I work at a library. Believe it or not, though, it is still extremely difficult to find anything to read during my lunch hour. In spite of the fact that I am surrounded by books, and in spite of the fact that I usually have stacks of the things to take home with me at the end of the day, I cannot read any of them at lunch. Why? Because people want to talk to me. Or talk to each other. Or turn on the lunch room television set and watch some horrific daytime show. It isn’t possible to concentrate on a book while this is happening. Sometimes it isn’t even possible to concentrate on a cookbook.

This convoluted story is by way of explaining why it was that I found myself reading a diet/exercise magazine at lunch yesterday. The lead article proclaimed, with shock and outrage, that the average American gained five pounds during the winter months; we should be doing everything humanly possible, they urged, to combat this! Here were their exercise tips and 2-calorie, out-of-season meals to prevent this revolting and pointless weight gain!

Hmm. Pointless? My immediate thought upon hearing that most people gain weight during the winter is to remember–oh yes, that used to be an evolutionary advantage. Want to live through the winter? Pad yourself out. These days, we insulate our houses; even just a hundred years ago, we insulated ourselves. Admittedly, the people of the western world don’t live in paper-thin shacks or eat at the subsistence level, but I still think it makes a sense to take into account those centuries of history.

I live in a modern house with central heating, but I walk three miles a day, outside, to get to and from my train station. This isn’t back-breaking farm work, but it is exertion — exertion that requires more energy when it’s extremely cold. (And extremely cold it has been: three blizzard-level storms in less than a week? Whose idea was THAT?).

On a day when you’ve plowed through miles of unshoveled sidewalks covered in calf-deep snow, something like a barely-dressed seafood salad isn’t going to cut it, no matter how much I might love it in July. A lot of the time, I want soup, and a lot of the time, I want meat. Something juicy, something fatty, something comforting and something filling.

Teacherman and I know that we eat a greater quantity of meat and stodge during the winter, and we’re happy with this. We know this, and thus, when we were presented with a unique and related opportunity, we immediately took advantage of it.

In December, we noticed that a vendor at the downtown farmer’s market was selling spaces in a winter CSA. We were intrigued, given how difficult it is to find local anything during the colder months (in the Midwest, even a heated greenhouse might not do you much good). The CSA in question, though, was not the type that everyone has heard of — no boxes of vegetables delivered to your grateful door. Instead, the boxes would be full of meat.

Yes, really: meat and meat alone. The farm sells chicken, pork, beef and lamb (and woolen yarn) at the farmer’s market, and, given that they sell everything frozen, it’s easy enough for them to continue to sell all through the winter. The farmer’s market closes between December and June, though, leaving them out in the cold (as it were). The solution? The aforementioned CSA. You pay them a criminally low fee, and they deliver 25 (or 12) lbs of free-range, carefully raised, local meat to you every month. Teacherman and I signed up as soon as we heard the schpiel. (We did sign up for the 12-lb half-share, though. We may love meat, but there ARE only two of us).

We got our first box two weeks ago: twelve pounds of ground beef, pork chops, pork cutlets, nitrate- and sugar-free bacon and three kinds of sausage. For the first box the farmer gave everyone safe cuts (in America ground beef is king), but in the future we’re allowed to make requests. We have, of course, requested all sorts of bizarro cuts (pork belly, lamb neck chops) and cannot wait to see what we’ll get next time.

In the meantime, though, we’re delighted with what we have. The bacon glorified two different Sunday breakfasts, the ground beef was made into beautiful burgers, and the pork chops went into one of the most simple and satisfying meals we’ve had yet this winter.

I sprinkled the pork chops with salt and black pepper, then seared them in a big skillet until browned on both sides, and no longer squishily-raw when I poked them with a finger. I deglazed the pan with a heaping tablespoon of whole grain mustard and a cup of the apple wine Teacherman made earlier in the year (technically it’s hard cider, but it fermented itself into a delicate effervescence that’s more reminiscent of a sparkling wine than anything else). I turned the chops in the sauce a couple of times, then took them from the pan when they had lost all but a trace of pink in the center. I reduced the mustard-apple wine mixture until the sauce was thick and syrupy, then poured it over the chops.

They were delicious. It’s hardly a surprise that the flavors of apples and pork work well together, but the match is well known because it can be so good. The pork was flavorful and juicy, plump and resilient, the edges of each chop caramelized and glistening. The sauce was as light as a white wine sauce, but with the subtle, unmistakable sweetness of apples. The mustard emulsified the sauce into a creaminess that almost seemed dairy-based, and added a textural contrast to the unctuous pork with the crunchiness of the whole mustard seeds.

There were only three ingredients, but the dish was perfect. Yes, there was a layer of fat around the edge of each chop. Yes, we ate it (with great relish, even). I don’t think we’ll die. If we gain five pounds, so be it. (If it makes me warmer, I’ll be ecstatic). Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy eating real food, and living through the winter the way many many people have before.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 8:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Oh Dear

I admit, it does sound weird, but you have to give it a chance! 

Last night was our upstairs neighbor/best friend’s 40th birthday, and his girlfriend threw him a fabulous party.  (How fabulous?  I actually stayed for five hours, even though I usually overdose on partydom by an hour in).  Said girlfriend laid on a bounteous spread of delectables, but since most of my non-Christmas gift-giving tends to be food-related, I still brought a few things. 

Of all the foods our friend loves, bacon is foremost among them.  The love is so great that it’s become a joke among his massive, world-wide group of friends.  “ANYTHING is better with bacon!”  I try not to serve him unending courses of bacon-related goodies, but this party seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a few of the more unusual bacon recipes I’ve been saving. 

A few months ago I checked The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas out of the library.  It’s a nearly 300 page cookbook where every recipe, even the ones for sweets, contains bacon.  One those recipes–chocolate coated peanut butter bacon truffles–was impossible to ignore. 

All right, yes, I know.  Bacon in a dessert is just bizarre.  Bacon is made of meat, and it’s been roughly 600 years since meat and sugar were regular recipe companions, at least in the Western world.  But consider this: maple-glazed bacon.  People eat that all the time!  Also, my mother has been known to eat the occasional peanut butter-bacon sandwich.  I only ever ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but it isn’t SUCH a stretch to elide the two.

So I made the truffles.  I cooked 4 slices of bacon until crisp, let them cool completely and then broke the strips into haphazard pieces and put them into my food processor.  I added 4 oz of roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp of sugar, and then ground all three together until they had amalgamated into a coarse powder.  I tasted–it was good!, but it needed another Tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt, which I added, along with the stipulated 1/4 cup of smooth peanut butter.  I pulsed the new ingredients in until the mixture had come together and formed a ball. 

I scraped the peanut butter filling into a bowl, and stuck it in the fridge for half an hour to set up.  When the time came, I rolled the paste into small balls, froze them for 15 minutes, and then dipped them in melted bittersweet chocolate and rolled them in unsweetened cocoa powder.  Voila–chocolate peanut butter bacon truffles. 

I let them chill thoroughly before I tasted them.  In fact, I put them in the freezer for a couple of days, and then let them defrost in the fridge for an hour right before the party.  As I arranged them on the pretty platter, I popped one in my mouth–in spite of the positive tastes I’d had while making the filling, I was still a little dubious about the combination of bacon and chocolate. 

Wow.  They were like peanut butter cups, but enhanced.  The sort of food that the adjective “extreme” should be reserved for.  The bacon didn’t add a meaty flavor, or any textural component at all, it just added an extra salty, lightly smokey background to the peanut butter, making it taste more like itself.  The chocolate coating was shatteringly crisp, and the bitterness and purity of the chocolate contrasted perfectly with the richness and complexity of the filling. 

I went hurtling up to the party and thrust the platter at Teacherman and our upstairs neighbors.  They each took one, slightly hesitantly.  A pause, then three swoons: the reactions were ecstatic.  BUT.  After salving the birthday boy with his bacon ration, I offerred the platter to the rest of the guests.  Not one single one of them thought they were good.  Not one SINGLE one!  About ten people refused to try them at all, so they don’t really count, but the other fifteen tried them and thought they were terrible

I tried a second truffle.  Still nutty and salty and chocolatey.  Still the ur-peanut butter cup.  Still delicious.  Other people, though, were making faces of horrified disgust, some even went so far as to make gagging noises.  Everyone ate up their entire truffle, but they roundly declared them to be hideous. 

This is definitely one of the most confusing experiences I’ve ever had.  If it was just me that liked the truffles, I’d think that my dull tastebuds were to blame, but Teacherman, who has a very sensitive palate, and our upstairs neighbors, who aren’t vastly adventurous eaters, loved them, too.  We all had seconds, and enjoyed them just as much as the first. 

I can only conclude that the rest of our guests were too repulsed by the idea of bacon in a dessert to pay attention to the taste in their mouth.  I hate to dismiss an entire group of people outright, but I can’t figure out any other way to account for what happened.

In any case, and in spite of the reactions of the party-goers, I heartily recommend the recipe.  I know that I’ll be making it again, but this time I just won’t share. 

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sans Spice

My spice rack can be a bit overwhelming. 

When I say ‘spice rack,’ what I really mean is ‘spice cabinet.’  My spice collection takes up an entire 3-shelf kitchen cabinet–the savory herbs and spices on one shelf, the sweet spices on another, and salts, peppers, and pickling spices on a third (along, it must be admitted, with some pickling equipment, but not much). 

I don’t just have the basics (though honestly, these days who knows what The Basics are?) I’ve got things that most people haven’t even heard of.  Long pepper?  Check.  Grains of paradise?  Yes, indeed.  Worse, I don’t believe that I could get along without almost everything I have.  I really do use all the different individual chile powders and juniper berries and green and red peppercorns.   I really do USE all three varieties of paprika–weekly, even!

Last night, though, I made a meal without any spices at all.

As you might remember, I spent two weeks of this summer in Germany.  Since then, I have made more traditionally German (or at least Germanic) food than I ever have in my entire life.  Most of the dishes I’ve making are not even ones that I ate when abroad, but for some reason I feel compelled–happily compelled–to make them. 

Last night I made a very unusual stew that I found in a couple-of-decades-old German library cookbook.  The stew originally interested me because it contained enormous quantities of leeks–not as a substitute for onions, but as the major component of the dish. 

The stew starts out as most German stews do, with bacon.  I have rarely seen a stew recipe that did not begin with an instruction to crisp some bacon in a pan, remove the bacon, and continue with the soup using the bacon drippings as the cooking fat.  I could have used leftover bacon fat from the jar I keep in the back of the fridge (yes, I really do.  It’s excellent for searing salmon in), but I wanted bacon bits to sprinkle on top of the stew, and thus followed the recipe directly.

The stew continued in a familiar way, with a saute of aromatics–in this case, an onion, two carrots and two celery root, all cut into 1/2-inch cubes.  After they were browned (a difficult task, given the constrast between the sheer quantity of vegetables and the relatively modest size of my Dutch oven), I added 4 cups of beef stock and brought the whole thing to a bubble.

Now for the fun part: bockwurst.  Bockwurst is one of the eleventy-million varieties of sausage produced in Germany, and one of my favorites.  It’s an emulsified sausage, meaning that the insides are smooth and almost fluffy.  Teacherman describes them as “like a meat marshmallow,” but I don’t find that description particularly appetizing.   (He also prefers wiesswurst to bockwurst, which is a conflict).

In spite of my weekly practice of sausage-making, I have never made an emulsified sausage.  Luckily, there are two places in Chicago where I can purchase phenomenal sausages, almost as good as the ones we had in Germany.  Thus, I had easily procured one pound of bockwurst, and I had it at the ready.

I placed the bockwurst on top of the bubbling vegetables, turned it down to a simmer, covered the pan, and left it to stew for 40 minutes.  When I checked it after 20, I discovered that all of the sausages had split, exploding out of their skins and leaving yawning canyons all down one side (one sausage actually managed to split in a spiral–I’m not sure how that happened).  I understand that some people find split-skinned sausages to be an abomination impossible to be tolerated, but I have never minded it.  On a grilled sausage, a split skin just means there’s more surface to caramelize, and on a braised sausage like this, it means that it was easier for the juices of the stew to flavor the meat of the sausage (and the juices of the sausage to add body to the flavor of the stew). 

When 40 minutes were up, I added 2 pounds of leeks, quartered, cleaned, and sliced into 1/2-inch curves.  The lid went back on for 15 minutes, just long enough for the leeks to become crisp-tender, but not long enough to become limp and unfortunate.  I added a little salt at the same time as the leeks, but the stock, bacon and sausage contributed salt of their own, and I barely tipped in more than a pinch.

Voila.  A leek and bockwurst stew.  Given my love for Thai curry and southwestern green chile, can such a spiceless dish garner any praise from me at all?  Aren’t such dishes usually characterized as bland?

Yes, it’s true.  German food is often considered bland (along with “heavy,” a word which I’m beginning to believe means only “makes the speaker feel guilty for enjoying it”).  And it’s also true that this dish didn’t have any screamingly herbal top notes or sparkling, acidic touches.  What it did have was depth–the deep background flavor of the sauteed onions, carrots and celery root, which was mellow and earthy without being in-your-face.   The bockwurst was almost sweet in contrast to the vegetables, and the softness of the meat was comforting. 

The leeks, though, were what really made the stew.  They were cooked just enough to have given up their raw crunchiness, but still seemed fresh.  The soft but firm give of the leeks provided textural contrast and a giant hit of flavor.  Even without spices, it was a delicious, satisfying dish.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Annals of the Unnecessary

On Saturday night, I made something that might actually rival bacon as the most extraneous-to-modern-home-preparation food item that I have yet created. 

I made ketchup.

As I have reiterated over and over to colleagues and acquaintances, it’s not that I’m so concerned with self-sufficiency–it’s just that I think it’s cool and fun to make things from scratch.  I haven’t eaten ketchup in years, but when I determined to make a recipe that included it as a major ingredient, I figured: why not make my own?

For the past several weeks I’ve been seeing slabs of pork ribs for sale at the grocery meat counter.  I’d never in my life cooked a rib of anything (chicken doesn’t count–it comes attached to the rest of the bird), and I don’t actually know if I’ve ever eaten pork ribs.  There was a barbecue place that my family frequented when I was growing up, and I know they served ribs there (Iowa=big on pork), but my childhood self was fixed upon the foot-long hot dogs.  Even when I lived in Texas, my barbecue meat of choice was brisket, followed, if absolutely necessary, by smoked sausages.  Ribs never made it into the picture.

I do not know why, therefore, I zeroed in on those ribs at the meat counter.  For some reason they called out to me, and after three weeks of staring at them out of the corner of my eye, I bought a slab.  Now what was I supposed to do with it?

Pork ribs, it seems, are almost universally barbecued.  Given my lack of experience with the subject, it’s quite possible that there’s some iconic method of preparation that I’m unaware of, but barbecue-sauce-glazed, heat-blistered pork ribs are almost an American cultural byword.  This, then, is what I decided to make. 

I had the main ingredient: pork ribs.  Or is that the main ingredient?  Whole cookbooks have been written on barbecue sauce, and there are so many bitter rivalries among sauce afficionados as to make the Scandinavian sagas look peaceful. 

Sauce, therefore, was important, and should be phenomenal.  A major problem inherent in this realization is that I don’t like commercial barbecue sauces, for most of the same reasons that I don’t like commercial ketchup.   They’re too sweet, lacking in complexity, and with only the passing memory of a glance at a tomato.

You are shocked, I know, to hear that I decided to make my own barbecue sauce.   And, since most barbecue sauces start out as modified ketchup, I decided to make my own ketchup.

I did not, however, start with fresh tomatoes.  One kitchen appliance that I do not have is a food mill.  The idea of peeling and seeding the poundsandpounds of tomatoes necessary for even modest ketchup production is enough to give me the vapors.  Also, and more embarassingly, I don’t own a splatter screen; thus, I didn’t want to make anything that would require hours of boiling and reduction, for fear that the majority of the resultant ketchup would end up on the stove (the walls, my shirt, the dog) and not in the pot. 

So.  Yes.  Cheat-worthy as it is, I started with tomato paste. 

I put the contents of 2 6-oz cans of tomato paste into a big nonstick skillet, then added a minutely diced shallot and a practically pulverized stalk of celery (courtesy of what Teacherman would call his “mad chopping skillzzz”).  The pot also took in small quantities of all the winter spices–cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, nutmeg–some salt, a few cups of water, a little white wine vinegar, and a tiny bit of sweetener.  I brought it to a boil, smacked the lid on, and left it there for a few minutes, hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to expose the volcanic contents to the open air.

Alas, I did have to–even when you start with tomato paste ketchup still requires SOME reduction.  Through careful monitoring, I was able to keep the stove free of anything more than a light freckling by the time the sauce reduced to the point I wanted.  I strained the mixture through a wire strainer, pressing on the celery and shallot flakes to squeeze out all of their juices.  I let it cool, then tasted it–I ended up adding another spoonful of vinegar, but that was it.  I divided it into four cup-sized portions and froze three, leaving the last cup to be modified into barbecue sauce.

This modification was easy–I added soy sauce (thinking of bulgogi), garlic powder (because chopped garlic would be too strong), chipotle powder (because I wanted both more smoke and more heat), and a little more sweetener, to make it sticky.  I let the flavors meld overnight in the fridge, and voila: barbecue sauce.

After all of that, the ribs were effortless.  I baked them at a very low temperature for 2 hours, then covered them in sauce (and an extra sprinkling of chipotle powder, at Teacherman’s request) and broiled them until bubbly and nearly blackened.

The were both delicious and beautiful.  I meant to take a picture, but forgot entirely in the rush to taste one of the delectable things.  The result?  Tangy, porky bliss.  The pork was flavorful and toothsome in of itself, and the sauce added a sticky sheen and just enough ancillary flavor to complement the pork without overwhelming it.  This is one uncomplicated and ‘unnecessary’ sauce that I’ll be making repeatedly. 

Now pardon me while I go finish gnawing on the bones. . . .

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Back to the Drawing Board

This is a very cranky morning.

My second batch of bacon using the new recipe failed miserably.  Well, I should qualify: it’s not inedible.  What I have are very nice, crispy strips of seasoned pork.  But it’s not bacon: the belly completely failed to cure.  Grr.  It’s my own fault for trying to use the same recipe on a two pound piece of pork belly instead of a one pound piece.  I did proportionately multiply up all of the curing agents, and let it sit in the fridge for proportionately longer, but it obviously doesn’t work in so simple and straightforward a way. 

Also, I just finished making a tart crust for a going-away party that Teacherman and I will be attending tomorrow night.  I baked it a little too long, yes, but that only results in a more crispy-cookie-like crust.  The problem?  Less than 5 minutes after I took it out of the oven, the cat lept up onto the stove (where she NEVER goes, because she knows it’s almost always on), tore a piece out of the side of the crust and took off across the house.  Good grief.  She is possessed.  And now I have a tart crust with a hole in the side.  I can file off the edges of the hole, so it’s fit for human consumption, but it will look pretty ridiculous.  And the cat is under the sofa, gnawing on a piece of crust.  (It doesn’t even have butter in it!  It’s made of nuts!  What’s going ON?!)

The red-wine mustard is a conundrum: it tastes excellent.  But I just blended it up today.  I’ve never made mustard that didn’t take a few weeks to mellow, and now I’m afraid that this mustard–so fruity and round-flavored and only pleasantly sharp–will be bland and gloppy by the 15th, when I need it.  (Yes, I know that this isn’t anything like a unmitigated disaster, but it’s feeding into the rest of my mood).

It is with great dubiousness that I approach the making of my own lunch.  Cast iron grill pans are involved.  Be very afraid.

Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 8:40 am  Comments (1)  


This is very exciting. 

Brace for geekdom, one and all: I just made bacon.  No, no, I didn’t prepare bacon, I MADE bacon.  From scratch. 

Ever since Teacherman gave me a book on curing meats (this one) for Valentine’s Day last year, I’ve wanted to make bacon.  I tried the recipe from that cookbook, and ended up with an inedible, metallic, throat-raspingly salty slab of greyish meat.  It didn’t even look like bacon.  I’m sure that the fault was mine and not the cookbook’s, but I was still afraid to try the recipe again.  (I don’t like wasting anything, even if it’s only $3.99 a pound).

Then, in April, Bon Appetit had a recipe for spaghetti carbonara with home-cured pork belly insteadof purchased bacon or pancetta.  The cured pork belly looked impossibly easy: one just rubs a pork belly with salt and ground coriander (1 tsp of each per pound of meat), then leaves it in a covered container in the fridge for 4 hours to 2 days.  I left it in for two days, hoping for the maximum amount of curing.  I wasn’t worried that it would get too salty, since I use about 1 tsp of kosher salt per pound of meat when I make sausage. 

After two days are up, one is supposed to braise the pork at 275 degrees for 2-2.5 hours, turning it every half an hour.  The recipe calls for braising it in a mixture of chicken broth and white wine, with an onion, carrot and celery stalk along side.  I was guilty of very little forethought concering this process: when it came time to braise the belly, I had no carrot or onion, just celery.  I didn’t want to have a celery-flavored bacon, so I decided to leave out the vegetables.  And my chicken stock is so powerfully chickeny that I was afraid it would overwhelm the pork flavor (bizarre, but true), so I decided to leave the stock out, too.  I upped the quantity of white wine, threw the stipulated bay leaf and whole peppercorns, and braised away.

After two and a half hours of braising the belly was still not very tender, and I was afraid that I had done something Drastically Wrong.  It was nearly 10:00 pm, though, and I was exhausted, so I just dumped the pork and its juices into a tupperware container, shoved it into the back of the fridge and went to bed. 

The recipe calls for leaving the pork belly in the fridge for 1-2 days, but I ended up leaving it there for 2.5, since I wanted to eat it for breakfast, not as part of a carbonara sauce.

When morning came, I recruited Teacherman to slice off the skin and most of the extraneous fat (leaving just a nice 1/4-inch strip on either side of the thick strips of meat), and then slice the slab into the thinnest slices he was able.  Given that his resources were a chef’s knife and a cutting board, the slices were thicker than supermarket bacon, but no thicker than premium thick-cut bacon.  There was a half-inch slab that he wasn’t able to slice anything off of, for fear of slicing his fingers as well, so we just froze it for future use as lardons. 

Half of the remaining strips of proto-bacon went into the fridge and half went into a big frying pan.  We fried them up exactly as one would ordinarily fry bacon, deviating from the Bon Appetit recipe, since their finished product (carbonara) was different than ours (breakfast).  The bacon was crisp, ruddy and, what’s most important, absolutely delicious.  The salt level was perfect, and the coriander gave it an intriguing sweet back note, unexpectedly reminiscent of maple-cured bacon. 

As I said before, this is exciting.  Not only did I make bacon and have it turn out well, but I have all kinds of ideas for making it a second time.  Next time I might substitute smoked paprika for some or all of the coriander.  Or I might throw in some cinnamon.  Or I might put juniper berries in the braising liquid instead of pepprcorns and a bay leaf.  Or I might rig up a smoker in our gas grill and see if I can smoke the belly instead of braising it in the oven. 

I think, though, that first I ought to find someone with a meat slicer.

Published in: on August 19, 2007 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment