Pastitsio

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My introduction to Greek cuisine began with the set of cookbooks that introduced me to many International cuisines – the Time-Life series of cookbooks called “Foods of the World.” Included in the set are beautifully photographed hardback books describing the cuisines and cultures, as well as smaller, spiral-bound recipe books.

The set was gifted to me by mother, because she owned and loved hers. They were also my first cookbooks, so as I learned how to cook, I also learned about various cuisines. Had I known better, I might have been intimidated, but I just jumped in and started cooking.

One week I’d make meals from the Ethiopian cookbook, the next week Japan, the next Italy, and so forth. One of the cookbooks was “Middle Eastern Cooking,” which included foods from Greece as well as Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and other countries from that part of the world.

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Over the years I made moussaka, chicken baked in red sauce with cinnamon, grilled pork kabobs smothered in oregano, and many more lovely recipes. But one that I really loved was Pastitsio. To me it was way more fun than moussaka.

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When I first made it, my husband loved it. But over the 30-plus years that I’ve been cooking, he’s somehow decided that he hates lamb. It’s just not the same with beef, so I’m using a 50-50 mixture. Who knows, in a future post, I might be writing from my own apartment…

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Pastitsio

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
1 pound ziti
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 1/2 pound lean ground lamb
2 cups chopped, drained, canned tomatoes
1 cup canned tomato purée
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon oregano crumbled
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Black pepper
1/2 cup soft, fresh bread crumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup grated Kefalotiri or Parmesan

In a large pot bring 6-8 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil over high heat and drop in the ziti. Stirring occasionally, cook the pasta for 10-15 minutes, or until soft but still somewhat resistant to the bite. Immediately drain the pasta and set aside.
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Meanwhile, prepare the lamb and the cream sauce. In a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat 6 tablespoons of the olive oil over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it. Add the onions and, stirring frequently, cook for 5 minutes, or until they are soft and transparent but not brown.

Add the lamb and, mashing it frequently with the back of spoon or fork to break up any lumps, cook until all traces of pink disappear.


Stir in the tomatoes, purée, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, the beaten egg, and set aside.


Sauce:
4 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour

To make the cream sauce, combine 3 cups of milk and the butter in a small pan until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan. Remove from the heat. In a heavy 2- to 3- quart saucepan, beat the eggs with a whisk until they are frothy.

Add the remaining 1 cup of milk and 1 teaspoon of salt and, beating constantly, add the flour, a tablespoon at a time.


Stirring constantly, slowly pour in the heated milk and butter mixture in a thin stream and, still stirring, bring to a boil over moderate heat. Continue to boil until the sauce is thick and smooth; set aside.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. With a pastry brush coat the bottom and sides of a 9 x 15 x 2 1/2″ baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the bottom with the remaining 1/4 cup of bread crumbs and spread half of the reserved pasta on top.


Cover with the meat, smoothing it into the corners with a spatula.
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Then pour 2 cups of the cream sauce evenly on top. Sprinkle with half the grated cheese.
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Make another layer with the remaining ziti, pour over it the rest of the cream sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.


Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is a delicate golden brown.

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If you love moussaka, you’ll definitely love pastitsio. It’s the love red meat sauce, slightly sweetened with cinnamon, layered on noodles, and topped with a rich, cheesy cream sauce that makes it the ultimate in comfort food, Greek style!
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How to Stir Fry!

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Stir frying is something I do quite often in my kitchen. For one thing, Asian stir fries, with traditional ingredients, are simple and delicious. Secondly, they’re quite healthy, because of the lovely balance of meat or seafood and vegetables. They’re also a good use for leftover meat and vegetables, and mostly, I love them because no recipe is required.

It does help to be familiar with Asian ingredients. My stir fries are more on the Chinese side, but add some fish sauce and you’ve got yourself a Thai stir fry! As I have said before, you can certainly follow recipes, but I often cook the inspired way. That is, being familiar with the traditional ingredients of a cuisine, and using those in your dish. It may not be a perfect stir fry according to Chinese chefs and grandmothers, but no Chinese food police are coming to my kitchen to arrest me any time soon!

First, it’s important to have the basics – onion, garlic, and ginger. These can be part of the stir fry, or used in a marinade. If I do marinate meat before a stir fry, I only use a little peanut oil or olive oil – enough to blend the aromatics. Liquid additions are wonderful, but then the meat has to be patted dry before cooking. An oily marinade is just easier.

The seasonings for stir fries are easy to find, fortunately. Soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, sherry, sesame seed oil, chile paste, hot sauce, and hoisin sauce. Other optional ingredients include fermented bean paste, shrimp paste, plum sauce (which I don’t care for) and oyster sauce.

One Chinese seasoning is called Chinese 5-Spice, which, obviously, is a mixture of spices – cinnamon, ginger, cloves, star anise, and pepper. I’ve noticed that some also contain fennel. As with most spice and herb mixtures, I hesitate to use them. Just like using a purchased curry powder, every dish you make will end up tasting the same. For this dish today, I just want the meat, vegetables, and seasonings to shine. But use the spice mixture if you like it!
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The protein used in a stir fry has to be good quality and quick cooking. For example, I wouldn’t use beef or pork that requires 4-6 hours of cooking. I’m talking beef and pork tenderloin, chicken thighs and breast, scallops and shrimp.

When it comes to vegetables, anything goes, unless you are expecting the Chinese food police to show up. Of course there’s traditional bok choy, Chinese cabbage, Chinese eggplants, snow peas, and so forth, plus ingredients that play a minor role like bean sprouts, dried mushrooms, chile peppers, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and cilantro. But if you want to use carrots and broccoli, you can make a delicious stir fry as well. Or spinach and tomatoes!

The only requirement of a stir fry is that all the different components are cooked properly at the very end when all of they are all tossed together. So if you’re using carrots and broccoli, steam-cook them first until almost completely tender, then add them to the cooked meat at the end. Perfection! Spinach and tomatoes wouldn’t require any pre-cooking. It’s all about common sense.

Here is the stir fry that I made using what was in my refrigerator one night. Enjoy, and make sure to customize it to your tastes and ingredients!

Beef and Vegetable Stir Fry

1 1/2 pounds cubed beef tenderloin
1/2 cup olive or peanut oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 – 1 1/2″ piece fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound sugar snap peas or snow peas
1/3 cup soy sauce
3/8 cup mirin
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame seed oil
2 medium onions
2 medium red bell peppers
Fresh cilantro, chives, or chile pepper slices

Drain the beef well on paper towels, then place the cubed beef in a large bowl or re-sealable bag. I used the ends of a whole beef tenderloin, from which I had cut filet mignon slices, which is why the “cubes” are different shapes. The volumetric uniformity of the cubes is what’s important in a stir fry. Mine are on the large size, but uniformity is what’s critical.

Add the oil, garlic, ginger, and salt to a jar of a small food processor.
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Process until smooth, then pour over the meat.
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Toss the meat, or bounce it around in the bag to make sure the beef is uniformly coated with the flavorful oil. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Bring the meat to almost rooom temperature at least an hour before beginning the stir fry.

When you’re ready, begin by trimming the peas, if necessary, and steam them just until crisp-tender. For me, this was 5 minutes of steaming. Snow peas are thinner and would require less cooking time. However, cooking time also depends on how crisp you like your vegetables.


Let the peas cool. If you think you have overcooked the peas, or any vegetable for that matter, toss a cup full of ice over the vegetables in a colander. This will cool them off faster, and the melted ice will drain away. Set the peas aside.
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In a measuring cup, measure out the soy sauce, mirin, hoisin sauce, and sesame see oil. Whisk the mixture, and set aside.
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If you’re not familiar with hoisin sauce, I’d suggest buying some. You don’t need much for fabulous flavor. It’s just a soy bean paste. There are different qualities and brands. This is the one I can find locally, but when I have the opportunity to visit an Asian market, I buy more “authentic” brands.
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Slice the onions and peppers to your liking. I like more of a wedge look. Have these in a bowl nearby.
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Have everything you’re going to use in your stir fry near the stove. A lot about Chinese cooking, much like all cooking, is to have everything on hand during the cooking process. It’s mise en place on crack, because things can move quickly

To begin, heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add about 1 tablespoon of oil* and just when it begins to smoke (have your ventilation system on) add a handful of cubed beef. Let them sit for a minute, before tossing around, then leave them alone for another minute or two. Get the cubes to the point where all sides show browning, but don’t allow any further cooking. Remember, there will be a little cooking boost at the end.


Remove the beef with a slotted spoon, then continue with the remaining beef.
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When you are done with the browned beef, lower the heat on the stove by about half. Add the onions and peppers, and saute them, tossing them around occasionally to create some caramelization.

If you want them cooked softer, you can put a lid on the skillet/wok for about a minute.


when you’re happy with the “cook” of the onions and peppers, add the peas and toss gently.
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Then add the beef cubes and any juices that might have accumulated in the bowl.
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Immediately pour in the seasoning mixture, and combine it gently. Stir occasionally, to make sure the beef cooks through to your liking. Mine, of course, will end up medium-rare.
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If the stir fry seems like it has too much liquid, remove the beef and vegetables, using a spider sieve, and place in a large serving bowl. Then reduce the liquid in the skillet/wok.
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Pour the reduced liquid over the stir fry, toss gently, and serve.
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Most people enjoy rice with their stir fries, but I prefer it as is.

Serve the stir fry with chile paste or sriracha or even cayenne pepper flakes for those who want a boost in heat. I’ve also included dried chile pepper slices, and you can always serve black or white sesame seeds for a pretty topping.
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* You may not need any extra oil if you have enough extra oily marinade. Make sure to use all of the marinade in the stir fry for extra flavor.
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note: Some recipes call for cornstarch to thicken the final sauce for a stir fry, but I don’t bother. If you’re not careful, the sauce will become gloppy, which reminds me of bad Chinese American restaurant food.

Beef Cheeks

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So what are beef cheeks?

You know how some people say that if you don’t want to know the answer to a question.. don’t ask?

Well, beef cheeks are just that – cheeks from cows’ heads. Or would that be faces?

Surprisingly, the other day at the grocery store, I came across beef cheeks, and I’d never cooked them before. I’ve had them at restaurants – I think most often as an hors d’oeuvre. So it was time to try them out as a main course.

They’re a very tough piece of meat, so braising was the only way to go. So here’s what I did.

Wine-Braised Beef Cheeks

Beef cheeks, about 3 pounds
1 bottle of good red wine – you’ll be using it in the braising liquid
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely sliced
A few bay leaves
Sprig of rosemary
5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons paprika paste
Salt, to taste

Place the cheeks in a large, non-reactive bowl. add the wine, onion, rosemary, and garlic. Then cover everything with the bottle of wine. Refrigerate overnight, for at least 12 hours.

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The next day, remove the cheeks and lay them on paper towels to dry. Pour the marinade through a sieve and set it aside; discard the onion and other goodies.
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Heat some oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Cut up the cheeks into workable pieces, then season them on both sides with salt and pepper. Brown the cheeks, about 2 minutes on both sides, without crowding them.
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Set the browned cheeks on a plate, and continue with the remaining pieces. Then lower the heat to medium and add the onion, celery, and carrot. Saute the vegetables for 5 minutes.

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Stir in the garlic and saute for just a minute. Then add the remaining marinade, and the beef broth. Reduce the mixture by about half.

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When the liquid has reduced, stir in the tomato paste and the paprika paste.

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Return the cheeks to the pot, including any liquid that might have accumulated on the plate, and bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer the cheeks for about 2 1/2 hours. Turn the pieces over about halfway through the cooking time – especially if they’re not completely submerged in the liquid.

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Remove the lid from the pot, and let everything cool down. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove the cheeks and slice them thinly. You can strain the liquid in the pot to remove the aromatics, but I left them as is. Place the cheek slices in the liquid and heat slowly until heated through. Taste the liquid and add salt, if necessary.

I served the cheek slices on top of cheesy polenta, topped with some of the braising liquid. Alternatively, you could also strain the braising liquid and make more of a gravy with it, but I preferred a more rustic presentation.
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If you need a recipe for making polenta, which are also grits (they’re both cornmeal), there’s a recipe here and one here.

The combination was really fantastic. And I enjoyed beef cheeks as a main course. They’re almost like beef tongue, but much softer. They were also very inexpensive.

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Pho

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I’m positive that most all of you food lovers out there in the blogosphere have enjoyed pho, that quintessentially Vietnamese soup that’s equally messy and delicious. Especially those of you who live in larger cities, where there tend to be a delicious variety of ethnic restaurants.

Myself, I never indulged in pho until just recently, when my daughter took me to a well known Vietnamese restaurant that she and her husband frequent in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I was thoroughly satisfied after my very long and patient wait.

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The soup is a flavorful broth with noodles, beef slices, and bean sprouts, although there are other versions, including a vegetarian pho, available at this restaurant as well. But then here comes the fun part. You get to add Sriracha, hoisin sauce, cilantro, basil, lime juice and sliced jalapenos.

It would be so fun to have a pho party some time, just set up a bar of fun pho ingredients. But the only negative is how messy it is to eat. So maybe I won’t do it. Scratch that idea.

However, I did want to make pho at home from scratch, since I can’t go to any restaurant where I live and order it. I based my recipe that I’m posting here on one I found online from Food and Wine.

Pho Broth

Beef short ribs* and pork neck bones, about 6 pounds total
Oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4″ piece fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
6 cloves
4 allspice
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
Rock sugar – I used a few brown sugar cubes

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First place all of the meat and bones in a large pot. Add water to cover by at least 1″.
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Bring the meat and bones to a boil.

Meanwhile, add a little oil to a skillet, and sauté the onion and ginger until there’s a little color on them.
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Place the cloves, allspice, cinnamon, fennel seeds and bay leaves in a muslin bag, or a piece of tied up cheesecloth and set aside.

After the meat and bones have reached a boil, pour the water off. You may have to wait until things cool down a bit so you don’t get a meat and bone facial over your sink. They will look like this.
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Then cover the meat and bones with water again, add the onion and ginger, the bag of spices, and the sugar cubes.
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Bring the pot to a boil again, then cover and simmer for at least 2 1/2 hours. Let cool.

Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the whole thing into the colander. Place the bowl of broth in the refrigerator overnight.
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You will be left with a lot of bones.
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Remove any good meat from the beef short ribs, place the meat in a sealable plastic bag, and refrigerate overnight.

The next thing to do is make a spicy oil to add to the pho:

Heat 1/4 cup of plain, tasteless oil in a small pan on the stove over low heat. Add 4 cloves of chopped garlic, 2 tablespoons of crushed red pepper flakes, a tablespoon of sesame seeds, and a pinch of salt. Just let the ingredients “warm” in the oil for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, and store the pan in the refrigerator.

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The next day, remove the fat from the broth, and then pour it back into a pot to heat on the stove. Taste the broth and add salt if you think it needs it.

Get the spicy sesame oil out of the refrigerator and strain it into a small bowl. Save the goodies to throw into a stir fry.

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Meanwhile, get out your other ingredients:

Limes
Cilantro
Bean sprouts
Cooked noodles
Sriracha
Hoisin sauce
Meat from short ribs
Jalapeno slices

To serve the pho, start by ladling the hot broth into a large bowl. Add some noodles and bean sprouts. Add some beef, and then sprinkle on the jalapenos, cilantro, and basil. Squeeze some lime into the pho as well. And then season everything by adding Sriracha and hoisin sauce, to taste. But you’re not done. Then add some of the spicy sesame oil on the top.
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Pho is typically eaten with a porcelain spoon in combination with chop sticks, but I don’t own one of those spoons.

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verdict: I’m glad I made this once. This pho was really remarkable. The broth was fabulous and flavorful. But I think the spicy sesame oil was the biggest hit of all. Making pho from scratch isn’t much work – it’s just time consuming. And then I found this:

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* The recipe called for oxtails, which I can’t get here.

Beef Stock

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Do you ever end up with a lot of beef bones? Maybe after de-boning a large roast? If you hate to waste food like I do, try this simple way to make beef stock using bones! It’s so simple, and yet a smart way to take advantage of leftover bones.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

Start by putting all of your trimmed bones in a large roasting pan. Globs of trimmed fat are fine as well. Some people believe in salting and peppering the bones and bits, but I just leave mine plain. After you’ve collected the stock, you can taste and season. That way, you also don’t end up with too salty of a stock.

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Roast the bones for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 375 degrees and continue roasting for another hour.

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Remove the pan from the oven and place it over 1 or two burners on the stove. Let the pan cool for a while, then add some filtered water to it.

Turn on the heat until the broth just boils, then turn it down to a low simmer. You could add other ingredients at this point, and seasonings like bay leaves, but I like to just leave it alone and keep it simple. Bones and water. And some fat.

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After about two hours, and occasionally turning the bones, you’re left with a beautiful broth like this.

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Let the mixture cool somewhat, then place everything through a colander over a large bowl and drain well. And there you have it.

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Refrigerate the broth overnight, then remove the fat layer before proceeding with a recipe.

I happened to use this broth when I made chili, and it was delicious!

note: This could be called either a stock or a broth. There are more involved home-made stocks, like those that also include vegetables, but personally I like just using the bones. Then I get the meaty beef flavor into my soup or stew via the stock/broth, and then add the aromatics at that time I’m preparing the soup or stew recipe. It’s just a personal choice.

Bison Matambre

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I’d just thawed out two bison hanger steaks and instead of making fajitas with them, I wanted to roll them up with some kind of filling. I was originally thinking of making German rouladen but my husband doesn’t like pickles. So I picked up my big South American cookbook, called the South American Table, by Marie Baez Kijac, and there was exactly what I was looking for! Rolled up flank steak with veggies inside, called matambre

Matambre is flank steak rolled up with spinach, asparagus and roasted red bell peppers, after some marination time, and then poached in beef stock. I was definitely tempted!

So here’s what I did.

Matambre

2 – 1 pound hanger steaks or flank steaks
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon garlic pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Beef broth, home made or purchased, plus water if necessary
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Spinach leaves, which I forgot
Cooked asparagus
Slices of roasted red bell pepper
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, whisked
Cheesecloth and string

First, don’t do what I did and marinate the beef or bison first, without pounding them beforehand with a mallet. You need to make them thinner, and more even in their thickness. You’ll be overlapping the steaks in order to make the roll. Can you tell there are two steaks in the photo?!!!

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Then, place the flattened steaks in a pyrex or nonreactive baking dish. Add the vinegar, oil, oregano, garlic pepper, salt, and black pepper. Cover and marinate overnight.

Because I didn’t pound my steaks first, the seasonings that you see below on the steaks flew all over my kitchen while I was pounding away the next day, so I think it’s smarter to pound first, then marinate.

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The next day, remove the hanger steaks from the marinade and place them on paper towels. Then overlap them on your cutting board, and using your mallet again, pound the steaks together where they overlap. (You could make two smaller rolled steaks if you prefer.)

Place the beef broth in a large pot and start warming it up. The broth will have to cover the roll by at least 2 inches.

Cover the hanger steaks with the parsley and crushed red pepper.
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If you happen to remember, cover the steaks with spinach leaves. However I forgot to do this, even the spinach leaves were right there next to me.

Cover the steaks with about half of the Parmesan.

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If you remember to use the spinach, cover the cheese with the spinach leaves

Then add rows of the vegies in a crosswise direction.

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Add the rest of the Parmesan. Then drizzle on the whisked egg.

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By this time the broth should be boiling.

Roll up the steak and place on your cheesecloth. Roll it into the cheesecloth, and then tie it up like you would a roast. Then tie the ends to keep everything snug.

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Using tongs, place the roll into the boiling beef broth. Cover the pot, and simmer the roll for exactly one hour.

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After an hour, remove the roll and let it sit on a plate, emptying the plate occasionally of the broth, for about 15 minutes. Then carefully remove the cheesecloth and carefully slice away, making about 1/2″ slices. Serve hot or warm.

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If you want to eat the matambre as the South Americans do, let the roll cool in the beef stock for 30 minutes first, then transfer it to a plate and put weights on a board over the roll for a few hours or overnight. Then slice and serve. That would be beautiful for a picnic or on an hors d’oeuvres platter. I think I might do that next time, and also remember the spinach leaves.

Hair of the Dog Breakfast

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Not that I would ever need a hair-of-the-dog kind of breakfast (!) but this is it for me if I was ever in need of one. What’s better than eggs, liver, onions, and all of that topped off with a bloody mary?!!!

Now I promised there would be at least one liver post in 2013, and this is it. I happen to be a fan. Maybe some of you should give it a try, after all, it’s really inexpensive!

I think liver and eggs are the only reasons I made it out of college alive, because they were all I could afford. Eggs were cheap, and a carton of beef liver cost under a dollar and could stretch me three meals. (This was back in the 70’s.)

These days, eggs are a little more expensive, but liver is still cheap.

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I prefer beef liver with my eggs, as opposed to chicken liver, which I use only to make pâté. I prefer the texture of beef liver, and the servings are good-sized. So here’s what I did the morning after my last holiday hurrah:

Liver and Eggs
to serve 2

3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, halved, then sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 “slabs” beef liver, blotted dry on paper towels
2 eggs, or 4, if you prefer

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the onions until they are nice and brown, about five minutes; place them in a bowl and keep warm.

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Heat 2 more tablespoons of butter in the same skillet and cook 2 slices of liver. Give them at least a minute on one side, then turn them over. I usually turn down the heat slightly and cook a little more on the second side. I like mine rare, but I don’t want the liver too seared on the outsides, with raw insides.

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Remove the liver to a plate, and then cook the eggs; there should be enough butter in the skillet to cook them. If not, add a little more butter.

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To serve, place a liver slice on a plate, put your cooked egg next to it, and top everything with the onions. Don’t forget the bloody mary!