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


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.