Yesterday, as I was blabbering about cooking with friends, I tried to argue that the biggest prize from letting another cook into your kitchen is, aside from some help with the dishes, the potential to learn something new, to come up with a meal that you’d not otherwise have thought of. A case in point, and the needle affixed to the business end of this particular thread, comes courtesy of our dear friends the B’s, their torrid love affair with thermal immersion circulators (one of the gastro-toys du jour), my new favorite condiment (a savory onion-cranberry jam, as advertised in the tag line), and an escalating cacophony of rumbling tummies at the afternoon soiree we were hosting at our casita: A pitch-perfect finger sandwich of pork loin sous-vide (executed in spades and delivered in situ by our guests), with local blue cheese and my onion jam, on grilled cranberry-semolina sourdough toast from a nearby oven.
Despite my undying enthusiasm for the popularity of sous-vide cooking, the technique (to say nothing of the required infrastructure) remains well outside my culinary bandwidth. In that regard, a tightly-monitored water bath is hardly unique; there are all sorts of interesting ways to cook that are either beyond my ken, my natural abilities, or simply strike me as an upside-down cost/benefit analysis, given limited resources of time, money, and storage space. But that’s the whole point of collaborative cooking: I never, not ever, would have made this dish (as I understand it, a pork loin, dressed in bacon fat and cooked very slowly in the usual sous-vide fashion, which is then cooled and sliced), and yet it played perfectly off things that I would, and in fact did, cook.
I already had a loaf of cranberry-semolina sourdough from the uniformly excellent Full Circle Baking Company; a wedge of Pt Reyes Original Blue; and a jar of my savory onion-cranberry jam (adapted from Tom Colicchio and a staple of many years’ worth of Gramercy Tavern menus; my recipe follows). Mr & Mrs B had their pork loin (I can get his recipe for anyone that likes, just ping a request in the comment section). Like some foodie version of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial, everything sort of just fell into everything else: The sweet spiciness of the onions, the salty tang of the cheese, and the melt-in-your-mouth richness of the pork, all contrasting with the hard crust of grilled semolina sourdough, combined to make, I have to say, one of the better sarnies I’ve had in quite some time.
So we let B do his thing, put his protein in the driver’s seat (he absolutely killed it), and used the condiments to played off of that porcine bass line: Add some thin slices of the cranberry-semolina bread to a grill pan for texture and color, layer with medallion-like slices of the pork loin, and top each medallion with a small dollop of the jam and a little chunk of blue cheese (the cheese and onions can easily overwhelm the delicate pork – a little goes a long way). Garnish with fresh thyme flowers or, as pictured here, lavender blossoms. Damn good finger sandwich.
And I never would have had it, had I not let someone else screw around in my kitchen.
Onion-Cranberry Marmalade (Adapted from T Colicchio, “Think Like a Cook”)
- Heat a large pan over medium-low heat and finely slice 4 medium onions, preferably a sweet, yellow variety like Vidalia or Walla Walla. (I’ve taken to cutting the onions into fine dice rather than slices, as I prefer how it spreads.)
- Put a small amount of fat in the pan – canola, peanut, or similarly neutral oil – and add the onions, along with few pinches of salt, and a tablespoon of mixed spices (I used roughly equal proportions of cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and white pepper – the key is to incorporate some of those “baking spice” flavors without letting them become overpowering).
- Sautee gently until the onions are all soft and begin to give up their water and shrink down in the pan. Do not let them caramelize too deeply or develop any texture – you want them to get really sweet, but also to remain very soft and translucent.
- Add about a half-cup of good balsamic vinegar, a quarter-cup of sugar, and a 1/2-1 cup (depending on your preferences; I liked it with more rather than less) of dried cranberries. Turn the heat down to low, and cover the pan (it needn’t be air tight, aluminum foil is fine). Continue to cook, checking and stirring occasionally, for at least an hour, and ideally more like 90 minutes. If the onions begin to dry out, taste them, and add either more balsamic vinegar, water, or even a light stock, depending on how it tastes (the onions should take on a deep reddish brown color and should have a pronounced acidity kept in check by sweet spice).
- Once the stuff has reduced to a thick, jam-like consistency, adjust the seasoning and allow to cool. This is quite a lot of the stuff, but it should keep for weeks in the fridge.
Serve cold on pork or turkey sandwiches, in a tart or quiche, as a side to strong cheeses, or warm with steak or game.