Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I'm Too Sexy For This Blog

I'm moving this literary juggernaut to a new home. In a few days, I'll be switching over completely so that RSS and link traffic redirects automatically, but those of you who subscribe via Google Friend Connect can head over now and resubscribe; it's not currently possible to port those followers and I don't want to lose any of you. I've replied to recent comments on the new blog, and put up a welcome post to give you some fresh content after this long drought.

Thanks to all of you who read and comment and link and generally find something worthwhile here. It's been fun doing it, and should be more so now that I have a much nicer place to do it in.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It's Not Just A Job, It's An Adventure

I've been enjoying my holiday from electronics so much that I still haven't fully returned. I keep my phone ringer off, I ignore email for ages–it's awfully nice. But I have been making some good food, and working on a bunch of projects. The garden is doing well, and many of the late plantings are thriving; we should have some good stuff come fall (which is tomorrow, after all).

But I figured I should put a post up, if only so you'll all stop calling hospitals. My next article is about the man who produces the best ducks in America (which you can read all about when it comes out) and he gave me a sample to try. So I made it for dinner tonight. It was a tad hurried, and we've all been sick, but essentially I seared a breast and power-stewed a leg so I could see how it handled two types of cooking. If I'd had the strength, I would have made confit yesterday, but yesterday was a disaster so I didn't.

So I crisped up the leg, skin-side down, then flipped it, then removed it to a small pan and added leek, cubed buttercup squash, parsley, a glug of red wine, and enough water to come up just shy of the crackling russet carapace of skin. I let it simmer, covered, while I scored and seared the breast and removed it, then threw leek strips in the copious oil to crisp, then pulled them out and added shallot and shredded kale to wilt, finishing them with Brother's raspberry vinegar. I had peeled, cubed and steamed more buttercup squash as well; we had two from the garden with some bug damage, so I cut out the nasty bits and used the rest, which added up to about one squash in volume. This I puréed with some of the cooking water and a bit more of the vinegar.

It looks like a hot mess, but it tasted quite splendid. This duck just has more of all the things one looks for in a duck. I can't wait to make confit and prosciutto and stock out of the rest of it.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


A bit late, I know, but I was on vacation–blissfully removed from all things prefixed by e- and i-. Until I get my photographs sorted, here's the link to my latest Chronogram piece: a profile of a local aquaculture operation.

Photograph by Jennifer May

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"The Pig Dies At Noon"

That's what the email said, just to ensure that the more squeamish guests would be arriving around 5.

The invitation landed in my inbox because Eve had emailed me, asking "do you know where a friend can get a pig?" and I directed her to Richard at Northwind farm, where they raise a variety of first-rate pastured meat. I get my belly from them (in more ways than one). In exchange for the pig hookup, I got to attend a special sort of barbecue. The kind that begins with a live pig, and ends with dinner. Tate, the host, thought it would be a good idea if all of his hipster Brooklyn foodie pals connected with their meat in an intimate and direct way, seeing exactly what it is that goes into bringing an animal to the plate. It was an interesting idea, and I was by myself that week, so the prospect of meeting some nice people while soaked in pig's blood seemed like a no-brainer. I charged both camera batteries (I have two now, because Claudia sent me one).

Richard and the pig arrived (a little after noon, actually) and he described how the pig would meet its end. He slipped a couple of ropes around the animal. Tate loaded the .22, and they worked out who would stand where. The picture below shows the moment where the pig figured out that the day was not going to go very well at all.

The was a bit of tumult as the animal came off the back of the truck, and I remember thinking for a moment as Richard yelled "Shoot it now! SHOOT IT NOW!" that there was a real chance that this whole operation could go off the rails, and end up with us chasing the pig through the woods while she became more feral by the minute. But Tate shot her twice in the head in quick succession, and that was the end of the pig.

She twitched a few times as they dragged her body into the woods, to a plywood platform Tate had built for butchering where children or the aforementioned squeamish wouldn't see it. There was a lot of blood.

That small burst of orange on the right is actually a giant colony of mushrooms, and I almost drove into a tree when I first arrived because they were chanterelle-like in color. Sad to say, they were not chanterelles.

We lifted the pig up onto the platform, and Richard cut its throat to bleed it out into a bucket. It's surprising how deeply and easily a knife will cut into a dead animal.

Cutting both back legs between tendon and bone, he threaded rope into those holes and we hoisted it up in the air for gutting.

These pictures and the light remind me of numerous Baroque paintings of the deposition from the cross that I studied and copied when I lived in Italy.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly the moment at which the pig transformed from an animal into meat, but by this time it had fully undergone the change.

Richard guided Tate through the gutting, beginning with making deep cuts all around the anus to separate it completely so that the intestines could drop out through the opening in the belly, and avoid any rupturing and unpleasantness.

He did a surgically gentle job, and the guts spilled forth efficiently.

The lack of blood made for an oddly clinical process; for the first time I understand what it is that surgeons do, and how they tell things apart.

We had a bucket waiting, though the sun went behind a cloud so the dramatic lighting disappeared.

Richard got deep into the cavity with the knife to liberate the heart and lungs, which meant the end of the viscera. Lungs are firmer than you think.

The heart was warm.

The empty gutted pig was food, no doubt.

We all put on ponchos, kindly provided by our host, to protect our clothes from gory spatter, and skinned it, per Richard's instructions. He left, since he had better things to do, and because from this point on we had some inkling of what we were doing.

This was due in unreasonable proportion to the anatomy classes I took back in art school, the many times I've taken various animals and parts thereof apart into smaller pieces, and my fervently held belief that confidence and momentum can substitute for actual skill and knowledge in a pinch. Here I am explaining the finer points of suine anatomy to my cohorts, based on no particular knowledge at all beyond a familiarity with things I've bought out of refrigerated glass cases. The pictures that follow–through the one of me holding the ear–were obligingly shot by Elias, who takes pictures professionally.

Here's Tate, about to separate the ribs from the spine so Sue and I can take them up the hill and cook them. I got the hams and shoulders off really easily, though they looked a bit ragged.

It was work, but remarkably easy and calm. We talked and cut and the pig came apart into recognizable pieces quite quickly. The heat of life lingered in the muscles. It was very matter-of-fact: neither overly jocular nor traumatic. Just real.

I'm not going to say that we did a great job–both definitions of "butchered" were appropriate–but there was precious little left on the spine when we were done. And all the rest was in a cooler with ice, ready to take up the hill to the kitchen and grill.

We strategized as we disassembled the carcass, thinking ahead to what should get cooked when and how, so that we could actually turn a pig into dinner in a timely manner. One of the things about pigs is that they do best with time-intensive preparations, ranging from two-day pulled pork to one-year prosciutto. So we thought a bit about how to make the most of a highly foreshortened window. Sue brought a miso glaze for ribs, and was pretty excited to get at them.

I was thinking about Fergus Henderson's crispy pig's ears. I cut the cheeks off as well, but it's worth mentioning here that as a young animal, this sow did not have a ton of fat on her; the belly was barely an inch thick and we ended up grinding it for sausage. Her cheeks were not so fat either, so my plans for guanciale were dashed.

We lugged the big blue plastic tub full of rough meat and ice up the hill, along with all the knives, beer bottles, and buckets of skin and guts, and got to work making dinner. First up, Matt and I ground various random boneless bits into sausage, using copious garlic, thyme, lemon juice, and fennel. It's what there was, and the result was tasty enough, if not emphatic. Since cleaning out the intestines was a job too ambitious for the occasion, we simply made patties and Matt grilled them.

While he did this I put the braised cabbage and baked beans I made earlier into bowls and scrounged up serving utensils for them. Corn bread, cole slaw, and other goodies appeared on the table.

I took the shoulders, rubbed them with a spice blend I had brought, and got a decent char on them while he ground sausage. Then I cut the meat off the bones and put it in our pressure cooker along with smoked chicken stock (which I also brought) and some various spices and condiments from their fridge. After an hour, I strained the liquid, pulled the meat apart, thickened the liquid with by reducing it with ketchup, mustard, some decent store-bought barbecue sauce, and then mixed it all together.

We had taken took both slabs of ribs–one with more of my rub, one without–and put them in a 200˚ oven, wrapped in foil. After a couple of hours, we took them out and finished them on the grill.

Sue garnished hers with her glaze and chopped scallions, I finished mine with the reduced cooking liquid mixed with leftover pulled pork sauce and scallions that I stole from her bowl.

It was all quite good. The pressure cooker and oven allowed us to enjoy persuasive versions of slow-cooked classics, and the seasonings worked. The sausage could have used more fat and more flavor, but we were in a bit of a rush.

The majority of the group stayed in or behind the house during the slaughter and butchery, splashing in the pool and tending to the many children at hand, so when things resembling food showed up, they all got very attentive all of a sudden. What was most interesting was the clear division between those of us who wanted to be present for the entire process and those who just wanted to eat; there were four or five of us who did all of the messy work of turning an animal into dinner, and around 20 who ate.

Now I understand that watching their dinner get two in the head, mafia style–with all of the attendant blood and twitching and guts–might be off-putting to some, but I was surprised that more people didn't want to see a bit more of the butchering, or at least talk about what went in to bringing the meal to fruition. As it was, nobody at all in the house seemed to have any interest at all in what we were doing, let alone a desire to learn or hear about what we did.

Having said that, the large number of small children in attendance may have had more than a little to do with the lack of greater audience participation.

There was no praise or thanks for the animal, though, or any public acknowledgment that this dinner was any different from an ordinary barbecue, which I thought was strange.

It looks like an idyllic summer garden party, right? It was lovely. And we few (we happy few, we band of butchers) all agreed that it was way less horrible than we imagined; it was interesting work and the we bonded over it. But the stated desire–to connect people directly with the nature of meat, and how animals become food–didn't really reach beyond those of us who were already sold on the concept. It clearly takes more pushing to get non-geeks over that experiential hurdle, but I feel that it's important to try. Meat is food that comes at a particular cost, and though is is extremely good to eat, people should be fully cognizant of the cost/benefit ratio when they eat it. Most meat eaters should eat less meat anyway, and those who really can't deal with watching the death and dismemberment of an animal should reconsider their carnivorous status.

Moving the life and death of most food animals far out of sight of most peoples' lives has robbed us of this much-needed perspective, and also removed certain rituals from our meals. Being mindful of the beings that we eat when we eat them has been one such casualty. This event was a welcome attempt to redefine nose-to-tail eating upward, towards owning the whole animal and its dispatch and consumption. This kind of meal should be more common, since it's the way humans have eaten from since we became human until very recently.

And, if we're all really really lucky, this can be the new benchmark for such gatherings moving forward, allowing the sort of people who can say the word "foodie" without gagging to sneer condescendingly at others who did not kill their dinner at their barbecue. Can't you see Martha and Ray-Ray getting in on it, selling special dainty yet easy-to-clean butchering aprons, and cheerfully demonstrating how to rip a chicken's head off with one twist? How about Emeril's "Bam!" brand Bunny Bludgeon™? It'll be awesome.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


So I've obviously been slacking off in a major fashion, but it's for good reasons: first, I had some work to do around the house that involved drywall (that sexiest of building materials, am I right?) and second, I went to Vermont and relaxed for a couple of days and ate well but did not take a single picture of any food the whole time.

The next post (which I promise to have up on Monday morning) will be a good one, combining graphic violence with quality eating. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Whoreganically Blown

Last night we had burgers. Nothing fancy about them at all, no gadgetary magic or exotic ingredients to make them blogworthy. What did make them very very pleasurable to eat, though, was the 20 minutes or so that I spent really actually making them. From scratch. I took a package of local, grass-fed stew meat, trimmed a few tough spots, and fed it into the Kitchen Aid grinder attachment along with a fistful each of parsley and arugula, a minced clove of garlic, a good-sized piece of smoked ham fat cut into chunks, and salt and pepper. I fed them all through the large die, and then the small, and then shaped them into patties. Cooked them. Served them on whole wheat buns with homegrown tomatoes and homegrown and fermented cucumber pickles. Steamed broccoli and sautéed zucchini, also from the garden, on the side. Seriously: 20 minutes, including cleaning out the meat grinder parts before everything got all hard and icky.

Why write about such a meal? I wasn't going to, believe me. But by complete coincidence, earlier in the day I happened to be in a local chain drugstore (don't ask) when, in the course of my hapless, panicked, Kafkaesque wanderings though the maze of aisles, I stumbled upon the following product on a shelf.

I know, right? It's the appliance you've been waiting for! It's a dedicated, electric, nonstick, one-burger-at-a-time skillet to take the risk and danger out of preparing the precarious, complex high-wire act that is the modern hamburger. No longer do you need your very own team of Nobel laureates to look over your shoulder, clipboards and sensitive instruments clutched nervously in hand, while you perform the delicate surgical task that is cooking disks of ground cow meat in a pan over a heat source! Buy just a few more and you can even cook for your whole family at the same time! Even in multiples, these cost significantly less than the particle accelerator, gas chromatograph, and portable MRI you used to use to determine when the meat was cooked properly. It is thus that Science™, synergizing proactively with those geniuses down the hall in Marketing©, toils tirelessly to make your life a better place for them to be.

Is this where we have arrived as a society? What's next, special non-skid booties so you don't accidentally slip and boil your face while attempting to cook corn on the cob? Microwaveable toast singles with a built-in layer of thermo-release butter pustules? A safety orange kitchen helmet with cup holders, reflectors, and a flashing light on top that beeps when you back up?

Can you imagine the meetings that went into the production of this piece of idiocy?

"Well, our research shows that people are having a hard time cooking hamburgers without poking their eyes out–either accidentally, or in frustration at the difficulty of the process."

"So in one case, it's a poke, but in the other, it's really more of a desperate, agonized clawing?"

"Yup. And so we've created a special tool–like a skillet, but only useful for this one specialized task. It has a grease moat, so we can make health claims, and yet it's so completely covered with Teflon that you you can clean it just by yelling at it. Plus, those people in the burger-challenged demographic who happen to fall outside of the sullen, shut-in loner demographic will need to purchase multiple units in order to cook for the others in their household. Also, we're pretty sure you can use this to make meth in prison."

"I love it! Now go wax my plane."

Look. I'm a lazy guy. The idea of a kitchen tool that can be cleaned just by putting it on the floor and having a pet lick it shiny is certainly appealing. And this was, after all, in a drugstore. (There was no price on the box or the shelf). But in this small town, the drug and hardware stores carry all kinds of housewarey stuff because the big stores are 10 or so miles down the road. And I'll bet those big stores carry this exact same thing, or something even stupider. The fact that such a moronic piece of horseshit got greenlit and manufactured (and, presumably, purchased) speaks volumes about how vast the chasm is between where we are and where we need to be when it comes to the nature and place of food in our lives. This is exactly the sort of thing Nero would have been playing with while Rome burned, if he'd had one.

Also, how dumb is it that they don't have a little skinny one for hot dogs? Maybe even a double-barreled number? That'd be sweet.


They do! I just got this picture from "an alert reader." Two horsemen down, two to go.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Rose is A Rose is Not A Rosé

I had a pretty productive day yesterday, and got some garden processed for cold storage so we can enjoy bright, cheerful meals during the long dark night of winter. I took every ripe tomato we had, which worked out to a roughly 50/50 mix of eating and paste varieties, trimmed off anything unseemly, and threw them all in a big stockpot with a bit of shallot softened in olive oil. After about 10 minutes, they had all pretty much disintegrated, so I stick-blended them all smooth and pushed the result through a strainer. The result, after the judicious application of salt and pepper, was just shy of a gallon of dreamily perfect tomato soup. Into the freezer it went, after I parked all the containers in sink full of cold water for a few minutes to cool them off.

The rest was lunch:

I then made 6 of the small deli containers worth of basil pesto, keeping it simple for maximum versatility at the other end: oil, salt, and a bit of cider vinegar plus the basil. And I brined yet another gallon jar of cucumbers with garlic and dill. Succession-planting the cukes was a very good idea; they're coming in at a prolific yet manageable rate. And the pickles are as good as they get.

Dinner was brandade made from cod and sweet potatoes, with pesto added in, and a crust of bread crumbs mixed with butter and more pesto. The pictures didn't come out very well, but it was good. I opened a recently purchased bottle of rosé from Long Island, since I heard some good things about it and am always eager for high quality local and semi-local wine.

First off, the packaging. I find much of Long Island to be pretty annoying, and much of the wine to be overrated, so my first impulse upon seeing this bottle was to go hang myself with a tennis sweater; the name evokes awful aspirational clothing for douchey Dirk Bogarde wannabes in topsiders and popped collars. The ribbon doesn't help diminish that association (it looks like a sweater knotted around the neck), but in fairness a dollar of every purchase is donated to a breast cancer charity. Having said that, though, the whole yachting motif is off-putting. And custom bottles are always suspect–smacking as they do of aggressive branding– since we the consumers end up paying for them as well as for the wine inside. Who thinks a bottle shaped like a dildo is a good idea?

The color also made me nervous, since it's pretty dark pink and that is a color I tend to associate with the candy-flavored rosés that I do not like. See here for my helpful treatise on the subject. The back label says that the wine is inspired by the rosés of Provence, which I love, so I bought it. And it's not bad. Apart from the color, what sets it quite apart from Provençal versions is the fruit. Where those tend towards strawberries and red currants, this was straight-up jammy plums; as a result, I guessed that it's made mostly from Merlot, but in fact (according to the internets) it's mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. It's not overpowering, though, and there's good acid, but there's a disconnection between the fruit on top and the structure beneath; there's no herbaceous, mineraly middle to tie them together as there is in the pink wines that I love.

So here's the question: does the New York Stateness of this wine trump its minor flaws and mean that I should buy it instead of my Provençal regulars? At about $15 a bottle, the price is roughly comparable. Is geographical proximity worth the dollar or three more for slightly unbalanced wine with ever-so-slightly cloying candied fruit? As rosé season rounds third, I'm contemplating my next mixed case. How many pink yacht dildos should I include?

Also, too, my editor at Chronogram sent me this link a few days ago on a related topic. There's no doubt that many seriously local-focused restaurants have wine lists that roam far and wide; when he and I ate at Red Devon prior to my profile of them, we noticed that their list is heavy on international offerings and light on local ones. I can't say I blame them–we unhesitatingly ordered a white and a red both from France, since that's our taste–and it's no secret that I think the Hudson Valley wine underachieves, but for an establishment so thoroughly rigorous in their sourcing of all else, isn't their wine list kind of a sore thumb? If I had a restaurant in this area, I'd offer a tasting menu with matched wine pairings that ranged near and far as a way of warming people to the well-made local products and setting off certain flavors to make a point.

Having said that, restaurants make most of their money off drinks, and it's hard when a $10 Spanish bottle offers more pleasure per dollar than the local equivalent, especially when that hypothetical Spanish bottle then sells for $30, and the local analog for $40. That markup fills me with fury, and explains why I don't go out to eat more often than I do (which isn't much). And personal taste matters, too; lest you think I'm just a snob about New York wines, I'd have this same problem in California. I really really like the wines from a few parts of the world, and have not much time for the rest. I'm warming to the idea of incorporating some of our local wines where they do well: as aperitifs, or to accompany lighter first courses, and I can see where this one could work with something on the richer side that helped elide its lacunas, but though I (just about) always drink wine with food, ultimately I drink wine for pleasure.

I feel very strongly that the move toward local food is driven by pleasure; when it's as good or better than the imports, making the change is a no-brainer. So many of our local products are world-class that eating locally is eating the best possible food available. Who doesn't want that? But if the product is not competitive with other offerings from far away, it's not going to gain market share. As much of an advocate as I am for local food, most wine looks to remain on my standard exceptions list for some time to come. But at least now I feel guilty about it, so it's ruined.