25 April 2010

Rabbit cacciatore

My son has the best nose in the family.  I was starting a cacciatore, rich with oil, garlic, and minced carrots and celery, when I added a wedge of Taza stone ground chocolate; Henry called from the family room, "I smell chocolate."  A dark piece to deepen the stew-sauce, red wine next, all bubbling thick and fragrancy, sweet, too.  That old rabbit confit next, pieces still emerging from fat all tender and moist, breaking into chunks just right for a drizzle-grey spring dinner, candelit and tableclothed, clothes still carrying sawdust and paint from afternoon projects.
My daughter stirred the sauce, breaking each tomato in the hot pan, keeping it thick.  For seasoning we added just a bit of fennel to the wine and chocolate, a last minute decision as my daughter smelled and rejected other herbs and spices.  A quick sauce ladled over spaghetti, a beautiful balance of tastes.
The last time I opened an Ioppa 2001 Ghemme I wasn't impressed; tonight's was different, and the nebbiolo-dominated wine opened with cherries and violets, soft with leather-like tannins, graceful and still fresh.  Cacciatore is known as hunter's stew, and the rabbit confit tasted better than most other meats would in the chocolate-and-wine-laced sauce, edible proof that raising rabbits in town is worth the effort.

22 April 2010


Driving through eastern Tennessee yesterday afternoon I crossed the French Broad River, rounded a bend, and saw a pickup truck, a small table, and a large plastic sign with 'RAMPS' scrawled on it.  I pulled over and walked up to the little table, heaped with bunches of just-picked ramps, a southern harbinger of spring.
A man in his twenties got out of the truck and we started talking.  "Where did you pick them?" I asked, and he replied, "That's confidential," but when I told him I was just passing through he added, "I'll tell you that they were picked in Madison County," and wouldn't say anymore.  The day before he had picked over one hundred bunches and less than a dozen remained.  I asked the man his favorite way to prepare them and he said he ate them raw, almost every day. 
With their sweet leaves that remind me of toothsome garlic chives, ramps taste more like young garlic than leeks.  I kept them simple.  After removing their roots and cleaning them well, I put the bulbs in a frying pan with a generous nob of butter.   A few minutes later I added the green leaves, stirred them for a minute or so, and removed them from the heat.  A generous shake of salt and pepper and they were ready to eat. We gobbled them down with grilled tuna steaks and a pinot grigio to celebrate my sister's birthday, and ended the delightful meal with her just-made carrot cake - mmmmm! 

Southern swing

The meat and three is a southern institution that most resembles a cafeteria to a visitor from the far edge of the northern United States.  What sets it apart from a cafeteria, though, is its food - real southern food cooked day in and day out for so many years that over time each dish is perfected the way a canoe or dog sled or wind mill achieves a perfection of design: there's no more to pare away; all that remains is its heart and soul, beating, alive.
Arnold's in Nashville, Tennessee is just such a place, with long lunch lines and tables that are cleared as quickly as the chess pie is refreshed in the serving line.  Okra cooked the way my mom cooked ratatouille, with olive oil and oregano.  Greens scooped from a huge pan, just enough vinegar to add sparkle to the chew; hush puppies bigger than golf balls, brown and crisp with an almost sweet, tender interior; black eyed peas that speak of the earth; catfish as tender as the crust is crisp; and pie, real pie that nourishes us, reminds us that food ties us together, nourishes body and community and brings together people from all walk of life to say "Yes."  Goodness, the chess pie - a simple custard pie rich in eggs, butter, and sugar, baked in a lard crust and served to make everyone who eats it heave a sigh of joy, contentment, pride and satisfaction that our regional cooking rises still, nourishing natives and visitors alike.

20 April 2010

Rabbit sausage

Saturday was enjoyed in the backyard, building a new chicken coop.  I wanted to keep working until dark, so I paused only briefly to fire up our first grill of the year.  The Weber Smokey Joe is the perfect size for family meals, and my wife grilled rabbit sausage over lump hardwood charcoal.  Cooked over low heat, we removed the lid for the last few minutes to brown the links.  Seasoned with thyme and accompanied by a cold Summit Pale Ale, the sausage was a great start to grilling season. 

15 April 2010

Lahp and sticky rice - the beginning of a Northeastern Thai meal

If you want to dive into authentic Thai cuisine, here’s a great dish to begin with.  This is the beginning of a rural meal with roots in the poor, northeastern part of the country known as Issan.  Lahp was originally made with intestines and other bits of offal, and the heavy seasoning gave flavor to the only bits of meat the very poor could afford. Nowadays, it’s made with a range of meats – pork, duck, and chicken – but pork remains the most common. This highly seasoned dish is served with sticky rice and slices of cool cucumber and fresh basil leaves on the side.

Special equipment: stone mortar and pestle for the lahp and a clay mortar and pestle for the somtom (recipe coming in a later post.) Here’s a reason to buy two pieces of kitchen gear, one of which (the stone one) is absolutely indispensible for cooking Thai food. A stone mortar and pestle is used in this dish for crushing uncooked, dry-fried sticky rice rice into a fine powder. No other piece of equipment will adequately pulverize the rice. But, if you don’t have one, continue on with this recipe – a bean/spice grinder will do the job well enough for your initial forays into making lahp! But over time, a granite mortar and pestle is invaluable if you cook Thai food.

¾ - 1 pound pork. Let me suggest that you don’t buy ground pork unless necessary. Here’s why. If you buy an inexpensive piece of pork, say, pork shoulder, you can mince it the way Thais do, giving it a texture that’s not as uniform as meat that goes through a big grinder. Put the meat on a sturdy wood cutting block, and using a big knife, start chopping. You need a knife with a little heft, and one that has a mostly straight blade. Keep chopping using a rapid up-down motion, scraping the meat back together when it starts to spread out too far, turning it every so often to ensure you’re chopping it in different directions. The main thing to pay attention to is that strings of fat, sinew, or tissue don’t hold together, giving you a long string of partially chopped meat. After a few minutes it’ll begin to look minced, and when you’ve got a nice, fine mince, you’re done.

2 cups pahk chee farang ผักชีฝรั่ง, not well known in English but variously called culantro, sawtooth coriander or long leaf cilantro. Eryngium Foetidum. It’s a long, thin, green leaf, 6”- 8” long, perhaps as wide as a butter knife with a serrated edge. I can regularly find it fresh in Asian markets, and prefer it over mint, which can also be used. If you use the long leaf cilantro, chop it into pieces about ½”. Be generous with your measuring.

Roast 2 tbsp uncooked sticky rice in dry frying pan until it’s a pretty, golden brown. Roasting the uncooked rice gives it a deep, nutty taste, and it acts as a binder, as well, absorbing some of the the scant liquid that remains after the pork is cooked. I have a very small cast iron pan I use for this. Over medium heat I add the rice and gently shake the pan, keeping the rice in constant motion. Regular motion is especially important towards the end of the roasting time, when a little distraction can lead to burnt rice. Luckily, it’s only a few tablespoons and you can do it again! Dump into mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) and add 1 tsp salt. Pulverize in mortar and pestle until a fine powder. Be patient; it takes quite awhile. Set aside in small bowl.

Roast 20-30 dried Thai chili peppers in pan. (Those quantities are from the original recipe I first wrote in Thai. American tastes will probably think 6-10 chilies are adequate.) Using the same pan as the one used for the rice, dry roast the chilies until they’re charred; be careful, the smoky oil the cooking chilies can be an irritant. Crush in mortar, but keep chunky. There should be bits of skin from the peppers that are larger than what you’d find in a shake jar of “crushed chili peppers”. Set aside in small bowl.

Thinly slice 3-4 shallots. Set aside in small bowl.
Thinly slice 2-3 scallions. Set aside in small bowl.
Juice from 1 lime. Squeeze and set aside in small bowl.

Mince ¾ - 1 lb pork, chicken, duck or beef. In small sauce pan on stove, cook meat in a little water – maybe ½ to ¾ cup -- until cooked through. It should only take a few minutes. Take off stove.

Add lime juice and stir
Add fish sauce and stir
Taste. Correct balance of sour/salt, if necessary
Add crushed peppers – don’t add the whole amount at once if you’re not sure of your enjoyment of heat. Stir
Add crushed rice and mix in
Add shallots
Add scallions and stir
Add mint/ pahk chi farang and mix
Put in serving bowl
Sprinkle additional mint leaves on top

Eat with sticky rice and cold beer.

Shad roe

During the shad’s annual run up the James River, Richmond, Virginia residents have historically indulged in shad roe the way many of us celebrate the return of asparagus. One longtime resident told me she used to eat the roe sacs wrapped in wax paper seasoned only with a little butter. The shad population, indescribably dense in colonial times, has suffered the way most fish species have in our polluted, over-developed waterways, and smaller runs have been the norm for ages. Indeed, several people I asked in Richmond had no idea of the shad run, while one said, “I know someone who’ll know." One phone call uncovered a supplier of them and I quickly found a restaurant serving them.
 Edo’s Squid, a nice little restaurant off Broad Street in Richmond, posts its Italian-derived menu on just two sheets of paper hung on the exposed brick wall: choices today included skate wing, shad roe, quail, fried squid and several pasta dishes. The restaurant occupies the second floor of an old brick building and the lunchtime ambience was sunny and comfortable.
Shad roe are about the size of flying fish roe, perhaps a little bigger. The lobes are taken from the females and the two lobes weigh about three ounces apiece. The eggs are kept together in the sac, a thin membrane with several veins running along the bottom side of the sac. They’re usually served together as a main course or a single lobe for an appetizer.

Deep-fried bread, a lobe gently poached and sautéed, melted mozzarella cheese with a caper sauce on top, and a flourish a fresh, sweet and tart greens dancing on the other side of the plate, a green springiness to delight the shad’s return. The roe was cooked through, and I wonder if the quality of shad roe is high enough to eat raw; no one I spoke with had eaten it raw. The roe had a nutty, slightly salty taste, a pleasing texture up against the fried bread and mozzarella. The caper sauce was beautiful, and the capers themselves were the smallest I’ve seen – BB-sized, perhaps scaled to match the mass of eggs underneath my fork.

Earlier in the month I ate avgotaraho – cured and preserved roe from the grey mullet – a Greek specialty, and today I ate shad roe. I live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I wonder if anyone eats the eggs of any of our local fish. Does anyone out there have any experience with the freshwater roe of our local fish? Are there any laws covering the harvesting of fish roe in Minnesota? Let me know if you have any experience with roe in Minnesota.

07 April 2010


On this evening's radio broadcast of Duck Fat and Politics, I spoke with gardener and beekeeper Chris Sullivan-Kelley.  She told listeners about several helpful resources and I want to post them here for your convenience.
The University of Minnesota offers an annual short course on beekeeping.  Beekeeping must be experiencing a significant resurgence because the program's 250 person enrollment limit has a 140 person wait list; they're now offering a fall course as well.
Chris recommended Betterbee as a good online company for bees, books, and other beekeeping supplies.
If you live in Minnesota, check out the MN Hobby Beekeepers Association for more information.   Others can find local resources online. 
If you have any good beekeeping information, feel free to share it in the comments section. Thanks!

01 April 2010

Duck Fast

Stayed tuned for DUCK FAST, the quickest (and best) way to eat fast and look great.  After all the time I've spent rendering duck fat, I've noticed that my hands look great.  So, working with a small manufacturing laboratory, I've developed a hand cream that tastes as good as any mortar and pestle-made aioli.  DUCK FAST works in two ways: first, just rub it on any chicken, pork, or beef, and have instant duck-flavored meat.  And, while you're at it, lick your fingers any time you're feeling a little too hungry to wait until meal time.  You'll notice before long that you're eating smaller meals and looking younger! 
DUCK FAST is guaranteed to make all your food taste as though it was made in the south of France, and before you know it, all that finger-licking-good fat will wash away wrinkles, liver spots, decrepitude and mortality.