Review: Hill Country

Photo from New York Magazine's web site (2008), and courtesy of Hill Country.

Never has meat clung so fearfully to bone. Perhaps it was afraid of heat without smoke, of a cooking process that seized up its muscle without injecting or coaxing out any flavor whatsoever.

I don’t like to write negatively of a place where I’ve only eaten once, but I tried a lot of food at Hill Country, and all of it missed the mark. Hill Country is an utter failure in Texas-style barbecue, greasy, odorous, and sure to perpetuate any bad stereotypes New Yorkers—or maybe I should just say “I”—have about the lone star state.

“Give me whatever’s good,” I told the meat guy, “about 10 dollars’ worth.”

A complimentary bite of brisket wielded a soft and edible texture. Two or three giant beef ribs, at $5.99, however, were $5’s worth of bone and $0.99’s worth of gristle. An equally tough on-bone piece of pork ($3.24) was all peppercorn and oil, with little other flavor. I gnawed through what I could and threw the rest away. Corn pudding was gummy below a crust that was more like dried paste, a disgusting insult to the near $5 price.

Instead of natural meat juices, there is oil, and a lot of it. The roll of paper towels supplied on each table does little to cut through the slick. I tried to use only utensils to eat, yet somehow, the oil seeped upward onto the very handles of my knife and fork. It was everywhere. There was no escape. I felt like I had oil in my sleeves.

Happily, there was white bread, which I used to sponge up various vinegar-based sauces to tide me over.

What amazed me most of all were the dedicated patrons. I overheard two separate dupes in suits telling their lunch buddies while they waited in line, “Just wait! This place is awesome!” Perhaps in the world of bankers and lawyers, there is some pleasure in snarling over bones.

Hill Country
30 West 26th Street
New York, NY

Recipe: Pulled Pork from Braised Pork Shoulder

"I'm braising a pig’s shoulder for you!"

"Oh yes!" says Boyfriend. "That's pulled pork, right? I love pulled pork! Are we eating it for dinner?"


We pound fists.

"Well," I say, trailing, as he freezes, mid high-five. "We are eating it for dinner, but not tonight. It takes eight hours to cook and a day to cool. So, we can eat it in two days."

He slunks, hangs his head, and turns to retreat to the couch.

How to Braise a Hunk of Pork
Step 1: Marinate
I started with a 5.5-pound piece of bone-in pork shoulder, which had a thick layer of skin and fat on one side.

First, I made a viscous marinade with about 2 tablespoons of Korean red pepper paste, a teaspoon or so of sesame oil, a few more teaspoons of olive oil, table salt, a pinch of black pepper, a few tablespoons of water just to thin it out.

Then I rubbed my washed and still wet hands all over the pork skin and meat to make sure there was nothing odd on it, like a shard of bone or prickly hair. I didn’t want to fully rinse the meat, but I did want to check it once over. Using my fingers and a small fork, I loosened some of the skin away from the meat where the shoulder joint was, and where there was less fat, and smeared some of the marinade inside. I coated the whole thing generously, using my hands and fingertips to massage it in.

The shoulder was then placed in a plastic bag containing one rough-chopped onion, a small head of garlic, peeled and separated, several dried bay leaves, and several stalks of celery with the leafy parts still attached. I left this in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

Step 2: Sear
Next, I heated an enamel cast-iron Dutch oven on the stove top over a medium-high flame, while simultaneously bringing a few cups of water to a boil and preheating the oven to 250 Fahrenheit. The shoulder just barely fit in, skin side down. I like brown a bit until I heard a few nasty “pop!”s, then turned it over to brown some of the meat. When that also began to sound agitated, I laid the vegetables from the marinade into the pot, nestling them all around the pork.

The only problem with this method is that the direct heat made the red pepper paste go airborne, leaving me and my houseguest hacking and coughing for 20 minutes until it dissipated. When will I ever learn not to use hot pepper items in a dry and open pan?

Before sealing the Dutch oven with its heavy lid, I added the nearly boiling water as the braising liquid. My theory was that all the vegetables, as well as the juices from the pork and the marinade itself, would create a stock flavorful enough for me to get by with using water and not broth or another stock. Plus, I didn’t have any and when I went to the store earlier in the day, I didn’t have enough room in my bags to carry home one more thing.

After an hour or two, I checked the level of the liquid and topped it off with another 4 cups or so of boiling water, then lowered the temperature to about 220 F. It’s especially important to use hot liquid when braising because the temperature in the oven is low, and adding cool or even room-temperature water would quickly lower the temperature of the food and cooking vessel, essentially halting your cooking process.

Being skin-side up, the fat from the pork was melting into the meat, and the skin, which was above the liquid, had developed a beautiful browned crust.

Step 3: Rest (both you and the pig)
After 5 hours, I needed to get to bed, but I was really hoping to get a full 8 hours of cooking time in on this pork shoulder. So, I turned off the oven but left the pot in there. Seven hours later when I woke up, it was still warm to the touch. That’s when I moved it to the refrigerator to rest until later that night.

Step 4: Skim-n-Trim
The pig piece spent the day in the refrigerator, still in the Dutch oven. That evening, I removed the lid and found a ring of bright orange encircling the meat. It was fat, and it was stained with the red pepper paste. It had also separated cleanly from all the other gelled liquids and solids underneath, the stuff that would later become a sauce.

Taking advantage of the cool temperature of the fat, I used a fork to lift it away in large swaths. It came right up, neatly and cleanly.

There were more things I wanted to strain from the pot, like all those celery stalks, which were now stringy and soggy, and the bay leaves. To strain it, I would first have to reliquify everything — except of course the pork.

Step 5: Reheat and Shred
Back on the stovetop burner went the pot, over a low to medium flame. I jiggled and stirred until the bottom contents turned back into a sauce, at which point I tasted it and decided to add another three cups of hot water.

When it was all looking like a hot meal again, I hoisted the pork shoulder gently from the pot and set it on a jelly roll pan to remove the bone, sheet of fat, and other inedible bits. That's also the point at which I strained the sauce and returned about half of it to a simmer, reserving the other half for another time.

The piece of meat was so big, the insides were still cold when I began shredding the meat with a fork. Little by little, shred by shred, I returned the meat to the pot and let it reheat in the juices. When it was all done and everything was hot again, I turned it off, put the lid on, and waited for my friends to come over.

Step 6: Plate
Considering how aromatic the marinade was, almost all the finished product tasted cleanly porky and not at all like sesame oil or that lovely, sticky pepper paste. It was a bit of a shame because I was planning on having these slightly Asian-infused tacos, but what we got was more like typical pibil, which no one had a problem with whatsoever.

We ate the pork shoulder as tacos on soft corn tortillas with cilantro, avocado, diced red onion, black beans, Belizean hot sauce, and a squeeze of lime. Four hungry people didn't even eat half of it, so there's plenty left over now for — well, the hardest part is deciding what.


Review: Kati Roll

Image borrowed from The Eaten Path.

When lines of busy people start pouring out of a midtown Manhattan lunch spot, it definitely piques my interest. And that's how I found The Kati Roll Company, a little fast-food-fresh restaurant that serves what many describe as "Indian burritos." I just happened to be walking by on 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues and saw dozens of people ducking in and out of this brightly orange-colored place. Some were tottering slowly out the door, having just eaten. Some were scurrying along, paper bag in hand stuffed with Kati rolls in hand.

Image at right from Roxy Dynamite's Flickr page.

The restaurant itself is nothing to behold, and the menu listings are intentionally over simplified with pictograms of the main ingredient in your kati roll:
- egg
- beef
- chicken
- potatoes
- paneer
- shami kabob (mutton)
- beef and egg
- chicken and egg
- potatoes and egg
- shami and egg.

And that's it. No daal. No raita. No pakora. If it's any consolation, you can have a bottled drink, but no alcohol.

I like the austerity of the menu. I also appreciate that what actually comes inside the kati roll is ten times more interesting than "chicken and egg" (which was what I ordered; $5.75).

There's chopped jalapeƱos, red onions, and a mildly kicking and fragrant green herb sauce.

The chicken, which is char grilled kabob-style, was moist at every bite. The flat breads used for the wraps are grilled on a flat-top, visible behind the counter, and were slightly over oiled, but deliciously tender and warm.

I'm excited to go back and try the egg or "unda" kati roll, as well as the paneer (a fresh farmer's cheese that's similar in appearance to tofu) and potatoes.

Kati Roll
49 West 39th Street
New York, NY

Additional locations at 99 MacDougal Street in Manhattan, and in London at 24 Poland Street.

Brooklyn Kitchen Announces The Meat Hook

A bit of local news today:

The Brooklyn Kitchen, a kitchenware shop that also holds small, usually one-off cooking classes, announced via email newsletter today that it is opening a new location called The Meat Hook.

The Meat Hook, which will open November 9, will be a huge 7,000 square-food space with two full service teaching kitchens, allowing the Brooklyn Kitchen to now hold weekend classes (previously, most classes were held weekday evenings). The space will also house more retail and a new butcher shop. Upcoming classes in November, in fact, will feature pig butchery, but they have largely filled up already.

Baked Squid and Potatoes

Squid has quickly become a staple ingredient for me in the last year. I've always loved eating it, but I was intimidated for years to cook with it. Besides, where I grew up, and in all the neighborhoods where I've lived in the past, I almost never saw it at a fish market.

My current neighborhood, Astoria, is predominately Greek, and squid is everywhere. I never realized how simple it was to cook, nor how inexpensive it is (about $2.99 a pound to buy it already cleaned). Every fish market and fish counter in every grocery store has it. Nearly every restaurant within a three-mile radius serves grilled squid, charred quickly over open flames and doused with lemon juice and olive oil.

At home, I first learned to steam small squids, cleaned and cut into rings and tentacles, which I then mixed with diced bell peppers, herbs, lemon zest, and a splash each of vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. It's a great salad warm or cold.

A few days ago while flipping through one of Lidia Bastianich's cook books (Lidia's Italian Table), I found a picture of baked squid and potatoes, all of it golden brown and speckled with a liberal amount of chopped parsley.

The recipe was so simple, I didn't even follow it: I read it through once or twice and then adjusted to my own tastes and the fact that only two of us would be eating it for dinner. Because of how easy it was and how inexpensive all the ingredients were, I am looking forward to making this again the next time family comes over for a meal.

Baked Squid and Potatoes, or Teglia di Calamari con Patate, adapted from Lidia's Italian Table

1/4 to 1/3 pounds per person of cleaned squid (the book recipe specifically says to leave the skins on the squids, but I buy them already cleaned, and it didn't affect the cooking)
1 cup fresh chopped parsley, lightly packed
a few tablespoons to 1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper (fine sea salt or Kosher salt works best)
a few boiling potatoes, such as new potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
1 very large onion, sliced
3/4 to 1 cup water

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

Cut the squid bodies into thick rings. Leave the tentacle pieces intact. In a large bowl and using your hands, tumble the squid pieces with the olive oil, parsley, and a bit of salt and pepper, until everything is well coated.

Using your hands again, tumble in the potatoes and onion.

Spread the mixture into a large ceramic baking dish, such as a lasagna pan, trying to maximize surface exposure. Pour the water into the pan, stopping short if it fills the dish more than a quarter of the way up the sides. Cover the pan tightly with foil and pierce the foil in a few places with a fork to let some of the steam escape.

Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking, stirring the squid and potatoes at least two or three times to encourage even browning. The total cooking time should be just about an hour.

Let the dish cool a few minutes before serving, and be sure to stir up any remaining juices or gravy that has developed on the bottom on the pan.

Serve with a drizzle of "salsa verde" (an extra virgin olive oil-based dressing that includes a lot of finely chopped parsley, capers, lemon zest, minced garlic, and salt).

Chocolate and Salty Peanut Butter Cake

It was birthday the other day, a landmark one in fact, and I made myself a big, fat, triple-layer chocolate cake with salty peanut butter filling and ganache glaze.

I found a chocolate peanut butter cake recipe, done by a number of bloggers, but originally from a book called Sky High: Irresistable Triple-Layer Cakes. The frosting called for cream cheese blended with peanut butter, which was not what I was into.

So I invented my own peanut butter filling as I went along, adding what seemed right as the hand blended whirled and grunted and eventually whirled some more: about a cup of peanut butter (the processed stuff, not the natural kind), a lot of powdered sugar, maybe 3 or 4 cups, a half cup or so of simmering water to smooth it out, a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract, and at the end, a sprinkle of sea salt, folded in.

I used the peanut butter filling on top of each cake layer, as well as around the outer surface. Then I put the whole thing in the freezer for a half hour while I made ganache. When the ganache was still warm but not too hot to melt the peanut butter, I covered the entire cake in it, smoothing the sides and top to form a deliciously soft chocolate shell.

The chocolate cake layers, however, are from the recipe, and they are dynamite. The cake is moist as if it has been soaked in some delicious and sweet liquid, even though it has just come straight from the oven. Here's my slightly modified version.

Chocolate Sour Cream Cake

Makes three 8-inch rounds, which when filled and stacked, makes 16 generous slices.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 eggs at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Butter and line with buttered parchment paper three 8-inch round cake pans.

Sift together first four ingredients into a large bowl. Add the sugar and blend with a whisk.

Using a whisk (but not whipping) stir in the oil, then sour cream, then water. When smooth, add the vanilla extract and stir. If you are going to lick the batter, do so now before adding the vinegar. Add the vinegar and stir. Crack two eggs into a separate bowl (or the measuring cup used for the water and oil) and lightly beat the eggs, which should then be added to the batter. Blend until very smooth. The batter will be very runny.

Divide the cake batter evenly into the prepared pans, about 2 cups of batter per pan.

Place on middle rack of oven and bake for about 22-28 minutes. When done, the top of the cakes will have small air bubbles, but the parchment will have begun to slightly pull away from the sides of the pan. Let cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then invert onto wax paper (the cakes may be too moist to invert directly onto a wire rack, unless you don't mind leaving half your cake behind).

If filling and stacking, freeze cake layers for one hour before handling.

Spotlight On: New York's Edible Eat Drink Local Week

This week is, or has been, Edible Eat Drink Local Week in New York. A few dozen restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eastern Long Island (and one or two others on the peripheries of those areas) are offering special menus that highlight locally produced food.

I heard about Edible Local from a weekly email newsletter from Council on the Environment. After surfing around, the menu that has caught my interest is Almond's, Manhattan location (12 East 22nd Street). There's a Long Island location, too. For the special menu, click on the Google map that's displayed from Edible's web site. Some, but not all, restaurants have put their special menus on the links on that map.

What caught my attention was the focus on goat: roasted goat meat, goat's milk feta cheese, and goat's milk ricotta gnocchi.