The Criminal Palate: A Halloween Tale

Treat ’em with respect

We speak today of food felons, for they walk anonymously among us. Their despicable, unimaginable, reprehensible crime against society: a lifelong disrespect and disregard for producing and indulging in good food.

Like the dying punk in “Repo Man,” I blame society. These villains are, by and large, the product of either overly indulgent parents or unimaginative cooks, the offspring of a wealthy society. Let us consider each in his own sordid light, described, so as to give you a thrill, as if they might even be you.

  1. The Picky Eater. Perhaps as a parent you are an offender in this first category. You’ve allowed your offspring a childhood of lingering over the fat, tasteless burger and sugary drink at home and at the restaurant. The hissy fits and the social embarrassment are just not worth the effort of saying no. On family visits, you turn to your sibling and shrug: “He will only eat a hamburger, do you mind?” Then, as years go by, the picky ways that began as simply a pacifier become a way of life. Eventually, the errant child enters adulthood. He moves into your basement, bringing with him the smell of stale beef tallow and rancid fat that forever permeate your home and dreams. You took the easy way out and created a picky eater: a societal monster, a criminal now walking the streets recruiting fellow members of the undead palate.
  1. The Because Mom Cooked It This Way Eater. Are you the sociopath who murders your veggies? Do you cook your cabbage into a translucent goo, having engaged in this heinous practice for so long you are insensitive to the pain and the carnage left behind? Sadist that you are, you force the kids to sit down and eat it. “Why should it go to waste?” you say. You had to eat it and like it as a child, so, by God, they have to eat it as well. Veggies aren’t supposed to taste good; that’s why they’re good for you! Once, many years ago, the thought occurred to you to vary the method of preparation — maybe a quick sauté with green onion and ginger or braised with a hearty beef roast — but, nah, you couldn’t be bothered. You just chop-chop-chop, drop it in water, and boil until it is dead-dead-dead. Your poor blighted offspring are destined to grow up to create new translucent generations of the criminally and puritanically unimaginative cook.
  1. The If It’s Thursday, It’s Indian Eater. The worst culinary offender by far is the peripatetic cook, unique to a society of such vast wealth and narcissism that her palate is completely unmoored. She’s the person whose own cultural rootlets have withered and died from lack of nourishment during a sad lifetime of wandering the aisles of global indulgence. This criminal’s family endures the Thai phase, the Ethiopian year, the Latin dinners. A sad nomad of the exotic city and suburban steppes, she eventually inflicts a Thanksgiving dinner of such amazingly disparate tastes that the Jamaican jerked turkey is actually embraced.

Now, I’m sure, gentle reader that none of these horrific crimes apply to you. No, not you. Never would you drown and brutalize a veggie, indulge the tyrannical tantrum of the three-year-old, inflict in a Saveur-induced rage a lifetime of rootless eating. Not even guilty a little, right?  Yep, me neither.

Our Edible Landscape

Elderflowers, soon to be elderberries, soon to be elderberry wine.

It must have been close to a hundred degrees in the hoop-house. After weeding down one row of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons, I paused to put my glasses, made useless by the sweat streaming down my face, in my overall pocket before continuing. The next row, a first planting back in April, was now laden with tomatoes of all stripes and types. I snacked on the ripe cherry tomatoes as I pruned and tied up the heavy branches.

Finishing the last row, I harvested a handful of bell and jalapeno peppers before heading to the house. In the breezeway of the barn, substantial piles of red onions and garlic lay curing. Security against winter want, they provided visions of future stews and gumbos. After a quick stop in the herb garden for a fistful of cilantro, I dropped off the produce with Cindy, who was busy making salsa, and returned to my next morning task.

I am an avid procrastinator when it comes to weeding and mulching perennials. There always seems to be something more important to do, whether it’s trimming sheep’s hooves or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee. But yesterday the looming chore rose to the top of the list. I weeded and mulched the grapes, blackberries, pawpaw orchard, and blueberry bushes. As I worked I snacked, first on the blueberries and then on the blackberries, in a comfortable rhythm. Eat berries. Pull grass. Repeat.

There is a satisfaction in being able to walk the farm and snack or harvest in any season. Whether it is greens in deep January or wild chanterelles in late July, the real “movable feast” is there for the taking (with a little bit of sweat and labor). Even the sassafras trees make a contribution; I gather and grind their leaves to a fine powder in my annual production of gumbo filé.

Yesterday’s munching was just an appetizer for the summer months to come. Soon there will be ripe beefsteak tomatoes, juicy sweet melons, platters of figs, and salads of peppers, cucumbers, homemade yogurt, and dill — each month’s cooking informed by the season, each month with its own theme.

July already has me salivating in anticipation. I’m thinking grilled ribeye with a little salt and pepper, garlicky mashed potatoes, a salad of sliced tomatoes topped with fresh basil, homemade bread, and a few glasses of wine for a theme.

This work of farming sure goes down easier if you enjoy the pleasures and conviviality of the table, or just the taste of a warm, fat blackberry on a humid afternoon, plucked from the vine a moment before you pop it in your mouth.

 Yep, it is going to be a great summer.

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Reading light this weekend: John Grisham’s latest, Camino Island. And, Martin Walker’s latest “Bruno” novel, The Templars’ Last Secret.

Weekend Observations and Scrapbook

The World

  • Politics: Sometimes I feel as if our choices are between a road to ruin and a more inclusive road to ruin.

    Our nearest neighbor

    The road less traveled.

    The little house at the entrance to our farm

    Blimey! It’s mutton.

  • The view from 20,000 feet is one of overreach. The view on the ground is more of the same.
  • Beware of old men in a hurry.
  • When people speak of the coastal elites, we may assume that they are not referring to the Gulf Coast, where I was born.
  • According to NYT, 60 percent of the species most closely related to humans, primates, will be extinct by 2050. I hope I’m not called to account for my actions in hastening that prospect.

The Farm

  • The buttered bread theory: When falling forward into the muck of a pig paddock, your knee will find the hidden stone.
  • Home-fermented kimchi makes the perfect alternative salad to a rich Butcher’s Wife’s Pork Chops
  • Beware of what you wish for…. Rain yesterday, rain today, and blimey, if it don’t look like rain again tomorrow.
  • Mutton pie, composed mainly of ingredients raised right outside our door, can’t be beat.
  • Owning the right gun is a bit like owning a truck. When a friend has need (dispatching a dying goat), you get the call.

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Reading this weekend: The Tribe: on homecoming and belonging, by Sebastian Junger.

Using The Odd Bits: Beef Cheek Pastrami

Beef-Cheek Pastrami: before smoking and steaming

Beef-Cheek Pastrami: before smoking and steaming

There is a distinct pleasure in eating well when using the odd-bits, the cast-off and forlorn bits. Those cuts, that when cooked with care and love, result in a sumptuous feast not just an adequate repast. A few years back, over a weekend, I was curing some pork jowls. That process got me to wondering about the cheeks or “jowls” of cattle. A little quick research turned up a recipe for beef-cheek pastrami.

Now, for the past three years, home-cured pastrami is on the menu when we have a steer butchered. That this version is made from a cut typically thrown away is a bonus. And, to my way of thinking, the odd-bits more fully honor our relationship with an animal we have nurtured from birth to death.

This recipe uses a wet-cure process to create the pastrami. It does not create a shelf-stable cured meat. Then again, who would know? With fresh pastrami in the house it doesn’t linger long enough to meet the shelf-stable test.

(My apologies to whomever I originally cribbed this recipe.)

The Brine: bring your brine to a boil and allow to cool. Pour over the beef-cheeks. Cover and store in the fridge.

  • 3 quarts of water
  • 1 cup of kosher salt
  • A few tablespoons of pickling spice
  • 4 teaspoons of pink salt (cure #1)

The Soak: after four days, rinse off the meat and soak in cool water for 8 hours. This will reduce the salt content in the final pastrami.

The Rub: coat the cheeks heavily in the dry rub at least 24-48 hours before smoking. Return to fridge.

  • Several tablespoons of black pepper
  • Several tablespoons of ground coriander seeds
  • A couple tablespoons of paprika

The Smoke: I use a Brinkman smoker, easy and cheap. Smoke for about three hours.

The Steam: Put the cheeks in a small roasting pan and pour a beer around the meat. Cover with foil and put in the oven at 250 degrees for three hours.

The Eating: Do you really need advice? OK. Slice thin and pile high.

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Reading this weekend: The Severans: the changed Roman Empire by Michael Grant. A history that examines a period of poor leadership, a bloated government and military, and an overly complex empire.

Farm Postcard: The Pork-Scrap Terrine

terrine-002

In all of its glistening glory

Use it all and make it good: pork loin, seasoned fat from a homemade porchetta, pork liver, figs, almonds, rum, parsley, red pepper flakes, garlic, spices, and reserved pork stock made from hocks. Chop and mix by hand, bake for two hours (in water bath), place weight on top, and cure for a day in the fridge. Serve cold with mustard and pickles, a glass of homemade beer or wine. Enjoy.

Farm Postcard: a sigh heard ’round the farm

First tomatoes 002

The first tomatoes of the season, scattered drops before the deluge

“When your first tomato is ripe, take salt and pepper to the garden. Pluck the fruit from the vine. Cut into quarters, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and pop it, a quarter at a time into your mouth. I shall be listening to your sigh of contentment.” Angelo M. Pellegrini

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Reading this weekend: White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant, a classic farming memoir set in rural Ireland during the 1950’s and ’60’s.

Three Hopeful Steps to Feeding the Planet by Feeding Yourself

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Our front porch where we spend a lot of our down time.

Raise and grow what you like to eat. This may seem obvious. Perhaps it is the lazy Southerner in me, but too often would-be farmers are focused on the business and not the pleasures gained from working the land. They visit our farm and I hear the schemes with numbers and data. Slow down, I tell them. What do you like to eat each night, I ask? For special occasions? Focus on that. Give yourself the goal of feeding yourself and your family. Then see if you can turn a profit. But make the profit the byproduct.

And, you don’t have to live in the country to produce a significant part of your diet or at least add to your table. We all know someone in the city who has a magnificent garden, even keeps hens or bees. I have a niece in Oregon who, with her fiancé, raises crawfish in a mini-aquaculture system next to the garage. If you have even a small parcel and are willing to work, Mother Nature can be a wonderful partner.

Eat what you grow and raise. The rural French, God love ‘em, have an elevated peasant cuisine. All cultures have a cuisine of want, born of the land, hard work, and frugality. But country French cuisine makes a special art of not only not wasting but also turning the cast-off into something special and memorable. Take your inner French peasant out for a stroll, and use what you have raised and grown and use it all. Learn to make stocks out of bones, pâtés out of organ meat, delicious terrines out of a hog’s head. Save the tough stems of asparagus for soups, the zucchini as big as a bat for savory pancakes. And learn to compost. It is not hard; nature knows how to rot.

Celebrate what you grow and raise with friends and family at the table. Use what you have raised to rekindle family ties and build community. Put the phone away, log out of Instagram and Facebook, and prepare a meal that is as much from your land as is possible. Experience real joy in that act of preparation. Make that your goal for every meal. When dining alone or with your loved one, be mindful of the food. Make each meal a Thanksgiving. And as often as you can, invite others to share in that act.

Yesterday we had a full day of work on the farm. But we found time last night to have four guests join us for a dinner on the front porch. The night before, I had braised one of our pork shoulders, then minced and rolled it with various herbs from the garden. The ultimate dish began with a potful of grits cooked with raw milk from a nearby farm; next came a large mess of freshly picked turnip greens, cooked in homemade chicken stock and homegrown garlic. The minced pork was fried in medallions and served atop the greens and grits.

It was a mindful celebration of eating and drinking wine with good friends that paid homage to the work we do. A sharing of that bounty that rewards us for the sore backs and the stress of maintaining the farm. No scheme, no data, just a simple conviction that producing, eating with love, and sharing with neighbors just might help feed the world.