Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Good Sharp Cleaver

I’d forgotten what a pleasure a Good Sharp Cleaver can be. And by good, I do not mean expensive. And by sharp I do not mean temporarily. And by cleaver I do not mean a fancy thing like a chef’s knife. I mean a 15$ Chinese cleaver made of easily discolored carbon steel that holds a good edge, with the perfect heft and a wide enough blade to scoop the shards it has just cut, of everything from hard salami to tomato, into the sauté pan.

By Good Sharp Cleaver I mean one like I bought at Cold River Natural Foods back in probably 1973 when I worked there, when my son was three and my daughter not even a gleam, and which I used until the not-gleam was an angst-ridden teenager who, one afternoon after school and before drama practice, anguished over a myth-writing assignment that had to be completed That Afternoon! And Oh. My. God. What was she going to write about.

All my best – harrumph! – professional advice was to no avail but, nevertheless, when the requisite tears had been shed and hopelessness vocalized, she disappeared into her room for an hour and a half and, when her ride’s horn sounded outside, flew downstairs and passed off a baton of typewritten manuscript to me as she raced out the door.

It was called Ostris and Hephaestus, and it was about a woman who loved her knives and loved to chop things. “Not only did she love to chop, she loved to dice, and slice, and mince, and carve. She loved to cube, and hack, and slash, and even liquefy.” After a celebration honoring Hephaestus, the god of the forge, for which she cooked her heart out, “Hephaestus stood up and asked Ostris to come forth so that he could thank her personally.” As she did, the god’s eyes fell on her bloodied hands and “he felt for her, and desperately wanted her to become his private cook.” So, “he then bestowed on her a pair of hands made of metal, with every kind of blade she could desire. They had divine qualities as well, they never rusted and never needed to be sharpened.” Ostris, of course, “wanted her old hands back, so that she could hold things without stabbing them...” But Hephaestus, selfish pig, would not comply because he wanted her to cook for him all the time.

So Ostris became his slave while Hephaestus “grew quite fat from eating all of the time, and he slept often after his meals.” Ostris “wallowed in abject misery. The denial of her human hands prevented such acts as washing, changing clothing and brushing her hair. She looked a mess. She had accidentally chopped off some of her hair and she had gashes all over her body. Her clothes, were shredded and soiled.” One night, out of pure frustration and hatred, she attacked the god, and he realized the great danger he was in. Regretfully, “he changed her shape from a woman to a small metal container. Her bladed hands were put inside, and her life came through a cord from an outlet in the wall. He called the little thing Ostrisizer, and it chopped all of his meals without any complaint.”

Well, of course, this mother absolutely adored the story until, a few hours later, I found my cleaver with a nick about a quarter of an inch deep. What a mysterious coincidence, huh? Not-even-a-gleam swears to this day that she knows “nothing, I tell you. Nothing,” about that nick.

But back to the subject at hand. Subsequent grindings and sharpenings could never put that cleaver to good use again, and since I couldn’t find such a simple and good thing as it was, I bought a fancier cleaver with shiny steel, a slightly rounded blade, thicker, with a bit more heft and a shiny blond handle. It was ... simply not the same. I waited until I could get to an Asian store in the city, and in the meantime fell back on the use of several chef’s knives. Visiting with a Brooklyn friend last year I watched as she cut a link of hard sausage on the diagonal with an exact replica of my cherished old cleaver. “Oh, take it,” she said, happily, “I have another!”

What a treasure it is. And every time I use it – a hundred times a day “to cube, and hack, and slash, and even liquefy” – I think of Ostris, and my darling daughter, and my Brooklyn friend Cynthia.

...caribou lips...

One night last week we had a caribou steak that Dale Lincoln gave us last fall. Caribou’s a very sweet meat, not sweet as in sucrose but sweet as in dolce, as in la dolce vita. From the first taste I was inured in the mosses and fungi that my animal had rubbed off stones with its thick lips and chewed and swallowed. I believe those lichens had grown on Newfoundland rocks and branches, as had the berries and all the other sweet things it ate, and we were pretty much transported to that northern sweetspot that we’ve waited to visit for a long time indeed. It’s a wonderfully flavorful meat, not at all wild, and tender. Really voluptuous. I trimmed that steak up carefully and used only the thickest, meatiest portions. The next night soup was made out of the stringier stuff.

Accompanying the steak on the plate was a mixture of corn, red and green peppers, diced potato, garlic, and onion, sautéed slowly in butter, and topped with a dollop of crème fraiche, which complements the flavors of almost anything, sweet or savory. You know how I like to know where my food comes from – the corn was frozen from last summer and probably came from the Davenport U-Pick. Peppers came from southern climes, through the Co-op. Garlic from a friend up on West Hill, onion from Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson, potatoes from Greg Cox at Boardman Hill, butter from the Amish in Pennsylvania; and the crème fraiche from Allison Hooper at Vermont Butter and Cheese. Oh yes, the plate was scattered with a few little green leaves from my young friends at Vermont Herb and Salad Company in Benson.

...extreme heat...

To prepare the steak, I turned the oven to 450 degrees and put the covered cast iron skillet in to heat with the oven. When it was up to temp I – carefully – took the pan from the oven, held the cover off for just the moment of time it took to plop the two seasoned steaks into it, and put it back into the oven for 5 minutes. Took it out again, turned the steaks, covered, and put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes. It was perfectly, mediumly, done. Maybe I’d leave it in the pan for a minute less. This is a good, smokeless, way of searing meats in winter that you would grill in summer, with similar results. It worked very well with lamb and rosemary sausages from On the Edge Farm, rendering them almost immediately done, blackened in spots, and beautifully textured.

With thinner cuts or with delicate fish you almost don’t have to put the heated pan back in the oven. It acts as it’s own self-contained oven. The technique worked nicely with half a dozen sardines I scored at a seafood store in Manchester the other day, though I sprinkled the bottom of the pan with coarse sea-salt before laying the fish into it. Covered it and left it for 5 minutes, then turned the fish and covered it again, briefly. That snack was served with thin slices of buttered Bear Mountain Honey/Oatmeal bread and mustard.

...a dollar here, a dollar there...

Carol Tashie is that smiling dark-haired woman you see lugging coffee thermoses back and forth from the new prep area/kitchen at the Co-op to the coffee and tea table at the Winter Farmers’ Market every Saturday from 10 to 2. She does it for a reason, and that reason is The Community Cupboard. Every dollar you spend at that table is converted to Co-op vouchers that the Community Cupboard hands out to their clients to use for fresh food at the Co-op. The Community Cupboard has lots of boxes and cans of food, but these vouchers provide their clients with fresh unprocessed foods. Between markets the green collection box by the Co-op cashiers’ station gathers money for vouchers, and certain area businesses contribute to the fund, too. You might want to slip an extra buck or so in those containers once in awhile.

...mea, and youa, culpa...

All right, so mistakes were made in my last column’s story on the Wallingford Locker. They were made by me when I said that Holly Hagenlocher-Keeler was married to Donny Keeler. No, she is married to George, his brother. My apologies to Holly, George, Donny, and his real wife, Kathy Keeler.

Holly misspoke about Burnham Hollow store on Woodstock Avenue. According to its disconcerted owner, Mr. Russo, it is closed for a month for renovations, and will be reopening soon. And finally, some glitch between computers? The person who yelled out to me was not Donna, but Donny.

...it’s not easy being green...

Vernal’s a nice word, isn’t it, green and plump and eagerly growing, all with the hopefulness of fast growing things. It strikes most people as youth, but it needn’t be, though certainly youth explodes with it – vernality.

Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring or vernal equinox. Its astrology has seldom been more fabulous than it is this year, the equinox on Thursday, full moon in Libra on Friday and, of course, Easter on Sunday. Look forward to lots of energy and the shedding of yet more mystery onto a holiday that does not lack for that quality. Pagan or religious, whatever approach you take you still end up at the simple function of it as a feast day. And Feast Days are nothing to sneeze at, providing the best reason in the world to congregate and celebrate with friends and family.

They may be observed just that humbly.

This column appeared in the Rutland (Vt) Daily Herald on 18 March, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Of Mices and Spices


It is that time of year when we continually bait the mouse traps and wait for the snap, and then the flip-flop. A mouse, taken by the neck just as it prepares to enjoy an agreeable tidbit – it can’t be pleasant. But they become untenable, with their nibbling and constant leavings in our butter dish until, with growing dread, we finally bait the mousetrap, than which nothing has been found to be more effective if not humane, and find, next morning, the big mouse, the daddy mouse; the next, a smaller one; and finally, a hungry baby. A shame, but how do we live amicably side by side, the mouses and us.

Ironically, I bait the first mousetrap only hours after sitting at my computer and tearing up over the videos on the Humane Society website of the cows being mistreated so horribly by people who have lost their humanity – the videos that prompted the belated recall of 143 million pounds of beef. These are hard to watch, but I encourage everyone to take their sensibilities in hand and just do it, because it’s easy to KNOW what goes on in the big Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, from which we get most of the meat we buy in grocery stores, but we don’t FEEL it until we watch it. If we don’t immediately become vegetarian after watching, we will at least think twice about buying any but free-range meats that our accountable neighbors have raised. Because carnivores eat free animals, they don’t torture them.

The half a pig I had just acquired had been content during his life – his owner had warmed up the neighbor’s milk and fed it to him and his two doomed compatriots, and she had woken in the middle of the coldest nights to warm water to give them to drink. She had fed them the best of food, and scraped their bristly backs until they oinked with pleasure. She adored them, but she was admittedly relieved when it came time to say goodbye. They were a LOT of work.

I thought of the life taken, especially when I was up to my elbows mixing sausage meat, rendering lard, or looking over the butcher’s shoulder to make sure he was cutting it up the way I wanted it done. After watching the videos, and seeing one of his kind trapped in a cage, the size of which exactly conformed to his body, where he would spend his entire short life, raging insanely at the bars in his misery, I was glad that mine was raised kindly, but still I had no appetite for pork for awhile, nor anything else, not even a turnip.

So where is my cruelty line drawn if – even in desperation – I set a mouse trap? Is it okay just because a mouse is smaller than a pig, a cow, or even a chicken? What I’m doing here, of course, is posing the question of whether or not our quibbling decisions about what KINDS of things to eat or kill actually do not all come down to size. Small, indeed infinitesimal, animals eat vegetables, and when we eat vegetables we eat the teensie things, too. Anyone who has ever pondered the limits of time or space perhaps recognizes that universes exist not only outward towards the stars and immensity, but inward to infinitesimally smaller worlds, and there is reason to assume that the inhabitants of each assumes itself to have the right to continue to exist. A pig, a rutabaga, a microorganism, stardust, you, I... The mouse!

But back to my mousing conundrum. Responses from various friends, many of whom live in old houses like mine with inexhaustible crevices and passageways for small critters, recommend keeping a cat. While I admire cats from a distance, I do not admire their litter-filled accoutrement. Furthermore, given a choice between a playful guillotine with claws and a nice crisp trap, I’d head towards the trap any old day. Nor does being glued to a piece of sticky paper for an interminable length of time attract me. Ditto eating poison, no matter how cheese-flavored, becoming desperate for water and smelling up the walls for, as one person told me, “a really very short amount of time.” Considering.

BANG! goes the trap. Using garden gloves and kitchen tongs I toss them off into the snow under the crabapple tree. And I tell you, those little bodies have disappeared within an hour or two, or at least by next morning, because we live in a world of hungry carnivores, all of whom eat to live. At least the mouse does not go to waste. What more could anyone ask?

...appetite redux...

The Wallingford Locker is looking really good these days, from the inviting new sign painted by Donna Wilkins, chief honcho and artist of Foggy Creek Folk Art, and the gracious porch/walkway, to a larger selling floor, and yes, their new local products! “Look! Look what we’ve got!” Donny shouted when I walked in the door the other day, pointing toward the back freezer: Free-range, grass-fed Black Angus beef from Pawlet’s Maple Tree Farm, processed by Locust Grove in Argyll, New York.

Yes! I crowed.

“We’re just trying it out, seeing if there’s a market for it,” he grumbled. “It’s expensive,” he groused.

Way to sell me, Donny! Let’s hear WHY I should buy this expensive beef. Maybe because it’s eaten grass or hay up to the very end of its happy life; it’s not shot full of antibiotics and hormones, opens a pathway to healthy food that will become less expensive as more is sold and infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses, is built to satisfy demand; pays the farmer a living wage, encourages other people to become farmers, keeps farmland open and free of development, improves the health of the soil. Oh, and by the way, it really IS delicious.

Donny’s wife, Holly, was positively beaming about carrying more local products. Gorgeously decorated cookies, for instance, from the Mt. Holly business, A Dozen Eggs. And from what I gather, the Locker will be the only place to get Burnham Hollow Pies now that the store has closed on Woodstock Avenue. They continue to carry Stonewood Farm Turkey products, and eggs from upstate. But the new product the whole Keeler/ Hagenlocher gang at the Locker is most excited about is one they’ve created – Wallingford Locker Cob-Smoked Cheddar Cheese! Now that should be a big-seller!

...yoo hoo, brunch is on...

Come this Saturday to a Winter Brunch Fundraiser held by Rural Vermont at the Winter Farmers’ Market in the back of the Co-op. We’ll be serving dishes inspired by Rural Vermont’s Local Foods Cookbook including Butternut Squash Soup, Vegetarian or Meat Strata, and Maple Apple Crisp, and of course most of the ingredients will come from market vendors. Full spread, $10 or individual items $3 to $4. All proceeds benefit that wonderfully effective organization, Rural Vermont. 802/223-7222. Brunch 11 to 1; Winter Market 10 to 2.

...nice spices...

The tastes, no matter how minute, of morels, wild leeks or ramps, fiddleheads, dandelion greens, hover in our comparatively near future. It is my considered opinion that even homeopathic amounts of whatever is in these foraged foods are important to our health and well-being, and so I imagine that is true also of some tastes that recently tempted me, and are available year around, dried, at any well-stocked health food store or Co-op to make Five Spice Powder. Measure out 1 oz star anise; 1 oz cassia or cinnamon; 1 oz or 5 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns (smells like orange peel); 1 oz cumin seeds; ½ oz. cloves; ¼ oz (black)coriander seeds (or seeds from about 5 or 6 pods) and put each, separately, into a flat-bottomed pan over low heat, shaking occasionally, until they give off their aroma. Pour them into a bowl once they’ve reached the odiferous point and let cool. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar with pestle. Use on ... well, anything. I made up a new snack of dipping dehydrated banana slices in the spices and eating them with a few roasted peanuts. Yum! Normal people use Five Spice to flavor rice, lentils, yogurt, and other foods to give an eastern or middle-eastern taste. I was reminded of it vis a vis braised pork belly.

...MFK Fisher on cauliflower...

“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them, and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called râpé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.”

This is another instance where it is necessary to read the author’s words in order to make a dish turn out as succulently as it should. I KNOW how to do it, but if I don’t read MFK’s words first it doesn’t work. She continues:

“I put some fresh pepper over the top, and in a way I can’t remember now the little tin oven heated the whole thing and melted the cheese and browned it. As soon as that had happened we ate it. The cream and cheese had come together into a perfect sauce, and the little flowers were tender and fresh.”

Darn Tootin! This is a perfect dish, all we need for supper, with the leftovers for lunch!

...what’s cookin’ rutland...

After months of work, trial and error, lines in the sand, and misfortunes that threatened to bring the project to a standstill, a small group of civilians working with PEG TV has managed to get Rutland’s first cooking show, featuring – what else – local food, on air.

PEG TV built a dream kitchen – that wide granite counter needs to be in MY kitchen – that will be available to anyone who lusts to become the next Julia Child – Whoops! Catch that chicken! – after signing up for a video training session, that is. But What’s Cookin’ Rutland is the name of the regularly scheduled show we’ve all been working on, sponsored by Chaffee Art Center and featuring Whitney Lamy as the host and Greg Cox as the regularly visiting farmer, with guest chefs – both home and restaurant – to be taped before a live audience on the third Monday of each month. Well, usually. May’s taping will be on the 12th. Our own Randal Smathers, Managing Editor of the Herald, will be cooking with the Localvores on March 17th. You can get tickets for it by calling the Chaffee at 775-0356. Suggested donation, $10.

Now, besides that first taping, the show will be seen on Channel 15 Saturday evenings at 8PM and intermittently throughout the month. You can also catch it online at pegtv.com through their streaming video service, or download it by clicking video on demand.

The first show, featuring Clarke Congdon, chef at Sabby’s, winner of last summer’s Iron Chef Contest, should be available as we speak!

This column was published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on03/04/08