adapted from Chinese cooking and helps the bird to baste in its own fat and makes the skin extra-crispy. Read more…

Seasonal Fish—What’s Available?

Seasonal Fish—What's Available?Here in California, we are spoiled by the abundance that grows, literally, in our backyards. The concept of seasonality has some pretty blurred lines when you can get whatever you want year-round. What you may not know is the same is true for fish.

Avid fishermen are very aware that certain fish can only be harvested at certain times of the year. Yet, meat counters across the west coast always seem to have what we are looking for whenever we need it or have a craving. Though there are some fish that are available year-round, here is a general guide to the seasons of some of your favorite seafood sold in the SF Bay Area.

Albacore Tuna
Available June through October. Look for line or pole caught tuna to promote sustainability. Also, the line/pole caught tunas tend to be younger fish which means they haven’t had the mercury exposure of older resulting in lower mercury levels in the fish itself.

Clams
Farmed clams are available year-round. Wild clams are available October through June. If you are planning to harvest your own clams, make sure to check with state regulations regarding the harvest of the several varieties available on the West Coast.

Dungeness Crab
Available from November through February in the southern West Coast and June through August in the Pacific Northwest area. This fishery spans the coast from just south of San Francisco up into Canada. The opening of Dungeness crab season usually coincides with Thanksgiving in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recent occurrences of high toxin levels in the crab due to water temps caused by global warming as well as pricing disputes with the fisherman have sometimes delayed or even prevented the opening of crab season in the Bay Area. Read more…

Cooking with Pork

Cooking with PorkWhen considering what you are going to have for dinner on any given evening, how often do you think about a juicy pork chop? Despite being a mainstay of cuisines around the globe, chances are pork is not the first option that comes to mind. While there is any number of reasons why this might be true, the most likely one would be because there is the perception that pork is a tough, dry and flavorless product. This belief is born out of the idea that pork needed to be cooked long enough to make it safe to eat. The quality of the pork could have been excellent—but the finished product was ruined by overcooking. While that may have been the case years ago, recent changes in pork production and cooking guidelines are altering the way we cook and eat pork. And, pork dishes of all kinds are being found on the menus of the country’s top restaurants.

The truth is pork can be a very succulent and versatile source of protein. Pork’s natural marbling for juiciness and its ability to absorb flavor make it an optimal choice for a variety of cooking styles. It is in the leaner cuts like the pork loins, tenderloins, and chops where the way you cook it can be the difference between a fantastic meal and something tough and hard to eat. So, why the concern about undercooking it?

The USDA recommended cooking guidelines for pork were established because of the concern over the trichinosis parasite. Making sure that your pork reached a certain temperature would ensure that the parasite was destroyed and you wouldn’t get sick. The current reality though is that trichinosis has been almost completely eradicated in American pork with only a few cases appearing each year, usually with pigs that are homegrown and not inspected by the USDA. While that is great news, we still need to be cautious and cook the pork correctly. But, we don’t need to incinerate it.

Trichinae are destroyed at a temperature of 137 ºF but to be completely sure, it is best to cook pork to a temperature of 150 ºF to 165 ºF. The meat will still be noticeably pink but is considered to be cooked medium. This means you should be taking the meat out of the oven or off the grill when it reaches 145 ºF and let it rest.

Another reason not to overcook your pork? This is not your Grandma’s pig. As recent as 50 years ago, the pigs that went to market weighed an average of 300 pounds and had a thick, beautiful multiple, inches-thick layer of fat along the ribs. And as we know, the fat is where the flavor is. There was more fat on the animal in general which made for a richer, juicier meat that could stand reaching temperatures as high as 180 ºF and longer cooking times without drying out.

That is no longer the case. Today’s pigs go to market at an average of 240 pounds and have a fat layer less than an inch thick. For those who are watching their fat and cholesterol intake, this is fantastic news because today’s pork has less overall fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories than an equivalent amount of skinless chicken thighs. This gives you options when choosing what protein to fuel your body. When cooked correctly, this makes for a much more flavorful and satisfying meal than serving chicken day after day.

Thick Pork Chops with Spiced Apples and Raisins Recipe
Pork and apples are a delicious flavor combination. This recipe for Thick Pork Chops with Spiced Apples and Raisins is adapted from Tyler Florence. The pork chops are definitely tasty (brining is a must!) and a pork roast will work well, too. But for some, the main reason to make it is the warm compote. Read more…