Archive for the ‘Books worth reading’ Category

Luxury Dances With Penury

Tonight I ate one of the most extravagant meals I’ve had for a while, and somehow it led me to meditate upon thrift. The main ingredient, two legs of the highest quality Alaskan king crab I’ve come across in years, cost a bomb. But careful orchestration of other ingredients made this all come together in (reasonably) economical style.

Let’s start with the broth. I have written obsessively about the value of good broth, but that won’t stop me from doing it again. When it comes to seafood, it’s essential to remember a few basic things:

1. Seafood broth should be made from seafood, maybe with the addition of some white fish scraps but no salmon or other oily fish and no commercial clam broth. Any avid seafood eater can smell those spurious additions from a long way away.

2. You’re looking for the waste bits of otherwise excellent seafood; shrimp shells, crab shells, shrimp heads, etc. For the clean but intense broth above, I lucked into some lobster carcasses by trading Louisiana seafood stories with the proprietor of a luxury seafood shop. Accept what you are offered with glad thanksgiving.

3. Fish and seafood broth should be boiled at a furious boil for 20 minutes, not simmered for longer times. Then cool, drain, and use or freeze.

4. Build up intensity in layers. Boil, drain, cover new ingredients with the broth, and boil and drain again. You can freeze between boiling episodes. The lobster carcasses came my way over a year ago, and made a quart of rich stock. Then I thawed it and used it to boil shrimp shells, cooled it, and froze it again. Finally, it was thawed and used to boil the shells of the king crab. It was loaded with seafood flavor, but had a clean fresh taste because it was never overcooked.

Given a potent base like this, you don’t need much else. The meat of the two crab legs was cut into good-sized chunks. I used four large stout scallions from my garden, sliced crosswise at 1/4″ intervals and  whites kept separate from greens. My garden scallions are huge, and a dozen store-bought scallions would be needed to approximate them.   Other ingredients were butter, a cup of heavy cream, and three egg yolks from my backyard hens.

Sauté the white parts of the scallions in a quarter cup of butter over medium heat with a hefty pinch of salt until they are softened and translucent. Add the green parts, sauté another minute or two, and add a quart of rich seafood broth. Boil hard until reduced by about half, then add the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Taste and check for salt. Reduce heat and lay the chunks of crabmeat in the saucepan and heat through. Lift the crabmeat and some of the scallions in two soup bowls, leaving most of the broth and cream behind.

To make the egg yolk liaison, beat up the three egg yolks in a bowl, add about half a cup of the hot seafood broth from the saucepan slowly to the bowl while whisking rapidly, then pour the yolk mixture slowly into the saucepan while whisking rapidly. Let heat, whisking, just until the broth is steaming and lightly thickened. Taste. Any distinct “egg” flavor should have cooked away, and it should taste of the sea in the creamiest way.  Pour over the crab and scallions in the soup bowls, and finish each bowl with a generous pat of butter. Serve, eat, and marvel at the goodness to be found in the cosmos.

There are ways to make this even more economical. If you are a carb-eater, put a hunk of sourdough baguette in each bowl before spooning in the crab. The bread will be soaked with seafood essence and will provide elevation, so that one crab leg will serve two generously. Boiled salted fingerling potatoes or good cooked rice can be used the same way.

But in the final analysis this is a dish to make when you feel a bit flush and want to serve your love the best. It goes well with a buttery Chardonnay and a brief discussion of how lucky we are to be on the planet.

The best modern book on thrift and grace in cooking is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. Read it, and cook on in good heart.

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.

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.

Full Flavors: Hop Shoots and Goat Chops

“”Boy, I could go for some goat right now” said no American ever. But I have no idea why that is. If you are an urban or rural  homesteader you have probably considered goats because they are hardy, compact, dual-purpose, remarkably productive for their size, and extremely friendly. But you have probably thought, or been told, that the meat is strong-flavored and unappealing.

If you are dealing  with an old goat, this is certainly true, but I can’t imagine butchering an old goat. Goats under a year old are delicious, with a full robust flavor that people who shop at the supermarket can hardly imagine, but nothing that can fairly be described as gaminess. The ones that I occasionally produce for our household are 100% alfalfa-fed. If you are lucky enough to have access to such meat, cook it with respect. For the chops, that means marinating with garlic and herbs and grilling medium-rare because the meat gets tough if allowed to dry out. If you can’t get young grass-fed goat, apply the same principles to lamb chops, another meat that has not yet had the flavor bred out of it. Sear on the grill to medium-rare, let rest in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes, and serve with a veggie that works with robust flavors, such as the pan-grilled hops shoots shown here.

I sometimes think that the direction of mainstream American agriculture is to eliminate anything that has a distinctive flavor. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve rediscovered dry-aged beef and gotten away from chicken breast, which (unless you raised it yourself) is the most tasteless and cottony part of a tasteless and cottony bird. I have tasted prime-grade beef that had no discernible beef flavor, just a fatty faint sweetness.   Spinach is sold in the baby-leaf stage when it has no intrinsic flavor. Corn is as sugary-sweet as cotton candy, with no “corn” flavor to speak of.  It makes me grateful beyond words for my tiny patch of land where I can grow hops shoots and chicory and grape leaves and wild weeds and herbs of all kinds to feed my desire for food that tastes of itself.

By the way, I cook hops shoots a lot in the spring and after trying several methods, I’ve decided that the only one worth pursuing is to cut the shoots in lengths about 1.5 inches long and stir-fry  in a hot pan with some very good olive oil, a hefty pinch of salt, and nothing else. Continue to cook, stirring intermittently, until there are browned spots and the little nascent leaves are fried crisp. This gives them the richness to accent their slight wild bitterness and makes them truly delicious. Like good goat chops, they are a feral and flavorful treat

I mentioned marinating goat and lamb, and my favorite marinade is the one that my mother used when I was growing up, with a tweak or two from me. It’s great for goat, lamb, and beef.  Tinker with it as you see fit, but at least once  try it as written here, with the finish described:

Red meat marinade:

1/2 cup good olive oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Red Boat fish sauce or 2 mashed fillets of anchovy

2-3 crushed cloves of garlic (I prefer 3) or a couple of stalks of green garlic, sliced fine and then crushed in a mortar and pestle

a small handful of celery leaves, chopped

Mix all ingredients and let sit half an hour, then pour over chops in a dish and let marinate at least four hours and preferably overnight in the refrigerator.

Finish: remove from marinade and salt lavishly on both sides with alder-smoked salt. Sear on a hot grill to produce the ultra flavorful Maillard reactions. Lower heat and grill until done, but no more than medium-rare. Rest in a low oven. Eat and weep. The alder salt makes the meat jump into deliciousness. It’s a case of robust meeting robust and the flame of love being kindled.

If you get interested in producing a bit of your own meat or supporting a farmer who does, study the book “Goat” for more cooking inspiration. Goats and sheep produce milk and meat from land that wouldn’t support crop agriculture, and their meat still has its own distinctive and wonderful flavor. This book was published years ago but, regrettably, there is still nothing else like it.

 

Unforgettable Paula Wolfert: A Tribute


When I was in my early 20s and becoming aware that I was by far my happiest in the kitchen and my interest in flavor and food was on a level that was not entirely normal, America was obsessing over classic French and Italian cuisine. Anxious cooks were obsessed with anything Julia. Later there was anything Marcella. But it was an oddly joyless time. If you went to a dinner party, you were expected to talk all evening about the food. Very little ever got said about anything but the food. There was a lot of competition involved, and the kitchen ethic that I grew up with in Louisiana, that of getting over yourself and cooking something good and inviting people in to enjoy themselves and each other, did not seem to be there.
Fortunately in Manhattan in the early 80s there was joyful food to be had. I would make the very long walk to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where there were basins full of wriggling seafood and strange vegetables all along the sidewalks, and ginger and wild-looking dried things that might be fungal or might be animal, and the elderly vendors would hand me unfamiliar vegetables with the invariable instruction “cook in soup.” There were the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue, full of wonderful spices with a combined aroma that seemed like Nirvana, where a passing shopper in a gleaming sari might easily stop and spent 20 minutes telling me how she cooked greens or chappati like the ones her grandmother made. There was a Greek market on Ninth Avenue that sold green coffee beans for roasting at home and olives from enormous barrels and where the proprietor might cheerfully pass me a shot of Greek brandy as he wrote up my modest purchases, for the pleasure of watching me gasp and sputter as I tried to swallow it.
And there was Paula Wolfert. Instead of the staid rhythms of a classic cuisine, she wrote about the bold, the unexpected, and the renegade food of the world.  Her recipes were long and extremely detailed and assumed that you loved to be in the kitchen and that spending a few extra hours there was nothing but a pleasure.  She wrote about food that was not for showing off, but intended to warm and nourish people and make them incredibly happy.   Her name became a kind of secret code among enthusiastic home cooks, and we might have long pleasurable arguments about which of her books was best.  I bought my first couscoussiere, a huge tin lined copper beauty that was the glory of my kitchen and astonishingly cheap at the time because few people in America wanted one.  I preserved lemons and cooked chickpeas  and developed a serious addiction to coriander leaves and toasted my own spices and longed for an exciting life like Paula’s.  As Paula went on through various Mediterranean cuisines, I went with her, loving every minute of the journey.  My Paula Wolfert cookbooks are ragged, broken backed, and splashed with food, which is as it should be. In some cases they look less blemished, because I wore out the original copy and got a new one.

In 2013 Paula was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and consistent with her personality, she not only tried every way she could to maintain her own health but became a spokesperson for others with the illness.

The cookbook Unforgettable, with the story of Paula’s life woven through recipes that she loves, has just been published through a Kickstarter campaign, and all diehard fans will want to own it. You can find it on Amazon. But don’t forget all the other books that chronicled her passionate interests through the years and gave us recipes that we will never forget.
Even though we never met, Paula was my constant kitchen companion for decades. My hat is off to her, now and always. And by the way; best Paula Wolfert cookbook ever? Mediterranean Grains and Greens. No question. Or if you aren’t convinced, meet me in the kitchen sometime and we can have a lovely argument about it.

The Oyster of the Woods

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There is nothing more interesting than mushrooms. Really. An independent kingdom of organisms, they have much in common with animals and their interactions with plants are complex and often beneficial. For a wonderful read about mushrooms and their biological role, check out Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, and you will be wonderstruck at the hypheal hijinks going on all around you.
They are extremely easy to grow for everyone but me.  I am convinced that mushrooms have a very important role to play in a functioning urban homestead, even here in the high desert.  So far, however, I have been unable to make that work out in practice.  I have tried spreading the spawn among existing plantings under heavy straw mulches, and putting the spawn in piles of hard wood chips, and so far have not had any significant success, due to lack of consistent moisture, lack of shade, dry air, and insufficient attention.  I have harvested a few mushrooms, but nothing to write home about.  That is why the below images below are borrowed, to show how easily it can be done in moister climates than mine.
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Since I have finally accepted that it’s going to take more focus than just throwing some spawn around, my next attempt will be to insert plug spawn into damp hay bales in the dense shade of my black locust tree. I have also cut down a small Siberian elm recently and have a few pieces of suitable fresh log to try drilling plug spawn into. Next August I will harvest them, or not.
Meanwhile, many farmers’ markets have a mushroom farmer or two, and oysters can be found in our river bosque here and in many woods and forests if you are a knowledgable forager and know exactly what you are picking. Mushroom foraging is not for you unless you are prepared to study it seriously and know all your local toxics. No margin for error here.
However you get hold of them, good oyster mushrooms are just delicious. I love their earthy-almondy aroma and their meaty texture. I like them best simply pan-fried with a little macadamia oil and salt, but roasting them with a bit of butter and soy is awfully good, and so is grilling them rubbed with olive oil. The addition of a little chicken glacé early in the cooking stage so that it can cook into the caps suits their meaty flavor.
For preserving, I roast them with macadamia oil and salt just to the point that they are cooked through, cool them, bag, and freeze. When wanted, they can be thawed and pan-grilled until they get some lovely brown crunchy bits. I dehydrate the clean stems as long as they’re not buggy and grind them into oyster flour to thicken mushroom sauces and soups. I admit that I also open my little bag of oyster flour just to inhale deeply and recall the woods where I found them.
Yesterday I found that I had tossed more caps with macadamia oil and salt than would fit in my roasting pans, and stuck the surplus in the dehydrator. They emerged as delicious crunchy lightly browned Oyster Crackers. Yum. I will make more of those. A small pan-grilled cap on an Oyster Cracker would make a wonderful cook’s treat. In fact, a couple of them with nothing on top made a great cook’s treat…

The Semi-Permaculture Kitchen

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Recently I read a cookbook which I am not going to name because I was quite disappointed in it but can’t stand to pan such clearly goodhearted efforts. So I will only say that it is from my favorite publisher and has the word “permaculture” in the title. The recipes are perfectly good vegetable based recipes, similar to those in many, many other good cookbooks on the market. My disappointment is this: it concentrates on the usual annual vegetables that everybody grows, with occasional vague mentions of foraged greens or wild mushrooms, and seems to me to have very little to do with permaculture. So, uh, why call it that?
So today I’m going to indulge myself and make a plea to all potential authors, and talk about what a real permaculture cookbook would offer, with great hope that somebody knows of one or will sit down and write one. I am a semi-permaculturist at best, and even so some very strange produce indeed comes through my kitchen. Some examples: nettles, bladder campion, hops shoots, green garlic, blackberry shoots, cattails, unripe as well as ripe apples and plums, Goumi berries, clove currants, wax currants, linden leaves, mulberry leaves and unripe fruit as well as ripe berries, rau ram, ginger and turmeric leaves, radish pods, chicory leaves and roots, burdock stalks, milkweed, daylilies, hosta shoots, groundnuts (Apios americana, not peanuts,) goji shoots and berries, canna leaves and bulbs, quinces, salsify, and scorzonera as well as the more usual veggies and fruits. Bamboo shoots and the Japanese perennial vegetables Fuki and Udo should be ready to harvest in the next year or two. All these things grow well in semiwild tangles that can be managed with little or no soil disturbance after the initial planting. I would love to read a cookbook about foods like this. I would love to read knowledgable descriptions of their flavor and texture profiles and how they change through the season, how other cultures have used them, and how to make them respected at the modern table. That, to me, would be a real permaculture cookbook. I know that all over the world there are committed permaculturists working with these plants and eating them. I do hope that somebody will put it all in print. I’m hoping for a cookbook as weird and thoroughly wonderful as Baudar’s The New Wildcrafted Cuisine but devoted to the daily surprises, wild and cultivated and in-between, that can be offered by a single piece of land.

While I wait for this book to be brought to my attention, or written, I hope that you will comment with something unusual that you’ve eaten recently and what you thought of it.
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