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

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