31 December 2009

Offerings


I end this year with a big pot of ph simmering on the stovetop.  The slow gurgle of stock wafts upward like an Old Testament offering.  What happened to food offerings?  We now put money in a collection basket, but I think that’s a poor substitute; maybe we’ve got to put a little more skin in the game.  As much as I love to cook and be with my family, when I look at the past year I also see food and my traditions as an impediment.  What’s the point of a tradition if it’s got no soul?  I grew up with lots of traditions and habits and over time I’ve come to call all of them traditions; it’s important for me to distinguish between the two.  And when I married, I joined with my wife, and her past became part of my present and future, and the weave of our two lives (and pasts) is a complex one.  I’ve rather heavy-handedly called all my habits traditions, which has the effect of putting them off-limits for change and discussion and evolution because I can be rigid about things.  But traditions are organic and alive and the way we keep them real is to actively engage with them and let the new replenish the old.  So, I offer up a pot of ph to the old year and new, recognizing that it is now part of my tradition, and that my traditions extend beyond my own past – our traditions keep the present alive, and nourish the future.

28 December 2009

Pork roast ravioli













We stayed in on Christmas, leaving the house only to shovel.  Today we stayed in, too, but went sledding and took a walk after dinner, climbing over huge snow-plow mountains.  On Christmas we ate a delicious pork roast, and with leftovers in the fridge I thought we should use it up.  I cut a few thick slices of the roast and minced it with a big knife on my cutting board, added a little cottage cheese, an egg, sage, salt and pepper.  I wouldn't normally make ravioli with already-cooked pork, but we were really in the mood for ravioli and the pork was sitting there.
I made the pasta dough and let it rest while we puttered around doing a few things.  When it came time to roll the dough I got out the pasta machine, expecting my eight-year old daughter and I would follow our usual routine - I feed the dough into the rollers while she cranks the handle.  As we got ready to start, my daughter said she wanted to roll the dough out herself and didn't want any assistance; once she started she wouldn't even let anyone else near the machine.  She did everything - she cut hunks of dough, fed them through the rollers, she cranked the handle, and handled the flattened dough gently. Once she laid out the long strips of rolled dough, they were mine to use.
The pasta strips were 3"-4" wide and anywhere from 16"-24" long.  I used about a teaspoon of filling for each ravioli, and we crimped the pieces with a chopstick.  I put them into boiling water 10-12 at a time, and cooked them for about three minutes.  I immediately transferred them with a slotted spoon into a large pan with sizzling butter, added more sage, a little salt, pine nuts, and a little more butter to keep everything sliding smoothly.
The texture of the cooked  ravioli was perfect - the pasta had just a little bite to it, the pine nuts added crunch, and the minced pork blended nicely with the sage and butter.  Ravioli is turning into a pasta we love to make because it always comes to the table looking good and tasting delicious.  And now, with an eight-year old who's taken over the pasta machine, we might be eating it more often.

19 December 2009

The Loveless Cafe

On a dark highway on the far edge of Nashville’s influence, next to a gas station, sits the Loveless Café. Its old neon sign reminds us of the days when travel lacked the chain store monotony of today’s restaurants and lodging. People used to cook and serve food to people. No promotions from corporate headquarters and no market-research-tested food – just food. A sign on the door said they were closing at 6:15 for a staff party and when I looked at the clock just inside the door it was almost 630. The hostess looked up at the clock – just tilted her head a bit – looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said “Just one?” She sat me at a square table in a corner, out of the way of the few remaining tables with customers, giving the bus staff and others space to clean up and be done.
There’s no need to gush over the food, but it’s necessary to commend the restaurant for continuing to serve traditional, unadorned southern food, almost untouched by the recent decades of bad food offered up by chain restaurants. I don’t know if it’s the burden of health department regulations or the staggering cost of insurance, but it seems difficult to open up a restaurant that serves good, plain, inexpensive good. The entrepreneurial spirit has been largely squelched by the fear of litigation, the threat of a food-borne illness, and the prohibitive cost of addressing those two concerns. One of the things I love about traveling to Asia is seeing the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit surrounding food. If someone wants to open a noodle shop in Vietnam, they do it. Put out a few low, plastic chairs and hang a sign. It was a lot easier to do that in the USA fifty years ago, and the Loveless Café is an enduring legacy of one’s ability to “serve food to travelers.” Maybe it’s easier for an enterprising young couple to take jobs managing a chain restaurant these days. How many banks are will to loan money to a restaurant that plans on serving fried chicken and good biscuits? And will private equity put its money into a place selling baked ham for $9.95?
Macaroni and cheese, green beans, creamed corn, hush puppies, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, baked beans, stewed tomatoes – these are the sides of old that ensured a diner would leave a meal full and content. And biscuits, good, plain biscuits. And when I ate my biscuits with gusto, spreading thick preserves and sorghum molasses on them, the waitress brought a few more. The biscuits were small, hot, and light, less flaky and a little more billowy than a hand-rolled one I’d make, and they were fresh and good. The fried chicken dinner (choice between light or dark meat – I chose dark) was hot, crispy, and juicy on the inside. Good fried chicken doesn’t taste greasy – it’s a delicate combination of texture and taste, held together by the coating on the chicken. Dinner came with two sides – the fried okra was hot, crisp on the outside, and fresh with a light batter coating, fried in oil, and heaped in a small bowl. The sweet potatoes were okay, but not as good as my lunchtime serving earlier in the day at Vanderbilt’s University Club, where the brown sugar, butter and salt were in such perfect proportion that I had to go back for seconds. The pie selection was broad, but I settled on blackberry cobbler. Southern desserts are a bit sweet for me, but this delicious blackberry cobbler was balanced with a depth of flavor that seemed to be a combination of orange zest and ground clove. Served in a ramekin with a shortcake topping, the cobbler was stained and thick with whole fruit, sweet to a point that nearly sent me into a sugar coma, but the small scoop of vanilla ice cream luckily prevented that!
I ate quicker than I normally would when dining alone, knowing that when the last few tables cleared out the restaurant staff would begin their holiday party. I left the restaurant in a good mood, content after a nice Southern dinner. The old neon sign still shined in the night, beckoning travelers to stop and refresh themselves with old fashioned food and hospitality.

09 December 2009

Cholent and cassoulet

Looking at the similarities between cholent and cassoulet, I think cholent gave birth to cassoulet as cooks and housewives in medieval France (or Aquitaine or Languedoc) took cholent from its specifically Jewish roots and absorbed it into the regional gastronomic culture of southwestern France.

Before Columbus brought beans from the Americas back to Europe, our common bean - Phaseolus vulgaris - was found only in the Americas. While chickpeas and lentils were available, a "bean" in pre-Columban Europe typically meant a fava bean. Both cholent and cassoulet are old dishes, and each was originally made with fava beans, the first important point of a shared past. Cholent is enriched by beef bones and meat, while cassoulet relies on a variety of meats, ranging from lamb or sausage to preserved duck and goose. Beef is the only meat not usually associated with cassoulet, and I wonder if that’s deliberate? Did non-Jews look at cholent and substitute other meats to make a point that they weren’t preparing a Jewish dish? In times of anti-Semitism or explicit persecution of Jews, adding a piece of confited pork would make a visible statement about one's dietary restrictions. Cholent was also made on occasion with lamb, an important meat throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Cholent used to be made in a pot and sealed with a flour and water paste to keep in moisture. That’s identical to the medieval French daubiere, a slow-cooking clay pot with a raised lip that allows a flour-water paste to seal the pot completely. Cholent was always started on Friday and cooked in a low oven or placed at the edge of the fire and covered with hot ashes through the night and into Saturday, allowing Jews to eat a hot meal on the Sabbath without having to cook or light a fire.

I made cholent last week, piecing together fragments of recipes old and new. I started with fava beans, the small dark ones – minor types – known sometimes as horse beans or tick beans. After soaking them I added a meaty beef bone, onions, garlic, potatoes, and salt and pepper. I also added a small rack of lamb ribs and before the stew went into the oven I carefully slipped a few eggs into the mixture. I poured water and turkey broth over the beans and meat, and put the lidded, cast iron pot into a 200 degree oven.

When I pulled the cholent from the oven late Saturday afternoon, the long-simmered stew smelled beautiful in its hues of onion, brown, beef and lamb. I pulled out the eggs, whose white shells had turned tan during the long night of cooking, and cracked one open. A caramel-colored white steamed pleasantly and the now-hard egg left stains of taste on my now-tingling tongue. A bit of lamb fat floated on the surface and the plumped beans nestled with beef and translucent onions.

Cholent shares the same architecture but lacks the complexity of taste we find in a traditional cassoulet; as I prepared it, I thought it was a simpler dish. But it’s not hard to see how Jewish cooks laid the foundation for what we now think of as a quintessential French dish, and I’m going to keep exploring the connection between these two living cultural treasures of Jewish and French cookery.

02 December 2009

Sweet potato ravioli
















Turkey wasn't the only leftover from Thanksgiving.  This evening was a typical hurry up and wait evening, so I took advantage of a few time gaps to make a delicious ravioli with leftover sweet potatoes.  Two of my kids had swimming and I had to drive, so when I got home from work I had to think about a split dinner: they can't eat a full meal before swimming or they'll be uncomfortable in the water, but it's close to bedtime when they get home, so I don't want them eating too much afterward, either.
As is typical on swimming nights, my daughter made a big bowl of corn and they also ate a piece of fruit.  While they ate their pre-swim snack, I made a two-egg batch of pasta.  We talked as I kneaded the dough and they wanted to touch it; everyone loves the feel of well-kneaded pasta dough; they rubbed it gently and marveled at the five-minute transformation from eggs and flour to this. I also popped the potatoes out of their skins and into a pan on the stove.  I added a little sage, butter, and brown sugar and mashed it all together.

I put the ball of dough in a plastic bag and we all piled in the car and we made the rounds for our carpool.   After dropping the kids off, my youngest and I returned home to make the ravioli.  We took turns feeding the dough through the machine and brought it down to setting number three on the rollers.  We laid the long, lasagna-like noodles on the counter and added spoonfuls of the sweet potato mixture to the pasta.  I carefully put a top sheet on and hand-pressed the basic shapes before cutting them.  After that, my daughter used fork tines to seal the edges.
They cooked in about three minutes and I drained them with a slotted spoon and added them to a large pan with melted butter in it.  Our timing was perfect, and the last ravioli were going into the pan when the kids walked in.  I heated up a few chunks of turkey and gravy, grated a little parmesan cheese on the ravioli, and and we ate like kings.

30 November 2009

Mayonnaise


Blenders, food processors and other new-fangled cooking implements are frequently used for making mayonnaise, but the old-fashioned mortar and pestle can't be beat for emulsifying egg yolks and oil. 
Thai cooks use a clay mortar and wooden pestle for making somtom, a ubiquitious street food made with unripe papaya. I've found that this is perfect for mayonnaise because of its shape - deep and narrow with a lip that curls inward.  Whenever I use a mortar and pestle I sit on a throw rug on the the kitchen floor; the rug absorbs some of the impact and keeps other things from getting dinged up.
I start with an egg yolk, and spend a few minutes pulverizing it at the bottom of the mortar: a rhythmic pounding and twisting that ensures its ability to bind with the oil.  Then, slowly, slowly, a half teaspoon at a time, I add oil and continue to pound and twist the long wooden pestle.  Salt, lemon juice, pepper, ground mustard, and other offerings are added slowly, never threatening the stability of the egg and oil. 

29 November 2009

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is really about pie.  We talk turkey and our president pardons one; most of us eat it, but a few, including the vegan from Bucknell, don't.  Turkey is good, but it's made excellent with accompaniments: sauerkraut, cranberries, potatoes, gravy, and stuffing.  Thanksgiving dinner is special because we eat together; across the country people share a meal that's similar to what everyone else is serving. Remove my sauerkraut from the table and add your - say, tamales, and you've still got Thanksgiving dinner. This year I included parsnips sauteed in butter and nutmeg; my mom used to serve them occasionally and always mentioned that they were part of her childhood Thanksgiving. 
But it's pie that unites us.  Pecan pie, apple pie, and pumpkin pie, the trinity of Thanksgiving pies.  Just one gracing a table makes the holiday whole; add another and you're having a feast.  Here in Minnesota pumpkin is hard to find this year; I went to the store on Tuesday and saw a sign that said, "Sorry, but due to a crop failure we have no pumpkin."  So I bought a butternut squash, a few yams and sweet potatoes, roasted them in the oven, and mashed them together.  Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, ginger, salt, brown sugar, eggs, and milk - but it lacked something, so I grated orange zest, added molasses, and made it right. The texture was good, too - a thick, almost pudding-like density.  Orange pie.  I'll make it again.  With a dollop of soft whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, pie keeps us at the table, talking long into the night.

17 November 2009

Butchering chickens















We spent Saturday morning at a neighbor's house, helping them butcher a few chickens.  A beautiful fall day with cool temperatures and no rain or snow.   Our neighbors have an assortment of hens and they wanted to butcher a few of the older ones themselves, but they hadn't done it before.  My kids and I have killed and processed enough animals to feel comfortable showing them how to do it.
We killed the chickens quickly, first breaking their necks and then beheading them; it was only a few minutes before they were all hanging from the playset to bleed out.  We dipped the birds into a big pot of warm water and the feather plucking went pretty well, except for one bird with some tears on the skin.  Then into a cooler filled with ice water before eviscerating them and pulling out the guts.  I separated out the hearts, kidneys, and gizzards and later poached them in duck fat. 
When the kids were cold they went inside and had steaming mugs of the most delicious Spanish hot chocolate.  When we were finished we were treated to a wonderful brunch that included a Spanish omelette, dry-cured sausages, wheat beer, zinfandel, cheese and olives.  Quite a repast after just ninety minutes of work! 
We walked home full and content, carrying a chicken and a big bag of beets, happy to have helped out, glad that neighbors can turn into friends.

11 November 2009

Sausage trio

I feel like I’m learning a language that once was widely spoken but now is remembered by only a few old people and a small, growing number of non-native speakers. I served a trio of homemade sausages at our decade-old dinner club on Saturday. The centerpiece was a grilled rabbit sausage seasoned with juniper berry and tarragon; it was featured because my kids and I raised and butchered the rabbits we used for the sausage. Also on the plate was a grilled garlic and marjoram sausage; a simple garlic sausage poached in a reduced white wine and rabbit stock glaze; braised, home-cured sauerkraut, and duckfat-roasted potatoes.

A good sausage opens a door to a nearly extinct way of life in this country. After I cut up the rabbit meat, mixed herbs and fat and salt together, pushed the meat into a hog casing and finally tasted the juicy melding of texture and flavor, all contained in a perfect cooking medium (the casing,) I felt like John Keats in On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – I was seeing and feeling and tasting sausage for the first time. Sausage, like Homer, has been around for a long time, and the craft of making sausage from scratch makes it clear what a perfect food the sausage is; like a sonnet it has a somewhat regulated form, with plenty of traditional variations – and a long history of improvisation on the inside.

While our culinary landscape was nearly razed by decades of indifferent food habits, small pockets of traditional food-craft continued and are now enjoying a buzz of attention. I hope we see a trend that materializes into an industry as rooted as the small craft-brewery tradition. Many cities in the US, including my hometown of Buffalo, New York, supported numerous breweries through the end of WWII, and then the gradual decline began, until too many people were drinking bad beer. By the late 1960s, local breweries were facing extinction. A decade ago the revival of beer-making skills was a solid trend, and today, the outlook for craft beer is remarkable. The selection and quality of beer today exceeds anything available twenty-five years ago; the craft didn’t die, and today’s brewmasters have reached new heights of creativity and good tasting beer. Will the same thing happen to other food traditions?

Earlier this evening I was reading a Trixie Belden novel (published in 1948) with my daughter. A chapter opens with Trixie feeding the family’s chickens and talking with her dad about having the cockerels for dinner that weekend. Somehow, between the end of WWII and now, most Americans gave up the backyard flock of chickens that were commonplace enough at the end of WWII to include in a popular series of books for girls. And now there’s this resurgence, a remembering of our parents and grandparents and elderly neighbors who immigrated here and brought with them the local traditions of their hometowns and cultures. They canned and made sauerkraut, raised chickens and butchered pigs, hunted and made sausage, and prepared endless meals the old-fashioned way – from scratch. Maybe enough of us will start making sausage and keeping a few chickens and pursuing other food crafts that larger enterprises will emerge to feed the hunger for better food.

Raising and butchering animals yourself lets you see all the possibilities for rekindling our traditional food arts. The simple act of having a few chickens lets you eat good eggs every day. And when you go beyond eggs the culinary horizons are endless. It’s easy to delve into a culinary tradition if you’ve got animals nearby; with fresh liver at hand, a pate is as inexpensive to make as a batch of tomato sauce, and readily available ingredients are available to make rich soup stock, extraordinary pie crusts, and things that will have your aging father or friend or grandma saying, “I haven’t had this since I was a child.” And you’ll be the lucky one, because you’ll get to hear their remembory.

09 November 2009

Rabbit-stock risotto

Coming home in the almost dark, the beginning of long nights. I pulled a pot of rabbit stock from the fridge and put it on the stove to simmer. I minced a large shallot and sauteed it in a heavy, cast-iron pan, then several thick slices of pancetta, cut into smaller pieces. I added two cups of Arborio rice and stirred it all together. A cup of red wine was next, adding color, fragrance, depth to the dish. From then on it was half-cups of hot stock, stirred in with a long wooden spoon, my son's arm tiring after ten minutes or so. Then a tablespoon of fresh thyme, minced. A few minutes before completion my daughter added a big bowl of peas. As soon as they were heated through I turned off the burner, added a hunk of butter and less than a cup of grated parmesan cheese. After I dished out the kids' portions, I added sauteed mushrooms, an added treat just for me and my wife.

Yes, cooking takes time. My kids didn't have school today, so while my son stirred he told me about his day, from trampoline jumping to ice cream with a friend and his mom. And I showed him how I like to stir risotto. He and his sisters set the table, lit candles, and brought the bowls of risotto to the table. Grace, and conversation while we ate. Yes, it takes time to cook, but what is time for if not to use with family?

29 October 2009

Pasties














A savory Cornish-style pasty turns a bleak, ill-humored day and resolves its blurred memories of unwellness into a well-fed, content family, despite the grey-edged rain upon rain.
I've got half a pan of headcheese and I want to eat it with everything, so I made a rich crust with a stick of butter and a big spoonful of rendered duck fat.  No need for salt because this duck fat was already used to make confit.  I divided the dough into five discs of unequal sizes and chilled it while I prepared the filling.
I also had a small plastic bag with kidneys and hearts that I wanted to use, so I cut them up and sauteed them with an onion and a little more duck fat.  A few tablespoons of brandy started sizzling and I scraped up the little meaty bits on the pan.  I still have a lot of thick, gelatinous stock from the headcheese, so I added a few hunks to the kidneys and let it cook down.
After peeling and slicing a few potatoes and an onion (we didn't have any turnips, another common ingredient,) the pasties were ready to be filled.  I rolled the dough into 5" - 8" circles, and put in a bit of 'taters and onions, as well as a crumbled slice of headcheese.  My wife and I got the kidneys and hearts, too, and the pasties were folded over and sealed, the once-open edge rounded up to keep any liquid from escaping. Head cheese is great for making pasties because of the gelatin that softens into a rich, flavorful broth in the oven.  Halfway through the hour-long cooking, I used a funnel to pour a bit more of the rich stock into each half-moon pasty, sealed all around its edges.
A rich, flaky crust with a piping hot interior was the result, and everyone loved the novelty and the taste.  Diced and shredded pork - and that's essentially what headcheese is - is a fantastic filling for a pasty like this.   And the gravy that keeps everything moist and enriches the crust?  I'll be making this again soon.

27 October 2009

Headcheese

There’s no avoiding the bad name; maybe Americans should look abroad and consider brawn, souse, or fromage de tête, syltty or huspenina, as it’s known in some of the lands of our parents and grandparents. Headcheese sounds like it’s made with mucus or boogers, and the name has somehow come into American English as a real unknown. What is it and why did people ever make it? Does anyone even care to know what it is, outside of the handful of bloggers who populate the internet and drive the search engines to their sites? You might even think I’ve moved away from my love of food and am searching for food with a shock value.
If you or I walked into a nice restaurant and saw Cheek Medallions from Berkshire Pig with Juniper Berries and Port Wine Cranberry Glaze we wouldn’t think twice about it, except to wonder if we should order it. But say headcheese and most people will cringe, even while admitting they don’t know what it is and don’t care to know; they assume it’s gross.













I made headcheese this weekend because I bought a pig and it had a head. Sure, I asked the guy at the meat locker not to grind it up, and I asked for the feet as well, but only because they’re part of the pig. Unlike restaurant food, which a chef can create from disparate ingredients and sources, headcheese comes from a tradition rooted in seasonality and culture. In cultures where families still raise a pig each year, headcheese is still being made. Look to any of the poorer European countries, from Moldova and Serbia to rural districts of wealthier countries like Italy and France, and you’ll find headcheese and its local variants. And headcheese isn’t eaten as penance, either; it’s a delectable way to get at the flavorful bits of head meat – imagine a concentrated combination of pulled pork and pot roast.
A head, with the brains removed, is soaked in a salt brine overnight, along with the pig’s feet. Next day the brine is dumped and the meat is cooked at a low simmer for several hours, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries, and typical soup stock ingredients like carrots, celery, and onions. When the meat is fall-from-the-bone tender, remove it from the heat and let it cool. When you can handle the meat, separate it from the bones and fat. Strain the stock and boil to reduce by about a third to a half. The feet add huge amounts of gelatin to the stock, which makes the traditional aspic of headcheese a breeze to make.
Because headcheese is refrigerated, it’s important to season it heavily, so the flavors come through the cold. I added salt, marjoram, and re-hydrated a quarter-cup of wild mushrooms. Headcheese in many places call for vinegar, bringing to mind hasenfeffer and jugged hare. I used a saucier and kept reducing the already-rich stock, tasting as I went to ensure a strong flavor. I then put the meat into a Pyrex glass loaf and poured the flavored stock until it covered the meat, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the icebox. We ate it yesterday (and today) at lunch with a slice of bread and a gob of mustard.
There’s no reason headcheese couldn’t be warmed up so the aspic melts, and served with egg noodles. In fact, if you’ve eaten rillettes in a French bistro, you’re pretty close to headcheese, except that headcheese doesn’t have as much fat as the rillettes.
My guess is that headcheese is still popular where pigs are butchered on the farm because the process is so well understood. American consumers are suspicious of headcheese because our meat comes from huge factories and we don’t know anything about them. So, while Americans will buy millions of pounds of ground hamburger from unknown sources, few of us will eat headcheese. Is it because of the name or our suspicion of meat factories? If you know where your pig was raised and slaughtered, headcheese is an obvious addition to your repertoire of pork dishes.

26 October 2009

Sometimes I just want to think about food

I mess up in the kitchen as often as I succeed.  My food isn’t always pretty and sometimes it’s too much of the same – some kind of stew with meat and beans.  And too often I cook a dish but not a meal – delicious pasta but nothing else, and I have to scramble to make the meal complete, heating up frozen peas so we have a vegetable to eat.

Most nights I eat a bowl of cereal before bed – Shredded Wheat on the bottom, Corn Chex in the middle, and Kix on top.  A light shines onto the counter where I sit; the rest of the kitchen is in puddled darkness.  If I don’t read a cereal box I like to leaf through the pages of a cookbook and think about recipes.  There’s clarity late at night when the house is quiet and the incipient rumblings in my stomach are quieted.  Sometimes I just want to think about food.

20 October 2009

Sausage


Have I said how much I enjoy cooking with my children? Last weekend was a long one and we spent some of that time in the kitchen. First we made pasta, and all three kids took turns putting the dough through the rollers, cranking the handle, and gently guiding the pasta with open palms. With pasta hanging over chair backs we decided to make sausage with our new grinder.

I had already cut and seasoned a big hunk of pork shoulder butt; it was my kids’ muscle power that I needed now. Pulling all the sausage-making equipment out of the freezer, we set up on the counter and began grinding. Grinding was tough at times and they switched off regularly, watching the new-cut pork extrude out of the die holes. Once ground, we put everything back into the freezer while we cleaned up the area.

I took the hog casings from the bowl where they were soaking and ran water through them, causing the kids to laugh aloud as they inflated.  If you haven’t seen hog casings before, they look pretty ugly in the bag. After all, they’re the lining of hog intestines, a light but very strong membrane. Packed in salt, they’re shriveled and kind of smelly. After soaking in water they become pliable and slippery, and when you run water through them you can see where condom makers found their raw materials in the pre-latex days.

Once the now-enlarged casings are put onto the end of the sausage stuffer, the real sausage making can commence. Making sausage is as easy as cranking the stuffer and getting a rhythm so the meat is extruded and the casing is extended at a consistent rate. We had a few wobbly moments when we pulled on the casing faster than the meat was filling it, causing irregular-looking sausages. Another time the casing didn’t move as quickly as the meat, resulting in a few blimp-type sausages. But all-in-all, the twenty or so sausages were not very different from the ones you find in the store. Except for the taste.

Pork shoulder, salt, pepper, garlic, and white wine: a simple, unadorned sausage. With endless cold, wet weather, we opted for the fry pan to cook them. A dab of butter in a heavy, enameled cast-iron fry pan, and an easy, medium flame. A few minutes to brown the sides, and about ten minutes with a lid, and they were ready to eat. I added a heap of sauerkraut to the pan and quickly braised the fermented dream-cabbage in the browned bits of sausage residue. On the burner to the left, boiled potatoes. Put it all together and that’s a happy meal!

11 October 2009

Onion tart

Winter weather has arrived too early, a days-long deep freeze that ended the gardening season quicker than the Yankees dispatched the Twins, alas.  So, for a school potluck this evening, I thought an onion tart would be good.  My daughter thought otherwise - she wanted me to bake a dessert, and when I told her what I was making she complained, "Aww, only the adults are going to like it!"
I love how much onions change when they're slow cooked, and a good tart showcases them perfectly.  Tarts are good for an appetizer, a first course, or an easy dinner, and depending on what kind of pan or tray they're cooked in, they can be elegant or rustic.  I use a bit of whole wheat flour in the crust so it has a nice color and texture.  Cooking the onions takes a bit of time, but the recipe is pretty simple.

Crust
1 cup unbleached flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons duck fat
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
ice water

Mix flours in bowl, add salt and fats, mix with fingertips until pebble-sized.  Add egg and mix.  Add enough ice-cold water to hold dough together, mixing long enough before further additions of water to ensure that liquid is absorbed and distributed through flour.  Form into ball, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic (I put it into a sandwich baggie) and refrigerate.

Tart
3-4 tablespoons butter
3-4 large onions
pinch saffron
salt and pepper
2 eggs
3 tablespoons sour cream

Melt butter over low heat in cast iron or other heavy-bottomed pan.  Add thinly sliced onions and cook until soft, stirring occasionally, thirty minutes or longer.  Crush saffron threads and mix with a little hot water.  After onions have softened and the exuded liquid begins to evaporate, add the saffron and mix well.  Add salt and pepper.  When all the liquid is gone and the onions glisten with butter and feel thick, turn off burner and remove from heat and allow to cool. If you're in a hurry, put in refrigerator (or out the back door, if it's October in Minnesota!)

Preheat oven to 375°F.
Sprinkle flour onto your rolling surface and flatten your dough a little.  When a ball of dough it first rolled out the edges sometimes begin to break and separate; I use my hands to keep the edges together and whole, the way a potter centers a new hunk of clay.  Roll the dough to fit the pan; I use a standard tart pan with a fluted edge and removable bottom.   Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with a little cornmeal and fit the dough into the pan.

Put cooled onion mixture into bowl and add 2 beaten eggs.  Mix well.  Add sour cream and mix in.  Pour/scrape onion mixture into tart pan, using fork to spread evenly.  Bake for about one hour, or until top begins to brown slightly.  The tart can be served at almost any temperature.  If served as part of a sit-down dinner, it can be served hot - forks will be needed.  As an appetizer or potluck contribution, serve at room temperature so it holds its shape and can be stacked up next to a good Minnesota hotdish or macaroni salad.

30 September 2009

Borscht recipe

Make stock with the bony parts of two rabbits, cooking it long and slow to extract as much flavor as possible.  Cook overnight, carefully topping off the stock pot with water before you turn out the lights and go to sleep, making sure the flame is as low as possible.  In the morning, remove from heat; the stock should be peat colored.

In an enameled, cast iron pot, saute an onion or two and a carrot.  Add dill and a nice fresh tomato from the garden.  Pull four or five good-sized beets from the garden; wash off the dirt and peel them.  Grate into the pot.   Add stock by the ladleful.  Remove meaty pieces from bones and add to pot.  Simmer gently.  Add a cup or two of uncooked, fermented sauerkraut.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  I made the borscht late at night, put it in the fridge, and reheated it for dinner the next evening, adding another two cups of sauerkraut before serving.
My wife also roasted sliced potatoes and onions in the oven and for my second helping I added a scoopful to the bottom of the bowl.  My son likes sour cream; I like the tang of good kraut.

28 September 2009

The way things are connected

A pot of stock is cooking on the stove; our beets in the garden are huge, and the weather has turned blustery.  Time for borscht.
But, I've been thinking about bread lately.  I used to make it all the time, but other things have displaced the time I used to use for bread making.  Before school began last year we bought a bread machine, and we've used it constantly; it makes a loaf that's good for the sandwiches my kids bring to school every day, and we haven't had to purchase bread since then.
When I started thinking about a rabbit-stock borscht my thoughts turned to bread again, and I remembered a beautiful recipe given to me a decade ago by a co-worker's mother in Des Moines, Iowa.  Inga's mother, Vija, gave me a jar of starter for her Latvian rye bread, the most wonderful sour rye I've ever tasted.  I made it for awhile, but over the years I lost the starter.  I've continued to make rye bread occasionally,  but nothing has compared to the still-sweet, slightly fermented rye I first tried all those years ago when recruiting for Peace Corps.  It was probably a night like this when I wrote down the recipe in her kitchen as I watched her make it.
So, even though I should be asleep now, I just brought out my big stoneware bowl and added a few cups of rye flour, enough warm water to make it thin like pancake batter, about a cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of yeast.  That'll be my new starter.  The recipe uses only rye flour and has no added yeast.  I added a little to start the fermentation, but I won't add any more.
Within a few days I'll have a big pot of borscht and a loaf of Vija's Latvian rye bread.

21 September 2009

Apple season

Apple season began around five this afternoon. I spent this beautiful September afternoon listening to baseball and washing storm windows and screens. Around four-thirty I knew we didn't have much time to get to the orchard, so I called to the kids and we hopped in the car. Ten minutes later we were glad to see an 8-6 sign nailed onto a fence post; we'd made it on time.
We walked into the refrigerated storeroom where they keep their apples; we wanted to taste a few before we decided what varieties to buy. Still early in the season, only one variety was available to pick, but there were a half dozen different apples in crates and bags. We tasted Early Blush, a fragrant, early season favorite, McIntosh and Cortland, Honeycrisp, Zestar, and Haralson. After tasting what was there, we bought bags of Zestar and Honeycrisp, both patented apples introduced by the University of Minnesota, and Haralson, a nice tart eating and baking apple, also introduced by the University of Minnesota, but back when land grant universities did work for the greater good of the state and its residents.

When we got home I put a pot of water for pasta on the stove and got to work making a tarte tatin, a reliable and delicious apple-upside-down tart. It went into the oven while the pasta was cooking and was finished before we were. We'll be eating a lot of these in the coming months. Here's how I do it.

Tarte tatin
Crust:
1 cup flour
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2-4 tbsp ice cold water
3-5 tart apples, cored, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into thin slices
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
To make the crust, mix dry ingredients in bowl, add cold butter in chunks and mix with fork until pebbly. Add cold water one tbsp at a time and stir until flour holds together. Roll into crust the size of the pan you're using, using sprinkles of flour to keep from sticking.
Put a heavy, cast iron pan on stovetop and melt butter over medium low heat. Sprinkle brown sugar on top and let melt. I add the apple slices neatly and don't stir them once they're in. The thing to remember is that the apples shrink a lot; add at least four or five layers of them. After you've made it a few times it'll be easier to judge how many apples are needed. Add the apples and the butter-sugar mixture will bubble and sigh a little like a nicely stirred polenta. Keep adding the apples, making sure the whole surface is covered several layers deep. Sprinkle with cinnamon. After a few minutes, when the apples have softened up, remove from heat. Lay crust on top and poke a few holes in it. I fold any extra crust back on itself; it makes for a nice edge.
Bake at 375° F for about 45 minutes or until crust is browned.

When finished, put serving plate on top of pan and flip carefully. Let the upside down pan rest a few minutes before removing. Sometimes a rubber spatula is needed to dislodge a few apples stuck in the frying pan; it's also good for scraping any of the butter-sugar goo that's still in the pan.
Serve warm.

17 September 2009

The smell of rot

A walk in the garden and the smell of rot in my nose – slugs chew through tomatoes punked on the ground, thin walls blotched and putrid with collapse. Now is not the time to rest, glorious though these fall days are. The abundance around us will not last because a frost will come and kill what the slugs haven’t. For now, this bounty is ours to extend. Now is the time to can and preserve and salt and cure and freeze. This is the time to buy bushels of apples, heads of cabbage and pounds of tomatoes. This bounty is fleeting. We can eat local a lot longer than the first frost, and we can eat good food throughout the year without paying a fortune for it. If we don’t like the bland, cardboard tomatoes we find in the supermarket in February, then can the rich, flavorful, and bounteous ones today. As much as I enjoy being outdoors on these gorgeous autumn days, I know I’ve got to spend time in the kitchen.

We want good food but we don’t want to “slave” in the kitchen to ensure it. We’re used to buying whatever we want without regard for time or place. Maybe there are some things you can’t buy. As much as Hunt and Muir Glen want to convince us that quality can be bought for $.99 or $3.25 a can, there is pleasure in opening a jar of your own tomatoes in the depths of winter and smelling today’s warm September air, ripe and sun drenched. And rows of canning jars cooling on the dining room table add incalculable richness to our understanding of seasonality.

Just as we’ve lost so many old varieties of seed, we’re also losing traditional ways of storing food to extend its life. We’ve abandoned traditions because we have full refrigerators and well-stocked supermarkets. We feel we have no need to remember or re-learn the old arts of food storage. Root cellars are obsolete and canning, itself a relatively modern invention, is as archaic to many of us as a 33 record. Right now we’re surrounded by a lot of vegetables and it feels like they’ll be here forever but they won’t because winter is coming and the ground will freeze before we know it.

Do you want to spend an entire fall weekend in a hot, steamy kitchen? If you’re willing to, you might discover than it’s an enjoyable way to spend time with your kids or spouse or neighbors. Have a canning party now and in February you’ll savor the bounty of this season.

10 September 2009

TV

The most useful thing we can do – if we care about food and where it comes from and how it’s grown and prepared and what’s good for us and what tastes good, and if we want to sift through all the contradictory and overlapping claims about health benefits or environmental degradation or sustainability – is unplug the television set.

For the most part, the food traditions that were gaining a foothold in various regions of the United States have been in steady decline since the growth of TV as the national communications medium at the end of WWII and continue to the present day.

While there are a handful of traditional dishes that define a region of this country– clam chowder or gumbo, for instance – one of the foods that many Americans claim as a national dish is apple pie. My guess is that most of our grandmothers and many of our mothers made apple pie. We’ve elevated apple pie to the point where apple pie means America, so we should expect most Americans to cook it with familiarity. Yet, how many people still make it themselves? And yes, I mean the crust, too. And where do we get our apples – an orchard or the supermarket? And where are the supermarket apples from? And how many apple varieties grew in the US when your grandparents were kids, and how many are grown where you live today? How many Americans make their apple pie without a recipe, and how many make their own crust? We have innumerable cooking magazines that devote whole issues to apple pie and crust-making and the cooking shows on television celebrate its wholesomeness, yet this simple and humble and delicious dish is too complicated and time consuming for most Americans to make themselves.

We have a generation that’s seen so many commercials for Pillsbury and Baker’s Square that they’re convinced that it’s too time consuming and tricky to make a crust and that the one purchased in the store is home-style and better than the one they were thinking about making. And a cooking show might highlight a small town in Vermont where everyone picks their apples wearing fall LL Bean clothes, and you flip the channel feeling too discouraged to replicate the New England Autumn Feast. Then some food guru comes on and proceeds to make something extraordinary or simply sublime – either way you look at it and say to yourself, “I could never do that,” and instead of cooking you watch cooking. But more insidious than the cooking shows is the television itself, the enormous time sink that causes pie-crust making to be too time consuming, that burdens the hours of a day so significantly that a microwavable lasagna begins to make sense, and most of all, the steady drone of entertainment that turns the television viewer into a spectator. And food is alive and dynamic and cooking engages the mind and body and nourishes the spirit.

So turn off your television and cook. When you cook you focus on food. Let that be the beginning of how and what you cook. Ignore the latest trend that insists you begin cooking Lebanese, or French, or with whole grains or without butter. Don’t worry if your family doesn’t smile the same way as they do on Hungry Man commercials, and don’t worry if none of Martha Stewart’s simple wisdom has rubbed off on you. Television is noise, loud noise that distracts us from paying attention to real issues. And food is a real issue. Food is important and thinking about it and talking about it helps us learn more about how complicated and intertwined with our politics and economics it really is. Whether we grow it or buy it, prepare it or order it off a menu, food and the cultural practices surrounding it define us a lot. Even if we don’t know where the fried chicken we order in a restaurant comes from, it comes from somewhere and is part of an agricultural practice that may or may not reflect our politics and preferences.

I recently saw an example of vanishing food traditions on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands where my wife and I spent a few days. The question I asked everyone I met was, “Where can I find some good Crucian cooking, local food, not tourist stuff?” Most of the time people would shake their heads and tell me how little was available, how few restaurants served local food. I found a few though, and the conch with garlic and butter, the stew beef, the salt fish and head-clearing ginger beer were testament to traditions rooted in the Caribbean. And talking with residents not much older than me I heard stories of growing up without electricity and doing homework by small lanterns around the kitchen table. And as the benefits of closer ties to the US mainland accrued – like electricity and better health care – the same erosion of local culture that’s affected every region of the US took hold on St. Croix. Pizza and hamburgers, Coke and cable TV came into more and more homes and my guess is that you had moms and kids cooking and the conveniences that have added so much detritus to our culture gained a foothold there and haven’t let go since. And over time the same deterioration occurred and without anyone noticing the loss, only the old people were still eating salt fish and boiled eggs for breakfast, and only the poor neighbors were eating fried sweet potatoes, because one way to show you had a little money was to buy potato chips or whatever else it was that demonstrated that you were no longer so poor that you had to eat that “stuff” that your grandparents still ate. Nothing unusual about that at all, is there?

But one of the things we’re learning now is that as we reject a food tradition we’re impacting a lot more than what’s on our plate at the dinner table. Because if you stop eating sweet potatoes the farmers eventually stop growing them, and before long the variety that was adapted to the specific climate, soil, and sun of your part of the island is gone. Gone. And when someone remembers the sweet taste of that dish from their childhood and they go to find seed potato they discover that the variety grown by their grandpa is gone – extinct – and their only option is to plant a variety of sweet potato that’s from somewhere else. Or when a grown adult remembers a childhood recipe that tasted so good, there won’t be anyone who remembers how to prepare it, and so they’ll eat something from the mainland instead and that Crucian dish will be lost.

And then, the need to provide habitat to an animal that used to eat the bugs that damaged the sweet potatoes will be lost, and when that habitat is neglected it becomes more difficult to remedy the deficiency. Or when few people are eating conch people won’t notice – or care – when its habitat is degraded, and when that happens a whole series of ripples spread across the environment and culture and the man or woman who left decades ago to make their fortune in Boston may return and find an unrecognizable island.

How do we bring back that learning, that knowledge that’s so specific and personal and local? I think we start by turning off our television and taking stock of what’s around us. And as we pull a beet from the ground, or dig out hard, crisp potatoes, we start again with the elementary needs of feeding our body, family, soul, and culture.

I don’t think the efforts people are making to better understand food are gimmicks; there’s clearly an interest and recognition by people that the way Americans have been producing food and eating for the past half century has created reverberations that go far beyond the dinner table. Let’s try to understand what we’re eating and how we prepare it in addition to unraveling the complexities of food production and distribution. And the way to understand is to go back to the basics and learn to cook again. Don’t worry if you can’t live in Provence for a year; turn off your television and live in your own community for those twelve months. Grow garlic and visit a farm and eat with friends and find an orchard and cook with abandon.

25 August 2009

Omelette

Home for lunch on a rainy August afternoon. Early this morning a fierce thunder and lightning storm passed through the area, knocking out our power until late morning. We’re still not all the way in the groove of being home after vacation, and no one remembered to make bread. My oldest daughter revived some leftover batter and made waffles for her siblings; I made an omelette for my wife and myself.
We’re down to the tapered end of a great slab of pancetta, and I started with six or seven thin slices in the frying pan. (I didn’t roll this piece of pancetta after curing, but left it in slab form because it’s easier to cut.) A thinly sliced leek went in next, along with a piece of butter to keep everything lubricated. My wife’s been roasting tomatoes, and their rich, deep flavor is extraordinary; just before I added the beaten eggs I put in a few of these still-moist treasures. I added a little milk to the eggs and fresh ground pepper rounded out the flavor. I cooked it until the bottom was a little browned, then flipped the whole thing and adjusted the broken pieces until it fit together like a waterlogged puzzle.
Salty pancetta, sweet tomatoes, and buttery leeks held together by eggs, served fresh – I like coming home for lunch.

24 August 2009

Duck Fat and Politics on the Radio

Starting tomorrow, August 24, I'll be on KYMN 1080 AM every Monday afternoon from 4:45PM to 5:00PM (Central Time) for fifteen minutes of Duck Fat and Politics; it'll be a segment on Jessica Paxton's All Wheel Drive program.
KYMN streams live so you can listen wherever you are - I hope you'll tune in!
KYMN's website is:
http://kymnradio.net/

19 August 2009

Northern cooking

For the past six years we’ve rented a cabin on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, just a few miles outside of Ely. The evenings are usually cool and my wife likes to oven roast vegetables to warm up the tiny kitchen and eating area. We brought with us a big bag of garden tomatoes, beets, swiss chard, and lots of herbs. We stopped at the St. Paul farmers market and loaded the car even further with more fresh vegetables.

We start fishing off the small dock as soon as we arrive, and on Monday I made chowder using fresh corn, potatoes, and all the fish we caught on the first two days. I started by making a rich fish stock, the perfect use for all the pan fish that aren’t big enough to filet. Then, in a heavy-bottomed pot I sautéed a few onions, a tomato, a few sprigs of thyme, bay leaf, and a few slices of cut-up bacon (we’ve been eating so much home-cured pancetta this year that I found the bacon too smoky for the chowder.) I started ladling fish stock into the pot, and after a quart or more of stock had boiled down to a few cups I added a several cubed potatoes and let them cook at a gentle simmer. Then I turned the burner off and fished a little more. Before dinner I shucked four or five ears of corn and cut the kernels off the cobs. The corn made the liquid almost disappear, but I poured in a cup of half & half and colored it with a small mound of chopped tarragon. A few stirs later the chowder was ready for the table.

Monday's dinner began with a plate of brussels sprouts sautéed in a little butter and bacon fat. With nothing else except a heavy shake of salt and pepper, the little cabbages – browned on the sides, with a few bits of bacon debris lodged in the outer leaves and still a brilliant, glistening green – looked and tasted beautiful.

My wife’s been slow roasting beets, eggplant, and tomato slices in the oven and reducing to rich caramelized bites the vine-ripened produce of our garden and this season, distilling the abundance of August at 250°F.

Last night's dinner started with big hunks of smallmouth bass filets caught by my son, sautéed in butter after a quick dredging in pepper-rich flour. One plate in the middle of the table for the five of us, forks attacking the tender, flaky flesh. A light Selbach Riesling sparkled in the rays of sunlight pouring through the ragged clouds, and the table danced with its refracted light.

Plates of vegetables came next – the beets dressed in a little rice wine vinegar and paired with a few sweet and tart cherry tomatoes, drained of their water, holding only flavor. More tomatoes, each with a leaf of basil on top, a salute to unadorned food. And hefty slices of eggplant shrunk to not-yet-jerky-like consistency, still meaty enough mash with molars, still carrying traces of bacon grease and olive oil.

And in the evening, when the Milky Way pours out across the sky, we sweat and think and talk quietly in a hot sauna on the edge of a cold deep lake.

12 August 2009

Hasenfeffer (Hasenpfeffer) or Sour Rabbit Stew

As far as I can tell, hasenfeffer shouldn’t have a “p” in it because when it’s spelled hasenpfeffer it leads people to believe that pepper plays a role in this German stew with a well known name and unfamiliar taste. Hasenfeffer is a sour rabbit stew that gets its flavor from a heavily seasoned marinade in which the rabbit soaks for two to three days before cooking. The rabbit is then slow-cooked in a reduction of the strained marinade and served with something to soak up the remarkable juices – that’s the heart of this dish.

I think the recipe originated with a vinegar/wine marinade seasoned with juniper berries and bay leaves, and the likes of garlic, onion and carrots. Black peppercorns, clove, and cinnamon add considerable flavor and complexity to the dish, but if hasenfeffer started as an old German farm and hunting recipe, as I think it did, the poor farmers who made it wouldn’t have been able to afford such exotic spices. However, they’re widely available today and nearly all current recipes call for a medley of spices, herbs and other aromatics ranging from allspice and pickling spices to lemon peel and currant jelly.

Current recipes use either flour or sour cream as a thickener, but the dish traditionally used fresh blood to thicken the dish in the same way that jugged hare – a classic English preparation – does. The blood is added at the very end of the cooking and it isn’t allowed to boil (it could curdle.) Some recipes call for a little shaved, unsweetened chocolate, and others call for toasting the flour the rabbit is dredged in, but whether you use blood, flour, or sour cream the aim is to thicken the cooking liquid and add a little more flavor.

I found a few references on the internet claiming that feffer specifically refers to the use of blood in the dish, but I can’t find any confirmation of the word having that meaning. I spoke with one German professor who agreed that pfeffer doesn’t make sense for the dish, but he added that he doesn’t know of the word feffer used by itself, either.

With an abundance of rabbit meat in my freezer, I expect this recipe to evolve over time.

Good beer, skin-on mashed potatoes and braised kale are the perfect accompaniments for hasenfeffer.

Patrick’s Duck Fat and Politics Hasenfeffer

1-2 rabbits, cut into pieces. I like to use the meaty parts of two rabbits, reserving the bonier parts for soup stock.
1 ½ cups vinegar
1 cup wine
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, cut into chunks
1 stalk celery, cut
3-4 cloves garlic
8-10 juniper berries
8-10 whole cloves
6 whole allspice berries
1 tsp mustard seed
2 bay leaves
1 piece cinnamon or 1 tsp ground
2 springs fresh thyme
Either ¼ cup fresh blood or ¼ cup sour cream
flour for dredging
salt


Combine all ingredients except blood, sour cream, and flour and marinate for 2-3 days in refrigerator. Mix daily.

When ready to cook, strain marinade and reserve liquid. Discard solids.

Add a little duck fat to dutch oven and turn burner on medium high.

Dredge rabbit pieces in flour and brown.

Turn burner on high and slowly add reserved marinade; reduce liquid almost completely before adding more. Continue until total liquid in dutch oven is 1 – 1 ¼ cups.

Reduce burner to very low, cover, and cook for 1 – 1 ½ hours or until meat is tender. Add a little water if necessary.

When meat is done, turn off the burner, let it cool, and refrigerate overnight.

Next day, before serving, reheat slowly. Taste for saltiness and add salt if needed. Just before serving, add either blood or sour cream and stir to mix, being careful not to let stew boil.

After the stew has been chilled and reheated, the meat begins to fall off the bone and shred like an old Brunswick stew or barbeque. I like it this way, but if you don’t want the meat pieces to fall apart, stir with care.

10 August 2009

Blueberry pancake

I made pancakes for the kids this morning and went for a run. When I returned I stirred up the remaining batter and poured it over a handful of blueberries sizzling in the frying pan. I scraped out just enough batter for one blueberry pancake.

05 August 2009

Rabbit dividends















The advantage of butchering my own animals is that I have the whole animal to use. Unlike a plastic-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breast or a single grass-fed organic bison patty, a whole animal has lots of delicious parts (which many people have never eaten - except probably in hot dogs.)
The first thing we ate after butchering our rabbits were the hearts and kidneys, sautéed in a little grapeseed oil and flavored with fresh tarragon and a dab of heavy cream. My wife protested, while still managing to spear the last stray heart with her fork,"Why didn't you cook them the way you always do?" disappointed that I used cream with organ meats. We eat them often enough to have preparations we prefer. I sometimes have difficulty make pâté, but I made a pretty good country-style one with all the livers I had. We've been eating it for lunch this week -- a thick slice with a good pickle and a glob of mustard; after that and a piece of fruit I'm ready to return to work.
Last night I made stock with the bones; a slow-cooked, peat-stained stock that looks like a lake in northern Minnesota: tea-brown but perfectly clear. That's the result of a long, slow simmer throughout the night. And for tonight's dinner I used the stock to make my first corn chowder of the season, a real treat with fresh bread and a glass of wine. And marinating in the icebox is a big batch of hasenfeffer, a sour rabbit stew we'll eat on Friday.
Without a whole animal I'd be limited in what I could make. And for the majority of people who rely only on supermarkets for their meat, these stores are reducing the varieties of meats they sell, not increasing them. If you go into a typical supermarket in Minnesota, most of the pork is from Hormel and most of it has added tenderizers and flavor "enhancers" to keep it artificially juicy. And ask in the meat department for pig feet or hocks or pork belly and they probably won't have them. You get the boneless, plastic-wrapped meat and they include a microwave recipe on the label. Additionally, when the pig that gives up its pork chops is killed, the belly and hocks and liver are in the pig. In the old days a real meat market would carry many different cuts and varieties of meat and there were recipes and traditions and budgets for every part of every animal. What happens to all of that now? Does it go into the can of dinner your cat will eat? I like eating kidneys and livers and extracting marrow from bones. I like the bony carcass as much as the meaty legs and I use all the parts in ways that maximize their flavor and value. I want to make food that tastes good and I want to use the entire animal, not just the parts that look like they don't come from one.

03 August 2009

Butchering rabbits


When I saw the last bite of dinner on my plate - a bean, a piece of onion, a fragment of tomato, and a morsel of rabbit, all of which was improved by a most fragrant sauce - I was glad we bought a trio of rabbits last fall and have spent the past nine months figuring out how to manage their waste, breed them successfully, and keep them comfortable in our erratic weather.
Saturday afternoon we butchered our first batch of young rabbits: they were eleven weeks old and dressed out at about 2 ½ pounds apiece. I hung a green tarp along the fence to make sure none of our neighbors saw anything they didn't want to. A few came over and showed an interest and I was glad to show them what we were doing. Likewise with our kids. I told them that their involvement was voluntary, and wasn't surprised by their active participation. In addition to the work involved with bleeding, gutting, and skinning ten rabbits, we also dissected an eyeball, saw how poop travels through a body, cut open a stomach, cut a gall bladder to smell bile, began curing several pelts, and marveled at the texture of lungs.
Like anything I don't do frequently, butchering the first few took longer than the last ones. But, I was done in a few hours and now our fridge is full of fresh meat; I also have a big bowl full of livers that I'll cook tomorrow.
We were doing yard work again today and I didn't plan a special first meal with our rabbit meat, so I fell back on the familiar. After sautéing garlic in a little duck fat, I browned a few back legs, which are much meatier than the front ones. Then a sliced onion and a good pour of an Alsatian riesling, which I cooked down. A little water and I covered the dutch oven with a heavy lid and let it braise awhile. I went into the garden and cut a few large sprigs of tarragon and thyme. I added them and continued. My wife picked a colander of birthday beans from this year's bumper crop, and I stewed them with a tomato and a little swiss chard. Finally, a handful of fresh parsley on the rabbit and dinner was ready.
Why am I willing to wait nine months for dinner? What is it about growing vegetables and raising, killing, and cooking animals that fascinates me so much? I was never a farm kid and doubt I'll ever be one. But tasting that last forkful of dinner, all mixed up with rabbit juices and tarragon, I feel like I can look into the past and begin to understand some of what we've abandoned as we've shifted from an agrarian to a mass-marketed society. In a very short time we've lost languages, cultures, traditions and foodways. Cooking beyond a recipe calls for more than an ingredient list; it requires a certain understanding of - and access to - raw ingredients and cooking techniques, most of which can't be purchased in a store. And the stuff isn't fancy or expensive if it's part of your life and environment - making cassoulet in France in 1609 certainly didn't cost hundreds of dollars and multiple trips to Williams-Sonoma and other specialty stores. I want to keep some of these older food traditions an active part of my life and culture because I think they're just as vulnerable and perishable as a language or an endangered species.




30 July 2009

Lobster

We eat lobster with unpracticed abandon. During this annual ritual we shed our summer seersucker manners and revel instead in the savagery of mere eating. It’s so easy to do in Maine. A walk to the lobster pound to pick out our dinner; with a long-handled net one of the workers scoops our selection into a brown paper bag and drops that into a plastic one. We hand over our cowry and the trade is completed; out we go and head back home. Into a large pot filled with a few inches of boiling water go the squirming crustaceans, brown, blue, sea-floor camouflage. The lid is closed and in just minutes they boil and steam to perfection. In the time it takes to set the table we stop thinking about them as animals and begin smelling dinner. We lift the lid and retrieve these fiery beacons of summer.
We tear them apart, pulling off legs and pecking at their bellies. Once we’ve sucked the small bits of flesh from the now-hollow legs we move on, hungry for more. The claws are the first fruit that begin to satisfy our craving. These once-wielded weapons are the easiest to break open, and we celebrate these plump nuggets with a mouthful of ale or a gulp of wine. After all the prying and tearing and pulling and biting we eat the tail, breaking it from the top and turning it over to open it. We feast on the tail, savoring and ripping the meat with canines, incisors, and molars. This is how our species evolved, nimble-fingered mammals capable of tearing and chewing other living things. This insect of the sea brings us back to Maine year after year, and whether prices are high or low we feast on them night after night. We eat few other things so completely and in such an unadulterated manner. No separation between us and our prey as we reach for another one-pound soft shell. It’s hard to imagine us ripping apart a chicken or pig and breaking its bones as we tear into its flesh. But on these July nights the smell of pines mingles with the smell of dinner, and we sit with a mound of shells between us – heads, tails, legs – all torn asunder and discarded, and we are satisfied, content animals.

21 July 2009

Chicken soup

Rain at the cottage: the kids are in the kitchen playing Monopoly, our youngest nephew is napping, us parents are reading newspapers, magazines, and old books left here from summers past, and the plash of rain through the canopy of towering maples soothes us all as much as the huge pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove. A cut up-chicken, a few extra legs from the icebox, a heap of vegetables - onions, celery, carrots; a few herbs, and salt and pepper.
Here with several of my siblings, all of us remember our mom's cooking and expansive love and generosity. And I think about all the changes in eating habits since we were kids. While processed food was available when we were kids, its widespread presence in today's American diet is something my siblings and I shake our heads at. One of my sisters has food sensitivities and this morning she was saying how hard it is to find half and half that doesn't have preservatives in it. "Why," she asked, "can't I find a product that's just milk and cream? Why does cream need preservatives? People use it quickly, and it doesn't need anything else in it." She spends more time reading labels than she'd like to.
Making food isn't as time consuming as food marketers want us to believe. I can make a tomato sauce in the time it takes the water for pasta to boil, so what time savings is there by opening a can of prepared sauce? The time it takes to make a rich chicken soup is negligible; a few minutes chopping things and then hours of good smells to whet the appetite. A few voices rise to challenge a play on the Monopoly board and threaten the little one's nap, but the slow gurgle of stewing broth percolates through the cottage, filling each room with the fragrant scent of herbs and stock, keeping everything on a pretty even keel.
Taking short cuts seems too prevalent in our society and it's especially apparent in our food choices. The cooking I grew up with wasn't haute cuisine and it didn't require much more than a few minutes thought and a little preparation. Prepared and packaged foods may get us to the dinner table a few minutes quicker, but when we consider the afternoon smells of a long-simmered pot of soup as a mere prelude to the meal itself, I'll take the long road to dinner every time, and spend that time with family and friends.

17 July 2009

Birthday beans

I first planted these beans in the summer of 2003. We went to Paris the previous fall and bought these beans, Facila is the variety, on our daughter's first birthday. When they grew that first summer, we reminded her that these were her birthday beans, the ones we bought in Paris. She ate them with relish right off the plant. I saved seed from the best plants and the following spring planted them again. And here we are, harvesting birthday beans for the seventh time. And they're still my daughter's favorite.
This, perhaps, is how things get named. When I list these beans in the Seed Savers Yearbook I'll document that the bean was originally named Facila, and that it's a variety sold by Vilmorin, the old French seed house that's taken over a large share of the world's seed trade, but I may call them Birthday Beans instead. It's as good a name as any I've heard for a bean. I love the story we tell each other every year, and how we say Birthday Bean with more enthusiasm than, say, "zucchini." Our daughter was born on 9.12.01, and the moment she was born I saw proof that life is irrepressible, that life itself will bourgeon and blossom and will not fail, even when people do. And as these beans grow and nourish us each year, we, too, are renewed each time we save seed and plant it; we midwife the seed from one generation to the next.
Last night I picked a bowl-full for dinner. I blanched them very briefly - they were in boiling water for less than 30 seconds - because they're so tender and fresh and I just wanted to brighten them up a bit. I quickly doused them in cold water and turned the burner on high. Into the saucier went a teaspoon of duck fat; as soon as it was hot I added the beans, fresh tarragon, and a sprinkling of fine sea salt. Two minutes from the garden to the table, full of green and family lore.

14 July 2009

Blueberries















We picked blueberries on Sunday, twenty-three pounds of them. My wife and I said to each other, "Wow, ninety-five dollars is a lot to spend on fruit." I thought about all the pancakes we'll eat, all the pies I'll bake, and thought "Hey, my pies are probably ten-dollar pies, maybe even more when I use a lard/duck fat crust."
We'll get our money's worth. We'll stain our lips and eat pie before bed and then again for breakfast. I'll pour a blueberry compote over roast pork and bake whole berries into muffins; in March we'll still be eating blueberry pancakes on weekend mornings. They're all in the freezer now, two stacks of ziploc bags on the bottom shelf. Cup by overflowing cup and bag by bag, we'll eat July the whole winter long.
We picked on the very first day of the blueberry season because last year our vacation coincided with the season and when we returned it was over. We head to Maine next week and we'll pick wild ones along the mountain trails; the lure of them has turned my youngest into an avid hiker. She'll keep going if there are blueberries ahead, even if the trail is a difficult one.

07 July 2009

Anticipating corn


Last year I wrote about corn and wondered why we don't have a deep tradition of corn-based recipes for the month of August. If corn was native to China or France, I feel certain there'd be a whole cuisine that revolved around its seasonal abundance. And while I love corn on the cob, there ought to be richer food traditions that everyone knows and participates in. I know there are people out there who swear by a recipe or dish they know, but my question is, "Why don't all of us know it?" Why haven't we been able to forge a lasting culinary tradition when we're surrounded by mountains of corn for four weeks each year?
Corn season is just around the corner. I'll be making my corn chowder, you can be sure of that. And eating it fresh off the cob. But what else should we be doing with it?

05 July 2009

And it's July

And it’s July and I’m thinking about food. I made pumpkin pie for the 4th of July and a cold slice with fresh whipped cream tasted great. And baked beans and watermelon. We got beautiful lettuce from our neighbor’s garden and made a big salad. Grilled vegetables and plump hot dogs, too. Meaghen asked why I don’t make baked beans more often. This batch has pancetta instead of salt pork, and less molasses than usual. I think I’ll make the next pot with lemon grass, coriander, and honey and see if I can convert my wife, who likes her beans with cumin.
Today we sat in the back yard and ate cold, red watermelon when we were hot from lugging and cutting, hauling and tossing. Watermelon might be the most refreshing food ever grown.
This evening Meaghen made an omelette with pieces of pancetta the size of pats of butter, all sautéed and giving up their fat so the omelette could sizzle and float on a clear, fragrant film. I made swiss chard and used our last frozen tomato from last year’s harvest – wow, only a month until we start eating them from the garden again!
I’m sore from working outside much of the weekend. I’m still trying to improve the rabbit cages and chicken housing because I don’t have a good system for managing the urine and poop of the rabbits. I’ve suspended the rabbit cages so the cage floors stay clean, and currently the waste is falling onto a big sheet of 6 mil plastic, which I haul out every few days and dump. It’s a bit messy, and when we go on vacation in a few weeks the set up is pretty awkward for the neighborhood kids who will water and feed the animals.
After much talk we finally got more chickens. We have just four pullets (immature hens) now and we look forward to eating fresh eggs in a few months. But their housing isn’t finalized, either. What we currently use is fine while the weather is nice; I just keep them in a big cage and move it around every day, but we have such cold winters in Minnesota that better housing is needed for half the year. And with only four birds they won’t keep each other very warm. So, with both the rabbits and chickens, it’s winter that makes things more complicated. A urine-and-poop collection system that works in July may be unmanageable when it’s -20°F outside.
Our rabbits are due to kindle (give birth) any day now. I put the nesting boxes back in on Friday and the two does are beginning to pull fur from their chests and make the boxes, which are lined with hay, cozy and comfortable. Meanwhile, the ten bunnies that were born in May still aren’t large enough to butcher; I thought they’d grow a bit quicker.
Finally, I’m frustrated with my favorite fava beans. We inevitably have a spike of very hot weather sometime in late May, just when the favas are flowering. This leads to many dropped flowers and half-filled pods. I’m a little confused. Favas are grown and eaten throughout the Mediterranean basin, much of which is as hot as any weather we have here. Why aren’t they more heat tolerant? Do we only have varieties that were developed for England’s long, cool spring? I’d like a few varieties that tolerate the heat better.

27 June 2009

Pancetta, garlic...

With about five more pounds of pancetta hanging in the fruit cellar, lots of our recent meals include it. Early summer is filled with after dinner activities, so easily prepared meals are essential if we want to sit down together. Rice and pasta are the staples of these dinners.
Two nights ago it was pancetta, garlic, olive oil, fresh parsely and thyme, with a generous grating of Parmesan cheese over linguine noodles. Last night it was this: butter, pancetta, and shallots. Then generous pours of a mediocre Alsatian riesling, which I bubbled down. A quick paw through the icebox and a nice hunk of fresh ginger emerged. Thin slices of that, along with fresh thyme and parsley. Finally, peas, although they came from a bag, not the garden. Mix in penne noodles, and we’re good to go.
We keep trying new ways to eat pancetta, and they’re usually pretty good. I try to cook it long enough for its fat to flavor whatever else it's cooking with, but not so long that it loses its unique flavor.

23 June 2009

Swiss chard

We eat swiss chard almost daily during the summer and fall. We grow the beautiful variety called Five Color Silverbeet, a variety that was maintained by the Digger’s Garden Club in Australia after it was dropped by commercial seed companies. It was first re-introduced to US gardeners through Seed Savers Exchange, and in the past few years it’s been picked up by many seed companies in the US. The multi-colored ribs and big crinkly leaves are as pretty as anything grown in a Minnesota garden.
Beets and swiss chard are different varieties of the same genus and species, Beta vulgaris. Over time, beets have been bred for their tuberous root while swiss chard’s ribs and leaves are prized by cooks. Marcella Hazan, in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, has a delicious swiss chard torte we’ve been making for years, but our daily standard is a bit simpler, and it’s quick and delicious. Here’s what I do:
Add a hefty pour of olive oil to a saucier or other fry pan;
Mince a few cloves of garlic and add them to the hot oil;
After the garlic cooks, add the diced stems of the swiss chard and sauté it like celery;
When the stalks are soft, add a whole tomato, preferably a paste variety with lots of meat and few seeds;
Mash the tomato a bit and turn the heat up pretty high to cook off the excess moisture;
Add a little salt;
Lay all the chard leaves on top of each other and roll them up like a fat cigar, then cut the fat roll of leaves into thin strips – maybe ½” or so;
Add the leaves to the hot pan, and stir it all around;
I usually cover the pan for a minute or two to let the steam wilt the chard leaves quicker. Cook the leaves for three or four minutes total.
When I come home from work and make this for lunch, I usually serve it with rice, and I always have a little bowl of nahm prick, a homemade, fiery Thai condiment, on the side.

18 June 2009

Last night it rained

Last night it rained. The 1.15 inch rainfall was welcomed by everyone (except the soccer players: one inch of rain over one square mile equals about 17.4 million gallons of water weighing 143 million pounds, or the weight of a train with 40 boxcars, according to the National Weather Service, so approximately 160 million pounds fell on the brave kids and parents who kept playing!)

I putter around my garden with a hose or watering can, gently soaking the leaves, roots, and soil, and I have thoughts that go in two directions. First, it’s hard not to think about places where large segments of the population don’t have access to water. As I watch a plant perk up with water, I wonder what it’s like to live in a water-deprived community, where the constant struggle to obtain water dominates daily life. Second, I wonder how we’ve allowed the marketing and sale of bottled water to succeed. Water is our most basic human need. If human rights have any meaning, access to safe, affordable water should be a priority for all governments. And in this country, where we use 20 times more water than some 1.8 billion people worldwide who use a mere 20 liters per day, we’re standing idly by while this most precious resource is being commoditized and privatized right before our eyes.

The biggest shock we’ve had in recent years was last year’s gas prices – when a gallon hit $4.00 people began to worry and panic. $4.00 for a gallon of gas was as terrible a scourge as anyone could remember. Yet, we’d still drive to the store and spend a dollar on a bottle of water. A dollar for about a pint of water. It makes gasoline look like a bargain.

http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/pdfs/report/HDR06-complete.pdf