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.


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!

Spring into Spice

Asafoetida. Ajawan. Jaggery. Fenugreek. Curry leaves.* Chaat masala. Urad dal.  Life is getting spicy on Westnedge Hill! Despite not infrequently making Indian dishes, we’d rarely if ever used any of these — the big Cs, cumin, coriander, and cardamom always seemed to take center stage — but then we got Madhur Jaffrey’s latest book, Vegetarian India. A few months back we’d made a lovely radish and orange salad Lynne Rosetto Kaspar had included on her website after interviewing Jaffrey, which had just the right balance of crunchy peppery bite and sweet juiciness.

We checked V.I. out of KPL when it first came in, and it was immediately clear that we wanted to make everything in it. KPL got their copy back quickly, though: we decided this was a must-own book (gotta be able to make notes!). So now we’ve been eating vegetarian Indian food 3-4 nights a week for the last few weeks, and we’re nowhere close to being tired of it or bored with Jaffrey’s book. VI food

Jaffrey’s dishes are not difficult to execute, despite the sometimes formidable ingredient lists. But we’ve learned that when she suggests serving one dish with a variety of others, those lists can get tangled and dinner takes a long time to prepare. So, we’re scaling back, making one- or two-dish meals, with just some rice or bread instead of the spreads she recommends, at least until we internalize recipes enough to more fluently combine them. It’s a good book for seasonal vegetable cooking too: we’ve had great dishes of spinach, potato, turnip, kale, and carrots, all bought at the winter market or Co-op, though, as the above picture attests, we haven’t been able to resist splurging on non-local cauliflower. But eggplant and pepper season approaches, which is also okra season! Jaffrey has several recipes that put it front-and-center, which we can’t wait to try. Dried legume dishes (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils) are year-rounders, of course, and her book abounds in easy and satisfying ones. Make your own paneer (fresh cheese) and you can add that to the mix. Need a new favorite condiment? Try the spiced yogurt (raita). And homemade flatbread is the work of just a few extra minutes (double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge or freezer and you can make your day’s bread as needed). What’s not to love?

We wouldn’t be able to make most of Jaffrey’s recipes, though, if it wasn’t for World of Spices, a great little grocer at 5911 S. Westnedge in Portage. I’d driven past it countless times but had never gone into. But what a wonderful store! The spices speak, the dals delight, the rices regale. And the people are friendly and helpful – as who wouldn’t be if you got to breathe in those scents hours every day? I’ve yet to strike out in looking for a needed ingredient there. Now I find myself looking for recipes with new ingredients, just so I can go browse the aisles in search of them.


*Curry leaves, common in Southern Indian cooking, look like long, thin bay leaves, but, unlike bay leaves, they soften when cooked. World of Spices sells little baggies of them in the refrigerated section. Note that curry powder is something completely different: it is a standard-ish spice mixture for use in making curries (mostly by the British), and it rarely if ever has curry leaves in it. Note also that you can talk about a curry as a kind of dish (like one would talk about a stir-fry). If authentic, a curry almost certainly won’t call for curry powder, though it will likely use some of the spices that go into curry powders, and it probably won’t have curry leaves, unless it’s from a region in India that uses them.

Radio, live transmission

I had to log some hours in the car on Saturday in what was a very unsustainable way to procure sustainably raised veal. I did a little online digging before I left in order to find some food-related podcasts to listen to, and I discovered two that were fabulous and fantastic: Radio Cherry Bombe and Gravy. Radio Cherry Bombe is done by two of the women behind Cherry Bombe, an indie food magazine about women in the food industry. It features interviews by Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu of all kinds of interesting food-world people (mostly women, though in the 50th episode “boys” including the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi are featured). Great guests, smart and funny conversation, and insight into lots of areas of the food industry.

Gravy is put out by Southern Foodways Alliance, which is an amazing resource for anyone interested in Southern food and culture. (My folks are from the northern edge of the South, so I have some ancestral ties that I like to think explain my love of greens, beans, and chicken.) The episodes are more professional than Radio Cherry Bombe, the kind of thing you could find on long-form NPR or PRI shows, and are very thoughtful and informative. As is inevitable when talking about Southern food and agriculture, lots of the shows deal with issues concerning race, and they do (I think) a great job at showing how to have a smart conversation about something most of us have a hard time talking about. They’re accessible, but sophisticated enough for classroom use too. I’ll draw on Gravy when I teach my intro philosophy course in the fall on ethical and political-philosophical issues connected to food.

I also listened to a couple episodes of Taste of the Past, with culinary historian Linda Pelaccio. Good guests, but she isn’t as fluent behind the mic as other interviewers, so the conversations always felt a little awkward.Still worth listening to though.

Would love to hear other suggestions of good food and ag podcasts!

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”