Sunday, June 16, 2013

Jerked Pheasant

What I like best about my current life is all the people from other countries I've met. My counterpart and I have met people from all over the world. The cultural exchange is really an amazing experience sometimes. We recently had lunch with a former colleague from the Islands who gave us a wonderful explanation of Jerk. It turns out it's easier than you think, but it's all about technique.

Jerk is typically a dry rub that is applied to meat before cooking. While many of us may be familiar with Jerk chicken, one if its first uses was to temper the muskiness of small game animals native to the Pacific Islands. It is robust and will overpower more delicate meats. For our first Jerk experience, we chose the flavorful and slightly gamy pheasant.

Despite its exotic flavor, it is easier to make than you might think. Most of the spices you need are things you probably have on hand. The primary flavors are allspice and hot peppers. My counterpart started with this as the base, along witth cinnamon and salt. He also used smaller quantities of cumin, oregano, clove, and sugar. And, because he was planning on a slow smoke over the course of an afternoon, he mixed up a sweet and tangy marinade of white vinegar and corn syrup.

He bisected the pheasant along the spine and breast bone and rubbed the skin side. He then placed it skin side up on the grill over glowing charcoal and green wood to cook at a low temperature for about six hours, brushing on the marinade every so often.

The bird cooked through. The meat was tender and the skin even crisped. It hit all my favorite flavor points - salty and spicy from the rub, tangy and sweet from the marinade, fatty from the crisped skin, and a little bitter from the smoke. I ate all the skin and licked the fat off my fingers. The allspice and smoke worked well with the gaminess of the pheasant. Even with all those strong flavors, the bird retained its own unique character and was the right choice for this application.

We paired our bird with a couple of boiled potatoes that were also placed on the grill for a bit. Sauteed in olive oil with some leek and fresh herb, they came out slightly sweet in that nice vegetably way that was a good counterpoint to the Jerk. Together they made the perfect summer meal.

Jerked pheasant with herbed potato and leek

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Primer on Fiddlehead Ferms

Since I first learned they are edible, I have long been fascinated with fiddlehead ferns. We find them at the Wegman's quite often, but usually in a dreadful state, and my counterpart has been reluctant to deal with them. Then, while he was visiting the Pittsburgh office of his employer, he posted a photo of his dinner one night that included fiddlehead ferns. I stepped up my campaign, and last night I got them.

Ferns are an interesting plant. While the young shoots are edible, as the plant continues to grown, the fern becomes toxic to humans. They must be harvested when they are still in that coiled, fiddlehead shape. While dirt is not a problem with this vegetable, storage is. We have seen many ferns on display that are already on their way to rot and ruin. When selecting fiddleheads at the grocery store, look for a nice healthy green color, and avoid anything that looks black. If you see a lot of black in the selection, best to put off your fern experience, or ask the produce manager to check the back for some fresher specimens.

Fiddleheads are easy to clean as long as they are fresh and healthy

In application, fiddleheads can be used the way you would use asparagus. They are similar in taste, but their round, coiled shape gives then a distinct mouth feel that I find preferable to asparagus. They are also more bitter, but this can be cut with butter and cream in the cooking process.

Paired with mushrooms in a succulent little medley
For our fiddleheads, my counterpart made a medley of the ferns with mushrooms, shallot, leek, and garlic with some fresh basil and oregano, and just a little sage. Using these bitter elements to season an already bitter vegetable accented its natural flavor when other elements were added to mellow it out.

Mmmmmmmm butter

He cooked them on the stovetop, using a little wine, a little cream, and a lot of butter. The end result was tender mushrooms, crisp fiddleheads, and lots of buttery goodness. Served with bread alongside to absorb some of that fat, this dish was so flavorful, I had three servings.

I single-handedly finished off most of this

Thursday, June 6, 2013


With Gareth telecommuting to Pittsburgh and the warm weather upon us, grilling season is in full swing. The remote work schedule allows him to perform some amazing feats of slow cooking over the course of the afternoon. Today, while I was toiling away int he office, he smoked up the grill and turned an average pork loin into a very tasty ham.

In last summer's post on how to make perfect pork ribs, I provided instruction on how to prepare your charcoal grill to generate a a smoky fire that is well suited to slow cooking pork products. You'll follow a similar technique here. To prepare your grill for converting pork loin into ham, you will:

  1. Line the inside of the grill with foil. This is a no brainer as it makes clean up a snap.
  2. Use a chimney to start a couple of charcoal briquettes. This prevents the flavor of the lighter fluid from tainting your food.
  3. Place the lit briquettes on one end of the grill and let them burn down. You'll want smoke for this process, but not fire.
  4. Place fresh twigs on the other end of the grill. These should be small, plentiful, and still green. These will also generate smoke with the added bonus of releasing moisture into your smoking environment without needing a separate container of water in there.
Gareth prepped our pork loin with a dry rub rather than a marinade or barbecue sauce. His dry rub consisted of:
  • Sage
  • Salt
  • Oregano
  • Cumin
  • Paprika
  • Pepper
  • Sugar
with a heavy hand on the sage and salt.

Once the pork was rubbed and the grill was smoking, he let that pork loin smoke for a good three or so hours. During this smoking process, you'll want to check on the grill from time to time to feed it more green twigs and to ensure that there is no flame.

The result is remarkably close to ham, and a very good ham at that. Our pork loin ham came out moist and tender with a rich exterior rind. It was neither too sweet, too salty, nor too smoky, but struck the perfect balance of all those ham-like qualities so many of us love. It paired well with the vegetable and cheese-laden pasta salad he made on the side.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Attman's Authentic New York Deli

I used to live in the city. I used to live on East Baltimore Street by the western edge of Patterson Park in Butchers Hill back when re-gentrification was first taking hold, and rats and addicts and undercover cops still wandered the alleyways. Shortly after I moved there, the city decided to help support the efforts of the well-intended yuppies homesteading in the neighborhood and engaged in some beautification. This included repaving the sidewalks and adding some very attractive brick inlay work. It also included placing giant potted plants on the corners. They lasted until sometime around bar time of the first night. At the time, my friends and I laughed at this with jaded cynicism. It was, however, the beginning of a significant change. I left the neighborhood before this change was complete, and am now amazed when I drive through it on my way out to my current home in the suburbs.

I used to spend Fridays drinking in Fells Point in the now defunct Miss Irene's, home to bikers, artists, Johns Hopkins residents from foreign countries, and other assorted oddballs. I used to wake up too early on Saturday mornings from a restless, beer-fueled semi-sleep with a rough edge. But I was still young and thought I had the cure for a hangover. My cure entailed throwing on a pair of shoes and a coat over my jammies and driving down to Attman's Deli for a fresh potato knish and a Dr. Brown's Cherry Cola. And, while Butchers Hill is now fully re-gentrified and Miss Irene's has become an upscale bistro, Attman's is blissfully unchanged.

Attman's is a staple of the Baltimore landscape. It sits alongside Lenny's Deli on a two-block stretch of Lombard Street that used to be known as Corned Beef Row as at one time it boasted a number of classic delis that were rumored to rival New York's finest. I can vouch for this claim as the pastrami Reuben I get at Attman's is still better than any sandwich I've gotten in New York. I took the hike up there for my Friday lunch this week and, as usual, was not disappointed.

I love that they even offer a pastrami Reuben. I find this to be superior to the traditional corned beef mostly because I find pastrami to be a superior cold cut. The peppery flavor adds a little zest to the sandwich, and the texture of the meat is more like actual meat and doesn't have that graininess of corned beef. And their cold cuts are cut on the meat slicer right in front of you as you order, so your sandwich comes to you with freshly sliced meat. The lady in front of me ordered her roast beef shaved, and she got to see a sample slice before her sandwich was made.

Attman's uses good Jewish rye bread. The slices are thin but substantial and can carry the weight of their meaty sandwiches, even the notoriously damp Reuben. They use a generous amount of Thousand Island dressing on both slices and nestle the still-crisp sauerkraut on the inside between two slices of Swiss cheese and all that fresh-cut deli meat. It even survived my five-block walk back to the office. Wrapped in deli paper and then foil, the sandwich was still warm when I got to my desk. And, the bread held together while I ate, without the almost inevitable sauerkraut downfall that has afflicted my other Reuben experiences.

Even though it's been years since I visited Attman's, very little has changed about the quality of their food. That consistency is comforting and a little reassuring when so much else about my former life has changed, or even disappeared altogether. Standing in the narrow space between their counter and their beverage coolers, I felt a little nostalgic for my early years in Baltimore that now seem so reckless in comparison to my current life. Sometimes you can go back home, and Attman's is proof that sometimes some things really don't change, and in this case it is a very good thing.

Attman's remains one of my all-time favorite lunch spots in the city, as well as a genuine slice of Baltimore culture. While Corned Beef Row may be a shadow of what it once was, Attman's continued to serve up quality deli meats and sandwiches to a packed house seven days a week with a brisk and personal efficiency that comes from 100 years of service. They also offer catering.

Attman's Deli is located at 1019 East Lombard Street within walking distance of the Harbor East, Inner Harbor, and Little Italy neighborhoods. Metered street parking is available.