Fish: An Easy Evening


Most of the time I love being an urban homesteader, and it’s a great pleasure to produce as much food as I can on my home ground. But there are times that I don’t want to start my meal with butchering and foraging. I just want to take it easy. But I still want something very healthy and very good, and I want to support the businesses that make my community even better.
In the Albuquerque and Phoenix areas, it’s a very good idea to get to know the Fishhuggers, Kenny and Brenna and their family. In the summer Kenny fishes in Alaska, and they sell wild Alaskan salmon, halibut, and various other fish. They also sell grassfed beef from the family ranch, and it’s the best grassfed meat available in our area because they keep the cattle long enough to put on healthy, delicious fat. They also handle some excellent pork and a variety of other healthy products. Check their website to see where they are currently selling, and ask what they have. I have been buying from them for enough years to watch their son grow from small child to accomplished salesman in his own right.
Wherever you live, find a trustworthy source and keep some healthy fish in the freezer. Nothing is quicker and easier to cook than fish. When you sense that your day is sliding out of control, start thawing it or planning how to thaw it when you get home. Keep a reserve of veggies in the pantry that can be used on a second’s notice and need no prepping. I keep grilled artichoke hearts in oil and sun-dried tomatoes in oil. Grab some chimichurri out of the refrigerator, or make some in five minutes if you keep the ingredients on hand.
For this particular meal, choose good-sized fillet pieces of any firm white fish. Sprinkle the thawed sections with salt and your favorite fish seasoning; as a Louisiana native, I always use Chef Paul’s Blackened Redfish Magic. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat, sear the fish well on both sides, and move to a 300 degree oven to finish. While the fish is baking, rinse the skillet quickly, drain artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes or whatever veggies you’re using, heat the skillet over medium-high heat, add some very good olive oil, and start lightly browning the veggies. Between stirs, chop two fresh cloves of garlic to add a more authentic flavor. When the veggies are lightly browned turn the heat to low, toss in the chopped garlic, and stir frequently until the garlic is cooked but not at all browned. Turn the heat off and check the fish.

Personally, I loathe overcooked fish. When it will just separate into large, moist and juicy flakes with firm application of a fork, it’s done. Don’t cook it another second. Move it out of the hot pan onto plates, add the veggies, and scoop chimichurri wherever it looks best on the plate. Add a wedge of flatbread if you like. I’m low-carb so mine is made with oat fiber.

I think this is a red wine meal, but then I think every meal is a red wine meal. If you are a beer drinker, you may prefer beer. Either way, toast your dinner partner with joy and confidence, and remember that with every bite you are preventing the fast-food hordes from swarming into your kitchen.

Of Spruce and Steaks

Every now and then I love a really good dry-aged ribeye on the grill,  and one of my favorite accompaniments is spruce tip butter.  The young growing tips of spruce trees in the spring have a fascinating array of flavors, ranging from bright and citrusy to something close to turpentine. I wander along my favorite trails tasting in until I find one that is on the spicy citrusy side, and  bring home the tips to chop and sauté in good butter for a few minutes. The spruce tip butter can then be frozen for use later in the year.  I like to freeze it in pats the size of large ice cubes, so that one pat is plenty of finishing butter for two steaks.  The frozen butter can be put on the steak for the last minute of grilling, and as the steak is finished for five minutes in a 200° oven it will finish melting luxuriously into the top.  If you happened to grill some onions along with the steak, this butter is delicious on them too, and it is a way of bringing your spring time hikes home for the rest of the year.

There aren’t many spruce trees in my area so this compound butter is the only thing that I make with the few tips that I have available, but if you have more trees available, you can consider other uses for the tips, such as spruce beer or Hank Shaw’s spruce tip syrup.

 

Pork Belly: Theme and Variations

Recently I was checking out my local farmer’s market and saw a young man sitting in front of a card table, with a big cooler behind him but nothing that I could see indicating what he was doing there. Curious, I approached, and it turned out that he was from Polk’s Folly, selling pork from a few pasture-raised heritage pigs being grown on his family land. And yes, he had some pork belly to sell. I scored a three pound chunk.

At the time I planned to make it into bacon, and so I put it in a brine of one cup salt to one gallon of water and stuck it in the refrigerator. But a couple of days later I found myself daydreaming about it and decided to cook it for dinner. I put eight bay leaves and 3 cloves’ worth of sliced garlic on the meat side, rolled it up with the skin side out and tied it with kitchen twine, put it in a cazuela with half a cup of good white wine, and roasted at 350 until done through (160 if you tend toward exact measurements,) turning up the heat to 500 right at the end to brown the skin a bit.

Thin slices were served with oyster mushrooms sautéed in butter and adorned with the garlic slices from inside the belly, and skimmed pan juices were poured around liberally. It was a delicious meal with a good cabernet but, for two people, just the beginning of three pounds of belly.

A few nights later I hauled out the belly, cut two slices about a half inch thick, and cut the strips into chunks that ended up about 1/2″ square by 1″ long. I chopped up two big cloves of garlic and a 1″ piece of ginger. A huge scallion out of the garden was cut in 1/8″ slices, white and green kept separate. I got out gochujang, soy sauce, and artificial sweetener to equal two teaspoons of sugar (of course you can use 2 teaspoons sugar if preferred.) I microwaved some cauliflower rice. The belly chunks were sautéed over medium-high heat in a wok until they were beginning to brown nicely in their own fat. Then the scallion whites were added and stir-fried for about two minutes. Next the scallion greens and the chopped garlic and ginger were added and given one further minute of stir-frying. Then a rounded tablespoon gochujang and a good squirt of of soy sauce, along with two teaspoons of sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Boil hard until the sauce comes together and glistens, less than a minute if you were using high enough heat. Serve over the cauli rice. Add some pickled veggies if you like.

The third meal moves into Southeast Asia, one of the many parts of the world where the succulent pork belly is appreciated. One of the great treats of summer is an occasional perfect mango, and I had one ready on the counter. I was planning a Thai-style curry based on the superb Hand brand green curry paste, but ultimately decided that I wanted more veggies and less sauce. Using the inspiration of Six Seasons, I decided to make something that was a hot salad rather than a curry per se.  Besides the leftover belly, mango,  and the curry paste, ingredients were two large scallions sliced, a cup of pure coconut cream, some fish sauce and sweetener, and a wide assortment of veggies from my garden and freezer but just a handful of each, i.e. four Tuscan kale leaves slivered finely, about a third of a head of broccoli (with its peeled stem) blanched a few minutes and chopped, two small purple carrots, and a handful of chopped mint for the final garnish. This is a great place to use up any plainly cooked veggies that may be tucked into your refrigerator awaiting a purpose.

To make the “dressing,” boil  the coconut cream in a small sauce pan for a few minutes, stir in about a tablespoon of curry paste or more according to taste and boil a minute more, and add fish sauce and chosen sweetener to taste,  make in the mixture a bit on the salty sweet side because there is a large volume of veggies fruit to season.  Then set the pan aside while you finish the main ingredients.

Cut two half-inch slices off the belly and cut into lardons. Put in a skillet over medium-high heat to b own and render some fat, turning frequently. Meanwhile sort the veggies into fast-cooking and slower-cooking, putting the scallion greens in the first pile and the scallion whites in the second. When the belly chunks are browned, add in the slower-cooking veggies and stir fry until crisp-tender, add the quick-cooking veggies, and cook until thoroughly heated through. Put in a little fish sauce with the veggies but not too much, since the belly is already salted.

Now toss half the hot veggies in the saucepan with the curry sauce, plate them on two plates, put the unsauced belly and veggies on top for an unmuddied appearance, slice the peeled mango over the composition, and top with the chopped mint. Dip down into the “dressed” part of the meal with each bite. Have some Thai sriracha available for drizzling if you like.

By the fourth meal, there was one strip of belly roast about 3/4″ thick still left. I decided on a Thai meat salad. Since we were quite hungry I decided to add two Thai-style fried eggs to each plate.  In addition to the belly strip and four eggs, I used a small head of Romaine lettuce, one large scallion, a generous handful of coriander leaves, and two partially ripe plums.  If you are using plums from the grocery store, it’s pretty easy. Almost any two will do and will still be somewhat green, firm, and not too sweet. Or use cherry tomatoes if you prefer.

First have an appropriate dressing ready. Mine was a rather elaborate concoction based on some pickled kumquat rind that I made a month ago and ground coriander stems, but you can use the simple spicy-sweet dressing described at the bottom of the page.

Cut the belly strip into lardons and fry them in a hot skillet with a spoonful of coconut oil until browned. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add a little more coconut oil to the pan and fry the eggs over medium-high heat, turning them a few times and salting on both sides, until they are cooked through and browned around the edges. Remove and drain. Slice the romaine into strips about 1/2″ wide. Cut the plums in slices. Slice the scallion fine and chop the coriander leaves.

Plate the lettuce, cut the eggs in thirds or quarters and arrange around the edge, and put the crisp lardons in the middle. Decorate with the plum slices and scatter the scallions and coriander on top. Dress with the dressing and eat. If you had everything on hand, total elapsed time is about 15 minutes.

If you have read Tamar Adler’s marvelous book An Everlasting Meal, you know all about main dishes that keep on giving. If you haven’t read it, please do so immediately. Frugality in the kitchen is a common thought for most of us and you may already cook that way, but Ms. Adler will show you the poetry and grace of it. Cooking is in some ways a ghostly process anyway, with our great-great-grandmother’s transparent hand guiding our own, and we are further informed by the ghost of each meal contributing to the next.

Hot-sweet Thai Dressing: this  doubles as a dipping sauce and is very handy to have in the refrigerator. Finely chop four cloves of garlic and a piece of ginger about an inch long. Thinly slice a couple of Serrano or Jalapeño chiles, removing the seeds and ribs unless you’re a real heat freak. Mix the chopped and sliced stuff with half a cup of fish sauce, a quarter cup of rice vinegar, a quarter cup of water, and  two tablespoons of palm sugar or the equivalent in artificial sweetener. Let sit fifteen minutes and taste cautiously. Adjust the various elements until it tastes well-balanced to you.

The First Tomatoes

I still love all kinds of grilled vegetables. This post is from 2009, when bread was still on my menu, but I pass it on for those with no blood sugar problems.

My urban homestead

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A grill offers wonderful vegetable cooking options. It’s a pity that most people only cook meat on their grills, because grilled vegetables make wonderful and satisfying summer meals. If you are a grilling enthusiast, or would like to become one, I highly recommend the elegant cookbook by Francis Mallmann Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. My husband, the family grill-wallah, was intrigued by the directions for Burnt Tomatoes, and set out to make a great tomato sandwich. All the hot work stays outside, and your kitchen is spared. Of course you can buy tomatoes at the Farmers Market if you don’t grow them yourself, but if you plant a few around your house, you’re likely to realize why they were grown as an ornamental even back when they were thought to be poisonous.
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Click here for the recipe!

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Independence

On this July 4th, I am sitting after dinner contemplating the hardly-revolutionary idea that all independence is local as well as national, and neither can exist without the other. I have wonderful irreplaceable freedoms under the Constitution. I also have a little plot of land on which to grow food like the garlic shown above, a splendid local system of farmer’s markets where I can buy what I can’t grow like the  pork belly that I roasted, and a system of national forests that preserve nearby wilderness areas where I found the oyster mushrooms. Without the national systems that protect our local freedoms, none of this could be maintained.

So be conscientiously local. Grow what you can, and buy what you have to. Waste as little as you can manage. Connect with other local people. Compost and reuse as well as recycling. Support your area farmers, not just by buying their products, but by realizing that your votes can support politicians who are sympathetic to local farms. Keep it always in mind that “All politics is local.” Connect with your neighbors, even if (especially if) their political views are different from yours, because both you and your neighbors might end up with something new to think about. And love and relish this country and support its national freedoms and national programs, and refuse to consider abridgment of its freedoms or demonization of people who don’t look or sound or worship exactly like its founders. We are bigger than that.

 

 

 

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

Deconstructed Thai Egg Salad

If you have chickens, there are inevitably times when you grow tired of eggs. I had one of those times recently and started to grope for a new way to think about egg salad. Since I love Thai food and keep a lot of the necessary seasonings around, some sort of Thai egg salad seemed like the perfect way to reawaken my enthusiasm. I wanted to make it quick and easy, too, so cupboard condiments played a large role. I used coconut milk, fish sauce, some artificial sweetener (people with no blood sugar problems can just use sugar,) Shark brand Thai  sriracha sauce (important, because it tastes very different from standard Vietnamese-style sriracha,) the excellent Hand brand Matsuman curry paste, and chopped peanuts, and all I added to them was eggs and sliced mint leaves.

For two people I started with three hard-boiled eggs each, and chopped them roughly leaving them in large chunks. I heated the top fat off one can of coconut milk, stirred in a heaping tablespoon of Matsuman curry paste, and cooked a few minutes until thick and smooth. I added fish sauce to taste and sweetened it a bit. I pooled this elixer on a plate, put piles of chopped eggs on top, salted the eggs to taste and then dribbled Thai sriracha (which is not very hot) liberally all over the eggs. Peanuts and sliced mint finish up the seasoning, and a bit of sushi ginger on the side is my own very weird addition.

If the eggs are already hard-boiled, you will be plating your lunch in about ten minutes. It’s ketogenic except for the sugar in the sriracha, which isn’t much. You can use your own sweet-hot dipping sauce for the dribbling if you prefer. The mint could be replaced with Thai basil or cilantro. I speculate that finely slivered leaves of lemon verbena might be interesting here but I haven’t tried it yet. This is of course in the Thai-ish category and I feel free to experiment and find new tastes.

This is a good time to say something about producing the best eggs you can: in addition to a good commercial laying pellet high in an Omega-3 source such as flaxseed, feed your chickens all the greens that they will eat and a good source of calcium. In addition to oystershell I save all eggshells, dry them in the microwave and grind them, and feed them back in any soft foods from the table or kitchen that I have occasion to give my birds. I grow alfalfa patches in the back yard so that I can cut fresh alfalfa for them. Chickens are busy little machines that convert the 18-carbon Omega-3 fatty acids found in plants, which we absorb poorly, into the 20 and 22-carbon Omega-3s EPA and DHA, which we absorb well. (More structural info here.) One small commercial egg producer who feeds this way says he has hit about 600 mg Omega-3s per egg, verified by testing. I haven’t tested mine, but when I watch my chickens chow down greens, I know that it’s happening and that they are the best eggs I can get.