Ultimate tailgating

The Critter has been hauling cinderblocks out from the back of the barn, getting ready for next weekend's pig roast & cider press. I've already fetched a couple dozen bushels of apples, and was left with all the cardboard. 

The pit's not quite ready, but it was close enough to enjoy a bit of a fire on a cool-ish, sunny afternoon. I put some cider and spices into a cast iron kettle, stuck some brats on sticks and set a few apples on the edge of the pit to roast. A few s'mores to finish things off, and this is what we call tailgating around here. 

 

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Pickled Pears

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We inherited an ancient, 25' pear tree in the yard when we bought the house. It's clearly lost some major branches/trunk lines, is lopsided, and clearly past its prime. It sits over in one corner of the yard next to an equally-old and gnarled apple tree of unidentified variety. 

Every year, a few pears grow high in the branches, well out of reach of everyone but some brave squirrels. In the fall, the ones that have been missed will occasionally fall out of the branches to splatter down. Literally splatter. By the time they fall out of the tree, they're so grainy and gone that they burst into inedible little smears on the grass. 

However, for some unexplained reason, the tree put on a burst of youthful, showy production this year. I looked out and saw a tall, 6 point whitetail buck munching nonchalantly on something in the tree the other evening. When I walked out, I saw a huge number of small, perfect pears in the lower branches.  

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I'm not sure of the variety. They're as small as a Seckel. But they're green turning russet like a Bosc. Not that it matters. I was so excited to see both this and the apple tree producing that we got to picking. 

Pears are only ripe for a few milliseconds. Then they go grainy and awful.   If you let them ripen on the tree, they're not worth eating. You pick them when they come off easily, and set them in a cool place on your counter. But not too long for these - they were destined to be pickled, so we still wanted them a bit firm.   

My Bride put these up (the picture at the top) using a combination of a recipe from the BBC Food website and a recipe in one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage episodes (the Christmas one, I think).  

Here's more less the adjusted recipe used:  

  • 1 lemon
  • 10 cloves
  • 2.5 tsp black peppercorns, lighltly crushed
  • 1 small chili, halved, diced fine, seeds removed
  • 1 tsp allspice berries, lightly crushed
  • A bit of ginger, sliced thin
  • 2 pints cider vinegar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2.5 lbs sugar
  • 2.5 lbs pears
  1. Zest the lemon and put in a pan with all the spices, sugar & vinegar over low heat. Stir until sugar dissolves.
  2. Peel, quarter and core the pears.  (If this takes a while, toss the peeled pears with a little diluted lemon juice to keep them from browning).  
  3. Add the pears to the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  4. Pack the fruit into sterilized canning jars, and pour over the warm syrup from the pan. Seal and put aside to finish.  

They'll be ready to eat in a few days, but even better if left to sit for a month or so before you crack open the jar.  

Pickled pears are a great side with pork tenderloin or other meats. Or just serve them in a small bowl along with a really nice set of cheeses. 

We'll set these aside to serve along with a nice glass of wine or four to our Christmas guests.  If we don't get tempted and dive into them sooner. 

 

Bourbon makes everything better

For Father's day, my bride got me a couple of new books. One was River Cottage Veg, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. This is the guy that inspired the original desire to have our own flock of chickens puttering around the back yard. I love almost all his stuff. And I've already cooked out of this book. 

But perhaps even more inspiring was the new book, Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee.  He's a son of Korean immigrants, who grew up in Brooklyn, married a German woman, and moved to Louisville, KY to open a restaurant. His food reflects all of the above, with a healthy dose of bourbon and country ham. On top of a rice bowl. Covered with ground pork rinds. I think I just had a moment. 

The first thing I made from his book is bourbon-pickled jalapeños. 

Because of course it was. 

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Recipe:  

  • 1 pound jalapeños 
  • 1.25 cups of white vinegar
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  1. Slice the peppers into quarter inch rounds and drop into jars.
  2. Combine everything else and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for five minutes.
  3. Pour the hot liquid over the peppers and seal the jars with a tight fitting lid. Let cool to room temp before refrigerating.
  4. The peppers will be ready in 3 days, and will keep for a couple of weeks.

I used my favorite bourbon, which pained me a bit (this stuff is not cheap). But the best ingredients make for the best flavors, generally. 

Make plenty. You will want to share these.  

 

Early summer harvest - sweet peas

This breed of pea is low lying and doesn't require trellising, but it's terrifically high yield & an early harvest.  

I just wish I could remember what the name of the breed was!

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We shelled & blanched about half of today's harvest for just a couple of minutes, and then quickly drained and chilled them to stop the cooking. 

These will be put up in a vacuum seal bag, and frozen for a treat of summer later when the snows come. 

The rest will be eaten with a bit of butter and chopped mint with tonights supper!

 

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The leftover bucket


Growing up, I always thought of my mother as a fantastic cook. 

She worked full time as a nurse throughout my entire childhood, and still somehow always managed to have a meal on the table for us at night.  Not to mention the myriad of other things done to take care of the household. At some point in the early 1980's, she was a participant in the Mrs. Georgia pageant, right down to the swimsuit on the runway. My mother can kick June Cleaver's ass without breaking a sweat, is what I'm saying.

She has also always been extremely frugal. She was raised in the tiny little hamlet of Blue Ridge, Georgia, in the post World War II days. Her father worked in the copper mines, and her mom kept four kids and the house running. It would've been a sin to let anything go to waste that had a shred of usefulness left in it. 

In our freezer, my mother kept a big, empty ice cream tub. (I never knew where the ice cream went. I certainly never ate it. But we were never short on the big plastic tubs when we needed them). 

Whatever she cooked, she cooked a lot of it. Often, there was a crockpot involved. Or one of those big electric skillets that you could set to "low" and walk away from. There were three kids in the house, and she had a busy schedule. We probably ate more than our fair share of lasagna, stroganoff, pot roasts or bean soup. It was also the 70's, so there were a lot of food that entered our kitchen in small, colorful boxes, or things that ended in "Helper". 

Whatever we didn't eat after the second night re-heat went into the big empty ice cream tub, and back into the freezer. It might be the leftover green beans. Or some spaghetti sauce. Or a crusty end of meat loaf. Or maybe some of that bean soup.  Over the course of a month or two, you could pull the tub out and look at the strata of leftovers of different colors and textures, like some sort of geological artifact in miniature. 

When it approached the handle of the tub, my mother would declare that the next day we would be eating leftover soup. 

I hate leftover soup. 

The tub would sit out on the counter, lumpy & covered in a little layer of hoarfrost with an occasional English pea or browned crusty onion (was that an onion? I think that was an onion) breaking the surface.  This would be dumped into the crock pot once it had loosened up a bit. She'd add a can of something from the pantry - this also varied. Sometimes diced tomatoes. Maybe cream of chicken/mushroom/celery. If there hadn't been enough solids in the leftover tub that month, she'd toss in a half bag of frozen mixed vegetables. (not the good kind. The ones that all tasted like penguin ass for having been left in the deep freeze section of Sav-a-lot for 6 years before being marked down as a 'must sale' item).  Whatever it "looked like it needed".  

A couple of cans of water to leven things off at the brim, and it would slowly meld together into soup while we were all out at school or work or wherever 

Remarkably - whatever had gone into the leftover tub all month, the soup always looked and tasted the same.  

And it wasn't good.

It was too thick to be a soup. Too thin to be a stew. It was always reddish. It always had things you didn't expect to find in it. Like kidney beans with your peas. Or corn with your stroganoff noodle. Or a hint of what I can only assume was the original rainbow sherbert that had been in the bucket. 

My brother still swears he liked this soup. My brother has always been a little off. 

Years later, I was in my parent's house over a long weekend, and they were headed out to some other prior engagement. (Which was odd in itself. They pretty much swore off of "prior engagements" when they retired and moved to the hills of Tennessee a few years back).  Despite the fact that I had lived and fed myself successfully as an adult for a couple of decades, my mother was worried that I wouldn't be able to find and create some form of sustenance out of whatever groceries were in the kitchen. 

"There's a leftover bucket in the freezer," she called as they backed out of the garage. "Make yourself some soup."

*shudder*

No thanks, Mom.  I'll find something else to tide me over.  

 

 

Chinese Food

I don't remember ever eating at a Chinese restaurant growing up. 

That's not strictly true, I guess. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a girl in high school. She and I dated for most of high school. So I might have been 15. Or 17. When does 'growing up' stop? I'm also not really sure why I remember that date in particular. I mean, we went to a Chinese restaurant in suburban Georgia in the late '80s. Which I guess is pretty memorable. But I don't remember it like "Oh, hey - I know! Let's go on a grand adventure and try some of that foreign food."  In my memory, it was kind of an ordinary thing to do, which means I had probably done it before. Maybe it sticks out because it wasn't salmon cakes*. 

*(for that to make sense, you'd have to know that every time I went over to that girl's house to have dinner with her family, her mom was making salmon cakes. Every. Single. Time. For three years. I couldn't explain it. I also can't eat salmon cakes to this day. I think I used up my lifetime quota while we were dating. And probably yours, too.) (You couldn't have known that before I told you that story. But now you do, see?)

I don't know what we ordered that night - probably something on the order of Sweet And Sour Fried Chunks Of A Familiar Domestic Animal With Pineapple Chunks. Because that would have been safe.  I also don't remember what the name of the restaurant was. It didn't stand out. Most Chinese restaurant names in America come from the same standard formula. Pick a word from column A [Asia/Jade/Golden/Hunan/Bamboo/China] and add it to a word from column B [Palace/Wok/Panda/Dragon/Garden/Wall]. Boom. You've got yourself a Chinese restaurant. 

I know that I must have gone out to Chinese later on, when I had entered college and was spending time with much more worldly friends in downtown Atlanta. I remember a giant lazy susan, pots of green tea and twelve or so of us trying to figure out if we could afford something more than a couple of plates of egg rolls. As worldly as we were, we probably still didn't venture too far from the aforementioned sweet-and-sour-pineapple-meat. 

I do remember learning to make fried rice from my older brother at some point in my youth. Many years later, when I was staying for a weekend at a different girlfriend's apartment in San Francisco (the girl who would go on to become my beautiful Bride. Despite the story I am telling you now), I sought to impress her by making fried rice like my brother had taught me. Because I didn't know much. But I knew that chicks dig a guy who can cook. So I asked her if she had the ingredients handy. 

Her: 'Probably. What do you need?'

Me: 'Uncle Ben's rice. One beef bouillon cube. And an egg." 

Her: "... Uncl- ... what?! What the hell? No.  Just... no."

Me: "This is San Francisco. It is the San Francisco treat. I've seen the commercials."

Her: That's Rice-a-roni. And still no."

Apparently sensing that intervention was necessary, we met a bunch of friends for dim sum at a Chinese restaurant near San Jose. It's possible that some of my family might read this, and still have never gone to a Chinese restaurant outside of suburban Georgia in the late '80s. So let me explain. 

Dim sum is a style of Chinese food separate and different from all other Chinese foods. It's small, appetizer sized portions, typically dumplings, buns, or other small & conveniently shaped portions of delicious somethings served in a steamer basket or small bowl. They're like Chinese tapas**. It's a great weekend brunch kind of thing.  In the really good places, you don't order off a menu. The dishes are brought out in stacks on wheelie carts - three or four different kinds on a cart. You just point and they put a basket of something steaming hot on the table and stamp your bill. Keep choosing til you're full. 

**Which may not help much in explanation. I didn't try tapas until I was almost thirty. 

 

 

I was never really a picky eater as a kid. I just was not adventurous. (Which I maintain is a different thing). I stuck to the things I knew, and was pretty happy. So when we went to this particular restaurant, I tried to figure out which mysterious basket held something that was sort of close to my comfort zone. I didn't expect to find anything in the Sweet and Sour food group, but I figured I could find something at least vaguely familiar. 

I pointed at one of the baskets and asked the cart-pusher, "What's in this one?" She said something back to me in Chinese. Which may or may not have included the ingredients in that particular dish. I smiled and tried again. "What's in this basket?"  She responded in Chinese again. Except louder, and more slowly. I shook my head shyly and waited for the next cart. 

Unfortunately, that didn't prove to be enough time to improve my Mandarin much. The lady helpfully tipped back the lids of the baskets so I could see the choices, though. Which all looked like a sweaty wonton wrapper, squished around small chopped bits of various somethings. One basket contained something that looked an awful lot like boiled chickens feet. (Turns out, they were boiled chickens feet). This had definitely not been on the menu of the Jade Wok of Conyers, GA. 

The pretty girl that had brought me smiled encouragingly between bites of ... whatever... she was eating, and offered me one out of one of the baskets she had chosen. I was hesitant, but I was also pretty desperate to not look like I was hesitant, and somewhat nervous that my earlier Uncle Ben's comment had not improved my chances of seeing this girl naked again. (Note to my children: only after we got married. By a priest. In a church. With our familys' blessing). So I took one.

It was delicious. I had no idea what was in it. Neither did she. 

Suddenly, I figured out that was kind of the fun, and I started pointing at things, and baskets were dumped on our table. Sometimes, the cart lady would cut up the longer sweaty wantons. Sometimes, she would pour an equally mysterious sauce on my plate that I guessed was supposed to make the dish taste better. It worked. Sure, every once in a while, I would find one that I didn't care for, and I'd try and remember its particular shape so I didn't order it again (anything with taro root). (also. the chickens feet).  But I still look back on that lunch as the moment that would've let me eat the two cups of live catepillar gumbo for a million bucks or whatever reality show I might end up on. 

Fortunately, the Critter has never had an issue - she started out as an adventurous eater, and while she's got a couple of things that aren't really her bag (e.g. beans. Of all the things in the world), she'll try pretty much anything at least once.  

The Boy, on the other hand, is pretty much just like I was. He'll eat anything, if it's covered in a decent amount of ketchup. But his instinct is to stick to what he knows. Chicken. Bread. Maybe some green beans. Anything that comes from a cereal box, with or without milk. And peanut butter. Probably not all together at once. 

But one day, Boy. You're going to meet a girl who's going to take you to a Chinese restaurant. And you're going to have a choice. 

I recommend anything but the chicken's feet. 

 

Where I get all snobby about my bacon

 

In our house, bacon is serious stuff.

We have extended conversations about bacon. We discuss the merits of different styles & different brands the way OC families might discuss fashion. We consider, savor and discuss a new pack of bacon like teenagers might talk about a new song, or that guy that what's-her-name was seen with last week in the mall. 

We are judgmental and picky. Though truth be told, it's hard to find a bacon that we we won't let back into the house, even after a less than stellar review. (There are notable exceptions: the house brand at Whole Foods. It's just sadly unflavorful. And do not utter the words "turkey" and "bacon" in the same sentence in my daughter's presence).

Bacon in our house is divided into three distinct categories:

- American bacon. This is the streaky stuff made from the belly of the pig with a dry rub of salt and potentially a few other flavors (e.g. maple, smoked, etc.)

American bacon is only good when put on top of other things. A salad. A good burger. Candied and crumbled on top of oatmeal. (trust me on this

American bacon is the co-king of "makes things better when put on top". It shares this glory with a fried egg. (Trust me on this one as well. If you see something on a menu topped with a fried egg, I guarantee you it will be one of the best dishes on the menu. I would not lie to you about this. Other things, ok maybe. But not about a fried egg. We're friends like that.)

- Italian bacon. Also known as pancetta. It's made from the same cut of pork belly as American bacon, but with a different cure approach. It's indispensible in a good pasta carbonara, risotto, or diced and fried with a mess of shredded brussel sprouts. (Ok. You can switch out for guanciale - made from the streaky pork cheek - but the effect is nearly the same.) 

I have a great recipe for pancetta. It takes about 6-8 weeks to cure, and considering that I can get a decent Oscar Meyer bacon for a few bucks, but good pancetta costs me more than $20 a pound, all the bellies of my annual autumn pigs are cut & reserved for pancetta, instead of more typical bacon. 

- and best of all: English bacon. Which is the only kind of bacon meaty enough to stand up on its own as a breakfast main in our house. 

So sayeth the Critter. And so it must be true.

 

 

British bacon comes from the loin of the pig, not the belly. Where you get pork chops (without the bone). It's also called 'back bacon', because of where this is located along the pig - It's along the upper side - usually cut (as ours is above) to extend down and include a little of the upper belly (along the left hand side of the picture above).  This is the same cut used for Canadian bacon - usually found on pizza here in the lower part of the continent. (Canadian bacon is cured with more sugar, typically smoked, and is just as often treated as ham here in the U.S. and doesn't rightly belong in the "bacon" category at all, at least in our household). 

I took a picture of this cut above after curing it for about 8 or 9 days. Most American bacon is cured with a 'dry' cure - essentially rubbing it with salt, probably sugar and a few other spices, and maybe smoking it. 

The best traditional British bacon is cured in a wet 'Wiltshire cure' - a brine that the cut is submerged in to soak in all of the delicious flavors.  About half of British bacon sold in stores there is smoked after curing. The rest is sold 'green' or unsmoked. I prefer the unsmoked - both because of the simpler taste, and because it's easier to make. 

The cure is pretty straightforward - I've listed my basic recipe below. 

Wiltshire cure: 

  • 1 gallon of water
  • 1 lb kosher salt
  • 1/2 lb brown sugar
  • 1 heaping tsp pink salt
  • A few crushed juniper berries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Anything else I happen to grab out of my spice drawer: 10-12 Black peppercorns. A hefty pinch of dried thyme. Nothing if I'm feeling lazy.

Add the salt, sugar & spices to the water in a large stock pot and heat until the salt & sugar are dissolved. Let cool to room temp (I often cover the pot and stick it out on the porch or in the fridge to accelerate things). Add the meat and ensure it is fully submerged (with a plate on top or some other weight) and put into a cool place (basement or garage). Don't bother it again for 5-8 days. I tend to leave mine for 8 or 9. 

 

 

 

At this point, your bacon is ready to slice, cook and eat.

A couple of years ago, I called my Bride a few days before Father's day and told her I knew what I wanted to celerbate my father-ness. A meat slicer.

There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then, "I'm not getting you a meat sli- .... You already have one picked out, don't you?"  

"I'm one click away from having one on our doorstep, baby."

I picked up the one above off of eBay for a two or three hundred bucks, and it's more than adequate for most things. This little deli slicer makes quick work of the bacon. But you could just as well do it with a sharp knife, slicing what you need. (and I have)

I could write a whole other post about what I've learned about meat slicers since buying this one. But as a good, home-use level slicer, it's perfectly adequate. If a pain in the ass to break down and clean afterwards. But hey. Good bacon demands some sacrifice. And I'm ok with that.

 

 

I lay out the bacon on easily sorted sheets of wax paper. You can pick them up in a decent grocery for next to nothing. It keeps things tidy for breakfast, when I have kids clamoring for the stuff. 

The only thing I'll point out about this particular batch of bacon is the extra-thick layer of fat. This pig was beautifully fatted, and I hated to lose too much of it. It could have been sliced off and used to make lardo, but I kept most of it. I sometimes end up trimming that fat off before I cook a slice, or throw it to the dog. But just as often, I end up eating it. Don't say 'ew. gross.' Think of what percentage fat your Oscar Meyer bacon is. That's just flavor. 

Note: If you cut it thicker, you end up with gammon. One of my first lunches with the team in the Liverpool office, I was trying to decipher the menu, and asked someone what this 'gammon' thing was. 

'It's like a bacon steak,' one of the guys said. 

Bacon steak. Holy shit. You just combined two of my favorite concepts in one fantastic meal. And they serve it with a fried egg on top. 

A half inch slice of Wiltshire cured pork loin (bacon), griddled with an egg and served with good pub chips and taken with a pint of beer, and you're in heaven, my friend. It is not to be missed.

 

 

However, this is how I like my bacon best. Griddled in a pan, and put between two pieces of good toast, buttered and hot. A good, traditional 'bacon buttie'. 

Lots of Brits top it with a bit of brown sauce (the HP stuff behind it - we keep it around because my Bride likes it). But I'm a simple man. 

This right here - this is good bacon. And is one more example that the Brits - despite the rumors - do know what they're doing in the kitchen. 

I would write more. But my bacon buttie is getting cold. 

Sometimes, living things are unpredictable

Today I got a call from the butcher. One of my pigs had two broken femurs. Which translates into two less prosciuttos I can make - the blood from the contusion settles into the muscle and doesn't drain, and the surrounding meat is unusable. 
 
I called the farmer. It's pretty clear that the pig didn't walk on or off the truck with two broken legs. The bones were more or less splintered. It didn't - couldn't - have moved far without complaining vociferously. It looked almost like the pig had tried to back out of the chute at the last minute and been pushed forward with a tractor or hit by a heavy gate. But the farmer had loaded them and unloaded them without an issue.  (and our farmer is a great guy - He's a dairy farmer, and deals with livestock every day. Not to mention he's my neighbor. His word is more than enough to satisfy on any front). So that wasn't it. 
 
So I called the slaughterhouse. And got an "Ah. Yeah."  
 
When pigs are slaughtered, they're led to the killing floor and stunned. They're then hoisted and drained by opening an artery. It's a fairly peaceful, low-stress way to go, which is humane for the animal, and better for the product. Right after the high electric shock that stuns them -  if they jerk or otherwise react, they can thrash about, preventing the rope which loops around their back legs and hoists them from getting set properly. And boom. In the worst of accidents: broken legs. 
 
No one wants to see this, least of all the slaughterhouse. It's unfortunate, and unpleasant for anyone involved but sometimes? Living things are unpredictable. As the saying goes: Livestock happens.
  
I get it, and I sympathize, but I also balked a bit at paying for unusable meat.  No one won here (least of all the pig), so I threw it on the table to see how the various parties would respond. 
 
The farmer knocked some out of his price. Which is painful for him, because the price of grain is up more than 20% this year.  But he and I have been doing business for years, and he knows I'll be back for more. 
 
The slaughterhouse knocked out their price for that pig, which is fair, but means they're eating into their own margin, since all the rest of their work was still done.
 
I'm paying a bit more per pound because I want to meet these guys part way. The butcher won't have to prep and bag the bad meat, so I will see some lesser amount net there as well. My overall cost per pound will be up a bit, but I feel good.
 
And I thought it worth sharing, because this situation underlined the value of knowing and dealing fairly with as many parts of your supply chain as you can. Not only was this a reality of dealing with the processing of livestock into food that we've kind of forgotten about or hidden away from our daily lives, this was also the kind of fair dealing and relationships that supported agro-business for most of history.
 
(In good news: the bacon parts are still totally edible. And the other pig was flawless.)
 
So: go find a farmer and give him a hug.  I'm feeling thankful. 

Cider & pig

This weekend, we hosted our now annual backyard cider pressing. It turned out to be a gorgeous day for it, with perfect fall foliage and a brighteness to the air that made the day sublime. 

Did you know that the early spring & late frost back in April or May had a real impact on the price of your apples?  I am sure there is probably an apple index somewhere that people interested track this stuff.  I didn't really notice, until I went to our local apple farm for our bulk purchase.

Frank Carlson (of Carlson's Orchards) has been growing apples, peaches, nectarines and blueberries for about a million years. He is a classic Yankee farmer: gruff, blunt and pragmatic. Dealing with him is about like talking to Walter Matthau, if Walter Matthau had grown up to be an apple framer. On one of Walter Matthau's less polite days. It's kind of a mix of grunts and dour predictions or memories of weather catastrophes and pest control.

Frank is my kind of people.

He had apples for me, but it was about twice as expensive per bushel as last year. And that was after he gave me  a substantial discount. Because he remembers me from year to year, and the time I almost crashed my truck (last year) when the weight of the apples nearly overcame my ability to operate the oh-so-very manual steering and manual brakes on the trip home. I told him that story (and about the state trooper that pulled in behind me to ask what the hell was wrong with my driving as I sat trying to recover my breath on the side of the freeway), and we both had a brief, dry chuckle before we threw more apples in the back of the truck. Because he knows that I'll be back next year, no matter what. 

20 bushels looks like this:

 

At this point, the Carlisle pressing collective springs into action. (I just made that up. There are a few of us who get into this every year, and share tips & tools). The press belongs to my buddy who chairs the town Historical Commission I'm also on. The chipper-cum-apple-grinder is the genius work of another friend in town who is the quintessential yankee tinkerer.  After the first year of manually grinding all the apples above with a hand cranked grinder, I cannot say enough about the value of this invention. 

But maybe most important gap we had to fill was serving our guests the hard cider from last year's pressing. 

I had set aside about thirty gallons of cider to ferment, and had been seriously remiss this summer about putting it up into bottles.

(The process we use is pretty straightforward, but maybe worth another post. The quick version is: press apples; put juice in bucket; add sulfite to kill any bacteria; add yeast back since you just killed off all the bacteria; add some additional sugar to up the alcohol potential (mine tends to be around 9.5-10.5%); seal the bucket; go do something else for a few months until it's ready; bottle; drink; get headache.)

The Critter helped me bottle like mad the couple of nights before the party, and we had a whole basement full, ready to drink before you knew it. 

Last year, we had two separate events - cider pressing in the fall, and a pig roast a few weeks before that. Why did we separate them? I can't recall exactly. But it seemed like a good idea to combine the fun this fall. If there's anything I learned from the Brady Bunch, it's that pork goes well with apples. 

So I went back to my butcher, Mike Dulock (who recently moved a couple of towns in towards Boston - it's a brilliant new location for him, but a little less convenient for me and my occasional whole-animal needs. Damn you, Mike!) - and ordered a pig. 

"How big a pig do you want?"

(One of the signs of a good butcher? Doesn't even blink when you ask for a whole animal. Which really shouldn't be a surprise to a butcher. But in the US these days, it's actually hard to find a place like this).

"Mmm. Somewhere in the 80+ pound range should do us."

Apparently, the emphasis ended up on the "+" part of that conversation. What we ended up with was Hogzilla.

 

113 pounds of porky glory.  I had them butterfly the pig for roasting (having previously done some extensive research on various schools of pig roast thought) - putting this sucker on a spit would've been quite a chore. 

(That's Maureen & Jamal from M.F. Dulock's - great form, guys!)

Getting this home on Friday before the party prompted some interesting discussions in my household. I was at work, and had meetings that I couldn't move too much. So my beautiful Bride volunteered to go pick up our little piggy prize. I offered to let her drive the truck, but she had other errands to do (and doesn't much care to drive the truck into the city. See above's comment on the manual steering and brakes. I don't blame her.) So she had the pig carcass thrown in the back of her Volvo, and took it to pick up the kids at school. 

My kids will totally win the group therapy story-telling prize. 

 

As before, I simply scored Wilburina's back with a razor knife in a criss-cross pattern, and briskly rubbed her down with kosher salt. She looked so pretty there in the morning sunlight. 

Pretty freaking big, that is. 

 

 I let her sit for about an hour while I got the pit up to the right temperature. My goal was to keep the heat around 225 in the pit, and get the meat up to a temperature of 175 or so throughout. 

The challenge this year was that the day had dawned pretty cold - the night before had been our first hard frost of the season, and the outside temperature hovered around 50 degrees all day. My oven is just a temporary cinderblock raised "pit", with a rebar grill and a lid made of sheet metal and plywood. It can get pretty warm, but it takes a while to counter the chill in the cement. 

With such a big pig, it was something of a balancing act to get it done in time. Last year's pig (around the 85 lb mark) took a little less than 4 hours to cook completely. (Surprisingly fast - but with the pig butterflied, you're not losing all the heat to the internal cavity). I knew that this would take a bit longer, so I admit I let the heat get a little hotter than I might have otherwise. The good thing is, the pig had a nice layer of fat to balance things out, and keep her from drying out.  

An important note if you plan on doing this yourself (and you really, really should) - Just line the two sides of the pit with charcoal - there is no need to put any in the center. 

I laid her out skin side up, covered her up, and checked on her every half our or so for a few hours. 

 

All told, I used about 3.5 big bags of charcoal to keep the heat going for about 4.5 - 5 hours. I let the heat get up to about 275 or so to accelerate things, and didn't flip the pig until the last half hour. Only then did I push some of the charcoals into the center of the pit, and let the skin get nice and crispy.

Note the finer mesh screen under the pig - I actually had a sheet of this on top and bottom to aid in the flipping. When the pig gets beautifully done, the meat will be so tender that it will easily pull away from the bone - and you really don't want to be chasing the best bits into the hot ashes from the pit. 

 When I pulled her out, she was still a little undercooked, right at the thickest part of the ham. But that's ok. I had different plans for that part of the pig anyway. 

By letting the pig cook a little longer, we had more time to press apples.  

This is a shot of the magic grinder in a moment of rare idleness. By this time, the ground apples were pretty much everywhere.  In use, there's a bucket underneath the plastic guard to catch the freshly ground apple pulp.

Your basic woodchipper makes pretty short work of an apple, I tell you. 

The most frequent question I was asked during the grinding was if you left the stems, seeds and all go in? 

Yes, you do. What you're creating is a mash that you can press for juice. I'm not worried about stems and the like, as they don't really contribute any juice. They're just along for the ride so to speak. So just chuck the whole apple in.

 

As always, the kids really loved the grinding part. Throw stuff in a running woodchipper? Make a mess? What five year old wouldn't be in heaven? 

The ground apples go in the press basket. And we move back in time from the electric chipper to the manual screw press. 

The big, industrial hydraulic presses can get more than 5 gallons of juice out of a bushel of good apples (40 lbs). On a manual press, you're doing well to get 2-3 gallons per bushel. We do pretty well by letting the apples sit out and "sweat" for a week (in the first picture above) - which allows the cellulose walls to break down, and more juice to come out. 

This is also where the hard frost worked in our favor - one, it further broke down the apple to give us more juice. And two, it killed off most of the yellow jackets that have a tendency to swarm all over the press & the fresh, sweet cider otherwise.  I only found a couple of very sluggish yellow jackets in the pile of apples this year, and no stings at all. 

The sweet brown juice just pours right out - nothing added. Perfect to drink.

Some kids wanted to know the difference between 'cider' and 'juice' - my standard answer is that the apple juice you buy is generally clarified, removing the cloudy sediment. But I've seen the words used pretty interchangeably. I don't think there's a cider police that will take you away if you use one over the other (although alcoholic cider is always called hard 'cider'. Or 'hooch', maybe, if you get the abv up high enough.) 

Whatever you call it - a cup full of cider caught cold and fresh as it streams out of the press is one of life's best experiences. 

So kids, when you're telling your therapist about the pig carcass that coldly eyed you the whole way home, be sure to also include the story about the fresh cider. We do try and find a balance. 

In all, we had around 80 or 90 people out, most of whom got to take a turn at the press and sipping cold or warm cider (we would occasionally bring a fresh gallon in and let it warm up on the stove, to make sure people didn't get too chilled). 

That kept the appetites and thirst going - and we served plenty of hard cider, fried chicken and various other goodies that were brought along by our friends and neighbors. One friend brought these amazingly beautiful popovers in flower form - almost too pretty to eat!

By mid-afternoon, the pig was ready to lift out and serve. I tapped a few burly men on the shoulder to come help me heft it out of the grill. 

Beautiful - isn't it? 

You can see the fresh, clear grease dripping down the wall (and a good view of how simply the pit was constructed). 

We lifted this up and brought it to the press like we were lifting up a champion on our shoulders, for all to admire. I guess in a way we were. 

Here you can see the excitement on my Bride's face.

This is the girl I love. And why I love her: 

Serve with a loaf of Wonderbread - ripped off pieces of crispy, hot, salty skin and juicy meat and you have a perfect sandwich. 

In the end, the pig cooked a bit less than 5 hours, with an average pit temperature of about 250-270 degrees F. The hams we cut off and boiled a bit further later in the evening to make brunswick stew for later in the week. There was certainly enough of this porker to go around! 

We wrapped things up around dark, and sent folks off with a bottle or jug of cider if they wanted, and a plate full of pork (often whether they wanted it or not). And a thanks for coming out and helping us celebrate the arrival of fall, the New England way. With good friends and neighbors. 

I like to eat genes

This made the rounds a while ago, but I was reminded of it in a recent conversation about molecular biology and genetic modification of foods: 

49% of Americans thinks ordinary tomatoes do not have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do

 

*facepalm*

 

Many of my friends or people that read this blog occasionally assume that because I a bit of a food fan, I must naturally insist on organic/whole/slow-roast/soy-free/what-have-you. It couldn't be further from the truth. I appreciate a McDonald's sausage biscuit or an occasional bag of Cheeto's or chicharonnes as much as I do home-aged salami & pancetta or hand-crafted cheese. I tell people that I appreciate food in all it's forms.

(Except for kidneys. Kidneys are your body's garbage dump, and should never be eaten.)

Mostly, I grow my own whatever because 1) it's relaxing to get my hands a bit dirty after spending most of my working day with a computer in tow, and 2) it tastes good. Sure, there's a little bit of "teaching the kids where food really comes from" in there for good measure (let's face it, I get a kick out of seeing my daughter apprentice at the butchershop), but mostly, it's just a taste thing. I cook to relax, and I cook to eat. I like the flavor of really good food, so I look for (or make) the best ingredients I have time for and can afford. 

I tell people gladly that I'm all for GMO, if it's better tasting. Or more economical. Or better for the environment. Fortunately, the work going on in GMO research offer all of the above. 

The problem with this discussion (and what's going on with California's prop 37 or Europe's similar efforts) is that very few people are actually talking about the science. Most see the words "Genetically modified" but actually hear "Dr. Moreau," and have a knee jerk reaction. The recent example of the protests in the UK over an experimental wheat was a perfect example: 

Take your average wheat. You have to add a lot of chemical deterrents to keep the aphids and other pests away. What if we could insert a fragment of DNA from mint that exuded an odor that kept away the aphids without the need for chemicals? Using the same techniques to insert a simple string of amino acids that has been tested in literally tens of thousands of experiments (at least one a year is awarded a Nobel Prize), and boom: Decreased crop loss, without the need or cost of chemical pesticides or additional manual effort. That's a two-fer. Except the protestors wanted to burn the field.  

Why? Because they had been frightened with terms like "frankenfood" and reactionaries who hadn't bothered to actually research what was being done. Not because there had been a good conversation about the science, the testing, the approach, and the expected way the crops would be used.  One friend - whom, it should be noted, I admire and really, really like - said in a conversation on the subject "Never mind the science. Let's talk about logic." It left me scratching my head as to how she made that statement in all apparent earnestness. 

DNA & gene identification & manipulation is the same science that we use to map the human genome, create new diagnostics tests and therapies. These techniques have been known and used for more than 40 years, and are at the core of what's advanced human health over the past decades. It's the same basic techniques we use for criminal analysis (look at your favorite CSI:Boise episode or whatever and you're bound to see them use "DNA fingerprints" - in that assay, they only look for variations of specific DNA sequence repeats, vs. the whole genome).  Seriously. We've been cloning bacteria, viruses and specific gene fragments for decades now, on a daily basis, unlocking the mechanics of what makes us tick and helping to create cures and treatments for some of the gnarliest issues we face in medical science. Vaccines are created with these same molecular biology techniques, and we have reasonable hope that we'll be able to prevent HIV and other endemic conditions in our lifetimes.  And on. And on. And on. 

In fact, these techniques are far more precise and measured than traditional plant manipulation. Remember Mendel's expirements on peas, where he willfully and gleefully manipulated the colors, shapes and sizes of flowers and crops by hand, all in the name of science?  Mankind has been artificially manipulating the world around us for our betterment for thousands of years. Unless you'd like to argue, maybe, that the chihuahua is a naturally occuring phenomenon?  

"But wait!" you say. "He crossed pea with pea! Crossing wheat and mint is an unholy union and an abomination!" 

Uh-huh. Right. Come over here and let me show you the apriplum.

Good, peer-reviewed science is precise, measured and targeted. It is well reasoned, and with a purpose. And yes, it is open to discussion and debate. The problem with California's proposition 37 (which "only requires labeling") is that it's a trojan horse. The agenda of the supporters is not to endorse debate and progress, but to scare, frighten and, I believe, ultimately ban. At least, based on the near complete lack of scientific merit (or even attempt at one) to their position. 

There are some real problems that have been created through a combination of farming practices, the growth of our population and extended lifespans, and the evolution of our expectation that we can get pretty much any food we'd like, at any time of year. While I'm all for showing people how much more enjoyable a tomato is when you just pulled it out of your garden in the height of summer, I recognize that is a first world luxury, and we have long term issues that can most effectively be addressed through better understanding and breeding of crops that are more sustainable and affordable to raise in the long term. Science is good at solving problems like that. 

What I will support & concede is that there is still much conversation to be had with regards to the intellectual property "lock-down" of the institutions conducting the research. If a bee brings the pollen from your super-corn over to my ordinary corn, and I end up with some kind of super-corn bastard in my field, do I owe you money?  That's hard to swallow, given the infamous promiscuity of bees. And birds. And corn. I'm all for making up a reasonable profit for the significant up front research investment. But there's definitely going to be some lawyering going on to figure that stuff out. 

If you'd like to argue the science with me, let's sit down and have that conversation. Over a sandwich, maybe. With some cloned lamb & GMO mint sauce. 

Personally, I think tomatoes taste better with genes. 

Charleston, 2012: Wherein I talk a lot about fried skin

This summer has really flown by. And we kind of weren't paying attention to the planning of any kind of vacation. Before we knew it, the weeks had already been booked for soccer camp, sleep-away camp, classes, you name it. And we were left trying to figure out how to slip in a little family vacation time between all the commitments. 

We also wanted to find another place we could meet up with some of our broader family, like we did last summer in Maine. We picked Charleston, South Carolina - a place that my Bride and I had visited a lot way back when we lived in Augusta, GA. But it had been more than 12 years (!), and we both thought it was time to head back. (the other option was New Orleans, but the Boy isn't quite up to Hurricane-drinking-age yet.) 

In case you have missed out on the experience, South Carolina in August is a touch warm, and a bit humid. It was about 95 degrees with 80%+ humidity most days. We brought the dog along for the trip, and she kept shooting us looks that seemed to indicate she was a little underwhelmed with the Southern Summer.

 

Hey idiotic man-thing. St. Bernards are freaking Swiss. You know. From the freaking mountains. With the freaking snow. So how about you don't look surprised when I poop in your shoe tonight?

Here are a few other pictures of the week.

We rented this amazingly beautiful carriage house in the center of the historic district. Perfect for a home base for the week.

We roadtripped it down. An 18 hour drive. I love road trips. They were kind of a family tradition when I was growing up that I don't hear enough about these days. But I've got I-95 fairly well charted, and the kids do well in the back seat. So we loaded up the car, and headed south, hunting for what has become the traditional first pit stop on any road trip.

Bojangles - cajun chicken in a biscuit. 

This chicken will not judge you

My Bride and I swap the driving every couple/three hundred miles or so, and I bring along hours and hours of BBC Radio 4 podcasts ('Gardeners' Question Time', 'Thinking Allowed', 'The Farm Programme'). Time just flies by!

I can tell my relative relationship to the Mason-Dixon line from the abundance and variety of porkskin products available at your average gas station.

That one at the top?  You read that correctly. That says "FAT BACK."  In a freaking bag.

These are my people.

Somewhere around the North Carolina border.

The trip really started out all about food, and we tried our best to carry that theme all the way through the week.

Before we went, I had heard an interview with chef Sean Brock, executive chef at McCrady's and owner of Husk - a new restaurant he had recently opened to celebrate and showcase the best of Southern cooking and ingredients. Chef Brock spoke with Churchillian-passion at great length on national radio about the dwindling supply of sorghum syrup to the American public, and why that was a tragedy of near epic proportions.

I told my Bride that I didn't care what else we saw. I had to eat at that guy's restaurant.  


Our favorite breakfast place in Charleston

We browsed and grazed and gluttoned. We planned out outings around where we would eat. Fortunately, Charleston is a walking city, and we walked everywhere, every day, for literally miles and miles and miles (in the sweltering heat. Did I mention it was hot?) - thus ensuring we worked off our last meals, and working up another appetite for the next one. 

We ate lunch at the Swamp Fox on King Street. The decor kind of sucks in a hotel-restaurant-slash-conference-center sort of way. But the food was terrific. 

We started with a complimentary chef's plate of house-made pimento cheese spread, served with slices of pickled okra and crusty french bread. 

"Can I get you a little more South with that, sir?" "No thanks.. I seem to be all set here."

I ordered what I had come to Charleston for: Shrimp & grits. (and a rum cocktail. because there had already been much walking.) 

Those of you who say you do not like grits do not properly understand the heights that such a humble base can be taken to. I tell you: go here. Get these grits. This recipe made me weep. It was that good.

Or maybe it was the rum. Either way, these were the best grits I have ever eaten in my life. 

 

Topped with garlic, caramelized onions, roasted sliced peppers, and awesome sauce.

We rolled out of that restaurant after getting the chef's card (Steve Klatt - who wants to share his recipes! how cool is that! I love this town).  After a couple of hours of walking around the heat (holy mother of all that is sacred, have I mentioned yet how hot is was there?) we needed refreshement. We found Nick's BBQ. 

 

Critter: We looked at that place already, didn't we? Isn't it the fancy one?

Me: Kid - anyplace that has a neon pig sign out front is pretty much saying "Come on in. We're short on fancy around here."

 

Honey - if you read this, I'd really like one of these signs for my birthday.

I picked up perhaps the best BBQ shirt I've ever found at this place. (And I know of which I speak. I have a few BBQ shirts.)  I didn't manage to snag a picture of it. So you'll have to make do with this instead. 

 

Oink!

We had dinner the next night a great little place called Poogan's Porch. Poogan was the owner's dog. Apparently he liked the porch. I can see why. It was a nice porch. 

Here the kids were enjoying the "joggling bench" - something I've never run into outside of Charleston. It's kind of like an old fashioned novelty seat, with rockers on the bottom, and long enough that you can bounce (or joggle, if you will) the board up and down, and end up squished together in the middle. 

 

Critter and the Boy and a bit of old time fun.

There's a tradition in Charleston of she-crab soup. There are competitions. It's more bisque like than chowder-esque. But with chunks of crabmeat in there. Some people leave the crab roe in. I don't know what Poogan's does. But I highly recommend it. 

I also had the grilled peach salad with thinly sliced, crisp rounds of country ham. And then the plantation fried chicken. Mostly because it came with 'spicy collard greens'. And I am totally into that kind of thing. 

 

I forget what kind of liquor was in my iced tea. Because we had walked a bunch more that day. And it was hot. Did I mention the heat?

The next day, we squeezed in the old City Market. And Ft. Sumter. And Battery Park. 

 

The old Charleston city market.


These sweet grass baskets are beautiful, but they were charging $200+ dollars for one! I'd rather spend my money on something more lasting. Like lunch, maybe.

 

Morning tour of Ft. Sumter.


There were many pictures of the kids on/near/in cannons. Assume they all pretty much looked like this.


My Bride and step-mother taking in Battery Park

Actually, I think those were three separate days. But who cares? There's more food to talk about!

When we were at the City Market, we found one vendor selling various confectionaries and sweets. And okra chips. The lady there said she sold more of these than she did all the chocolate combined.

They're deep fried. Taste kind of like sweet potato chips. Except greener. I don't know exactly what that means, but trust me. That's correct. They're delicious, and you can't just eat one. We paired it with cane-sugar cola and grape soda.

 

It's hard to find this much South in one place outside of a monster truck rally.

Then we got all gussied up for the main event. We hit Husk and McCrady's in a single day for the full on Sean Brock experience. 

Look at how pretty she is. This is the girl I come home to every day. 

 

Yep. I think I'll keep her.

When I got to Husk and saw the menu, I was like a kid sitting in Santa's lap. "I want one of these. And one of those. And ooh, that other one looks good Screw it. Have the elves bring me two of everything, and an extra helping of reindeer steak." 

I liked it so much, I snagged the menu and started taking notes. 


True story: I have four pigs ears in my freezer, and never before now did I have a clue what to do with them.

Me: What's that like? The pig's ear, I mean? 

Waitress: Like a chicken wing, wrapped in bacon. 

Me: You had me at "bacon". Bring two orders!!

 

It tasted *exactly* like she described. Except she left out FANTASTIC.

I had catfish for my entree - perfectly done, and re-establishing its place as my favorite of all the fish-housepet crossbreeds.

We ordered a skillet of 'bacon-cornbread' to share for the table. Which came in its own little seasoned, cast iron skillet (the only proper way to make cornbread).  It was coated with bourbon salt. That's salt, drenched in bourbon, and allowed to dry. This can only be explained by divine inspiration.

But wait.

It gets better.

My Bride and I were arguing over who got the last piece when the waitress came back. My step-mother is far too gracious a lady to stake a claim, and it was good enough that I was going to be crass and let her cede without an argument. The kids both wanted more, but they're far too small and un-muscled to put up a real fight for it. However, my Bride can kick my ass if she chooses. And even if she is usually far too sweet to show it, I could tell she was probably willing to draw blood for this one. 

The waitress laughed and explained. 

"That's not just butter you're spreading on that. That's butter whipped with rendered pork lard. That's what makes it so good."

This may be the best thing you have ever eaten in the history of ever.

Where Husk was comfortably fantastic, McCrady's is a fancier affair. It's one of the oldest restaurants in the US - George Washington was served in the upstairs dining room. They have a certain cache of culture and heritage to maintain. It made me glad I had changed into long pants for the evening. 

What I really loved about these restaurants was that the waitstaff was all as excited to see us and tell us about their food as we were to read them and select our meal. That makes a difference. The Critter was over the moon about the skirt steak she ordered, and even the Boy (whose foodie gene is late in blooming) was enjoying himself with the linen tablecloths. 

 

You can get that camera out of my face and find me some more of that bread, old man.

We had the tasting menu. Mine started with this - beef tartare and crispy fried beef rinds. 

As discussed, I'm pretty versed in your various types of fried pig skins. I can (and do) sometimes wax poetic about the proper treatment and condiments to bring out the flavor and texture. I can even offer an opinion on fried chicken skin.  

But beef rinds? 

 

There should be a "fried rinds" option for pretty much any animal. Also? On-a-stick.

I shouldn't have been surprised (given my love of all other things rind), but they were fantastic. 

The waitress explained: 

They're not actually skin. They're beef tendon. Thinly sliced and dehydrated. Then dropped into hot oil, seasoned, and served. 

Who the hell thinks of things like this?? A genius. That's who.

How do you top that off?  Small square slices of perfectly skillet-fried pork belly. 

 

Also? More animals should be made into bacon.

Yes, we did actually get out and see a few other things around town. The architecture and the pace of Charleston will keep it amongst my favorite spots, even if they didn't have the great restaurant scene. And there's plenty of other things in the area to keep one occupied (we didn't make it out to the beach at all. Or the Yorktown.). 

But I love the ad hoc culinary tour we took, and I'd plan another trip of this kind in a heart beat, maybe even out to some of the food source sites and/or into the kitchens of chefs that are open to that kind of thing. I know 'culinary tourism' is a sort of on-again/off-again trend. But I asked my fellow travellers, and they seemed to agree that this trip was an overall success.

More bacon! More cannons!

(For a whole bunch more pics of the trip, you can click here)

A pie or four.

When we moved back to the US, I gushed to the Critter about the unrivaled artistry and craftsmanship we Americans can put into a sandwich.  The rest of the world thinks that a sanwich is a convenient way to put some food in your gullet. In America, we can elevate a sandwich into a gourmet experience.  I love a good sandwich. I will (and have) drive hours for an exceptionally good one. 

But nobody does a pie like the British. 

One day earlier this week, I was listening to BBC Radio 4's "Food Programme" discussing 'The Life of a Pie'  (I still download the podcasts of several shows from BBC. Also: 'Gardener's Question Time', and 'Farming Today'.  My Bride claims this as proof that I am officially an old man).  A whole hour about pies in all their glory made me hungry. 

In America, we do know how to make a good pie (my Bride learned to make a blueberry-peach pie last year that is nearly a religious experience). But for the most part, our pies in America are sweet, desert style pies. Our cousins across the pond have the knack of putting things into pies that both surprise and delight. 

 I was craving a good British pie. And I am 2,000 miles the wrong side of an ocean from a chance of buying one. So today, I took some time to enjoy the fantastic weather we've been having, and to take a stab at making a few pies of my own.

I chose four: Chicken, bacon & leek pasties, steak & ale pie, Poacher pie, and a traditional pork pie. 

 

Pork Pie: This is the one that takes the longest to make.  As in, about 7 hours. Which I didn't really figure on before I started. Start with a couple of pigs' feet, and a few other bits in 3 quarts of water, and boil down to make a good gelatinous stock. It takes an hour or two, but the fat & cartilage from the feet break down into the stock, and become an important part of the pork pie consistency and experience. 

This is the first time in my life I've ever said "Oh thank God, we still have pigs feet." 

The pork for the filling is a good mix of nice center loin pork and fat, cut into half inch cubes. Rubbed with sage and a bit of allspice, and left to chill while the stock reduces.

While that was working, I made a short crust pastry dough - a simple mix of lard, salt, flour and water. My Bride watched me, laughing and constantly chiding me not to overwork it. I wrapped it up and let it chill for a while to come together. 

We had found a "texas sized" 1 cup muffin tin some time ago which I use as a handy measure for freezing soup stock.  When it was ready, I lined the tins with the rolled out pastry, and filled it with the chilled, raw pork. Topped with another bit of pastry and well crimped, it went into the oven for a couple of hours around 325F.  I brushed it with egg in the last half hour, and got it lovely and golden. 

As a final step, I took the well reduced stock (down from 3 quarts to about 2 cups) and poured it into each pie through the center hole. (I used a big turkey baster as an easy way to push it right down into the pie). Once full, it was stuck into the fridge to cool for four hours and set up. 

Once ready, slice and serve cold with some spicy English mustard. 

My pork pies may not have been quite the prettiest thing I've ever seen, but they were the exact flashback of hearty goodness I was looking for. You can totally understand how these were the perfect meal for a farmer or hunter in the field. Compact and dense with flavor and nutrition. And a nice cold lager if you have it.

Perfection. 

 

The other pies were a chicken, pancetta & leek (featuring our homemade pancetta, and big heavy green onion tops cut from our garden today as a substitute for the leeks.

I browned the chicken thighs with the pancetta and onions, and then chopped it roughly. A healthy couple of spoonfulls in the center of rolled pastry, and hand crimped & brushed again with egg, this one was a much easier pie to whip up. 

My personal favorite in the end was the Poacher pie - the recipe is a Jamie Oliver special from his latest book, 'Jamie's Great Britain'.  The recipe is made with 3.5 lbs of shredded zucchini, cooked down with lemon zest, salt and pepper. Eventually, you add a healthy handful of chopped mint (our garden grows plenty of mint, so I'm always looking for new ways to use it up), and 2/3 lbs of crumbled Lincolnshire cheese. (The name of this pie comes from a specific type of cheese that's hard to find outside of the UK. But a good, mature unpasteurized milk English cheese can be found at Whole Foods or other good cheese shops). 

This one I made in a big pie dish, top and bottom with another round of pastry. Along with it, I nestled a dozen shallots into rocksalt in a separate pan. They both roasted in the oven for an hour. 

I never would have thought of zucchini, cheese and mint together. But oh, man. This is one of the most fantastic things I've had in a while. And a great way to use up zucchini later in the summer when you're up to your ears with the things. 

The steak & ale pie was a simple beef cut, braised with stout, and mixed togehter with mushrooms and onions, topped with puff pastry. This is somewhat of a standby at our house, especially in the winter months, but it's always a good 'un, and the Critter's consistent favorite. 

 Once the beef is ready, I slice it up with the mushrooms and onions and remainder of the stout, let simmer a few minutes with the leftover stout, and then drop these into little heart shaped ramekins & top with pastry. Brush with egg, and bake for about 30 minutes. 

 

 

All in all, this was a hell of a lot of pie. We'll be eating leftovers for a week. But oh, man. Totally worth it. 

 

 

 

Street style tacos: Braised beef shank

 

I posted this picture to Instagram & Facebook, and a few folks asked for the recipe. It was ridiculously easy, and a great way to use a cheaper cut of meat. It's a little hard to create a "recipe" out of this, as I did it mostly by feel and what was handy. But for what it's worth, here you go. 

The Beef: 

I used a couple of hefty slabs of beef shank (cross cut right across the lower foreleg or shin of our steer) that I had in the freezer. We have lots of cuts like this - tougher, lankier cuts from the parts of the cow that aren't porterhouse or flank steak.  These can end up in your grocery store isle as "stew meat" or typically minced by your butcher into ground beef. Otherwise, you'll find them left whole as your cheaper pot roast options. If you have a decent butcher department or shop near you, you can ask for shank or other cuts for a fraction of the cost of your more popular cuts. I have one advantage in pulling this from our stash - this came from the dry-aged half of the steer, and was especially flavorful. 

Used: Bone-in shanks (x2) - net weight, about 2 pounds. You could easily subsitute just about any cheap, meaty cut. Look for 'London Broil' on sale at the grocery store (which technically isn't a cut of meat. It's a method of preparation for a tougher portion of beef). 

The Liquid: 

I braised the beef shanks (otherwise, they'd be tough and unenjoyable). Braising is simply a way to cook it long and slow, with moisture, and is really handy when you have cheap, tough meat cuts. Typically, I would sear the meat first. But I was lazy. I just put the two shanks into a small casserole dish, and poured in a quart of plain tomato sauce. I had the luxury of being able to send the Critter down to the basement and pull up a jar my Bride had made and canned last summer. But any decent tomato sauce will do. You want the liquid to be about 2/3 the way up the side of the meat. Not covering. But a pretty healthy amount. 

The spices: 

 I added two packs of McCormick's fajita seasoning. This dirty little secret is my go-to Mexican mix of spices. I could (and have) made my own blend of cumin, garlic, chiles, salt & pepper. But I just as often don't bother. It's good, and cheap and quick. And when I'm lazy, it's the perfect blend. Note: I never use the packet of taco mix this way. I don't know what's the difference between the two. Except this: One is great. One is crap. 

If you want to make it from scratch, I'd use about something like the following for 1 qt of sauce: 

  • 1 or 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 or 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp dried oregeno
  • 0.5 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 0.5 tsp cayenne pepper. (or to taste)

I tend to like my flavors on the strong & spicy side. So feel free to adjust to your pallette.

The cooking: 

I cooked this at a simmer in the oven (about 275-300 degrees) for 4 hours or so. When done, I sliced the meat off the bone, and into 1/4" wide strips (against the grain). Then I put the meat back into the sauce and left it warm on the side of the oven while I quickly finished up the rest of the fixings.

Salsa fresca: 

 There are hundreds of easy recipes here. But it comes down to a few basic ingredients.

  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Cilantro
  • Chili
  • Lime

Chop. Stir. By default, I use roughly equal-ish amounts of the first three. And generally one or two diced jalepenos (or a few dashes of tabasco, if I'm out of fresh chiles). Squeeze the juice of one lime over it all. Add a pinch or two of kosher salt, and chill in your fridge for a half hour or so, if you have the time. Make extra. So you can make the next part.

Guacamole:

The easiest way to make guacamole is to add a heaping serving spoon of the salsa above to a couple of mashed avacados. Mix together, and boom. Add more lime juice if you like. (and who doesn't?)

Eat:

At my house, I'm pretty much the only fan of corn tortillas. The ones in the photo above are really small, taco-truck style. I bought them in LA on our last trip and brought them back. They can last quite nicely in the freezer for months. For real taco-truck style, take two small ones like above, warm them over an open flame (or on a dry cast iron skillet) and stack them on top of each other. Then top with your beef, salsa and a dollop of guac, and you're good to go, just like that. You can add a slice or two of jalepeno to the top if you're feeling feisty. 

For the rest of my family, they like flour tortillas. Basically the same treatment: warm over open flame for a few seconds. Fill. Eat. Repeat. 

Boom. Easy tacos: street style. 

 

If I see Opie and Sheriff Taylor, at least I have an excuse for the hallucinations.

Story #1: 

One night last week, I woke up at about 2am to the sound of 135 pounds of St. Bernard going all Cujo at the front door. I stumbled out of our room, tugging on a t-shirt and trying to figure out what set her off as I went. I hadn't quite managed to wake up yet & staggered-fell sideways down the stairs trying to see what the hell was bothering her at such an hour. I landed sideways and not very gracefully onto my foot at the bottom of the stairs, and saw flashlights strobing across my driveway. 

Then a big, shaven-headed face appeared in the window of my front door. 

Go ahead and bark, dog. 

A few seconds later, my brain registered that the face was perched on top of a uniform. And that shiny thing he was waving through the window was a badge. Oh. I should probably keep my dog from eating the nice policeman.  I grabbed her collar and opened the door. 

"Hello sir, we were driving by and noticed your truck's door was ajar. We just wanted to check and make sure everything is ok. And um... did I just hear you fall down the stairs?"  

Hell, there's nothing in my truck to steal. I don't even have a radio. I had probably not made sure it was latched when I got home that night, and the wind caught it and swung it open. But here are my local police officers, just checking to make sure.  

My foot hurt like hell for three days afterwards, but you can't beat that kind of neighborly watching out for you.

Forget Stars Hollow. I live in Yankee Mayberry.  

Story #2:

A few days later, I was having a rare Sunday morning lie-in when the dog started her "Stranger-danger!" routine again. I brushed the hair out of my eyes, wiped the crusty sleep-drool off my chin and managed to walk down the stairs more or less upright. (Stop looking at me like that. Like everyone doesn't dribble occasionally in your sleep. Because we're all basically half-literate chimpanzees when no one is looking.) 

There was a kind looking older lady on my doorstep this time, without a badge or a flashlight. She introduced herself as Bonnie from just a few miles down the road - I recognized her from the farmer's market. Actually, I recognized the bumper stickers on her car. She has most of our town's "Obama: Rhymes with Hosanna", and "G-O-P spells EVIL" bumper stickers plastered all over her hybrid, and that kind of stuff sticks in my head. I had a momentary thought that she was here to ask about my truck (with its rifle rack and NRA sticker) as well, in a whole different way.

"Did you know you have hen-of-the-woods growing in your yard?"

Huh? I must need more caffiene.

She pointed at a large oak in our front yard - "I was driving by, and couldn't help but notice the lovely specimens of mushroom growing at the base of that tree," she practically bubbled. "It was too fantastic not to stop and tell whoever lived here."

Bonnie, it turns out, is an avid semi-amatuer mycologist. She is a member of the the mycology club at Harvard university, and was so genuinely excited to show me the beautiful samples of Grifola frondosa growing right there along the roadside in our yard that I couldn't help but start to be a little excited too. 

I assured the dog that this particular Democrat wasn't there to lecture us on the evils of fiscal conservatism, and was therefore off the lunch menu, and asked Bonnie to show me which specimens she had spotted. 

Hen-of-the-woods (in Japan, it's called Maitake) are apparently highly sought after mushrooms, that normally grow at the base of old oaks. They can be feet across in diameter, and show up in well stocked Asian grocers regularly. This pretty, folded looking fungus grows densely in big ball shapes that look like a cross between a saggy brain and a feathered fringe. Or something. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but Bonnie assured me that not only were they safely edible, they were delicious.

She hopped in her car, humming with the excitement of having shared her knowledge of the fungal world, and I have to admit that her enthusiasm was contagious. I was very nearly certain that she hadn't been leading me on in an attempt to rid our town of one of the few registered Republicans, but I did go back in the house and do an hour or so of intenese internet research on this particular mushroom, just to see if there was anything else that resembled it that was slightly less edible, or had other side effects. Like hallucinations, or painful death.

Nope. Looked safe. I mean, the internet wouldn't lie, right?

I harvested all of it and brought it in the house to weigh. A bit more than 5 lbs of surprisingly dense, firm-fleshed, lovely mushroom. I was impressed. Turns out, ours is just a small sample. These things can easily get into the tens of pounds, and people have maitake parties to chop and store all that fungal fun. 

I asked my Bride and the Critter if they were up for trying some with me. They both got pretty dubious looks. I showed them all of my internet research, but they still seemed pretty skeptical. I diced it up, and showed them the lovely white flesh, and suggested I make a beef stir fry. Or rather two: one with, and one without the mushrooms.

My Bride at first suggested that only one of us eat it, to ensure the kids would have at least one surviving parent.  But curiosity overcame her reluctance, and she scooped a healthy portion onto her rice. 

The Critter, in a rare moment of self-preservation overcoming her culinary adventure, said "Ok. But you try it first, Dad."  

So I did.

It was delicious. 

Mushrooms aren't something you really want to experiment with unless you absolutely know what you're about to put in your mouth. And I'm glad to know that my kids already knew or somehow intuited that. 

But here in our little town, we have neighbors that will stop by and point out what is good to eat and what's not. I'm not sure that I'll do much foraging for these things on my own, but with a good neighbor like Bonnie, who didn't even really know who it was she was stopping to tell the good news to, I was introduced me to something growing on our property that I would have otherwise skipped right over.

I sure am glad I didn't let the dog eat her.