Tuesday, February 16, 2010

textures... tree ears & perfect veal


Long, long ago, Leo bartered something he made or designed for a whole busload of veal. Veal? Yes. Did we appreciate it? You bet we did. Except that we were totally unfamiliar with it, all but the pounded and breaded cutlets called Wiener Schnitzel, which we had only eaten in restaurants. It was probably my first experience of pounding any meat, and probably the first hurdle was finding a suitable pounder. Now I have a 9 inch, 3 pound cleaver, found at a yard sale, that only needs to get within sight of a piece of meat to pound it thin as a pancake. You drop it, you don’t swing it!

But there were only so many cutlets in that busload of veal. There was a lot of stew meat, too, and I made up a dish I just called White Stew to showcase it. It’s one of my earliest invented recipes. It should all be pale, I thought, as the young veal that had been sacrificed for it. It involved quickly browning the small veal chunks – not even browning them, just a quick stir fry – and adding other pale ingredients such as mushrooms and cannellini beans, and reconstituted tree ears, which are a form of mushroom that have not much flavor but a wonderful, cartilaginous crunch; then simmering all this for maybe half an hour in chicken broth. At the very end I took it from the heat and swirled in a knob of butter, which thickened it and made it silky. I discovered this on my own, though of course I’ve found out since what the French always knew – that the milk solids and proteins in the butter form an emulsion that creates a thick and shiny sauce. If it was put back on the heat after the butter was added the creaminess would be lost, so immediately I served it in soup bowls over egg noodles. It was delicious.

Then we ran out of that wonderful grass-fed veal, and the stew was so good I continued to make it with pork. Somewhere along the way I forgot the tree ears, and only when I was reading the book I mentioned last time, The Last Chinese Chef, did I remember them. The chef explains, “I think it’s fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt. Think of beche-de-mer. Or wood ear.” But where to find tree ears? I asked Becca at the Co-op, and she got some in for me. These are, indeed, called Wood Ears, distributed by FungusAmongUs. I left a few bags, so get them while you can.

As for veal? Many people are not eating veal these days because of the inhumane way it has been raised. But dairy farmers have no use for poor baby boy calves, and some of them are keeping them with their mothers and letting them eat grass until they reach the desired age to be slaughtered for veal. That might seem evil, but it’s better than causing them to be taken away at a very young age to be sent to Campbell’s Soup factories. The pale pink meat of a naturally raised veal is delectable. You might try to find some, and helpful in that search might be issue 11 of Vermont’s Local Banquet, the winter 2010 issue, which is devoted to grass-fed, locally-grown meat issues. It’s free, and can be found at the Co-op or at Book King.

White Veal Stew
serves 3 or 4 and can be doubled or tripled
allow the wide, shallow soup bowls to warm

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 pound. pork or veal cut in ½ inch cubes
• 3 tablespoons tree ears, reconstituted in hot water for 20 minutes, drained, squeezed, and chopped coarsely
• 6 dried Chinese black mushrooms, treated as above, stemmed, but sliced; or ¼ pounds shiitakes, sliced
• 12 small pearl onions, peeled
• 3 cups chicken broth
• 1 can cannellini beans (or 1 cup dried beans soaked overnight and cooked)
• salt and pepper to taste
• 3 or 4 tablespoons butter
• egg noodles

Get a fairly large sauté or frying pan hot, add the olive oil and when that is hot, scatter in the veal or pork, shake and stir just until the meat whitens, then turn the heat to medium low. Add the tree ears, mushrooms, and onions and stir fry for 5 minutes. Don’t allow them to brown, just cook through. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer, cover and let slowly bubble for 20 minutes, until the onions are tender.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to the boil for the noodles.

Add the beans to the simmering soup, add salt and pepper to taste, cover again and let it come to a simmer for another 10 minutes or until the noodles are done.

Cook the noodles, and when they are done, drain, reserving a little of the cooking water in the pan, and return the noodles to the water in the pan and cover it to keep them warm. Turn the heat off under the stew and swirl in the butter. Dish out the noodles and ladle the stew over them, and serve ‘em up!

It’s the best time of the year, actually, about as far as you can get from next February. There’s the texture of spring in the air, thoughts of wild leeks and morel mushrooms in the mind. The light will only stay longer for another several months, and I intend to enjoy it. Here’s hoping you do, too!

textures... cast iron & perfect pork chops


Sad but true – that you can love something so passionately for so long, and then one day you imagine how they could be better, and it’s hardly a breath before they’re moldering in the cellar and a bright new thing, better than the old, becomes the apple of your eye.

Oh, don’t worry – Leo’s fine – I haven’t found anything better than he yet, but your thoughts and commiseration might light on my flat little cast iron grill pan. Poor thing.

I always really loved that small pan that I got down in Boston’s North End a couple of years ago. Now that I think of it, what’s wrong with that statement? Now that I think about it that pan has resided in my kitchen for 20 years or more, that’s all. That’s what a ‘coup’la’ refers to as you get older. It was a time when several women friends would do weekends in Boston, go to the Faneuil Hall Market on Saturday and slide freshly opened oysters down our gullets, pick up fresh garlic (gasp) shoots in February, and other at-that-time esoteric things, and lug gallons of Italian olive oil back to the hotel. I found the pan in the front of a great little combination Italian ingredient/utensil/eating place where we’d stopped for dessert after a winey dinner elsewhere. We went to Jasper White’s restaurant then, and the food was top-notch and so was the service, and Jasper would always come over to say hi. We went to Lydia Shire’s Biba, wonderful food, extraordinarily expensive. As well, we went to Legal Seafood and other Boston tourist attractions. I lugged that heavy little pan back to the hotel and back to Vermont.

The secret is to get that pan really hot (turn on the exhaust fan), until heat waves are distorting reality and then slap on your perfectly formed hamburger patties (2) or pork chops (2), either rubbed with garlic and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper, and let’er rip. For the hamburgers I do 4 minutes on one side, flip ‘em, cover them with a deep pan cover and turn the heat off. When the sound of sizzling fat quiets you will take off the cover and find perfectly caramelized and marked meats, the hamburger will be perfectly (medium) done. The pork chops, if thick, the way I like them, are grilled sizzling 4 minutes per side and then will be ready to do 20 minutes in a 375° oven to be juicy and done just right – to me that means the juices run brown, not pink. Sorry, can’t get around pink pork, which some cooks are calling for now that the danger of trichinosis is deemed to be over.

What you’ll also have is spattered grease in a three foot aura around that great little grill pan to clean up.
So after all these years, I had an idea – why not replace the flat grill pan with a larger grill pan with frying-pan sides? Lodge made one that I’d seen, and wouldn’t that do a lot toward containing the mess, especially with a spatter screen. Which wouldn’t work with the flat pan.

Well. Good idea. But I did not act on it, would only think of it when I was cleaning up the mess. Then yesterday I went down to the basement to get a package of hamburger out of the freezer, and what should my eye rest upon? Why, upon a high-sided cast-iron grill pan, part of my daughter’s storage while she’s off conquering the world. It’s been sitting there for three years. My eye must have ignored it several thousand times.

I cleaned it up – it was a little rusty and dusty from the damp and dusty cellar – anointed it with olive oil and let it sit on the pilot light for most of the day, then grilled up some pork chops that very night. It was the BEST pork chop I’ve ever had. I voiced those sentiments, and Leo said, “I believe it might be.” It was tender. Juicy. FULL of healthy pork flavor. I began to think about it. I’d gotten them at the Farmers’ market on Saturday, from Greg Cox at Boardman Hill Farm. “Why do you suppose they’re so good,” asked Leo. Well, Greg is the only pork producer I know of who lets his pigs forage in a forested hillside, which is how pigs like to live, and which means that they don’t have to eat as much grain or slops (sorry about that, but those are the facts), and maybe their bodies make healthier, better-tasting meat when they live and eat as they are made to live and eat. In addition, Greg tells me that his pigs are free-feeders, which means that there’s always organic grain for them to eat when they like, AND his pigs are not pushed to slaughter weight. They grow naturally and are killed later.

I trust that is enough of a recipe for making great pork chops. I like to grill some fruit with them, some halved and cored apples, maybe, a slice or two of pineapple. That’s it.

We and the pigs thank you, Greg!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

of birds, bees, & breakfast

Red Bellied Woodpecker, art by Isobel Gabel Nimtz

“Why do bees make so much honey?” I demanded of Leo as I breezed into the kitchen this frigid morning.

“Why do birds fly so high?” he asked in return. Sometimes that man does not skip a beat.

“Don’t they-ay know, it’s the ennnnd of the wo-orrrld?” I trilled interrogatively as I opened the frigid door onto the frigid porch and snatched the frigid paper inside.

Refrains and verses might have been muddled stream-of-consciously, but who cared. The Out was cold, the In was warm. And we – how lucky could we be? – were IN. With the Herald and cups of freshly brewed coffee and no-one had forgotten to get the half-and-half.

Which was probably because it was an Audubon morning – brrrrrrrr – and Leo would join a dozen hardy souls to walk around the West Rutland marsh, counting birds and species and twittering intently when in doubt. And the night before Audubon mornings Leo is likely to soak some flattened oats to prepare his oatmeal in the morning. And one needs light cream for oatmeal as for coffee.

And the bees? Off the top of my head, they were lightly winter-dreaming around the queen in the shape and size of a quivering football (I can see Dave Fretz of Shrewsbury Laurel Hill Honey fame, measuring a football size lovingly with his hands), keeping her warm, protecting her, juddering lightly in their dreams, keeping their ownselves warm, the outer ones moving slowly in, pushing the inner ones out for their turn to cool down. Nipping a little high-energy honey from their stores to keep them going.

I would love to join the birders, but I have a morning meeting and I will wait till Leo’s gone and take his leftover oatmeal and sprinkle it with sea salt, side it with a scoop of plain, whole yogurt, and drizzle it with a spoonful of honey, just getting going a little later than he needs to.

Mmm Mmm Mmm, very good!

Of course I like it the way Grandma made it for me, too – a sliver of butter in the bottom of the bowl, steaming oatmeal on top, a crunch of sugar over that, the whole drowned in cream. Though I never eat it that way now because I am convinced of the evil of sugar and refined flour, though the latter is harder to escape.

And why does he soak it? Well, because I related to him a fact that I gathered from Nourishing Traditions, that soaking grains makes the nutrients in them more available to the body and friendly to the digestion.
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, is a fascinating treatise on old ways, slow food, and the validity of ‘old wives’ tales’ and time-worn techniques. About grains, they write, “Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, predigest grains so that all their nutrients are more available.”

It’s the same with beans. For years I advised readers that unless your dried beans were old – in which case you should not be using them anyway – they need not be soaked overnight, that they cooked up just fine without it. Which is true, but soaking, again, neutralizes those phytates and enzyme inhibitors, and they are much better for your body as well as the noses and ears of those around you. So, I take it back – soak your beans, People.

There are many more such ‘truks’ of the trade of being an old wife or a cook (not always the same thing) in Nourishing Traditions, and it is well worth the (fascinating) read.

But back to breakfast. In my growing-up house we often had corn meal mush as a cereal, hot, and prepared just the way Grandma made the oatmeal – with butter and sugar and cream. It was a favorite bedtime snack of mine for years until I realized just how much ‘nutrition’ was contained in one bowl of the delicious stuff, and that nutrition was sticking to my hips.

Of course corn meal mush is nothing but polenta under a different and more appetizing name, and sometimes a different preferred grind of the corn. Which brings us to the subject of sweet and savory as regards breakfast cereals.

Polenta is usually served in savory ways, but it can also be cooked, cooled in a flat pan, then fried up in crisp squares in butter and served with a drizzle of maple syrup. Or honey. Or strawberry jam, for that matter. In that case, it’s much like Johnnycake, which is a moist cornbread served with syrup, usually – in my case – for supper. Rice that is leftover from a chicken dinner can be warmed and served with – yup, you guessed it – butter, sugar, cream. Or cook it fresh, in the morning, with plumped raisins, and you won’t have to use a bit of sugar. It takes 20 minutes.

Or there’s congee – a Chinese breakfast wherein rice is cooked with more water than usual – say 3 cups of water to 1 cup of rice – and served with various toppings which might include “tiny squares of crunchy pickle, slivers of greens, velvety cubes of tofu, tiny smoke-dried Hunan fish mounded up in a crispy, silvery tangle.” That was a quote from another fascinating book – a novel this time – called The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Her chef also has at the ready, “peanuts, shreds of river moss, crunchy soaked fungus, and matchsticks of salty Yunnan ham.” I would add a drizzle of soy sauce, a drop of sesame oil. Young-La sometimes serves this at the Farmers’ Market at her Flavors of Asia booth, although I believe she calls it jook. Most Asian countries have their own version.

Farro is another grain to start experimenting with. It’s ancient, perhaps the earth-mother of our wheats and spelts and barleys. It needs to be soaked overnight, or for a couple of hours during the day if you’re having it for a later meal, and takes only 20 or 30 minutes to cook after soaking. It’s good any time of day, alone, with butter and salt and pepper, or prepared in a sweet way, I imagine, though I haven’t tried it that way. The Killington Ave Market and Deli makes a pureed cannellini bean soup with the chewiness of farro grains in it. I’ve made that and it IS delicious.

Note: This is a little off the subject of grains, but smack-dab ON the subject of KAM&D, and that is the best sandwich I’ve ever had. In my LIFE. It’s Porchetta on Focaccio. In Italy, where Bob and Becky first fell in love with it, a whole, small pig would be stuffed with herbs like sage and fennel and roasted. Bob takes a whole pork shoulder, butterflies it, layers it with caramelized onion and sage, rolls it up and rubs it with roasted and ground fennel and coriander. Next day it’s roasted in a slow oven for many hours. It’s left to rest overnight, then thinly sliced and mounded on a halved, toasted, olive-oil-drizzled flatbread with... nothing else! Sublime. All roast porkiness with a faint anise scent and flavor, on that crisp-tender bread. Man-O-Man, it is a revelation! They roast it on Monday and begin offering it on Tuesday. When it’s gone, it’s gone until the next week. I’ve got a pork shoulder in the fridge just begging to be treated in this multi-stepped way, but when I’ve done it once, I imagine I’ll leave all that work up to them.

Okay, more grains for breakfast. Mark Bittman cooks up some bulgar, adds flax seeds, coconut, sautéed tofu, fish sauce, scallions (click on his name for more great suggestions). How about fried up leftover noodles (which are a kind of value added grain, as is bread) with an egg on top, maybe ginger and scallions over that.

My food-writer friend John Thorne (Simple Cooking Foodletter) likes steaming fresh-cooked spaghetti paired with a fried egg, all mixed together, though, in his case, he craves it as a pre-breakfast, midnight snack. Quinoa is a really neat little grain, but to tell you the truth it doesn’t appeal to me just now as a breakfast grain.

Both quinoa and farro make great side salads or lunch dishes when you combine them with bits of cooked vegetables and bits of fish or fowl and dress them with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.

One of my fave breakfasts is multi-grain bread, toasted, buttered, slathered with Vermont peanut butter, topped with really good horseradish, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I see you grimacing, but I tell you – it’s delicious!

A note on cooking grains. Most need a ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part grain. A little more water won’t hurt. Salt will bring out the flavors. If you’re cooking cornmeal, pour the meal into cold water and bring slowly to a simmer. That prevents clumping and lumping you get when you pour it into boiling water.

So do you need a recipe for any of these breakfasts? Nah, I don’t think so. Get on down to the Co-op (Rutland’s is at 77 Wales Street) and walk straight back to the bulk section and fill yourself some plastic bags with whole or flattened grains, and maybe a few smaller bags with spices and seasonings. Best-kept secret in town, that bulk section. You can’t find less expensive, fresher spices and grains in the world, the variety is great, and many of those grains have been grown right here in this little state.

Think Out of the Box; think of those buzzing bee footballs, watch the birds at the feeder.

This morning while Leo’s out traipsing around in the cold, spotting birds, I spoon up my oatmeal with yogurt and Philip’s elderberry/apple jelly and watch the birds at my feeder: the big Red-bellied Woodpecker visits, as do his cousins Mr. and Mrs. Downy and Mr. and Mrs. Hairy. Goldfinchs and White-breasted Nuthatches. Cedar Waxwings. Mr. Bluejay and he legion of raucous brothers. Titmouses. Whoa, Mr. Cardinal’s scarlet blares out of the green cedar and then I spy Mrs. Cardinal, whose browns and mauves I think are, if anything, more beautiful than his one red. We have a new little guy, and Leo tells me it’s a Brown Creeper.

I will not feel guilty at how beautiful life can be! The oatmeal is good. It could feed the world.

Rutland County Audubon Society at a Lake Champlain picnic.
Snow and ice were scraped from the table before sitting down.