Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Waiter, There’s a Hare on My Plate

...a waskally wabbit...

I am not a stranger to rabbit. I’ve hunted them, actually, long ago when my distaste for guns was not what it is now. And I was a pretty good shot, too. Nevermind. It was my dad who brought them home from the field and hung them from their hind legs against the wall of the barn and pulled their furry coats off in one mostly whole piece. What a picture that brings to my mind – my dad in his red and black checked hunting pants, his square-cut, exceedingly capable hands wielding the knife. My mother must have cooked them, but I don’t remember eating them. She must have told me it was chicken and, the way my mother cooked, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. We ate squirrel, too, with the same lack of differentiation. Gravy – red, brown, or, in my mother’s case, possibly white – covers a multitude of sins.

Jeff and Cathy McMurry sell rabbit, chicken, and sometimes eggs at their Sunset Farm booth at the Winter Farmers’ Market. Gazing down at the McMurry’s beautifully dressed, wrapped, and displayed rabbits brought memories to mind – the most recent, a walk up to the Victorian Inn at Wallingford a few years ago, and Soo whispering to Leo that Stanti had a limited amount of rabbit stew in the kitchen, which he had made for the family but was willing to serve Leo. Leo loved it – he savored the stew but he was no less pleased to be offered something ‘special’! And I was grateful, too, that the McMurry’s are offering us something different to go on our plates. A carnivore can get weary of the same ole, same ole – pork, beef, chicken, and sometimes lamb, although the fresh, free-ranged, grass-fed products of the Winter Farmers’ Market vendors offer revelations of full-bodied taste to anyone who is used to industrial, feed-lot meats.

So I bought a rabbit to experiment with. I knew I would be approaching Stanti for a rabbit lesson sometime in the future, but first, I wanted to try out my own rabbit intuition. I mistrusted my own ability to try out Jeff McMurry’s suggestion to grill it, and as I gazed down at the little pink body laid out on my kitchen counter I remembered the Red Brick Grill’s dish of rabbit ragu with porcini and their own house-cured pancetta. On the other hand, a strand of words in a NY restaurant review popped into my mind, suggesting that “cinnamon sweetens the delicate strands of pulled, braised rabbit,” and that was my inclination, too – a dark sauce, deep with the sweeter spices, perhaps sherry, possibly raisins. While I thought about the best way to proceed I discovered the liver and heart in the cavity, glossy and reddish brown.

The McMurrys are highly responsive to their customers’ ideas, desires and needs. When I expressed dismay that a glorious little chicken I bought from them did not have the giblets in the cavity, they immediately changed that practice. The livers are large, dark mahogany and evenly colored, healthy and extremely tasty. When I asked for some chicken feet the McMurrys came up with a ton of them, nicely cleaned. I spent an hour clipping toenails and paring off calluses afterward, and scrubbing them a little more, but now I have several packages – six yellow legs and feet per package – to add to my chicken bones when I make stock. And what a wondrous stock it is: from one 4 pound chicken, roasted, I simmered the bones and 6 legs and feet for possibly 4 hours, and ended up with a quart of very flavorful chicken jelly.

I was surprised to find the liver included with the rabbit, but I was glad to eat the whole of that little fella. Taking a life in order to eat, I feel, calls for wasting as little as possible. I put it, along with the heart, in a small frying pan with butter over very low heat for a short time, turning it once, salt and pepper, the same way I cook a chicken’s liver, and found it was delicious.

... in a chef’s kitchen...

Sure enough, there was Stanti, at the WFM one Saturday, bent over the case of frozen rabbits and chickens on ice, while Cathy and Jeff looked on. I’d known I’d see him at the Market, and I’d suspected he wouldn’t be able to resist the rabbits.

Since he first came to town – could it be almost 20 years ago??? – he’s searched out local foods, from cheeses to turnips. He attends markets, visits farms, and receives deliveries from local farmers. It’s the way he was raised and learned his trade in Switzerland, with the family inn and restaurant, the farm and the store. At first, when I saw the aerial photograph of that distant village, I’d thought it was Wallingford.

He selected two rabbits and said, “Yes. Certainly,” when I asked if I could watch him prepare them.

When I walked in the kitchen door at the Inn, the two rabbits were laid out on a cutting board. Several small pans were lined up with the other ingredients. In a row, mise en place, were flour, butter, salt and pepper, chopped flat leaf parsley, garlic, chopped onion, diced carrots, diced celeriac, tomato sauce, and glace de veau (reduced veal stock). A container of white wine stood on the shelf above.

He speaks American with a Swiss or at least European accent, and so we haggled over the name for the pan he took down. It turned out to be a braissier – “how would you say it in English,” he mused – for braising, natch, and he put it over the fire and melted some butter in it. Placing the rabbit pieces on a flat pan and strewing them with salt and pepper and then flour – “You don’t have to drench them in it,” – turning them and treating that side to the same, he then placed them into the butter, pointing out that the side that would show on the plate – the smoother, outer side – should be lightly browned first and, turning them when they were, he began to add the prepared vegetables in turn, “about a cup of the onions, carrots and celery (celeriac) for one rabbit. Half a cup of parsley for a nice taste. It doesn’t have to be tomato sauce, but maybe concassee,” he said as he emptied the sauce over the vegetables. Just chopped tomatoes, or cubed, if you’re meticulous. He reached up and pressed the button for white wine and poured it over the vegetables, then tipped the glace de veau over – about a cup of each for one rabbit. “The nice thing is,” he said, glancing at me, “everything you can get at the Winter Market.” I considered this and realized he was right. “Right down to the wine,” I said. He nodded, pleased.

While we chatted, the mixture simmered and, after we tasted and found the sauce very pleasant and vibrant – marinara-like, with the almost metallic taste of white wine and tomatoes – I left, promising to return for a photo when it was plated for that evening’s diners. As I took the photograph that evening, three orders for rabbit came into the kitchen. Looks like the menu at the Victorian Inn at Wallingford may have a new and possibly frequent ‘special’.

...or please, take my duck...

It’s Sunday afternoon now. I have a duck sitting in the fridge. I got it at the Winter Market, of course, entered through the Rutland Area Food Co-op on Wales Street in Rutland on Saturdays from 10 to 2. I’ve prepared duck perhaps once in my life. I’m already thinking about its preparation, the tastes, the accompaniments, how to get as much duck fat as possible to save for frying other things... And then I wonder – perhaps I can interest Stanti in doing duck!

...Tell Tale Heart...

An article by Gordon Dritschilo in the Herald on January 12 was brought to my attention by one of our farmers. Entitled Census counting on Vt. farmers, it quoted the spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, who said, regarding the penalty for not completing the census form, “I’ve heard different terms... I saw at one point you can be arrested...” Not only is this incorrect, but it is significant that the first thing this spokesman for the Agency comes up with, off the top of her head, is punitive in an authoritarian kind of way. OUR Vermont Agency of Agriculture should consider themselves the farmers’ facilitator, should be helping our farmers to be more successful and creative in growing and raising food for their customers. Instead, this statement, while being more than a little wishy-washy, also contains an aura of threat, of authoritarianism and of paternalism.

In fact, what the article or law or whatever it is DOES say is: “(2) Refusal or neglect to answer questions: A person over 18 years of age who refuses or willfully neglects to answer a question, which is authorized by the Secretary to be submitted to the person in connection with a census under this section, shall be fined not more than $100.”

An often-forgotten fact about the government, its employees, and the political establishment, is that they are all public employees, that is, OUR employees – we pay their salaries and, in the case of elected officials, elect them – and their main job is not to be threatening and authoritarian but to work with the us – in this case with the farmers – in a partnership for everyone’s well-being.

Although farm census is not a new thing, and while it can be effective, it has always been a controversial action among farmers who do not wish to make themselves vulnerable to the long arm of a government that they might view as punitive. This is particularly true among present-day small farmers who rightly fear the partnership of the government with industrial-strength mega-farmers who wish, some think, to put small farms out of business. Control the food chain and you control the people.

That said, it’s encouraging that the Agency is working with farmers to get a mobile fowl slaughtering facility up and running, and a stationery slaughterhouse in southern Vermont. Rutland needs one, too, to replace the one that burned a couple of years ago. And hopefully they’re working closely with Rural Vermont on promoting a hemp industry and making farm fresh unpasteurized milk more available to people who want it. As a matter of fact the agency seems to be extremely active promoting local foods from our small farmers lately, which only makes a throw-away patronizing remark the more regrettable.

...on the subject of real food...

“But if real food – the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food – stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question that for most of human history people have been able to answer without expert help.” From www.MichaelPollan.com

this column originally published in the rutland (vt) herald 01/22/08

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

of Blackberries and Slugs

...control end...

My 2007 journal was entitled CONTROL END. At least that’s the first thing I read when I pulled it up on my screen – all caps, font size 26, bold – to remind me to skip to the end of the document so I didn’t have to read my January 1 entry every time I opened it.

It was a grisly one, that entry, that had Saddam Hussein hung by the neck until dead. It was a potent portent for the year – three hundred and sixty some odd days later that journal ended with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and all the pages in between could’ve been scribbled to black with the most depressing examples of dishonesty, meanness, greed, war, molestation, torture, death, short-sightedness, idiocy, knee-jerk vetoes of any good legislation that DID come along, the wrack and ruin of our country, our world, our planet... in no particular order.

But they weren’t! Instead they were crammed to overflowing with examples of courage, generosity, idealism, friendship, teamwork, energy, creativity, intelligence, problem-solving, and real accomplishment.

“How can this be,” you ask. “Did this insane world just make you stick your head in the sand?” I asked myself the same question and, for some reason, went back to a little story I’d told awhile ago about blackberries and slugs.

...blackberries and slugs...

You can’t find blackberries if you don’t go out and look for blackberries, if the idea of blackberries – their existence – has not been posited at the edge of some cow pasture early in your afternoon as a child, along some marshy, deeply hoof-pocked swamp; you can’t find them if you can’t imagine the hunt, if your blood doesn’t race the slightest bit at least and your saliva does not start flowing when you see them hanging heavy and black upon the thorny branch, if you can’t patiently back the evil, back-turned thorns that impale you out of your flesh; if, after noticing the swales of branches that have been trampled by something large and tough-skinned and hearing the neighborhood’s dogs baying, you don’t bend down and pick those downed branches with neoned peripheral sight, with eyes in the back of your head, with persistence in spite of the possibility of bears.

But most of all you can’t find blackberries if you don’t stop at the first blackberry you see, those first hard green and red pods, stop and find the few that are ripe, and the few beyond those and beyond and beyond into the morton-saltbox of canes and nature and ripening berries.

Likewise, you cannot find slugs if you do not bend over and look in likely places, and then the one you see will lead to whole other snail universes. Hell for that matter I imagine it is the same way with money, but I wouldn’t know, as I don’t have money in my blood like I do blackberries and slugs.

The best way to kill slugs is to take the kitchen shears out with you and snip them in half as you see them. They ooze a big bubble of black innard-goo, but the killing is clean and quick and I have no trouble picking a tomato in the drizzle to eat as I continue with my grizzly task. Slugs are at once sticky and slimy. You always know when you’ve grabbed one hidden under leaves when you’re weeding or stepped on one barefoot in the dark, from the sticky residue that makes your fingers stick together, your foot kiss the floor, and shreds of grass and old leaves and dirt build up on the shears to make you remember to wash them before snipping herbs into a pot au feu.

I spent a lot of satisfying, bee-humming, bear-fearing hours picking blackberries that year. I piled the blackberries on a platter with some goat cheese and chocolate and took them to a party. I served them up with a silver spoon into everyone’s palms, telling them I’d braved bears for them.

As for slugs, they had been posited in my mind by that first hunt, but I tried not to notice them afterward, for there was no earthly good in seeing them. I could never decimate their numbers. I could only try to find out what it was in my garden that attracted them, and then try to change that climate so that they would make their living elsewhere. It reminded me of R. Buckminster Fuller’s admonition: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." I wanted those slugs obsolete but as yet I hadn’t found the new ethos to make them so, so I ignored them. I concentrated on the blackberries.

...the right climate...

Of course you can’t find blackberries, or slugs, in January; the prerequisites are in their nature as well as ours: They must be in season; the climate must be right; the cycles of vegetation and climate and use correct.

My journal is not a pure moan of despair because last year I was lucky enough to fall in with some good people, hard-working, forward-thinking and energetic volunteers, whose collective eye was on the prize of a stronger local food supply for the community, who laughed instead of cried when things got tough; who, when faced with an insurmountable brick wall, did not collapse back to the starting point but simply fell back a few paces and patiently took another route. For progress became like climbing a tree – just because your current route doesn’t get you to the tippy-top doesn’t mean you drop back to the ground – only to the next effective branch down.

Some of these people work full time jobs and volunteer in the crevices of them; some are free-lancers and work their volunteer time in between their own deadlines; some are retired or have a partner who makes the living; and some just believe so whole-heartedly in what they’re doing that they design lives that will encompass it.

These are persistent people, who stay on track by consistently referring back to their starting goal, their “mission statement,” people who know that seven times out of ten they’ll learn something if they listen hard enough, and that most good ideas will only get better with a little more input. They know that there are times to be a leader and times to follow; and that true teamwork is not the usual corporate demand for a flock of sheep to follow each other over the lip of a crevasse, though they might agree with these words from a woman named Kathy Sierra: “Most truly remarkable ideas did not come from teamwork. Most truly brave decisions were not made through teamwork. The team's role should be to act as a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. People with their own unique voice, ideas, thoughts, perspectives. A team should be there to encourage one another to pursue the wild ass ideas, not get in lock step to keep everything cheery and pleasant.”

These are people who know that courage is more invigorating than fear, and perhaps it was that climate of fear and frustration on the political front that mobilized volunteers last year. It’s as though a giant military/industrial maelstrom has hit the earth and grows ever more destructive, and in the face of it we toil together to create our own small existence under the radar, recognizing as we do it how much we have missed the sense of community that is created in times of great and absorbing struggle.

...yammer and response...

Leo brought home a carton of Black Box cabernet sauvignon this weekend, and I broke out a little pat of sharp and creamy camembert-type cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm in Pawlet to add to the jollity, and we spent a very pleasant time nibbling and sipping while I put together a Sunday night supper.

I had: cod, that was frozen, brought back from Maine when I visited my sister; marjoram from Gail Edwards at the Common Ground Fair; three leeks, the last ones grown at Foggy Meadow Farm by Paul Horton, who is missed at the Winter Farmers’ Market these last couple of weeks; a head of garlic grown by a friend; some inexpensive white wine from the Castleton General Store; Amish Country butter that I got at the Co-op; eggs from Kilpatrick Farm at the Winter Market; and the end of a loaf of Bear Mountain Honey/Oatmeal bread. Oh yes, and fenugreek that I picked up in Brooklyn at Sahadis’ a few weeks ago. And some rice noodles. Cilantro, from the Co-op. I had a documentary called The Cheese Nun on my computer, a fire snapped and crackled in the fireplace, and I was feeling pretty mellow. I decided I would make a brothy fish soup.

I slivered the leeks and swished them in cold water and then put them to melt with the chopped garlic in a mass of butter over very low heat. Since I’d taken the cod out of the freezer in the afternoon, I’d been thinking of a new year’s resolution commentary I’d heard on NPR, a strident young woman bemoaning the need to use the word “local” in front of every food item, and the practice of naming farms and farmers on menus. She didn’t like “sustainable” either. “Couldn’t we just Eat,” she despaired, “Food?”

I looked downright affectionately at my leeks and my garlic, all my edible goods. Monsanto – some call it Monsatan – had not TOUCHED it. And I knew it! And I LIKED that, thank you very much!

I added a little white wine to the leeks, sprinkled on some marjoram and some fenugreek (didn’t know what that would do) stirred, covered, and let them get really quite soft. Then I added some more wine, a little water, the rice noodles I’d boiled for 5 minutes, layered the cod over, and let it cook, covered, until it lost its translucency.

Ladled out into deep bowls, a slightly beaten egg stirred into each bowl, chopped cilantro over the top, hot and crisp croutons on the side, Man it was good!

...peering closely...

Once you start paying very close attention to your food, once you get right down to eye-level and peer back into its shadowy apparatus, you will see more and more instances of the government and agribusinesses with their thumbs in your bowl. You will see how lightly drug, food processing, insurance, and medical companies’ CEOs and other employees flit back and forth between industry, lobbying, and chairing or advising government food and drug agencies. You will see that what began as a footpath leading to public safety has become a highway with no exits – because they would just complicate things – that leads to our complete subjugation. Control the food, control the people.

Our government needs to go back and check out its mission statement, and then sustain the vision, not ram it down our collective throat. And if that mission was to protect the public health, then they’ve got a few branches to back down.

...about those slugs...

I was listening to two farmers at the Market this summer comparing the pH of their soils. They talked about harmful insects and how neither one had any. I asked about slugs. Oh no, they didn’t have Those. They were kindly, but I could tell they were aghast! I slunk away and called Rob Barker to come and dance in my treetops, trim them up, and let some sun in, which he did. I cleaned up my gardens spic and span when the growing season ended, and although I didn’t test my soil, I did dust limestone all over it. But I think letting a little sun in is a good thing. We’ll see, come spring and summer, and then we’ll go from there.

first published in the Rutland (VT) Herald on 8 january, 2008