29 December 2008

Apples and a sandwich with a name

A busy end to the Christmas weekend. A nearby orchard remains open until December 31 each year, and we're always regular customers right up to the end. Haralson and Keepsake are my favorite late season varieties, and we keep a bag in the garage as long as we can. We all drove over early this afternoon and bought another 60 lbs for a second batch of applesauce. Four varieties remained in the storeroom and we took equally from all of them.
The kitchen was filled with steaming pots all afternoon and into the evening. My oldest wanted to peel apples and mash them with an immersion blender instead of straining them through the chinois. So, we went our separate ways and we'll have a taste-off tomorrow. Her sauce is pale straw and fine; the texture is silky and soft. Mine is usually fresh pink, but today even darker because I let the cooked apples sit in the pot a little longer than usual; when we passed them through the chinois, the color was rosier than our batch a month or two back.
The kitchen was a mess with pots and pans and everyone was hungry for dinner. Meaqhen suggested Croque Monsieur, and I said "What?" I love food and I love that a classic sandwich like this was completely unknown to me before this evening. Now, I grew up with hot ham and cheese sandwiches, wrapped in foil and heated in the oven, but my wife has been eating Croque Monsieur since she was a student in Montreal. Croque Monsieur is a hot ham and cheese sandwich with a name and a sauce.
I cut thin slices of fresh bread and generous slices of our Christmas ham. A little mustard and grated cheese came next: sharp cheddar for the kids and Jarlsberg for the adults. We put the sandwiches, buttered on the outside, in a hot oven oven. I made a béchamel sauce (butter, flour, milk) and added Weber's mustard (a Buffalo, NY horseradish mustard) and almost a cup of cubed Jarlsberg, turning it into a mornay sauce. After the bread crisped up a bit I spooned the mornay sauce on top and put the sandwiches under the broiler until they bubbled and browned. I drank a porter from Bell's Brewery (Kalamazoo, MI) with the sandwich and now have a new favorite ham sandwich.
We'll bring this last batch of applesauce into the basement tomorrow - 12 quarts and 12 pints - and we'll pop the lids one by one as winter wears on. I'm glad we can; it lets us take advantage of an abundance of fruit at a reasonable price ($.40/pound.) And, tomorrow is our applesauce taste-off; I can't imagine anyone losing!

26 December 2008

Fast food and poverty

I regularly travel to different cities in the United States. I think about food as I drive through poor neighborhoods because the choices are so stark: fast food and junk food are all that's available in whole stretches of urban poverty. Whether it's Chicago or Baltimore, Philadelphia or Atlanta, what's obvious is that the poorer the neighborhood, the fewer food choices available. I drove through a stretch of urban decay in Philadelphia last week and as I drove I looked and looked for a grocery store. I didn't see one. What I saw were fast food restaurants and corner convenience stores with cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and junk food. I didn't see a store where you could buy a sack of flour, yeast, lettuce, whole tomatoes, potatoes or cabbage.
Fast food is expensive food, too. Dinner for five at McDonald's costs more than making dinner at home, and the McDonald's food isn't good for us, either. Good, healthy food is the cheapest food.
And what are the public health costs of not eating well? People living in poor neighborhoods with a preponderance of fast food restaurants are also the least insured. Obesity, diabetes, and other health risks associated with a poor diet are exacerbated by insufficient health care. The people with the least access to quality health care are the same people exposed to the worst food choices.

25 December 2008

Swedish Tea Log

 
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Christmas night after the kids are in bed and the dishes washed, and I feel pulled in different directions by tradition. We make traditions in our family, and follow older ones as well. We've been eating a Swedish Tea Log on Christmas morning since I was born, and I have passed this on to my children. My wife, though, doesn't like coffee cake or pastry for breakfast - it's too sweet, she thinks. So this year I made her an egg bake. I was happy to make it because I just finished curing pancetta for the first time and I thought it would be a perfect addition. I added a lot of bread from a loaf we made for the dish, but my wife thought it tasted too much like bread pudding. However, as I fried the pancetta last night, she went to far as to sop up some of the grease in the frying pan with a crust of bread! (More on the pancetta later.)
The Swedish Tea Log has gotten better over time. I no longer add the raisins called for in the recipe. And I've changed the walnuts to almonds and doubled the amount used. Half of them I chop and the other half I grind into paste and add to the nut/butter/brown sugar mixture that gets spread over the rolled out dough. Here's how I make it:

Soften 1 packet yeast in ¼ c warm water
Sift together:
2¼ c flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
Cut in ½ c butter until particles are fine.
Add ¼ c warm milk or cream, one egg, and yeast. Form into ball, wrap in plastic, and chill several hours.

Cream together:
¼ c butter
½ c brown sugar
¾ tsp cinnamon
1 c almonds: half chopped and half ground into paste

Roll out dough into large rectangle. Spread with filling and roll up. Form into crescent and cut almost to the pan at 1" intervals. Cover with cloth and let rise. Bake at 350° for 15-20 minutes.

When cool, glaze with mixture of:
2 tbsp soft butter
1 c confectioners sugar
½ tsp vanilla
enough warm milk to make it spreadable (1-3 tbsp)

Serve warm.

18 December 2008

One year anniversary

This is my one year anniversary writing Duck Fat and Politics! Thank you to all of you who have come to this blog a second time! I don't know how you got here the first time, but I appreciate that some of you have returned for another look.

I've thought about food for a long time but it took until last year to start a blog and write for an audience. As I look at a year of posts I'm surprised to see how conservative I seem! So many entries express my fundamental love for food, cooking, and gardening in the context of family, tradition, and God. I thought my entries would be serious pieces about food, but I find that when I start writing I can't separate the food from the context in which I understand it, and that context is my family. As I write about tomatoes or beets or Sunday dinner I find myself pulled into the question of how food fits into a larger picture of life and meaning. Maybe if this blog was called Duck Fat and God I'd find myself writing more about politics. I've found it harder to write about food politics than I thought it would be because if I'm going to write about food politics I want to be informed and add a new perspective to what's already been written. Currently, I find that I don't have the time to do the reading, thinking, writing, and editing needed to write solid pieces on food politics. Maybe I'll begin by asking a few questions aloud.

I'm even more surprised by how little I've written about wine; I thought I'd be doing it much more regularly. But, as I read other blogs I find myself less interested in writing wine reviews. If I can figure out where my love of wine fits into this blog, I'll do more.

As I look ahead, I hope to write longer pieces about certain foods I prepare and things that I grow in my garden. I also want to write more about food's place in a family and, by extension, a community.

For now, thank you for reading Duck Fat and Politics. I love to read your comments and I look forward to another year of writing.

15 December 2008

Pork shoulder confit with old fava beans


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The fava beans were old and tough and the half-life of the nutrients had probably depleted to a point where it didn't matter if I ate them or not. But today was cold enough to eat shoe leather stew, and I still had a lot of pork shoulder confit to use. We also had a bottle of bad wine in the kitchen and a few other odds and ends that needed to be eaten.
I started by simmering the fava beans in water for an hour or two, trying to soften the skins. The kitchen started to smell good when I sautéed a big onion and a few cloves of garlic in an olive oil/duck fat mixture; a few bay leaves were added when the onions softened and I peeled and cut up a few carrots, too. I turned the flame high and poured almost a cup of inky-dark wine into the pan, and it bubbled and cooked away. For the next half hour I kept adding wine by the pour - a few glug-glugs or so, wanting to keep the reducing liquid at a boil. I softened a handful of dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl of hot water, and added the liquid before the chopped mushrooms.
Next came the drained fava beans with their tough skins; some people like to peel them, and it's easy to do after they've cooked, but I wanted the chewiness of the skins, and their dark color, too. A can of plum tomatoes came next and then a sprinkle of sugar. I covered this and let it cook awhile, adding a pour of water when it appeared to be drying out. I cooked it about an hour, scraping down the sides and giving it a stir when needed. I sliced the pork confit and spread it on the bottom of a dutch oven. I poured the bean mixture over it and was about to put it in the oven, but the dish looked incomplete. I liked the look of the carrots and tomatoes, so I peeled and diced a big sweet potato and a yukon gold, hoping their color and shapes would improve the texture. Finally, I added more pork to the top and poured a little water over the whole thing. I baked it with the lid on for forty-five minutes and removed the lid for the last twenty minutes - it browned up nicely on top.
Results were mixed: my youngest daughter and I liked it a lot, but my cassoulet-loving son was not impressed. My wife thinks most of these stew-type dishes are a homogeneous blend of things that turn purple; it was the attempt to prevent this that prompted me to add the potatoes.
I'm looking forward to tomorrow's dinner - more of the same, I hope.

07 December 2008

Preparing

It's December and the temperatures are in the single digits and the ground is frozen and Christmas is only a few weeks away and the house is quiet and the light is soft: small white Christmas tree lights throw broken, diffused shadows, pools of difference on the already-organic plaster walls, sagging and settling after eighty years on horizontal lath; dinner is long over and everyone else is asleep and I can still smell the sourdough and mussels we ate after we lit our second Advent candle, all of us holding, barely, hands or fingers, pinkies linked with fragile certainty, giving thanks, remembrance, hope.
All there is to do and I do it and my mother did it and when I was nine or eleven or seven I had big eyes and everything in December had a purpose; we were good so we could put pieces of straw in the manger so baby Jesus would have a soft place to be born when we lay Him in it on Christmas Eve; and for weeks flour and yeast, molasses and ginger and clove and candied fruit filled my nose and eyes; the island in the kitchen always flour-covered, and always a bowl, the beater, nuts to be chopped, a cookie to be rolled in sugar or placed in a foil-lined shoebox, between layers of wax paper, not to be eaten until everything, everything was brought out on Christmas Eve and the dessert plate illuminated all that had been dark, and those moments of awe and wonder and mystery and butter swirled together, and the cookies I made as a boy we still make and when we take the lid off the cardboard box where the tin cutouts lie jumbled for all but once a year, we each claim a shape as the first we'll use - maybe the bell or angel - and when we roll out the butter-rich, anise-scented dough, I know there is no time, that all time is one time and my memories haven't yet started to form; flour covers my hands light as a blessing, and I stop to think about all we have yet to do.

30 November 2008

Turkey Soup

All day turkey bones murmuring in water, the molasses-like burps of slow moving stock, gelatin richness drawn from carcass, skin, and cleavered bones, clove-studded onions and bay leaves from Turkey. The slow stovetop burn, stainless steel pot gurgling simmerish, soft, a flicker of flame underneath.
Today begins Advent, the four weeks that precede Christmas, the beginning of the liturgical year in the Catholic tradition, and the beginning of winter's great darkness, cold that overwhelms us unless we walk into it prepared.
A grey cold Sunday with snow flurries, quiet in the house, moisture curling from the stockpot all day long, fragrant wisps of soup-to-be. I walked with a friend late in the afternoon; we finished our walk as night settled on the snow and filled the sky and air with its dark. The kitchen glowed as it only does when you've returned to it from the outdoors in the winter, just past dusk: truly, civilization developed around a kitchen fire.
At dinner, we lit the first of four candles on our Advent wreath and sang "O Come O Come Emmanuel" before finishing our Thanksgiving leftovers. We move now from an American holiday to a season far older and more profound. What a great time to be in the kitchen.

28 November 2008

Henry's Sourdough Pumpkin Rolls

 
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Henry and I spent Wednesday evening baking and preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. After making two pumpkin pies we had a few extra cups of pumpkin and wondered what to do with it. I love yeast rolls and decided to combine the pumpkin with a sourdough starter from the icebox.
Henry and I especially like sourdough breads; our favorite is sour rye. We let starters sit out for long periods of time and they acquire a very sharp tang.
We brought the starter to room temperature and added warm water, flour and a little yeast. About a cup and a half of pumpkin remained, so Henry scooped it into the bowl, along with one-third cup brown sugar and a teaspoon salt. The dough rose twice and we baked them in a 400°F oven for about 20 minutes.
They made a great dinner roll - chewy crust with a tender interior, and a holiday taste that reminded my wife of hot cross buns, although these contained no spices. Last night's turkey sandwich was made even better on one of these rolls, and today's lunch attested to their staying power.
Henry loved inventing a new roll, so it carries his name.

27 November 2008

After Thanksgiving


And then, the before-bed turkey sandwich is gone, you've drained the glass of wine, and the house is quiet: everyone is asleep. Only crumbs remain from the sourdough pumpkin rolls, and the pies are covered in tin foil. The candles are snuffed and the tablecloth graces an empty table.
I hope you have someone to curl up with, to toast, to wash the dishes with. Or else, it is just food.

09 November 2008

Applesauce

 
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We picked a lot of apples last Sunday afternoon. We remembered the time change and were still surprised by the low sun in the grey colding sky, patchy blue with bits of ragged cloud and leaves falling, leaves. Bare limbs and boughs, harbingers of mortality, home before dark.
Apple smell in the garage all week, sweetening. Friday night Meaghen and the girls went out and Henry and I made applesauce and put it in jars and on Christmas we'll pop a lid and all that summer growing will pour out and cover a pork chop or turkey leg and maybe we'll sprinkle a little cinnamon on it and eat it for breakfast, too. Canning all Friday night with Henry is why we don't watch television.
A big bag of apples - an old 50 lb rice sack full - bulging and tipping nearly. We dumped them into the sink and there they bobbed until cored and quartered, tossed into the largest sauce pot - the canning pot already claimed, of course. They cooked and stewed and softened, and when soft enough we put them into the old garage-sale chinois with a solid cherry pestle, Henry pushing round and round, the slow ooze of sauce seeping through, hitting stride as the pot fills and fills, warm apple rising fragrant in the kitchen steam. Then pint by pint and quart after quart, filling, sealing and boiling, pulling them out with tongs and resting hot jars on the dining room tablecloth, a chessboard of pink jars.
I loved canning as a kid, and still do; it's always a slightly monumental task to look at a few bushels of apples and imagine them all in jars. The bulk diminishes slowly, and every window is fogged; the world beyond the kitchen fades, and jar by jar we transform a season of growing - from blossoms to frost - into food, nourishing soul, body, family.

06 November 2008

Climate Change















I recently re-connected with a childhood friend and neighbor who's been living in India for years. What a pleasure to discover that we still share common interests and pursuits! I sent her tomato seeds and she just let me know that they've sprouted!
What does it symbolize when simple seeds travel across the globe and are planted in new soil? It's November, and my garden is growing again - Brandywine and 1x6 tomatoes are pushing through the soil of Kolkata, India and Barack Obama is the President-elect of the United States of America. That's climate change I can live with!
My family and I just drove to Chicago (and back) - we were part of the Obama victory rally at Grant Park. It's difficult to capture the real size of the crowd, which was enormous beyond counting!

27 October 2008

Community gardening



Saturday was clean up day at the community garden, which is finishing its second season. Thirty families have plots and after two years it's already popular enough that new locations around town are being evaluated for a possible second garden site. At this site there's a small perennial plot, a communal squash plot (which may be given up next year,) a plot whose produce is donated to the food shelf, and a mixture of 10'x10' and 10'x20' plots for families and individual gardeners. We have a few community work days where everyone is expected to participate, and during the summer a few "let's garden together" dates where everyone who can shows up and gardens and socializes.

Except for that, we pretty much garden by ourselves, finding time during the spring, summer, and fall to sow, weed, water, and harvest. I usually come with one or more of my kids, and most of the time we're alone in the garden. Talking with others at the workday this weekend, I wasn't surprised that most of my fellow gardeners experience the same thing.

We had a terrible infestation of Colorado Potato Beetles this summer, and there were times when I squished so many of them my gardening gloves were wet with their orange bodily fluids - nasty! I've never had them in my garden at home and I don't know how they got so bad, but except for this one problem, our garden was a good place to be. We had a few cases of stolen vegetables at the end of the growing season, but at our last meeting we came up with a few ideas that may deter the healthy thieves next year.

Community gardening shows people that gardening is encouraged and supported, and that it deserves to have dedicated space, just as soccer fields, golf courses, and baseball diamonds do. Anyone can garden, and everyone benefits from it. Gardeners gain an appreciation for the challenges that farmers face, and at the same time gardening gives us critical insights that help us ask better questions about how our food is produced.

Perhaps our small garden plots meet 1% - 2% of our annual food needs; I really don't know. Since June, we've bought few vegetables, and in the fruit cellar and freezer we have enough tomatoes to last into the winter. We've canned beets, too, and have frozen swiss chard for use in the dead of winter. We make winter stews and soups with dried beans and peas, and I've saved seeds from my favorite vegetables to ensure that I can plant them next year, too.

Gardening is active and contemplative, and I certainly enjoy the quietude of puttering around as I deadhead flowers or mulch tomatoes, which makes me ask why I think community gardens are a good idea. And my answer is that a shared experience gives us the chance to say yes and nod in agreement rather than find reasons to disagree. There are so many obvious reasons it seems unnecessary to point them out. But think about it. Our lives have become much more sedentary than they were a century ago and despite the fact that we may be several generations removed from active farming, human culture developed around, among other things, farming, and certainly we selected for gardening abilities somewhere in the past six to ten thousand years and I don't think that's all erased from our DNA just because we've worn neckties and white shirts for a few decades. In other words, it's in our bones to garden, and when we dig our hands into the soil and watch a new green plant push its way through the dirt, something happens to us in the same way that staring into a campfire stills the spirit and calms the soul. In practical terms, gardening brings together people who otherwise might not cross paths. It's pretty hard to say if gay or straight gardeners grow better tomatoes, and Democrats and Republicans alike eat arugula. Old women, young men, the boisterous and the shy - gardening doesn't discriminate - anyone can put a seed in the ground and marvel at the miracle of life.

Irrespective of the amount of produce grown in a small community garden plot, gardeners learn to ask questions about how food is produced in this country. One simple question is, why don't we eat more seasonally available vegetables? At home, we're eating potatoes, kale, and swiss chard from the garden, but when we go to the store there is no seasonal variety: the same hard tomatoes, crisp celery, and well-washed broccoli greet us in November and July. What's wrong with eating peas only in the early summer and green beans only when the sun is still high overhead? I think we can get used to the celebratory aspect of greeting the arrival of new seasons and new foods. I don't think we need asparagus in December or apples in March; why do we expect them to be in a supermarket in Minnesota?

For now, most of our gardens are at rest. I have a blanket over a few things to ward off the hard frosts of the past few nights, but one of these mornings the frost will stay and the growing season will be over.

23 October 2008

Pecan Pie Plate Tectonics


Meaghen loves pecan pie and I made her one for her birthday recently. I whipped a bit too much air into the eggs and had a hard time getting all the filling into the shell. I added what I could and put it in the oven, but I still had a few cups of filling in my mixing bowl. After a few minutes I used a fork and pulled the sticky and caramelizing egg filling towards the middle of the pan. I poured another cup or so of filling into the shell and let it bake some more. I repeated this three times and eventually all the filling made its way into the pie. Each time I pulled the frothy egg mixture with the fork tines I was delighted to see the surface subducted into the filling, which got thicker as time passed. Certainly I was witnessing a scaled down version of plate tectonics – and thankfully the crust withstood the rigors! By the time the pie was done, it looked unlike any pecan pie I had baked before, but tasted just as good! A delicious butter and duck fat crust, pre-baked about fifteen minutes before I added the pecans and filling. A single candle in the middle and another revolution around the sun.

22 October 2008

Foil packet dinners


Late fall, and in these unsettled economic times a camping trip reminds us that seasonal cycles are larger than stock market fluctuations. Southeast Minnesota is the driftless area, where non-glaciated areas were scoured by the melting glaciers long before the first shares of stock were traded. The resulting bluffs tower above valley floors and the mixed hardwoods now shine gold, bronze and yellow in the pale autumn sun.

After a gorgeous hike along the high ridges of Beaver Creek Valley, we started a fire for dinner. On the menu were foil packet dinners, camp food fit for a family. Ground beef, sliced potatoes, corn, butter, tomatoes, and salt and pepper, well wrapped in several layers of tin foil. When the flames died down and an even bed of hot coals pulsed in the fire ring, we laid our foil packets on the embers and waited. After a few minutes we could hear sizzling on the inside, proof that the meat was browning, the butter was melting, and everything was blending together. Ten minutes per side, and we flipped them to ensure uniform cooking.

Camping in the valley, the air cooled quickly, and by the time our packet dinners were ready we were putting on sweatshirts and wool hats. A plastic tablecloth over the park picnic table and we were ready to eat. Sizzling hot, I unpeeled the layers of foil and made a plate with the rolled up edges. We ate with gusto, drinking cold water and cold beer. The steam rose and we breathed like dragons, spuds good for the belly. Sitting around the fire after dinner, blazing stars in the clear sky, arguing politics and the upcoming election. Hiking the next morning we drank straight from springs, the cold clear water racing over rocks; we embraced the fall.

28 September 2008

Late September in the garden










































Late September in the garden by the side door, where we cut swiss chard and parsley, nasturtiums and asters. Kids pick cherry tomatoes indiscriminately, popping them into their mouths like the candy they are - sweet and acidic. Beans and beets, black-eyed susans and garlic chives, things we try for one season, and perennial favorites. A warm, beautiful month and the greens get greener and tomatoes continue to ripen.
These days, we take the garden for granted, walking out minutes before dinner to pick something fresh, deciding on the spot what we'll eat. The choices are narrowing, and I didn't plant any kale this year. I think I'll make a cover for the chard so it'll last through October. And as the light fails and temperatures drop we'll adjust again to supermarket produce, but we'll also remember the rich store of tomatoes in the freezer and fruit cellar. For now, though, an abundance of green enriches our table, and color-splattered flowers dance in the warm light of fall.

21 September 2008

1x6 Tomatoes


Another trip to the garden to pick tomatoes, and another full bag of 1x6s. We've done so many things with 1x6s this year, and I had time to peel and seed them the other night, so I made a simple sauce with garlic, onion, anise seed and bay leaf. I cooked it a long time and when it was thick I turned the burner off and let it cool down. Then I put it into freezer bags and now we've got another half dozen bags of sauce in the freezer, ready to be used on a busy Tuesday night in December when we're running around doing a few things too many. Made into sauce, 1x6 tomatoes have a noticeable orange hue to them, rich and deep.

14 September 2008

Pot Roast

I cooked pot roast today because my wife is out of town and she (rightly) thinks it's something from the Stone Age. On damp September Sundays I feel pot roast weather in my bones, and today was another day drizzling down grey.

Chocolate chip pancakes before Mass, and the sky quiet so we rode our bikes. Then more rain, rain and a big piece of beef chuck in the icebox. A giant cube, about 3.5 lbs. A few scoops of duck fat into my dutch oven -- and there's nothing like that smell! I sprinkled whole wheat flour over the meat, rubbed in salt and pepper, and when the fat popped and crackled, I put the enamel coated cast iron pot to work, taking time to brown the chuck on all sides. Then a few onions, sliced thin, and I let them cook a little; a few 1x6 tomatoes, so good for cooking because of the small number of seeds/juice; a little water, and I scraped up all the good little browned bits; a bay leaf and into a 300°F oven, covered, for most of the afternoon. I opened the oven a few times and turned the meat over, letting all of it cook in the heat and bubbly juices.

Egg noodles, fork-tender meat and brown juices spooned with love over it all. A Rhone red, and candles to bring light and ward off the chill, the fall, the coming darkness.

13 September 2008

Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes it takes a fall day, drizzling damp all the way through, to restore us. We planted grass seed last week and this grey medieval rain turns brown earth green again. Halfway through the day my daughter said macaroni and cheese would be good.
Elbow macaroni, a simple butter/flour roux with dry mustard, a few cups of milk and a heap of cubed, sharp cheddar whisked smooth. Into a buttered pyrex casserole, sprinkled with sweet paprika, and baked in a 350°F oven until bubbly and browned.
Steam rose.
We read, cleaned the house, listened to the radio.
Hot bubbly cheese, everyone wanted the crust - ketchup, anyone?

12 September 2008

Community First

A week after Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I’m still reeling from her verbal assault on community organizing. Her calculated, aggressive dismemberment of Barack Obama’s early career did more than call into question his qualifications for President – in one widely watched speech she spat in the face of the very people she wants to help her win in November, and in the faces of hundreds of thousands (millions perhaps?) of everyday Americans who give of their time and talents in an effort to make their cities, schools, churches and other civic organizations stronger.

Community organizing is at the heart of the American experience, and Palin’s disparagement of the effort as one that “lacks responsibilities” is a worm eating into the apple of our democratic institutions. Worse than lies, Palin’s lashing does more than distort the truth – her poisonous words erode our faith in the ability for regular Americans to effect change and improve the very organizations we depend on for faith, friendship, and family.

If you’ve ever gone from house to house in your neighborhood, gathering signatures on a petition so you can request a stop sign at an intersection where school kids cross daily, you’ve been a community organizer. Perhaps you’ve been alarmed at the number of times your local beach has been closed because of poor water quality. You and your neighbors have gone to town board meetings and asked for answers to your questions. Before you know it you’re writing emails and contacting friends and neighbors, newspapers and radio stations for long hours after your kids are asleep and in bed, working on your own time to ensure that everyone can swim at the town beach. That’s community organizing. Think, too, of the garage sales and food drives that you’ve participated in at your church. The call went out for someone to help and you raised your hand. Before you knew it you were recruiting people for various committees and spending more time on this event than you were on your own garden, which began to sprout weeds. But, the event was a huge success, and because of your efforts, your church sent $10,000 to a small church in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and the money helped people in that community purchase food they couldn’t afford. You know what? – you were a community organizer.

Our country has stronger civic organizations than any other country in the world. Americans volunteer more and give more money to worthy causes than any other people in the world – many times over. And when a person stands in front of this entire country and lashes out at this effort as unworthy of her approval and asks to be Vice President of the United States, I ask myself – what kind of America does she envisage? How does she think she can shrink government and shift more and more responsibilities to people themselves, and the community organizations they work with, if the efforts of community organizers are so belittled?

Community organizers also address long term, deep rooted issues in neighborhoods around the country. In some places, gun violence is a real problem, and regular people from small neighborhoods gather in the meeting rooms of local churches and put their heads together to figure out how they can reduce gun violence and keep their youth in school. Community organizers help these groups of deeply concerned people into avenues that can produce results. They help set up after school programs, they organize basketball and soccer leagues, they start mentoring programs so kids have a safe place to study and ask questions. Community organizers recognize the limits of government and roll up their shirt sleeves and get to work. They don’t let inadequate funding, indifference from politicians and local government stop them; in fact, it’s these conditions that are often the breeding ground for community organizers.

I can’t think of a better beginning for a politician than community organizing. It’s out of the spotlight and unglamorous, it requires long hours and less pay, and every gain is hard won. But hopefully, those gains stick, and a small success gives people hope, skill, confidence, and the experience to fight the next fight. Community organizers know that real change is slow, that slogans don’t accomplish the task at hand, and that naysayers will forever disparage their efforts as naïve, unrealistic, or foolishly optimistic. Sarah Palin’s remarks took direct aim at more than Barack Obama – she’s hoping to strike a blow at our optimism, determination, and belief that we can improve our communities and make our country stronger.

Sarah Palin is wrong – outsider, maverick politicians don’t make things happen, community organizers do, and so do the millions of people who put in long hours improving their towns, cites, parks and schools. They put community first, and make the United States a better country because of it.

08 September 2008

Sauerkraut

While we cling to the summer, still able to feel its heat in our bones, it's easy to smell the chill in the air and remember Rod Stewart's "...it's late September and I really should be back at school..." We got our first apples of the season last week and we've had evenings in the 40s.
I grew up eating sauerkraut - it's the one part of my mom's German heritage that stayed with her - we never had a holiday meal without a big bowl of it gracing the table. But, for all the kraut I've eaten in my life, I never made it myself. I got Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie for Christmas last year, and I've had my eye on the home-cured sauerkraut recipe ever since.
It couldn't be simpler: a salt water brine is poured over thinly sliced cabbage and it cures for two weeks under a cheesecloth cover. The end result is a bit tart and quite salty. A few nights ago I cooked it and rinsed it a few times in water before braising it in a pan. Still a bit salty, I thought.
My sister Mo used to swoon over country pork ribs and sauerkraut, emphatically telling our mom, "It's my favorite dinner!" with her honest eyes and dramatic voice. She might be right. I browned the ribs last night in my dutch oven, and the sauteed an onion in the fatty residue. Before I went to bed I added a layer of rinsed and drained sauerkraut and put it in the fridge. When I came home for lunch today I peeled and thinly sliced a tart apple, added another 1 1/2 quarts of rinsed and drained sauerkraut, a bay leaf, a few juniper berries, and a cup or two of water. My wife put it in the oven late in the afternoon, and when I got home the house smelled like heaven!
Last night, my wife and daughters drove up to Minneapolis to see Little House on the Prairie, the world premiere musical at the Guthrie Theater, and my son and I played baseball and then picked tomatoes and dug potatoes. Nice hard potatoes, which Meaghen threw into the oven as well. How can you not just love eating in September, when so much of what goes into our mouths is homegrown?
Oh, the kraut mellowed beautifully during the baking in the oven. The apple's tartness and the onion's sweetness all melted together and made such beautiful juice - during my second helping I grabbed my camera and took a photo. "It's not very attractive," my wife pointed out, but the smells and tastes swirling around me announced a new family tradition.

05 September 2008

The Glory of September

I don't know how to wrap words around simple perfection.

Home for lunch, I pick two tomatoes from the garden while bacon sputters and pops in the frying pan. A few slices of bread in the toaster and I pull lettuce and mayonnaise from the icebox. Yesterday I picked nasturtiums and put them in a champagne glass, and now they dance - yellow, orange, and red - on the table. The tomatoes are big and I cut thick slabs - each slice reaches past the crust of the bread. (Sometimes the tomato's acidity and the sharp-edged crumbs from the toast conspire and make tiny cuts on the roof of my mouth - the BLT's stigmata.) The mayo is slippery on the tomato but it holds the bacon in place. I cap it with lettuce and cover it with another slice of toasted bread.

My wife's office is right off the kitchen. I call her and we share BLTs for lunch on a Friday afternoon.

A BLT is
the glory of September -
thank God for gardens!
-homegrown tomato haiku

01 September 2008

Tomatoes

Now comes the glut of tomatoes I long for all winter. Meals of tomatoes, snacks of cherry tomatoes, picnic lunches with oven roasted tomatoes on crackers, and bags of sauce, salsa and paste filling the freezer.

This evening, a one pound fifteen and a half ounce tomato, sliced with fresh mozzarella, and gobbled up with just a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar, and the smallest pinch of sea salt. And not just some thick-skinned, flavor-deficient hybrid that can be packed and shipped around the world; no, this was a beautiful Brandywine - Glick's Strain, a tomato I've grown for a decade and whose seed I keep and replant each spring. And the sauce I made this weekend was made with a tomato called 1x6, so called because it's a long, tapering tomato that can reach six inches. And, it's about 1" across at the top and has very few seeds, making it a great sauce tomato.

I've got a half-finished batch of salsa in the refrigerator and seeds fermenting in the garage; they attract a lot of fruit flies so I like to keep them out of the kitchen.

28 August 2008

Beets


Beets, deep red beets, baked in foil, cooled and peeled. Pulled out of the refrigerator for lunch, sliced and drizzled with olive oil, vinegar and pepper. Earthy and exalted, my tastebuds are transformed into terroir: they are the earth itself, exposed rock rooted in sweetness, rich soil to which we'll return, concentrated life densely lived, fruit of the earth and memory. I am the earth in which they grow; strike me dead and beets will grow where my spirit deserts my empty body.

24 August 2008

Northwoods Bouillabaisse

I’ve been making my own northwoods bouillabaisse for a few years now, savoring the fish that Minnesota has in abundance, extracting from these fish, almost all of which are the ones most anglers throw back as too small, a rich and flavorful stew that, while not bouillabaisse, is as rich and satisfying as a trip to Marseilles to indulge in the real thing. That’s an advantage, I guess, of having children for whom the sheer excitement of catching a fish surpasses the need for a mountable trophy – we shamelessly keep the small sunnies, crappies, rock bass and smallmouth bass that look like muskie bait, turning them into the stock that is the foundation for my northwoods bouillabaisse.



Like gardening, part of the pleasure of a good fish stew is catching the fish yourself, and the pleasure is heightened when they’re caught on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a ten thousand acre lake that is cold, clear and deep. We fish off a little point and stand with the water lapping our feet and loons swimming by; fir and pine trees line the shore, islands dot the lake and fade into a grey distance that evokes elemental Milton Avery and Chinese ink drawings.


When the fish are biting we put a nightcrawler on a hook and let it fly, a ¼ oz sinker dragging it to the bottom where rocks abound. If we avoid the numerous snags it’s not long before there’s a gentle tug, that thrilling feeling of an imminent strike. And sometimes a good sized bass will inhale the hook and a jolting yank on the line immediately awakens the senses for the beginning of a chance to land a big one.

My stew is a simple one, and I change it as new herbs or ingredients seem good to add. I start by scaling and gutting all the fish. If any of the fish are large enough I also cut out the fillets and put them aside. Usually I have only a few meaty fillets, but when I fry these in butter and bacon fat they add a lot of richness and flavor to the stew.



Cover the fish in water and bring to a boil, skimming off all the scum that surfaces. Usually when I’m up north I have limited ingredients, so I usually add only an onion, carrot, and maybe a bay leaf to the stock. Cook for thirty minutes to an hour and strain. If any obvious chunks of fish are visible and easy to get at, I usually use a fork to pry them from rib cages and other bony areas. In a wide sauté pan, I like the 3 qt size because of the wide surface area for evaporation, I add garlic and onion to olive oil, butter, bacon fat or a combination of those delicious cooking fats. For this stew I almost always sauté the onions over a high flame, usually because I’m hungry and don’t want to wait for lunch. Next, I add a tomato, usually just one to begin with, and I crush it and let it be absorbed into the onions. Keeping the pan really hot I slowly add a few more tomatoes by ones and twos, breaking them apart with my wooden spoon (is there any kitchen tool as wonderful as a wooden spoon? It is primitive and prehistoric and essential) and watching them sizzle, adding another when the now-emerging sauce is reduced to almost no liquid. While I’m sautéing the onions I add basil, thyme, parsley and a few pinches of sea salt, and then I add anise seed and saffron, keeping some semblance of a traditional bouillabaisse. I let this get really thick and fragrant and then I start adding ladlefuls of fish stock, one at a time, keeping the flame hot and adding the next ladleful only when the previous one is almost completely evaporated. The longer I’m willing to cook it the richer it is – on the first night it’s always the thinnest, but as I save some for each subsequent night the resulting stock, when chilled, becomes thick like rubber.



Because I always eat lunch with my wife, I add stock and continue to reduce it until there’s enough for two bowls. As I near the end of the reduction, I sauté the fish fillets in butter over high heat, browning and crisping them with a bit of salt and pepper. A little leftover penne is another good addition at this time, and so are chunks of potato. Pour into a big bowl, place the fried fillets on top, and enjoy.

12 August 2008

Corn (Corn Chowder)

Considering that we’ve been eating corn in North America since before recorded history, I’m surprised we don’t have a more robust and rooted culinary tradition of corn. Today, most Americans eat corn on the cob in August, and lots of people eat corn bread throughout the year. A few regions specialize in corn puddings, and roasted ears of corn are a favorite at county fairs around the country. But, considering the ubiquitous role of corn in American agriculture, why aren’t there dozens of corn dishes that every kid in America grows up eating and making? Why, after all these generations, don’t we have a glut of regional recipes that celebrate the season of corn?
I know I can search the internet for corn recipes and find hundreds, but I’m not talking about recipes; I’m thinking about a culinary understanding of the most widely grown plant in this country. Corn is everywhere and we still approach it like a novelty each year. Perhaps we can’t improve upon boiled corn with butter and salt, but even if that represents the pinnacle of culinary and cultural creativity in the kitchen, I think we should have a few more ideas cooked up by now.
I begin my corn season with corn chowder. If you haven’t made corn chowder with fresh sweet corn, give it a try.

AUGUST CORN CHOWDER

6 ears fresh sweet corn
4-8 tbsp butter
1/2 lb salt pork
2-3 potatoes
1 big onion
a few cloves garlic
1 cup stock or water
1 tomato, seeded
3-4 tbsp tarragon
2 - 3 cups (or so) milk/half & half

I start with a few tablespoons of butter in a nice big saucier. I cut up about a half pound of salt pork into tiny pieces, about ¼” squares and add to it a big onion, also diced finely. A few cloves of garlic? Sure. Add a few more tablespoons of butter about now. Cook until salt pork is browned and onions are soft.

Potatoes are a great addition, and you can add them raw or parboil them first. Use a couple, peel them, and cut them into small pieces. If you add them raw, cook them until they’re almost done before you add the corn. A little liquid is good now. If I have any stock in the icebox I use it, adding a cup or so and letting it cook down a bit. If I don’t have any stock handy, water works well, too.
If you want a little color, a seeded tomato, cut into pieces, works well. So does a diced carrot or a few stems of swiss chard, added like diced celery.
After shucking a half dozen or so ears of corn, I remove the kernels by holding the cob in one hand and using a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the cob into a big colander in the sink. It’s wide and deep enough to catch the stray, flying kernels. Add the kernels to the golden onions and fragrant salt pork. I love tarragon with corn chowder, so I add it now, and a little sweet paprika, too.
Once the corn is cooked, in just a few minutes, I add a combination of milk and half & half, stirring and keeping the heat low so it doesn’t boil. A few cups total will suffice. I like my a bit thin, so I probably add more milk than half & half. Keep it from boiling, and when everything is all mixed together and the liquid is white with swirls of yellowy butter, it’s ready to eat.
Here’s a perfect time to drink a California chardonnay. Chardonnay that’s been oaked and grown in the warm California sun isn’t my daily libation, but with corn chowder it’s a great match.
What other corn dishes belong on every table in August?

05 August 2008

Caramel custard for my brother-in-law

My brother-in-law Kinh drove down from Toronto when we were at our cottage, and as I had only limited ingredients in the kitchen I decided to make caramel custard for dessert. It takes about fifteen minutes to make and needs only the most basic kitchen staples. Caramel custard was a childhood favorite, and it's a dessert I still love to make. I've got two basic styles - family-style and individual ramekins - and there's one difference that changes the taste significantly. With caramel custard, the family-style dessert I grew up with, the caramelized sugar is added to scalded milk, making the whole custard a rich brown color, and flavoring it throughout with that yummy burnt sugar taste. When I make crème caramel, I pour the burnt sugar into the bottom of each ramekin which, when flipped over onto a dessert plate, is a lovely and elegant dessert. The ingredients are identical and we use the two names to differentiate them. Kinh loved the dessert (and the Vouvray that we had with grilled chicken) and I told him I'd send him the recipe.
Kinh, here's how I make it:

Ingredients
3/4 cup sugar
3 cups milk
3-4 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F and put water in kettle to boil. Butter a 1 or 2 quart casserole or other bowl. (When I made it at the cottage we had no bowls so I made it in a 9x9 pyrex pan.)

Caramel custard:
1. In mixing bowl that can eventually accommodate the milk, mix eggs, and add salt and 1/4 cup sugar.
2. Scald 3 cups milk in a sauce pan. Boy oh boy. I grew up with milk and eggs but when I make this with fresh eggs and milk from grass-fed cows the difference is enormous! I use either whole milk or 2%. Let the milk just begin to come to a boil; it'll probably get a little skin on it as it heats up. I use a whisk to keep it smooth. So, scald the milk as you caramelize the sugar. Then, turn off the burner and keep it there until the sugar is burnt.
3. Caramelize 1/2 cup sugar in heavy frying pan. If you haven't done this before, use a dry, cast iron fry pan. Put the heat on medium high and add sugar. I use an oven mitt as the pan gets hot, and slowly stir the sugar with a spoon. As it heats up it clumps a bit, then melts. I stir it because I don't want the sugar in one spot to burn while another clump is still granulated. Although this is sometimes called burnt sugar, we're just browning it. We bring it close to the edge but if it burns it's nasty. As it gets hot and everything starts to melt, remember that anytime it seems like you think it'll burn, you can always remove the pan from the heat. But have confidence! It goes from white to tan to brown in a very short time, so pay attention at the end.
4. When the sugar is a nice rich brown (it's probably beginning to smoke a bit) begin to whisk the milk pretty vigorously and pour the now-liquid sugar in a thin stream into the milk. Sometimes it froths up like Prospero's sea in the Tempest, but remember, no one's going to get hurt and love prevails. The sugar is hot! Stir/whisk until the sea is becalmed.
5. Now, start whisking the egg mixture with enthusiasm. What we're going to do is add the scalded milk/burnt sugar into the eggs, but we don't want the eggs to curdle with the sudden temperature difference! So, whisk the eggs and slowly pour a thin stream of hot milk into the egg mixture. Keep doing it, bit by bit. If all goes well, you can start pouring the milk in a heavier stream after you've got a cup or two into the egg mixture.
6. Add 1 tsp. vanilla.
7. Pour the now-consolidated mixture into the buttered bowl. Put the bowl into a larger 9x13 pan that has a paper towel or two on the bottom. Put it in the oven and pour boiling water into the 9x13 pan, letting it come an inch or two up the side of the custard. The water bath keeps the temperature constant and low and prevents the eggs from getting rubbery. Close the oven and bake 45-50 minutes or until a plain butter knife come out clean. Remove from water bath.

Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Serve cold.

Crème Caramel
Butter 6-8 ramekins and when sugar is caramelized pour a swirl of hot melted sugar into each of the ramekins (instead of into the milk.) Follow caramel custard recipe, and pour consolidated egg/milk mixture into each ramekin. Put into paper towel-lined 9x13 pan. Bake 30-40 minutes or until knife comes out clean. Cool and then chill. To serve, run a knife around the edge of individual ramekin. Put small dessert plate on top of ramekin and turn over quickly. Sometimes you have to give a little shake to the ramekin so the custard comes out of the ramekin and settles onto the plate.

I usually use a bit less than the 3/4 cup sugar the recipe calls for, and sometimes add an extra egg. I keep the flavoring simple and occasionally don't even add vanilla.

We eat this dessert
when we need love or comfort
to be shared with all
-custard haiku

31 July 2008

Maine

I’m just back from a vacation that included Maine. As soon as we arrived we went to a grocery store and bought milk for the kids, a head of lettuce, a pound of butter, and Geary’s Pale Ale. Then off to the lobster pound for lobsters. We were staying at a friend’s house, and while the pot of water came to a boil I headed to the lake for a swim to rinse off the 600 miles of driving we had just completed. While the lobsters boiled and steamed I changed into clean clothes, and we soon sat down to lobster, a green salad, and ale. Hard shell lobsters were going for around $10/pound and soft shell for $7/pound. Soft shells seem to have less meat, but they’re cheaper, so we bought both.

One of my first years in Maine – back in the late ’80s – lobster was going for $2.99/pound and lobstermen were giving lobsters to food shelves and senior centers rather than sell it at a loss. McDonald’s in the area sold lobster rolls and I’d buy lobster every time I had a day off. We’d head to Popham Beach State Park and with a Coleman two-burner we’d heat a pot with ocean water and cook the lobsters. I’d melt butter in whatever I had, and the beer was cold. Heaven! It still is.

Lobster is a favorite for me and my wife. We eat it annually in Maine and never anywhere else. Cracking the first claw, some of the trapped water squirts out – this time Henry got splashed – and as we pick and pull and suck and pry the meat from its shell, we’re happy to be covered in the salty spray. Lobster is good talking food; we nimbly slowly tear the lobster apart –leg after leg, joint by joint, peering into broken exoskeleton to see if a remaining meat morsel remains entangled in some fractured piece of body part. It’s messy, and we dip our findings in butter, lick our fingers and suck the tide high. We save the tail for last, and crack it from the top with our hands, pressing on the bottom plates, then turn it over, pry open the nearly clear underside and pull out (unsheathe?) a beautiful curled slug of juicy white meat. Dipping the jagged end into butter and taking that first bite of buttery tail meat is revelatory – how such a crustacean feeds us so well is worth thinking about. Rich, moist meat, buttery a la carte, the sea echoes in my mouth and I feel tidal surges as I chew. Chablis? Viognier? Yes, yes, but I’m a sucker for beer, enjoying this time the earthiness, not the ethereality, of such a taste, texture, feel. I chew the sea.

22 July 2008

Rodger and me (Bordeaux and ribeye)

Rodger introduced me to my wife and we were in other's wedding. We met several decades ago and have enjoyed eating and drinking wine the whole time. We shared a house until it burned down, and he visited me in Thailand when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.
I'm visiting our cottage in Ontario now, and yesterday Rodger drove up from Buffalo, bringing his two daughters, a 2000 Haut Bailly from the Pessac-Leognan appellation of Bordeaux, and the best looking ribeyes I've ever seen -- Buffalo, for all its economic woes, has beautiful meat markets. We swam in the beautiful water of Bay Beach and my parents-in-law drove down from Toronto to stay the night with us, too. When we visit our cottage, siblings, friends, and in-laws come and we visit, swim, eat and drink. Mẹ (my mother-in-law) brought a case of mangoes, too.
The 2000 Haut Bailly had a beautiful pencil-lead nose, and was a dark, broody wine with leather and some dark black fruit. The full tannins were soft and there were hints, along with that pencil lead, of other wood underneath. An elegant, earthbound wine. Cooked over very hot charcoal, the beef, simply grilled with salt and pepper, was dazzling with the wine. Tender tender red meat with little chars of fat and browned surfaces. A salad, caramel custard for dessert, an old friend, my in-laws, a long walk on the beach talking with Mẹ about family, tiny shells (not zebra mussels, which seem to have decreased significantly in the past two years) in the sand right at the water’s edge, wispy clouds in blue sky as the sun set, all the memories of summers on this beach and the Milton Avery-like simplicity of water, sky, earth. Along the lake bottom the waves make ridges in the sand, a beautiful symmetrical pattern, and Henry and I looked at them as we waded through ankle deep water. Reading at night while the kids sleep on the porch, a whole novel in two days!

07 July 2008

Fava bean hash



A former dinner club companion once remarked that food was something that had to be put into our gullets.

I love fava beans because they taste good and they're beautiful. I love them young and raw, before they develop the skin that some people like to remove before they eat them. I like them when they're old and dry and need to be soaked. I picked some fresh the other night and before my wife went out she told me there were also a lot of leftovers in the icebox that needed to be used.

Garlic, an onion, and a few carrots all aswish in a glug or two of olive oil. When I made baked beans for the 4th I soaked more than usual dry beans, so I had a tupperware tub full of cooked but unseasoned beans. Into the pan they went with the favas. I was sparing the with tub of tomatoes on the top shelf, and generous with the confit - two big goose gizzards and a meaty duck leg. Tarragon, parsley, salt and pepper, and after simmering for awhile, dinner was ready.

In the end, our former dining companion is right. Food keeps us alive and when we're dog-tired or in a rush we just need something to nourish us. But shouldn't it be something good, and something good for us? Why shouldn't gullet-filling food be healthy and fresh? Why can't fast food load us with the sun-stored energy processed by a leafy green vegetable?

I live in Minnesota and so little of the food eaten in this state is grown here. Why? Have we dulled our palates and sense of difference to such a degree that a beet seems odd? Why aren't fava beans in everyone's repertoire of early summer dishes? They can be planted early, they thrive despite our snowy spring weather, and by late June their pods are bursting with fresh greenosity.

The spell of summer is on me. I can see green from now until November, when snow-covered kale will grace our spuds.

06 July 2008

Baked bean sandwich

















We had a block party on the 4th and one table was nearly filled with baked beans. The 5th was even better - I worked hard in the morning setting fence posts, and for lunch I had a cold bean sandwich.

Does anything beat a cold, baked bean sandwich?

30 June 2008

Dinner Club: Summer grilling



For all the years we've been in our dinner club, we haven't hosted an evening in the summer. Our friends drive down in the dark winter months and we eat rich, red wine foods. With grilling season here, I was excited to plan a summer menu. Back in Buffalo, everyone grills with charcoal, not briquettes. Lump hardwood charcoal. When we first moved here it was hard to find, but now it's sold at Whole Foods and Menard's (our regional equivalent of Home Depot.) A 20 pound bag costs around $5.00 and it's the only thing to use for grilling. It burns hot and clean and its smoke is smoky - not chemical-laden and filled with fillers.

We started the evening with a light asparagus soup, no cream, just lemon to brighten it up. I grew up eating German potato salad and while we usually push for something new at these get togethers, I guessed that our friends may not have eaten as much as me. But, as a concession to trying something new and not using the recipe in our family cookbook, I found a very similar recipe from a 1957 Gourmet. Perfect, I thought - too old to have been fancified. I marinated a 6 pound pork roast for a day and a half with a lot of lime and a garlic/salt & pepper rub, along with a lot of fresh cilantro. The accompanying chutney/salsa was made with roasted red pepper, red onion, six stalks of rhubarb, diced into half inch pieces, and a grilled pineapple, also cut into bite-sized chunks.

I got the Weber grill quite hot, and cleared the charcoal from the middle; I put a drip pan at the bottom to keep the roast away from direct heat as much as to catch drippings. I put the roast on, closed the lid, and drank a beer. After about thirty minutes I turned it over and kept the lid off for a few minutes so the coals could heat up a bit more. Pork scares most people. They want to cook it until it's dead. Recommended cooking temperatures vary a lot. I cooked the roast until the internal temperature was 150 °F; I let it sit for ten or fifteen minutes, and afterward realized I should have removed it from the grill when it hit 145°F; the temperature continued to rise as it rested. Still, the meat was juicy, with just a touch of pink still in it.

I also roasted vegetables on my little Smokey Joe. I parboiled beans and radishes, and drizzled everything with olive oil, salt and pepper. A few diced zucchinis were added, and I grilled them in a basket while the roast finished.

The two wines I served with the pork were a Rosenblum 2004 Roussanne (Fess Parker Vineyard, Santa Barbara) and a Domaine LeFage, which uses Grenache Blanc as the primary grape, from the Cotes du Roussillon. Roussanne, a white Rhone varietal, fascinates me. If a peach was a citrus fruit, and you candied it, that's how I'd start a Roussanne. Then, I'd blindfold someone who's never left North America and put them on a plane to Bangkok. When the door of the plane opened in SE Asia, and they were smacked with a maelstrom of fragrances and smells, none of which were individually known or identifiable, but certainly agreeable, I'd capture that hot smell of the night and put it in the bottle, too. Roussanne also has a structure that lends itself to contemplation. When I drink a Roussanne, or a wine that's got a hefty percentage of Roussanne in it, the earthy minerality seems to push into the floral notes with heat and intensity. I find that Roussanne needs to be served warmer than most other whites. As it warms up a bit, all the floral qualities are expressed. Too cold, and it shuts down, again making it perfect for a summer evening when you're sitting around and the air temperature warms up your wine.

The char on the pork and the lime in the marinade were a worthy complement to the wine. I like the bone-in roast because the meat has more complexity. Unfortunately, a lot of pork is pretty one dimensional and bland. But a roast has the fat and the bone to improve both the texture and taste, and this one paired well with the wine.

A light blueberry tart with an almond crust finished the meal, and that's how we spent Saturday evening.

26 June 2008

When someone else does the cooking

Walking into the kitchen after getting home from work, I don't know what I'll see or smell. As often as not my wife is making dinner, and after I change out of work clothes and into shorts, the kids set the table, I assist where needed, and before long we sit down to eat. Our evenings are frequently active; usually one or more of our kids has practice or a game. It's summer - so soccer, swimming and baseball are regularly on our calendar.

The other day I came home and saw a big bowl of bun (rice vermicelli) noodles soaking, a basket of assorted greens, and Meaghen was getting ready to cook salmon. She makes excellent sauces and this one had a soy/sugar base, so when she cooked it the edges got brown and sweet. Just cooked through, we put pieces of salmon into our bowls filled with noodles and greens. Spoon a little nuoc cham (a typical dipping/spooning sauce made with varying ratios of: sugar, water, fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, minced garlic, and minced chili pepper) over it all, say grace, and eat! A delicious summer meal, quickly prepared, and infinitely adaptable.

21 June 2008

Sick

All day in bed, the shades drawn, weak and exhausted. At three o'clock my wife brought me a big glass of ginger ale, the cubes rattling in a big plastic Twins Fan Cup reminding me of Yahtzee! in the way illness skews the time-space continuum and events from decades ago come alive. At five o'clock I ventured downstairs, tired, worn out. I opened the freezer and saw a container of beef broth. I popped it into a pan and thawed it out, bringing it to a slow boil. A few scoops of rice left in the rice cooker and I was all set. Nothing for the stomach like ginger ale followed by broth and rice. A little salty, too. I picked a few leaves of arugula, dropped in some hot chilis, and I was soothed, body and soul. Broth settles, cleanses, nourishes. Alone in the house, hunched over a bowl of rice soup, my elbows working to prop me up. Two bowls later, I rose from the dead, Lazarus-like. I shuffled to the couch and fell into its softness, legs extended and propped up. A ceiling fan turned slowly, just enough. My head on a cushion, seeing flecks of green and sunlight outside, in the other world, the non-sick world. Me, I let the soup do its work. It moved through my body, every cell, every pore, replenishing lost liquid, salt, and bone-marrow nourishment.

What do I know about being sick and getting well? Make your own stock and always have some in the freezer.

10 June 2008

Chambers Kitchen

Except for an apocalyptic meltdown in an Indian restaurant in Iowa City when our firstborn was an infant, our three kids are excellent dining companions. We’ve been eating out since they were born, and now, with all of them in elementary school, we go everywhere with them. We eat a lot of phở in the Twin Cities, but we also try other places. Last winter (which just ended!) my wife and I went to Chambers Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, and but for the ice bar in the center courtyard, where ice cubes weren’t needed, we didn’t know we were in Minnesota. We shared an excellent meal and, in the chic setting, had to be reminded that middle-aged parenting excludes us from the beautiful crowd.

Still, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s place is pretty swell, and it took my wife a little time to convince me that we wanted to go there after a full day in the garden, landscaping and doing early summer house chores. But, after a shower and a change into cleaner shorts, we headed up. Thankfully she convinced me – this meal was better than the first!

With kids, we typically dine at restaurants on the early side, when the crowds are thin and the kids aren’t ravenously hungry. That’s part of dining out with kids – knowing their needs and not expecting miracles – like expecting them to eat three hours later than usual.

We settled into the downstairs restaurant with its oh-so-soft leather seats; I sat for half the meal with my arm draped on the top of the seat so I could feel the leather against my skin. From the light, gallery-whiteness of the upstairs lobby and bar, the restaurant is cool, mod and post-industrial.

What we liked best is hard to say. Go there and eat the food yourself because words aren’t very filling, and rarely do they have much taste. If I could eat words that tasted like food I’d write about the slow cooked, sashimi-grade salmon with maitake mushrooms because the pages would flake like softened or melted shale and you might be in awe of the translucent red and pink of the fish flesh which swam some short time ago in waters still possibly clean, cold, and well oxygenated. Why shale? Like salmon, it’s of the earth with its own identity, and you might think shale is hard and brittle the way some people think salmon is a piece of well done crumbly flesh that tastes vaguely like fish. In this dining experience, though, the words of the fish were flesh and our forks pulled at the pieces, paying homage but savage still. We ate with restraint, tasting slowly, letting the chef’s own vision and order of things arrange our mouths and senses in a new way.

The grouper played with a Mediterranean style and Asian ingredients. The floral notes of coriander balanced a light cayenne pepper coating, and together with the napa cabbage – almost kim chee-like, cucumber and red onion, it was a summer-fresh presentation. The kids also loved the thick Berkshire pork chop sitting on a bed of crisp, juicy tender, plant-based yummy vegetables that kids love. An awesome blueberry soufflé with fresh fresh bright grapefruit and a wee bit of ice cream/mascarpone-like white cheese delight and we were really set.

What do good restaurants do? They remind of, sometimes jolt us, into recognizing the contradictions between our mammalian need for food and our ordered and structured cultural traditions that put food into a framework. The restaurants I enjoy feed me by giving me history, poetry and politics along with my meat and three. It’s easy to be dismissive and critical of restaurants that try to be great restaurants, and we sometimes get mixed up between pretentiousness and creativity. Memorable meals, like this one, give a chef the opportunity to tell a story with food, to weave together cultures and traditions, nourishing us, bringing us together - to celebrate, to eat, to remember.

06 June 2008

Rieslings galore!

I've been reading Wine Blogging Wednesday posts for a long time and decided I'd start participating in it when I saw the recent theme of "Old World Riesling." Well, I travel for work and so do some of my wine drinking friends, so I didn't get started when I thought I would. But, a week or two ago we got together and drank four beautiful examples of what this grape can be.

We started with a Toni Jost 2005 Bacharacher Hahn Kabinett, my second one in three days! Just beautiful, but not typical. A real lively acidity with a clean profile of apricot, peach, and melon. We circled back to this wine at the end of the evening and for some it was their favorite. We ate an onion tart with it and the sweetness and creaminess of the caramelized onions proved to be a great balance to that bouncy acidity. I think this wine will be stellar in another half dozen years.

Next, we opened a Markus Molitor 2004 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spatlese. A clean mineral nose, with a very full mouth feel, and as the balanced acidity and fruit and alcohol moved around on our palates, lychee, hard candy, and honeyed fruit dominated our taste buds. An effortless wine, with a strong current of underlying acidity. Dan, the wine's first proponent, said the finish disappointed him after awhile, and when we gave our end-of-the-evening evaluation, pronounced the wine the weakest of the tasting. My guess is that the wine was in a closed phase, and that with more time in the bottle the structure will announce itself again. But, what began as a seamless wine seemed to have less focus when compared to its kin.

After the spatlese we weren't ready to move on, so we opened another kabinett, this one a Schloss Saarstein 2005 Kabinett. God, what a nice bottle this is! Everyone loved the stoniness, and oily/petroleum nose of this wine and felt it was a beautiful example of a riesling.

Our final bottle of the night was a Donnhoff 2005 Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Auslese Gold Cap. A stunning bouquet of fruits that deny winter’s endless grip on us Minnesotans! Peach and golden apples were fragrances we all noticed. No, we didn’t “notice” those smells. We nearly swooned. “Aaaah,” one of us said, and “Oh my God, I believe in You now!” was an oft-heard response to this wine’s sheer beauty. When we poured the wine the room filled with near silence, all of us just breathing, softly inhaling the gorgeous nose to this wine.

On a very interesting note for all of us, we drank from Williams-Sonoma generic white wine glasses for most of the night. But, I also have two varietal-specific late harvest riesling glasses. We brought them out for the Donnhoff and the difference between the two types of wine glass couldn’t be more pronounced. Each of us was quite honestly stunned by the ability of the varietal-specific glass to focus the wine. The nose was more concentrated as was the wine when it was delivered onto our tongues and into our mouths. Each of us became a convert to varietal specific glasses at that moment. I look forward to tasting my way through different glasses and different wines.

The Donnhoff wine was packed with rich glycerins, thick and lively with a sea-foam richness of acidity. Rather hidden was a light touch of botrytis, something I hope will emerge more as the wine ages. A little spice on the endless finish, and all of us were pretty speechless with the wine. It’s why we get together to taste and drink wine. We put wines into a context and when a real beauty comes along we recognize it and enjoy it.

28 May 2008

Birthday cake

My oldest child, who's about to turn 11, doesn't have a favorite birthday cake. For her birthday party sleepover last weekend I made a lovely three-layer white cake. I covered it with sweetened whipped cream, added coconut and slices of strawberries between the layers, and made a pretty design on the top. She loved it.

The girls ate nearly two pounds of bacon and a quadruple batch of pancakes for breakfast; too bad there wasn't any snow for them to shovel after that hearty meal!

24 May 2008

Pie

Pie. A perfect word. And what says spring like rhubarb pie? We had a long winter, really, and the colors and smells this spring remind us why we love, why we procreate and celebrate life. Earlier this evening, looking at a stupendous crab apple, its pink-white blossoms laid across a newly leafed-out maple tree, both of which were thrown against intense blue sunshine-filled sky.
Last weekend I made pie crust dough, planning on making a pie. Well, the weekend got busy and I didn't have any time. Making a pie crust takes ten to fifteen minutes, and there's no substitute for good pie crust. I make mine with a variety of fats; for this one I used four or five tablespoons of butter and a few dollops of duck fat. I used unsalted butter so the salt in the duck fat (which is fat that's still preserving a large batch of confit) was just right for the dough. Two cups of flour and a little more than a quarter cup of ice water and that's it.
This morning I bought strawberries and when I got home I went outside and picked rhubarb. That quick snap of a stalk releasing from the ground is a good feeling. We are right to lament how our diet no longer revolves around local and seasonally available foods, because rhubarb is a testament to the goodness of food that's only available when it's fresh and in season; eating rhubarb every spring is as perennial as Easter. Sugar, a pinch of salt, a little lemon and a sprinkle of cornstarch is all I use. I don't usually use cornstarch but strawberries shed so much liquid that I wanted to hold a little of it together. But, I let it all sit while I rolled out the crust, and I scooped the fruit into the shell and didn't pour the liquid, so it wasn't too runny.
So I called a friend and asked if she and her family wanted to come over and eat pie tonight. She invited me and my kids for dinner, instead, and said they were having brats on the grill. I said sure, and let her know I had a big bottle of heavy cream, too. Sitting in my fridge was a 2005 Toni Jost Barcharacher Hahn Riesling Kabinett, and I knew it'd be perfect for the evening's dinner. So, after cleaning up after a day of heavy chores (my wife is out of the country and I want to get a lot of house/yard projects done while she's away) I showered and we all walked over to our neighbor's yard, where early evening sun still forced us to squint at times. We just indulged ourselves, sitting around, talking and radiating the joy of real spring, drinking our local Summit Maibock, happy to be where we were.
Sandy cried out "What is this?" when she drank the riesling, and raised her hands and eyes to the sky. She took the bottle home (empty of course) because she wants more of it. Enough acidity to keep you awake, and fruit galore: apple and melon (and peach?) and when I lean over to take another sip my nose is pulled into the wineglass because it smells so alive on this late May late afternoon. A finish that feels full in the mouth.
And so we ate and laughed and talked and ate pie. Our kids made a marble maze that rivaled a roller coaster and we watched them roll their marbles down the precarious, well-engineered course. We sat around into the evening, sharing food and friendship, begun earlier in the day with a phone call and a simple word: pie.

14 May 2008

Hardening off tomatoes

Spring, and it feels like there won't be another frost. This morning, standing at the bus stop while my kids boarded their bus to school, I was reminded of Van Gogh's Branches of Almond Tree in Bloom as I looked at a huge old elm, the bark angular and dark against the brilliant blue morning sky, buds urging to burst into bloom and leaf out, but today just smudges of green pastel, soft against the hard lines of branch and limb. From morning until now, I've been inhaling this air, so sweet I want to drink it.
I just brought my tomatoes up from the basement. They've been sitting under 40-watt fluorescent shop lights for the past six weeks, and it's time to bring them outside to harden them off and prepare them for the garden.
If I put them into sunlight right away, the sunlight will scald the leaves and kill the plants. So, I bring them into the light of day slowly. Tonight, they're on the north side of the house, where they'll acclimate to the fluctuating temperatures and breezes of outdoor living. Over the next week I'll gradually expose them to more and more sunlight until they're ready to go into the ground.
I like to plant my tomatoes as deep as I can, leaving only a few leaves above ground. This helps them develop deep, sturdy roots; they start out a bit slow, but by July they'll be doing fine.
Meanwhile my roquette is growing vigorously; I'll be eating it in just a few more weeks. My fava beans are a few inches tall and if we have a few more days like we had today they'll take off.

13 May 2008

What kind of fat is in your icebox?

When I was a kid, there was always a can for drippings. My mom was born in the height of the Depression, and when she raised us she wasted very little. So now, I always have a jar of drippings in the fridge. Every time I fry bacon or brown meat, I pour the extra fat into a jar. For one thing, I don't want to clog my drain. More importantly, though, is that a spoonful of drippings makes for great sauteed greens, onions, or whatever else I might be cooking. If I'm making biscuits or a savory pie, I like to add a tablespoon or two of drippings to the dough. My friends now swear by the duck fat I use when making a pie crust for blueberry pie. I also cook with butter, lard, walnut oil, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and vegetable oil.

I like having an array of fats in my fridge. Bacon drippings are great, but when I make green beans I need duck fat. Butter is what I want for my asparagus, and olive oil is perfect for other things. When I cut up an animal, I save its fat. I like using as much of an animal as I can, and rendered fat is a treat you can't buy in the store.

A perfect spring recipe using drippings? A bunch of just-picked arugula, washed. A spoonful of bacon drippings in a hot, hot pan. Throw in the greens and let them sizzle for a moment. If any of the stems are getting tough or fibrous, cover the pan for thirty seconds or so. Salt if needed, and enjoy!

11 May 2008

Mother's Day


Friday was the second anniversary of my mom's death and I miss her a lot. Happily, around fifteen years ago my brother compiled the recipes my mom used when she was feeding her eight children, and printed up a little cookbook called Cooking with Jane. A few years later the second edition, More Cooking with Jane, hit the street, and it also had recipes by us eight kids and our spouses. All of us use it for classics like meatloaf, beef stroganoff, lasagna, salad dressing, and spice cake with caramel frosting, my perennial birthday cake.
This morning, my two oldest kids pulled out the family cookbook and made a large heart-shaped oatmeal scone with a big 'M' cut into the middle of it for their mother. We put it on our red "You Are Special Today" plate and brought it upstairs with coffee, the Sunday newspaper, cards, and a present.
For dinner, I made my wife's favorite dessert, pound cake. I make a very simple pound cake, with butter, sugar, eggs, a little salt, and flour. I usually add a teaspoon of vanilla but with spring in the air I added a bit of lemon zest instead.
After a good dinner of grilled steak, home fries cooked in bacon drippings, and sauteed bok choy, we all sat around the dinner table eating thin slices of pound cake, everyone with their favorite way to nibble the buttery edges on the way to the softest, finest crumb found on any cake.
Happy Mother's Day to my sweet wife.

18 April 2008

Confit of goose gizzard and duck

In January I made a big batch of confit, and right now it tastes so good I don't care if summer ever comes. I took a duck leg and two goose gizzards out of my 5-quart pot where they've been aging since January. A few tablespoons of fat into the saucier, and I cooked a few cloves of garlic and an onion, and then emptied a plastic tub of leftover ziti into the pan. (Last night we hosted a potluck for students interested in Peace Corps and invited all the returned volunteers in town as well. The students talked with all of us in an informal setting and heard different perspectives on Peace Corps service. We knew there'd be little kids, too, so my wife made a pan of "Italian macaroni" - at least that's what we called it when we were kids - hence the leftover ziti.) I coated the ziti in that nice duck fat; I sliced the gizzards after browning them, and the insides revealed the tight flesh, still slightly pink after all that cooking and aging. I browned the leg, too, and pulled it apart with my fingers, clumps of meat falling from the bone. I steamed a few spears of asparagus, cutting them in half and adding the bottom halves two or three minutes before the tips. I rinsed the asparagus in cold water to arrest the cooking and preserve the color, and dropped it into the mix.

Aged confit has a richness to it that softens everything. The small amount of cinnamon I added to the meat when it was fresh came whispering through the finish. The falling apart shreds of leg rewarded my patience with a nuttiness that I don't taste in other meats.

I'm surprised that many contemporary confit recipes treat the aging of confit as optional. They suggest lowering the amount of salt because un-aged confit would be too salty if it contained the traditional amounts of salt. But the preserving of meat by giving it a salt cure and slow cooking it in its own fat is the foundation that allows the meat to age so beautifully. The aging is what makes confit so remarkable. Whether I eat a piece of duck confit on a bed of wilted greens or make an enormous cassoulet, it's often the contrast between the aged meat and its counterpoint that satisfies my palate so thoroughly.