Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pork Jowls Day 10

The pig fridge

Pig Fridge II

Well, after much tweaking, the pig jowls are successfully hung in an old dorm fridge I bought from a guy who was cleaning out his storage locker.  The original "fridge" I purchased ended up being a freezer.  That in itself is not a problem as you can turn a freezer into a fridge with an external temperature regulator.  But the shelves of this unit themselves were filled with coolant and, as I needed to remove shelves in order to accommodate the pork, that wasn't going to work.  So a mini-fridge it is, which is better anyway as it does not take up half of the apartment.

I have the fridge hooked into a device that forces it to maintain a constant temperature of my choice.  The ideal temp for curing these cheeks is 50 degrees and the regulator does an outstanding job of holding the fridge between 49 and 52.  I have also installed a tiny desk fan to keep the air circulating about the jowls.  After four days, the jowls have shrunk a bit and are developing a dry bark on their surfaces.  And you are met by a pleasant piggy puff as soon as you open the fridge door.  It is a bit more moist than is ideal inside the curing chest and I am hoping that it will dry out as the cheeks continue to lose moisture. 

The cheeks must hang for at least 3 weeks, but some recommend hanging for as long as 12 weeks for maximum flavor concentration.  We'll see how long I can hold out. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pig fridge

In the last warm gold of autumn, I went out toward the river and bought a fridge from a guy named Preston and his pal Buckey.  They had bought a new brushed stainless fridge and it looked nice in the trailer amid the blown gray foam on the walls and ceiling.  The guys helped me load their old Kenmore into the rig (it barely fit) and now I hope to convert it into an environment specially tailored toward the curing of pork products.

And so we start with these thawed, naked beast cheeks.

Let us go totally Roman and hang these puppies in the cool until they become a tight guanciale, the cured jowl to flavor sauces and pile on the piggy blasts.

Let it be said I do not know what I am doing.  I have procured the proper temperature and humidity controls for my new curing chest.  I had to overnight ship a bag of Prague Powder because no one in town carries the pink salts (nitrites, nitrates) that resist botulism.  There are two types of curing salt, one for cooked or smoked meats, and one for uncooked, dry cured meats.  These cheeks need to rest in their cure for two weeks before they are hung in the curing fridge for three more weeks.  We can't have their raw asses going bad.

I trimmed off all the odd bits and rubbed them with Prague powder, sea salt, black pepper, red chile, oregano, anise and bay leaf.

I will turn them in the fridge each day for the next two weeks and then hang them in my converted pig fridge.  Stay tuned.....

Monday, November 10, 2014

Lydia's, Butte, MT

Even on a weekend, the streets of historic uptown Butte, MT are deserted until about 8 PM. Then rowdy people materialize from the darkness- loud, intoxicated and prepared to fight. We stayed on the 3rd floor of the Hotel Finlen, just across from the Acoma Lounge. Butte is replete with such dim dens--padded vinyl on the bars and middle aged male bartenders that pour stiff drinks. As the toenail paring of a waxing crescent moon seemed to ride the updrafts above the Metals Bank building, we heard the beginnings of a clamor that would last until the wee hours. 

I've been to Butte a number of times, and it can be a somewhat bleak experience. If you don't already know, the town is the home of the Berkeley Pit, a yawning copper mine that spreads in craggy, orange and taupe tiers above uptown Butte. Enough metal was pulled out of the hills there to have made the city at one time one of the most populous between the Mississippi River and the West Coast. Butte exudes, if not quite a faded glory, then at least a strong sense that there was once much more afoot on its corners and in its businesses. Something about the exposed guts of the mountain, the crumbling, vacant state of the once fancy brick buildings, the silent streets, the blue, snowy ranges in the distance, and fact that everything is always closed- gives Butte, on a normal day, a bit of a haunted feeling. 

We once stopped by on July 4th, expecting the streets to be lively, but we'd missed the morning's parade and everyone had gone home. St. Patrick's Day is a lively exception to the town's deserted feeling, as is the Montana Folk Festival which takes place in July. 

One February day we visited Butte in order to climb up to Our Lady of the Rockies- a 90 foot tall vinyl statue of Mary that sits on a ridge top above town. Fueled by a half-inch thick ham steak cooked on the griddle at the M & M Cigar Shop (sadly now closed), we busted our way through waist-deep snowdrifts to get to the statue. The wind howled through her plastic cowl and blasted our faces and froze our hands. We paid our respects and got the hell off the mountain. 

What to eat in Butte? A couple of places have made the food travel shows- Joe's Pasties and Pork Chop John's. Joe's is one of many Butte purveyors of Cornish meat pies doused in brown gravy. The pies are stuffed with chunks of tender beef, onions and cubed potatoes and the crust is more chewy than flaky. John's is the king of the fried pork chop sandwich- a boneless loin chop is breaded in John's special seasoning, fried and placed on a seeded bun with lettuce, tomato and onion. There are a couple joints that found their way into Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood books. One is the Pekin Noodle Parlour, which serves second rate Chinese food, but its charming location on the upstairs floor of a building that may have served as a brothel and is now equipped with it's own private eating cubicles makes up for the dull food. 

The highlight of our last trip was a visit to Lydia's, recommended by Bubba, our dear friend and a Butte native. Stained glass and velour-bedecked Lydia's has been around since 1946, and has occupied its current location on the flats near the airport since 1964. Lydia's is an old style supper club and serves steaks, seafood and Italian American fare accompanied by a table-crushing round of antipasto plates and enough sides to satisfy the most bottomless stomach. Warning: Don't go to Lydia's without an appetite. Before you order, the server brings salad, pickled peppers, whole scallions, sweet potato salad, canned beets and dressing boats filled with Lydia's sweet Italian vinaigrette studded with bits of Roquefort cheese. This dressing brought me back to the St. Louis Hill restaurants we frequented when I was a kid and the Roquefort provided a pungent punch the St. Louis dressings lacked. 

I ordered the Lydia's signature chicken Cacciatori which is a half chicken that arrives in a pool of winy sauce. The half chicken fried in butter was even more luxurious with crusty bits of caramelized skin. Entrees are accompanied by ravioli, spaghetti and fries (soggy). After dinner, you get your choice of tea or coffee and a scoop of ice cream. The Spumoni was delicious with bits of candied cherries and nuts. Lydia's is worth a visit for the atmosphere and the enormous spread. I wish I had some chicken fried in butter on a warm plate right now.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Marriage of Sorts

A few nights ago, we salvaged most of a giant Marina di Chioggia squash that was getting soft on one of its sides.  We roasted the thing and scaped it's dense flesh into a pot with carmelized onions and carrots and garlic.  I added skillet roasted cloves and cardamom pods ground in a molcajete, a broth made of corn cobs, sour cream, butter, yogurt, salt and pepper.  Then I puréed the mass with a hand blender til creamy.  The result was a rich, dense, cloying soup.  After a couple of bowls, we started to get tired of this rich, sweet, pudding-like purée. 

Last night I made some sausage out of ground pork, tons of ground arbol chile, a mound of ground fennel seed, lots of garlic, fresh oregano, salt and pepper.  Frying some of that up and ladling the squash soup upon the cooked, fragrant, salty sausage was a wondrous marriage.  The sugar heavy purée against the savory explosion of the pork- boom!  I think we'll finish off that pot of soup, afterall.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Honey from the Rock

This summer, we returned from a trip to Yakima, WA to find this on the counter:

Some gifts require such commitment that they may appear, at first (and second, and third) glance, to be burdensome.  Especially if the enjoyment of said gift depends upon one's access to special equipment.  Despite its beauty, upon first encountering this honey-laden comb, I responded as though we had just been gifted the collected works of Thomas Aquinas.  With forebodings of the devotion the extraction would require, we left the comb to sit near the sink for months.  Now that the job is done, it's just a bit of a stretch to say that coaxing the scant quart of honey from that frame with the available tools involved an almost supernatural effort.  One may have sooner drawn such bee-made sustenance from the rock of old.  Easy enough, I suppose, when Yaweh's got your back. Instead, we had Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand cued up to help us along.

So, you are supposed to have a big heated knife to cut the caps off the honey tubes and a centrifuge to spin the honey out.  Lacking both, we went for the boning knife and roasting pan technique.  (Not recommended)   

Actually, things might have gone smoothly if it had been hot outside.  It was a warm day, but only in the 70s.  It needs to be in the 80s or 90s to get the honey to flow.  After cutting the comb, we inverted the frame and left it on the porch in the sun.

After an hour, there was a tablespoon of honey in the pan and it was obvious that the comb needed a little convincing.  So I made the biggest mistake of the day and turned the oven on to bake at the lowest setting and popped in the frame.  You can guess what happened:  wax and honey liquefied and pooled together in the pan.  Separating the two substances proved a challenge, but even more of a pain was getting the cooled, hardened beeswax off the pans and sieves and scrapers and sink and the oven itself.  Therein was the real work.  The wax will never come out of some of our equipment.  Now, when roasting potatoes or Brussels sprouts, the oven gives off a faint scent of beeswax, which is kind of nice, I guess.

All this, and for what?

It's good and all, but I won't undertake such a project again without the proper equipment and the right temps.  Still, it's nice to have friends who leave such things in your home while you are away.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cuke Pop

These warm, waning days make me crave bright, fizzy drinks.  Thankfully it's not yet time for mulled cider and the heavy bevs of autumn.  The cukes are getting fat on the vines.  Gotta use them up. Here's a recipe for a refreshing cucumber shrub that makes a great base for a soda and also likes to be paired with gin or tequila for a boozy alternative.  

Cucumber shrub:
One large cucumber sliced thin.  Green cukes will make a pleasant, pale jade syrup.  But use what you've got.  Place cukes in a bowl and stir in 3/4 cup sugar and 2 tsp. salt.  Mix well and cover.  Let sit at room temperature for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.  The cukes will give up a lot of juice.  Pour mixture in a blender and purée with 3/4 cup vinegar of your choice.  I used organic cider vinegar.  

Strain puréed ingredients through a fine mesh strainer, squeezing pulp to remove juice.  To make a refreshing soda, combine syrup with soda water to taste and serve over ice.  Garnish with a fresh round.  

If you really want to forget that winter is waiting in the wings, mix equal parts shrub with tequila or gin.  Add ice and soda water to taste and finish with a sqeeze of lime.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Parsi-style fried chicken in a biscuit

Inspired by the new issue of Saveur, which is devoted to the food of India, I'm feeling in the mood for some succulent curry.  At the same time, I'm craving more fried chicken.  I want a piece of fried chicken wedged into a fresh, warm biscuit.  But I also want the pungent punch of cardamom, cumin, ginger, chile and garlic.  So here's what the old scavenger is going to attempt:  an experimental combination.  Warning:  this could go horribly awry!

I'm making a chicken marinade based loosely on a recipe for Parsi-style chicken with apricots from the aforementioned mag.  The Parsis, South Asia's ethnically Persian population- followers of the prophet Zoroaster- carry a beautiful cuisine that frequently pairs sweet fruits with savory herbs.  

1 cup whole milk
1 cup whole milk yogurt
OR 2 cups buttermilk instead of milk and yogurt (I was out at the time)
1 pint apricot jam
10 dried chiles de arbol (seeded and ground or pounded)
6 cloves garlic
1, 4" piece of ginger, sliced
2 tsp cumin (ground)
6 green cardamom pods (seeds removed and ground, husks discarded)
2 sticks cinnamon (ground to powder)
2 Tbs salt

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth

2 lbs boneless thighs, preferably with the skin on

Place chicken in a glass dish or Pyrex storage container with a cover, pour the marinade over, mix with hands, cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

Quick Cream Biscuits (recipe from the Anson Mills website).  Or use your favorite biscuit recipe.  
After trying this, I recommend a more rugged biscuit that can hold up to rough treatment.  

Anticipating the coating on this chicken to be pretty sweet from the jam, I'm making a quick onion pickle to offset the sugars.

Pickled onion:
1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
1 + 1/2 Tbs fine salt
1 tsp sugar
1/4 cup wine vinegar

Mix ingredients, cover and let rest at room temperature an hour, then store in fridge if necessary.

For Dredge:
2 cups cake flour
1 cup all purpose flour
OR 3 cups all purpose flour
salt to taste
veg oil for frying

Mix dry ingredients in large bowl.  Remove chicken from fridge, shake off excess marinade and dredge well in flour mixture.

Fill 12 inch cast iron skillet with 1/3 to 1/2 inch oil and heat to 350.  Place chicken in skillet, skin side down first.  Cook chicken til it turns golden brown, 4-5 minutes per side. Don't crowd the skillet, fry in batches, if need be.  Let cooked chicken rest for a few minutes on baking sheet lined with paper towels.

Ok, the chicken turned out pretty well, but these biscuits are not meant to hold a hot chunk of bird-they are soft and crumbly.  Delicious, but better to save them as vessels for butter and preserves.  We need to find a more stalwart biscuit next time.

We had to pull an open-faced maneuver:  a little mayo on bottom half of biscuit and a dab of chile pickle, then the chicken and pickled onion.  We buttered the top half and ate it separately.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saved by the neighbors again. The neighbor series: Part 2

Ah, apartment living.  One is never fully alone- all those shared walls, floors and ceilings. Neighbors can make or break the deal.  This is an homage to the people who live upstairs.

It's Friday.  Of all the barbarously dull and ergonomically devastating work weeks, this one stands on a hilltop.  My mind is a marshmallow, my spirit a smoking hull.  I need something to transport me from this woeful state.

Luckily, the neighbors have fired up the boat engines, and we are bound for......VIETNAM!  

These chewy rib ends alone would have inspired gaiety in a roomful of DMV employees.  Suffused with five spice, shao xing wine, garlic and sugar, these tidbits left the fingers greasy and me feeling halfway human.

Next came these lovely grilled chicken skewers, fragrant with lemongrass, turmeric and garlic.

What's not to love about a meat salad?  This one's stunning:  beef marinated in tamarind, the season's first carrots, thin sliced cukes, mint, cilantro, basil, ground peanuts in a sweet dressing.

We took a short break from the proteins with a dab of bitter mustard greens.

For dessert, there were fried tofu slabs encrusted in lemongrass over aromatic Carolina Gold rice.

The kindest souls are the ones that feed you, for food is love in physical form.  Have you fed your neighbors lately?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Guest Blogging: "The Real Dirt"

Hey food friends, the Rav Scav will be guest blogging throughout the growing season at The Real Dirt, a great gardening/food/community blog authored by the folks at Garden City HarvestCheck out the blog and the GCH website to learn about this wonderful organization and all the good stuff they do in the Missoula community.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Beet Greens

Produce-wise, this time of year can seem like you need an Ark to ride out the flood of greens- thank God for them.  It's spring's compensation for winter's dearth- all the furtive freezer excavations of slimy bok choy and pricey trips to the grocery for bags of wilty California arugula.  Suddenly there are collards, kale, ten kinds of mustards, chard, napa cabbage... And all the green-topped root vegetables that beg for their showy flags to be devoured:  radishes, turnips and beets.

We had a small bag of tiny beets that had been thinned the other day and decided to make a simple wilted salad with a dab of Dijon mustard to offset the leaves' rich minerality.  First, I took the marble-sized beets, cleaned them of dirt and put them in a skillet on medium high heat with a tsp of safflower oil.  I sautéed them until they just began to brown, five or six minutes, rolling them about in the pan frequently.  I then removed them from the heat and dusted them with a pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper.

I washed the beet tops and discarded their tough stems.  Then heated a few drops of safflower oil in a skillet on medium heat and added the beet leaves. I tossed them about continually in the oil for four minutes.  It would be even better here if you had a piece of bacon that you fried crispy and then withered your greens in the bacon fat.  The leaves do very well with the smoke from the bacon. I removed the greens from the heat and added a half tsp of Dijon mustard, a drizzle of tamari, a few drops of good olive oil, one or two grindings of black pepper and a dash of Tabasco.  I plated the warm salad and crowned it with the carmelized beets and a few slivers of pickled onion.  We used some lovely, sweet pearl onions that Bee pickled a couple of years ago, but it would be easy to make a quick red onion pickle.  Just take a sliced medium onion or half a large one and put the slices in a bowl with a couple of large pinches of fine salt, a couple of large pinches of sugar and a tablespoon of vinegar of your choice.  Mix all together with your hands, cover and let it sit at room temp for at least a half hour.  The onions will mellow if you wait longer and will keep for more than a week in the fridge.

This salad would be supreme with a wedge or two of boiled egg- the cooked, creamy yolks mixing with the dressing.  Crumble that bacon on top and you've got a meal.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Wild Bounty

Spring is inspiring.  Leafing trees and swollen streams.  Blossoms and bird's nests lined with fir needles.  And the parade of edibles- wild and cultivated!  The first lettuce, sprigs of gai lan, spicy radish, lamb's quarters and spring mushrooms.  

Despite this winter's heavy snowpack, western Montana's lowlands are pretty dry and crispy.  It hasn't rained a lot and we've had some hot, summery days.  To find the fungi, one must seek moist places.  Our four-person foraging party had some luck this weekend.
Photos courtesy of C. Brant and M. Sundeen
We also lucked into a large bundle of tender ditch asparagus and picked a few fistfuls of elder flowers.

We stuffed the heartiest morel specimens.  Mixed a log of goat cheese with yogurt, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, toasted sunflower seeds, fresh chives, sage and thyme, salt and pepper and packed it into a ziploc.  Cut the corner of the bag off and injected each cap with this delicious paste.  Then we rolled the mushrooms in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and fried them in butter and olive oil.  The larger the mushroom, the more they contribute a fungi-flavored punch to the fritters.  We found that the little guys got lost in all that butter, herbs and cheese.  

We breaded and fried the elder blossoms as well, which have a pleasant lemony-vegetal flavor when cooked.  M. grilled up the asparagus and a nice slab of Alaskan salmon.  

We were famished.  All we brought on our 5 hour forage was a stub of chorizo, a thermos of black tea and a flask of whiskey.  All of that kept us going somehow, but we were ready to feast.

 And feast we did. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Missoula County Public Schools Cook-off

Last month I had the honor of serving as a judge in the 1st Annual Missoula County Public Schools Student Culinary Competition.  Students from Big Sky, Sentinel and Hellgate High Schools gathered early at the University of Montana to fire up their induction burners and show off original recipes.  Awaiting the winning team was $1000 for their school's culinary program, a chef's kit for each team member and the satisfaction of seeing their meal served to students throughout Missoula. 

The event was sponsored by Garden City Harvest, FoodCorps and UM Dining.  I got involved in the competition as a member of the Garden City Harvest community.  

The competition was the brainchild of Peter Kerns, an ebullient FoodCorps service member who works with the MCPS Central Kitchen and Garden City Harvest's Farm to School program.  Peter organized the event and secured donations from local businesses and prize money from UM Dining.  He also jumped in to MC in place of Mayor John Engen, who was indisposed due to a family emergency.  

Students had 2 hours to complete their dishes and present them to the judges for tasting.  Each team's start time was staggered by 15 minutes so there was time to taste and discuss each dish before moving on.  

Photos courtesy of Genevieve Jessop Marsh
Each team included a coach from their school and Missoula College's Culinary Arts provided mentors but only students were allowed to cook.  Their dishes had to be savory entrees fit for a school cafeteria.

The teams were graded on the basis of the following criteria: 1. Overall flavor, quality, texture and doneness, 2. Presentation, 3. Creative use of local ingredients, 4. Nutritional value.   

My fellow judges were way more experienced in food systems than I and it was an enjoyable education to work with them.  They were:  Dick Williams, Assistant Cook and Farm to Table Program Assistant for MCPS, Rebecca Wade, Director of Health and Sustainability for UM Dining, and Ed Christensen, Assistant Supervisor for MCPS Food Service. 


Team Big Sky whipped up a delicious baked dish named Pasta Tsuber after one of the chefs.  Just about everything that went into Pasta Tsuber was grown and made in Montana- the egg noodles, ground beef, spices and cheese.  They plated this lasagna-like square of pasta with a side of garlic bread made with MT pickled garlic.  

Team Sentinel built a piece of flatbread from scratch and covered it with tender chunks of chicken, colby-jack cheese, onion, herbs, homemade yogurt ranch dressing and julienned strips of red, green and gold peppers soaked in ice water til they curled.  

Team Hellgate dazzled the eyes and taste buds with a Sweet Honey Dijon Chicken and Forbidden Rice: three ounces of perfectly cooked chicken breast (and that's not easy to do) awash in a golden honey-mustard-pineapple sauce atop a purple-black mound of forbidden rice.    

The grand prize went to Team Sentinel for their Peppy Chicken Flat Bread.

Team Sentinel

Hellgate took second place and received $500 and Big Sky came in third, receiving a check for $250.  Each of the dishes was so well executed that it was decided they all will be featured on the MCPS K-12 lunch menu.  

It was a treat to be involved in this event and to see students working hard and cooking together.  Judging by their enthusiasm, it was a rewarding experience for them as well. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

May Morning Forage

We spent this cloudy morning looking for edibles along the Bitterroot River.  The water is high and has sent swampy fingers into the cottonwood bottoms.  We watched an entire cottonwood snag drift down the center of the river like a gnarly raft.

Here's what we found:

The tender dandelion greens will go into a salad with pancetta, a simple shallot vinegarette and those few pristine morels fried crisp on top.  Perhaps some goat cheese.

The hawthorn blossom ends have been snipped up and are macerating in alcohol to make a heart tonic. 

And the new raspberry leaves will make a mild tea.

I like to remember that food is everywhere, and it doesn't take but an hour's walk in the morning to wind up with the foundations for lunch.  

We left this woody specimen to spore out on the riverbank. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lard, I am Fondly, Earnestly Longing

There is a chest freezer in the basement that is half full of pork fat.  It calls to us:  "Render me- before it's too late."

One, 250 lb. hog will provide you with enough lard to tamale yourself into oblivion.  Jar after jar of the fragrant stuff.  It is incredible how much sweet fat a healthy hog hauls beneath its hide. 

When I first cracked Diana Kennedy's "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico," I was shocked by the lard in many of the dishes.  Where would one acquire such a sea of rendered fat?  My experience of lard had been the foil-covered cubes at the supermarket.  I'm sure they're fine, but I always wondered how long they had been sitting there, oxidizing.  There was that as well as the sense that lard, even in it's purest form, is not necessarily in the same health category as the proverbial "apple a day." This was reinforced by recurring lethargy after eating at family-style Mexican places- which I came to attribute to the "lardy" refrieds.  I'm pretty sure these mini-comas actually have more to do with the sheer volume of food on one of those sizzling ceramic feeding troughs.  I don't care what sort of food it is, if you clear a platter of such proportions, it's going to hurt.             

These days I have a softer (and slightly more clogged) place in my heart for lard.  Especially since it is central to at least two tremendous culinary traditions:  tamales and carnitas. Tamales, in my humble opinion, are some of the most brilliant portable foods ever designed.  And carnitas, those crispy bits of pork infused with piggy perfume- there are few foods that so harness the delightful and rich flavor of swine.

With carnitas in mind, I rummaged deep in the freezer for a bag of frozen fat, skin on.  I was in a rush to make use of some country ribs that had been in the fridge a couple of days, so I cubed up the frozen fat, skin and all, and put it in a skillet on medium heat.  Cold, skin-free fat run through a grinder yields more lard, and it is actually easier to cube fat after removing the skin.  Next time.

I had enough fat for three skilletfuls.  I cooked the cubes til they shrunk and were medium-browned on all edges.  I did not want to end up with too dark a product.

In the end, I was able to fill two mason jars with hot, strained fat.

They set up nicely in the fridge.  Creamy-white.

Traditional carnitas are made from hunks of pork shoulder that are slow-simmered for a couple of hours in enough lard to cover them.  I've found that country ribs (actually slabs cut from the shoulder) also make fine carnitas.

Loosely following a recipe from Andrea Reusing's excellent Cooking in the Moment (which she lifted from Miguel Torres, the head cook at her restaurant Lantern) I cubed three pounds of boneless country ribs.  Instead of submerging the pork in lard, in this recipe you melt a bit of lard in a pot or dutch oven with the pork and then cover it all with cold water.  The recipe calls for two cups of lard for 8 lbs of pork.  I added about a half a cup of lard to my three pounds, covered with water, dropped in a couple of bay leaves, salt and pepper.  Then simmered the pork on medium until the water evaporated.  This took a little more than an hour. 

After a few minutes of brisk simmering, a delicious scent like sausage gravy filled the kitchen.    
Two ingredients make this recipe stand out:  whole milk and cola.  Once the water is evaporated, you turn up the heat to med-high and dump in a quarter cup of milk.  Stir frequently.  The pork will begin falling apart.  When the milk has almost evaporated, you add a quarter cup of Coke and squeeze in two orange halves.  You toss the oranges in and carmelize the meat, stirring frequently.  And that's it!

We were planning on eating the carnitas the following evening, but we could not help ourselves.  We warmed some corn tortillas, and broke out the salsa verde and some some pickled tomatillos.

We paired our pork tacos with tacos filled with slow-cooked King of the Early beans from the garden a few years back and crumbled goat cheese.  Cilantro would have been a nice addition, but we were out.   

Though it's probably not a good idea to indulge every day, don't be afraid to take a little walk with the lard.  It is heavenly, indeed.           

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Grand-Dad Lewie

On our way to downtown New Orleans in a freezing drizzle, we stumbled upon Peche, Donald Link's new seafood joint.  It was too early for dinner, but we were cold.  We sidled up to the bar, and admired the girthy timbers supporting the high ceiling.  A gas oven blazed at the opposite end of the restaurant.  We ordered a half dozen Gulf oysters, three from Alabama and three from the Louisiana coast, and backed them with cocktails.  I had the Buffalo Louie: Buffalo Trace bourbon, ginger beer and Steen’s basil vinegar muddled with mint and crushed ice.  Steen’s is a longstanding maker of cane syrup out of Abbeville, LA.  Probably more of a warm weather concoction in the julep family, the Louie was nonetheless delicious.  One of this weekend’s projects is to try and mimic the drink.  There’s a wonderful, biscuity pale ale we encountered regularly in south Louisiana called LA 31 Biere Pale and we also downed a couple of those.  The oysters were clean and pristine, and we landlubbers should have ordered more.  

We're working with different ingredients in the north country, so when it comes to trying to approximate the Buffalo Louie it's all about adaptation.  To my mind, one of the best bourbon bargains is the bonded Old Grand-dad with its gaudy orange label and rye-heavy grain bill.  We're experimenting here so why fork out for a bottle of upper-mid shelf Buffalo Trace when you can have a fine bottle of whiskey for $19.00?  

The ginger beer makes this a fairly sweet drink and, in the original, the basil vinegar provides a tart, savory counter-balance.  To make a proper basil vinegar, one would have to steep leaves of the herb in vinegar for a couple of weeks.  I didn't feel like waiting so I made a basil simple syrup with equal parts sugar and water and three bundles of fresh basil.  

Now that I've got an even sweeter drink on my hands, the vinegar becomes more important.  There's got to be more of it and it therefore has to taste wonderful.  Luckily, I'm reminded by Bee that we have just the thing.  Mikuni, the Seattle-based wild foods company, has a line of  maple syrups that are finished in oak bourbon barrels.  They make a sherry vinegar that is stored in the barrels after they have housed syrup.  The dark amber ''tonic'' is great in salads and drizzled over kale, mustards, collards or bowls of beans.  Or pretty much anything, really. 

Here's a recipe for the Grand-Dad Lewie:  In a pint mason jar, muddle 6 or 8 mint leaves.  Add three ounces of bourbon, 3/4 ounce of basil simple syrup and a half ounce of vinegar (or more to make it more bracing).  Give it a stir.  Add crushed ice and top off with a spicy ginger beer like Cock and Bull.  Add a whole sprig of mint, give the whole a gentle stir and then enjoy- allowing the fragrant mint to tickle your nose while you guzzle.  Bring on the summer.

I've named my version of this classic from Peche after Bee's grandfather Lewis, a true gentleman if ever there was one.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cochon Butcher, New Orleans

After our night at the Sugar Bowl Motel, it would not be overstating it to say that we were in need of a miracle.  Luck would have it that New Orleans was just an hour's drive in the icy rain. 

New Orleans is a miracle- dispensing platefuls of numinous grub despite all odds.  I just finished the NOLA food critic Tom Fitzmorris’ Hungry Town, which charts and celebrates the re-opening of the city’s restaurants after Katrina.  Page after page Fitzmorris breathlessly asserts that N.O. cuisine was and is central to the city’s recovery and healing.  He describes his first New Orleans meal after the storm, a big dinner at Restaurant AugustEighty percent of the city had flooded, 100,000 homes were destroyed, over 1000 people lost their lives.  Just six weeks after this disaster, Restaurant August was packed with people hugging one another, eating their food, grateful to be alive.  While not every resident was as fortunate, Fitzmorris, who had evacuated during the storm, was assured that night that the city would spring back from the storm's mighty blow.       

Boy was it good for us to be back!  It was cold.  Raining.  Tiny icicles clung to palm leaves and stoplights.  We checked into St. Vincent's Guesthouse, bundled up and walked the familiar mile to Cochon Butcher.  The line was huge.  Tables filled with food, windows misted over.  

Cochon Butcher is a small deli situated behind Donald Link's slightly more upscale restaurant Cochon- where we had a transcendent plate of charcuterie a couple of years ago.  The Butcher caters to the dash-in, dash-out lunch crowd with killer sammies and spectacular sides.  You can also pick up a couple confited duck legs or a freshly butchered pork roast to take home and cook.

We got a bacon melt, a cuban sandwich and a plate of roasted brussels. 
As for beverages, ''Rik's Favorite'' was just what we needed.  Rik is the shop manager and the drink he likes is a shot of Buffalo Trace backed with a bottle of High Life.  The whiskey warmed us, the beer fortified our sleep-deprived frames and the mile high stack of tender house bacon and the melty pork blast of the pressed Cubano brought us back from the brink.  And those brussels, charred and tender and tangy and swathed in chile, were otherworldly.  I cannot remember ever having been saved by food in such a dramatic fashion- we received a full attitudinal adjustment.  We parked ourselves at a low table across from one of the meat cases and drooled over the sausages, boudin, and whole cured pork bellies.  

Noticing that we were drinking whiskey at noon on a weekday, a friendly fellow who was packing sausage into bags for distribution struck up a conversation.  He told us that the shop received two hogs twice a week.  The 200-300 pound animals are broken down by head butcher Leighann Smith.  He also told us that Link had opened a new seafood place not far away, and of this we took note.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Which Craft?, Houma, LA

To think we almost bypassed the “Venice of Cajun Country” and went to Thibodaux, Louisiana instead.  We would have missed the pleasure of a sleepless night at the Sugar Bowl Motel, where you’d do well to take a look at your room before paying because, according to a sign in the lobby, you won’t be getting any refunds.  This was the first of many signals that we’d taken a wrong turn.  There was also our door's gouged, gloryhole-like peephole, which I stuffed with toilet paper so we could have privacy- and the smears of used oil on the walls plus the fact that the bathroom looked more like Freddy Krueger’s boiler than a place to remove your clothes for a wash.  Our neighbor spent the evening leering in his doorway while other residents lurked about in pants large enough to tarp a side of beef.

We fled the motel soon after checking in.  Took our belongings with us and sought a more cheerful place to spend the evening.  We started at Big Mike’s Barbecue, the busiest place in town.  I’m not sure if Big Mike needs to keep his meat in the smoker for a few more hours (or a few less), but the ribs were leathery and the brisket ropey.  After a failed attempt at nightlife in a local dancehall where a handful of teenagers stood at the bar smoking and doing jello shots, we landed at Which Craft?, a beer bar attached to a Thai restaurant. 

Here plates of Pad Thai clang against glasses of Abita and Weihenstephaner as the post-work crowd swarms the bar and stumbles to a wall of refrigerators that hold hundreds of bottles.  It took a minute to catch on and learn that instead of ordering your beer at the bar, you grab it yourself and bring it to the bartender so he can pour it and put it on your tab.  There were a few moments of solace as I sipped a Tripel Karmeliet and then moved on to a Liberty Ale, that modestly hopped, malty treat from Anchor Brewing Co.  We played a game of cribbage and watched the drinking crowd. 

At the end of the bar sat a mass of thick, middle-aged men who seemed to be regulars and who had obviously been there awhile.  A young woman who was drinking alone in sweatpants held their attention.  She was egging them on, talking about certain parts of her body being too difficult to shave.  We left when the drunkest of the bunch ramped his overtures to embarrassing heights.

In dire need of further fortification for the evening to come, we walked to a convenience store in front of the motel.  We ran into one of our neighbors at the 40 oz.-end of the beer fridge.  I was diving in for a mega-can of High Life and he was seeking a Bud Light Platinum.  “After a couple of these, I’m good,” he said.     

We walked back to the hotel together.  "You guys moving in, too?" he asked.  "Yeah, yeah," I said, and threw the chain which was bolted to the door amidst a sea of pocks and shadows left by a succession of previous chains.        

Rain and ice pellets fell on Houma and the morning seemed like it might never come.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cafe Des Amis, Breaux Bridge, LA

We came in off the chilly Gulf and harbored over in Breaux Bridge, the ''crawfish capitol of the world.''  Located about 10 miles from Lafayette, the cultural heart of Cajun country, Breaux Bridge is also home to the wonderful Cafe Des Amis where crowds gather on Saturday mornings to scoot back the tables and dance during the cafe's famous "Zydeco Breakfasts.''  We seem to have a knack for showing up in places on their ''off'' days, but things usually work out anyway.  

Pont Breaux

Located a block and a half from the rust-brown meanders of the Bayou Teche, Cafe Des Amis lives up to its friendly moniker.  Town was dead on this chilly Wednesday night, but the cafe sent a cheerful glow out into the mist.  The restaurant is housed in an old building that was once a coffin factory.  Caskets were built on the second floor and eased to the ground level with the region's first elevator.  The inner works of the lift, a sculpture of wrought iron wheels and cogs, has been retained and stands above the host station.  

The restaurant was almost empty, but the few people at tables looked quite pleased with the situation they'd found themselves in.  A group of couples at the front of the house ordered everything on the menu and it was thrilling to watch the dishes pass to their table in a slow procession.  

We started with fried eggplant wheels swimming atop a slurry of seafood splendor.  The crust upon these divine wheels was unlike any I've had-- it was almost glassily brittle and extraordinarily yielding.  It cradled the delicate pockets of  perfectly done eggplant, which, unlike many specimens of the vegetable, oozed with flavor.  

The cafe's singular take on crawfish pie consists of a tower of puff pastry doused in buttery, zippy etouffee packed with crisp crawfish tails.

Lucky for us, our server forgot one of the dishes we'd ordered and offered to buy us a dessert.  He described the coconut pie as fluffy, but I found it velvety-dense, buttery and exploding with coconut essence.  I'm not much into sweets, but this part of the country will convert even the most recalcitrant soldier of the savory.  They don't often make cakes and pies like they do down South.

Our sweet tooths fully roused, we visited Champagne's Bakery the next morning and left town with a wedge of yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting and lemon curd and a hint of almond extract.  We ate it while driving past expanses of crawfish hatcheries mouthing "Wow'' like a school of stupid carp.