What Vermont Blueberries Helped Me Remember

20120822-081943.jpg

Maybe a dozen miles as the crow flies, it took us nearly forty minutes to get there. We went up a dirt road and crested a mountain, down the other side until deep ruts turned to asphalt. And then we … Continue reading

Why I Eat Meat, or What My Nani Taught Me About the Importance of Food Culture

20120704-115016.jpg

My Nani – my Italian-American grandmother – was brought up during the Great Depression. She used to tell the story of how her immigrant father would walk miles to his dangerous job building bridges on the outskirts of the small … Continue reading

Spices

A week before Christmas I was looking in my spice cupboard for some specific ingredients that I might need to make my annual homemade Christmas gifts. I hated to give the same thing year after year – after all, how much homemade jam can people use? – and I had decided that this would be the year of the spiced nuts. The annual activity, now nearly a decade long, was perhaps inspired by the delicious box of baked goods my pastry-chef step-sister would send along every year. I’m not much of a baker, but I started to can my meager harvest of strawberries and tomatoes and was proud enough to give a jar to each of my parents and my grandmother. I expanded to pickles the next year and then experimented with jelly: the least successful was wine-flavored (or perhaps I should say, the least versatile), the most sought after was my strawberry balsamic black pepper. This year, inspired by a recent trip to Morocco where a shop’s excellence might be measured in the depth of their ras al hanout and the entire country seemed to smell like the inside of an herboriste, I wanted to use spices, and lots of them.

I decided upon three versions of nuts – New England, Italian and Spicy – and started searching for the appropriate spices in my cupboard. The cupboard is in the corner, near the sink, which means that it goes back at least two feet – farther than I can reach without perching on the counter. I thought I had a pretty good mental inventory of what was in the cupboard, but was taken aback by some of what I found. Memories from past dishes and travels were defined through my spices, much as I had recently seen the history of the country of Morocco defined their food.

Digging around in the cupboard, while sitting next to the rack of drying dishes and row of olive oils and vinegars, I started pulling out jars. First there was the homemade pate spice, thoughtfully labeled as such, just one souvenir from my year-long charcuterie adventure. Next I pulled out a large jar, half-filled with dark orange spices, and smelling of heat and flavor. It had to be chili spice or something with cayenne and cumin and ground hot peppers, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. It had to be recent, judging by the shiny lid and location at the front of the shelf, and I swore to be better in the new year about labeling my concoctions. Behind the chili spice were a few jars of homemade spices purchased on a trip to Florida for a friend’s wedding: Florida fish rub, Thai seasoning and lemon pepper, all made from mostly locally grown (to the purveyor in Florida) ingredients. These brought back memories of how happy my friend was, nearly bounding down the aisle to meet her husband to be at the altar; of the afternoon on the beach when my husband first saw dolphins in the wild; of the morning before the wedding when we sought out our favorite tourist destination – a farmer’s market – to buy distinctly local delicacies that we could not find back in the northeast.

I set aside some rosemary and thyme, both picked from the raised bed in my tiny urban back yard, and dried in the dehydrator for my own use. Behind that I found the jar of ground hot peppers – truly the spiciest and most flavorful blend I have ever used – given to us by an old friend of my husband’s.

On the next shelf up I found a container with pink salt – clearly labeled as curing salt, not for normal consumption – an ingredient I had only recently discovered and learned to use. This reminded me of what I had learned in the past year as a cook and of the family and friends, virtual and in-person, who helped me with encouragement, stories of success, taste-testing and sous chef-ing. I found a jar of za’atar spice, a few years old now, that a friend gave us when she and her husband moved overseas. I thought of her and her little daughter, whom I had only met once, and thought to make a point to send her an email. I also found a jar of whole nutmeg, a gift from a high school friend’s mother for my wedding, now nearly four years old. She had sent us a box of spices after the wedding, and this was all that remained. I doubt she knew I was much of a cook – I wasn’t much use in the kitchen back when her daughter and I snuck rum from the liquor cabinet and blasted Pearl Jam in her bedroom – but her small gift was one of my favorites.

I gathered the spices I would be needing to make my homemade Christmas gifts, and put the rest back into the cupboard, trying to bring a few forward to encourage their use. I knew that spices lost their pungency, especially after a year or two, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss the za’atar – especially because I only recently was inspired to use spices from this part of the world – or a few others that reminded me of dishes I had attempted or friends with whom I had shared a kitchen or a meal.

I wondered what other shelf in my life contained such memories, such a ledger of times shared with others or skills learned. I vowed in the coming year to revisit this shelf more often, to try new dishes, label old spice mixes and toss those that lost their flavor. If I could do this on one little shelf in my life, I could only image the possibilities elsewhere.

Italian Spiced Nuts

Combine:

1 tablespoon thyme

1 tablespoon oregano

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg white until frothy

Toss a pound of nuts (your choice – maybe mixed or all cashews or almonds) in the egg white until coated. Toss the nuts with the spice mixture and roast in a single layer in 325 degree oven (on a silpat, greased cookie sheet or parchment paper) until lightly brown, ten minutes or less.

Take out of oven and immediately toss with a half cup (or more!) or grated parmesan (or grated pecorino would also be delicious). Package up for gifts or just serve at room temp.

Homemade Hot Dogs

image

Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.

So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.

And then: the emulsion challenge.

The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.

image

While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).

image

We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.

I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.

Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.

 

image

So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.

 

image

 

Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.

image

Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.

image

 

Sausage Patties

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.