Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kitchen Challenge: Dinner for Grandma

Ever since my grandpa died a year ago, I felt it was my duty as a grandson to help my grandma out in any way that I can. Not having been the one to handle the finances while my grandpa was alive, my grandma quickly fell behind on the simple things like balancing her checkbook and deciding how to re-invest the money when their CD's came due. Because she had gotten off track many months prior, the banks literally refused to help her out with anything past 90 days. Which, as a business, I can understand. However, knowing that this caused a great deal of anxiety to my grandma, I finally decided to lend a helping hand and see what I could do.

While reconciling a checkbook is simple addition and subtraction, my grandma's poor checkbooks were a mess. Let's just say that the initial weekend was pretty bad. I ended up giving up trying to figure where she went astray and decided to take a more logical approach. I had her pull all of her statements for her checkbooks (yes, gentle reader, there was more than just one screwed up account) from December 2007 all the way through the present. I then meticulously went through and created a virtual checkbook on the software I personally use on my laptop while making my way through page after page of her checkbook register.

Fortunately, once that initial weekend was done, maintenance has been a breeze. Twice a month I come over, reconcile any statements she might have received, do a load of laundry, and generally just hang out and talk with my grandma. Most times as a thank you, she makes a batch of chili or fixes some turkey sandwiches. Which is just fine by me. But today I decided to take it a step further and fix her dinner as well. My grandma usually protests this because she thinks that anything I make is just way too complicated and I shouldn't be spending that kind of time on her. To which I always say, "Pish!" I understand that "complicated" for her is something that takes longer than thirty minutes to prepare. But, I really wanted to do this for her, so I insisted and she finally relented.

My grandma has various food-related health issues and one of those is swallowing. On the approved list are tender meats such as chicken and pork. Having done a roasted chicken for her and my aunt for Easter, I decided that a roasted pork loin would be perfect (and fairly easy) for dinner tonight. But what to pair with it? Hmmm. I thought about a rub or a sauce but finally decided on pairing it with a chutney. Spicy, savory, sweet, and sour. Perfect! Originally I thought about doing a peach and mango chutney, but when I got to the supermarket, the peaches were perfect and the mangoes were atrocious. Just then I spotted some amazing Bing sweet cherries for $2.49 a pound. I thought about it for a minute and decided that this would be a perfect substitute for the dessicated mangoes. A few minutes later I had all my groceries and headed to my grandma's condo to get started.

Here is a photograph of the ingredients needed for the chutney:

And now a more precise recipe for the chutney:

1/2 pound pitted sweet cherries
3 ripe peaches
2 large Vidalia onions (or onions of your choosing)
1 cup chicken broth/stock
1 cup Champagne vinegar (or vinegar of your choice ... although I wouldn't use Balsamic for this)
1 cup water
1 cup packed brown sugar
Dried/fresh chilies of your choice
Butter/Olive oil

The first thing you want to do is prepare your fruit. To peel the peaches, blanch them in boiling water for 45-60 seconds and then plunge them into a bowl of ice water. Using your paring knife, you should be able to peel the skin off very easily. Next, cut peach wedges away from the pit and slice into bite sized pieces. To pit the cherries, use a pitter. Or do what I did and run the paring knife around the pit, twist the two halves, and dig out the pit from the one half. Once you've done all of that, place in a small bowl and reserve.

Next up, slice the Vidalia onions. Cut the Vidalia's from stem to root, peel away any dried out layers, and then slice them so that you get nice half-moon shapes. With your hands, separate the various "leaves" from one another and place in a nice sized rondeau. You are going to start with what appears to be a LOT of onions, but once you cook them down, it will be much more manageable.

Here is a shot of the onions waiting to be caramelized:

I then added about 3 tablespoons of butter and a healthy glug of olive oil to the pot. Also add a healthy pinch of salt as well to help draw out the moisture from the onions. The goal of this is not to saute the onions, but to sweat the onions at first. These probably cooked a good 35-40 minutes before turning into these:

One of the wonderful side effects of cooking these onions low and slow is that the natural fond builds up on the bottom of the pan. Most people think this is undesirable, but I am here to say that this is where much of the flavor comes from. But to access it, you have to wait until the onions are nice and caramelized and that is when you want to add the chicken stock to the pan. Using your wooden spoon, scrape up all of the brown bits on the bottom. Not only will it clean the pan (which is great), but all of those flavor bits will now incorporate themselves into the onions as well. Once you've deglazed, you want to continue reducing the liquid until it is almost dry.

In a separate saucepan, you want to add the cup of water, cup of vinegar, and cup of packed brown sugar. Bring this to a boil. Depending on how spicy you want the resulting chutney to be, you can choose to add and remove the chilies at your discretion. The more chilies and the longer you leave them in, the spicier the final result will be. Once you reach a boil, you want to continue reducing the liquid until only about 1/3 of what you started with remains. Just a warning that this will challenge your sense of smell as evaporating vinegar definitely has a clearing effect on the sinuses; an open window should alleviate the problem.

Once the water / vinegar / sugar mixture has reduced (by the way, this is classically called a gastrique), remove the chilies and add in the prepared fruit. Bring this back to the boil and cook the fruit in the gastrique for an additional 5 minutes or so. At this point you have one saucepan with the cooked fruit and the gastrique and a rondeau with the deglazed caramelized onions. Add the contents of your saucepan to the rondeau and you will get this:

Continue to cook this down until the sauce is syrupy and the fruit breaks down just a little more. Don't re-season with salt at this point because adding salt now might make it overly salty once it reduces to the perfect consistency. I probably simmered this on the stove for another thirty minutes. Once I was happy with the consistency, I added enough salt to balance out the flavors. This should be savory, sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. I kept the chutney warm for dinner, but you could certainly let this cool and keep it in the refrigerator for later use.

Since I had created such a flavorful accompaniment for the pork, I decided to go completely "plain Jane" on my pork loin roast and just season it with simple sea salt and freshly ground pepper. First, I trimmed off the silverskin using my paring knife:

And then trussed the loin using the butcher's twine I scored at the meat department in my local supermarket:

I won't go into how to truss the loin, but it really is pretty simple. The whole reason to truss the pork loin is so that it is all one thickness. This helps it cook evenly. When you have thick parts and thin parts, one tends to get overdone and the other underdone. Is it totally necessary? No, not really, but I had my culinary nerd cred to worry about, so I went ahead and trussed.

With the exception of roasting a whole chicken, I almost universally start my meats out sauteing in a hot skillet to help promote a tasty exterior and then finish them in a moderate to hot oven for indirect cooking. After adding a healthy amount of salt and pepper to the outside of the roast, I brought a saute pan up to temperature, added some sunflower oil (higher smoke point than olive oil), and seared the outside of the roast on all six sides until it looked like this:

Then I placed the seared roast on a bed of potatoes and carrots I had cut up earlier:

I had tossed the potatoes and carrots with some extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt and then massaged them with my hands to combine thoroughly. I also added some sprigs of fresh rosemary to add some wonderful depth of flavor and to bring a herbaceous note to the dish. After placing the roast on top of the root vegetables, I placed it into a pre-heated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven, but not before placing my probe thermometer into the center of the roast. When it went into the oven, the internal temperature of the roast measured 53 degrees Fahrenheit. I set the alert on my external thermometer to go off at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Overall, this two pound roast was probably in the oven for a good hour or so.

Okay, the chutney is made and the roast is in the oven ... what's next? Ah, yes, the salad. When I stopped today at the West Point Market to pick up the champagne vinegar I would be using for the chutney, I decided to pick up some of their yellow and red tomatoes and use those in a salad that could be served with dinner. Since I was already picking up the vinegar for the chutney, it only made sense that I use it in the vinaigrette, too, for dressing the salad.

Here is a shot of the ingredients I used for the tomato salad and champagne vinaigrette:

For the vinaigrette, you will need:

1 clove minced garlic
1 spoonful of dijon mustard (I personally prefer Grey Poupon)
1/4 cup of Champagne vinegar (or vinegar of your choice, Balsamic being perfectly acceptable)
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil (less if you like it more tart, more if you like it less)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Salt to taste

People are always amazed when they find out that I don't keep a single bottle of salad dressing in my refrigerator. I am constantly peppered with questions like, "Don't you eat salad?" and "How do you dress a salad with no dressing?" Once I figured out how easy, delicious and healthy it was to make your own vinaigrette, I threw out all of those pre-made dressings with their high fructose corn syrup and xantham gum and decided that whenever I needed dressing for a salad, I'd just make it from scratch. People have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning until they taste my dressings. On more than one occasion I've gotten that wide-eyed acknowledgment that suddenly, they finally "get it". And that makes me smile just a little bit.

To make the dressing, get yourself a small mason jar (or really anything that has a sealable lid) and add the minced garlic, the spoon of mustard, the vinegar and a nice pinch of salt. You want to try and add the salt to the vinegar because it will dissolve easier. Cover the container and give it a nice shaking to blend all the ingredients. At this point, add the oil, recover, and shake vigorously. The mustard actually does two things. First, it adds a wonderful "tang" to the finished vinaigrette. Second, the lecithen in the mustard seeds actually helps to emulsify the oil and the vinegar. This means that once the dressing is made, it will happily hang out without breaking for hours or days. Egg yolks are also commonly used to do the same thing. Add most of the herbs and shake again. At this point, it's really all a matter of taste. To tart? Add more oil. Too oily? Add more vinegar. Kind of blah? Add more salt. You control exactly how you want the dressing to come out.

Once the dressing is made, just keep it inside the container you used to make it until you are ready to dress your salad. Heck, you could even store the leftovers in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks in the same container. Here is a shot of the finished dressing and the tomatoes I used for the salad:

We're getting close now! Once the pork reached an internal temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, I removed it from the oven (returning the root vegetables to a new temperature of 425 to finish roasting and get a little more color) and placed it on my cutting board. The pork now needs to rest for about ten minutes tented with some aluminum foil. Over the ten minute resting period, the internal temperature of the pork went from 150 to 157 degrees. While the pork was resting, I went ahead and sauteed the asparagus in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper until they were still a little crisp, but also tender.

In the meantime, my grandma decreed that we would eat at the dining room table instead of the kitchen table because of the amount of work that went into the meal (her words, not mine). She got out the good plates and silverware and lit the candles in preparation:

Once everything was reading to go, I put the still warm chutney into a gravy boat.

I then prepared my composed tomato salad and finished it with a bit of the gray finishing salt, Sel de Guerande, that my wonderful friend Debbie brought back with her from France, and the champagne tarragon vinaigrette I had prepared earlier.

My grandma had decided this morning that she would make some corn muffins from scratch, so I warmed these up gently in the microwave:

We finally sat down to enjoy this magnificent meal at around 7 PM. Here is a shot of my plate, fully dressed:

Needless to say, everything was not only tasty, but also grandma food-friendly. The pork was tender and the root vegetables had a lovely roasted look and caramelized flavor to them. The simply prepared asparagus was also a big hit. Sometimes I honestly think it's better to go with a simple preparation rather than some big drawn out recipe that has you hiding the wonderful natural flavors of the foods we eat. The star of the show, however, was the peach and sweet cherry chutney. Grandma really didn't have a clue what a chutney was before I did this, but she appreciated how well it paired with the roasted pork loin. While I was in the kitchen from 3 PM until we sat down to eat at 7 PM, a lot of that time was waiting for the pork to get to the right internal temperature. So in the end, I spent four hours in the kitchen talking it up with grandma, but probably really only spent about two hours of it actually physically doing something. You could certainly make the chutney days before you needed it and just reheat it for service. This would cut your "day of" time down to just about thirty minutes of prep and an hour or so for cooking. Completely doable for a weekend dinner, I think.

Of course, the other benefit of cooking this meal for grandma was that I got time to spend with her. She won't be around forever and I want to continue to build these warm memories so that I can embrace them when I need them after she is no longer with us. My grandpa may have been the one I traditionally gravitated towards when thinking about good food, but I realize now that I need to establish as rich a history as I can with my grandma while I still have time. She may not have recipes and traditions to pass on to me, but that doesn't mean I can't give back in a way that makes me and others around me happy (and full), too.


DianeS said...

Wonderful meal! I wish I could have seen your Grandmother's smile and contentment!

I am meeting with the dietitian today at the nursing home so I know what I can and can not cook for my Grandmother. The food there is horrible. I wouldn't feed it to a pet let alone have my Grandmother dependent on it for nourishment.

I'm glad that you still have your Granmother and that she has you.

Kathy said...

Finally catching up with all your recent posts! Loved this one! Of course, Grandma's hold a special place for me since losing my beloved Grandma this past October. We shared a big love of food and I always cherished cooking with her. I'm glad you can share these things with your Grandma.

On the subject of salad dressing, I agree nothing is better than making your own. I love a simple balsamic vinegarette but I also love citrinette's, to use Mario Batali's term, made with lemon juice and dijon too. But I have to recommend Tassleberry vinegars. I've had the Strawberry vinegar and Strawberry Balsamic and both are exceptional!

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