Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Loving the Animal

Maybe, based on my often-florid descriptions of eating and preparing products that come from animals, one would infer that I do not love animals.  Perhaps, even that I only enjoy the slaughter and suffering of animals so as to procure them for my own utilitarian aims.  For about six years previous, I would have thought the same about my present self!

Such a characterization is, in fact, not true.  I love animals.  I share my apartment with a rabbit (that is her in the photo) and two toads.  I like dogs and cats.  I even like fish, having once had a Gourami that lived for 6 years, in three different towns.  I actually prefer the company of my rabbit to other humans some of the time.  I don't think that my love for animals is inconsistent with the fact that I also am or have been in some way responsible for the deaths of a number of them each year, whether via eating or the direct slaughter of sea-dwellers through my time in the seafood/fishing trade.

The death of another living being is never something I would take lightly, whether from 'natural' causes or ones more directly taken by the actions of beings higher on the food chain (see why I put natural in quotes?  What is more natural than killing?).  It is for this reason that I think that the kind of systematic slaughter that we have devised to dispatch thousands of animals a day is profoundly disturbing, and represents a serious level of disrespect for the living beings with which we share our land.  Let's not stop there though - of course the bloody spectacles we witness in a certain organization's videos affect us viscerally.  We feel terrible for the suffering that living beings go through at the hands of cruel humans*.  

I don't think that to simply swear off animals and animal products as a whole really gets you off scot-free though.  Maybe a crushed dandelion, a pulverized mosquito, or a poisoned centipede has trouble evoking the same reaction as a half-alive cow spurting blood while hanging from a metal hook - but where does our ethic of animal love (or life-love) stop?  When relative verisimilitude to humanity does? Seeing the aftermath of an over-planted, burned-out field of soybeans or corn depresses me as much as people killing 500 cows a day for fast-food hamburgers. 

So, in my post-vegetarian years I have tried to learn to love living things.  Sometimes that involves laughing when my rabbit spontaneously springs high into the air in her own jubilant dance.  Other times it is loving a steer's quadruple stomachs - marveling at the ability to convert cellulose from grass into muscle fibers that I can then digest with my own acidic stomach.  It is even loving the hidden mystery of the honeycomb interior of cow stomachs and the ways that it can even nourish.  Moreso, it is the love of that fact that one day, I myself will lose hold of that fleeting force that we call life.  I will become nourishment for those amazing carnivorous insects, release my stored nitrogen to that carnivorous soil, and be utterly transformed from the shit of worms into the gold of glorious green things.  

* I feel for those animals that daily suffer due to poorly placed knives or sadistic workers, but have you ever seen a cat and mouse?  A fox and a rabbit?  The natural world is a cruel place.  Taking the last example, a fox will grab a rabbit by the throat and shake it for a bit.  Eventually it is decapitated or killed, but judging from the screams and gargling, the rabbit lives for a good bit.  In terms of excess, foxes also will mow down an entire hen house or rabbit hutch, far more than it could possibly consume.  I'd choose a shot to the head over having my throat torn while being shaken until I died.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Complexity of Vanilla

Today's process is perhaps one of the easiest I will include on this blog, and may be well known already to the resourceful doughletarian.  In case it is not, I will share the wonderful, complex knowledge of the vanilla bean and its natural partner, vanilla extract.  

Vanilla extract is straight up expensive (if you buy the real stuff with fancy Madagascar beans and such), and straight up disgusting (if you buy the imitation stuff).  Please don't purchase either one!  The first is quite expensive for a paltry amount - and as you will soon see, is very easy to replicate (and even supersede) at home.  The second is a true prolefood - someone, a few years ago, realized that the complexity embodied within a vanilla bean could be dumbed down to a single aromatic, vanillin.  If you use imitation vanilla, using the real stuff will be something akin to an experience of mine:
When I was in fifth grade, I always squinted and could never see the blackboard.  Then, one day I failed an eye test at the doctor.  I needed corrective lenses.  However, I felt very stupid wearing glasses, so I never did.  I have no idea how I managed to pass 5th - 8th grade when I more or less had serious trouble seeing the board on a daily basis.  Sometimes, I would curl my first finger into a tiny opening, and then I could read it without too much trouble.  However, in 9th grade I was taking Latin and soon realized that I was in serious trouble and that my finger-monocle was no longer adequate.  So, I got a new prescription, sucked it up and realized that I was a total nerd with or without glasses (I was taking Latin in 9th grade for God's sake).  When I put the new glasses on, the whole world was suddenly so detailed and visible that I was nearly overwhelmed for two days straight.  
That is more or less what you will experience.

Complex Vanilla
- 2 or 3 or more vanilla beans (depending on how much you'll be making)
- Alcohol of some persuasion
- A jar with a good lid *
I want to shy away from the nomenclature of "vanilla extract," because extraction clouds what you are actually doing here, which is really a "vanilla absorption."  I suppose you are extracting some essential oils from your beans, but I like precise classification and "extract" just doesn't achieve such.

So, the process is really quite easy - take your vanilla beans and split them lengthwise.  Some folks like to give them a scrape, but this seems much too violent and might really dint the bean, keeping it from finding its true self.  Now, place them in your jar, and cover with your alcohol of choice.

A word on the alcohol.  Some folks swear by bourbon and will insist that it is the only way to do a correct vanilla absorption.  You can use whatever you would like in a creative but restrained manner.  As a general rule, you'll want something close to 40% ABV (80 proof), preferably higher, as the ethanol is really doing the work here.  If you prefer an extract that possesses a cleaner, basic, vanilla flavour, use vodka.  Rum, bourbon, or whiskey - as should be evident - bring their own flavours to the table, and thus result in a kind of admixture of  flavours that can both be exciting, as well as distracting.  Don't use gin.  Also, these don't have to be pricey, though I might take a step up from the Mr. Boston or Dubra varietals.  These can really harsh your complex vanilla's mellow.  

Now, just give your absorption some time in a dark place, for at least a series of weeks prior to using.  Some folks take their beans out of the extract after this time, but I prefer to leave them in, as the flavours just grow more and more complex, I have a batch that is nearly three years in the making that I used the other day.  Even though I make my own, I still had one of those "glasses on" experiences from it.

* It would be best to find a darkly-tinted jar, like brown or blue glass.  Light is not friendly to absorptions, and really dint the flavour.  Keep an eye out at antique stores.  Two or three beans will be good for a pint or so.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Upper Crust

The word "crust" is an onomatopoetic joy.  Just saying it has a kind of crisp feeling, and should remind you of wonderful pies and tarts.  Something far less joyful is buying a poorly-made crust in a box, or even, god-forbid one of those previously shaped pie tins.  In the latter case you have to be so careful, coddling the thing until you get home, where you then have to store it in an equally coddled fashion.  Coddling is very appropriate for some foods; Brussels sprouts, oysters, sweetbreads, and Enokitake mushrooms should all be coddled.  Don't waste your time and energy coddling pie crusts which should never have existed in the first place.

Homemade and handmade pie crusts may be one of those things that are more widely made than I think, but the predominance of rubbish mixes and crusts seems to tell otherwise.  A homemade crust is so versatile and easily morphed with the addition or subtraction of sugar, the wash of an egg or milk, and the sprinkle of cinnamon or anise that no doughletariat should be without one.

The Upper Crust

- 320 g. / 11.25 oz. flour
- 20 g / .75 oz. sugar (increase a bit for a sweet pie)
- 120 ml. / 4 oz. ice water *
- A moderate throw of salt
- 115 g / 4 oz.  cold lard or suet**
- 115 g / 4 oz cold butter***
This should get you a healthy dual crust.  If you only find yourself needing one, the other can be refrigerated or frozen for a bit of time.   After losing your crust shackles, you'll quickly find another use for the second.

You might notice that there seems to be a lot of fat in this crust.  You are correct.  Fat is what makes this crust delicious, and a lack of fat (or a lack of good tasting fat) is what makes prolefood crusts in the store taste like the mixture of sand and cardboard that they often do.  If you are going to make a pie, sweet or savory, treat yourself to an equally good crust for God's sake.

So, now for the process.  Toss all of your dry bits in a good-sized bowl with a fork or sifter.  Feel free to add any spices you'd like here, in a creative but restrained manner as always.  Now, get your fats into a number of roughly cubic or ballish forms and add them to your dry bits.  You can do this in any manner you'd like. 1 butter followed by 1 animal fat repeated forever.  2 butter, one animal fat.  All the butter, all the animal fat.  Something will resonate with you deep within, and I would encourage you to find and follow this resonance, for it is likely your true will.

Once everything is added, warm your hands up for some light pinching and combining.  You might do this by pinching a spouse, partner, or loved one.  If this person yells and jumps, you have overwarmed your hands, and will be too rough on your dough.  If you find yourself without such a person, or simply feel as though this person would not enjoy being pinched and combined, practice on a pillow or something.  Less feedback this way though.  Now move on to your fats and dry bits, the point at which you should stop is when things look like peas and cracker crumbs.  Pinch and combine.

Now, ready something like two-thirds of your ice water and quickly add it to your peas and crumbs.  Push around with a fork to combine and see how things look.  The dough should be a tad on the dry side, but not a crumbling, eroding dry.  Test by squeezing a bit in your hands, it should come together.  If it does not, splash a bit more water in and keep testing.  An overly wet dough will not achieve its onomatopoetic potential, and will just be a bit limp.  Also, don't overwork things - remember the pinching, if you cause your dough to cry out, it will get back at you by being tough and sandy after baking.

Now, make two balls of dough by dividing equally.  Squeeze things together so that they hold a shape, flatten a bit and wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper.  Put them in the fridge, or a cold place for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour before rolling out for your pie, sweet or savory.

The above picture is an egg-washed crust atop a wonderful pig trotter and pheasant pie.  Savory, warm, and like being wrapped in a blanket - great for those days when you are feeling a bit unsteady.

* Don't cheat.  Ice water from the fridge, or with ice cubes.  The colder the water the better the crust.
** Don't cheat.  Render your own animal fats and use them well.  Much better than rancid vegetable fats never meant for use in pie crust.
*** Don't cheat.  Shake your own butter.  All about deconstruction here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Keeping the Bacon at Home

Weather-related difficulties prevented me from posting this yesterday.  I hope no one was angered and disappointed by this slight delay.

In any case, Friday has arrived, and per the title of the post and the scintillating hints on Monday - so has the lesson on homemade bacon.  In the later years of elementary school, we were always told about how marijuana was a "gateway drug" - not terribly detrimental by itself, but supposedly a drug that introduced one to the world of much harder and more detrimental substances.  Hence, I don't like the designation of bacon as a "gateway meat" for vegetarians - it carries the implication that meat in general is a dangerous, detrimental substance (though I understand that people are trying to make a joke when they say this).

Bacon is something I more liken to sleeping in front of a woodstove or warm fire when it is cold outside.  Or, that fluid feeling that one has when completely submerged in water.  Something like comfort and liberated fluidity combined into porcine mystery.  However, bacon is also a mysterious prolefood that frightens most consumers with its dual specters of "curing" and "smoking."  Fear no more.

Bacon (Your Way)
- A quantity of Pork belly (or really any other ungulate that stores fat in its belly, though saddles also work)*
- Basic Dry Cure: 1 lb/450 g Salt, 8 oz. / 225 g Sugar, 2 oz / 50 g Sodium Nitrate (aka "Pink Salt")**
- Creative but restrained flavour blend
- Ziploc Bag(s)
First and foremost, your "dry cure."  Notice that this cure includes the dreaded Sodium Nitrate.  Do not fear this ingredient.  Once more, do not fear this ingredient.  The bacon that you might buy for a ridiculous price that is labeled as "uncured" is actually not such, and you are wasting your money.  The bacon that is sold as "uncured" is actually cured.  It is a true case where the quotes around "uncured" are not extraneous!  It is cured with celery juice instead of sodium nitrate.  The unfortunate thing here is that celery juice can actually be higher in naturally occurring nitrates*** than just adding Sodium Nitrate in the first place.  It is also really expensive to produce, hence the reason behind your $7.99 package of uncured bacon.  Do a little research into the supposed connection between nitrates, nitrites, and cancer and you'll quickly see that things are not as cut and dry as the folks who make a killing off of uncured meat products would like us to believe.

Maybe your quarrel with Sodium Nitrate is that it isn't 'traditional' or natural.  Fair enough, but people who cured meat traditionally probably died from botulism every once in a while (the reason why you add it to your bacon).  So, my reasoning is that botulism will kill me very quickly, such is proven.  Nitrates are used in pretty small quantities (look at the ratio above); and 25 years ago one study claimed that they might have something to do with cancer in high concentrations (that one might achieve were they eating cured meats in large quantities for every meal).

Ok, that is out of the way.  The process is really quite simple, but will involve some basic mathematical ability.  Ready?  Take the weight of your meat in ounces or grams and multiply it by .05 (please note the zero, not 1/2 or 50%, but rather 1/20 or 5% of the total weight).  This number is how much dry cure you need to rub onto your meat.  So, 5 lbs = 80 ounces x .05 = 4 ounces of dry cure.  A scale would be helpful here, but you can find an ounces to cups converter easily enough by searching via your favorite engine.  Your basic dry cure above is obviously a lot more than you need unless you are doing around 32.5 lbs of bacon.

So, rub the dry cure all over your meat, add whatever flavours that will add to your eating pleasure (be creative but restrained as always - maple, juniper, garlic, and thyme are all nice starters).  Really be vigorous about your rubbing here.  You may want to grab a quick Campari or whiskey sour prior to the rubbing in case you feel a bit dinted while doing it and are unable to drink something due to cure and raw meat being all over your hands.  Place it into your ziploc bag and put it into the fridge for at least a week. Flip it daily.

Once the time has grown nigh, take your meat out of the bag and give it a rinse.  You should notice no odour or off colouring at this juncture (which is amazing, because sealing most meat in a ziploc bag for a week would likely cause some foulness to ensue).  Put it back into the fridge for a day or so to dry off, it should develop a kind of tacky exterior - this is perfect (you can also just leave it out at room temperature)

Your final step is helping your bacon to recognize its true self.  This involves some heat.  So, using my post earlier this week, you can smoke your bacon for 2 hours or so.  Conversely, if you have not yet realized your smoking potential, you can just roast it in a 93º C / 200º F oven for an hour and a half (you obviously won't have that smoky flavour in this case).  You can also hybridize these methods and smoke it for an hour, and then finish it in the oven should you feel like your smoker is not throwing enough heat.

Now, remove the skin, slice it, cook some and enjoy your bacon, made by yourself, at a fraction of the cost of what an artisan charcutier would charge you.  You can store it in the fridge for 2 weeks, and freeze it for months.  I gave people bacon for Christmas this year. 

* I would suggest no less than 5 lbs here, as the work involved, and the delicious results demand that you will have months worth of bacon laying around.  If you have trouble locating raw pork belly, ask your butcher if he or she can procure it.  Also, ask at your farm market - many farmers don't carry it only because they can (1) get more money for it when it is made into bacon and (2) because there just isn't that much demand for it.  Also, check at Asian markets, as many will carry it.  I would suggest starting with pork, because it is the most forgiving.  A nice element is that it is usually pretty cheap, only 2-4 dollars per pound.  Finally, you will see in the picture that I have left the skin on, leave this on until after you smoke or roast your bacon, then use it in a stock.  You are permitted to giggle or be horrified at the presence of nipples on said skin - your belly cut would have some nipples on it too (perhaps not as many). 

** This is not Himalayan pink salt.  This might be a harder ingredient to locate.  Morton's makes a product called "Tender Quick Meat Cure" - this will work if you can find it.  Otherwise you might have to order it online (it is pretty cheap and lasts forever).  There are 2 cures available, #1 is for bacon, #2 is for things like sausage and salami.  If you live near me, ask and I will give you some.  Also, pure Sodium Nitrate can be toxic (prior to its reaction with cured meat) so use some care when handling it and storing it.

*** Someone told me that they get terrible headaches from Nitrates.  I don't believe them, and think that it is either caused by something else, or is psychosomatic.  Why? Because they don't get headaches from eating celery, any leafy green vegetable, or cabbage.  All of these have very high concentrations of naturally occurring nitrates (often higher than cured meat).  So, if you are worried about the nitrate content in bacon or cured meats, you should also stop eating anything that falls under those categories.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bigger Picture on Prolefood Cookery

The recent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, along with Japan's earthquake have all started, or restarted my thinking about why I blog away in the way that I do. For one, my stated purpose for this blog is so that you all have the tools to counteract some of the bullshit fear-mongering preventing folks from knowing and loving their food processes.  All well and good. But, the attitude I do wish to reflect on is the way in which many treat the skills I outline here more as notches on their collective belt - something like a unique way to start an interesting conversation orbe an interesting person.  Now, I don't want to disparage such an attitude in too serious a way, because I employ it all of the time.  Rather, I want to be reflective about skills like making your own butter, smoking, brining, and rendering animal fats - in light of disastrous situations that cause all of us to reflect on life and living.

Taking an historical step backwards, I was talking with my MIL the other day about the Great Depression.  For all the complaining about the current economic situation, things don't seem to be all that terrible comparatively speaking.  Now, maybe this is because everyone has credit cards and the ability to take out loans in a way not possible in the 30s.  Economy aside - I was struck by the simple fact that folks in the Depression likely had a pretty good knowledge of all the processes that are now considered 'artisan' or 'novelty.'  Maybe some had begun buying various victuals from their local grocer, but nothing like the present. 

So, when folks had to 'stretch' soap - it probably didn't simply mean buying a value jug of dish soap at the grocery and watering it down.  It meant making a batch of soap and watering it down, because they had no money for the value jug.  However, they did have valuable knowledge of two ingredients that, when combined saponified, as well as sources for these ingredients that were either free, or were byproducts of what little they could purchase. I have hard time imagining the same widespread resourcefulness in the present, especially in affluent societies that see convenience and technological ease as the solution to most problems.

Back to the present.  Whereas the skills and processes I outline on this blog surely create delicious results with which you can impress your friends, and allow you a modicum of imagination worthy of a rustic homesteader - I don't want it to stop there.  Things were probably going fairly well in Japan on March 10th, one day later, thousands died, those who didn't have only intermittent or no electricity, no clean water, and little food.  I am not trying to be an apocalyptic alarmist, and I'm not even talking about the cataclysmic end of the world (because we'll all be dead and won't have to worry about whether or not our butter is fully washed).  What I am talking about is the fact that I think a lot of these skills are not just for artisan chefs or people with a lot of time on their hands.  They are for everyone.

A few illustrative examples:
- If you were faced with an extended electricity outage and a freezer full of meat/food what would you do?  Most people eat like 35 pounds of steak in two days because they think the only options are to let it rot or eat it.  Incorrect.  You could smoke some, brine some, preserve some in fat (more on this soon), and can some (more on this later).  These methods have varied lengths of preservation, but would keep you fed and sustained for days, weeks, or years.
- Same deal with dairy products.  Dairy does not automatically go bad at room temperature (especially not raw milk!).  You could keep a yoghurt at room temperature for days.  Kefir for longer.  Cheese? "Milk's leap toward immortality."
- Though great for pastries and crusts, rendered animal fat has far more uses (I doubt there were too many folks eating artisan chocolate cupcakes with lavender-buttercream frosting and gold leaf during the Depression).  You can combine tallow with potash (from your smoker) and water and have a basic soap.  If you live near the ocean, you can burn dried seaweed and add tallow for another kind of soap.  You can also preserve meats for long periods of time encased in fat (aka the ever-pretentious confit).
I don't want to belabor the point here. In a nutshell:  These processes are fun.  They have delicious results.  As good as things are (generally) right now, fortunes can change overnight.  Therefore, these processes are also necessary, among many others, for post-fortune-change survival.  Also, they should be roughly memorized, because if there is no internet, there is no Prolefood blog.

Monday, March 14, 2011

No Smoking

Today is actually part 1 of this week's post.  It is also not really food.  However, it will provide a way in which you can create amazing foods of various types, and should still be noted for this reason.  You may also have a general idea by now of what Thursday's post will bring, and this should make you very excited.

Food cooked over, or in a campfire always has such an amazing taste, one which is easily remembered.  It is the smoke.  I love the smell of smoke.  Wood smoke more than tobacco, unless it happens to stem from a pipe.  I once smelled like woodsmoke for a week straight, despite showering and it was likely the very best week of my life.  I wish I could create a cologne or perfume that actually recreates this smell.

The sad thing about smoke is that people took all of the fun out of it with this stuff called 'liquid smoke'.  I know that it is actually made by processing smoke via an aqueous solution, and such, but it is just too easy and stinks of convenience culture.  So, if you have not already done so, practice smoking food items.  To do so, you will need a smoker.

Smoker Principles
- The idea of smoking is really nothing more than making a whopping amount of smoke, a bit of heat, and surrounding a foodstuff with it for an extended period of time.  All of the scientific, persnickety garbage that gets floated around in the name of smoking is window dressing. If you like to treat your eating like chemistry class, feel free to indulge, but ignore it for now.
 - In this light, a 'smoker' does not have to be expensive, or complicated, or temperature- controlled to +/- 1º C.  Anything that can contain a large amount of smoke, a medium amount of heat, and some food will serve you without fail.
- In that light, here is what you need for a smoker:
(1) A Containment System: I have used a cardboard box*, a cooler**, a kettle grill, my oven (a very poor idea, but important for learning), and ceramic flowerpots to serve this purpose.  Anything which can in some sense hold smoke a heat inside without melting or letting most of it out will work. Everything following goes inside this.
(2) A Heat Source: I have used charcoal briquettes, coals from a fire, river rocks, an electric waffle iron, an electric hot plate, my oven, and a campstove to serve this purpose.  Some of these work better than others - the main thing to keep in mind is that smoking something takes a few hours minimum, so whatever heat source you use, it should be capable of providing relatively consistent heat for that period. Depending on what you use, a metal container might need to be included to hold the...
 (3) Smoke Makers: Wood chips or sawdust.  Any hardwood.  No softwoods (pine, etc.). No Pressure-treated lumber.  Experiment, as flavors are kind of subjective, i.e. I don't like Mesquite wood, but some love it.  It is also up to you whether or not you soak it in water, wine, pork blood, or beer.  Do what thou wilt.
(4) A Platform: Something to put your food on that will allow the smoke to pass all around it. Old or new grill grates work fine for this. 
- Some people are wild and crazy about perfect temperatures and such, but I have rarely worried about this.  As a general rule, your heat source should be relatively calm, no roaring fires, or blast furnaces.  A temperature gauge is not a bad idea, though mainly to check out the internal temperature of your meat if such is what you are smoking.  If your chips are making a lot of smoke, it is probably hot enough.  If your chips are burning really fast, things might be a bit hot.

So, spend the next few days devising your own smoker.  Comment should you have questions, or if you want to share your design.  Alton Brown has a nice plan for a ceramic smoker, but I find him terribly annoying, and far too concerned with precision to possibly gain any enjoyment from watching his show.

* Some people suggest not doing using this because it might start afire. Your heat shouldn't start the box on fire.  If it does, put it out.  Use common sense.

** One cooler I used actually couldn't handle the heat produced, and I ended up with melted plastic all over my food.  This might be one thing to check out before using a cooler (the heat will be around  120º C / 250º F).    Also, it will smell like smoke forever.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Tub of Lard

Poor animal fats.  They have received such a bad name via so many channels, from official dietary studies to playground insults.  The word "lard" is usually synonymous with overindulgence - a kind of trump card that denotes the very worst dietary choice one can make:
"These pancakes are cooked in pure butter"
"Oh yeah? These are cooked in pure lard."
Lard has become synonymous with whatever the hell Crisco is.  Do not be fooled, Crisco is not lard, it is hydrogenated vegetable oil made to look like lard, a true prolefood.  Also, you may be able to find packages that are labeled 'lard' tucked away next to the thousands of butter-like choices at your supermarket.  Even this is only an approximation of the true thing (it is lard, but it has been hydrogenated so that it can stay on the shelf for the 5 years that it takes to sell it).

Do not fear lard, suet, or tallow.  All of these items have a beautiful place in your kitchen, and all can be made at home, from beautiful, happy animals.

A Tub of Lard (or Suet)

- A Quantity of Pig, Lamb, or Beef Fat*
- Water
You will need to start this process by opening a window if you live in the South (or if it is warm enough)**.  Alternately, you can turn on the ventilation device over your stove. 

Start things off by taking a good look at your fat.  Ponder where it might have come from, and while doing so, look for any bits of meat or skin left on the fat.  You should trim these off before starting the process.  Don't worry if you can't get every bit, but there should not be any blatant chunks visible.

Now you'll need to break down your fat a bit, as in a large chunk, you will have no hope of rendering it.  This step can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  You can simply use a sharp knife and cut it into cubes the size of a nice sugar cube***.  You can also use a meat grinder or grinder attachment to really clobber things and get them small.  You can take them for a couple of spins in a food processor.  You can put them through a clean wood chipper.  The possibilities are endless and only limited by your mind.

Once you have the fat into manageable pieces, toss them into a strong pot with a quantity of water.  This amount should be something like 1/3 the amount of fat you have.  Don't stress over it though.  Now, put the pot over a nurturing heat on your stove.  By nurturing, I mean nothing too intense or harsh.  After a bit, the water will start to boil.  This is perfect. Stir fairly frequently throughout the process, and nearly constantly near the end.

The concept of what you are doing here is actually evaporating off all of your water while simultaneously bringing your fat up to a respectable temperature.  If you don't add water, your fat will likely just burn to the bottom of your pot.  Your fat will take on a number of transformations during this time, starting out whitish-pink, going to a mass of greyish-white globules, and eventually...a beautiful yellowish liquidity.  You must be patient and resist the urge to crank your heat to an unacceptable level during these metamorphoses****. It may take from 1-3 hours. 

Eventually you will be left with a beautiful liquid with a yellowish tinge to it, perhaps lighter for beef or lamb fat.  There may be some smallish bits floating in the liquid, these are just (now) deep-friend bits of skin, flesh, and tissue (most present in lard, aka 'cracklings' and delicious over a salad).  Using cheesecloth or some other finely-holed, lint-free fabric over a colander, strain out your lard and allow to cool to room temperature-ish.  It should still be a liquid because you must now add it to an equal quantity of water and give it a swirl (similar to washing butter, this will ensure that nothing is left that can go rancid).  

Place in the fridge overnight, and in the morn, you should have a beautiful, jelly-like layer atop the water.  Skim it off, and put into a jar or urn.  Keep it in the fridge.  

- For terminology, 'lard' is rendered pig fat; 'suet' is rendered beef or lamb fat (and can be used in baking, despite its connotations of wintertime bird feed); 'tallow' is a re-rendered beef/lamb fat, which can be made by basically following the same process after you have your washed suet.  It is more stable than suet and can be used in things like candles and soap.
- I think a home-rendered animal fat is far preferable for those who have sensitivity to butter/dairy-based products.  Even the 'healthy' spreads that have an earthy name are basically vegetable oils gone rancid (also remember that margarine was touted as a solution to butter when it was first introduced).  I also think they taste terrible, don't bake as well as they are purported to, and are ridiculously expensive compared to this process.
- Use Lard or Suet in your baking and pastries and be amazed.  A pie crust made with lard or suet will be better than one made with butter.  You can also spread it on bread, saute food with it, and  make your own pemmican.  Animal fats lend a velvety richness to everything that is perfect for so many dishes.
* I would heartily suggest that you spend the time and $$ necessary to find a quality source of fat (cheap supermarket fat just isn't worth it).  Also, be sure that you don't accidentally buy 'salted fatback' as this is cured pork fat and won't work.  If you are having trouble with this, I would love to help you out.  Message or email me (If you live close by I will get you some myself, otherwise I'll find someone with happy animals for you).

** This process lends a kind of roasted pork/beef smell to the air.  It is nice for about an hour, but starts to get a bit oppressive without ventilation...personal experience speaking here.

*** If the hot water in your house is less than 43º C / 110º F, you will have a real hard time cleaning up after this process.  Also be sure not to pour any fat remnants down your drain, as it will get clogged.

**** This process is kind of like shaking butter.  All of a sudden you notice the beauty of rendered fat!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Crazy Theory, in the Garden, with a Study Bible

In my non-foodblog life I spend most of my time with old films and the bible.  Whereas the first of these two might appear in some other Wednesday reflection, the latter is going to play a part in today's.  Also, as I could never get away with writing something this speculative and off-the-cuff in my professional writing, I am going to subject my blog readers to it. So, here goes my crazy theory.

An often axiomatic dietary belief in many Western cultures (especially in the last 40 or so years) is the presumption that when choosing food, the 'perfect' or 'most healthy' diet is one which is mostly or even wholly comprised of fruits, grains, and vegetables.  I am not going to cite anything here, because a simple search with your favorite engine should provide plenty of examples.  The food pyramid, general folk wisdom, and professional dietary advice all point to the predominance of these items in one's diet.  A dietary 'cleanse' usually involves things like fruit juices, fruit, vegetables, and other sundries.

For the converse, fats, dairy (maybe aside from milk), and general animal products are usually given a fairly bad name, being relegated to the sidelines of a 'healthy diet,' as a near afterthought, as if people recognize the general necessity of eating meat, milk, butter, and other cholesterol-bearing items but wish that it was not so ('eat red meat rarely, or not at all').

I am also a firm believer that beliefs like these come from somewhere, and are not part of some 'natural' inclination present in rational humans.  So...

Now, for the bible.  I would also hold, despite the claims that fewer folks than ever in the modern west hold to a traditional belief in Christianity, that biblical idiom, allusion, and portraiture still hold a great deal of sway and influence a culture built on a general cultural assumption of theism of some sort.  Have you ever used the following phrases: 'kiss of death'; 'Doubting Thomas'; 'Hallelujah'; 'Apple of my eye'; 'can a leopard change its spots?'; 'writing on the wall'; 'blind leading the blind'; 'rise and shine'?  The list could go on considerably, but all of these have entered the English language as idiomatic phrases based on some biblical precedent.

All of this is to say that I think the first set of dietary beliefs (fruit/vegetable = good; meat/animal product = bad) might stem in some way from biblical precedent, however unconsciously it may be appropriated at this point.  This precedent that I speak of is found in the very first chapters of the first book of both the Tanakh and Christian Bible, בראשית / Genesis.
"...the dread and fear of you shall be upon all the beasts of the field and all the fowl of the heavens, in all that crawls on the ground and in all the fish of the sea. In your hand they are given. All the stirring things that are alive, yours shall be for food, like the green plants, I have given all to you" - Genesis 9.2-3
For a bit of orientation, this bit is right after Noah has landed his impossible ark with every animal in the whole world on it.  God is speaking to Noah and letting him and his family know that, in simple terms from this point forward, they will be allowed to kill and eat meat.  Hence, prior to this, one can see that some kind of vegetarian diet has been followed, and further, that humans and animals were living in an idyllic, fear-free relationship.  Specifically, in Genesis 2.16 and 3.2, the primeval couple are given a command regarding their diet ('you may eat from the trees of the garden').

Taking these statements together, I would posit that *one* influence on the dietary belief I outline above is a kind of concurrent belief in a return to an idyllic world, something like the Garden of Eden, where only plants were consumed, where one could ride a shark from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and where only a later concession resulted in the killing and fear of animals present in the world we see today.  Such is usually called an 'etiological myth,' or a story intended to explain why something is the way it is (see here and here for two more from other cultures).  I think the picture of a 'sullied Eden' is a powerful myth, both for the biblical author, as well as today, in 2011.

Finally, your take-away.  If you are a firm believer in the words of the bible communicating some kind of literal truth and know this story all to well, I suppose I have given you a pretty good reason to stop eating meat and become a vegan.  There are certainly many gradients to one's position on religion and I won't outline them here, but I would at the very minimum ask you to try to ask yourself what lies behind your assumptions about entails a 'healthy' diet - is it a picture of an idyllic world that never existed?  A world of useless shark teeth, tiger fangs, stomachs filled with hydrochloric acid, and rabbits with lightning-quick reflexes?

Crazy theory complete.  Tomorrow will commence accordingly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mother Brine

St. Patrick's day is only a proper brisket brining away - thus today's process will be focused on one of my favorite concoctions to have laying around - the mother brine.  Brining has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately, usually around Thanksgiving in the US.  However, most folks still don't think much of having a beautiful bucket of brine hanging in their fridge, filled with meats and ready to produce delicious meal after delicious meal.

However, lots of meat that you buy commercially (especially things like pork loins and such that are completely sealed in plastic), are pumped with some dubious blend often called a brine.  It helps maintain a decent color and preserves meats that are often pretty old.  Hence, if you eat meat, you should steer clear of commercial brines (usually by knowing the person who raised your meat), but do not fear your own!

Mother Brine
- 2 L / a sloshing 2 quarts of cold water
- 275 g / 1.25 c kosher salt*
- 225 g / 1 c sugar**
- Assorted spices (as always, creative but restrained, peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves, juniper berries for some starters)
Put your water in a non-reactive pot on the stove and heat.  You can add everything in at once, just give it a few stirs while heating to be sure your sugar does not burn to the bottom.  Eventually, your mixture will come to a light boil, and all sugar and salt should be nicely dissolved in solution.  Take it off the stove and pour off into your brining bucket***.

Now this is important, allow your brine to cool to at least 7º C / 45º F before you toss anything into it.  Otherwise you will lightly cook your meat and things will be far less pleasant while eating.

- A brine is great for those who collect less-common bits of animals.  If you are trying to build your collection of something like veal tails, you may find it difficult to get a great number at once from your meat purveyor.  A brine is great for this - throw them in as you get them. I have a nice brisket, a few chicken wings, hearts, thighs and gizzards in mine. 
 - Meats should be submerged completely in the brine, depending on how heavy your bits are, some might float and peek out of the brine (like the cheeky chicken wing in my picture above).  Do not allow this, as the bits outside the brine can sour and ruin everything.  I weigh my parts down with an upside-down lid.
- As St. Patrick's day is soon approaching, I would encourage all of you to make this brine today, buy yourself a beautiful beef brisket and get it brining.  You will have wonderful corned beef by the 17th.  NB: It will not be bright pink like you are used to unless you add sodium nitrate to your brine, which is unnecessary.  Enjoy the darker colour of the meat.
 - I suggest changing your brine every 2 weeks.  In our pathogen-obsessed world, many would worry about this.  The above brine is pretty damn salty.   So, do what thou wilt.  However, don't give in to those who insist on middling brining periods of 1 or 2 days.  This is a waste of good salt and sugar, and is probably why so many people debate the efficacy of a brine.  Also, you should probably keep it in the fridge.
 * Because of the large quantity needed, you ought not use anything fancy here.  Also, some folks will add some saltpeter or sodium nitrate to their brine, but such an addition seems like it would harsh the mellow of a wonderful brine.

** Use whatever kind of sugar you would like.  I like brown because of its smooth properties, but white, or whatever you have on hand will also work.

*** Use something non-reactive here, and something that you don't need for another purpose regularly.  As an instructive bit here, I am currently using my slow-cooker insert, which is perhaps not the best choice.  Try to find some kind of receptacle that can take on a nice brine patina, becoming an 'old friend' of sorts through years of use.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Weekend Doughnuts

Doughnuts can be so very amazing, and so unbelievably underwhelming.  There is something like a doughnut in cultures all around the world - and why not?  An amazing, deep-fried (maybe baked) sweetened ball of risen dough.  What could be more comforting?

In an unfortunate turn of events, we've also allowed doughnuts to become the specialty of conglomerated food companies, many of whom have in turn convinced us that we should like the cheaply, quickly made rounds and sticks that are passed off as 'doughnuts.'  Some even allow you to forget that these beautiful items come from an equally beautiful dough with the corrupted 'donuts.'  In return we've gotten health warnings about trans-fat, such that doughnuts are the portrait of a nearly irredeemable food indulgence*.

No more!  These doughnuts are designed to be started on Friday afternoon or evening, and finished for a wonderful breakfast treat on Saturday.  Hence...

Weekend Doughnuts 

- 500 g /  4.5 c white flour
- 65 g /  heavy 1/3 c sugar
- 10 g / 1 Tbsp salt
- 15 g / 2.5 tsp yeast
- 4 eggs
- 1 lemon's worth of zest
- 155 ml / a sloshing 1/2 c water
- 125 g / 9 Tbsp fat**
- Lard or oil for frying***
Start out with your yeast, as always.  Wake it up, brush off its cobwebs in your warm water (you all know what this means by now).  8 minutes of wake-up is perhaps not enough for you, but yeast is quick to rise.

Toss your flour, sugar, and salt and make a well in the center.  To this, add your eggs, yeasty water, and lemon zest.  Give it a few turns with a sturdy spoon, and then get in there with your hand and pull things together in a fairly serious way.  This should take you no less than 8 minutes of grabbing, pulling, and mashing.  Make sure all of the goodness that sometimes gets up on the sides of the bowl is pulled down.

Now, add your softened fat, a knob at a time until it is all incorporated.  Your dough will  likely feel on the greasy side - this is perfect and should remind you of how wonderful your resulting doughnuts will be.  After all the fat has been added, give it another 8 minutes of hand mixing.  You can use an electric mixer on medium speed  for all of this, but imagine if you lost power and needed doughnuts?  Your hands would be unable to do the requisite work.  Such would be quite sad, so I take the previous comment back, no electric mixers until you are thoroughly sure that you could perform the necessary work with your hands. After all of this, your dough will look something like a glossy orb, elastic and smooth.

Throw this resulting product in a bowl with some room, sprinkle lightly with flour, cover in some manner, and let it rise for 2-3 hours.  Once risen, punch it back so that the yeast is fully aware of your authority over its rising abilities.  Now, cover again and put it in a cold place, like a fridge overnight.  

Now, what I do is set my alarm on Saturday morning for about 5 or 6 AM. Wake up, stretch, grab a glass of Campari on the rocks, or something equally medicinal to clear some of your cobwebs out (but containing enough alcohol to put you back to bed in about 20 minutes).  Take your dough out of the fridge, the yeast will have likely raised a great puffy mountain of bacterial accomplishment, punch that cheeky yeast down again.  Now, cut your doughnuts into whatever shape you would like, be creative but restrained, nothing too large otherwise they will not cook.  I like to go with the simple pillow-like shape, as they help me fall back asleep afterward.  Place them on a well-floured**** sheet or counter, and go back to bed for 2 or 3 hours.  

When you once again awake, put your coffee on, and heat your oil or lard in a pot to 190° C / 375° F.  The temperature is crucial.  Estimating the temperature may result in your doughnuts being very soggy (too low), or burning (too high).  Fry the doughnuts 3 or 4 at a time, until they are a deep golden brown, and transfer them to some kind of absorbent paper. Toss with cinnamon and sugar, or enjoy plain.  The taste is a wonderful way to begin a top-notch weekend.  This process results in about 25 doughnuts, so you may want to invite friends over to help you finish, and possibly tell you that you ought to start your own doughnut store, only open from 9-11 AM on Saturday mornings, and only serving french-pressed coffee and beautiful doughnuts.

* You probably shouldn't eat these every weekend, but the fair amount of work involved will likely discourage this anyhow. Twice a month doesn't hurt though.

** At the very minimum use butter (homemade) for this process (plant oils just won't taste right).  At the very maximum, use rendered pork lard or beef tallow.  At the bleeding edge, use bacon grease - you will not be disappointed.  Don't want to buy crappy hydrogenated lard from the grocery store?  Stay tuned next week for my bit on rendering your own lard/tallow.

*** If you are nervous about heating lard to a few degrees below its smoke point, sunflower oil will work fine.  Just steer clear of soy and other vegetable oils, unless you want your home to smell like burnt KFC for the entire weekend.

**** Be quite profligate with your flour here.  If your counter or sheet is not well-floured, your will deflate your pillows of joyful doughnut and have a far less enjoyable experience.  Also, be careful when transferring from counter to oil, you may have a little deflation, but try not to lose everything.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Eating Animals (not by JSF)

This post is a bit of a cheat, as it is more or less culled from something I wrote previously.  So, if you have already read this, feel free to skip today's reflection!  Also, it is actually about eating animals, as opposed to being about not eating them.  I am also glad to talk more about what I write below, so please feel free to comment or email and I will definitely get back to you.

I've recently* reconsidered my pseudo-vegetarian (PV) diet (by this I mean that I have always eaten wild seafood, along with the occasional hunted venison, wild boar, and true free-ranged poultry). Having been a PV for around six years, I actually felt pretty good, was healthy for the most part and in a given month had something along the lines of one or two seafood dishes with the remainder being entirely vegetarian. I also ate eggs, cheese, honey, and milk - excepting a short stint of veganism for Lent one year. So, I would say that my reasons for being a PV were a little moral, a little political, and a little nutritional.

Moral, because I didn't like animals being haphazardly raised, made to suffer, and killed in factory farm settings. I still don't! I still won't eat the garbage that they sell you in place of beef, pork, and poultry at the supermarket. I never really had qualms with the thought of animals being killed though, but to those who do - here were some of the questions I asked myself when deciding. How are all the vegetables, grains, and legumes that you eat grown? How are these things fed and fertilized? How are they harvested? How many living beings are killed when a field is plowed? How many habitats are destroyed, diverted, filled-in, dug-up, or just moved to make room for agricultural products? How do you define a living being? By analogy to human beings? Some other way? If you don't know answers to these questions (even if you are not a vegetarian) take some time to look that information up.

Political, because I thought that factory farms were the bane of the earth, that they destroy the environment, as well as demand unbelievably large amounts of water, electricity, and grain. I still do! I am encouraged by the number of permaculture farms that have sprung up in quiet protest of the industrial eating machine that we daily cultivate here. I'll also continue to work with others to stop some of this degradation. However, I wasn't really as off the hook with the previous complaints as I thought I was. I asked myself - Is grain meant to be grown everywhere? If so, why does it require massive amounts of water to be diverted for its irrigation? Am I all right with the environmental devastation that comes from the industrial scale  production of corn, wheat, and the 'organic' produce that is available? Compare the amount of calories, nutrients, and nourishment that a correctly-raised cow (not factory-farmed) provides with that of the most earth-friendly, complete vegetarian diet you can find.

Nutritional, because common-sense** would seem to dictate that eating lots of grains, vegetables, and legumes would be way better than eating lots of meat. Also, I managed to ascribe medicinal properties to lots of the food I was eating (see last week's reflection), so that made it better. I still think it is a good idea to eat vegetables and fruit, and maybe some grain, but being nourished correctly from a vegetarian diet is a hell of a job. Despite what people may tell you to your face, eating a vegetarian diet that includes all the protein(s) that you need requires you to literally plan every meal, very carefully, with ratios and proportions measured***. A vegetarian diet does not simply mean making all your normal meals without the meat. Further, ask some of these questions - How are soy products made (milk, burgers, TSP, edamame - obviously might not apply if you steer clear of soy, which you should)? What do grains and other carbohydrates, simple and complex, break down into once I digest them? Why do cows have four stomachs and I one? Could I (in theory/if necessary) eat raw meat and stay alive? Could I (in theory/if necessary) eat raw wheat, soy, barley, quinoa, and legumes and stay alive? Are cholesterol and saturated fat important? Why have Americans gotten fatter even though we have a low/no-fat substitute for every food we eat? Consider the influence exerted by those in power who have helped us to start seeing all saturated fat and cholesterol as so very bad. Meanwhile, we become blind to the fact that most of our food is packed with grain and grain byproducts (i.e. corn syrup). If you hate geese being force-fed grain for foie gras, you should hate how much we look like those geese, especially vegetarians.

I know that it would be in good form for me to cite a bunch of studies, or a bunch of authors here so your job is easier, but I do that enough and would prefer that you all just listened to me without questioning. Seriously though, when all the arguments are already preempted before you have a chance to look things up for yourself, authors commit a kind of verbal fascism. However, I am not claiming to present an unbiased picture here. I actually want all of you who are vegetarians to stop being vegetarians and that is why I write (if any of you are vegans, I really want you to stop). I also want those of you who eat meat to consider where it comes from, what the animals eat, and whether you love the animals being slaughtered so much that you can consider every aspect of their lives from their birth to their intersection with your own life as you eat. 

* Recently as in July of 2010 - I was a PV for 6 years prior.
** Next week, I will post a reflection on why I think what I describe here seems like 'common-sense'
*** Obsessing over the types of food you eat to the point of measurement on a near-pharmaceutical level sounds a lot like an eating disorder, whatever form it takes.  There is such thing as re-orienting your eating apparatus, but at some point, you become nothing more than an eating apparatus.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Taking Stock

Many of you may already know this, but stocks are the bearers of food miracles.  However, the stock has become a prime example of a "prolefood."  The beauty of a stock has become synonymous with some kind of colored liquid that has salt as its prime flavor.  Even when buying a stock from a company that has a nice picture of vegetables and possibly animals on the packaging, you are still getting a subpar product.  Perhaps the worst offender is the so-called "bouillon" cube, added to water or perhaps your sauce in toto.  

A stock* can take on so many flavors, and homemade stocks add such hearty depth and chutzpah to your foods.  Perhaps I should leave out the Yiddish, as today's stock is definitely non-kosher.  In any case, build your own stocks.  They are not complicated processes, but they do take some time.  I am going to give you my favorite stock below, with some basic concepts below that.  

Mucilaginous Stock

- 4-5 Pig's feet
- Varied bones**
- The merest gesture of a fat
- A gaggle of roughly chopped vegetables (be creative, but restrained - carrots, celery, onions, and garlic are good starters.  Anything too strongly or distinctly flavored might really take over)***
- 1/3 bottle of wine (Red/Madeira/Dry Marsala work the very best)
- The Herb Factor (Again, creative but restrained - bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, etc.)
- Cold Water

If you are using the pig's feet, and I suggest in the strongest way possible that you do, you should split them lengthwise.  The easiest way to achieve this is either to buy them like this, or to purchase a hacksaw****.

Start your process with a large pot.  I say go big or go home with stock.  Don't make small quantities, because it will frustrate you when you run out.  In this large pot, put the gesture of fat.  This could be olive oil, butter (made per my previous process), bacon grease, rendered tallow, duck fat, mink oil, anything that has a fatty quality (I like animal fats, as they tend to add a further beauty to the stock not present in plants, excepting olives).  Let it melt over somewhat gentle heat and throw in your vegetable assortment.  Let these sweat and cook for a time.  You'll know when the eternal moment occurs.

After your contemplation of the eternal moment, add your split feet and various bones and give them a heavy stir to get them down to the bottom of the pot.  I like to let them brown and stick to the bottom of the pot a bit (no burning), it adds a comprehensive richness to the end product.  After things have turned a bit brown, pour a glass of wine for yourself, and splash the pot with the other bit.  Scrape and push a bit here to release the delicious bits from the pan base.

Now add your cold water (enough to cover the bones and feet).  It really must be cold.  If you add warm or hot water, your stock won't be very good.  Also toss the Herb Factor into the mix and give everything a vigorous stir.  Lower your heat to something more respectful and gently bring the whole lot to a simmer*****.  Let things simmer and grow accustomed to one another for 3 or 4 hours.   

After this time, decide what you would like out of your stock.  If you prefer a clearish, plain stock - strain every bit out, being sure to push on everything in the strainer to extract all the juices.  I like bits in my stock, and dislike wasting perfectly good pig's feet.  So, I pull out the feet, let them cool, and strip all the skin and bits off the bones.  Then you can strain the rest out, and add these bits back in.

Stock stays fresh for a good bit when fresh, so leave some out for your present cooking.  The rest can be put into proper receptacles and frozen.  Be sure to let it cool adequately prior to freezing, otherwise you get an Everest-like mound in the center (However, it is a fairly interesting formation, so everyone ought to do this once).  You'll get a nice, thick, likely gelatinous stock out of this once cooled.  Do not fear the mucilage, it makes sauces and soups wonderful, and thins out when it is heated.

Other principles:
- You do not have to use pig's feet, you can just use bones.
- You can also make a great Fish or Shrimp stock out of fish carcasses and/or shrimp shells.  BUT do not use oily fish like salmon, tuna, etc. for it.  ALSO do not simmer it for 3 hours.  No more than 40 minutes for fish stock, otherwise things get very bitter.
- You can also make a vegetable stock, but these are usually bland and tasteless.  Same principle as fish stock, no more than 40 min of simmering.  You can add chickpeas that have been soaked overnight for a bit more substance on a vegetable stock.
- Don't add salt to your stock.  You should season your end products, not your stock.  Your stock can be rich and delicious, but it should not be salty.
* Some might object to what I have above being called a 'stock.'  I don't care.  I call everything that follows the basic principles outlined above a stock, as it is much easier and far less pretentious.

** I save every bone that I have laying around (I keep a bag in the freezer that I collect them in until it is time for a stock).  Chicken, pork, beef, turkey, etc.  I ask for bones after a dinner at others' homes, I am truly a bone collector.  The more bones you have, the better flavour your stock will have.  You can also ask your butcher, or look in the meat case, as there will often be cheap bones available.  They can be cooked or fresh.

*** The vegetables can really be in any form.  Onion skins, carrot scrapings, celery bases, any form.  You'll strain them out at the end, so it barely matters.

**** A hacksaw is more useful in the kitchen than one would think.  

***** A simmer really should be barely bubbling.  If there are a lot of bubbles coming up from the bottom, you are boiling your stock, not simmering.  You'll seal all your flavors into the bones and meat this way, instead of expressing them into the stock.  One easy way to avoid this is either to put your stock into a medium slow cooker for this part, or in a 149º C / 300º F oven.