Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Entire Animal: Step 2

Today's entire animal entry could also be called The Mystery of the Chicken

When you purchase a whole chicken* (or really most fowl, but chicken is most common), happy or not, you usually receive a bag of some sort, hidden within the body cavity.  For years I simply threw this bag away, not even bothering to open it and seek the enlightenment that is within.

Relish the mystery hidden within the chicken, do not get rid of it.  Today will be about identification and principles of use.

The Mystery of the Chicken
- 1 bag from within the cavity of a fowl

So, first, for a tour of the (most typically included) parts:
Chicken Liver

Chicken Necks
Chicken Gizzards
Chicken Hearts

Now, do not fear these parts.  All are delicious, and their being labeled as 'grisly' or 'gruesome' or 'disgusting' is more a social convention from a society that prefers eating blobs of vaguely meat-like substances that do not remind them that an actual animal has died to give them food (think boneless, skinless, chicken breast).  If you are lucky (like me) and have a farmer from whom you get your chickens, you may also be able to procure some less common fare like chicken's feet and lungs.

Chicken Liver:
- The liver usually has a vein or two running through it.  You can simply slice it in half and gently pick it out with a finger or knife.  You can also leave it in, but this can get a bit rubbery when cooking.
- The liver should have a nice reddish to reddish brown color to it.  If it has taken a greyish-brown or greenish hue, it is best to wait until next time to eat it.
- If you dislike the 'bloody' taste of liver, you can soak your chicken livers in  salty milk or buttermilk for an hour or two and this will lessen the flavor.
- Livers lend themselves best to quick cooking or pulverization.  That is, either fry your livers very quickly and serve them rare, or cook them thoroughly and mash them into a paste (or in a more refined manner, pâté).  Overcooking results in rubbery livers that are unpleasant to eat.
Chicken Neck:
- The chicken neck is a versatile piece of the chicken, don't be afraid of its boniness or in-your-face reminder that there used to be a head attached. 
- The meat on the chicken neck is really the same as is found on the wings or thighs, dark and robust.  
-  You can use the neck in your stocks, as it lends its robustness well to the overall flavor (do remember to pick the meat off it and eat after you have finished your stock though).  Otherwise, an excellent use is to thread a skewer through it, add a nice spice rub and some fat and grill away!  It is like a bony popsicle, perhaps only rivaled by grilled veal tails.   Smoked chicken necks are a great idea that I just now thought of.
Chicken Gizzard:
- The gizzard is the one part that I can understand a bit of revulsion towards.  The texture is gritty, as chickens grind their food with their gizzard rather than teeth.  You must give it a chance though, don't think of the texture as 'gritty' as this reminds one of sand or something generally inedible.  Think of it as 'pleasantly crunchy.'
- Gizzards, if you are unable to eat them as is, are also good for adding to stocks.  After a few hours of boiling, they can be added to livers and ground into a nice pâté.  For cooking, a nice breading and frying in duck fat or beef tallow really helps the gizzard to find itself.  Crunch and pop!  Great with a Campari & White wine before dinner.
Chicken Heart:
- The heart is an unsung hero of chicken offal.  Collect as many hearts as possible, as once eaten, you will not be able to easily resist eating another. There is often a bit of bubbly fat around the heart - this can get a bit tough when cooked, so trim it off. 
- Cooking the heart is best done in one of two ways.  The first is to split the heart open (marvel at the chambers and valves), pound it with a hammer and sear it quickly.  The second is to thread a number of hearts on a skewer, season, and grill whole.  If you enjoy Gushers candy, you will definitely enjoy the way that the grilled hearts explode when you bite down.  
If you are serious about eating offal, I might even be persuaded to give up a recipe or two for some of these bits if asked nicely.  Love your animals, and eat everything they offer.

* Please buy whole birds.  Those Styrofoam (or even supposedly eco-friendly cardboard) trays holding an offering of meaty globules represent serious effrontery  to the memory of the nourishing animal.  You can certainly butcher the bird into component parts once you have it, but force yourself to stare at the very corporeal animal prior to doing so.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Entire Animal: Step 1

In the ensuing weeks, I am planning on dedicating a post a week to eating the entire animal.

What I mean by this phrase is learning an art that has mostly gone by the wayside in American cuisine, an art that many have and still do engage in.  That is, when eating a sirloin steak, being equally ready to eat the kidney, shank, liver, brain, or heart of the cow.  When eating pork ribs, also eating the feet, the stomach lining, the spleen, and head of the pig.  

Now I realize that for some of my readers, this kind of eating might just turn your stomach.  So, instead of carving into a delicious grilled heart straight away, we'll take some stepwise motion and start small.  Baby steps.  Also, because the recipes for each step are numerous, the entries will take the form of general principles to remember when dealing with the whole animal.  

So, without further ado, let's start our journey with...

The Whole Fish

- 1 entire fish* (For the sake of kitchen messes, you can ask your fishmonger to scale and clean the entrails out of the fish.  However, if you have a garden or are growing plants in some form, ask for the entrails, grind them up into a paste, add to water and use them for some excellent, free fertilizer)
So much of our food system is based on processing the items we eat into non-recognizable forms.  When we eat 'fish,'  we usually mean that we are eating the complex musculature running along the sides of the body of a fish, aka a fillet (or perhaps a loin for the large pelagic species).

The entire fish is usually a kind of gruesome reminiscence that we have of 'primitive' cultures, with the now-unblinking eye staring back at you as you try to enjoy the food.  However, with this understanding of eating 'fish' has also come the specter of cooking fish.  Namely, the specter of overcooking fish.  Take a look in most cookbooks, and on the seafood recipes there is some kind of warning about watching your fish so that it does not become overcooked. 

When you are dealing with a thin, boneless, skinless fillet - overcooking can surely occur in a matter of a minute or two.  Hence, I advocate you start your entire animal eating with an entire fish and allow yourself to relax a bit with regard to incorrect cooking.

- Find a good fishmonger near you.  This can be difficult, as people are usually ok with the utter horseshit that they sell you at the supermarket.  
- After you have found a reputable fishmonger, skip the fillets and go for the whole fish.  There are a number of species that lend themselves particularly well to being left whole. Seek one that is from relatively close by (for those in the middle of the country, choose the nearest coast!), and ask your fishmonger if you are unsure.
- When selecting a whole fish, the freshness is in the eyes.  If the eyes look cloudy or milky, skip that one.  The eyes should be relatively clear, and the fish itself should not have a strong odor**.  Try to buy your fish on the same day that you will use it. Keep it cold.
- A whole fish will have lots of flavor in and of itself.  Some folks add any number of sauces, spices, and herbs to their fish, but these preparations tend to completely overwhelm the delicate flavors that lie waiting for you in a whole fish. Thus, when cooking your fish, be very restrained with your herb choices, and choose fresh herbs if available.  The combination of lemon, thyme, parsley, and butter has a heady synergy with most types of fish.
- Additionally, your fish will have lots of moisture already in its bones, which are going to stay sealed within the fish instead of being thrown into the garbage. The belly of the fish will also be split, allowing you a great place to nestle some modest herbs and butter. Don't slash your fish's skin - this aberration of modern cooking methods dries the flesh out and lets all the juices run into the pan instead of into the meat.
 -  The actual cooking should not scare you.  Splash a bit of fat and moisture into a pan, nestle your fish in (you may have to lop off the head to fit it, but try not to), and pop it into a hot oven.  Low and slow is not for fish.  Go for no less than 205º C / 400º F when cooking a fish, and perhaps more for smaller fish.  For time, 7-10 minutes on each side should be really adequate, so 14-20 min. total (unless you have a very large fish).
- Dig in!  Don't be afraid of bones, just be careful and spit them out when you run into one.   Also, you should relish the difference in flavor that the flesh takes on as you move along the fish.  Put the whole animal on a plate and dig in with your friends and family.  A whole fish is a great family-style meal. 
- Finally, don't forget to stare the fish in the eye, thank her or him for nourishing you,  and tell her or him that perhaps, one day, your own body will nourish other fish.
* The fish in the picture is a sea bass from the east coast.  Try to choose a fish that is not over-fished, and is not from a faraway place.  You can also find flat fish and do them in the same way, although their thinness might be reason to knock a few minutes off the total cooking time. If you can find a grey mullet, do avail yourself of this opportunity, as it is a rare treat.

** People associate a fishy odor with all fish.  Such is a unfair characterization.  Fish only smells strongly if it is quite old.  Fresh fish takes on many scents, from a kind of cucumber bouquet for the cold-water species to something far more musky for warmer-water ones.  Very old fish also has its place, despite the American aversion to all things smelly.  Sauces made from fermented seafood products are delicious. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Baby Got Back Bacon

Now, you may know today's bacon by another name, Canadian Bacon, but don't call it that.  I have now done extensive research and testing and have found that in asking two (2) persons from Canada, neither was aware of what Canadian bacon was.  So, what you are making today is really Back Bacon, owing its nomen to the fact that it is derived from the center cut pork loin, which is from the back of the pig.  

Back bacon is a very cool product, and is a kind of hybrid form that combines the Mother Brine and the Dry cure from the Belly Bacon.  It also uses a more readily available cut of pork, and takes less time.  The best of all worlds!

Back Bacon

- 1 Beautiful Pork Loin (not tenderloin)*
- 2 L / 2 Quarts of Water (The amount is important, so I am including it)
- 75 g / 3 oz. Salt
- 30 oz / 1 oz. Pink Curing Salt (see my bacon post for more info)
- 110 g / 3.5 oz Sugar
- Creative but restrained seasonings and flavorings (Sage, Rosemary, and Lemon are nice pork counterpoints, but you can just go with some bay leaf and peppercorn too)
For this product, if you would like, you can leave out your Sodium Nitrite, but know that your loin will end up a somewhat greyish brown color and have a bit less piquancy.  It is fine to use in this form, but perhaps add a bit more regular salt if you intend to leave out the Nitrite.

So, to start, make your brine by boiling the water, adding the salts, sugar, and spices and allowing it to truly find itself over the course of a couple hours while it cools.  I like to let it cool to about room temperature on the stove, and then stick it in the fridge to really get it to the point where it is not going to cook the pork at all.  This would be ideal.  One other possibility would be to boil only half of the water, dissolve the components, and then add the other half as cold water to really pull the temp down quick.  This way seems to cheat the process and the flavor-making a bit, so don't do it unless you are really in a pinch.

After cooled, add your pork loin.  It should be heavy enough to sink, and lurk just below the surface of your briny cure like a hippo or a Zambezi River Log (for Andrew L. if he should be reading).  Let it lurk for 72 hours.  Then, allow it to come up for air.  Put it on a rack in the fridge to dry out a bit.  The outside should feel a tad tacky, and this is perfect.

The final step is to either smoke or roll your bacon.  You have the basics of smoking elsewhere on the blog, but smoke this guy to somewhere in the 65º C / 150º F range.  For rolling, you can get some cornmeal, and heavily roll the loin in it.  Then, roast in a very gentle oven (135º C / 275º F) for a couple of hours, until the temp is about the same.  Slice thinly or thickly and enjoy. The above picture is my cured, but not yet smoked back bacon.  Three days! Back Bacon! 

* Pork tenderloin is a delicious, thin cut of meat great for medallions and searing, but don't mistake it for its tougher cousin the back loin, which is from the meat all along the ribcage.  Get a pork loin from a happy pig and you will be rewarded with a happy slab of bacon.  Get a whole loin, which should run about 3-4 lb. depending on the size of the kind pig that gifted you with it.  This way, you have 3-4 pounds of wonderful back bacon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Redeeming Fat

During my years in undergraduate education, I spent a month or so in Morocco.  During this time, I desperately wanted to learn the processes and practices that produced the amazing tajines* that I grew accustomed to eating for many of my meals.  I was usually prevented from doing so by the simple fact that I was male, and especially when staying in the traditional home stays, cooking was explicitly not what I was supposed to be doing.  However, finally, after a few weeks, we made our way into the mountains outside of Marrakech to a Berber village and I learned how to cook a tajine (after enduring some laughter and name-calling from the men).

This meandering tale is all to get to the moment in the cooking process where we added the fat.  I held a small clay bowl in my hand, and it held somewhere in the vicinity of a cup.  An older woman brought out a jug of olive oil and handed it to me, motioning for me to fill the bowl and pour it into the dish.  I filled the bowl once and poured it over the dish, thinking that it seemed like a lot of oil to be adding.  However, she motioned for me to fill it again.  I did so again, and tried to pour it on a different dish, but she shook her head and pushed my hand back to the first.  I added it, thinking that it the amount of oil was now fairly excessive.  Except, I was to foiled again, as she motioned for me to fill the bowl a third time, and pour it over the same dish.  The chicken and vegetables were positively swimming in olive oil at this point. 

My non-fat, low-fat American self immediately began thinking about how olive oil was at least a "healthy oil,"  but  the three cups worth surely seemed over the top.  I was imagining myself having an intense gastrointestinal disturbance after eating this dish (and thinking about how I would manage this on the "squatty-potty" toilets). I was also marveling at how healthy, generally fit, and vibrant the people in the village were.

However, miracle of miracles occurred.  No GI disaster, only the most delicious, satiating dinner I had enjoyed in possibly my entire life.  I was a fat convert that day.

There is a great deal of nutritional controversy about the role of fat in one's diet, especially saturated fat.  You can go and look all of that fun information up by yourself if you find it interesting.  What I am more interested in is how neutered our cooking becomes when  we subscribe to low or no-fat propaganda.  So, allow me a moment to reflect on adding and not adding fat to your cooking.

Due to a less than certain correlation between poor health and saturated fat, we have been inundated with so-called "solutions" to this problem in the form of cheap, mostly rancid plant oils.  Many of these oils are usually hydrogenated, which involves metal particles, soap, electricity, and radiant yellow dye, none of which sound appetizing.  So, my first call is for you all to use better fat.  I have instructions on rendering pig, beef, and sheep fat.  These are all relatively inexpensive if you can find a good source for the fat.  You can also render chicken, goose, and duck fat.  There is nothing in the world as satisfying as a pie crust made with lard, or potatoes fried in duck fat.  If you find all of these too grisly for your tastes at the moment, you should firstly work on changing  your tastes, and secondly use butter,  olive oil**, or coconut oil (in that order).  All other fats are strictly second-class.  They are disgusting, even if they promise that they are made with an expeller (which makes them both disgusting and expensive).  There is something odd about a fat that is not solid at room temperature (or even fridge temperature) suddenly being so.

The second call is for you to think about fat as a way to make what you cook amazing, and to be free about adding it wherever appropriate.  There are a couple of decent dishes that don't involve a good bit of fat, but they are few and far between.  Think of adding your quality fat not as a indulgence, but as a typical practice.  I am not saying that you necessarily need to add three cups of olive oil to everything you cook.  However, a nice knob of butter is just amazingly delicious when added to tomato sauce right before you serve it.   

The third, and final call is to never take the fat away from a dish that is supposed to have fat in it.  Such effrontery is a disrespect to the ingredients, as well as the Platonic concept of the dish itself.  Look at what gets involved when you take the fat out of ingredients that ought to have them there.  I saw non-fat cream cheese the other day, it involved a number of very strange ingredients, including a dubious "gum" or two that likely took the place of...the fat that is supposed to be in a product with "cream" and "cheese" in its name. 

Obesity and poor health are present in our culture in a major way, and I don't think it has much to do with fats.  Lots of cultures all over the world use very large amounts of fat in their cooking and daily eating.  We are one of the few western ones with a low or non fat substitute for everything we can imagine, yet no one seems to be benefiting from it.  Yes, fast food has lots of fat in it, but I am not advocating fast food here, as they are perhaps the biggest users of hydrogenated and other crappy fats - not to mention that most folks give the old pancreas a serious workout when they eat a refined flour bun, processed potatoes, sweetened sauces, and the ubiquitous carbonated water with HFCS added.  Think about the healthy Berbers the next time you worry about the fat content of your food.

* A tajine is a kind of meat and vegetable stew cooked slowly in a special clay pot.  It is sometimes served with couscous.

** Don't waste your money on Extra Virgin Olive Oil if you are cooking with it.  Use the regular stuff for cooking.  EVOO is great for dressings or drizzled over an already cooked meal, but when you heat it up for frying in pans and such you destroy a lot of the flavor that is gained by its cold-pressing, as it has a relatively low smoke point.  It would be a better plan to buy a large amount of less-expensive, non-EVOO olive oil for your cooking, and to spend your money on a smaller, pricier, yet higher quality EVOO.

Monday, April 11, 2011


The alchemists of antiquity (and the Renaissance) had it right when it came to transfiguration.  The changing of the base metal and the human into a dazzling new form.  Lead into gold.  

Food products also manage a similarly amazing transfiguration in many ways, and today's post is dedicated to one in particular, the dried bean.  The transformation from a rock-like, inedible object to an amazingly delicious food item is nothing short of alchemy.  

We'll go with an old favorite, Boston Baked Beans, in honor of my soon-to-be main base - but the initial process could be used for any dried bean or other pulse. Today's recipe will also be a great meta-post, using a few of the other items that you may have created during your time reading the blog.

Alchemical Beans
- A quantity of Dried beans (415g / 2 cups would be a reasonable starting point)
- The skin from your smoked bacon (if you haven't made bacon yet, just use commercial bacon and write yourself a note to make some soon)
- An onion or so, chopped
- A heavy kind of pour of Blackstrap molasses *
- 120 ml. / heavy 1/2 cup of your ketchup (again, make a note for yourself if you have to use the commercial garbage)
-  Some spices in moderate quantities (dry mustard, black pepper, and salt are really the only non-negotiables)
You have to start your alchemy a good day in advance.  Put your dried beans into a bowl and cover them with water.  Let it sit overnight.  When you go back, you should be amazed that the beans have now puffed up, swelled into small pillows of joy that herald the coming transfiguration. Drain them.

Now, get some salty fresh water (I have tried not to put water in the ingredients above - I always feel a bit pedantic doing so - as if you all are not aware of how to fill a pot of water). Boil it, and add your pillows of joy a bit at a time so that the boiling doesn't become discouraged (the water worked itself up to a nice boiling temperature, don't harsh its mellow by dumping your beans in like a payloader!).  Allow the beans to boil for however long it takes to get them tender.  Though attractive, your pillows of joy in their unboiled state will break your teeth.  Effect their second transfiguration by boiling.

At this point, the beans are ready for a number of other transfigurations.  

The philosopher's stone here is your smoked pig skin, which is why I would highly suggest using it instead of commercial bacon.  Lay your skin at the bottom of some sort of crock that can hold up to oven temperatures (you could also use a slow cooker).  Combine all of the other elements (including the twice-great beans) in another container and pour them over your skins.  Now cover and either slow cook on low for 8 or 10 hours or put into a gentle oven (300º F / 148º C) for 4 hours**.  Your pig skin should be offering itself to you in a full way by this time. 

Your beans are now thrice-great, and have been transfigured into something that is truly beautiful.  Pull your giving pig skin out, and chop it into small nudule-like chunks.  Add them back into your thrice-great beans and marvel while you contemplate the great mystery of your transfigured beans.  

* Some folks sugar their beans up with brown sugar - but I find that molasses is a far more complex addition to what is a truly delicate alchemy.  Table sugar is just a bit too fierce, and prevents my enjoyment of this dish.

** I was making these beans the other day and had left them to transfigure while I was at work.  Our landlords are selling the house and we had a showing that day.  The folks who were looking may have been driven mad by all of the magical energy in the air, but it was certainly for the best.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Catsup, Ketchup, Catch-up

There is a establishment in my current city that supposedly invented the hamburger.  At this place they don't allow you to have any ketchup on your burger, and get angry if you ask for it.  Now, this behavior seems very off-putting, and the folks at this place seem to take their so-so burgers a bit too seriously to be howling at customers who ask for a certain red condiment.  On the other side of this social equation is the simple fact that the aforementioned condiment has become a truly foul, syrupy concoction with little resemblance to the true, undinted character of the wonderful condiment that it could be.

So, maybe it is time for a compromise - let the customers use ketchup, but not prolefood ketchup - real, bold, sweet, sour, exotic ketchup that takes time and attention.

Exotic Ketchup*
- A quantity of tomatoes (depending on the time of year, fresh or canned)**
- An onion or so
- Vinegar***
- A sweetening agent (sugar, brown sugar, agave, choose your favorite)
- A creatively unrestrained spice blend (Some standbys would be cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, and bay leaves - but please go as far as your taste allows)
To start, the tomato factor.  Some people are used to a very thick, glue-like ketchup.  Now that I have connected this type of ketchup with a generally inedible substance, I hope you all will find it repulsive.  However, if you find your ketchup to be a bit thin or watery, you can always add some tomato paste to your basic tomato base to thicken things up.  Please do try the lighter version at least once though.

With that out of the way, you will need to get your tomatoes to a somewhat smooth consistency.  Here is one place where I might suggest a quick whizz in a blender or food processor.  If you happen to have the luck of owning a manual food mill, please use it.  Your end result should be quite smooth with no recognizable protuberances peeking out.  Now, do the same to your onion.  Get it into a kind of onion slop, it might help if you add a bit of the smooth tomato to pull things together.

Snag a good-sized pot, a bit of oil (but not too much) and cook the onion slop for a bit until it releases some of its flavour.  Add your smooth tomato now and get things boiling.  Now for the sweet and sour.  I don't give amounts above, but start with a smaller bit of each.  The ratio should be something like 2 parts sweet to 3 parts sour.  Give a taste after stirring things up and see how it strikes you at first blush.  Don't get too enthusiastic here, as you can always adjust things later on to your liking.  

Pull your mixture down to a gentle simmer and allow it to find itself for about an hour.  During this time, you could mix yourself a Campari with some white wine, or something relatively uninvolved.  You'll want to keep an eye on things, and give them a stir from time to time so perhaps continuing on your translation of Bourdieu's Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique would be better saved for another time.  The time spent simmering will directly affect your thickness factor.  So, if you would like a thicker batch, give it another hour or more.  Just keep an eye on things so that nothing burns.

Your final step is to make your ketchup exotic.  Make some sort of packet in which your spices can be contained.  You could use a clean sock, a piece of cheesecloth****, a tea ball, or any other containment device that will keep your spices inside while simultaneously lending flavour to your ketchup.  Allow your spices 30 minutes or so in the ketchup, don't overdo it, otherwise your ketchup will take on a kind of potpourri funk that might be less than appealing.  

Now, cool your ketchup, pack in jars and use on everything.  Enjoy the sweet and sour elements, and the boldness of tomato. 

* There is a dissertation to be written on the etymology of ketchup.  Look it up, there are like forty theories on where the word came from, as well as its spelling.  I'll use ketchup because I find catsup a somewhat annoying word.

** If you use fresh, you'll need to peel them.  Otherwise you will have skins floating around in your end product.   Any easy way to peel is to dip them in boiling water for a bit, then cold water.  They will peel like lady's stockings.

*** I plan to post on making your vinegar soon.  In the meantime, use one that doesn't come from petroleum distillates (white vinegar).

**** Cheesecloth is a most ubiquitous item to have in your kitchen.  You will find manifold uses for it.