rattails and screams

Rats!
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

There are few things that disgust and terrify me as much as a rat.  Anyone who has lived in a city knows the sight: that revolting tail, dragging in the filth, disappearing just seconds after that fat, wriggling body behind a garbage can or scrubby clump of weeds.  They signify suspicion, paranoia, spoilage, disease, sneakiness, thievery and uncleanliness.  (Sure, your pet rat doesn’t — shudder — but I’m talking wild Norway rats here.)

So I was thinking, for my Halloween post, what could be truly, personally scarier, what could be more American Gothic, than a recipe featuring rats?

When I lived in SoCal, we had (still have?) a rat epidemic, which was treated in that cheery, dismissive way so many social issues are in Orange County.  I once threatened the housing office in my graduate ghetto apartment with notifying the Health Department and the Regents of the University of California if they didn’t do more than just put a notice in the weekly flyer with a cute drawing of a squirrel asking residents not to leave birdfood out “or critters might be attracted to it.”  When I lived in Baltimore, one of the last straws in our decision to leave the city was seeing a dead rat in the street a block away from our house. When I was in Vietnam, I remember sitting blearily at a café one morning for a tour of Halong Bay, and looking up behind me, and seeing a rat clinging to the picture frame next to a railing, slipping, falling…

SCREAMS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I blame this almost irrational loathing on a book my mother would read to me when I was little, a book I loved.  It was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning’s poem, which is quoted above and can be found in its entirety at a site through Indiana University.  (The cover image you see here is also from this site.)  If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it’s about a German town called Hamelin in the Middle Ages that is overrun by rats (boo!), then a mysterious Piper comes and seduces them all away with his music into the ocean, where they drown (yay!), but then the greedy town council won’t pay him (boo!) and so he lures away the town’s children in a similar fashion (um, boo?).  The graphic description, done in iambic tetrameter singsong, of rats infesting the kitchen was one horrific image that I’d study over and over, thinking about how awful it would be.

So as you might imagine, me being of the perverse persuasion and all, I was thrilled to find a recipe prepared in the German town of Hameln called “Rattails,” a pork fricassee with vegetables and a sweet and sour sauce.  It seems to be a preparation for tourists, mainly, and it features a very complicated sauce of apple brandy, two kinds of wine, “brown gravy,” dribs and drabs of mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and other things. The whole thing is flambéed (and you know how I feel about that), and served over rice.  It tastes like a fancy, more subtle, ten thousand times more complicated version of sweet-n-sour pork.

But here’s the gross part:  the pork loin is prepared in strips, so it looks like rat tails, and cut up chunks of baby corn and red peppers resemble spinal column chunks and sinews, and button mushrooms look like joints, and the green olives with pimientos are nothing more than rat eyeballs.

Quite frankly, the sauce is too complicated for weekly meals.  And even with the flambé, the writhing, dismembered-body-parts-in-brown-sauce look of the final dish is not, um, fancy enough for guests.  But if you want to try it, check out the recipe in the extraordinary Culinaria Germany cookbook, or by clicking this link.

I’ll be cowering in the corner with my cell phone, trying to 911 the Pied Piper.

Happy Halloween to all!


brew of black(berri)est night

In my continuing efforts to stop the addition of sugary tastes to every single thing we eat as Americans, I make berry vinegars.  They are lovely as salad dressings, of course, but I find they add a pang of lost love to root vegetables, soups, and meat deglazes, a haunting undertone that speaks of berries gone by.

By far, the simplest concoction I’ve brewed up is marionberry-thyme vinegar.  I put up a mason jar or two during blackberry season, using fresh berries or berry pulp I have left over from making jam, but it is completely acceptable to make the vinegar in the end days of fall from frozen berries.  When berries freeze and thaw, their cellular structure is compromised, so they release their juices into the vinegar easily and thoroughly.

The method is easy and offers endless creative possibilities:  fill your clean jar with no more than a third with blackberries, add three fresh sprigs of thyme and a half-dozen black peppercorns, and top off with white wine vinegar.  You may subsitute other berries or herbs.  Use a plastic cap, since metal jar lids will rust with the acidity of the vinegar.  (I use the white plastic lids they sell with canning supplies.)  Let sit in a dark, creepy place for a month or so before using, shaking gently once every other day for the first week or so.

The reason I like to use fresh blackberries is because they hold their shape, and then I can punctuate my campaign against sugar with a zombie pickled blackberry in dishes I serve to unwitting guests.  Exhibit A:

To normal people, this looks like a perfectly gorgeous fall-colored side dish of roasted Chioggia beets and yellow peppers dressed in a vinaigrette with thyme leaves…with a blackberry garnish?  But to those of us with vinegary agendas, it’s an explosion of dark, earthy, smoky, piquant flavors.  The pickled blackberries work as counterpoint to the caramelized sugars in the beets and the peppers, and the fresh thyme sprinkled on top picks up the thyme notes in the vinaigrette.  It’s a sophisticated mix of tastes, and gorgeous to boot if you use multi-colored beets and peppers.  This dish is like Harvard beets (sweet and sour boiled beets, pickled with onions and lots of sugar) on steroids, and prettier than that old battleaxe.

Try berry vinegars whisked together with olive oil over any sweet root vegetable, and let me know what you think!

café zenon closed, not with a bang but a whimper

Just heard on the news that Zenon closed suddenly today.  Apparently, it had been on the market for a few months, but they decided to shut the doors for good abruptly.  Let their manager know this morning.  I don’t know the whole story (obviously), but that sounds like a pretty shitty way to treat loyal employees, if you ask me.  We won’t hear that on the news, so I thought I’d say it here.

fungus among us

Retrogrouch and I went to the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival yesterday.  I like this festival more than others, since it mingles the usual Eugenian tchotchkes, Peruvian handknitted sweater-wearing tots, and environmentally-aware folkish guitar music with poison.  And the whole place smells kind of musty and funky, and I don’t mean play-that-funky-music-environmentally-aware-white-boy funky.  It’s all about mushrooms, the edible kind and those that will wipe you off the face of the planet.

We bought four bags of various kinds, including giant white puffball-shaped lion’s mane, yellow oysters, maitake, and elongated buttons called butter caps.  Then we spent a great deal of time shuffling along the tables of all the specimens one can find in our area.  It’s amazing how many mushrooms are out there.  The Cascade Mycological Society provides the specimens of mushrooms and their ilk, including a lichen table, a section on slime molds, and another on truffles. There’s also a table, staffed by an expert, for look-alikes and poison mushrooms.  I listened to her patiently explain to a couple that a certain perfectly respectable mushroom could be bad-tasting when grown on a certain tree and sickening when grown on another.

There’s a certain element of fear — and for good reason — in eating wild mushrooms.  It’s not surprising that mushrooms aren’t used much in American cuisine, and that we rely on the standard European varieties like chanterelles and porcini, or giant portobellos, when we use mushrooms.  I like that idea, flavoring your soup with the scent of fear, something wolves can sense but your husband…yes, YOUR husband, the one that announced to all present in the crowded room that “SURE, EUGENIA, YOU CAN TAKE UP MUSHROOMING, AS LONG AS YOU BRING A DOCTOR TO GIVE YOU A LIVER TRANSPLANT AFTERWARD!”…can’t taste from umami.  Something to consider.  Yes.

In that vein, I was most pleased to see a real, live Wiccan dude in a witch hat pointing out the fried chicken mushrooms to his companion.  Because witches don’t eat KFC.

But embracing the edible wild mushroom is a duty for all PNW residents, I feel, and there are many American native mushrooms that can be incorporated into cooking.  We’re fortunate in Eugene to have fresh wild mushrooms of several varieties available to us in season, and they can really transform stocks, rice, pasta, burgers, stirfries, etc., etc.  Embrace the fungus among us.  The musty, earthy, meaty flavor is probably the best example there is of American Gothic cuisine.

The festival also features a scarecrow contest, and this year there were not one but two Joe the Plumber scarecrows, and several others that were actually quite lovely.  The cider press was set up, too, with proceeds going to a charity whose name completely escapes me.  I thought we were particularly fortunate that the weather has been so fabulous, we usually have to trudge through the festival in the rain.

We ate our maitake, yellow oysters and butter caps in a sauce over penne made with garlic, butter, onions, chopped chicken breast, tomato, tarragon and a touch of sour cream, by the way.  Yum yum.

vampire comfort food for your halloween table

Vampires need comfort food, too.  Researching ways to use up my gallons of fresh sauerkraut, I found this warm, cozy, homely Transylvanian casserole in the Culinaria Hungary cookbook (one of my absolute favorite cookbooks).  It’s a buttered baked dish layered with sauerkraut, ground pork, sausage, rice and sour cream.  In short, it would pass no health inspection.  But it is delicious and an unusual, inexpensive dish for a potluck, and won’t scare any Americans afraid of garlic, strange spices, or vegetables.

A specialty of a region now in Romania that has been called variously Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvar, and Klausenburg, depending on the controlling power, layered sauerkraut is popular in Hungary.  I even found a packaged version of the stuff online.

Casseroles are always difficult to photograph well.  I thought I’d make this dish using red cabbage sauerkraut and red onion, which would inflect it with pretty, rosy colors that would complement the kielbasa I was using.  I’m not sure if I succeeded with my old camera and lighting issues, but I’d eat a piece of this.

The traditional recipes I’ve found for this dish substitute lard for butter, add hard-boiled eggs, other kinds of pork, and sometimes cook the rice in the casserole (with a couple cups of added chicken stock).  All of these things would be good, of course, but my version is quick and relatively easy.

Transylvanian Layered Sauerkraut

6 cups fresh sauerkraut (red or white), rinsed well in cold water
half stick unsalted butter (1/4 cup)
4 cups cooked, long grain rice
1 lb. ground pork
2 spicy Hungarian sausages or Polska kielbasa links
1 small onion (red or white)
2 t. sweet paprika plus ¼ t. for topping
1 c. sour cream
¼ c. dry Riesling or other white wine
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook rice by your usual method (I use a rice cooker) until al dente.  If you’re using a pot on the stove, remove when rice is still a bit hard but all the water is gone.

Rinse the sauerkraut well to remove some of the salt.  If you are using red cabbage, it will also help to remove some of the purple color so it won’t bleed into the rice.

In medium saucepan, braise the rinsed sauerkraut by melting 1 T. of the butter, adding the Riesling, covering the pot, then cooking on low heat until the rest of the ingredients are prepared and the sauerkraut has softened.  Watch to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Slice the sausage into 1-inch chunks, set aside.  Chop the onion.

Brown the ground pork and onion on medium high heat in a tablespoon of the butter.  When meat starts to brown, add the sausage and 2 t. paprika to the pan, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Drain the fat from the meat and set aside.  Spoon a little bit of fat on the bottom of a 8 x 8 Pyrex baking dish, then add 1/3 of the sauerkraut.

Add half the rice and half the meat mixture, then spread 1/4 of the sour cream on top of the meat.

Add another layer of 1/3 of the sauerkraut, then add the rest of the rice and meat mixture.  Spread another small portion of the sour cream on top, then add the rest of the sauerkraut.

Wipe out the saucepan, then melt the rest of the butter.  Remove from heat, then add the rest of the sour cream and another 1/4 teaspoon of paprika.

Bake for 40 minutes.  You may broil the top for a minute or so after baking, if it doesn’t look brown enough for you.

Let the casserole sit for a little while before slicing.  If you serve it directly from the oven, it will not hold its shape.  It will still be delicious, though.

american gothic cuisine: an introduction

My October food column, a meditation on the zombie art of fermentation, is out in the Eugene Weekly!  This week I’ll be featuring my thoughts on what I call American Gothic cuisine, or the non-sweet, non-soft, vinegary, preserved, meaty, dark-colored, unsettling, uncanny, jarring side of American food.  Some of the truly scary stuff of American food actually *is* sweet:

Of course, it could be worse:

…but that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the dark side of relatively healthy, relatively normal American cuisine.  If I were writing about Japanese Gothic cuisine, I’d surely discuss natto, the fermented soybean condiment used liberally by crazy many people.  (Just click the link and look at the picture.  Then be glad I don’t have smell-o-vision, because the picture makes the stuff look like caramel…and caramel it ain’t.)  If I were writing about French Gothic cuisine, I’d include (as Joyce put it) mitey cheese.  Yessirree, I could do an around-the-world tour of every rotting, slimy, fermented science experiment served up for dinner!

But I’m a good American, no matter what Sarah Palin might say, and I’m writing about American Gothic cuisine.  The dark, haunting juice of blackberries on a bite of rare steakDeceased grandma chocolate chip cookiesHome-corned beef (pic below).  Broken Heart Coeur à la Crème (a French dessert gone wrong).  Twinkie people (c.f., two video clips above).

In short, it’s all about the food that just seems a little bit creepy.

The night is young.  There.  Will.  Be.  More.

P.S.  And for those of you who are visiting here for the first time, checking out my sometimes funny, sometimes annoying little corner of the food paradise we call the Willamette Valley…VELCOME!  You can find the sauerkraut recipe mentioned in the EW article by clicking here or here.  If you’re interested in other methods of preservation and recipes, click on the category called “preserving” in the list to the right.

fallin’

The past few mornings, we’ve awakened to the fog.  I love this time of year so much.  My Norway maple dons its gold costume and the air is damp and ready for rain.

I hope the good weather holds through the Mt. Pisgah Mushroom Festival, an intimate little celebration of fungi at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum that we enjoy each year.  Someone brings a cider press and makes hot cider from the freshly smushed apples, and a local restaurant serves up steaming mushroom soup (and other warming delicacies), so you can walk around with something fragrant and toasty in your hands as you look at the mind-boggling array of mushrooms plucked in our area.  Retrogrouch’s favorite table is the DANGER POISON DON’T EAT THIS OR YOU’LL DIE TABLE!!!!!  I’m more of a romantic.  It’s all about the Biggest Mushroom in Oregon display for me.

steak diane: this old house

Why do restaurants in Eugene still have Steak Diane on their menus?   I own a house built in 1947.  I know from mid-century vintage. Our house has sound plaster-n-drywall walls, sketchy wiring, not enough insulation, a firm foundation and a low profile.  We’ve done some basic upgrades to make the best of a great structure, and we love it all the more.  My call to you, Eugene Restaurants, is to do the same.

Steak Diane is not aging gracefully in these times of fresh, bright flavors and a wealth of grains and local vegetables.  There’s nothing wrong with the basic structure, but there are some outmoded flavors at work here.  The butter sauce is snoresville (and not to mention even more unhealthy than the steak it rode in on).   Let’s put this old gray mare out to pasture.

What exactly is Steak Diane?  A reference librarian on Food Timeline has culled various sources, including this one:

Evidence suggests Steak Diane is an American invention of the late 1950s/early1960s, when French cooking (think Julia Child & the Kennedy White House menus) was all the rage. Rich wine sauces and flamboyant presentation were the norm for many top restaurants. If Steak Diane is an American recipe, then New York City is the most likely place or origin. Jane Nickerson’s article “Steak Worthy of the Name,” (New York Times, January 25, 1953 p. SM 32) offers three likely candidates: “The Drake Hotel, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel and the Colony Restaurant each said, not knowing that any other dining place had done so, that their patrons praised their steak Diane. Nino of the Drake claimed he was the first to introduce this dish to New York and, in fact, to the entire United States. Essentially it consists of steak cooked in butter and further seasoned with butter mixed with fresh chives; usually the beef is pounded thin. The chef of each establishment has his own version.”

So basically, it’s steak fried in butter, with butter sauce.  There’s also the flambé nonsense, which isn’t mentioned in the quote above, but makes its outmoded presence known on the webpage. Egads.

Eugene restaurants add mushrooms and shallots to the recipe, so the dish is not only NOT Steak Diane, it has warts. Now, before you go medieval on my tush (or rather, mid-century on my tush), please know I don’t have anything against this kind of thing.  I like steak.  I like mushrooms.  But are we doing anyone a favor by taking up a place on menus all over town with it? Let’s reconceive steak in all its glory.  I feel this move is especially important now that local, grassfed beef is surging in popularity…even with former vegetarians who had cut out beef for ethical and sustainable farm issues.

There are thousands of combinations to sauce a slab of steak.  One of my favorites is also a classic, but still retains a contemporary charm, unlike Steak Diane.  I like to quickly chop up an Italian gremolata: a tablespoon of lemon zest, a large bunch of parsley, 3-4 garlic gloves and some sea salt all minced together finely.  I grill a steak (or rather, Retrogrouch grills it), let it sit for a few minutes to redistribute the juices, top it with portions of the mini-salad gremolata, and serve. This works just as well with a flavorful cut like a flank steak as it does a tender, mild cut like a filet.  It even works on pot roast.

Go green!  A creative chef, I am certain, could make many variations on this herby option.  Heck, even an uncreative chef could turn to other areas of Europe for inspiration.  My simple gremolata topping is just one example of a green sauce.  Not only are there several Italian green sauces, there are a French version, a fascinating Georgian one in my Culinaria Russia cookbook, and German green sauces that prove lovely accompaniments to roasted or grilled meats.

The German classic green sauce, a specialty of Frankfort, features a panopoly of herbs and some chopped hardboiled egg and oil.  Even Goethe loved it.  It would still appease the old guard, and appeal to the rest of us, who won’t shell out for a dull butter and mushroom sauce aging one of your highest ticket items.

Please, I beg you, air out the old house of Diane!  Fix her wiring!  Plumb her plumbing!  Sand her floors and paint her sills!  She’s got a strong foundation; she just needs some minor touch-ups.

portrait of an autumn weekend

I’ve been working basically non-stop for the past month, and I finally hit the wall.  Decided to take a couple days “off” and reacquaint myself with my husband and our house.  Here is a photo-essay of some of the food activites that went down.

Saw that my neighbor’s “free garden” had copious amounts of green tomatoes left on the vine.  Picked them.  Thought I’d use ’em for fermented tomatoes in my crock, because I had already pickled a bunch in my end-of-the-garden pickling jamboree the day before.  I put up four quarts of green tomatoes, two pints of cauliflower, one pint of purple cauliflower, and a bunch of pints and half-pints of mixed pickle made with green cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, peppers, kohlrabi and green beans.

Went to the farmer’s market for inspiration, and found it in autumnberries, a tiny red berry with a flavor reminiscent of cranberries softened up by cherries.  Also called autumn olives, these little zingers are tart when raw, but they made a lovely sauce with pinot gris syrup, butter, riesling vinegar, black pepper and a pinch of salt.  Perfect on pancakes with a cup of steaming hot coffee with milk.

To gild the lily, I used more of the autumnberry sauce on a fat pork chop from Emmons Meat Market in Corvallis, grilled by my in-house BBQ Master, and mixed a bit of the stuff into a rice pilaf with my own dried chanterelles.

And, what the heck, I fried up some of the remaining green tomatoes, thickly sliced, in seasoned flour and Italian cornmeal, and served them on the side.  A bit incongruous, but still mighty delicious.

Sadly, the weekended, and I’m now back to work.  But I have my memories.  I have my memories.