Monday, March 19, 2012

Put Your Money Where the Pork Is: Astoria's Butcher Bar

I was pretty hungover a few Sundays ago. That, combined with a long day of working in the kitchen with nothing but water, Gatorade, and prayers as fuel, will make a girl very hungry. I knew exactly what I wanted for dinner that evening: comfort food. Greasy, creamy, crunchy, salty....anything that would put my tender tummy at ease. I met up with two of my Astoria friends, Mr. Blue and his roommate, Chris, and we tried to create a game plan. 

First, we decided to go to to Queens Comfort, a ridiculous spot over near 30th Avenue that has a very delicious Chicken and Waffles, but they had closed up their kitchen for the night. Failboat. Then, Mr. Blue's roommate suggested that we go to Butcher Bar, since he had to pick up some pulled pork that he'd ordered for a dinner party they were throwing the following night. I'd never been, or even heard of the spot, so I was pretty excited to try it out. 

When I walked in, I was greeted with Al Green, thick wooden dining tables, and a shiny glass display case teeming with thick sausages, massive pork shoulders, and ribeye steaks, rippled with fatty marbling. Butcher Bar isn't just a restaurant, it's also a butcher. Chris was actually picking up pork shoulder that he would be turning into pulled pork tomorrow. All of the meat sold there is either local, grass-fed or organic, and they cook all the meats that they sell. But behind all the buzz words, was it any good? We were fitting to find out.

After a detailed study of the menu, I decided to get corncakes for the table, and a burnt ends sandwich for myself (my favorite part of barbecue).

The cakes were served nice and hot, with a little cup of honey butter to slather on them. Light, cake-y, and not too dry. Nice to start the meal with. I wished they were a little bigger, but it was probably better than they weren't so I couldn't spoil my dinner.

My burnt ends sandwich was supposed to come with coleslaw and pickle, but because I'm not a fan of either of those things, I declined them for fear of wasting them. The owner, Matt, then came over to check on us and asked if I wanted to try either their mac and cheese or sweet potatoes on the house, so I wouldn't miss out on a side. I thought that was really sweet of him, so I chose the mac and cheese.

The burnt ends were a great balance of smoky crispness, juicy meat, and melting fat. With every bite, a hangover-curing elixir of meat juices and fat flooded my mouth.

The macaroni and cheese, though, was a bland. I like mac and cheese when it's made with a mix of really sharp and mild cheeses for contrast and flavor. I also like a crispy top on my mac for an extra hit of texture. It did win some points with me for its creaminess and the smoky paprika on the top.

Mr. Blue and Chris both had pulled pork and rib platters, with potato salad and baked beans, respectively. I didn't get to try their ribs, but the pulled pork was excellent. The right balance between smoke, sweetness, and spice. Only too often do I eat pulled pork that's drenched in some sickly saccharine red barbecue glop.

I snuck a bite of Mr. Blue's potato salad, which was a real winner. Creamy, but not drenched in mayo, with hints of tarragon and lemon. I'm strictly a German potato salad person (I have a love/hate relationship with mayonnaise), but for this one, I could convert.

You know we couldn't end dinner without a sweet treat. For dessert: apple pie!

Flaky crust, filled with spiced, almost caramelized apples...yeah, I made very short work of this pie.

Overall, I loved the food, the service was top notch, PLUS, I got to have some of the pulled pork at the boys' dinner party the next day, and that was bangin' too! Butcher Bar is a win all around.  

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Sisterhood of the Flat Hamantaschen - Cookies for Purim!

Yesterday marked the start to the Jewish holiday of Purim, and for me that's always meant Hamantachen. The jam-filled tri-cornered cookies would always make an appearance in my neighborhood bakery around this time when I was little, and I'd clamor for my mother to get them for me. They were made pretty big, the cookies were about the size of a small fist, and set out while they were still warm. The cookies themselves were buttery and tender, and the jam (or poppy seed) filling was so gooey and tasty. 

My family isn't Jewish, so we didn't celebrate the actual holiday, but I had read about the history of Purim via one of the bastions of my childhood knowledge: Highlights for Kids magazine. Basically, Haman, the advisor to King Ahasuerus, tried to knock off the all the Jews, but was thwarted by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai. Obviously, this is something to celebrate, and much drinking and feasting ensues. Hamantash (the singular, of course) either refers to Haman's three-cornered hat or the shape of his ears, depending on who is retelling the tale. 

I'd always wanted to make some of my own, and I figured that now was a good a time as any. I enlisted my friend Rachael, one of my favorite Jews, to help me and share in the cookie goodness. After looking through a bunch of recipes, I decided to use one from Smitten Kitchen because it used cream cheese in the dough...and that made me curious. The recipe for the dough is also super easy. 

I am...the Hamantaschen whisperer. 
Ugh, I shouldn't take photos sometimes. I'm such a creeper. 

ANYWAY. The dough only needs cream cheese and butter, one egg, sugar, orange zest, flour, and salt. It was pretty sticky, so I used a couple of pinches of flour to get it into a ball. The recipe said to let the dough hydrate and chill in the fridge at least an hour....I think we left it alone for 45 minutes before we got impatient and set to rolling it out. 

Look at those flecks of orange zest and little chunks of butter! We knew this dough was gonna be GOOD. I rolled it out to about a 1/4 inch thickness, and used a drinking glass to cut out circles. We didn't have circular cutters on hand, so unless we wanted to have pumpkin-shaped cookies, we had to improvise. 

To fill our cookies, we decided to use two different types of preserves: apricot and strawberry-blackberry. For each cookie, we used a little less than a teaspoon of preserves. Place the preserves directly in the middle of the dough circle, then pinch your circle to create three points. You can use a little water or an egg wash (one beaten egg + a little water) brushed around the edge to make sure the points stick together easier.

Rach is wearing orange nail polish in honor of the Syracuse Orange basketball team. She loves 'em. 
She used the apricot preserves, and I was in charge of the strawberry-blackberry. 
The cookies baked in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until the dough was golden and the preserves were bubbly.

Our first tray of hamantaschen:

Maybe we should have let that dough stay in the fridge a while longer?

Oh dear. 

But wait!

There was a cutie to be found in the bunch. 

We let them cool, and then dug in heartily. The cream cheese added a lovely tenderness to the cookies, almost like another Jewish favorite, ruglelach. I loved the inclusion of the orange zest, which gave a little zip to the dough, without overwhelming the filling. 

We had some dough left over, and after a brief sojourn in the fridge, we rolled it out for more hamantaschen....

Flat as damn pancakes. I think only one (on the far right), was the only one that came close to looking sort of normal, and not like a gaping maw. 

Whatever. With a glass of milk, they were still crazy delicious and we had a blast making them. Happy Purim, everyone!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Supplemented Cravings: Ghetto Ramen with Shredded Chicken and Poached Egg

I am going to confess something.

Before yesterday, I had never poached an egg in my entire life. Poached eggs were something you just had in restaurants, or had cooked to rubber in greasy spoons. I had visions of beautiful eggs being lowered to their deaths in vats of steaming, murky water rank with vinegar.

Scary, baby. Just SCARY.

ANYWAY. Yesterday was one of those dreary, rain soaked days where if you're at home, you're lucky to be there. I was also lucky enough to have nothing to do all day, and when I'm bored, I get very hungry. I started to think about how long it had been since I had any delicious ramen in my life. Springy noodles, rich, meat-laden broth, and the best part: a single slow boiled/poached egg laid lovingly upon the top. Then, when you poke the surface of that soft egg, the golden yolk mixes itself with the broth and it gets all creamy and savory....then, I decided to stop thinking about it, because I was exciting myself.

Instead of lamenting about my lack of food, I decided to investigate my pantry. Behold! A pack of cheap chicken flavor ramen! Just waiting for me to class it up a bit. I knew I had some leftover brown stew chicken in the fridge that was sitting in its own juices and gravy, just waiting to be shredded. And I had plenty of eggs...if I could muster up the courage to poach one.

Now, I know y'all are looking for a step by step on this one....but Serious Eats already covered it. They have an awesome and extremely easy tutorial on poached eggs on their site. Honestly, I just followed it to the letter.

Basically, you're just simmering a raw egg in a couple of inches of water that has a dash of vinegar and a bit of salt. You want to use really fresh eggs, because the fresher they are, the more stable the whites will be. My eggs weren't super old, but not as fresh as would be ideal. I think the vinegar helped to tighten them up. Easy way to tell if your eggs are past their prime? Crack the egg into a small bowl and a look at the egg white. Does it look a little watery? If it does, you're dealing with an older egg. Fresh eggs have firm whites (or albumens), and their yolks are bright yellow and perky.

My first egg came out great except for the fact that I should have put an inch or two more water in the pan. I toasted up a slice of grainy wheat bread and decided to eat that one, then try again. I schmeared some bacon fat on the bread, and plenty of salt and pepper too. Just marvelous! The yolk was nice and runny, and the whites were so tender. The second time, I aced it. I set the poached beauty on a paper towel lined plate so it could drain and prepared the ramen according to the package's instructions.

When the noodles were ready, I poured them and the hot water into a warmed bowl, added half the seasoning packet (that stuff is SALTY), and then threw in the chicken to warm up and give off its flavor. Ever so carefully, I used a slotted spoon to take the poached egg off of the towel and laid it gently upon the broth. The sight brought a tear to my eye.

And then I remembered that I was starving, so I stabbed the egg with my fork so the yolk could run and flavor the broth. Oh, so good. Obviously not the kind that I could get at a restaurant, but who cares! This was quick, easy, and soothing to my soul.

I got to learn something new, AND I got rewarded for doing it. Talk about positive reinforcement.