green chile posole

IMG_9582My efforts to cook down the freezer continue, and soupily.  I am off to pick up the beef today, and am proud to announce I managed to clear about half the space, so I should be fine.  A major part of the square footage was taken up by what I thought was a half of a pig’s head (nope, a whole; surprise!) from my butchery class with Camas Davis.  I also found a jowl and a cheek, as one does.

Because the head was so big, I roasted it and stripped it for tacos (cabeza), then added the leftover bits to pork stock for a wonderful green chile posole with the other parts I had uncovered in my latest archaeological dig.

Posole!  If you haven’t tried it, it’s wonderful.  I used up a bag of homemade posole (nixtamalized) corn, made last year, the last of my peppers from the two potted plants I had maintained until the frost, the last of the green tomatoes, some roasted anchos I found in the freezer, a big handful of oregano and tarragon still hanging on in the garden, and that wonderfully rich, gelatinous cabeza meat and some pork shoulder. The cabeza really added so much to the broth, and I recommend it if you should have a head in your freezer.  No questions asked.

If you’re making it, here are a few more tips: I threw in a handful of local cornmeal to slightly thicken the broth, and simmered everything for 30 minutes or so, adding a lemon and some powdered ancho pepper and garlic powder near the end of cooking. Perfect winter meal, all local, but with a taste of warm sunny skies.

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lekvar: roasted prune plum paste

IMG_8718Forgive me, I wish I had eaten the prune plums, but I had to make lekvar (prune paste) instead.  Lekvar is easy but takes a long time.  If you start with actual dried prunes, it’s much faster, but I was gifted 25 pounds or so windfall fruit from the Friendly Fruit Tree Project to process, so the first step was roasting the fruit to remove liquid and concentrate the sugars.

IMG_8701Once the fruit had been picked over, cleaned, and roasted overnight, I squeezed out the pits and cooked down the puree even longer.  Once it had significantly reduced in size, I milled out the skins and remaining stems, even catching a few errant pits.

IMG_8755If you can, mill on a coarse screen and a fine screen for a silky texture.

Then I added sugar at a 1.5:1 ratio, a cup of sugar for every 1 and a half cups of puree.  This yields a product that isn’t very sweet, but still provides a jam-like feel. And added the juice of a lemon to acidify the mix.  Some people add lemon or orange zest at this point.

IMG_8767I cooked the lekvar down for several more hours, carefully monitoring the bottom of the pan, which is very susceptible to burning.  The stuff thickened and reduced by about a third before I decided it was ready.  And then voilà!  Dark, mysterious prune plum paste for fall.  It can be stored in the refrigerator or frozen, as it’s a bit too thick to be processed safely.

IMG_8732One can use lekvar in so many wonderful ways: to stuff dumplings, fill cookies and Hamantaschen, spread on cheese or cheese crackers, or this, a wondrous creation from the Friuli region of Italy, inspired by Fred Plotkin’s recipe in La Terra Fortunata: The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Guilia, Italy’s Great Undiscovered Region.  Sguazeto sauce is used on roasted pork, but it makes a nice sticky barbecue sauce, too, for pork chops or a small shoulder roast.  It usually starts with prunes, but prune paste works like a dream.

Sguazeto for Roasted Pork

    • 2 heaping teaspoons pine nuts
    • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
    • 1 teaspoon honey
    • 2 tablespoons. olive oil
    • 1/4 cup lekvar (or, if you don’t have lekvar, substitute 3 Brooks prunes, chopped and plumped up with some wine for 30 minutes, then mashed)
    • 2 tablespoons chicken stock
    • 1 tablespoon. white wine vinegar

Roast the pine nuts and cumin seeds on a medium-high burner until fragrant.  Combine the pine nuts and cumin in a mortar and pound with a pestle until you have a fine paste, then mix with honey and olive oil. Heat mixture with lekvar, chicken stock, and vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes or so until flavors combine.

Roast or grill your meat as desired, dressed simply with salt and pepper. Remove from grill and top with sguazeto just prior to serving, or brush some on in the last 15 minutes of cooking. Garnish with chopped parsley and few whole pinenuts.

 

 

on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

IMG_8828I occasionally check in on a big online local food group’s discussion threads.  As they are wont to do, the discussions flare up and people get offended at others’ opinions, especially if they are seen as damaging to local establishments or exhibiting socioeconomic privilege or unacceptable politics or perceived “snobbery.”  These places provide local jobs, the outcry goes, we should support them no matter what!  Keep any negative opinions to yourself or go whisper it personally to the manager!  Not all of us eat caviar and champagne every day!

No.

As consumers who vote with our dollars in a local economy that is still heavily dependent on word-of-mouth and habit, we should be actively and publicly and vociferously supporting the good restaurants, and actively and loudly calling out the bad ones on their badness. But to do so without namecalling or resorting to empty cheerleading for your “team” (as we do in this one-team town) is crucial.

So here’s my advice.  Be reasonable in your food critiques.

1)  Use the skills you should have learned in your college or high school English composition class: explain how and why you believe what you do, and provide evidence that supports your case.*

Without exception, the good places are places with chefs who are intimately involved with a dynamic menu and have great palates, creative and innovative spirits, and a need to be in the kitchen and serve the unwashed masses.  In almost every single case I can think of, that means supporting a local restaurant in Eugene that relies on local products, local distribution, and sustainable ethics insofar as the price point can maintain it.  And there are plenty of good ones to support.

There are also plenty of bad ones.  Yes, there are the ones meant to be lower cost, and there’s a place for that.  The portions may be huge for so-called “value,” and the food isn’t seasoned well, if it is even what you ordered.  To take one example, I ordered a burger at a mom-n-pop place the other night, and they still messed up the order after I heard no less than FIVE repetitions of what I wanted (from me twice, the server once, and the cooks on the line twice, plus it was written on the ticket).

But I was hungry and the kitchen was slammed and it was getting dark and I was on my bike, so I just said fine, I’ll scrape off the barbecue sauce and ignore the cheese and just eat this mountain of breaded-and-too-salty french fries from a freezer bag. I’m also not going to go on Yelp and whine about it, since I wasn’t expecting much and I got less but it turns out the ticket was written poorly and I chose not to have the order re-fired.  There was no safety issue and no one was out of line.  If I go again (and that’s a big if), I’ll just make sure the order is right.  I ain’t fussed.

But I am (is?) fussed when a restaurant whose soul is like the burger joint tries to pass itself off as an expensive locavore joint.  Using industrial frozen crap in a bag, not getting orders right, sacrificing local produce and quality ingredients to increase the slim profit margin, and struggling along with an absentee owner or executive chef and cooks who don’t taste the food or know what combinations work and little training for the front of the house, but still calling the menu locally sourced and fresh and the restaurant high-end.  I’ll pay $9 to suffer all that plus a high school server who is busier making eyes at the bartender than writing down an order properly, but I won’t pay $39.

And neither should you.

2)  The key for a good review is a customer who knows the difference.  Learn how to cook.  Yeah, I know you’re busy.  But education is always a sacrifice, and your body/family/farmers/planet will thank you for it.  You can choose to eat most of your meals out at cheap places if you aren’t rich.  I’d argue it’s better to save your money and use it on better places less frequently, but clearly I don’t take my own advice, as you see from the anecdote above. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the difference with your eyes and mouth between cheap, mass-produced food and good food.

Don’t patronize the places that serve you cheap food and provide cheap service for expensive prices AND, contrariwise, don’t expect places that serve you high quality food and provide good service to give you massive, gluttonous portions and act like you’re both in a chain restaurant in the mall.

And when places underwhelm you for the prices they’re charging for the quality (note again: quality not quantity since you’re not eating from a trough) of food, call them out when they do.  The reason why some of our crappy overpriced local restaurants are still in business is because (a) most people don’t know how good our fresh local food can be because they’re used to eating mass-produced products; (b) very few people who know about food say anything because they’re in the business and afraid of offending someone they may be working for someday; and (c) we live in a town where inertia helps us along and no one likes conflict or sounding too opinionated.

3)  Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re trained as Americans, as Westerners, and as Oregonians to “have it your way.”  We value individual choices so strongly it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own little bubble when we’re judging others.  So be reasonable with your tastes when you’re critiquing a local restaurant.

To return to my hamburger example, I know I am idiosyncratic with burgers.  The burger depicted above is how I like my burgers:  a crusty toasted roll, extra dill pickles dripping their dill juice into the meat, and more ketchup than burger so the whole thing is falling apart.  I even dip it in more ketchup.  Without a doubt, folks will find this completely gross and a BBQ cheeseburger far more preferable.  Where’s the special sauce?  Or Jesus, at least add some mayo and lettuce!

But no.  I just so happen to have odd tastes in burgers.  And I know this.  So you’ll rarely see me commenting on burger joints or even ordering a burger in mixed company, especially at a nice restaurant.  I know this and account for it:  I act like a 5-year-old with burgers and get surly when stuff like nasty yellow mustard or a raw onion touches my ketchuppicklefest, because my burger training was at fast food joints.  Now, of course, I make my own ketchup and pickles and eat beef ground to my specification from a local cow and form the patties myself, so I’m even worse than your average McDonald’s hamburger type.

In short, I am a hamburger douchebag.  I know this.  I protect others from the madness.  There’s probably even some residual shame in this that makes me do stuff like scrape off barbecue sauce on a misfire than insist I have my order the way I wanted it; who knows.

Do you act like a douchebag with your food tastes?  Complaining about a restaurant’s menu based on your own idiosyncratic needs is not reasonable.  If you’re gluten-free, for example, why are you in a bakery?  Can’t abide greasy food?  Get outta the pizza joint.  You only eat burgers and nothing else?  Heaven help you.  The seasonality of local ingredients, higher labor, and chef’s vision in more expensive places dictates that you can’t always have it your way.  That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you choose to go to a good restaurant.  If the menu is huge and offers concessions for every fathomable dietary restriction du jour, it’s going to come out in quality elsewhere.  So respect the genre of the restaurant you’re critiquing if you want to promote your own agenda, or better yet, be reasonable about your expectations.

One can be opinionated and reasonable.  Really.  I’ve seen it work.  I think it’s working now, actually, because in the past seven years I’ve seen drastic and wonderful changes in the Eugene dining scene, changes for the better.  And it isn’t because people blindly supported local establishments and kept their opinions to themselves.  Local restaurants are reading comments and listening to their customers.  You’ll be a respected critic if you state your opinions from an intelligent and understanding position, and back up your impressions with proof. You’ll still probably be attacked and called names, but that reflects on the commenter, not you.

* Why yes, I am an English professor by trade.  How can you tell?

duck duck pig

IMG_4986Thinking about bodies, and the soft flesh and puzzle of bones that enable us to stand, walk, smile, bend, wave hello, and say goodbye.

The first time I broke down a duck, I marveled at the difference between its structure and that of a chicken: the longer body, slenderer breasts, little drums.  This time, at Camas Davis of the Portland Meat Collective‘s duck and pig butchery classes in Eugene last weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about the structures we share with the pig.  No, not in the sense that I could never eat an animal with a face or a clavicle or whathaveyou, but rather this unshakeable feeling of being part of the universe, a community of matter.  I can’t get over the metaphysical sense, lately, strangely, insistently, of the impermeability of bodies, of all things, and the wheel of fortune that spins these molecules into personhood, those into livestock, and yet others into mosquito netting or Prada clutches or a turnip or cat’s breath or frost. Why don’t we all just dissolve into the ether?

No, I haven’t been taking more drugs.  Thanks for asking.

Ever more firmly I believe I can’t eat meat without knowing more about how the process works, but my awe and respect for the workings of a creature, our very distinct matter, is kind of overtaking me right now.  I’ve spent an entire year completely (and utterly nonconsensually) focused on broken bodies and death, on dissolution and transformation, so to take part in the slow, careful, respectful craft of turning life into food is quite profound and healing for me.  Meat, somehow, even more so.

We broke down a pig and a half, totaling about 400 lbs. of meat, and a duck apiece, then we learned how to make some cured products, including bacon, rillettes, and duck liver mousse and prosciutto.

IMG_3547IMG_5029 The classes were wonderful, made even better by the gorgeous facility and commercial kitchen at Sprout! where the Springfield farmers market takes place on Fridays.  We were able to take home the meat we broke down, which added yet more value. The Master Food Preservers helped with the class prep and clean-up, and we had a great group of farmers, restaurateurs, home cooks, and teachers who eagerly participated.  Although someone confessed that she was initially nervous about sharing a table with me at the duck class, I laid that to rest quickly with my slow hands and jerky knife skills.  (Any mystique I might have held as a food guru was soon dashed as my knife slipped around a joint, the duck popped, and I sent a bowl of curing spiced salt flying across the room.)

Not only does one learn how the body works, and that you can actually do most of the butchery with a big knife and a small knife (and a hacksaw for the rest), but Camas teaches about cuts that we don’t really use commercially in the U.S.  I’m now on a campaign against loins.  No, sorry, the religious right shouldn’t get too excited — it’s a campaign against the soft, mild cuts that privilege the loin parts of the pig.  I’ve always been a big fan of the shoulder, but now I see even more possibilities for flavorful cuts of pig meat, thanks to the class.

Now I’m hungry.  Check out the full set of photos for both classes on my Facebook page.  If you’re local, you might want to follow me on Facebook while you’re there — I accept all friend requests and post local events and happenings there much more frequently than I do on the blog, which has more of a national readership.

And by all means, take one of Camas’ classes. She promised to come back to Eugene, and we promise to love it when she does!

butcher your own meat, poison, and razor clams: psychopathy or just another episode of food for thought?

Camas Davis. Photo nicked from Chef’s Catalog

I might say both.  It’s Ryan and me again hosting another dark and dangerous episode of food radio programming for maniacs, Food for Thought on KLCC, today at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations all across Oregon, or live on the web.

Updated:  Listen to the show’s archive here.

We’ll be chatting with Portland Meat Collective‘s Camas Davis, former food writer and butcher extraordinaire.  Isn’t she absolutely fiercely beautiful?

The PMC teaches people how to break down their own meat, an important element of understanding how the food system works and how we can relocalize and improve meat processing.  She’s raising funds for seeding meat collectives across America in a Kickstarter campaign, and will be discussing a forthcoming class or two planned for Eugene where YOU can learn the skills and take home pounds of premium meat.  You can watch a video of Davis on her Kickstarter page, listen to her on This American Life, or read the article that made her national news in the New York Times Magazine.

We’ll check in with Chef Gabriel Gil of the soon forthcoming and long-awaited Soubise restaurant, and sharing meals of the week. Mine came from an unexpected and marvelous gift of Oregon coast razor clams, one of the sweetest and most delicious shellfish around.  And get this, they’re free if you dig your own!  They can be prepared in many more ways than you will hear from the locals, including the way I ate them last night…

next week’s dream team: food historian charlotte biltekoff visits, farmer paul atkinson chats

I’m pleased to announce the University of Oregon Center for the Study of Women in Society Food in the Field Research Interest Group Visiting Scholar Lecture for AY 13-14.  Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff, Assistant Professor, American Studies/Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis, will be speaking on her forthcoming book, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Dietary Health, on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. in Lillis 111. The talk is free and open to all.  Yes, parking is difficult near campus; sorry.

1304_Biltekoff_flyer_WEBDr. Biltekoff’s book is an important contribution to the field; it analyzes the relationship between moral campaigns and food reform movements in American history.  Trust me, this is a fascinating topic. Our breakfast cereal industry was founded on a thoroughly American mix of sexual abstinence, fresh air exercise, and commercial crop potential.  And that’s just the beginning.

And you may be interested to note that Dr. Biltekoff has served in leadership roles in the burgeoning Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC-Davis and the Association for the Study of Food and Society, so she’s a great person to chat with about the future of the field as well as the past.

We’ll be hearing more about the upcoming talk on Food for Thought on KLCC, Sunday at noon (PST) on 89.7FM in Eugene, or its sister stations all across Oregon, or live on the web.

img_5252And if that’s not enough to grab your attention, how about our other guest on this week’s show, farmer Paul Atkinson of Laughing Stock farm? YES!

Renowned on the West Coast for his pork (which is simply the best pork I’ve ever eaten, and everyone from Chez Panisse diners to The Atlantic’s Senior Editor Corby Kummer agrees) and famous on this blog for his work with friend Del Del Guercio making goat milk cheese and cured meats on the farm for local consumption (as in so-local-it-fell-into-my-mouth local), Farmer Paul will be in our studio!  He’ll chat about the other white meat, dairy farming, duck eggs, heritage squash, land use, curing caves, WWOOFing, and/or who knows what else with Ryan and me at noon.  This is a show that should not be missed.

just ducky

Duck, duck, larb!  I spent a couple of days spattered in duck fat, playing with gorgeous, fresh, delicious ducks from former Eugenians Boondockers Farm, now located outside of Portland. I had offered to do a bit of recipe testing for Hank Shaw, the wild foods expert that visited us at the University of Oregon about a year ago.  He’s coming out with a new cookbook for duck and geese, much to the delight of us all. You can read more about it at his award-winning blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.

Just to give you an idea of what he’s pondering, I made a very simple duck tagine with chestnuts, and the aforementioned duck larb, which is a Lao/northern Thai herb and meat salad.  Thank goodness he eschewed the traditional duck blood and raw meat in the larb!  Instead, I sliced the meat at medium (seared the big, meaty Saxony ducks a bit too long, but the smaller, more flavorful Ancona breasts were perfectly medium rare).

It was the first time I had broken down a duck, and it’s been a few years since I’ve disassembled a chicken, even, so it was kind of cool to do it.  Bodies fill me with awe;  there’s no better sense of how muscles and bones work together than by feeling your way down the contours of a spine, along a strip of fat, across and around a joint.  You can get a sense of how beings move, and how humans are connected with other species. For me, it’s a powerful experience to work with meat.

And if anyone ever tells you cooking is just domestic drudge labor, hit them on the head with an anatomy book.

Anyway, the ducks were fantastic, and I’m so thrilled I now have carcasses for duck stock and a mound of duck fat to render down and use all winter long.  Boondockers grow two very rare species of heritage species ducks, Ancona and Saxony.  Ancona are smaller, and have wonderfully rich flavor.  Saxony are big and meaty, with clean, moist, ducky flesh.  You can buy slaughtered and vacpacked roasting birds or ducklings to raise your own.  The Ancona, especially, as an endangered species would be a terrific addition to your backyard flock.  They also sell duck and chicken eggs, occasionally duck fat, Delaware chickens, and heirloom seeds.  And they raise Great Pyranees dogs, too!

Farmers Rachel and Evan are both fierce, eloquent advocates of farming and conservation, two of the best examples of the young farmer movement I’ve seen.  I met them a couple of years ago, before their landlord raised the rent and effectively made them leave our area, and they supply restaurants all along the Willamette Valley with their products.  They really want to keep their Eugene ties, so please do let them know if you’re interested in a Eugene delivery, and they should be able to work something out.  You must check out their blog at the very least, or visit their gorgeous new farm in Beavercreek.  They are offering farm tours on September 23 and 30.  Let them know you’re coming!

Hank’s cookbook should be out some time next year with Ten Speed Press.  Anyone who’s a fan of his previous cookbook, Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, knows we’re in for a treat.  Stay tuned and good luck, Hank!