30 November 2009


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 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?