Hour of Sour

The following appeared in this month’s Food Notes, the e-newsletter published by Edible Michiana (http://ediblemichiana.ediblecommunities.com/newsletter-archive).

If you are what you eat, then my current craze for all things sour doesn’t speak well of me. I can’t get enough kraut and pickles (ferment a batch a week, I say!), and lemons and limes go without saying, but lately what brings order to my soul are the drinks that zing: sour beer, kombucha, dry cider – if it makes me pucker, it’s for me. A bit of luck at the library recently brought Shannon Stronger’s Traditionally Fermented Foods across my path and low pH goodness more fully into my life. The best discovery so far? Kvass. It seems to be more a genre than a specific thing, made from everything from bread to beets and in all sorts of ways (some of which involve wheys), so it’s the perfect ferment for the recipe-allergic tinkerer. I’ve so far focused only on the local fruits of summer: this week, what are probably the last peaches of the year, plus some deep dark plums. Whatever the fruit, I’ve found that one has only to chop it up, cover it with filtered water in a mason jar, add a tablespoon or two of honey to get the party started, and leave it open to the air on your counter for a couple of days (with some cheesecloth to keep out the flies). As the microbial magic unfolds, you’ll see a little foam and fizz start to form at the surface, the taste of honey will fade, and a pleasant tang will emerge. You can drink it at this point, but if you want extra oomph, close it up and give it a another day or three without air – but be sure to burp out the gas regularly so it doesn’t explode! You can filter out the fruit or do as I do and mush it up so you get some pulp with your liquid. Then drink up! You too will find that a sour soul is a contented soul.

 

When the Smoke Gets in Your Thighs

My dad grew up in Winchester, VA, in the northern bit of the state from whence hail a lot of good apples and Patsy Cline. (My dad’s dad was a food scientist at National Fruit; that meant we got to eat a lot of amazing peaches from dented cans.) Though pretty close to the Mason-Dixon line, and not far from the mid-Atlantic coast, it’s still definitely the South there, or at least was when he was growing up. Now I guess it’s as much a bedroom community for DC as it is a small Southern city. At any rate, hailing from Virginia meant my dad learned early about sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. Occasionally as a kid we’d get country ham, and mostly what I remember is its overwhelming saltiness. I wasn’t a big ham fan then and not the salt fiend I am now, so it seemed pretty gross. I’ve had it once or twice in recent years, but always sliced from a package and never made from non-industrial hogs, so I’ve yet to be impressed by it, but my dad waxes nostalgic over it every time the topic of ham comes up (which is not infrequently in my family). Now that I’m doing a little ham-curing of my own, though, I’ve become intrigued by country ham. Turns out it’s basically cold-smoked prosciutto: it sits in salt in cool temps for a month or so and it gets hung to dry for many months. But between the hell of salt and the heaven of hanging, it wanders as much as an unattached thigh can in the purgatory of wood smoke, until it is finally deemed ready to ascend. Like any good Southern food, regional variants exist: what goes in the initial cure besides salt, the kind of wood for smoking, how long it gets smoked — all differ depending on who’s doing it and where. (A good story about a Kentucky version here.) It tends to be eaten cooked, unlike European dry-cured hams, and in thick-ish slices, which is why mostly what I remember about it is the salt. If you ate prosciutto sliced like ham at Sunday dinner, you’d be overwhelmed by its saltiness too. But most recipes call for cooking country ham it in a way that purges some of the salt content, and it seems that these days some more chef-y types are slicing it thin for charcuterie plates, which sounds pretty good to me. So, I’ve put in an order for another ham from Dave at Young Earth, and provided I can find someone to do the smoking (I don’t think my city neighbors would like hickory smoke belching from my backyard for a month), I hope to have a real country ham like my dad had growing up to give to him for his 80th birthday next winter.

Belated birthday post for the boy

My son’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and he wanted to do a blog post about the dinner.

Oven fries, ready for baking…

Burgers, his second-favorite food (pizza takes #1), ready for smashing on the griddle…

And at the end of the meal, the Roman-numeraled (because of the classicist mama) gingerbread cake…

Let’s hope this next year is as much fun as the last! Birthday IX will be here before we know it.

They gave their all

The bones from the Thanksgiving turkey generated many a bowl of delicious stock. Here they make their final contribution, to a lunchtime soup, before being sent to rest in the rubbish. Nary a morsel of meat was left on them. As Julia Child would have said, they gave their all.

(The slight soft focus is from the steam rising from the bowl. O lunch, how I love thee.)

My Own Private Portlandia – Thanskgiving edition

Tuesday evening I picked up our pasture-raised, heritage (Bourbon Red) turkey from Blackberry Pines Farm, a lovely place run by Jim Ekhardt and Ron Thompson near Pullman, MI. Last time I was out here was a couple of years ago. On that visit, they gave me and my then six-year old son a tour, which included visits to varicolored chickens, turkeys that looked like feather puffballs gliding above their legs, and peacocks in exotic colors I’d never seen before (did you know they lose those long tail feathers all at once?). That time we left with several small chickens (just the right size for frying) and a whole lot of feathers for my son. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, but there weren’t a lot of feathers laying about this time, so the only thing I brought back was 13.04 pounds of turkey and the newfound friendship of four and a half cats. That same evening I spatchcocked the bird, sprinkled it liberally with a salt and baking powder mix (the b.p. helps crisp the skin), and let it sit until Thursday morning.

bird-for-roasting

I cut off the leg quarters so I could pull the breast out when it hit 150 deg. (checking with my new Thermapen mk 4!), put it all in the oven at a low 250, and by 3:45 had an  almost perfectly cooked bird. It came out to rest, then, at a little before six, once the sausage-cornbread-walnut dressing and roasted green beans were done, I gave it a few minutes at 500 to warm it and crisp the skin, and the result was the juiciest, most perfectly cooked bird I’ve yet done, dark and white meat alike. (The dark meat is a bit tougher with the pastured birds, but the flavor makes the jaw workout worth it.) Besides the dressing and beans, we had garlic mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with fennel brought by friends. While everything was cooking we laid out a spread of appetizers that included six cheeses chosen by my now almost 8-year old son (we’re raisin’ him right!), some home-cured prosciutto (old and new), an orange-walnut sausage leftover from last year that my friend Joan and I made (still good after 12 mos. in the freezer), tomato jam and various pickles my wife made, and more besides. Family and friends gathered and, with the help of more than a few bottles of wine, we worked things over pretty thoroughly, from all of the above to the pecan and apple pies my mother-in-law brought to bring closure to the meal. The only thing lacking in the evening was light from artisanal bulbs.

 

Hola mole!

Poblano apple moleWe had an excess of Brussels sprouts in the fridge from a recent farmers’ market trip, and I saw this Lucky Peach recipe that suggested mole-ing them up and serving them over quinoa. Then I realized that the recipe called for a special mole negro paste from a restaurant in L.A. Stymied – but wait! Why not make my own mole negro? I knew that would be a little labor intensive, but, well, I’ll work for mole. I checked a couple of books for recipes, and did a little googling, but I ran up against a wall of Trumpian proportions: I needed multiple kinds of fresh chiles that I knew would be almost impossible to find here. On top of that, the recipe that looked the best, from Roberto Santibanez’s Truly Mexican, involves steps like taking the seeds from the chiles, toasting them, and then setting them on fire. Like Beavis, I’m in favor of fire, and someday I will makes this mole, but I needed something a little easier. Fortunately, Santibanez had another recipe for a pasilla and apple mole, and I thought the apple-Brussels combo would be lovely and seasonal to boot. My pasilla procurement failed however, so I had to substitute poblanos. The picture above is of the pan before the stock was added and it was all blended together. You can imagine how those roasty-toasty nuts, onions, tomatoes and peppers danced with the sweet, lightly caramelized apples in the chicken-broth ballroom. Perfection. Some of it was made into a vinaigrette, which the sprouts were tossed with before roasting, some was blanketed around pieces of pulled chicken — The Lucky Peach recipe is for two servings, and we had eight for dinner, so when I quadrupled it, I subbed chicken for about a third of the Brussels — then all was mixed together and served over the quinoa. A broccoli salad with lime-cilantro dressing from my wife was a perfect side, and tortillas rounded things out. In a word: wowza. The best thing? We have a solid quart or more of leftover mole.

Pigging Out

Last Wednesday evening, Chef Brian Polcyn, co-author with Michael Ruhlman of the now nearly biblical volumes on curing meat Salumi and Charcuterie, as well as being a well-known restaurateur, cooking instructor, and now wide-ranging food entrepreneur,  gave a 4+ hour demo class in the theater kitchen at KVCC’s fabulous new culinary school building. In the space of 4 hours Polcyn broke down two sides of pork, one in the American way, where with the aid of a bone saw you get five primal cuts (shoulder [butt], picnic ham, center-cut loin, belly, and ham), the other in the traditional Italian method, which follows muscle seams and so doesn’t require a saw, and is designed to maximize cuts for dry curing. The biggest difference is in the front half of the pig, for the Italian method cuts the ribs further down the back in order to preserve the long neck muscle (coppa) as a cut to be cured whole, instead of leaving it as part of the shoulder to be roasted, ground, or whatever. Both methods remove the tenderloin (filetto), which is on the inside of the backbone, and both allow recovery of fat from different places, organs, tongue, jowl, ears, and tail (although Polcyn didn’t talk about the tail), as well as bits of trim that can be ground for sausage, terrines, etc.

pig fest (2)Farmer Mike de Schaaf, Chef Brian Polcyn, KVCC chefs.

In the hands of an expert like Polcyn, the American method takes about four minutes, the Italian method ten times that – and you really have to know what you’re doing. (The economics are obvious from the point of view of a meat processor. That’s why, if you lack a good local butcher, as, sadly, we still do in Kalamazoo, you can’t get some of the specialty cuts for curing that are common on the continent.) From all this Polcyn prepared bacon, pancetta, and guanciale, all of which are still in a fridge at KVCC in their initial salt-cure phase (no doubt under heavy security). He also prepared, with cooking help from KVCC chefs, spuma (lard from the belly fat whipped into a mousse-like consistency with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with the cracklings that came out of the lard rendering), a terrine of ground pork and seared pork tenderloin, and a porchetta-like dish whose name I missed which involved butterflying the meat cut from the pigs head, seasoning it, laying the ears and tongue on it (for some reason there were two tongues), rolling it, and braising it.

 

A pig beholds its former self.A pig beholds its former self.

Seeing a master at work was a treat, but there were lots of takeaways for home curers like me and my friend Joan, who was there with me, and with whom I’ve been making sausage and salami for more than a year. Maybe the biggest thing was just seeing the lack of slavishness to the recipes. The books give the impression that precision is essential in terms of proportion of meats to salt and seasonings. Now, Polcyn has decades of experience, so when he has, say, a slab of belly in front of him, he’ll be able to judge by hand and eye many things that it’s still best for us to measure. But even so, it was clear that there was some wiggle room. Forgot to season the jowl for guanciale? Just scrape some of the seasoning of the belly that’s being made into pancetta. Need the right amount of fat in your sausage? Judge the fattiness of the meat by eye and don’t add extra if it looks good. And so on. Preparation of the recipes seemed more like cooking than baking.

More concretely, there are two things that I learned that I think will have the most effect on our ground-meat products (which have, to date, never been less than delicious). (a) Don’t substitute belly or leaf fat for back fat in salami. The back fat is harder and renders less easily, so it will remain in the sausage as it cures or cooks. We’ve had somewhat crumbly salami, I think because we substituted one of the soft fats, which weeped out as the salami hung. We used the soft fat because it was what we had on hand, and it seemed wasteful to go buy other fat, but now we know better. (b) It’s OK to mix the ground meat and fat by hand to get the primary bind (the goopy meat mess that gets stuffed into the casings). Following the books, we’d been hesitant to do that, because we were worried about the heat from our hands warming the meat too much. Joan asked about this though, and Chef Polcyn not only said it’s fine (provided you don’t overdo it), but showed a good test for when you’ve mixed enough: if you hold your hand up and the meat stuck to it doesn’t fall down for ten seconds, it’s sticky enough.

The evening ended with a nice meal cooked up by various supporting chefs from KVCC, including some of the dishes mentioned above, as well as fillets of (uncured) coppa, and a range of tasty non-pork offerings. The spuma was a little intense for me, I have to say, but I think it would make a great touch to appetizers that have some sweetness and acidity to balance its fattiness. The other pork dishes were great.

The pig, by the way, came from a Mangalitsa pig raised by Mike de Schaaf at 1936 Meadowbrook Farm in Benton Harbor. Mangalitsas are a very fatty, furry heritage breed from Hungary — click the link to see the pigs. I’ve got a (trotter-less) ham from one of them hanging in my basement, along with one from a Berkshire-Duroc cross (if I remember right) from Dave Warkentein of Young Earth Farm in Decatur (see my ProZooto post about my first ham made with his pork). I’ve made bacon from pigs from them both too, which is an order of magnitude better even than bacon made from the same pigs done by their processors. Now if only we could get a good butcher in Kalamazoo, I could get a nice coppa to work with!

The Food Lab

No, not her:DSC_0242

 

That’s Julep. Nothing makes her happier than standing next to the counter during meal prep and scarfing up whatever you drop, or stealing the occasional piece of toast from an unguarded child’s plate on the table, or cleaning up after the cat when she’s just barfed up her breakfast. Though truth be told, given the genetic soup Julep was ladled from, she’s more of a food hound than a food lab.

But no, what I’m talking about is this: Continue reading “The Food Lab”

Magical Orbs of Happiness

That’s what a guest called these potatoes when we served them to her last summer. They were just as magical last night. Fortunately, it’s easy magic to make: get enough little spuds (dime to nickel in diameter) to cover the bottom of whatever skillet you’re going to use (cast iron is best). Any kind of potato will do, but the German Butterballs we got at the market on Saturday stood out from the others in the pan in the way only something named “German Butterball” can. Put some good fat in with them (olive oil is fine, but use chicken or duck fat if you’ve got it), salt and pepper, and some thyme or rosemary if you feel the need — but try them once with just salt and pepper first. Then pour in enough water to come maybe a quarter of the way up the potatoes. You can cook them either in the oven (400ish) or on the stovetop. As they cook, stir them occasionally. The water softens the potatoes then evaporates, leaving the oil to coat and crisp them. Finishing them briefly under the broiler isn’t a bad idea if what you’re after is just the right amount of crispityness. And who isn’t after just the right amount of crispityness? And should it be spelled “crispittyness”? One isn’t sure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that when you pop one of these potatoes in your mouth the skin should resist just a little, enough to remind you that not everything in life is easy, before you feel your whole being flooded with warmth and love. Like hugging grandma. Only it’s a potato.

potatoes roasted

(Lots more to come; I’ve taken a few weeks off from writing, but not from eating!)