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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
This has been the summer of the tomato. Ripened early because of the weather, we have been enjoying caprese (my favorite summer meal – or perhaps favorite meal of all time) often, and this year it was often served with my homemade mozz. The beautiful red and yellow tomatoes I bought at last week’s market made for some gorgeous jars of preserves that will be certain to cheer me up come January. But what else to do with the tomatoes? Especially now the cooler weather has made firing up the oven a bit less of a chore?
Last Saturday’s haul from the Union Square Farmer’s Market was an inadvertent inspiration. I had bought a bunch of eggplant and zucchini (in addition to the tomatoes) to grill for what was going to be a fabulous BBQ blow-out on Sunday afternoon when the weather intervened. Thus to use up an even larger-than-usual store of produce I decided to concoct a pasta-less lasagna.
First I needed to make the sauce, and using up the tomatoes that were too bruised to can (and were starting to attract fruit flies) was an easy decision. I simply saute-ed some chopped garlic in olive oil, added chopped tomatoes a few minutes later and then let it simmer to thicken up, eventually adding chopped fresh basil, salt, pepper and a dash of balsamic.
In the mean time I sliced my eggplant, zucchini, beets (which I parboiled) and tomato very thin (1/2 inch or so), aiming for long pieces, rather than rounds, when possible.
Next I assembled like a lasagna: a splash of sauce on the bottom of a square baking dish, layers of veg, then fresh mozz, then ricotta or marscapone, browned ground sausage (if you’d like – I did), more sauce, then repeat. I ended my dish with a final layer of mozzarella and then cooked in it a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until the harder veggies were cooked through.
Served with a glass of wine and some crusty bread to soak up the liquid (and because the tomatoes are fresh off the vine, they produce a thinner and juicier sauce than one you’d get from an industrial can or jar) I didn’t even miss the pasta.
I’ve been tending to my rotting baby since the first of the year – I received a compost bin for Christmas and have been feeding it small bits of vegetable ends and the compost microbe sawdust that is supposed to speed the process along for those of us in a small, non-rural space. Miraculously, every time I think I am about to fill the three gallon or so sized bin, it shrinks in size, releasing its delicious and fecund compost tea from a spigot in the bottom.
But really, I have been stressing lately. Yes, it was composting rather quickly (the contents smelled suitably rancid and it was starting to look like a dirty version of the vegetable ends that I had been feeding the bin). But still, it wasn’t DIRT. And I really was going to fill the bin rather soon. I pondered this dilemma as a walked the eight blocks or so to the local greenhouse for tomato seedlings, a half dozen of which would end up in the sunniest sliver of my back yard. A memory of my fifth grade history lesson drifted through my head: the native americans would plant a dead fish beneath their crops and allowed it to compost itself right into the ground. Why couldn’t I add my almost-compost to the bottom of my tomato pots?
Thus, an hour later, while swatting flies with a wave of my trowel, I added about six inches of my rotting baby to the bottom of my pots, filling them the rest of the way with garden soil. I loosened the roots at the bottom of the seedlings and planted them snugly in the pots, pressing the dirt around their thick stems. Them I watered them at the roots, letting them drink until the water pooled on the surface for a few minutes.
My compost bin is empty now – just in time to be filled with the stems of the local spinach we have draining in the sink and the root ends of the radishes I bought from Sherman’s the other day. With seedlings in the ground just starting to flower, I’m sure it won’t be long until I find ways to fill it once again.