Caldo Da Morire

We had company this weekend, and went to John’s birthday on Friday; I’ll post about that out of order because I’m waiting for a photograph. Today was pretty Italian in spirit, if unconventionally so: arancini (supplì) for breakfast, and penne for dinner. I took the leftover risotto from the other night and formed it into balls around fat, crispy lardons of our homemade bacon (think that phrase is one I’ll tire of soon? Stick around and find out.) Then I rolled them in an egg wash and flour seasoned with curry powder and fried them up in canola oil enriched with the rendered bacon fat. Homemade bacon fat. To accompany, omelets with fresh herbs and some local caraway-studded cheese that I forget the name of, and a salad of whichever unlucky greens looked most tasty when I went a-pickin’.

Our guests departed, and we finessed lunch with bits and pieces, so come dinner time I put together something primal and gluttonous. Last night we had burgers and sausages (merguez and bratwurst) we bought at Fleisher’s. I have to say that their brats are good, even very good, but their merguez is kind of wimpy; when I make it it’s intensely flavored and I make my own harissa to season the meat, and the results are more like the much-missed Pascal’s. The burgers were an alloy of their bork (beef and pork ground together) augmented with more beef so the resulting ratio was more like 1/3 pork. Seasoned and grilled, they made for pretty awesome burgers, especially with green mash and our first all-garden kimchi of the year. But there was meat mixture left over, so I used it for the base of a pasta sauce, that also included a jar of our own tomatoes from last summer, garlic, plus peas and copious herbs from the garden. And steamed broccoli on the side; the heads are not so big, but we’ve never had sweeter or more flavorful broccoli. It also gets this flourescent green when steamed, and keeps it for a long time; served perfectly tender it’s still an unreal gorgeous color.

We continued our rosé tour (last night 2007 Châteaux du Rouët (Côtes de Provence) and de Campugets (Costières de Nîmes,) tonight a Domaine de Laure Côtes de Thongue. In lieu of any tasting notes, let me just say that well-made rosé from Southern France does not disappoint, with any food- or without- especially when it’s this hot and humid. It’s just perfect. (Domaines Ott notwithstanding, because it’s WAY overpriced.) Other, new world rosés, well, if you like them, then enjoy them. To me, too many of them taste either like fresca or watermelon jolly ranchers.

Down Home

It had been a while since Chris and Sirkka visited, between his incessant touring and my own recent travels, so we were all pretty happy to get together for a meal. The kids played really well together, affording us some quality adult chill time during both preparation and eating. To begin, my newly invented shiso mojitos: shiso, agave, lime juice (should really be yuzu, but good luck finding that fresh) rum, and sake. The agave balances the sour lime, and the sake dries the whole thing out so it has none of the cloying taste of so many tropical drinks.

I muddled and stirred them in a beautiful vintage Japanese glass cocktail set (with matching spoon) that I got Christine for her birthday. (For those of you paying disquietingly close attention to this blog, the vintage lamps were the main gift and this was a little extra something I couldn’t resist.) We served them in some of my Grandfather’s cool old rocks glasses; it was a total time warp but for the fact that “shiso mojito” would have been incomprehensible pinko gibberish back during the original cocktailian epoch.

And then there was food. The last of the super-useful smoked duck broth, diluted a bit with water, added wonderful depth to a saffron and pea risotto (I also fried one strip of bacon in there so I could give our guests a little sample; the rendered fat added a little oomph and did elegantly lascivious things with the parmigiano at the end.) There’s just something about rice, bird broth, saffron, and peas. And local organic chicken legs, with a gentler than usual rub followed by bastings of the homemade BBQ sauce on the grill, and frisée mash that Chris expertly churned in the suribachi, and quickly sautéed beet greens and multicolored chard with garlic. And Sirkka’s pie made with their sour cherries and our strawberries. There’s something about those things too.

They brought a 2006 Sheldon Santa Lucia Highlands Chard- Dylan is a friend of the band (I met him years ago backstage in Oakland when they opened for the Dead) and makes a mean wine. We had some of his rosé at their place this Spring, and it’s delightful. We followed it with another Bret Bros. Pouilly-Fuissé, and it was a perfect sequence. On a weekend, I could easily have reached for one of the great white Burgs in the fridge to complete the Chardonnay trifecta. But we all had work to do in the morning, and I suspect the wine at tonight’s shindig will be completely off the hook.

I’m Just Here To Help The Ball Club

The garden is getting to the point now where my job is simply to produce substrates, mediums, and vehicles which can allow the plants to shine. Our escarole is perfect, so I lopped off the inaugural head and sautéed it briefly with a couple of cloves of garlic then deglazed the pan with smoked duck broth. If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s one of our favorite ways to eat greens- sometimes with lemon in place of broth- and smoked duck broth does to greens what you might expect the heavenly offspring of chicken broth and bacon to do.

For the main course, I wanted to do cold soba with a sesame sauce, but since we were out of soba I used rice noodles instead, and changed to a peanut sauce for a little more of a Pad Thai feeling. The peanut sauce- peanut butter, lime juice, sesame oil, rice vinegar, agave syrup, nam pla, soy sauce, sriracha, truffle oil- coated the noodles, with none left over to pool in the bottom of the bowl. I blanched peas and broccoli and tossed them into the noodles along with lots of lime and Thai basil. The slightly bitter, smoky escarole cut right through the rich, sweet, spicy noodles, and the sweet peas added a high note. To drink, a cocktail I invented during a bout of insomnia last weekend and tried for the first time. I’m going to refine it with ingredients I bought today; I’ll describe it in the next post.

Who’s Your Daddy?

Though it looks like an excess of consecutive red meat consumption around here, there was actually a day in between- my last day of solitude- wherein not much interesting was et. This meal honored the return of my family, who actually really missed me and were pretty excited to be home again. I defrosted a butterflied piece of lamb leg and gave it a quick rub with Moroccan-type flavors. While it rested, I made a mash/pesto hybrid by spinning radicchio and frisée in the food processor with garlic, ume plums, rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano, lemon juice, truffle oil, and lots of olive oil (all the herbs came from the herb garden, which is an unruly jungle of fragrant goodness.) I also put on a pot of quinoa.

And I steamed a lovely mixture of peas, rainbow carrots, and chioggia beets that I had picked earlier with Milo. It’s pretty sweet to have him “help” me shell peas exactly the way I “helped” my Mom do it all those years ago- by eating them as fast as possible. We also picked the last of the bolting gai lan, which he loves; he ate all the flowers raw and scarfed the leaves down after I sautéed them with garlic and olive oil then deglazed the pan with smoked duck broth. The meat came out just right; the two halves were different thicknesses, so the thinner half was medium rare and the thick half was very rare. Thus everyone got pieces to their liking, and there’s an undercooked hunk that can still handle some heat without turning to leather. We finished a 2000 Gros Noré Bandol that I opened a couple of nights before, and the intervening time open let it soften into burly, leathery grace- like a hairy biker dude with years of ballet training.

A Steak Sandwich, And A Steak Sandwich

Over the last few days I’ve been enjoying the merry situation that ensues when a laptop, DSL modem, and camera all decide to stop working within days of each other. It’s a freaking laugh riot, and I’m interpreting it as a sign from God that this blog is an abomination. Therefore, I’ll be changing the blog to johnmccainisTOTALLYastraighttalkingmaverick.com in the hopes of avoiding the brimstone, burning, and the lake of fire, and the eternal torment (aka Verizon tech support) and all that stuff whenever I finally get hit by a bus.

In the meantime, though, skipping over the myriad meals that came during what I’m referring to as my “Involuntary Amish” period (which included some bad-ass falafel, the pictures of which lie buried in a card I can’t access right now) I present the sublime deliciousness of this here sammich. The family was out of town for a few days- I bailed on the trip ostensibly to get a lot of important work done, but in reality it afforded me extensive quality alone time with the robot phone tree whose fruit is some half-trained Russian guy named “Steve.”

I had made myself a beautiful ribeye- sous vide at 52˚ C for two hours- but I ended up not eating much of it because I was exhausted (I actually did get a ton of work done, but we had a couple of epic storms that woke me up on two different nights. This, and the equipment failures, is why I think God hates my blog.) So the next night I took the beautiful just-cooked hunk o’meat and seared it hard in some homemade bacon fat. While it rested, I made mayonnaise with a little horseradish and truffle oil, and green mash with frisée, ume plums, garlic, and copious olive oil (and more truffle oil.)

On a toasted local baguette with just-picked selvatica arugula and a glass or three of a 2006 Siduri pinot, it wiped away almost all the stress of the last few days. The second one, with more wine (to study its evolution as it reacted to the air- you know, research) pretty much took care of the rest, and restored my faith in food as medicine. The clouds broke. The sun is back. The garden is still lousy with strawberries. The DSL goblins are banished. All is well. I can say the following things with complete certainty: searing steak in bacon fat is pure genius, making your own custom-flavored mayo is too, and you can totally buy new cameras on the interweb. So we’re back in business.

Fleeting Mojo Restoration

It was such a pleasure to be home for a few days in a row; I got to settle in to the rhythms of the garden and kitchen, where the plants tell me what to eat and I can generate leftovers that inform and give depth to subsequent meals. It also meant that I could finally make another big crock of kimchi, since our Asian cabbages are getting huge. This batch was cabbage, carrots, chioggia beets, radishes, baby red onions, both lime and Thai basil, and a cayenne pepper from last summer.

As far as dinner went, this time around it was the first of our peas that gave me the idea, as well as some stray chard that I pulled out of the carrot bed while I was weeding. I remembered the crabmeat in the freezer- crab and peas are genius together- and the smoked duck carcass needed to be brothed. So I cooked a bundle of udon in the strained duck broth until it was almost tender, then added peas, shredded beet greens, crab, and a beaten egg to it at a bare simmer for a couple of minutes. As a garnish, I sautéed the beet stems in a little homemade bacon fat from the jar.

On the side, I made a nice little bowl of the cabbage that wouldn’t fit in the fermenting crock braised with lardons of our beloved magic sex bacon and cider vinegar. Tangy, rich, and tender, it was great by itself and even better stirred into the soup. I opened another of the Jack Blot Vouvrays, and it was pretty damn perfect. I wish I had more; there’s only one left.

Makin’ Bacon

This began ages ago, with a local, organic pork belly that I squared off (and used the trimmings to make salt pork) then cured with salt, sugar, maple syrup, togarashi, pink peppercorns, bay leaves, and coffee for about 6 weeks. It could have gone much less, but I could not.

Smoked- along with the duck- yesterday on a nice mix of our own maple & apple wood plus grape vines, it achieved a sublime deep smokiness along with a complex sweet-spicy-porkitude that words simply will not suffice to describe. Imagine your favorite sex act on a plate, and you’ll be close. I set some thick (1/8 inch) slices to frying on Monday morning and everyone in the house (7 people) was in the kitchen drooling expectantly within a minute or two.

Having this in the fridge makes me want to use it in everything I make, although it is so good by itself I wonder if it will last long enough to get much use as a supporting player in anything. I pretty much need to go get another belly right away. Honestly, it’s like being able to microwave your own meth. And when it’s all used up, I’ll still have the skin to play with.

Want some?

Lhude Sing Cucu

Jeff and Eve came to visit, and we had pulled a duck out of the freezer in anticipation.  I lit the smoker, and in addition to smoking the duck (on a mixture of maple, apple, and grape vines- all from our yard) I also smoked the bacon that had been patiently curing in back of the fridge for so long (more on that later.)  In addition, I made polenta, green mash, caramelized turnips (they’ve gotten really big in the last week or so) and cooked chioggia beet and turnip greens together with some of the newly-smoked bacon.

We started with some of our duck prosciutto and thin slices of the still-warm bacon as an appetizer, accompanied by a 2006 Jacky Blot Triple Zéro- a no-dosage sparkler that is super clean and elegant and works well with salty meat like this.  Then we piled all the food on the table and got to work on it.  Nothing remained.  We drank a Pleiades XVI, and then a 2003 Jaboulet Vacqueyras which are both outstanding wines, and go famously with high-end peasant food like this.

For dessert, since I had picked TWO QUARTS of strawberries that morning from our 4 x 8 foot bed, I mashed some of them in the suribachi and stirred in whole yogurt and maple syrup, then ran it through the ice cream machine and served it on top of more strawberries.  I must say that “June-bearing strawberries” is one of the great triumphs of truth in advertising; these varieties are insanely prolific and intensely sweet.  They easily prove Butler’s assertion  that “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”

Other People’s Food

It’s been a while since my last post, and I’ve covered a lot of ground since then, but I will keep this entry brief by concentrating on the highlights, and the pleasure of having had other people cook for me for much of the last ten days.  In Chicago last week, Jeff and Eve- with whom our tradition of mighty dinners really got rolling during grad school there in ’94- made a simple yet perfect dinner of grilled duck breast, asparagus, couscous salad, and fruit for dessert.  They will be here tomorrow for a night; I’m looking forward to reciprocating with some much-awaited home cooking of my own.

The following night, Rick (who first turned me on to sous-vide cooking at home) made some monster T-bones in his water bath, plus roasted potatoes and braised carrots.  He’s got a superb wine collection, and we drank a 1981 Kathryn Kennedy cabernet that tastes much younger than almost 30 years old, followed by a 1991 Dujac Clos St. Denis that is still a baby.  The more wine I drink, the more I come back to the simple truth that age is everything with well-made wine.

Last Monday, we had the pleasure of attending the wedding of some dear friends up here, and the subsequent reception at their house.  The groom is French, and they roasted a whole lamb on a spit in the back yard; there was much goodness to go with it.  A couple of other noteworthy flavors from these last few days included a 1997 López de Heredia rosé that had wonderful sherry and port notes underneath the elegant acid, the late dinner I had with my Brother at the Fatty Crab in NYC, and the later Korean barbecue post-opening in Williamsburg last night- complete with an open container citation (for a quarter inch of wine in a plastic cup I absentmindedly had in hand) on the way over as an appetizer.

What wedding is complete without a didjeriduet?

Hellenistic

The spinach we planted in March is starting to bolt, so I took that as an opportunity to yank most of it up and do something fun with it. We loves us some spinach pie here, so I made it the center of a warm day dinner (though it does need the oven, it’s better eaten once it’s cooled off a bit.) The haul from the garden also included bolting arugula, some lettuces, and a few random herbs.

My Mom used to make this a lot, sometimes with broccoli mixed in, and I loved it then too, but when cooked in a baking dish the bottom dough always got soggy and gross from the liquid that the greens throw off during cooking. It was more than a little like wet newspaper. So today, innovation: the greens, chopped and tossed with three eggs beaten with lemon juice, crumbled feta, salt, pepper, and minced garlic became the filling for a giant log so that all the dough would crisp up and be delicious all the way around.

It worked. Plus, it sliced up really nicely into big rounds that plated all pretty-like. They enjoyed the company of beets- which roasted in foil alongside the big fat Greek stogie- and a superb salad. Tangy, soft and rich inside, crispy and flaky outside, without a trace of sogginess anywhere; this one is a keeper. There was also some chicken, but whatever about that. Behold the glory that was the interior of my baked brassica bat:

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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