25 August 2009


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:

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

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.