Stuffing Sausage

Maybe I’m getting old. But if you had asked me nine years ago  if I would have thought that my big Saturday afternoon excitement would be making sausage – under the watchful eyes of my co-charcuterer’s nine month old – I would have laughed at you. Why nine years? Well because my co-chef, Keith, was the friend who introduced me to my now-husband, Steve, nine years ago last month. Keith had invited me out to a show at a local music club at which he was the MC. Steve played guitar in the headlining act. I noticed Steve right away – a combination of his dimples, searing solos and the beer I was drinking – and had asked Keith to introduce us. By the end of the night I had taken introductions into my own hands; the next day Steve called Keith and asked for my number. The rest, as they say, is history.

Steve and I have gotten married in the interim and Keith and his wife now have a son and daughter. We’ve both bought houses and spend a lot less time drinking beer and watching live music. And as much fun as we had back in the day – a good Saturday afternoon involved cheap dogs on the grill and a six pack – I kind of love that our interests have shifted in similar ways towards better food and drink. When Keith and I chatted at a recent Memorial Day barbeque we talked bacon curing and wine making. Keith said he was game for any project – and when Steve took a gig when he was to sous-chef my sausage making, I knew just who to call.

At Keith’s house, we set up the newer manual meat grinder – one I bought off ebay for twenty bucks because grandma’s sturdy grinder didn’t have a sausage stuffing attachment. We shared the dicing and de-boning duties of four pounds of pork butt steaks and then roughly followed Michael Ruhlman’s spicy Italian sausage recipe – adding homegrown dried hot peppers in place of cayenne and leaving out the basil because we didn’t have any. At Keith’s suggestion we decided to run the meat through twice – first through a medium die and then again through the smallest.

We, admittedly, had a few challenges: the silver skin (I think?) and some of the tougher pieces of fat kept getting stuck in the grinder so we had to take it apart a few times to clear it out so the meat could be properly ground. I won’t mention that perhaps at one point Keith then put the grinder together incorrectly. However, he quickly made up for it with his brawn – he was, at one point, sweating with pulsing temple at the exertion of the manual grind. But it was worth it! The meat had a silky and uniform texture by the time we got to stuffing, and that step – which I thought would be the hardest part – was really the easiest.

 

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We got nine lovely if somewhat non-uniform links from our almost four pounds of bone-in pork, pictured here with the smallest grinding die. The end sausage was a bit wonky, and, well, we needed to test our creation, so Keith fired up his cast iron skillet and grilled up a link to share.

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Verdict: the texture was smooth and uniform, with the perfect amount of fat. We did try and take care to keep the sausage chilled while working with it, and Keith had put the grinder into the freezer for twenty minutes before we used it which also helped. The flavor was delicious – a bit spicy with a nice heat that hit the back of your throat after the initial taste. Our only complaint was that we wished we had remembered the basil to balance the tablespoon or so of dried oregano that we had used.

Once the stuffing and cleaning and cooking was done, like old times, we cracked a beer – but this time a good local micro brew, better than what we could afford almost a decade ago. We cheered our afternoon’s work and I thought about how much has changed in the past ten years. We may each go to bed a few hours earlier now, and an afternoon beer is more the exception than the rule, but if getting old means eating homemade sausage and drinking a better with a long-time friend, then I don’t mind it one bit.

Sausage Patties

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By now, my family has gotten used to my kitchen gadget requests. Having grown up in rural Western New York, where grilling, hunting, fermenting and all realms of do-it-yourself food preparation and preservation reined out of necessity, not Next Food Network Star aspirations. So when I asked my mother and then my father if they had an extra meat grinder kicking around, each said they knew my grandmother had at least one.

“I remember making sausage with her and Grandpa,” my mother said. “We’d sit around all afternoon filling link after link.” She added, “The grinder we used was a big one – table top sized. I don’t know if you can get it back to Boston on the plane.” That was the dilemma. I was heading to my hometown for a quick weekend visit for a family birthday party, and was limited to what would fit in my suitcase – and then what could be stored in my city apartment. My husband’s instruments and studio equipment took up much of our duplex’s basement, thus whatever I acquired would have to find a home in our second floor kitchen.

On my last morning in town I called my grandma with my request: Did she have a grinder I could take home with me? I’d be stopping by in an hour to visit, regardless.

What she had setting out when I arrived fit into a large plastic zip-top bag. Perfectly cleaned and organized, I shouldn’t have doubted that Grandma would have known right where it was. My visit was so brief, I didn’t have time to ask what her favorite recipes were, or to recount stories of making sausage or ground beef with Grandpa, who had been gone now nearly a decade. Her eyes still dampened when she spoke of him.

“Next time you drive home, we’ll find the big grinder in the barn,” she told me. “You can have it. We’re not using it any more.” It’s true: with Grandpa gone and her kids all moved away, there’s no need to buy meat in bulk anymore and no one is bringing home a whole deer to be processed and frozen during hunting season. In many ways the old way of life is being replaced by the growing business of industrialized and processed food. Those who still make their own sausage perhaps are hunters – and there are still plenty of those left in my home county – but fewer are processing their own livestock or purchasing whole animals to save on costs like my grandparents had to fifty years ago when they were bringing up five kids on a laborer’s salary. Today a large family on a small budget can often afford to buy cheaply produced versions of what my grandparents had to do themselves. The quality may be different – but the new attitude is: who has the time or equipment to grind their own meat anymore? Even my grandmother buys white bread and cold cuts. The square footage of her garden and her canning output decreases every year. She enjoys the process, but with her bad back and cataracts its just so much easier to buy what she wants to eat.

When I got home, I figured out the puzzle of putting together the grinder and screwed it into place on my tabletop. I cut up my bone-in pork butt and minced the garlic and ginger – seasoning inspired by the charcuterie master Michael Rulhman rather than my grandparents. They had no ginger growing in their garden, I was sure.

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As I cranked the three pound of pork through the small grinder, I actually longed for the large table-top one. How could they have used this small device for anything other than the most modest of projects? My arm tired halfway through – my grandmother was certainly tougher than me.

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But then I got into a rhythm. Every minute or so I transferred the ground meat to a metal bowl in ice, to ensure that the meat was kept cold – both for food safety reasons and to keep its texture firm, not mushy. Three pounds of pork butt took less than ten minutes to grind. I made some into patties and rolled the rest into a log, wrapped it in plastic wrap and then a plastic bag, to be defrosted and eaten later. The whole process took less than thirty minutes, including clean up. Sausage in casings would come later – I didn’t have the right attachment with this grinder – or maybe I’d have to drive home and pick up the table top version and finally take the time to ask Grandma how she used to flavor her sausage and if she had any advice. I’m sure she did.

Sausage is a humble food – one that is relatively easy to make (with the right equipment) and good for enhancing a fatty, cheap cut of meat (a high fat ratio is, in fact, a necessity for making good sausage). But I actually want to make it even slower next time. I want to ask my grandmother or my parents for the stories of when they made sausage in the past. Where did the meat come from? How was it seasoned? Sausage was the food of my rural ancestors – and I will honor them by finding a space in my tiny city home for the large meat grinder, by preserving the recipes and methods of my grandparents for the next generation. Even, for something as humble as a breakfast food.

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Smoking in the City

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The biggest question I had was: how do I smoke 5 pounds of pork without my neighbors calling the fire department? The answer, I discovered, was much easier than anticipated. Smoking may be time consuming, but is not difficult. In fact, one of the hardest decisions I had to make what choosing what hunk of meat I planned on smoking for my inaugural attempt.

While I had a few pounds of Chestnut Farm country-style ribs in my freezer, something about smoking felt very “Go Big Or Go Home” so I went to my local butcher and checked out his offerings. On one hand, I wanted something big enough to withstand a few hours in the smoker, but I also wanted a cheaper cut of meat to hedge my bets in case my first smoking effort was a failure. The verdict: a 5 pound, bone in pork thigh, which came in under twenty dollars (and is locally sourced, humanely raised, antibiotic free, yada yada).

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The day before I planned to smoke, I made a dry rub with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, paprika and ground hot pepper. Sweet and spicy – just the way I like it. I covered the pork in the rub and wrapped it in plastic wrap overnight.

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The next day I turned my charcoal grill into a smoker. Which, simply put, meant that I put a smallish mound of coals on one side of the grill and lit them, letting them set for maybe ten minutes to heat up. Next I put my smoke box of water-soaked hickory chips on top of the coals. I checked the temp with a grill surface thermometer and placed the pork on the grill when I confirmed that the temp was between 200 – 300 degrees (which it was after the ten minutes or so of prep above). This is the magic smoking temperature range that I thought would be hard to maintain (spoiler: it wasn’t!). The grill top was lowered and I just let it sit there, checking maybe every half hour or so.

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For a three hour smoke, I added more coals each hour and I added more hickory chips after about an hour and a half, at which time I also flipped the pork. But in all, the temp stayed pretty constant around 250 degrees, and when it dipped to closer to 200, I added a few more coals.  The smoke wafted out of the half-closed top vent a bit, but nothing to call the firemen about. And yes, my entire block smelled like a smoke house. In the best possible way. After three hours I put the pork in a covered roasting pan in a 250 degree oven with an inch of liquid (I used half-water, half-cider) for another three hours and then, willingly, impatiently, DUG IN.

I’m sorry I was not able to take any pictures of the delicious dark brown crust, or the half-inch red ring around the edges of the meat that I’ve heard is the marker of a good smoke. Please forgive me for not photographing how I used forks to shred the tender pork or transcribing the exact ingredients and measurements of the whiskey barbeque sauce I served atop the meat. But, after smelling smoking pork for six hours, would you have the patience to document everything before digging in? I didn’t think so.

Corned Beef: After the Cabbage

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Four pounds of corned beef for two people is a lot of corned beef. Yet it is also not nearly enough. This corned beef was amazing and I had to keep myself from eating half of it in one sitting. After I corned it for four days (one day per pound), I rinsed it and then braised it in water plus about a cup of hard cider for two and a half hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions in the last thirty minutes. What came next, however, made all the difference: I slathered the fatty side of the brisket with a honey and mustard glaze and put in under the broiler for about four minutes (or until the honey started to caramelize).

The first night I served slabs in a bowl with broth and veggies. Classic corned beef and cabbage. It was good, but the broth was a bit salty and sour. Maybe too much so for a lot of eating on its own. I’m going to doctor it up for a better tasting soup in the next few days.

The following day I made reubens. These were amazing, especially with the creamy, sour, sweetness of all of the ingredients. The basic preparation includes Russian dressing (I made my own with mayo, ketchup, minced home-canned dill pickles) on both sides of the bread. I warmed the sandwich open-faced in the oven: slices of meat on one side, sauerkraut and swiss cheese on the other, and then assembled for a final toasting of the bread. Really, one of the best sandwiches in the world. I would have taken a picture, but I couldn’t wait that long to eat it.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

My mother, a full-blooded Italian-American, loves corned beef and cabbage this time of year. In fact, of the dishes I remember her making many times when growing up, the big pot of corned beef and cabbage is the only one that comes to mind that doesn’t involve red sauce or Italian spices. Thus, when Charcutepalooza’s third challenge was to brine our own brisket for corned beef, I immediately thought of my mother. Unfortunately she is five hundred miles away, but I still have a pot of brining brisket in my fridge at the moment in her honor.

Interestingly, I haven’t encountered much corned beef and cabbage in my past decade-plus of inhabiting the very Irish city of Boston. And this despite that my husband is a musician who regularly plays most of the Irish pubs within a three mile radius (which is many more pubs than one who has not spent time in the Boston area might imagine). I also never noticed it on a menu when I accompanied him on an Irish tour a few years back, where we enjoyed meals of mostly lamb stews or shepherds pie with beef at a dozen or so pubs and restaurants around the west and south of Ireland. So I did a little research and discovered that corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dish. In fact, Ireland provided much of the meat for cured – or “corned” beef – that was then shipped to England, France and the English colonies from the 1600s to the mid 1800s, often at the expense of the nutrition of the Irish. Some Irish, when they arrived in America, began eating corned beef because of its associations with luxury in their home country coupled with its modest price in their adopted country.

Come to think of it, the corned beef that I have most recently eaten has been in a reuben sandwich from a Jewish deli – and might have been labeled as brisket or brined brisket and not “corned beef”. However the term “corned” refers to the Old English word for “particles” or the salt that was used to preserve the meat, so any salt-cured meat could be called thus. Yum, reubens. I’ll have to make at least one with my cured brisket. Which will be ready in three days and twenty two hours. I am already counting down… Sorry you won’t be able to taste this, Mom!

Corning – or wet-curing – brisket is easy. I heated the salt, sugar and spices to help them dissolve in the water. Note that I heated them in a smaller pot and then cooled that mixture to add to the larger pot with the meat. I could have done in all in the same pot but this way I can start curing sooner because less has to cool before I add the meat.

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Once the brine was assembled and cooled, I submerged a four pound brisket into the pot.

 

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And then put a bowl on top to keep it submerged. I will let this sit for four days in the fridge and then will simmer this in a pot with fresh water and spices for about three to four hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions to the broth in the last half hour or so. Then I will call my mother and tell her that I am thinking of her.

 

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My Personal History of Bacon

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Growing up bacon was something we ate on Christmas morning – the only thing I ever remember my dad’s father, or in my mind my “American” Grandpa, cooking. Maybe it was because of my mother’s constant health kick or perhaps because my dad seemed to want to leave the food of his childhood behind, but despite both of my parents being good cooks, I didn’t realize the pleasures of bacon until well into my twenties.

Perhaps this was because Dad was always on the lookout for something different, new – and bacon was a classic. He was brought up on typical middle-American fare: his mother’s preserves from the garden coupled with lunch meat, white bread, baked goods made from Crisco and soda pop. While my mother was alternately on a health kick or cooking elaborate Italian dishes from her family’s dinner table, my father waffled between sweets like Oreos or Pepsi (his late night snacks of choice that could often be found next to his side of the bed) and semi-gourmet dishes inspired by the latest species of seafood available at the local market or a meal he remembered from our yearly vacation to the Florida Keys. While my mother was learning to embrace her heritage through food once she started her family, my father was using his role as a modern husband (who shared the cooking duties) to expand our culinary palate, and, perhaps, prove his worldliness beyond that of his rural upbringing.

This only child has been equally inspired by the culinary leanings of both of my parents – once I moved out on my own for good at nineteen I finally called my mother to dictate my Nani’s recipes over the phone so I could cook sauce and bracciole and stuffed artichokes for my new boyfriend. I wanted to recreate Italian recipes as authentically as possible. However, from my dad I inherited my culinary sense of adventure – I would try the strangest thing on the menu if I was someplace new and was the first of my family to travel overseas. To facilitate both sources of my culinary inspiration, I asked for Pyrex baking dishes and a Cuisinart for Christmas when my peers were requesting walkmans and CDs and Bennetton sweaters. And, eventually, maybe I turned a little snooty. On visits home for holidays, I might pick at the Jello salad or boxed stuffing served at Grandma’s house. In my worldliness, I had come to eschew this typical American fare as inauthentic cooking – short cuts learned and repeated by too many housewives in the fifties and sixties and seventies uninspired by history from the old world. This was what I had seen my father rebelling against during my childhood after all – we rarely ate from a mix and my father would choose to make snapper and plantains over tuna noodle casserole any day – while my mother strived towards authentic Italian dishes like her Nana used to make.

Over the next decade, cooking became an increasingly important part of my life. I found myself starting a container garden and then moving on to a larger plot. I began canning and even called up my grandma – my Dad’s mother – for recipes and advice. My parents were now divorced, and my mother and I would cook together, Nani no longer with us, for my friends in the city or for the extended family when I was visiting my hometown. I still received spices and spatulas and fancy pans for Christmas. And when my dad and I would catch up on the phone once or twice a week, our conversation would invariably turn to cooking – a technique or recipe my dad was trying out or an ingredient I found at the local farmer’s market.

“Yeah, we always had them in the garden out back,” Dad might say about my discovery of watermelon radishes or golden beets.

I told my dad about the “farmhouse” cheese I made on the stovetop of my urban galley kitchen and he replied, “Your great grandma made that all the time on the dairy farm.”

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Had I forgotten or simply never known that my great grandparents, whom I met a few times as a child, had owned a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania? Of course my dad would have spent plenty of time helping them in the summers when they visited. My mother often shared stories of her Italian grandparents’ growing up and I wondered if my father’s heritage was a mystery because I hadn’t asked or because he didn’t offer details. Perhaps we had both been so focused on new ideas that we forgot to talk about the past.

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But back to the bacon – I was in the process of curing my own and was telling my dad about it on the phone that Sunday afternoon. I explained how easy it was – I had rubbed a two-pound pork belly (the largest I could find at our local winter farmer’s market) in a mix of curing salt and sugar and added some cayenne, ground pepper and maple syrup for flavor. It had now been curing in a plastic zip-locked bag in the fridge for a few days and plenty of liquid was already being leeched out. He should try doing this himself, I suggested.

“Oh we used to make bacon on the dairy farm,” my dad told me. “I remember that when it was time for great grandpa to slaughter a pig that great grandma would set up a big pot over an open flame to render down the fat to use for cooking. Then they would break down the animal and use every part – the belly for bacon, the chops for roasting….”

Did she bake the pork belly in low heat or smoke it, I had wanted to know. Living in a city apartment, mine would have to be baked. My dad didn’t remember, but assumed it had been smoked. “Great grandpa was always smoking and curing. To feed a big family he had to get creative with how he stored his meat.” Of course he did.  Because smoking and curing were invented and perfected from necessity – hunters and then farmers who had to figure out how to preserve the food they had when they had it to continue to feed their large families throughout cold winters or hot summers or famine.

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My bacon was done curing a few days later and I snuck an end piece after it spent some time in the oven. It was a bit salty, but I loved the combination of sweet and spicy from my additions to the cure. My dad was five hundred miles away, and would have to take my word on how my bacon turned out. So, in honor of both parents who helped to shape the cook that I am today, I decided to use two chopped thick-cut pieces of bacon and a cup of stovetop ricotta cheese to fill homemade raviolis to be served with a simple brown butter sauce and some grated parmesan and fried sage. The resulting meal was more Italian than not, but had the cured meat and homemade cheese from my “American” side. Inspired by my past as much as by the world around me.

 

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Duck Prosciutto

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My grandfather was a hunter. I recall playing with his duck call (a palm-sized wooden box with a paddle that you rubbed across the top to make a quacking sound) and remember hearing about the times (yes there was more than one) when he returned home from his day in the woods, reeking of skunk. Grandpa didn’t have a sense of smell – a congenital condition that kept him out of the armed service during World War II – and he didn’t seem to care who or what he startled while stalking his game.

My grandmother was a good sport about this all. She had to be. They had five kids and for the first decade or so of their marriage were barely making enough to keep clothes on their backs and food on the table. Grandma was a housewife – a stay-at-home-mom who never finished high school. But she grew most of the family’s food in the large garden out back – rows of cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons, raspberries, carrots and onions – that would be eaten fresh, canned or frozen. Grandma crocheted blankets and sweaters, darned socks and made dresses, cut the grass and shoveled the walk. And she would, without flinching, pluck and clean the birds grandpa brought home from his hunting trips. On at least one occasion I remember her clearning a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, and while the green beans and corn bread and pumpkin pies were cooking she sent her skunk-sprayed husband to sit in a bath of tomato juice and then prepared the freshly shot bird from feather to stuffing. That year we were all told to watch out for bird shot when we were chewing.

But despite seeing Grandpa’s hunting paraphernalia every fall, and being warned away from the locked cabinet where he kept his rifles, I don’t recall eating much of what he brought home aside from that infamous Thanksgiving turkey. By the time I came along hunting was more for fun than necessity, after all, and a few duck or pheasant wouldn’t go too far in a family whose dining room table was being set with nearly two dozen places.

Grandpa has been gone now for nearly a decade, his final breaths taken in the garden that provided sustenance for his family for so many years. I never gave much thought to the shelves of jars in their basement, the back corner root cellar, or whatever else Grandma and Grandpa’s old farmhouse held in its nooks and crannies. But these past few weeks, when I was looking for the perfect spot – not too warm nor cool, with moderate humidity – where I might hang my curing duck breasts, I thought of my grandparents and their sprawling rural homestead.

Making duck prosciutto was surprisingly easy. I buried two one-pound moulard duck breasts in kosher salt for 24 hours and then dusted them with black pepper. Then I hung them, wrapped in cheesecloth, from a rafter in my basement for a week, or until they felt firm and their flesh had turned a deep red.

I cut them down from the night before a snow storm was expected, impressed with my own resourcefulness and the ease of preserving something as… fragile… as raw meat. There were certain scientific processes that I didn’t fully understand that were happening to prevent the meat from rotting or molding that made them edible and perhaps even more delicious than roasting or sauté-ing. Considering the shelves of preserved vegetables in my grandparents’ basement, I wondered if they ever cured their own meat after Grandpa had a particularly good day of hunting. That night I sampled a small slice, leaving some of the thick fat in favor of the rich meat; just a taste to help me dream of what extravagant meal I might create the next morning, an almost certain snow day.

A few hours later I woke to blowing snow and no power. I could see a pine tree had snapped in half a few houses down the hill from my house and took the power lines with it. Utility trucks struggled through the accumulating snow while the thermostat dipped to 55 degrees. The power must have been off since dawn. By candlelight my husband and I lit a burner of our gas stove to heat up day old coffee. My plans for the prosciutto – in an omelet, with a bit of melted fontina and sprinkled with sal de provence – were foiled. Instead I took the duck fat from the night before and rendered it in a cast iron skillet. Once it was crackling I fried up two eggs. I placed them on top of toast, also heated on the stove top, with a slice of the prosciutto in between. A breakfast sandwich that grandpa himself might have made out at hunting camp – as delicious and satisfying on a cold and dark winter morning in the city as it might have been looking out the window of his hunting cabin – a shack really – as the late fall sunrise started to burn the frost off the leaves of the trees. Had Grandpa, brought up by a Holland-born lumberman’s son in central Pennsylvania, even heard of the word prosciutto? Probably not. But knowing that we might have tasted the same simple meal, even decades and a world apart, made me feel closer to him than I had in a long time.

Eating: It’s A Family Affair

I tend to take the holidays off from eating locally. Not that I ever claim a 100% success rate, but when I return to my hometown a day or so before Christmas Eve I quickly realize that I would starve and/or alienate my Italian-American extended family by NOT eating the oyster stew, sausage bread, carbonara, cheese & sausage, veggies & dip, cookies etc. that populate my mother’s home. Eating, you see, is a family affair. To eat (and to cook) is to show love. If it weren’t for this reciprocal action, our familial emotions would probably be quite stunted.

Regardless, I did have a few revelations about our collective consumption this holiday, and despite my mostly NOT local eating, I feel pretty good about the decisions I make overall and how they might be helping others think a bit more about their food choices.

#1 – I actually do a pretty good job of eating  – and shopping – locally. I rarely enter a major supermarket and haven’t bought meat NOT raised by someone I’ve met since sometime in 2009. Sure, when I’ve been at friends’ houses or out for a meal I haven’t been so careful. But in general I can find the farm that produced most of the products in my home on a map of New England (and stretching a bit into upstate NY). I feel really good about that. (Of course then I have to try very hard not to judge when my mother has maple syrup or honey that COULD be easily sourced locally, but isn’t.)

#2 – It’s about quality not (ok, sometimes and) quantity. Food I ate with abandon in the past doesn’t interest me. A few years ago if I was offered scalloped potatoes sprinkled with Doritos (who knew my NASCAR-loving step-brother was such a semi-homemade cook!?) I would take a helping with a smile. But this time I took a forkful to be polite and moved on to something else. Sugar-free cookies or fat-free muffins? I appreciated the cook’s resourcefulness, however I couldn’t stomach the aspartame or processed non-fat butter substitute. As often as I could this time around, I chose quality small-batch cheese over store-bought hunks eaten mindlessly. And I tried to bring the ingredients I cared about (see aforementioned “fancy” cheese) and stuck to items that I felt good about eating – even if I ate them immoderately.

#3 – Despite some incredibly sugar-laden and super-processed foods being eaten with abandon by the dad’s side of my family, in some ways they are inspirational as the original locavores. Grandma featured home-grown, -canned and -cellared pickles, sauces and roasted veggies on her Christmas buffet alongside the misnamed whipped topping and candied fruit salad “ambrosia”. Recognizing the mutual interest in local and minimally processed food – albeit for different reasons – has helped us find a way to connect. My grandma has lived in the same house for the last 50 years and didn’t finish the ninth grade, but she and I can talk for hours about how late beets can be harvested and how the caterpillars are predicting a cold start and finish to the winter.

#4 – Much of the extended family (on my mother’s side) cares about humane, local and/or sustainable eating as well. My mom’s two brothers shared a locally born and bred cow this past year (named “D” for “Delicious”) and most of my cousins, their spouses, my aunts as well and my mom and I all grew at least some of our own food and canned local vegetables, pickles and jams this past year. My cousin and step-father both hunt as well – although not exactly to decrease their carbon footprint. We had a locally caught and smoked fish on Christmas Eve and a platter of pickled and canned veggies for Christmas. This attention to local, sustainable and healthy eating by no means originated with me: my oldest cousin has long worked for a non-profit environmental agency and her sister is a vegan blogger. And while our approaches to healthy and humane eating can be quite different, what we realized over a glass (or three) of local wine was that we all want the same thing: for people to be more conscious and thoughtful about what they eat.

And that is my continued goal for the new year.

Flipping Omelets

Flipping Omelets

 

While I think of myself as a pretty good cook, I am not a chef by any means. And by that I mean that I don’t – or can’t – do so many of the activities that I think define someone with an iota of formal training. Such as: sharpening knives, cutting vegetables into uniform pieces, remembering which cut of meat is from what part of the animal, flipping omelets. I’ve managed to get around so many of those aforementioned techniques – I get my knives professionally sharpened from the guy in the sharpening van who comes to the farmer’s market every month, I declare my dishes “rustic” and I have to constantly look up my go-to cow butchering illustration to remember whether I should braise or grill. But omelets – you either are eating one, or you are eating scrambled eggs. Like many things in life, there is no in-between.

 

And until recently I was fine with eating scrambled eggs.

 

I should also add that I have been eating a lot of eggs lately. I follow a mostly local diet and have also been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity so protein has been my morning nutrition of choice. Eggs over easy and frittatas needed an interesting and quick menu-mate. Then my mother bought me an avocado-green omelet pan. She had recently read Julia Child’s memoir and said she could imagine me flipping omelets like the queen of French cooking herself.  Well, then. I found an old episode of Julia describing her technique and thought it didn’t look so hard.

 

My first attempt was almost accidental. I was alone on a Saturday morning with fancy cheese leftover from the previous night’s feast. I whisked together two eggs and poured them into the nonstick omelet pan. My rubber spatula happened to be close at hand and I dragged it through the quickly cooking pool of egg like Julia had. In the time in took me to open the fridge to grab the cheese (ok, another reason I am not a chef – I rarely have the patience to create my mis en place) my omelet had already started to set. I threw some gorgonzola crumbles into the middle of my egg pool and then folded it in half with ease. I must admit, it wasn’t hard. And the appearance of an almost cooked omelet in my cute green pan was alluring. I threw a pinch of sal de herbe de provence onto the omelet and twisted my pepper mill once around. I tilted my pan a bit to cook the edges of the omelet along the curve of the metal. But what it really needed was to be flipped.

 

But I don’t know how to flip an omelet, I told myself.

 

The eggs were browning, I noticed. They would become crusty and rubbery if I delayed. I did not tell myself again that I didn’t know how to flip an omelet.

 

I had no formal training. But what I had was confidence. Confidence that I knew what needed to be done. Confidence that my wrist would know just the force and angle to use to complete that 180 degree turn.

 

Or not. Maybe I just thought that I had nothing to lose (except a few minutes and a couple of eggs) and everything to gain. And what the hell, everyone starts somewhere and sometime and I might as well start then and there.

 

Or not. I think I didn’t think. I just picked up my pan, released the eggs with a shake of my wrist and then flicked. The omelet did a half flip and landed with a perfect ten.

 

And now I am a cook who flips omelets

Homemade Holiday Plum Brandy

Strangely, compared to many Italian-American families, the adults rarely drank at Sunday dinner when my cousins and I were little. Maybe my Nani disallowed more than a glass of wine, served in juice glasses, wanting to set a good example for the kids. Sadly, she is not here to explain that anomaly, and how useful that lesson was to my cousins and me is of some debate, seeing that we regularly go through bottles of red wine during present-day family events. According to my mother, this was more akin to how she grew up – with aunts and uncles and her Nana and Nanu quaffing homemade vino openly, Uncle Tony sometimes sneaking my mother sips when my Nani wasn’t looking. The only time I recall illicit sips of alcohol was during the holidays or other special occassion when Nani would serve her homemade plum brandy in tiny aparatif glasses, my cousins and I finishing the last shallow pool of liquid in the bottom of the glasses when we helped clear the table at the end of the meal.

Those stolen sips were the only I ever had of Nani’s brandy – the jars found in the basement years after her death deemed too old to consume by the time they were discovered. So, inspired by the beautiful pints of tiny purple plums that reminded me of those weighing down my Papa’s trees when I was small, I thought I would try my own batch of plum brandy. I made a batch of plum brandy in the manner described below, hopefully in time to toast my Nani and the holidays of my childhood in three months.

For one quart of plum brandy

I mixed 1/2 cup sugar into 2 cups of vodka and let it set. Then I pierced the small plums with the tips of my knife a number of times before slicing it and putting the pieces into a quart jar, filling it until the fruit reached about two inches from the top. (About a pint and a half of plums.) I covered the plums with the vodka mixture, ensuring that all fruit was submerged, and securely capped the jar. I put this in a cool, dark corner and plan to open it in three months.