29 January 2008

Mang Da

One reason that wine is so hard to describe is that it's like describing music. One can write as much as one wants to about Bach's unaccompanied cello suites, but there's no direct translation from Bach to English. You've got to hear it. And so it is with mang da - you've got to taste it.

I didn't think I'd ever taste mang da again. When I lived in Thailand I ate a lot of nom prik, a simple sauce/condiment that accompanied nearly every meal I ate. It's ubiquitous in Thailand and never seen in Thai restaurants here in the USA. I make it all the time at home, and it has endless variations. Basically, it can be made with garlic, shallots, fresh chili peppers, dried shrimp, lime juice, palm sugar, and shrimp paste (gapi), another Thai fundamental. There are thick and thin varieties, cooked ones and raw. It's all crushed in a mortar and pestle and a small bowl of it is always on the mat or table when you're eating. Once in a while I'd have nom prik mang da, a variation of nom prik that includes mang da, the insect shown here. They're about two to three inches long.

Mang da is one of the most haunting flavors I know, with an intense floral fragrance that reminds me of essence of gewurztraminer, with a concentrated rose petal and faint citrus taste. A little bit adds a breathtaking layer of complexity to a simple condiment like nom prik.

Needless to say, I was surprised when my mother-in-law opened her grocery bag and pulled out a small cellophane-wrapped styrofoam tray with a half dozen mang da on it! When's the last time your mother-in-law brought home a treat like that?!

27 January 2008


Life begins with a seed. People have planted seeds for thousands of years - collecting seeds and saving them until the next planting season, watching them grow, harvesting them again, selecting seeds from the best plants and not eating them, saving them until the next planting season, all the way until today, in 2008. Every seed comes from another seed. Seeds are an unbroken chain of continuity in the long survival of humans. Our history cannot be unwound from seeds because whatever the time or place, seeds have been planted and harvested and saved.

Companies now own seeds and farmers don’t have the right to save them. Own seeds? Own the very spit of life inside them? No you say – it can’t be! It shouldn’t be. There are two huge disasters wound up in the ownership of seeds. First, we lose genetic diversity. And this “we” is the human race. Sure, there are seed banks where certain people might have access to the genetic material kept there, but seeds are living, changing things, and if we plant only ten varieties of corn on ninety million acres instead of two thousand seven hundred varieties on one million acres, we’re compromising our future.

What is genetic diversity? A well rounded football team. What is a monoculture? A football team with twelve running backs – on offense and defense. It’s great to have a good running back but you sure as heck want other players, too. Our agricultural landscape is an enormous monoculture and the possibility of losing our vegetable varieties permanently is here. The second disaster is the acceptance that companies can own seeds, which are a central part of our human heritage. It’s like a company saying they own fire.

For thousands of years people saved seed - the countless small farmers around the world. Ownership of seed is the twenty-first century equivalent of land enclosures. We are being robbed of our common, human heritage of seed that’s been collected and selected and passed on generation after generation. And now companies come along, change something in a seed , and say they own it. Bullshit! They have no right to ownership over the genetic material that has been collected and saved and shared for millennia. Even the ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans, which have foreign genetic material inserted into them so that the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) doesn’t kill them, are still mostly non-Monsanto genetic material. What right does Monsanto have to claim ownership over all that commonly held genetic material? There should be a class action lawsuit against Monsanto for stealing our heritage.

18 January 2008

Food and feedlots

Hard earth beneath snow, roads plowed and driveways shoveled, etched black lines down to the ground, soft white to the sides. Five below on a January night.

What are these politics of food? It’s daunting to look out my back door. I live near the edge of town. There’s a new subdivision to the north of me, and once I’m past that it’s corn and beans. And as a non-farmer it’s hard even to ask questions about farming practices.

There’s been controversy in our county recently because there was a proposal a few months ago to reduce the acreage needed for a feedlot, to eliminate setbacks for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and to increase the number of animal units allowed in some of these things. (Animal units are a way to have equilalency between animals of different sizes. For example, if a zoning ordinance allows 1500 AUs in a feedlot, it means you could have 1000 holstein cows, or 1200 saddle horse, or 7500 sheep, or 600,000 broilers. [AU = Number of animals times average weight divided by 1000.])

There was a small group of residents who worked really hard for a month to organize meetings and get facts straight and fight against an ordinance that would benefit very few people and lead to further degradation of our local natural resources, and they were up against real odds and they balanced this with jobs and kids getting sick and holidays and weather and everything else that happens in a busy life.

But most of us still go to the grocery store and buy a “smart-pak” of pork chops and take them home and eat them and talk about water quality during dinner and never think that we’re the ones to blame, that our unwillingness to get more involved with the issues surrounding food production is the problem. “It’s too big an issue,” we think, or “I can’t make a difference.” We’re it. There’s nothing between us and the deep blue space of eternity. We have to make choices and decisions and be involved with food and agriculture. Whether we take an active role or not, we’re involved because we eat.

13 January 2008

Dinner Club

We’ve been in a dinner club for quite a few years now. My wife and I began this one with a group of friends about seven or eight years ago. All of us in it had kids around the same time and we all needed to get out once in awhile and eat a good meal. We fixed on a framework that has served us well all these years. The host creates the menu and prepares the main course. Recipes for the other courses are sent to the other participants, who make their dish and bring it with them. This way, the host can create a whole menu that, if it were to be prepared by the hosts alone, would be more time than we typically have with little kids at our feet. This way each of us makes one dish and the whole meal works together. For an hour or two in the kitchen (if you’re not the host) you end up with a good, balanced meal.

We hosted last night and our friends from the Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) came down on a cold night and we ate a good meal together and talked and drank a lot of wine. My favorite of the night was a 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel from Tablas Creek in Paso Robles.

I served stew, slow cooked for ten hours over two days, thick slabs of an arm roast simmered in a bottle of zinfandel. I had a hunk of pork belly and I added that, too, first cooking the stew in my daubiere for about five hours and then letting it chill overnight in the garage. The next day, after peeling off the thick layer of congealed fat that rested on top of it, I transferred it into a saucier, and at the barest of flickering simmers, cooked it another four or five hours, occasionally lifting the lid and pushing the meat below the surface of the slowly evaporating wine. By three or four it was done, and I put it into the garage to chill one more time. I made polenta the night before and spread it onto a jelly roll pan, making a single layer about 1/2” thick. I fried squares of polenta in goose fat, creating a ton of splattering grease in the kitchen. But, everyone had just finished heaping bowls of mussels so they were happy to talk while I kept cooking. Finally, I put straw-cut carrots on the top; they were braised in goose gelatin, a by-product of confit-making. (After confit is made I pour the cooking fat into a clear bowl and let it separate. The rendered fat rises to the top and the meaty juices, which can’t be added to the aging confit because it would spoil the meat, are left.) So I cooked the carrots in butter and these goose leftovers, and added a bit of good Vietnamese cinnamon at the end. I liked the color of the dish: yellow polenta on the bottom, red meat in the middle, and orange carrots on top.

06 January 2008

Confit preparations: Rendering fat

As I cut up the geese I rendered a lot of fat, too. A friend gave me these geese and I didn't want to butcher and pluck a half dozen geese. Without a mechanical plucker it's like being stuck in a Grimm's fairy tale. So, I went to the only butcher in the area that processes ducks and geese. Most meat processing plants don't like them because the feathers are hard to remove. In the picture of rendering fat, you can see little remains of pin feathers in a few pieces of skin.
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Confit preparations

A long weekend of preparing various parts of ducks, geese, and chickens for a big batch of confit and several pâtés en terrine. I ended up with 14 pounds of mostly goose meat, and prepared it with a rub of salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and garlic.

In addition to the breasts, legs, and wings, I also had a fair number of gizzards and hearts. I cooked about half of them in the confit, and kept the other half for a few rustic pâtés.