Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Piss-Off 2008!

Tomorrow, tell 2008 to piss off. Embrace 2009 and carry on!

Inspired by Laurence (see comment below) I altered this post to reflect a more positive outlook towards the future. The original post, in which I revealed my true feelings about the universes' efforts to turn us all into compost, was too dark. So Happy New Year! I'll all be over soon!

X Blog

Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday Food

From Xmas 2008

I don't know anything about where any of you are at as we sink ever more deeply into the holiday season. But I'm already six gallons of murky Frymax in a Fry-O-Lator jammed into the corner of a kitchen at a neighborhood dive. Not only do I have nothing constructive to add to the dialectic, but I'm so whipped that the only thing I can bring myself to post are these photos of a couple of things that I made for my family over the past week.

The first group of photos is of a loaf of bread that started out as a mixture (poolish) of mashed table grapes, wheat berries, rye flour, flax seeds and water. The second group is of ham (Sliced version, above left, added 12.30.08) that I served for Xmas dinner at my brother's house. The ham was made from a round from one of the Berkshire hogs born in March of this year.

On November 13 I put the ham down in a brine made from male (should read maple: see comments and correction below) sugar, salt, dextrose, nitrate, clove, peppercorns and cinnamon bark (All of the spices were cooked in a small portion of the brine, then added to the brine proper.) and held it under refrigeration until December 24.

After driving the ham up to New York on Christmas morning, I roasted it for a couple of hours in a 350 degree oven before sticking it with fresh pineapple (A classic combination) and basting it for another hour with a mixture of brown sugar, butter and water. After it was done, I let it sit for a half hour while I made a sauce from the drippings, water and shaved apple flesh.

It was good. Damned good. It was especially gratifying to hear the older folks (my parents' generation) waxing rhapsodic about how long it had been since they had ham like that.

(Of course, that was exactly why I made it.)

Correction: Sorry folks; the ham was cured with "maple" not "male" sugar. LOL

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Video Verite'

I've been working on a personal version of the message in this video for about a week and will post it when I've gotten rid of the many rhetorical bugs. In the meantime, consider it a primer on something from me that in all probability will be much ruder and with more finely convoluted reasoning.

I don't know what prompted Gary Allen to send this to me. I suppose he knows me better than I imagined he did.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bull Roasts

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These are rib eye roasts from the bull that we slaughtered two weeks ago. I'd originally intended to dry age the rib longer, but decided to sell it in response to lots of customer traffic. The roasts are barded with pork fat to moderate the rate of heat infiltration and provide a bit of lubricity. I would have wrapped them 360 degrees but I did not have enough fat to do the job.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cheese Maker

The other day I realized that I rarely post anything about what is the major part of the business of the farm where I make my salumi and other stuff. Hendricks Farms and Dairy is fundamentally a raw milk and cheese producing operation, whereas what I do counts as only a fraction of the output of the farm. Trent Hendricks, the farm's founder and owner, is in charge of all the day to day operation of the farm and milk and cheese production. He has help, of course, yet I cannot quite get my head around how he does it. His job is 24/7/365. He rarely leaves the farm and when he isn't building, fixing, sowing or reaping something he's on the phone with whoever working out whatever.

The man is a force of nature whose devotion to his craft would make little sense to those who believe that the ultimate measure of success is cash-in-hand. I admit, there are moments when I think he is out of his mind to work as hard as he does to earn a comfortable, yet hardly lavish, living. But those moments are fleeting because even though we are superficially very different kinds of people, there is one thing that we both have in common: a deep and abiding love of the process of producing food and the concomitant feeling of aptitude that follows the realization that we know how to feed ourselves and our families.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Bull Becomes Bresaola

It took almost three days to cut the bull (some will argue that I never stopped) that came back from the slaughterhouse last week. About 300 pounds of it was ground into hamburger, the bones have thus far yielded about 20 gallons of stock (there are more than half to be processed), I reserved a loin for dry aging, the tenderloins are steak and the rest is on the path to becoming cured and air-dried beef in the form of bresaola.

In the following slideshow you will see some of the meat being cleaned and cured. It will stay in the cure for about two weeks after which the herbs and spices will be scrubbed off prior to being tied and hung in the aging room. I suspect that it will take at least 4 weeks of aging before it is dry enough to be sold.

I think that this meat is going to yield the best air-dried beef imaginable. Just take a look at the color and you will know I'm right. That deep-red color equals deep beefy flavor that is not possible in an animal whose liberty and movement is restricted as is normally the case in cattle raised for beef. This is meat from a bull that has lived for more than two years in a large pasture and has spent its days chasing cows and well, you know, getting lots of exercise.

The color and texture is more typical of venison and the flavor is intensely beefy.Because there is almost no marbling to lubricate the meat, the only way to eat this stuff is raw or very rare. Cooking even the tenderloins above rare turns the meat hard and dry.

You know, seeing this meat for the first time last week "brought me back" to my first restaurant job. My chef, Rene Chardin, was a great cook who, like all great cooks, believed in doing almost everything from scratch. He used to smoke salmon in a converted early 20th century cabinet style electric clothes dryer that had been left behind by the original owner of the mansion (a daughter of Alexander Graham Bell) in which he built his restaurant. He raised pheasant and trout, was a great charcutier and a true believer in only using ingredients that were densely packed with flavor. For steak tartar he only used top round from a bull that had not been confined and finished on grain. In other words, a bull just like the one I butchered last week.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Template of Evil

If you have ever wondered how our great culture got to the point where we needed to debate how we should eat, then take a look at this vintage commercial for Chef-Boy-AR-Dee pizza mix. It's a veritable template for every bullsh-t corporate appeal to the public to give over its right to cook and eat handmade food. And after you have watched it, surf over to the host website and look at some of the other cons that helped to spawn one of the greatest rip-offs of American culture ever (Classic TV Ads).


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The bull in the kitchen

No, not the guy with the beard. It's on the table.

If you have ever wondered what almost 700 pounds of beef look like, wonder no more. This is a photo of most of what remained (at this point there was still another section of rib on the delivery truck) of a Aryshire bull that Trent had slaughtered as he begins the process of interbreeding his herd with a line of animals that do a better job of converting grass into milk. Shortly after the butcher dropped this off at the farm this past Saturday, another truck pulled in with the Devon bulls that will replace this once noble beast as the herd's pater familias.

Taking this much meat apart is a pretty big task. The first thing we did was break the legs and loins into primal cuts and put them in the cooler to dry age. Then I took apart the ribs and forequarters and boxed the meat for grinding. The tenderloins will be "wet aged" and sold as steaks. I'm planning to grind 90-100 pounds and turn most of the loins and some of the rounds into Bresaola (cured and air dried beef) when I return to work tomorrow (Thursday).

Now that I look at this picture again, I realize that it does not do a very good job of conveying how big this thing was. The rib cage was big enough to turn into an office chair. The hind legs and loins were easily 140 pounds each. Suffice it to say that I have never butchered anything this big. By comparison, cutting up a hog is child's play.

I'm not complaining, mind you -I love this stuff. It's what I live for. (Wow, that sounds wrong.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Prosciutto bandage change

From Prosciutto

Here is a look (below) at a prosciutto di Parma style ham that is still in the process of maturing. I decided to take it down and wrap it in a new skein of cheesecloth after months of walking by it and being disgusted by the mold that was growing on the original wrapper. The mold was not anything that was going to contaminate the meat. But the ham was looking too much like something that one used to see in the subways of Manhattan during the Koch and Dinkins administrations or something in a Matthew Brady photo of civil war wounded.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating but it was seriously ugly and needed to be cleaned up. I estimate that it will be ready in 3-4 months.

Of course, now that the cold season is here and flies (and their miserable little flesh eating maggots) are no longer a threat, I could have done away with the cheesecloth altogether. But I chose to replace it because now that the air is very dry I'm hoping that the cloth will slow down dehydration of the meat enough to avoid over-drying of the "case" or first inch or so or surface muscle.

Also have a look at Mike Pardus' new horse bone needle (above, left and at the end of the slideshow). The needle is used to determine the grade of prosciutto via olfaction. When the bone, which is porous enough to absorb the aroma of the meat yet strong enough to withstand the pressure of insertion, is withdrawn from the prosciutto it is sniffed to determine if the meat is good enough to be a prosciutto di Parma or something less. I suppose that it could also be used to determine the degree of ripening in prosciutto and other types of salumi/charcuterie.

Not that I'll ever get a chance to use the thing since Pardus lives in NY and I live in Pennsylvania. But that's okay, just knowing that he would probably let me use it is good enough for me! :-)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Game Birds make Slow Food

As I reported in my previous post, Trent -the owner of the farm where I work- decided that it was time to harvest the guinea fowls.

Since the day in May that Trent shooed them from their coop, these guinea fowl have became so "free range" that at the harvest they were wild or "game birds." Over the course of a day the flock would forage about 25 acres as it searched for food. Just like wild birds it flew into trees to roost and ran from and fought with predators. So, they became very muscular, very lean and, once dead and in the hands of a cook, very prone to turning into miserable, dried out, tough and gamey fare if not handled with great care.

There are many ways to render guinea fowl, and game birds in general, tender and moist.

One method is to hang them after they are killed (By wringing their necks and not cutting them to assure that their flesh ensanguinated and juicy.) for about a week as naturally occurring (endogenous) protein-digesting enzymes breakdown and tenderize the muscle tissue.

Another way of making sure that the final dish is tender and moist involves boning them, pounding out the breast to tenderize it, them stuffing the breast with a forcemeat made from the legs (which grinding renders very soft) then roasting the "ballotine."

Barding the flesh by threading lardons (thin strips) of fat through the meat does a pretty good job of keeping the flesh moist without subjecting it to the black box treatment that produces the ballotine. But the high temperatures required to heat the fat to the point at which it begins to liquefy and lubricate the meat almost guarantees that the meat will be tough.

Then there is the "high tech" method of sous vide during which the bird is put into a plastic bag with aromatic ingredients. The bag is then vacuumed to restrict to flow of water and flavor from the meat while it is cooked in water at a very low temperature to limit the amount of coagulation of the muscle fibers (So that the flesh does not become hard.) and to inhibit the breakdown of the red-light -reflecting globular proteins (So the the meat looks rare even though it is fully cooked). Additionally, the hermetic, high humidity, environment of the bag assures that the collagenous connective tissue (which requires the presence of water to break down into gelatin.) becomes tender.

When I learned that the guinea fowl had been harvested, it did not occur to me to try to cook one until they had all been decapitated and plucked. So there was no way that I could hang them. The ballotine route was feeling like a "cop out" in that deals with the problem by turning the bird into a sausage, and I was not in the mood to take the easy way out. (If I wanted to do the easiest thing, I'd just stew them.) And sous vide was out of the question because I don't have the equipment to pull it off (I cook in a barn for god's sake.).

So I decided to do the job "old school" after reaching back into my memory where the classic repertoire of techniques are stored, and pulling out the ancient method of cooking game birds known as "en salmis."

The basic method for preparing a wild bird "en salmis" (I don't remember the etymology or literal meaning of the term.) involves two fundamental steps. The bird is

  1. roasted or sauteed until it is browned but still very rare
  2. cut up and finished in a sauce at low temperature in a pan with a tight fitting lid
Browning gives the skin color and enhances the flavor, while cooking it on a quiet fire in a moist environment assures that the muscle fibers will not dry out and over-tighten. The sauce for the dish, naturally, is made from whatever the bird is cooked with. ( The technique is fundamentally a conventional braise.)

Part 1
The harvest and the rub

In addition to drawing on this centuries-old method to cook the fowl, I added a few other techniques that are, in turn, based on practical experience and my understanding of food science.

The day before I cooked the birds (today actually) I dry rubbed them with salt, sugar, pepper and juniper berries. Salt, once it penetrates the meat is understood to break and weaken the muscle fibers while it enhances their attraction to water. The end result is that pre-salted meat emerges from the oven more tender and with more water. Sugar in meat holds onto water too, and may interfere with the ability of the muscle proteins to link up with each other as they heat (coagulate) and helps to tenderize the meat also. The juniper and pepper were added as simple flavorants.

After better than 16 hours in the dry rub, I browned one of the fowl in rendered veal fat, cut it up and cooked in a tightly sealed pan with aluminum foil in an oven set to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for a long time (1 hour & 45 minutes) . As you will see in the second slide show, I also added water above the meat to slow down the rate of heating even more. I suppose I could have simply placed the pan in water bath (bain marie) and gotten the same effect, but that did not occur to me until hours after the cooking was done.

The result was a bird with a fork-tender breast and legs that were as tender as medium-rare filet of beef.

You might notice in the second set of photographs that in the end, the meat appears to be very moist and pinkish (the breast) or reddish (legs). The results are very much like what you would expect from cooking sous vide: minimal coagulation, lots of denaturation of the connective tissue, yet less than expected destruction of red-light reflecting globular serum proteins. That's my hypothesis anyway.

Finally, you will have to trust me when I say that it tasted great.

As always, please double click the slide showshows for a larger image.

Part 2

Making the salmis

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Harvest of Birds

From Guinea fowl

Today we harvested the guinea fowl that Trent was using to knock down the insect pest population at the farm. They performed their work admirably, but had lately begun to bother the neighbors after plummeting temperatures drove them further afield in search of food. So, it was decided that it was time that they became food themselves.

I'm going to try to cook one tomorrow. As I am struggling against a serious cold and have a load of salami and sausage to make, I'm skeptical that I'll have time to do justice to even one of these birds. All of their muscle tissue is as dark as beef. That means they are going to be tough and need to be cooked "low-and slow" to break down the muscle fibers and connective tissue. At another time, I might have hung the birds in plumage up under the eaves of the barn -heads still attached to necks- and let the natural enzymes in the muscles tenderize the meat -faisanade- like a proper old-school chef. But it's too late for that. The birds (save one) are all decapitated and plucked. Next time, perhaps.

The Enemy

I'm channeling Shakespeare into this because my words have lost me.

O cunning enemy, that to catch a saint,
With saints doth bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue.
Measure for Measure

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Minimalist

Mark Bittman used to bother the heck out of me. His cooking skills made me cringe (In all candor, I'm not sure mine would look much better on camera.). The thesis of "The Minimalist" , his weekly column in The New York Times, which suggests that anybody can cook anything in under 60 minutes, left me cold. However, lately I have come to admire the quality of his writing, his apparently unabashed confidence in his opinions and his willingness to say things that are uncomfortable. To wit

“People buy food in supermarkets,” said Mr. Bittman. “And they’re gonna buy food in supermarkets. So, it doesn’t matter if they buy good meat at the farmers’ market or good broccoli; what matters is they go to the supermarket and buy good broccoli—or even bad broccoli!—instead of meat.

“The grass-fed beef concept is really great,” he went on, “but if you don’t cut consumption, it doesn’t matter. There’s not enough room for grass-fed beef any more than there’s enough room for imprisoned beef.”

The Making of the Minimalist

Monday, December 1, 2008

Alt Omnivore

I suppose I should begin a post that is intended to begin an argument for an Alt (alternative) way of thinking about how to follow the omnivorous habit with an exhaustive review of the record of established ways of approaching the act of consuming organisms from all of the five kingdoms of living things. But I will not.

I've got kids to take care of, a house to run, and a job to hold down. I don't have the time to do the hard work of reviewing all of the literature on the subject, describe the staus quo and show how my idea is different enough to be considered unique. So, I'm going to blow-off characterizing how others have suggested modern omnivores think about how we approach the act of eating and offer what may or may not be a unique approach to eating everything.

But first I've got to clear the table before I bring out the main course by explaining a fraction of what I believe is true about the role that biology plays in the determination of what and how we eat

  • The partial result of millennia of natural selection on primates has resulted in an order of animals that is largely, if not entirely, capable of omnivorism.
  • Humans are primates and capable of omnivorism.
  • But simply because humans are capable of eating and assimilating nutrients from organisms from all five kingdoms, it does not follow that we must eat this way.
  • Humans have the ability to make choices. And when we exist in a context that permits us to act on our choices, with the exception of organisms that slip imperceived into our digestive tracts, we choose what we eat.
I categorically reject all arguments that suggest that people who are not physically or psychologically or economically constrained, such that they are not able to exercise their biologically determined (or if you prefer, G-d given) ability to make choices and act on them, have no choice but to be omnivorous -or vegetarian for that matter.

In other words, for most 1st world humans what, how, how much, when and how often we eat is the result of the exercise of free will in response to the call of hunger. Omnivorousness is an aptation, the omnivorous habit is an exercise of free will and an expression of choice.

The Omnivore's Dilemma Reimagined

The Black Box and Denial

With apologies to those who see the main problem confronting 1st world omnivores as primarily economic, ethical or technological in nature, I see a philosophical problem that needs to be addressed by dealing directly with the way we think about food.

  • Too often we do not know what we are choosing to eat because the true identity of the food is hidden. When the true identity of the food is unknown, it becomes easy to ignore what it was before it became our food and how it got that way.

The bulk of what most of us ingest goes through a process of obfuscation before we get it. The natural, obvious identity of the food becomes obscured as it is broken down into subunits, and perhaps combined with other ingredients before it is wrapped and obscured beneath layers of packaging and distracting graphics and verbiage. Even the vegetables that line the shelves in the produce department are excerpts of their natural selves. As a fillet of salmon stick is not a salmon, a head of lettuce is not a lettuce plant. Most, if not all of the foods in the supermarket are excerpts of living things and rarely the whole living organism. Not even Whole Foods sells apples still attached to an apple tree.

I think it very useful to think of most of the food we eat as having passed through a gigantic black box where it's original identity is "disguised" before we get it. Of course the black box is just a metaphor for sum total of what we do not usually know about the original identity of the food we eat and how it becomes food.

  • We hide the identity of the food from ourselves by denying or ignoring or refusing to imagine what it really is. We are complicit in the work of the black box.
After years and years and eating excerpted and wrapped food, it becomes very easy to slip into the habit of not thinking about what that food was before it was processed into the form in which we receive it. How often have you looked at a slab of tuna in the fish market and imagined a mighty fish struggling against the fisherman's line? Seen a peach tree in a peach or a field of wheat in a package of crackers? I wonder. If you are at all like me, you have to work at remembering what all this stuff in the market was before it went through the black box and it's hard work, so mostly we don't.

  • There is probably no food consumed by omnivores whose true identity is more obscured by the black box and our own refusal to imagine the truth of how it comes to be food , than meat (from all animals).
This is in large part because animals go to a special place in the black box called the slaughterhouse. (Which here is understood to refer to all of the places animals are killed out of the sight of consumers.) The slaughterhouse is specifically designed to add another layer of obfuscation of the true identity of our food and is the twinned product of our own refusal to know everything about the nature of our food and the black box's "desire" to provide us with the opportunity to not know.

Here is the heart of the biggest philosophical problem faced by the omnivore. We choose to eat everything, but we cannot really know what we are doing until we confront the fact that we mostly do not know what we are eating.

Finally, I imagine that we are not alone and that many of those who choose to not exploit their omnivorous aptation and instead, eat only plants, suffer from a similar condition of not knowing. But I think that given the fact that we have chosen to pursue a habit of eating that results in the sometimes violent death of animals, we have a special burden or perhaps obligation to ourselves to bypass the black box, reject the habit of denial, take the bull by the horns and see what's actually going on.

So I'm proposing that we summon our courage and become Alt Omnivores or, if you prefer, stoic omnivores who, with eyes wide open see things as they are and not how we and the black box would like us to see.

My apologies to those of you who are already doing what I am suggesting. I'm not trying to preach to the choir, but simply trying to lay down what I think. -Bob dG

Leveling the Field

From Trent Disking
I've decided to turn off this blog's ability to accept anonymous comments. My decision to require that each commentator provide a valid email address before being allowed to comment is in part based on the recent appearance here of an insightful but, I thought, rudely-parsed anonymous comment , and the realization that since I put my name behind everything I write, the least that I can expect from commentators is a valid email address.

I'll be candid. I have very little patience for rude comments, and when they occur -no matter how true or insightful they might be- I want to have the option of emailing the writer directly to try to work things out with him/her without having to drag anyone else into the discussion. Of course, I could just delete comments that annoy me. But I won't do that. In fact, the only type of comment I have ever deleted is one that directly insults or threatens someone. Besides, just because a comment is annoying, it does not naturally follow that it is not welcome and potentially enlightening.

I realize that someone who wants to be nasty here, but is too timid to say who they really are, can always find a way to avoid having to confront me by posting via a proxy server or simply not answering me when I email them. But I'll just have to live with that possibility.

Please don't misunderstand my intentions here. I'm not trying to censure anyone. All I hope to do is to provide myself (and Mike Pardus) with the potential to work things out in private.

Update: It seems that it is possible to comment here without providing an email address. No matter, I'm going to continue to keep the anonymous comment feature switched off.