Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Emus: big brown prehistoric birds

and oh, yes, incidentally, we eat them.
(Photos by Lowell Klock of Klockworks.com)
Ann Breen with Baby Emu

I have this kind of block about different and unusual kinds of food animals. Emus, for instance, were not on my radar.  But a couple of weeks ago when I dropped by Roots the Restaurant to sample their new menu of foods and wines, I met Ann Breen, who mentioned that their Emus were “hatching”.  Along the way that evening we had some excellent emu sausage.

In the next few days that verb finally sank in and I remembered that emus were fowl of some sort. Some kind of flightless birds? Like big brown chickens, I guessed, having forgotten whatever I ever knew about them. But when I mentioned to my friend Lowell that the emus were hatching – Lowell loves all these esoteric animals like ostrich and emu, and has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get me to eat ostrich – I could barely keep her on her er, ah, leash. Plus, a trip to Brandon would no doubt include lunch at one of Chef Robert’s Provençal establishments there, something she never forgoes.

I notice I’m talking here about living animals and food as the same thing. That strikes me as wrong, doesn’t it you? But that’s the way we are. Unless it’s dogs and cats and sometimes more esoteric things that we keep as ‘pets’, we expect that if we keep an animal it will do things for us – such as give us milk or eggs or... yes, flesh. It’s a deal we make with them, although they have no decision in it. No doubt they would agree with us that in order to survive for a certain amount of time they would have to agree to die on our schedule. It’s kind of the same deal we’ve made with our own gods and goddesses, I imagine. If we could remember. Perhaps it IS the same. 

Those living beings that don’t benefit us in some way that we recognize we swat or pull out by their roots, or poison, or trap, or simply make it our habit to kill in any way we can, especially if they’re pests. They buzz too loudly, or they bite, or they slither scarily, or they grunt ferociously, or their juice makes us itch, and we find a way to banish them from our environment.

But I do love my little Jersey cows, and big grunting pigs, and sometimes even chickens, and suddenly I was seized with a desire to see baby emus. So, after I’d suitably bribed Lowell, we drove up to the Breens’ Neshobe Farms in Brandon a few days later. Ann Breen came up from the barns holding a baby emu who had gotten tangled in some fishing line, and we were immediately involved in trying to untangle him.

Ann held him and I tried to untangle the line from his three long toes.  Remember, this is my first glimpse of an emu, and the baby is as big as a small turkey, with beautiful striped markings on his fuzzy baby feathers. The adults, who can weigh up to 120 pounds and can look you in the eye, have gorgeous lacy feathers covering their rumps, and sometimes a strikingly curly headdress. Their little faces are triangular with funny round eyes. They get right up to you, but then shy away. The Breens’ emus are dun colored, silvery and black and grays. It really is a prehistoric bird, Australian, very odd and beautiful. Big Bird is the most famous emu, except for his extravagant coloring.

So when this baby emu startled, and his powerful little legs kicked out, I was one startled untangler, I can tell you. But it was good to get up close and personal so quickly, and soon he was untangled and put back into his pen, where he almost got stomped to death by his slightly older siblings when we startled them by stepping into their pen.

There was a lot of startlement going on that day.

Ann showed us their beautiful farm, their emu corrals, the raised garden beds, and the rest of her fowl, among the most beautiful of which was a Muscovy duck and a giant red leghorn rooster rooting and hooting on a pile of compost.

Ann’s husband, Peter, came along and got us some emu steaks and summer sausage from the freezer, and we went back up to the house where Ann fetched us some emu oil. Emus have a nice layer of fat between their skin and their musculature which is touted to be excellent for dry skin and all kinds of eczema, and since it is easily and deeply absorbed it can do some good for arthritis and other aches and pains. It’s even said to lower cholesterol. Huh? It might seem odd to be rubbing chicken grease all over yourself, but come to think of it, Grandma used to rub my chest with goose grease and then wrap it in a flannel cloth when I had a cold. Using fowl grease for healing is nothing new under the sun.  More about emus here.

The meat of the emu is red. It is leaner than most other meats. The steaks should be marinated, Ann told us, and then flash grilled so that the outside is nicely marked and the inside a very dusky pink.

Roots’ Chef Don Billings offers several emu dishes. There is, for instance, an appetizer consisting of a white bean dip, emu sausage, and Blue Ledge Farm Chèvre. The combination is lovely, and the emu sausage very tasty. He also offers an “EELT”, a BLT served with Emu sausage and a fried egg as well as lettuce and tomato. But one of his most popular preparations is ground emu in a patty.

I have to leave soon – I’m writing this yesterday – to pick up my daughter from Albany Airport – Yippee! – and I think tonight I’ll fire up the grill and try that emu steak.

Along with it I think I’ll try a grilled salad. I have a head of romaine from Alchemy Gardens at the Rutland Farmers’ Market. I’ll split that in half and lightly grill it and serve it with a Caesar dressing. I believe Chef Don has the best Caesar dressing I’ve ever had outside my own kitchen, that he serves over his new Grilled Caesar.

The salads on Roots’ new summer menu are outstanding. I believe I talked about the ‘massaged’ kale salad that I had there during Restaurant Week. It’s now a regular on the new menu. I loved the Quinoa Salad, too, consisting of toasted quinoa tossed with grilled mozzarella cheese and tomatoes, with a basil vinaigrette. There’s cumin in that there dressing that kinda sneaks up on you. Delicious. Lots of local ingredients here, including the warmed spinach with mushrooms, bacon and blue cheese that seared scallops are served over in yet another great salad.

Another thing that I might put on the grill is a head of that escarole from Radical Roots that just fell apart like feathers when I cut off the end. Delicious, tender, sweet, with just a slightly bitter edge. It will  need a stand-up dressing – lots of garlic, maybe some plumped raisins, balsamic and olive oil. Oh, and blue cheese. Another green that I’m in love with is some very cute little arugula from Breezy Meadows (a little play on co-owner Meadow Squire’s name?) that I like to scatter all under and over plates of food these days.

At that tasting I spoke about at Roots, we also tasted wines. What absolute fun. I tasted and swirled with the best of them and, if I didn’t spit, I did at least pour quite a bit of wine into a spare glass just so’s I could keep on tasting.

Among my favorites (and keep in mind that I am no expert) was a very grapefruity, citrusy New Zealand New Harbor Sauvignon Blanc, as well as my more customary red – a Norman Classic Zinfandel. I loved that and wrote various forms of BAM and POW over my menu.

If Roots does any more wine and food tastings I would be sure to sign up for them.
Well, I'm off for Albany now::: Remember::: Eat Local!
What? Who said that? Who is that woman. Smile. She's taking your photograph!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Strawberry dystopia

The way to eat the first strawberry is to put it into your cheek and then squeeze it slowly with the flat of your fist through your teeth. The berry is preferably hot from the sun; you would be, preferably, as innocent as a child, and it would become one of those memories that turn into the ribs and vertebrae of your future self. Of such memories are lives made.
Grandma had a job at Rudy Manufacturing in Dowagiac, Mom worked at Kaiser Fraser there, too, and Dad drove to Bendix in South Bend. It was just Grandpa and me and my little brother that summer, as well as the migrants who came up from Oklahoma or Texas or Arkansas to pick and pack strawberries in the field.
At noon Grandpa took us into the house and fed us lunch. The big brown plastic radio gave us reports of pork belly futures and Gabriel Heatter gave us news about Joseph McCarthy, the evil scourge who rolled through the country wrecking the lives of people he accused of being communists. “Pinko!” 
I prattled away until Grandpa sliced the air with his hand, his ear cocked to the news. “Sunnova...” he’d say.
What did we eat for those womanless lunches? Cole slaw and cold fried chicken? Perhaps we poured cream over cold, solidified, raisin-packed rice pudding? Maybe sandwiches of good white bread and leftover pot roast. Pickled beef tongue. Cold baked beans. I can’t remember a thing about those lunches except the mixture of radio politics and food. And maybe the slightly used look of the leftover pie. Rhubarb, mincemeat, cherry. Perhaps, in a fit of frivolity, Grandma would have made lemon meringue.
But I can feel the chill of those lunches, deprived of the energy and warmth of the feminine. Grandma backed down that deep driveway in the morning looking straight ahead. I waved from the sidelines, feeling small.
But everyone would be home for supper; and supper, when strawberries first came in, would be all about shortcake – big plates of hot baking powder biscuits, split, lavishly buttered, ladled with strawberries that had been sliced, not mashed, gritty with sugar, sweet thick cream ladled over all.
Now, what was the name of that  half-moon shaped, wooden-handled slicer?  I have it. I use it still! Of course – Mezzaluna! The berries are capped, tossed into a bowl, and then they’re sliced/chopped with that mezzaluna, sugar is added, and they macerate in their sugar/juices but keep some shape and texture. 

Whole families of “Okies” or “Arkies” would be present in the fields, the older sisters taking care of the babies in the shade of the tree-line. They’d come up to the pump in the dooryard to get a drink of cold water, one skinny hip stuck out with a baby on it. They’d take the tin ladle from the hook and hold it under the gush and drink from it, then offer it to me. I’d shake my head. No thanks.
“Ain’t got no germs,” they said.
“But I do,” I’d say. At night there’d be music faint in the distance where they were camping.
I found this recipe in a profile of a Scotsman called Jeremy Lee in an article in the magazine Saveur from July of 2006. In spite of it’s persnicketyness it has become a favorite. You need to toast breadcrumbs before you start, and let them cool, and then you have to refrigerate the dough for 8 hours, but these little cracker/cakes are so good – delicate and interesting – that you might want to bite the bullet.
Use them for shortcake, or for scones.
Scots Shortcake
  • 12 tablespoons butter, softened (That’s a stick and a half, OR 6 ounces, OR ¾ cup)
  • 1⁄3 cup superfine sugar (I process regular granulated sugar in the food processor)
  • Finely grated zest of one small orange (about 1 teaspoon)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3⁄4 cup whole unblanched almonds, ground
  • 2⁄3 cup toasted white bread crumbs
1. Put butter and 1⁄3 cup of the sugar into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until pale and well combined, about 1 1⁄2 minutes. Add orange zest and beat again until just combined, about 15 seconds. Add flour, almonds, and bread crumbs and beat again until a soft dough forms, about 1 minute.
2. Transfer dough to a piece of plastic wrap and roll up, twisting both ends tightly as if it were a piece of candy, to form a 3"-wide log. Refrigerate dough for 8 hours or overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 300°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Unroll dough, discarding plastic wrap, and cut log crosswise into sixteen 1⁄4"-thick slices. Arrange slices on baking sheets in a single layer, leaving them spaced at least 1" apart. Bake until just golden and slightly puffed, about 20 minutes. Transfer shortcakes to a wire rack and let cool.
Of course, mound with sweetened berries and whipped cream.
Or, go ahead and make James Beard’s utterly sumptuous (and simple)  Cream Biscuits.
We have at least two vendors – Radical Roots and Evening Song – offering broccoli raab at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, for which I’m grateful. It’s one of my favorite vegges. This is the way I wrote about preparing it several times before:
And the way you achieve that flavor and texture is to toss the raab into boiling salted water and bring it just back to boiling, hold it there maybe a second more, then drain it. In the meantime you’ve warmed about a quarter of a cup of olive oil in a sauté pan with a finely chopped clove of garlic. When the raab is drained, and the garlic has had time to flavor the olive oil without turning a bit brown, turn the heat to high under the pan, and when the oil is hot (don’t let that garlic turn) throw in the raab and shake, rattle and roll until the raab is hot, has cooked a couple minutes more and is, my goodness, coated with the oil. Sprinkle with salt to taste, then a teaspoon or so of hot pepper flakes, and there we go! Serve it warm or even cold. Put it in a sandwich. Al Ducci’s makes a raab sandwich on their little flatbreads that are split in half, with Al Sheps’ fresh mozzarella and lots of that garlic olive oil. It is a treat!

I do miss asparagus at the Farmers’ Market. Not ONE farmer offers it. Why? Well, I guess it’s labor intensive (weeding), and difficult to grow organically. But I think that organic asparagus must’ve been the norm before the second world war created a glut of nitrates to make chemical fertilizer. Since I shop mostly at the Co-op and Farmers’ Market I’m in danger of forgetting there IS an asparagus season. Help!
Update: After this column appeared in the Herald yesterday several people emailed to tell me that Williams' Farm just north of Rutland sells asparagus -- not organic, but delicious. Of course I knew that, I just seldom get north of town, and I prefer organic. Nevertheless, I drove out and scored a couple of pounds of beautiful asparagus. I grilled half of it last night and I'm eating the rest for breakfast.
And finally, a suggestion for cheesemakers and sellers:  It seems to be the practice to fold the wrapping around the cheese and gather it in the center, then plop a label over the gathering. Which means that I have to destroy the label when I open the cheese to eat it. I don’t want to destroy that label. You’re proud of it yet you make me destroy it. There should be the top of the cheese – with the label – and the bottom of the cheese with the fastening. Thank you.
It’s that fast-growing-green-grass time of year, when the perky and winter-weary little Jerseys are out there  under the sun eating it and turning it into good milk and cream. Chickens are scampering and scratching around in it for grubs and seeds to make good flesh and eggs. So if you’re a milk drinker or egg eater now’s the time those items are going to be the tastiest AND healthiest they get.  Get them while you can.