Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Listening to Mincemeat

...a friend gives me venison neck and I make the mincemeat...

There it was, that neck, calling out for action on my part. Perfunctorily, I sliced and cut the meat from the bone and chopped it with an enormous cleaver whose weight, alone, was enough to cleave the meat. I melted the suet, added the apples and spices and vinegar and sugar into the pan with the meat, and, as it cooked down, its wafted meaty-fruity-spicy scent said to me, “Take your time, Dear. Don’t you recognize me?”
I tasted and sniffed, and Yes, oh Yes, it was the synthesis of the season, it was the sun dipping low on the horizon and disappearing just after mid-day, it was snow piling up as it’s done this year, it was the inchoate nostalgia of the Christmas tree, it was the changing family, gathering one-by-one throughout the years, it was Grandma’s kitchen, it was bleak mid-winter, it was good King Wenceslas, it was old food, arcane food, food to feel lucky for and to celebrate by.

And, damn, but this was a particularly good batch of mincemeat! The meat is chopped, you see, instead of ground, so that, when finished, after simmering for a couple of hours, there are tiny shreds of it threaded through the fruitiness. And the suet is chopped, too, finely, before it’s melted, so that the rendered bits of tissue in the fat are small and undefined to the tooth rather than lumps of mostly rendered fat that have to be picked out. There’s a lot of cinnamon in it, and of cloves and nutmeg, too, whose tastes warn not to expect meat, but, to the initiated, not to expect non-meat, either, but rather a synthesis of all good things.
When Grandma died and I went through that kitchen door for one of the last times, I made a beeline to the cabinet by the stove and rescued the little book where she kept all her hand-written, tersely-written, recipes. It was held together with a rubber band, the sewn spine having dissolved, the pages yellowed and brown-spotted, its little brown cover blackened, and the insignia on it – the first time I’d stopped to read it – read, incongruously, Buster Brown Shoes: First because of the Last.

Mince Meat was on the second page, only the third recipe in, and it reads: 1 bowl chopped meat (2 lbs); 2 bowls chopped apples; 1 tc syrup [that means teacup]; 4 tc sweet cider; 3 tc sugar; 4 tbs. butter; 6 tsp. cinnamon; 1 tsp cloves; ½ tsp. pepper; ¾ tsp. nutmeg; raisins, citron & salt to taste. And then, again incongruously, a notation “catsup”.
Ick. No catsup on MY mincemeat, thank you very much.

...permutations of a recipe...

This was the recipe and suggestions as she’d received it from her sister-in-law (as I remember), my grandfather’s brother’s wife, my great-aunt Leah, probably around 1925.
The recipe she wrote out for me back in the ‘80s specified a few more things she’d realized from fifty or so years of making the stuff: “Spys are best,” she noted, for the apples; vinegar or fruit juices could be added to or substituted for the cider – I used all cider vinegar in mine this year – and she called for 2 “tc” of syrup and 3 cups of “B”sugar.
Only now do I realize that the first recipe did not call for suet, but for butter, and only 4 tablespoons, at that. Grandma always used suet, and called for ½ cup of it on her 80s recipe card. I was so taken with the distinction that suet made to the finished dish that I called for it in the Green Tomato Mincemeat that I developed for a book a few years ago.
Maybe it was just common sense, and suet, like water, needn’t be called for formally.

When I’d geared myself up to make mincemeat that first time, I called Grandma to clarify a few things. What kind of syrup, I asked. She allowed that syrup could be optional. Then, Three cups of brown sugar seems like a lot, I said. “Well, Kid, that was teacups – just try half that amount. That’s what I do!”
Like, “Kid, use your head!”
She also called for “¾ tc nuts”. Now I knew there had never been nuts in mincemeat, not hers, and never would be in mine. “Well then, leave ‘em out!”
Then, How many raisins? I wailed. “Well, maybe a cup,” she allowed, if I really needed to put raisins into a measuring cup instead of just adding them handful by handful until there were ‘enough’ or the box was empty, whichever came first.
So, as you can see, the recipe has evolved, all with the aim of creating the best, that first-tasted, mincemeat of yore. And this is the form of it I pass on to anyone interested:

• 1 bowl chopped beef (2 pounds) ( I love using the ratios) (Grandma and I almost always wait for venison neck, rather than beef, that we can beg, bully, or steal from some unsuspecting hunter)
• 2 bowls of chopped apples (spy and macs combined)
• 1 teacup sweet cider or cider vinegar or a combination (that’s about ¾ of a cup)
• 1 ½ cups brown sugar
• ½ cup suet chopped fine
• 1 cup raisins or sultanas
• 6 teaspoons cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon cloves
• ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
• ¾ teaspoon nutmeg
• salt to taste
• 1 ½ cups dark rum

Render the suet, then add all other ingredients except the rum. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until done – about 2 hours. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
When cool, stir in the rum, pack into canning jars, and store for a week or two in the fridge.
The rum, the sugar, the long cooking, helps to preserve the mincemeat, and I’ve kept it for quite a bit longer than two weeks – I hate to say just how long, but maybe from deer season to now. Or longer. It could be frozen, too, right in the canning jars packed full.
When the time is right, enclose 2 to 3 cups of this between two pastry crusts and bake it off.
Ah, but never mind, unless you grew up with it, anticipated it as the culminating aspect of Christmas, there is little chance that you will appreciate a slice of mincemeat pie. They have been a precious few, those to whom I have introduced it, whose eyes lit up at the first bite.
But no matter – this solstice season, this season of lights, this season of hitting bottom and looking back up is, for me, encapsulated in the mindful chore of the gathering and chopping of ingredients, and their generous return of scent and taste, and their reminder to slow down and let it happen.

...spinach in the snow...

I realized the mincemeat lesson again last night when I was tired and preparing some local swiss chard for supper. The Winter Farmers’ Market still has swiss chard, spinach, kale, and even arugula on offer and probably will have some of them all winter.

Thinking of a Richard Olney technique that I use quite often, I cut out the ribs from the chard with kitchen shears, washed the leaves and the ribs separately, par-boiled them just until limp, drained them, squeezed as much water out of them as I could, then chopped everything finely.

Two states-of-mind were at war in me – duty, and pleasure. Why is it that we have to remind ourselves to pay attention, to LET ourselves enjoy what we are doing?

I melted some butter in the sauté pan, noticing the bubbles in it, the golden mustard color it was turning, then added some olive oil and spread the chopped chard in the pan over a medium heat. When it had dried out a bit I sprinkled a bit of flour over it and stirred it in, watching it bubble and thicken.

It was then that I realized that it needed some liquid, but I couldn’t remember what was called for. I went to the bookshelf and took down Richard Olney’s “Lulu’s Provençal Table.” The book was heavy yet compact in my hands, a substantial book, beautifully made, with thick, creamy, but not glossy paper. The print is as fine and precise – almost embossed – as the words. It’s unimaginable to think of finding a typo in it. I opened it to Chard Gratin. The liquid was milk – plain and simple.

I stirred the milk into the chard and let it thicken.

Richard Olney, and the eponymous Lulu, never content not to make a good thing better, take this thick pudding-like chard and process it into a puree, then pour it into a buttered gratin dish, grate dry bread over it, drizzle olive oil over that, and bake it at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. That’s good, too, especially for a more formal meal, and it could be made up ahead of time and slipped into the oven a half hour before dinner. For our little supper with good hamburgers made from grass-fed beef, and some leaves of arugula sprinkled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper, a dollop of it straight from the sauté pan suited me.

I knew, as I stirred in the milk – in fact had known when I watched the butter melt and bubble and brown – that this chard was going to be very good, because I had allowed myself to enjoy the process of making it.

Mincemeat taught me that – once again.

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