Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: When Life Gives You Green Tomatoes

One of the great things about shopping at a farmer's market is that I don't always have a clear idea of what dish will spring forth when I actually get to the kitchen. Sure, that forces you to be creative sometimes, but that is what makes life interesting, don't you think? Saturday, May 15th was the first of many farmer's markets at the Howe Meadow location near Peninsula, Ohio and I am eagerly looking forward to going back many times this summer to not only support my local farmers and merchants, but also to buy and prepare some really tasty meals. This early in the season, there wasn't a whole lot of choices in the vegetable categories and were literally no choices in the fruit category. Fortunately, I managed to snag a few finds.

Knowing that I would be coming over the next day to cook my grandmother a meal, I loaded up on some goodies, green tomatoes, a homemade loaf of spelt bread from Ms. Julie's Kitchen, and a wonderful local Ohio apple pie from Humble Pie Baking Company owned and operated by a dear friend of mine, Diane Sikorski. Last year she was selling her pies at the North Union Farmer's Market on the campus of The Cleveland Clinic every Wednesday and I can tell you, she developed an amazing following. While Diane is a personal friend and that might taint my objectivity about her products, damn, if her pies aren't fantastic! That I now can get them every Saturday at a market much more local to me is a big plus in my book.

Originally I had thought of doing a simple fried treatment to the green tomatoes, but as soon as I loaded up my car and headed out of the market into the cool spring air, it immediately hit me: Grandma can't do seeds. And even though green tomatoes have smaller seeds than when they are fully ripe, seeds are still seeds. When I talked with my grandmother about our dinner plans, she indicated that she had some pork chops she needed to use up. Hmmm ... it sent my mind spinning for a little bit until I came up with turned out to be a very tasty solution. Tonight for dinner I would be making a panko crusted seared pork chop and top it with a green tomato salsa! Yes, that's it. I decided to wait until I got to the grocery store to see what else could inspire me.

The whole point of a salsa is to mix up the flavors a little bit; you want it a little sweet, a little sour, a little heat, and a lot of herbaceous cilantro flavor. With the discovery of an actual ripe mango in mid-May at the grocery store, here was the list of ingredients I assembled:

Starting in the rear and rotating clockwise, you have a single ripe mango, fresh cilantro, green tomatoes, a Jalapeno chile, three Persian limes and right in the middle was a Vidalia onion. Other than that, the only additional ingredients I used were salt and just a bit of honey to balance the acid from the lime juice. Here was the ratio of ingredients I used for the resulting green tomato mango salsa:

2 green tomatoes, seeded and diced finely
1/2 medium sweet onion, diced finely
3/4 mango, diced finely
1/2 Jalapeno, seeded, ribbed, and diced REAL finely

After pulling out my mad knife skills and trying my best to brunoise everything so that it was all the same size, I ended up with a bowl of finely chopped fruit and vegetables:

To this I added the juice from 1 1/2 limes, roughly 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro (you can use the stems, too), sea salt, and just a touch of honey, maybe only 1 teaspoon or so, enough to cut through some of the acidity of the lime, but not enough to make it "sweet." Toss gently with a spoon to combine all of the ingredients. Taste and readjust as necessary. Since salsa really is a pretty straightforward dish, change the amounts of any of the ingredients to suit your taste.

Here was a picture of the salsa right before I covered it with a lid and it went into the refrigerator:

Next, I moved on to the fresh Brussels sprouts I had found at the supermarket. While they weren't local (being from Mexico), they did look fresh and enticing. Tonight I was going to do a sweet and sour Brussels sprouts treatment which involved steaming the halved sprouts in a bit of water, then pan searing in a combination of olive oil and butter and finishing off with a tossing in balsamic vinegar until the sugars in the vinegar caramelized and glazed the finished sprouts. Season with a little salt and freshly ground pepper, et voila!

Let's start with a shot of the ingredients required:

Here you see the two basics to any savory dish, salt and fresh pepper. In addition were the fresh Brussels sprouts, extra virgin olive oil, unsalted butter, and balsamic vinegar. First, I prepped the Brussels sprouts by cutting off the stem end and removing any extraneous outer leaves. Because these sprouts were fairly good sized, I cut each in half. Here was what I ended up with after prepping the above bag:

Having finished prepping the vegetable, I turned to my starch. My grandmother had originally suggested potatoes, but neither she nor I were feeling the love for potatoes tonight. So, when I went to the grocery store, I was looking around for an alternative when I came across these, Sophie's Choice Potato and Cheese Pierogi:

Sophie's Choice Pierogi is a local company based out of Garfield Heights and I have seen their pierogi in many Akron supermarkets. I had made pierogi for myself one other time before at my grandmother's condo and told her that I would make them for her the next time I had a chance. Well, today was the day. Being fully cooked, one can simply saute them in a bit of butter. Over the dozens of times I've made them, however, I tend to prefer the quick boil and then saute. This dual treatment renders them crispy on the outside and nice and creamy on the inside. Had I had any of the wonderful pierogi that Posh Pierogies sell at the Tremont Farmers Market, I would've gladly used those instead, although honestly, there is certainly nothing wrong with Sophie's brand.

Once I had all my ingredients prepped, I turned my attention to cooking equipment. My grandmother has a toaster oven that she uses primarily for toast. I, however, thought that it would be the perfect place to finish off the pork chops and keep them warm for service, freeing up the pan to saute my boiled pierogi. In addition, I wouldn't have to heat up her regular oven, keeping the kitchen cooler.

One thing to keep in mind though is that toaster ovens can vary wildly from what the thermostat is set at. Hers ran 50 degrees hotter than the setting on the dial, so I adjusted accordingly and set it to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the stovetop tonight were three pots and pans:

On the back burner was a pot full of simmering water for the pierogi. On the front left was her non-stick skillet for the Brussels sprouts. The front right burner was for her stainless steel saute pan that I was going to be browning the pork chops and then sauteing the boiled pierogi.

Now that the food was prepped and the pans were placed, I turned my attention to the star of the plate, the pork chops. Here was a shot of them sitting on a paper towel, dried and ready to be breaded:

Note that I took the chops out of the refrigerator about thirty minutes before I needed them to let them come to room temperature. Next up was a shot of my breading station:

From left to right were all purpose flour, eggs, and Japanese panko dried bread crumbs. I really dig how well panko works as a coating for chicken and pork chops when sauteed in oil. To the flour and beaten eggs, I added a healthy pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper which I stirred into each. The breading procedure, in case you've never done this before, consisted of dredging each chop through the flour, tapping to remove excess flour, then a dip in the beaten eggs, and finally placement in the panko bread crumbs where I made sure the entire surface was coated. The reason for all three is that the panko won't stick directly to the pork; the flour sticks to the meat, the egg sticks to the flour, and the panko sticks to the egg.

Here was a shot of the breaded pork chops:

Alright, time to get cooking! I put about two tablespoons of olive oil and a pat of butter into the saute pan, waited until the butter melted and went slightly brown (buerre noisette), and added my chops:

When you first put the chops into the pan, let them sit a minute before you try and move them about because you want them to form a nice golden crust. You should also hear a nice sizzle when you put the chops into the pan as it means the meat won't stick. After two minutes on the first side, I flipped them

and seared them for two additional minutes on the second side. I then removed the chops from the pan, transferred them to the small baking pan that came with the toaster oven, and simply put them into the toaster oven to finish cooking the rest of the way through, low and slow. If all you had was your regular oven, I would've simply put them into a 200 degree Fahrenheit pre-heated oven.

Next up were the Brussels sprouts. The method of cooking the sprouts was a combination steam / saute. First, I put the sprouts in my non-stick skillet which already had about 3/4 cup of boiling water in the bottom:

I slapped on the cover and steamed them for about 4-5 minutes until they were just a wee bit crunchy and looked like this:

Notice how the green color locked itself in after the steaming? I drained the water from the pan, added some extra virgin olive oil and a pat of butter and returned it to the burner. I then cranked the heat, which evaporated the rest of the water and began to saute the sprouts. To this I added salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste. To glaze them, I added a little bit of balsamic vinegar right at the end and tossed (or stirred) them around until the sugar in the vinegar began to caramelize slightly. The resulting sprouts aren't sweet, but have a nice balance between sweet and sour. If you don't have balsamic vinegar, you can use a different kind of vinegar, but I would add a bit of sugar to the pot, too.

The final component of our meal tonight, the pierogi, was the only remaining item to be completed. I started by placing the pierogi into the gently boiling water:

I adjusted the temperature under the pot so that the pierogi gently simmered in the hot water. If you boil them too hard, they have a tendency to break up. Once the pierogi floated, I removed them with a slotted spoon and put them into a temporary container in which I had placed a small piece of butter:

The butter served as a way to prevent the boiled dumplings from sticking to one another until I was ready to saute them. Having wiped out the stainless steel saute pan I used to sear the pork chops, I added a tablespoon of butter, let it melt and once the bubbling ceased and the butter solids turned a nice brown color (once you know what buerre noisette smells like, you don't even have to see it to know that you are at the right stage), I tossed in my boiled pierogi. Every few seconds, I would swirl the pan and flip the pierogi. It takes about 4 to 5 minutes to completely fry the pierogi to the right color and texture, but they were definitely worth it. The goal was to get the outer skin of the pierogi to be golden brown.

While I was working on putting the finishing touches on the main meal, my grandmother unmolded her cranberry Jello salad:

She took care of plating the salads while I plated the main meal. Each plate got a pork chop (or two), several pierogi, a scoop of the Brussels sprouts and a line of the freshly made green tomato salsa spooned over each chop:

Not to try too hard to pat myself on the back here, but damn, this was tasty! The acidity from the salsa worked wonderfully to cut through the fattiness of the seared pork chops. The Brussels sprouts were crisp-tender and the flavor from the caramelized balsamic vinegar added a nice flavor contrast to the slight bitterness from the sprouts. The pierogi were exactly as I had wanted them, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. I asked my grandmother what she thought and other than the pierogi, she thought everything was wonderful. It wasn't that she didn't like the pierogi, but this being her first one ever, I think I had pushed her food comfort zone in a new direction.

And the meal wouldn't be complete without a shot of my portion of cranberry Jello salad:

I won't say too much on the cranberry salad except to maybe point you to my previous commentary.

After dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and gave ourselves a chance to digest before turning to dessert. Here was a shot of the label on the apple pie I had purchased at the market earlier:

I have been in love with Diane's pies since she first started baking them several years ago. Besides her commitment to using local Ohio fruit, her non-hydrogenated lard/butter crust is one of the best pie crusts I've tasted in a LONG time. I'll be the first to admit that her pies aren't cheap, but with the level of ingredients and the quality of the end product, I personally feel that they are worth paying that little bit extra. If you have a chance to get to the Howe Meadow market this summer, treat yourself to a delicious slice of heaven. The nice thing is that she will make you whatever kind of fruit pie you like and have it ready for you the following Saturday, as long as she has the fruit on hand to make it.

Okay, okay, enough promotional talk. Here was a shot of the entire pie:

While I normally would've taken a shot of my individual slice of pie, I didn't manage to get one before getting a bite or two into it. And then, I couldn't stop eating it until it was all gone. The crust was both flaky and tender and the apples were both tart and sweet. Diane likes to control the amount of sugar in her pies and this lets you taste more of the fruit and less of the sweet. The apples still had a nice little bit of texture to them as well. My grandmother opted for a scoop of ice cream with her piece, but I ate mine as it came.

Our dinner finally at an end, I packed up the leftovers to take home with me. It turned out that the salsa greatly benefited from an overnight sit in my refrigerator as I ate them the next day with tortilla chips. If you make nothing else from this posting, try the salsa. I greedily gobbled it up with the chips until it was gone. It is interesting to me that going into this dinner, I had such a preconceived notion that green tomatoes could only be prepared one way: fried. Today's little experiment proved to me that when life gives you green tomatoes, make salsa instead.


Janice said...

Thanks for sharing dinner with us. I think the salsa sounds delicious.

Edsel L said...

I just love your "Dinner with Grandmother" posts. This dinner looks especially tasty. The panko-breaded porkchop reminds me of Tonkatsu, a panko-breaded cutlet popular in Japan.

I too picked up a pie from Diane that morning - a "confetti" pie with a mix of berries and other fruit. Too many seeds for your Grandmother, but you should try it some time. Really outstanding.

I love the pierogies from Posh Pierogies. Nice to see a mention of the Tremont market.

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