Grappa, Flatulence, and Abortifacient

m4hM50Knybl7bt4ejMsDyhAThe gangster, as is vogue, really likes bitter stuff: raddichio, chicory, grapefruit, hops, Campari, Cynar, crushed aspirin, what have you. Underberg, a German digestive made from, among other things, gentian roots has been, in flush times, a staple of my house. But, at five or six bucks for a box of three adorable single-serving glass bottles, this thistly ambrosia has become (perhaps fortunately as drinking herbal extracts to excess is a prescription for headache) mostly an occasional indulgence. A few years ago, when the stuff was a common sight not only in my liquor cabinet, but also in these bizarre bandoliers that hung in bars all around town, I paused in the garden to taste an herb that had always eluded me: Rue, Ruta graveolens, and I rue not that day. It occurred to me that it had a burnt asphalt and aggressive green quality, not unlike that of Underberg. So I cut some branches of it and drowned it in Everclear.

An image I cribbed from the internet.

I want to write of the history of rue, its names and significances and the significance of its name, but I’m doing this shit for free so you’ll just have to accept what I read on the internet. Ruta apparently just means rue, because it’s been around Europe that long. The graveolens part means “heavily scented.”  There is common internet agreement that the word rue as in regret comes from some folk association with the herb itself. As you can imagine, the internet is all over the place on what, exactly, this association is. I’m not going to feed into the internet superstition machine, not that I’m not curious. Let me postulate that it has something to do with the fact that rue has long been, and still apparently is, considered an abortifacient. And this nutty Ukrainian song (oh my god, you’ve got to hear it performed) seems to support that theory. (Maybe it really is an abortifacient, here’s a you tube video where a crazy guy explains the danger of using rue that he apparently sells to induce labor. Whoa! You mean women been trying to cure pregnancy since they’ve been getting pregnant? Who’d have thunk?)

Let’s move along…. Infusing booze is not difficult. Put the flavor in the booze and let it sit for a few weeks or months, strain. After 4 months, I strained the Everclear from the rue, cut it with water to about 40% alcohol, and added sugar until it didn’t burn the throat too much. Then I capped it and set it in the basement to mature for a few months. This was pretty good. Not as complex, floral and aromatic as Underberg, but not bad. One problem was that I got to the Rue late in the season, when the flowers had all set seed and the stems were all twiggy. The flavor was woody and somewhat harsh. This year I got to it earlier, probably back in May or June, and it’s definitely improved. I used the yellow flowers along with leaves, in the hopes that they would impart a little sweetness from their nectar. And they may well have, but tasting something as subtle as the nectar of tiny flowers through pure grain alcohol and the powerful bitterness of rue leaves is for a palate more refined than mine.

It turns out that, surprise, I haven’t discovered anything new. They’ve been making Grappa alla Ruta in the Vicenza region of Italy for a long time and it seems to go for $30-$50 a liter. Good luck finding it locally.

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Outside of its pregnancy-ending properties, rue is apparently used medicinally in parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. It may settle the stomach from overindulgence, which is what virtually all bitter liqueurs are intended to do, and in my experience they’re pretty effective for this purpose. But, as you can imagine, a lot of folk pharmacopeia credit the herb with an entire range of healing properties. There is at least one (well, the one I stumbled across) recorded case of a little old Taiwanese woman drinking too much rue tea for her heart condition and being admitted to the hospital for acute renal failure. But she was 78, and on other medication, and so forth. I’m just saying, just because it’s an herb, don’t think it’s harmless. Rue is also known to cause blisters on skin exposed to first the herb, then sunlight. That’s called phytophotodermatitis ya’ll. Also, it just makes some people real sick. But a Gangster ain’t scared. Wait, what’s this study? “Immobilization effect  of Ruta graveolens L. on human sperm: A new hope for male contraception,” nope still not scared. A little excited actually. Ladies, men, avoid this stuff if you want babies. Come to think of it, maybe you should just avoid it altogether. This shit is too dangerous for gen pop.

Can you cook with it? Most people on the internet complain that rue stinks (because they’re a bunch of crybabies). The only people who talk about it are woo-woo herbalists who seem to figure it can cure everything from flatulence to diabetes. Have you ever noticed that every herb, spice and mineral seems to have the power of an entire pharmacy? Here’s a tweet from so long ago that the bit-link is no longer active: Lamb roasted with rue, garlic and honey. Sounds good to me.

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Here’s a recipe for a rue and plum sauce: “Pound together the black pepper, cumin seeds, lovage (or celery) seeds and rue (or rosemary) in a mortar. Add the damsons and pound until smooth. Now work in the white wine, honey, vinegar and liquamen (fermented fish intestines, also known as garum). Then mix with a little of the stock. Turn the mixture into a pan then beat in the remaining meat stock. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced and thickened. Pour over the meat and serve.” Now that recipe, according to a local woo-woo, could raise the dead.

The Roast Primer

Damn! That’s a sexy looking lamb leg roast. Rosemary and garlic, lamb roasted onions, roasted yams.

As a meat cutter, my most frequent customer query was: “How do I cook this roast?” And there are two fundamentally different answers to this question: wet or dry.

The wet-roasting (“pot roast” in the vernacular) scenario involves, as you may have inferred, liquid.  Refer to my (very) early post about braising for more information on how I feel about that. The dry roasting scenario is equally intuitive. Synonymous with simply “roasting” and referred to by some grandmothers as “baking,” it involves putting a piece 0f meat in the oven and cooking until done. Of course we could cook a piece of meat and eat it from this description, but maybe we want it to be a little more soigné.

Cuts of meat appropriate for dry roasting are typically leaner and have less connective tissue (gristle, stringiness; technically collagen and elastin matrices) than those for the pot. Leg cuts are typical. The leg (butt muscles) of a cow or veal cow is called the round; of a lamb is just called leg; of a pig is called the ham or leg. Confusingly, a pig’s shoulder is called a butt.

A special occasion calls for a nicer cut. The loin of any animal is typically the tenderest part and these are the cuts one associates with high living. They go by a similar range of confusing names that are oftentimes criminally contradictory. Meat nomenclature is less than linnaean in its logic, so I am here going to make a little list of the different beef cuts generally considered suitable for dry roasting, including their aliases and other helpful notes:

Beef Leg (Round) Cuts are the cheapest:

  • Top Round is sometimes sold as huge steaks called “London Broil,” which is generally not suitable to our purposes here. Although you can, if you find it on sale, have them cut it in a manner suitable to our purposes, explanation below.
  • Bottom Round is sometimes called “Rump Roast” which is suitable for our purposes. The first cut or “watermelon cut” is by far the best, those toward the tail end will be flatter and wider, the whole thing is shaped roughly like a doorstop, and progressively less desirable.
  • Eye of Round has no aliases that I know of, although I have seen meat shops try to pass off other cuts as the eye of round. Old people seem to love it; it’s always seemed too lean to me. But hey, maybe you should try it and tell me about it
  • Sirloin Tip is also known as the Knuckle. It is not to be confused with either the Sirloin or the Tri-tip roast. This cut is lean, but the tenderest of the round cuts. Try to find one without too many pieces of white connective tissue running through it.

Sirloin Cuts are slightly more expensive:

  • Top Sirloin is, as a marketing ploy, sometimes cut into very large steaks referred to as Chateuabriand. As before, these are not great for roasting. Top Sirloin makes a great roast, but is nearly impossible to get properly cut because most butchers refuse to remove the-
  • Culotte, which is hard to find because butchers generally just leave it attached to the Top Sirloin and sell it as one cut (the Culotte being the smaller, leaner part on the cut with the grain running the opposite direction). It’s usually referred to as a steak. Indeed it’s a little on the small side for a roast, but quite delicious.
  • Tri Tip is also on the smaller side, has incredible marbling, and is usually referred to as a roast, unless it is cut into steaks.

Loin Cuts are the most expensive cuts of all:

  • Tenderloin, also known as Fillet Mignon, Fillet or Chateuabriand (beware of this last name which literally means “house cut” and usually refers to Top Sirloin) is the very most expensive and tender part of the cow. It is generally regarded as overpriced.
  • Striploin might be referred to as the Top Loin or the New York. The steak is more popular than the roast version of it, but it makes a tasty (expensive) roast.
  • Rib Roast goes by the most confusing mess of names of any part of the beast. It can be boneless (usually just called Boneless Rib Roast, but possibly called a Ribeye Roast,) or bone-in and referred to as Standing Rib Roast, Seven Bone Roast (not to be confused with the Seven Bone Chuck Roast) or Prime Rib Roast. This last is generally a huge misnomer as the “prime” part refers to the USDA grade of beef, prime being the top level in terms of maximum fat marbling. It is the most reasonably priced, popular and possibly the <tastiest_synonym> cut of beef loin for roasting. Bone in is the way to go; it’s ordered by the bone and can be cut from from the leaner loin or “large” end, or from the fattier rib or “small” end .
A Top Round roast, browning in the cast iron.

Here, the sustainably raised top round roast is browning.

So that was about as exhaustive of a list of beef roasting cuts you’re likely to find on the internet. I see Cook’s Illustrated has a nice illustrated pdf guide but it lacks my snarky, authoritative voice and my impeccable credentials. Mine also has a little actual information that their’s lacks.

I made my last roast beef with a 5 pound Top Round Roast from a Crooked Gate Ranch steer that I bought with some other people. This guy produces some of the best pasture- finished beef anywhere, right here in the Willamette Valley. I was fortunate in that the processor cut my roast properly, a rarity anywhere anymore. Here’s what I mean by that:

Meat has a grain pattern, a direction in which the muscle fibers run. You can see this grain pattern if you look closely. Look at the end of the cut to see that there aren’t fibers running parallel to the face. It is desirable that the grain runs across the longest dimension of the cut. If the cut is a rectangle, the grain should run the length. This is because, when it’s sliced, we want to slice across (perpendicular to) this grain, cutting the grain pattern into cross sections. It is easy to imagine how this results in more tender slices of meat. The cheaper the cut of meat, the more thinly the meat needs to be sliced.

That is a well-browned roast. you can easily discern the grain pattern running the length of it.

Another consideration is the fat cap. Most meat cutters and butchers will take off every bit of visible cap since customers hate to see fat on their meat. Try to pick, or order, a roast with a layer of fat on top, which will help protect the meat from the heat of the oven and may or may not baste the meat as it cooks. If a piece of meat with a fat cap is unavailable, barding is an option. Barding involves tying a piece, or pieces, of fat or bacon to the top of a piece of meat in order to protect it. My roast was already so nicely tied, I didn’t wanna mess with it, so I just laid the bacon right across the top. I don’t have time to go into how to tie a butchers knot here. I’ll do that someday in future.

Let the roast sit in the refrigerator for a couple (or three or four) days, uncovered. Replace that box of baking soda! Turn it over every so often and pour off the excess blood that collects under it. This is an (weak) approximation of aging. Grocery stores “wet age” their beef which means that the beef doesn’t get a chance to lose some of its excess moisture, which would intensify the beefy flavor. The night before the roast will be cooked, season it relatively heavily with salt and pepper (season it with whatever you want, just make sure you use primarily salt.) By heavily I mean a teaspoon per pound or so. The next day pull the roast out of the refrigerator, maybe two hours before you plan on cooking it. If this is all starting to sound unsanitary, I really don’t know what to say. I don’t have the time to go into the fundamentals of sanitation and bacterial growth here, so just believe me, it’s fine. It’s important that we begin with roast that is at room temperature through and through.

Put a heavy, preferably cast iron, skillet that is large enough to hold the roast on the range,  turn the burner on high and add some vegetable oil to it. Olive oil would just burn here, as would butter. Let the skillet get so hot that the oil smokes and brown that roast really well (remember, perfection is just this side of burnt) on all sides. Set the roast aside, turn off the pan. At this point we can add wet flavoring ingredients (garlic, herbs, etc…) to the exterior of the roast. I like to either make a crust of herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme, whatever…), mixed with olive oil and garlic to coat the exterior of the roast with, or make little incisions all over the outside that I stuff with garlic and herbs (rosemary.) Then, if we are going to, we bard. I suppose I don’t recommend barding with the herb crust idea, but I’ve never tried it.

So this isn’t “Barded” proper like. I just laid the bacon on top . Properly, there would be more bacon, and it would be tied down.

We want the roast to sit above the bottom of the pan, otherwise it will just stew in its own juices. I like to cook mine in my cast iron skillet. I don’t have a roasting rack that fits it, so I make a rack from vegetables. I cut two peeled onions through the stem into quarters. I put these into the pan, and the roast on top of those. The onions keep the roast up so that hot air can get around it, and simultaneously flavor and prevent the juices dripping from the roast from burning in the bottom of the pan. Clever.

The slower the better. 200° for 30-45 minutes per pound is about ideal. 325° for 15 minutes or so per pound is okay too. We need a thermometer to take the temperature. The roast will finish to a nice rare/medium rare if we pull it out at 125°-130° and let it rest. Resting is really important, 30 minutes is not too long. Let it rest on a plate so that the delicious juices that leak out of the roast do not run all over the floor for the dog, baby or cockroaches to lap up. As the roast rests, the muscle fibers relax and the blood redistributes itself throughout, resulting in an evenly red interior.

That’s nice color you can’t get by just fiddling with the oven temperature, not on this size a roast anyway.

While that is going on, it’s time to make the sauce. Put the pan over high heat, onions and all, on the range top. If the juices are not browned, brown them first. Add wine (I use a combination of white and red- white for acidity, red for earthiness and tannin) and cook down to about half. How much wine depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice. Don’t be too much of a lush, as you will have no sauce. As the wine cooks, be sure to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan so that they are able to dissolve into the sauce. After this we can add beef stock if we have it and cook that down until it is of a relatively saucy consistency; we could add a small amount of tomato paste to make it more rich and substantial; we could add cognac or brandy or bourbon for sweetness and complexity. We could do an infinite number of things to vary this basic sauce. Make sure to pour the drippings from the resting roast into your pan and reduce that too. Finally, strain that juice from the onions into whatever, maybe a measuring cup. If we like this, it could be our sauce. We could return it to the empty pan and throw a large chunk of butter into it, swirling the pan over low heat until the butter melts happily into a rich brown sauce. We could then add herbs, or green peppercorns, or chopped anchovies. We could have sautéed some finely diced shallot and or mushrooms in the empty pan before we returned the juice. We could have toasted a little flour and butter into a nice roux to give our sauce more body, more substance. We could then have added chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley and lemon to make it more interesting. There is no end to the ways we could finish our roast.

What’s important is that we slice it correctly. If the roast was cut correctly (in the case of loin cuts it would be nearly impossible to do otherwise) then we will be slicing across the width of it. Slicing across the length would be exceedingly difficult, and a real mess. If we are using a Round cut, slice it thinly, say an eighth inch or less. A Sirloin cut can be sliced somewhat more thickly, and a Loin cut could practically be cut into steaks if we liked.

The beginning of a nice sauce. The possibilities from here are endless.

Choose the right cut. Make sure that cut is cut right. Season early and heavily. Allow it to warm up. Brown it well, roast it slow, keep it raised. Rest and slice appropriately. That is all we need to know.

 

Salad Bitch

Curly endive with egg and olives in red wine and red chili vinaigrette.

This gangster just finished off three plates of salad: endives, grapefruit, Kalamata Olives, pepperoncini, Myzithra and red wine-grapefruit vinaigrette. You may be asking yourself, “what kind of gangster eats loads of salad? Does he also carry a snubnose .38 that he just lobs at his rivals as he wheels away in terror?” No tough guy, I don’t. I vanquish my rivals with an assertive vinaigrette and equally assertive leaves. When I make salad a goddamn turf war is fought upon the plate. I eat salad because when it is made well, it’s delicious; and I know how to make salad.

And if you don’t know how to make salad, you can’t get good salad because, and I do not exaggerate here, there are no restaurants in this city, and mostly in this entire cheeseburger country, that make good salad. If by chance some clever restaurateur or chef type guy stumbles upon a good salad, they make sure to serve it in the tiniest portion imaginable so that no thinking person would ever order it. Many restaurants still serve that godawful mesclun mix that tastes of nothing and does even less to satisfy the stomach. I’m sure it’s wonderful in its original home of Provence, where it has a specific composition that inlcudes endives, chervil, arugula and lettuce, but have you ever seen chervil in a mesclun salad this side of the Pacific? No, and the reason is that people here perceive salad as something to be endured, a palliative for the guilt of consuming sugar with a side of fat and a protein garniture.

Restaurant chefs, accordingly, assign the youngest, newest and lowest-skilled employees to what is euphemistically referred to as the garde-manger, officially referred to as the “pantry”, and usually denigrated as the “salad bitch” station. The phrase “salad bitch” is a testament to both the implicit sexism of (most) restaurant kitchens and the disrespect thrusted toward cold, vegetal foods in our contemporary American understanding of cuisine. It’s a goddamn hate crime.

great iceberg salad

Iceberg lettuce, along with a little Romaine, at it's very best. Hey Madhur Jaffrey, check out my blog!

I found my time as a salad bitch extremely enlightening. It’s hard to make good cold food. It’s hard to make it look nice and taste nice and it’s even harder to garner a lick of respect for it. The fatty fat public remembers well their Brobdingnagian repast of starchy mounds of polysaccharides, dripping with flavor-enhancing salt and lipids. Who can soon forget the preternatural appeal of the cut of a hearty, tannic Barolo through the fat and blood ambrosia of a perfectly rare grilled porterhouse? Not this gangster. Dieters, with their obsessive- compulsive eating behaviors, existential ennui and irritability have done little positive for the genre’s reputation.

Let me give you a few ideas for a nice salad. Primarily, people like food to be, or at least appear to be, abundant. I personally recommend serving a lot of salad. Pile it high, put it on a plate, and avoid atrophied greens. I can’t stress enough how much pre-made mesclun sucks. If you think it’s good, you’re probably a foodie and should go read this site.

Dressing should be assertive, almost offensively so. Dressing should remind you of me after four or five drinks, not me after nine or ten; add sugar or fat if this becomes the case. The traditional ratio of vinaigrette is three parts oil to one of vinegar. Traditionally, one should rub the inside of the salad bowl with garlic and dispose of the clove, attend church every sunday and religious holidays, and beat one’s wife only in the privacy of home. Make it to taste, but don’t make it like the balsamic vinaigrette that came (hah!) on my greens last night: the oil masking the taste of the lettuce with the vinegar contributing little but a brownish color and an annoyingly subtle sweetness. Speaking of Balsamic vinegar, I recommend disposing of it. If you can afford it, it sucks. And it doesn’t belong in this country anyway. If you insist on using it, good luck. Caesar dressing and the like should be made with coddled whole eggs, put them in boiling water for one minute and stir gently, make sure to scrape out the cooked white from the shell when using. Don’t let your foodie sentiments get in the way of enjoying yourself; Thousand Island is possibly the best sauce for iceberg that god hath wrought.

curly endive salad

Curly endive with parmigiano and raw sliced matsutake. Raw matsutake is not for all stomachs.

I’ve been waiting to tell you about iceberg lettuce. Actually just one variety of “crisphead” or what used to be called “cabbage” lettuces, it is quite possibly the zenith of lettuce horticulture. I once grew a “chocolate iceberg” in my garden. It was good, but not great, because crisphead lettuces are so very difficult to grow. It has acquired a reputation amongst people who think about what they eat as a leper of lettuce, pariah of produce. This extreme prejudice is usually rationalized as a nutritional concern. “Iceberg has so little vitamins, why would I waste my valuable stomach space eating it?” the foodie whines. Because it’s delicious. And if you don’t believe some self-proclaimed gangster writing on the internet, you can ask Madhur Jaffrey what she thinks about it. What? you think you’re smarter than Madhur Jaffrey?

Who cares about the nutritional composition of lettuce? It’s just lettuce. It won’t fill you up, the 8 calories per serving can be empty without hurting your precious health. What may damage your health is the bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, diced beets (not so bad) and Thousand Island that I recommend slathering great wedges and torn shards of iceberg with. You should make your own Thousand Island as all bottled salad dressing is awful; it should include copious horseradish, lemon, tabasco and worcestershire.

The Holiday Salad: Bibb lettuce, Satsuma mandarins and candied pecans in poppy seed dressing with cranberry gelée (jello mold) garnish.

Endive (or chicory) whether curly, belgian, escarole, friseé, raddichio, treviso or otherwise, requires an assertive, really aggresive, dressing. Red wine vinegar, mustard (powdered or strong prepared), copious garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes (or, better yet, Tutto Calabrias) blended with a judicious measure of olive oil usually does the trick. Garnishes should include some combination of olives, garlicky croutons, pepperoncini, country ham, raw mushrooms, dry cheese, citrus fruit (probably best to hold back the garlic in this case) bacon or anchovies.

Like my German forebears, I pick dandelions in the earliest days of spring. These I toss in hot bacon dressing. Render bacon of its fat, add apple cider vinegar, sugar, mustard and scallions. Pour this immediately over the greens and serve post-haste.

Another derided tradition is the use of gelatin-set fruit juices as a garnish for salad. Salad serves, among other puposes, to make your mouth wet, and gelée, if you have to get fancy about it, makes your mouth wet without drenching the salad (although a salad should be, despite fancy chefs’ assertions to the contrary, a wet thing). The holiday salad here consisted of bib lettuce, satsuma mandarins and candied pecans dressed in a sweet- sour poppy seed dressing with a cranberry and white wine gelée for garnish. I can only tell you that it was fantastic.

Pig

Gangster Of Food had to attend a conference in Ohio, “How to not be an asshole” put on by the Association of Snarky Bloggers of America (ASBA). Meantime the garden has come and gone, mushrooms have started sprouting, a handful of squirrels have mysteriously died in the backyard, looks like they were shot, and you all quit paying any attention to me.

We are getting some pigs. Big pigs. Anyone who is interested in this endeavour should comment on the post. The pigs will be from Lance’s Farm Vittles in Bay City, Oregon. They are advertised as “milk fed” although they obviously eat other things too. The pigs are raised in a pen/ barn structure and someone expressed concern that the pigs were confined in some way. Apologies, sir for reprinting my thoughts on the matter here, but it was good of you to give me an opportunity to express my feelings on the subject of animal confinement:

If you got someone that you are going through then by all means do that, I’ll easily have enough people to get two or three pigs and I’m sure the PMC has more resources and a nicer space than I got. I’m trying to get into one of their fall pork classes as well.
Concerning the raising the pigs indoors vs. outdoors I’ve talked to a few of different pig producers about the subject and I’ve gotten two main responses. One response is: “They’re pigs, given the choice they stay inside” from Sweetbriar Farms whom I believe the PMC has gone through in the past and the other, from the rancher at Crooked Gate which primarily raises beef using MIG practices is: “you can have pigs or you can have pasture”, basically meaning that pigs tear up pasture through their digging and rooting. From an environmental perspective, tearing up pasture is bad for soil retention, biological diversity, and soil carbon sequestration which is why feral swine are considered a noxious invasive species wherever they are found in the US and many states (including Oregon) have open season on them year round.
From an animal welfare perspective I find it illogical to argue that an animal should be allowed to do something that it is not naturally inclined to do. Free will seems to be more a preoccupation of human than animal endeavor. More importantly, if the animal is destructive to its immediate environment, allowing unfettered access to destroy its environment does little for the long- term happiness or health of the beast (witness my neighbor’s chickens, which have totally destroyed their range, and the human race).
That being said I realize that there are some farmers like Joel Salatin who make a conscious effort to move their pigs to different areas on the farm in order to utilize the pigs rooting and turning behavior to kill weeds and “rototill” the area. If I found such a farm in the area then I would at some point definitely try some of their pork. Even in this circumstance however, the pigs are usually confined to some extent so that they actually turn the area the farmer would like them to turn rather than, say, attack the nearest row of grapevines.
I see that this fall PMC will be getting their pork from Tails and Trotters which prides itself on finishing their pigs on acorns. I don’t know for sure, but from the photos on the T&T website it seems as though the pigs are confined to a pen.
-GOF

In other words, freedom is of limited usefulness.

So these pigs, they gonna be good eh?

A public service announcement

If the gangster were rich, he would buy billboard space throughout the city of Portland that would give all current and would-be restaurateurs solid culinary advice about things that they often fuck up. First and foremost would be french fries.

French fries or pommes frittes if you want to get fancy are, as you may know, fried sticks of potato. Usually seasoned with salt and dipped in a variety of condiments, commonly a tomato preserve known as ketchup, they are generally regarded as the epitome of simple. So why is it necessary to pay upwards of $5 for a serving of them that are both edible and not from a freezer truck? Is it because people who own restaurants are idiots? Yes.

So, listen up Mcmenamin’s brothers, Mr. Stanich, and the rest of you good- for- nothing, french fry slaughtering slobs, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the secret is to fry twice.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Select nice, fresh russet potatoes, old potatoes won’t work as won’t red potatoes or yukon gold or anything else. Only Burbank russets make really good fries.
  2. Cut your potatoes into even french fry shapes, battonet in french, and don’t try to make them too big. Smaller is better.
  3. Rinse the potatoes several times with cold water and then put them in the refrigerator covered in water and let them sit overnight. This is very important.
  4. Drain off the water and dry the potatoes as you wish to fry them.
  5. Most crucially, fry the potatoes in peanut oil, lard, duck fat or even rice oil that has been preheated to 250 degrees farenheit for several minutes until they are quite limp, almost falling apart, and the corners are begininning to brown. Hydrogenated fat may be used as well, especially if you wish to perpetuate the notion that you really don’t care about your customer and they should respond in kind. Spread the potatoes on a screen or on towels and allow them to rest and drain off some of that excess fat.
  6. Fry the potatoes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until they are crisp and brown and season with salt that has been crushed in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle into a fine powder which will allow it to stick to the potatoes better. Now they are ready to serve to a customer who isn’t on death’s door or whose standards haven’t been mercilessly crushed by a lifetime of unfulfilled expectations.

You see, standards matter. If you’re going to serve something you should make it right even if it is just french fries. In The Gangster’s career as a preparer of quality foodstuffs, it would break his heart and kept him up at night to think of that one plate that he sent out that could have been, should have been, better. I’m surprised that some of you haven’t killed yourselves from shame.

Everybody Wants to be a Chef.

North American food is at a dead end. There are of course those fancy restaurants that proclaim to be serving some qualified version of American food, and Yankees can’t get enough “Southern Food”, the type that doesn’t include giblets, brains or chitlins, but mostly it cannot be found.

A trimmed down, fatted up institutionalized version of it can be found in fast food restaurants and greasy spoon diners, roadside cafés, “family restaurants” ( the definition of which, to my knowledge, means no beer and crayons) and the often times sorrily misnomered roadhouse. In these sorts of establishments the food served, well you know what they serve, It all comes from a can, a box or a frozen bag. It leans heavily on the “deep fried” group of foods and it consists primarily of white bread, potatoes, meat, cheese and laboratory- formulated sugars and fats. The food is manufactured in truly stupendous quantities in factories that, to the untrained eye, look as if they could just as easily be manufacturing formaldehyde.

Nothing is actually prepared on site in these types of places, no one knows how to cook. Even hash browns and french fries are beyond their scope. Burger patties are generally made by a Patty-O-Matic (yes, there really is such a machine) in a slaughterhouse in Des Moines, frozen in stacks of ten, packed 10 to a box, 4 boxes to case, 12 cases to a palate and shipped to warehousers and distributors like Sysco and Food Services of America to be distributed among the quaint- looking and humble roadside diners of this country, big signs proclaim Home Cooking. Why bitch about this? This is old news. Everyone knows, many take for granted that any restaurant that exists in a rural area that does not have a daily menu, printed on linen paper, hanging in a well-lit wooden box topped with glass hanging outside of the door is crap. It helps if the menu proclaims European food, by which I most heartily mean Western European:Salade Nicoise, Rissoto con Funghi and cetera, because everyone also knows that, if North America could be said to have a cuisine, that cuisine is crap. I protest because I know that this is not the case.

How long has European- dominated America been around?, goes the familiar argument, not long enough to have developed a cuisine. We know, however, that although the myth that Catherine de Medici single-handedly brought cuisine to the French with her entourage of Italian cooks when she moved to the French court in the sixteenth century has been largely debunked, it is also true that the French still lived like barbarians before the sixteenth century. They didn’t even have knives and forks. What was European food anyway, before the discovery of the Americas? Italian food with no tomatoes, no peppers, no polenta, no winter squash? French food without turkey, without pomme frites, without vanilla, Spain without chocolate and cheap abundant sugar without alubias, chorizo or Tortilla de Patatas? These are not the European cuisines we know. Clearly, new cuisines have evolved in Europe since the discovery of the Americas.
It is, I admit, easier to admire the rural cuisine of say, Alsace than that of say, Clackamas county. In Alsace we went for a hike, arrived after the first leg of a long and brutally hot trek in a town called Hellert and went into the first restaurant we saw. We ordered Assiette de Charcuterie and Omelette Forrestiere as well as wine and Amer Biere. The Charcuterie was delicious, as well prepared as that in any of the fancy restaurants in Portland, The omelette was jaw dropping. Wild forest mushrooms and Gruyere folded inside of a perfectly cooked sheet of egg, seasoned perfectly. Mind you, we had bad food in Europe, but rarely in the countryside.

In contrast, we’re still trying to find a good meal near Estacada, We’ve tried the Carver Cafe, Fearless Brewing, The Trails and, The Hanger. The Trails approached edibility, but only by virtue of not making a mess of the fruit of the factory. Carver Cafe was so bad, and so cute, it inspired this little rant. The situation is the same no matter where you go.
Was this, I wondered staring deeply into my “chicken fried steak” with “white gravy”, what the owners of this little cafe envisioned when they opened or bought the place? That the chicken fried steak would be a frozen, deep fried patty topped with a milk gravy that tasted for all the world like dehydrated milk powder and xanthan gum. That the undercooked hashbrowns would come frozen and shredded in a bag, color preserved with ascorbic acid. Or did they slip into this slovenly lifestyle, little by little, like an oxycotin addiction? Did they come to believe, as I have heard the worst sorts of “chefs” proclaim, that their skills could never be any match for the wonders of the laboratory, filled with it’s highly educated scientists applying the principles of chemistry, the principles of laundry detergent and Zyklon B, to the gastronomic realm? Consistency is ensured by the clever machinations of the similarly credentialed engineers, lots of fuel ensures freshness.

You only have to beat your competition and if the competition serves the same thing then you only need a better brand, lower prices or nicer window- dressing. My inclination is that there is no competition. Nobody knows, or cares, how to really cook. The guy running the cafe may as well be running the gas station, or the mini mart because in his mind, he’s little more than a retailer. What happened to all the people who might be inclined to do a little better? Who might create something with the aim of making people happy, delighted or contented? They moved to the city and got jobs as “chefs”. You see it in restaurants all the time, small town kids who ache to throw off the chains of conventionalism and provincialism. Also, kids from places like Cincinnati, places whose very name smacks of insular conservatism. Becoming a “chef” in our society largely means forsaking your roots, assuming your roots are embedded in some decidedly non- sexy backwards terrain like the American plains, the Midwest or non- French Canada. You have to learn to embrace wine over beer (at least in your professional capacity ), Scotch over Bourbon and Foie Gras over Hot Dish or kraft dinner or whatever sort of embarrasingly pedestrian dinner you grew up eating. Isn’t all this changing? Sure, just not fast, deep or widespread enough to suit the likes of me.

Because to serve a great burger isn’t enough. Fried Catfish? You’re getting there. Barbeque spare ribs? Enough with those already. You have to go back pretty far to find American cuisine that is untainted by the grease of industry. Crisco was first used as food during World War I as a lard substitute because of food rationing. Velveeta, invented in the 1920’s. Artificial flavors, mid ninteenth century. In fact, one of my personal favorite books about Early 20th century American cooking, American Regional Cookery by Sheila Hibben was copyrighted in 1932, published in 1946 and begins thusly:

I say to people I am writing a cook book and they ask if it will tell how to make a cake with the new better-than-butter shortening and how to use all the latest dehydrated wonders and if there will be a set of rules showing the vitamin superiority of parsnips over nectarines… and when I am asked further if I think that this is right time to bring out a work unconcerned with the marvels which science has placed with such a flourish on our postwar plastic kitchen tables, I can speak up with a bold and certain yes.
When, a decade ago, I brought out the collection of traditional American recipes which forms the nucleus of this book, the regional cooking of the USA had been exploited neither by metropolitan gastronomes nor by harried writers in search of the picturesque.

Even with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.
The concern is not that American cuisine will disappear, it has long been buried under a pile of individually quick frozen chicken wings, the concern is that it will be completely forgotten and that Americans will have to continue living like Hale’s “Man Without a Country” aimlessly drifting from port to culinary port with no food to call their own, nor anything to add to the international landscape.

American food is not, from my perspective, some exclusive, totally indigenous and unique cuisine. Risotto would not, by most standards, qualify as American but it has history in this country. Yet Hibbens gives a recipe for risotto “as prepared by the Italian housewives of rural California”. It’s prepared with saffron and mushrooms and is smothered in a giblet stew which is essentially gravy. And what’s more American than gravy?

Cincinnati is for (meat) lovers

Portland suffers from culinary hubris. Everyone is an expert on such diverse topics as “How to properly share dishes when they are served in a small plates format” to “Which northwest beer is the bitterest, in terms of ibu’s”. In contrast, in my hometown of Cincinnati, it seems that people are content sticking to just exactly what they know. Primarily, chili with spaghetti, double decker sandwiches and Hot Metts. These they wash down with a variety of non- bitter beers: Bud, Coors, Keystone (hi dad), Hudepohl and Christian Moerlein. Christian Moerlein is for fancy people like me.

But what is the difference between one and the next? How can one tell the difference between Coors and Hudy or one chili parlor and the next. What qualifications does a double decker with deli ham and hard boiled eggs have that set it above the next? And what the fuck is a “Hot Mett” anyway?

If you can’t tell the difference between Bud and Hudy or Coors or …. the list goes on, then how can we begin to respect your opinions on the difference between a good vin de pays Provençal rosé and some tripe from  central california that’s been long forgotten in the dankest, dusty corner of a Trader Joe’s sale bin? There is a difference between one major brew and the next, If your palate is so jaded and desensitized from a daily battering of alpha acids, then you should take a break, or quit drinking beer for god’s sake, liquor is quicker, not to mention cheaper.

If you are one of those unfortunately enlightened and sensitive individuals who can appreciate the crisp, palate- cleansing tang and fine effervescence of an ice cold Budweiser and can differentiate that experience from the more coarsely textured bubbles and faint malty earthiness of a Coors Banquet beer (I am not here to defend, differentiate or comprehend the subtleties of “light” beer) then perhaps a trip to Ohio is something that you could appreciate.

I don’t think an outsider would, at first blush, notice the glaring differences between the Queen City’s various chili recipes. The heretofore woefully ignorant diner would still be reeling from the shock of the presentation: on an oval plate, over a mound of spaghetti, topped with a medium dice of yellow onions, canned red kidney beans and covered with a generous blanket, nay, a comforter, of feather- shredded mild cheddar cheese. The familiar diner however, is keenly aware of their preference. A little more cinnamon, less cayenne, more cocoa, less grease. Skyline is really spice- forward, a little too much so for my taste. Camp Washington is too fatty, they must use 40% and not skim it. So many of the Greek diners (late arrivals) make it real bland, perhaps they’re still afraid to assert themselves. For my money, I’ll take Pleasant Ridge or Blue Ash over any of the more popular joints. Not only is the Chili in these fluorescent throwbacks well balanced, they make good double-deckers besides.

A double decker, maybe you know what it is, I don’t know, they don’t make ’em in Portland. It involves neither Ciabatta nor aioli, nor even a shred of mesclun mix. It is simply a sandwich, usually on white bread, that involves two layers of sandwich in one, like some of the more popular club sandwiches. Only in Cincinnati, the sandwich might have ham and hard- boiled egg, Or roast beef and ham, or ham and tomato, or any of maybe five or ten other truly esoteric and obscure combinations of only the finest and most elegant products that money can buy.

This is not to say that all double decker sandwiches are created equal, far from it. I was reminded this past trip of the broad range of possibilities that can be explored with this simple palate. First, the bad (sorry dad). We went to a place called the J&J on the West Side of Cincinnati. Horrible. A sandwich can be large without being grotesque. How much meat do you want in a bite? The answer should be, “less than a quarter pound”. Also, just because it’s cheap deli meat doesn’t mean you need to buy the cheapest.

I ordered a five- way (spaghetti, chili, onions, beans and cheese), I advised Leona to order the Ham and Egg double- decker, add tomatoes. I regret misleading her so. Imagine, if you will, three slices of toasted white bread. Between the top and middle slice are a mess of overboiled eggs (all green around the edge and stinky) and some commodity tomatoes (not that that is necesarily a bad thing). Between the middle and bottom layer is two full inches of salty salty thin sliced cheap deli ham. Like a mountain of processed pork, trying to push up through the top layers of bread and sulfurous egg. Oh, and slathered with maybe four tablespoons of mayonaise. I’m not against any of these things per se (when I’m trying to have a cultural experience), but for fuck’s sake, put it together right.

The chili was that bland sort, the type with no cocoa, cinnamon or  chili powder to speak of, not to mention salt. It wasn’t a matter of some recent emigré family, afraid to offend the atrophied American palate, these were your garden- variety Cincinnati trashers. There is little on a plate that is less palatable than overcooked spaghetti topped with what is essentially boiled ground beef with onions and canned beans and cheese. Disgusting. This last trip I got to have no good chili, so you’ll just have to go yourself.

We went to Columbus to see a friend, a jaded ex- cook turned tattoo virtuoso. Now he makes money putting ink on people’s bodies, which is artistic and pays better than putting food in their bellies. Suffice it to say, he knows food. I got a tat of some delicious looking wild mushrooms, growing on the forest floor, in a ridiculously large caliber … this is not a tattoo blog (hi John). Anyway, we went a couple of places around this capital of Ohio, and we ate well.

We went to a Nuevo Latino restaurant called Barrio. Pleasantly surprised. I didn’t even know they had Latinos in Ohio. More important however, was breakfast the next day. We had already eaten breakfast once at our bed and breakfast. which was, coincidentally, an incredible place to stay and I was curious as to how I was going to fit more food on top of the bread pudding slab of “french toast” and three strips of bacon I had already consumed. Turned out to be not so hard.

The German Village Cafe looked like a slice of real old Ohio, but kind of cleaner. We ordered with trepidation, I had to have a double decker, they had a double decker club. The right ratio of bread to meat to sauce to vegetables, that’s what makes a double decker worth eating. In light of my having just feasted, I shied away from the special, country fried steak, a decision that I regret to this day. It came with The Ohio Triumvirate: mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans. The steak was thickly breaded and fried crisp and perfectly browned. Remarkably tender and thick for a cube steak, maybe it was pounded, not cubed.  My companions couldn’t finish theirs, I helped.

Which brings us to the Hot Mett. It’s not Mettwurst in the traditional sense, which is a cured raw pork sausage that you spread on toast, this is something you cook. I hadn’t had one in years but this trip I ate enough for maybe the next 10 years.

The Hot Mett is a sausage, sometimes a very large sausage, made of pork and beef and some organs and smoked. They come in two varieties “hot” and well… then there’s just plain Metts but who cares about those, the hot is where it’s at. I don’t know what all the seasnonings are, I tried to make some for my wedding feast, to no avail, but it definitely includes garlic powder and chilli flake and paprika, maybe some cayenne too. Hot Metts are available, to my knowledge, nowhere else in the world outside of  a radius of undetermined  length around the Queen City.  Queen City Sausage’s Metts seem to be the most popular and those are what we ate this trip. They aren’t ridiculous, growing up we would sometimes get these “five alarm Metts” that would hurt the nethers for days afterward, never eager to learn, we sought them out at every opportunity, whining, “Mom, I want the five alarm Metts! Why can’t we get the five alarm Metts?!”. But these were good, perfectly spiced, plump, moist without being greasy and just enough burn to keep you pounding those ice cold Budweisers. I hear there’s a family butchery left that still keeps some hogs and makes good Metts. Next trip I’ll hit them up, assuming they haven’t been assasinated by Krogers, maybe bring some back to Portland, show them around to the local meatheads, maybe they’ll learn a thing or two.

Offal and yuppie waste.

Another thing that’s real hip is offal. Well, hip in the “I had some at Babbo” sense.  Not hip in the, “come on over, I got some kidneys on the Webber and some Valpolicella in the cellar,” sort of sense. That is to say that, for the very, very intrepid foodie, offal is okay if it’s been given a good going over by a professional kitchen, sanctified by the hand of a culinary deity, served in the minutest of portions and cloaked with some other, more benign foodstuff. This is a crying shame.

Not that I’m a great offal cook myself, I do a few things right and I’m a little scared of say, chicken intestines. But that’s just cultural conditioning and that’s just what needs to be undone. Especially if we want to call ourselves cooks, or conscientious omnivores, or logically consistent people.

As far as cooking is concerned, offal is the only group of ingredients that consistently and inherently requires thought and consideration in it’s preparation. As Thomas Keller proclaims in The French Laundry Cookbook:

It’s easy to cook a fillet mignon, or to sauté a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter à la meunière,  and call yourself a chef. But that’s not really cooking. That’s heating. Preparing tripe however, is a transcendental act: to take what is normally thrown away and, with skill and knowledge, turn it into something exquisite.

…in his customarily prosaic fashion.

But only in recent times, in this country, has offal had the distinction of being an amuse bouche for the jaded palate of the highly sophisticated diner. In nearly every other meat- eating society on earth, offal is regularly on the table. Even Jews and Muslims, with their squeamishness’ about blood and bottom feeding, eat offal. So what is the fucking hang up?

In my short career as a meat- cutter/ manager, I got an unrestrained, firsthand and unwelcome view of American’s relationship with meat: “Can you pull the skin off that and cut it into 67 one quarter by five eighth inch cubes? That’s what it says in my recipe”; “Um, I’ll have one boneless, skinless chicken breast. Can you put that in a plastic bag and wrap it?”.

Or one of my very favorites:

“Hi, do you sell rabbit?”

“Well yes we do mam, it’s right over here.”

“Oh my god, it’s true, you do sell rabbit.”

Me smiling, oblivious: “Yep, we sure do. How many would you like?”

“I don’t want any. Rabbits aren’t food. They’re pets and that is inhumane and disgusting. I can’t believe you people sell this. You need to take those off the shelf. I belong to an organization….”

“I’ll go get the manager.”

This conversation took place before I was the manager, thank the good lord for something. I could go on and on but that isn’t the point. The point is, oh wait, I have one more that needs telling.

When my brother and I were catering, we scored a demonstration at the local farmers’ market. We had been making pies for the local wine bar and I had rendered out a 25-pound case of leaf lard and canned it for the purpose of making real, traditional pie crust. So we decided to make strawberry-rhubarb pie. We made two: one all butter, one butter and lard. My brother bravely solicited the crowd, “So who likes lard?” You would have had to be there to imagine all the “ewe!”‘s and “no way!”‘s. It seriously sounded like a classroom of kindergartners being asked to eat a pile of dead rats. If this is at the farmer’s market, you can see what an uphill battle we’re into.

So we have established that modern (or are they post-modern? or “after-modern”) Americans, especially in Portland, really hate every part of the animal except the loins and breasts, since avian dark meat and mammalian shoulders are quickly being relegated to the category of “variety cuts” as well. And even these lilly-white extravagances are regarded with suspicion, like an envelope, lacking a return mailing address, full of a mysterious white powder. And Portlanders think of themselves as environmentalists.

The energy inefficiency of raising animals for food is well documented. And although there are arguments to be made for an alternative system of animal husbandry as an ethical, aesthetically pleasing, and efficient way to feed the burgeoning population of increasingly affluent top tier heterotrophs, waste is inexcusable. And waste is precisely what we do when we disregard about 25% of every pig we slaughter and maybe %30 of every cow (those figures are approximate educated guesses, it’s unreal how many greyhounds one must consume before any useful information can be pried from the internet). A pig apparently yields, on average, about 73% muscle meat. Maybe 5% of the rest is digestive contents, and the rest is edible. Seriously, most of this food is thrown away, fed to animals (like livestock), or shipped to China.

It’s especially repulsive when one considers that as recently as the 1960’s offal was considered perfectly acceptable family fare, but by the 1980’s that had all changed. Can you imagine the Seavers sitting down to a nice platter of boiled tongue with horseradish sauce? Yet, as recently as 1972 James Beard was rhapsodizing the glories of skewered lamb kidneys. Which are delicious by the way.

What you do is cut the kidneys (which must be fresh) through the middle lengthwise. That is to say, along the inside split of the kidney bean (you’ll know what I mean when you have them in hand). Remove the white stringy stuff that’s in there with a sharp knife (yes offals do take a little skill) and then cut the halves into half or thirds if they’re large. Soak these pieces in water for a few hours (or milk if your loaded), then drain and pat dry. Cut some mushrooms (Crimini or, if you got ’em, Porcini, Chanterelles, Morels or any other firm, large, flavorful fungi) into quarters or halves depending on size. Some good bacon will be threaded onto a skewer, intertwined with alternating layers of mushroom and kidney chunks. The bacon should wrap half way around each skewered piece of kidney or mushroom. Season this well and grill carefully (so as not to set fire to the bacon) for 10 minutes or so, while basting alternately with a mixture of white wine and mustard, and melted butter,  until the mushrooms are soft and the kidneys are crispy outside, just pink inside. Serve forth with a salad of endives and radishes, and some good bread.  This is how we eat.

If you don’t do it first, restaurants will beat you to the punch. You’re probably okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. When I began my career as a white trash line cook, flank steak was about $3 a pound. Then London Broil got trendy, no wait, it was already totally trendy, then every two-bit-hack of a cookbook author in the country published a recipe for flank steak, the Great American Marketing Machine went to work, now you’d be lucky to get a pound of stringy, fussy meat for under $12. So don’t wait for others to tell you, just forge ahead. You’ll already be competing with the dogs.

Marrow is people food. Have you ever eaten Osso Bucco? It literally means “bone hole” (don’t you laugh) and refers to the fact that the real treat, the raison d’être of this dish is the little spot of marrow in the middle of the bone, and it should be served with a little tiny fork so you can get it out of there. But how often does that happen? Just ask for a little fork and one gets a reaction ranging from bemusement to utter confusion. Fortunately marrow bones are still relatively cheap, easy to prepare, and can be enjoyed on their own.

The french classic of bone marrow with snails is pretty good, but a little fussy and rich. I like the suggestion of Fergus Henderson, to serve them with toast, salt and a simple salad of parsley, shallot and capers dressed in olive oil and lemon. Cooking them is simple. Have the butcher cut them into 2 to 3 inch lengths (and make sure he’s only giving you bones with a lot of marrow, he thinks it doesn’t matter because you’re going to feed it to the dogs) rinse them off, and roast them in a 450 oven for 15-20 minutes or until the marrow is just soft all the way through: use a skewer to test. Don’t overcook, as the marrow will just turn to liquid and run out the ends. If you want to get really fancy, the New Professional Chef would have you soak them in a bowl of cold salted water for a few hours to draw out the blood and any “impurities”, then you can apparently push the marrow right out of the bone. Good stuff to garnish a steak with.

Chicken and turkey offals are about the only offals commonly available. Increasingly, these are seen on the menus at trendy izakayas skewered and broiled. I even ate some skewered chicken butts at Ping, they were disappointing. As a red blooded Midwesterner, I’m partial to fried livers. As a fussy contemporary epicure, I got a certain method.

Chicken livers, to my mind, need soaking. Salted water works, salted milk is even better. I rinse the livers first, then I soak them for about 12 hours or overnight. Drain, pat them dry and season generously with salt and especially pepper, and roll them in a 50/50 mixture of rice flour and AP flour (rice flour helps make everything fried, crispier). Immediately upon dusting them, shallow fry them in a cast iron skillet, preferably in lard. They cook pretty quick, so you can cook them at a fairly high temperature, just don’t let the oil burn. the livers should be brown and exceptionally crisp on the outside, just a hint of rosiness on the inside. No, I cannot explain why it’s okay to eat chicken livers less than totally gray all the way through. I just know that I can, and to cook them any more results in a dry, crumbly mess that is best served to the cat. These I serve forth with a spicy cocktail sauce. In the Midwest, and even out here, chicken livers are generally, flabby and limp and served with ketchup, appealing only to the die- hard who is probably more interested in proving their authenticity, or their virility, than in enjoying their food.
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The overarching theme here, as you may have noticed, is soaking. Not all offal needs a soaking, mainly just the internal organs, especially those that process waste. This tames the often strong flavors. and removes much of the bloodiness. On the other hand, aficionados like Fergus Henderson and rustics like Angelo Pellegrini waste little time or flavor with such niceties. I leave it to you to decide. If, however, you choose to bring home a nice boneless, skinless chicken breast for dinner tonight, I want you to think about all that flavorful, delicious skin and bone that, thanks to your squeamish contemporary sensibilities, is being rendered into soap, machine lubricant, pet food, candles, cosmetics and livestock feed right now. Turns out that, on some level, even the industrial complex abhors waste.

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Preparing lamb’s kidneys. In reading order: a fresh pile of kidneys, where to cut into them from, the opened kidney showing the white stuff to be removed (there’s a little more under the pale flesh), soaking in a milk brine.

Salt and Wild Greens

Nettles are trendy. A bag weighing less than a pound costs about $4 at the farmers’ market. And they’re a dirty roadside weed. It takes maybe 5 minutes to pick a pound, less probably for a “professional” nettle forager, they’re common as grass, and you don’t even have to leave the city limits to find a patch. Yet people gladly line up at the farmers’ market and pay good money for them. But why pick on the farmers’ market? Those people sell a necessity. Nettles are also marketed in pill form, and people buy dried powdered weeds in softgel caplets.

Weeds are trendy. New Seasons and other high-end groceries market dandelion greens. I can think of little more useless than the twist tie that holds together a bunch of dandelion greens. Not to mention the agricultural space expended to grow dandelions. Here in my house, we eat dandelions. Prepared in the manner of my German forbears, tossed with hot bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, sugar, onions and salt. Despite the bacon, they still need a little salt.

We don’t buy them, we pull them out of the garden so as to make room for cultivated plants that, truth be told, are considerably more delicious. As you can well imagine, we don’t buy our nettles either. Those, we make into soup. Leona wants us to put them to other, more imaginative, uses but I only like them as soup. A gratin might work, and my brother makes nettle pesto which, as he has informed me, is called pesto d’ortica and is an Italian classic and is delicious. But, as an American, soup is what you’re supposed to make with them. Apparently, a soup of nettles is a traditional spring restorative, the winter having been relatively free of fresh vegetables and nettles being one of the very first plants to brave the lasts frosts of spring. They are also incredibly nutritious. The sting of nettles is supposed to have evolved because the plant is so nutrient dense, without it, foraging animals would have foraged it away long ago.

The way to make nettle soup is to bring a quantity of heavily salted water to the boil and blanch the greens in it. Heavily means like seawater or brine. Almost too salty to like. After blanching they lose their sting. Sauteé some onions (a lot, always a lot of onions) and some garlic with a few bay leaves in a heavy pot until they’re done then add the blanched nettles and sauteé them too. Sauteé it until it looks good enough to eat all by itself, then add chicken stock. The stock should of course be homemade and good, if it’s not, you’re on your own. Add a dash of  cayenne, not enough to make it spicy, this isn’t Indian food, just enough to add the fruit. Simmer this mess briefly, maybe twenty minutes, then pureé with an immersion blender if at all possible. Lacking an immersion blender, immediately postpone dinner while you run to sur la table to purchase one. Season the soup with salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve forth with finely sliced chives and, if you like, a dollop of creme fraîche. If, after all the trouble you’ve gone through making stock and picking nettles, you purchase creme fraîche, you will be very disappointed in yourself, and I will share in your disapointment.

the soup, prior to immersion blending.

the soup, prior to immersion blending.

Claytonia siberica is another good weed. Maybe it’s the best weed. Occasionally it can be found at fancy restaurants in our area as a garnish or a little side salad. It’s also known as miner’s lettuce and is sweet and succulent. It’ll probably be at New Seasons pretty soon. I dress it lightly with vinaigrette of white wine vinegar and/or lemon, much more destroys its subtle tenderness. And I salt them. Of course they get salted.

Salt and wild vegetables are as inseparable to cuisine sauvage as balsamic vinegar is to the mesclun at the table of the yuppie neophyte. Salt tames the weediness. It extracts the muddiness. According to my brother, even Pacific Northwestern fiddleheads are edible if they’re blanched in properly salted water. To me, they taste of the swampy mud they rise from.

To the professional, this comes as no surprise. Restaurant kitchens go through enormous quantities of salt. Green vegetables need salt and lots of it. Pasta needs salt. Potatoes need salt. Meat, Fish, Poultry, Butter, Mushrooms need salt. Many food writers, the type that write for the food day weekly section in the newspaper, like to point to the importance of salt in whatever little class of food they’ve been assigned to that week, “Most people are afraid of cooking fish, but fish just needs a little salt and a lot of love”, or equivalent drivel. But this is different. Wild greens are almost completely unpalatable without sufficient salt. Not not just salt at any time, salt at the right time. If your nettle blanching water is under-seasoned, you will never rid your soup of the flavors of dirt and weeds. Likewise, dandelions need previously salted meat, then a little more to be delicious.

Don’t buy weeds, frugality is trendy. Save your money for salt, whose virtues are timeless.

Claytonia siberica

Claytonia siberica

Dinner and How to Braise It.

The season of the anniversary of my birth is a trying time for eaters. I daresay I tire of meat and roots and preserves. Nevertheless, with a little luck, a little patience, and an ample supply of reduced beef stock one may occasionally turn out something worth eating, perhaps even relishing. I’ll try to stop writing like MFK Fischer soon.

dinner

I seasoned a seven-bone chuck roast with a paste of salt, pepper, garlic and the trimmings of the rosemary shrub which appears to have suffered the worst of the winter. After several hours in the refrigerator and several more at room temperature, I scraped this paste off and seared the roast until it was really quite dark on either side. I then braised (slow cooked in a covered pot) it with onions, dried chilies, bay leaves and the reserved marinade paste; I added no additional liquid. This I accomplished in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven. Upon reaching a state of toothsomeness that would best be described as unctuous, the roast was allowed to rest by the wayside while par-cooked pearl barley finished up in the pan juices which I had since thinned with the aforementioned beef stock and fortified with dried, pestle- ground Chanterrelles from fall’s bounty and some tomato paste that was aging in the fridge. A little Hungarian paprika “reddened” things up and the resulting overwhelming richness was cut with some red wine vinegar (There only being enough wine in the house for drinking.)

Some leftover cabbage and carrots were sliced thinly and sauteed in butter and olive oil until just barely wilted (what my wife would call a “stir fry.”) Luck came in the form of some green tomato jam given to me by my friend, a great cook called Scotty G., that, redolent of cayenne and the beginning of fall, lent the necessary verve and vigor to lift it from its late-winter doldrums. Preserves are to March what laughter is to the gallows.

The term (and art) of braising is, to my mind, not the same as stewing. Some claim that a braise differs from a stew in that in a braise, the meat is seared before enough liquid is added to partially submerge the meat while stew sees the meat fully submerged in its cooking liquid. That’s a negligible difference that leaves little conceptual space for the term “stew” to occupy.  A stew is a stew whether you sear the meat first or not, and whether you add twice or half the volume of liquid as meat. Braising means that the beef is browned and little to no liquid is added to the pot  (a splash of booze, a cup of wine), the meat cooks in its own juices and the juices get rich, really rich. Don’t let it burn, add more liquid if  (absolutely) necessary and maybe turn the meat every now and again. Remember that perfection lies just this side of burnt.

Some might question the usefulness of this methodology, since I thinned everything down at the end anyway. It’s useful because, with so little liquid, the particles in the juices get time to really brown and get intensely meaty while the fat emulsifies with them. The effect can’t be duplicated by adding more liquid and cooking it down until it’s the consistency that you want. Another benefit is that you don’t need stock to make a good braise; the meat and vegetables provide all the juice you need. The rest of the internet can disagree; I’m right and the internet is wrong.

I’d also like to add that according to a greater authority than me, the lid should be left slightly ajar while braising to keep the temperature inside below the boiling point. That’s probably not going to work here. Which, I suspect, is why others (including the inventors of the Alsatian classic  Baeckeoffe [and I know they call for adding a bunch of water there, I bet if you left it out it would be way better]) want a very tightly sealed lid, preferably with a strip of simple dough. I don’t do that, you could. Suffice it to say that you should keep the temperature low, around 200° F.