Bacon Shakshouka

I have eaten lots of shakshuka. The North African dish of stewed tomatoes and poached eggs is as close to the national dish of Israel as it comes. Yes, falafel was marketed well by the Jewish Agency as the food of choice in Israel, but one can find shakshouka on more menus. It is sold at the local shwarma stand, the 24 hour cafe and even the high school kiosk. Shakshouka comforts me when the cold and rainy Jerusalem winter has crept into my bones and it lounges with me during late morning brunch. I have eaten it with goat cheese, with spinach, with merguez sausage and now with bacon.

One of my favorite restaurants in Israel is called Doctor Shakshouka. Hidden among the alleyways of Jaffa, Dr. Shakshouka serves up some tasty medicine. It was the first place I ate shakshouka with meat. And it was my experience there that spawned my own doctorate in shakshouka: Bacon Shakshouka.

In addition to Dr. Shakshouka, the other source for this dish was a recipe offered by Jill Santopietro, who used to work for the New York Times and is now at Chow.com. In a segment called Tiny Kitchen she presented the recipe for Uova al Purgatorio or “eggs in purgatory” which is an Italian version of shakshouka served over polenta.

For my shakshouka I made the ragu first in a pot and then transferred it to a pan. I made the ragu with some grilled tomatoes and peppers and then added onion, canned tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, and a small left over nub of bacon. Here is one recipe for shakshouka to play with. Obviously, if making it with lamb bacon (and kosher), you need to leave out the cheese. I sauteed the onions and garlic then added the grilled tomatoes and peppers which I had cut up and stored. I used one hot pepper, 2 sweet peppers and about 6 tomatoes. Then I added a small can of whole tomatoes which I cut up and half a small carton of tomato paste. Finally, I added the nub of lamb bacon and let it stew for 1.5 hours. This made enough for Yael and I with a bunch of ragu left in the pan (though no more room for eggs).

Once I was ready to eat, I fried of some lamb bacon in a pan and cooked it about 80%. Then I removed the bacon and added the ragu to the bacon fat that had collected in the pan. After a few stirs I added my eggs and covered for a bit. I like my eggs runny so once the whites were firm I added my bacon back to the ragu, sliding some slices under the eggs. I let it sit for another minute and then removed from heat. Shakshouka is served very hot so we waited a few minutes before we dug in. Just like really hot pizza, shakshouka is a great way to burn one’s mouth.

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Restaurant Review – 1868

On Thursday night Yael and I went out to dinner to celebrate our birthdays. We had been looking forward to a nice meal for a while and were thrilled with the experience at 1868. In the 8 years that I have lived in Israel, I have never had as nice meal as the one I had Thursday night. The service was excellent, the ambiance delightful and the food was excellent.

In my mind, 1868 has been around as long as I have lived in Jerusalem, though in a number of different locations. I also do not remember it being known as one of the better restaurants in Jerusalem until recently. One friend, who raves about it, said that it came under new ownership in recent years. Another friend claims the food is mediocre – just fancy. In any event, we had a great time.

Upon arrival we were quickly shown our table. The restaurant seems to be made up of a number of small dining rooms. In our room sat another couple and a group of four. It was cozy, intimate and the music playing was great. It was mostly Erica Badu though at the end we got a little Bill Withers and some School House Rocks. It was not too loud, just pleasant.

We were quickly visited by the sommelier and then our server. Yael ordered the evening’s cocktail made of fig liquor, vodka and pomegranate juice, while I waited to order wine until after making my meal choice. After ordering, we were brought a basket of three breads which included a slices of a country loaf with a bit of cinnamon, a small french baguette, and two small sour dough roles. These were served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic and a small dish of homemade aioli. Though Yael is gluten-free and I have adopted that minhag, I broke it because this bread was divine.

The first course was served quite quickly. Yael orderd the calf’s sweetbreads and I had the roasted foie gras. The sweetbreads were served “ras el hanout” which refers to a spice blend often mixed with cinnamon, cardamon, cumin, coriander, paprika and other North African flavors that means “top of the shop.” The sweetbreads were then grilled and served over an onion cream, roasted red pepper coulis and with fava beans. As this was both of our first time eating sweetbreads we can only compare it to other foods we have eaten. None the less, it was clear why these glands are such delicacies. They were literally bursting with flavor. They were salty and silky, chewy but in a good way. My difficulty in evaluating them is that I was eating foie gras, which is what I would probably eat everyday for the rest of my life if I a) had the money, b) wasn’t going to die an early death from cholesterol and c) had the money. This stuff is like meaty butter. It was so good. I literally wanted to take a bath in foie gras! By roasting the foie gras I ended up with a few pieces of caramelized ends and a milky center. It was a meat candy bar. It was served over a carrot vanilla veloute (one of those words I did not know of until I started watching Top Chef) with a frozen shallot mousse on the side. The veloute was thicker than most veloutes are supposed to be, it was more like a puree. That being said, the bite of foie gras with a helping of carrot and that cold spot of mousse was a symphony of flavor and texture. Like smooth jazz if smooth jazz was good. My meal was paired with a small glass of sweet dessert wine that was generously offered to me on the house. I had told the sommelier that I was a one-glass-a-night kind of guy but that I wanted something that would work well with both the foie gras and my main – the lamb. He responded by bringing me a small glass of the Yarden sweet dessert wine which was just the right addition to an already great beginning.

Between courses we had a light cranberry pomegranate cinnamon granita to cleanse the palate. It was lite with just a touch of cinnamon. It was the perfect in between ushering us from our first plate to our second. The granita was taken, my Syrah was poured and out came my lamb chops and Yael’s duck breast.

The duck was cooked quite rare, in fact our waiter pointed this out to us upon ordering. On a previous visit to La Guta I ordered the mallard and was rather disappointed. The breast had been over cooked and over sauced. Here though the breast was done perfectly. A nice layer of fat protecting the breast had been seared and caramelized while the meat itself stayed moist and juicy. It was served over a puree of pumpkin and sage and a side of caramelized endive hearts. Of the endive hearts, Yael’s exact words were, “they were the best thing ever.” Since she is easily sold on a sweet and savory mix, the duck was the right dish for her, but the endive hearts added the necessary sweetness to the duck.

My lamb chops were served bone in, resting on small disks of lamb shoulder. The dish highlighted the variety of flavor and texture naturally found in the lamb. In addition was a bit of roasted eggplant, a small tomato tart, and a cilantro sauce. The chop was perfectly broiled. The chop is what I think of when I think of lamb, gamy but also the taste of spring. The shoulder on the other hand had clearly been slow cooked, its flavor was lighter, more subtle. The shoulder was the one part of the meal that was not to perfection as it had dried out a little bit (this may be the nature of the shoulder, I have never had shoulder that I would call succulent). While the eggplant was smokey and flavorful, I am not one for plain eggplant so I cannot speak to its merits. However, I do know tomato tarts and I can speak highly of the smokey sweet tomato tart that accompanied my lamb chops. It was a small filo dough disk topped with a homemade smokey ketchup, though it was thicker, like a pate, and topped with sliced roasted cherry tomatoes. It was sweet, tangy and smokey. Absolutely lovely.

We ended our meals with dessert. As plums are in season they played a prominent role in both of our meals. I had a deconstructed mille feuille, a layered dessert of filo dough, pistachio cream and plums bathed in a liquor. While Yael had stewed plums and ice cream. With our check we were presented with two small cookies as a parting gift. They were chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar. The best part is that they were chocolate Kalamata olive cookies. The cookies were a fitting end to a meal that felt both old and new, classic and modern. 1868 took traditional French cooking and melded it with the local flavors of the Middle East served in updated form for the 21st century.

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Kosher Charcuterie: Slice It and Fry It: A Photo Retrospective.

Ok…ok…I wanted to spend more time writing about each of the pictures and the experience of eating bacon for the first time in more than a decade, but YOU just want to see the finished product.  Fine.  Here are the final pictures to our first run.   In the meantime, we’ve got three more bellies curing in the fridge….

The end result, friends, was smoky, salty, sweet bacon.  We were so ecstatic at the first tastings that Josh started doing that jump up and down thing he does where he does a weird thing with his hand (you know that move?).

Instead of talking about the process, I’m just going to share the pictures of the last step in our first attempt.

Step #5: Slicing and Frying

 

Too sleepy to go into all the specifics, but Josh and I will post some video soon to run down the best way to slice and cook.  Enjoy!

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Kosher Charcuterie: Soak It and Smoke It.

I have a number of food memories that are all tied to pork.  When we lived in Orange County, my dad and I would spend Sunday mornings at Paul’s Coffee Shop .  I always got the biscuits and gravy with a chocolate milk and Dad would get (and will get until this day) chicken fried steak, eggs over easy, hashbrowns (crisp) and sourdough toast.  For a couple holiday seasons, we would get a spiral cut honey baked ham–the crunchy, sweet skin residue was too irresistible to pick off  itself.  In numerous Asian food malls around Southern California, my mother would get me my favorite chao siu bao–perfectly white, slightly sweet yeast buns with a savory, sweet, and sticky mess of barbeque pork stuffed right into the middle.  Thanks Mom and Dad.

Yet, my most delicious pork memory may be the time we stayed at the Embassy Suites when first visiting North Carolina before moving.  The buffet there is an incredible thing, complete with an omelette guy, but nothing stands out more than the massive silver chaffing dish filled to the brim with hot bacon.  In my mind, it looks like a treasure chest of delicious.  This post is dedicated to that chaffing dish, wherever she is now.

When last we met, the bellies were taking a week long break in the refrigerator.  During that time, Josh flipped and rubbed them to make sure the cure was working its magic evenly.  All the literature says that a lot of moisture is supposed to expel from the meat during that time.  This did not happen for us, but we went ahead anyway.  A week later, I took the bellies out for their next step.

Step #3: Soaking

This may be the least glamorous step in this entire process.  Why, you might ask? Because all I did was set the bellies in a cool filtered water bath for an hour to allow any of the excess salt to leech out of the meat.  It was so uninspiring, I didn’t even take a picture, but it probably looked something like this.

So...many...bellies...

The meat sat in the fridge for an hour and a half, but this was only guess work.  I have read several blogs where aspirin chartuiers complain about how salty their bacon turned out and realize they should have soaked it for longer.  After the stint in the fridge, I actually cut off two slices from each belly to test the salinity.  It tasted like salty lamb, not too salty, but not yet bacon.  Bellies aren’t bacon until they have been smoked.

The half step is actually a very important one.  After patting the meat dry, I returned it to the fridge for twelve hours to dry even further.  During that time, the bellies develop what is called a pellicle. During Step #2, the cure was busy drawing water soluble proteins to the surface of the meat. While drying, the proteins create a pellicle, a membrane of sorts which allows the smoke vapor and colloids to adhere to the meat, helps seal in the remaining moisture through the smoking process, and prevents the fat in the meat from rising to the surface and spoiling.  If you don’t have a pellicle, you don’t have bacon.

Step #4: Smoking

If I may speak personally, this was the step I was most looking forward to.  My steady summer diet of food television, from everything to “BBQ Pitmasters” to watching this this guy eating buckets of barbeque made me voraciously eager to eat something that was cooked ‘low and slow’.  Smoking seems to be in my blood, as well.  Mom has regaled me with stories of a little electric smoker she got as a wedding present, using it almost weekly (she even thought to bribe me with this if I came back from Israel).

Not having much of a clue as to what we were doing, Josh bought a few smoker bags and brought them to Jerusalem. Owning a full blown, stand-up smoker and wood chips would always be ideal, but in their absence, this would have to do.  The idea behind this contraption is to wrap the food in a large aluminum bag with two layers. Between the two layers of aluminum foil lies alder wood dust, which when heated to a temperature of 140°F, releases smoke throughout the bag.  Without a smoker, Josh called upon our buddies Jason and Dara to use their American style grill.

Emeril smokes a LOT of meat. BAM!

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I placed the bellies in the bag and wrapped them according to the directions.  Their was no potent smell to the bags, and at this point, I was worried that the smoking process would be further out of my control then I would have liked.  For starters, a gas grill, even on its lowest setting, can get to around 200°F, sixty degrees higher than the ideal temperature for smoking bacon.  My other concern was the technology at hand:  what the hell were these bags and how were they going to affect the taste and smell of the meat we had tended to all week?  What does Alder wood taste like?

Most of my fears started to come true the minute I put the bags on the grill.  The heat went up way too high, much to quickly, potentially ending this entire project.  The temperature at which lamb actually begins to cook is approximately 325° F…with the cover down, the grill was way on its way to 300°F.

Over the line!!!!

For a quick fix, I put the lamb on the opposite side of the grill away from the flame, and propped open the lid to keep it below 200°F.  Remember, the smoking process takes at least one hour for the smoke to be imparted to the meat. If you cross over into cooking range, the pellicle will dry out and the smoke will not be able to penetrate the meat and fat.  They call it ‘cold-smoking’ for a reason.

After an hour of beer drinking and haphazard sukkah construction, the bellies were ready to be taken off the fire.  I eagerly unwrapped the each bag, huffing into the aluminum bag like a hobo into a sock filled with paint.  The smell was there!  I removed the bellies to reveal a changed thing, something that had gone through a molecular transformation.  The color, the texture–it was no longer cured meat.  It was…BACON.

So meaty

So fatty.

A thing of beauty.

And that was it.  After a week of guessing and hoping, it lay there before me.  Less glorious then that silver treasure chest of bacon at the Embassy, but it was made by our own hands.

But how would it hold it up in the pan?

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The power of non-traditional kosher food

I was pleasantly surprised to read Frank Bruni’s expose about Basil Pizza & Wine in this week’s NY Times Magazine. It is the story of an upscale Kosher restaurant just across from the “Jewish” side of Crown Heights. The story is about breaking down the boundaries between Jew and non-Jew while enriching the particularism of the Jewish tradition.

It’s also a cross-cultural experiment, trying to promote better integration of, and communication between, groups in Crown Heights that haven’t always mingled much or seen eye to eye. Although its food and wine are strictly kosher, Basil isn’t located on what is known as the Jewish side of Eastern Parkway, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare and dividing line. It’s on the West Indian side and, with its deliberately diverse staff, courts the black residents there. The trendy menu of individual-size pizzas, raw-fish compositions and pasta dishes is also meant to appeal to them — and to the young, liberal-minded professionals who, in slowly growing numbers, are choosing Crown Heights as a cheaper alternative to the Williamsburg or Prospect Heights sections of Brooklyn. Basil wants everyone under one roof.

And since its opening in March, it has stirred strong feelings, illustrating how restaurants can wind up being so much bigger than themselves. Many of them mirror — and a few even mold — the communities around them.

We too are trying to re-imagine Kosher food and connect those on the inside with those on the outside. Kosher food that moves beyond ashkenazi staples (goulash, kugel, brisket) or “Israeli” comfort food (hummus, shnitzel, felafel), that plays with the world around us, integrating, fusing and inventing, can step forward with open arms while retaining and enriching a dynamic tradition. Hats off to Basil’s principle owner Danny Branover and all the staff there!

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Leaping Frog Chicken

A little more than a week ago we had a bbq for my wife Yael’s birthday. We got some wings, some Merguez sausage (spicy North African flavors which we will try to replicate sometime this year) and on the advice of Zac, a whole chicken. Zac was telling me about a style of cooking chicken whole on the grill called “leaping frog”. Thankfully, Gourmet covered this technique before they went under. In trying to find this article online, I came across the spatchcock technique which is fun to say but seems like far more work. I mean there are few things more fun than posting to your facebook status “spatchcocking a chicken” and waiting for the good times to come rolling in. That being said, I am a leap frogger and not a spatchcocker.

The idea behind leap frogging is creating a flat plane of chicken and cooking it on a covered grill over the charcoal-less side of the grill. The cooking process is easy, it is the cutting that adds any dimension of difficulty, though in reality it is quite simple.

My advice is to just follow the picture directions in the Gourmet article. But here is the quick run down:

  1. cut in where the leg meets the thigh
  2. pop the bones out of their sockets
  3. cut up the sides, through the ribs to the shoulders

This creates a chicken that can hinge at the shoulders. When it lies flat, it looks like a leaping frog.

To cook, you lay it over the coals for five minutes skin side down and then flip it over, move it to the side without the coals, and cook it covered, skin up, for 45 minutes (roughly, you got to check it).

As for my marinade. I actually made this dish twice. The second time was for this past Shabbat dinner. I ended up marinading longer the second time, about 4 hours, but I would like to get an overnight marinade soon. The issue was chicken availability in Jerusalem after the chagim. Both times, I created a paste of a garlic and lemon juice made with my trusty immersion blender (the zhuzher). I also added the suggested paprika, cumin and black pepper. I used smoked paprika. I also put some of the lemons under the skin of the chicken.

Frankly, I love this recipe. It is really fun and really tasty. As I continue to perfect it, I will try to get my skin even crispier without losing the juiciness of the meat. I hope you all enjoy!

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Kosher Charcuterie: Lamb Bacon

I don’t recall the official moment when it happened, but at some point in the summer Josh and I settled on attempting to make bacon as soon as I came to Israel.  Needless to say, I have never followed through with anything so quickly and thoroughly in my life as with this project.  For a once treif eating, food culture obsessed observant Jew, the pervasiveness of bacon in the foodie scene is close to painful.  Bacon ice cream, bacon wrapped everything, show after show dedicated to what was once was my special breakfast treat is now everybody’s favorite ironic ingredient.  And what of the Jew?  He stands by, making do with the children of a lesser hog.

Until now.

After months of reading up on curing, smoking, and slicing techniques, Josh and I bring you the record of our labor of love.  Here is kosher lamb bacon as five easy pieces.

Step #1:  Purchasing

Josh and I spent an afternoon looking around Machane Yehudah in Jerusalem for the cut of meat that makes it all possible:  lamb belly.  As you can see from the diagram,

Creepiest picture I could find.

the lamb essentially breaks down into eight cuts.  The belly, also known as the breast or flap, is part of the forequarter and contains ribs. It is oblong-shaped with layers of fat and lean, with fat usually covering one of the sides.  Aside from the pig, the lamb is the only other mammal that possesses this cut from which traditional bacon, fried strips of beautifully coalesced fat and meat, is created.

Unlike pork belly, which is THE posh cut of meat in America these days, lamb belly is virtually uneaten and thought of as a throw away cut due to its high fat content (this does seem to be changing, however).

Pink belly!

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Not surprisingly, this is not the case in Israel or the rest of the Middle East where lamb fat is valued for its ability to keep slow turning spits of schwarma lusciously moist,  as delicious filler in hamburgers, and as the fat of choice in most Lebanese and Syrian dishes. Hot lamb fat instantly dissolves in your mouth–it’s as easy as that.

Hoping to experience different flavors and qualities of meat, we settled on buying two bellies from two different butchers.   Inexplicably, the smaller piece was the more expensive between the two (and Josh might say was tastier in the end).  After making our purchases, we headed back to Josh’s to prepare the cure in which the bellies would sit in for a week.

Step #2: Curing

Cures what ails ya.

Simply, curing is a process whereby food is preserved and flavored by sitting in salt and sometimes sugar from anywhere to a few days to a few months, depending on what you are curing.  For our cure, we used the recipe found in the oft-praised “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” by Michael Ruhlman.

Roughly one part kosher salt to one part white sugar to one eighth a part of pink salt, we made enough cure to last us several batches.  Since the recipe called for a quarter cup of cure for one five to six pound pork belly, we used an eighth of a cup for our slightly smaller lamb bellies.

Josh rubs my meat.

Curing a belly means deeply working the cure into every nook and cranny of the belly–some recipes call for completing covering the belly in the cure to ensure evenness of flavoring and food preservation.  In a fit of genius, Josh had the good idea to include brown sugar and maple syrup into the cure in order that we have one savory and one sweet.  This would prove to be the smartest thing that Josh had ever come up with.  I mean, just look at the picture.  Don’t you want to lick the screen?

Sweet sweet meat.

With the two bellies sufficiently covered in cure, we sealed them up in separate bags and put them in the fridge for a week.  During that time, each ingredient in the cure performs a special task.  The kosher salt causes fat and meat cells to break down by stimulating self-produced enzymes and oxidation.  The sugar imparts its sweetness while encouraging the growth of Lactobacillus bacteria, and the pink salt gives the meat its characteristic color and prevents botulism.  In two ziploc bags, we captured thousands of years of food culture passed down to us from our Gentile brothers and sisters, waiting for the moment when we could make the forbidden delicious.

Bag it. Tag it. Sell it to the Yidden in the store.

In a week’s time, the bellies would undergo an amazing transformation, drawing closer and closer to smoke that awaited them.

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