The Inverse Correlation Of Convenience And Flavor

It finally rained, and then cooled down a bit to the point where the mere idea of turning on the oven wasn’t suicide-inducing. I had planned to grill pizza, but figured out too late that we were out of charcoal. So on went the oven. I also turned on the attic fan, which pulled in cooler air from outside and sucked all the oven heat out through the top of the house. It’s a brilliant invention and we use it most summer evenings.

I’ve gotten so used to using our sourdough starter that I had forgotten how quick dried yeast is to raise dough. Since I thought to make pizza the same day, I picked up a bag of yeast and banged out a simple dough recipe from a book I haven’t really used before: Eric Kastel’s Artisan Breads, which I got (for free) when I wrote my bread piece back in the spring. All my other trusted books require a biga, or preferment, and I was looking for one that did not, since there was no time. It does assume that you’ll retard the dough overnight to improve flavor, but I skipped that part. It called for malt syrup and sugar, for which I substituted honey, and I also added about 30% whole wheat flour for taste and nutrition.

In an 80˚ kitchen, and with honey added, this ball of dough more than doubled in volume in about 40 minutes. I rolled it onto the island top, cut it into four pieces, shaped them loosely, and let them sit while I picked, washed, and cut up various toppings. The results, from top to bottom, are as follows:

1. Smoked ham, red onion, leftover sautéed beech mushrooms, and basil
2. Broccoli and garlic
3. Zucchini
(These three all had local fresh mozzarella on top)
4. Pizza rossa with arugula salad added after it cooled to room temp (a personal favorite)

The toppings were all good, especially the insane smoky ham. The crust? Not so much. No character, and the faint sweetness made it taste kind of like a cracker, which I did not enjoy. I’m sure that retarding the dough overnight adds a bit of complexity, but from now on I’m going to think ahead and get our starter fed and ready for this sort of meal. There’s just no substitute for a wild starter when it comes to flavor and chew.

The leftovers did make an acceptable breakfast, though.


I’m posting this on yeastspotting, where they spot all kinds of yeast.

That’s Not Ironic, It’s What Happened

This meal actually took place before this wretched heat wave, which should be self-evident since it involved using the stove for more than 90 seconds. Our meals lately have been quick and minimally heated, and I’m not even taking pictures because it’s all I can do to remember to keep breathing. Funny how after last summer’s desperate railing against the incessant rain has begotten this desperate pleading for the heat to be broken by some rain (we haven’t had any in something like two weeks now). If it doesn’t rain tomorrow I’m going to have to put the sprinkler on the garden for three or more hours. The seedlings can’t take this.

I rubbed some lovely local lamb chops in some lovely local miso and let them sit, then wiped off most of the miso, then seared them in the iron pan, turning a few times. I pulled them out and sautéed first some locally grown shiitake, then our own mixed greens in the same pan, and then served all of the above with some of the beet-currant sauce from John’s birthday appetizers and some leftover escarole mash. Freaking delicious, and way more interesting than the turkey burgers I made tonight. I’m such a giver.

Miso makes an extraordinary marinade for meat, caramelizing to a beautiful and flavorsome crust…

…I swear that if I sit here typing for one more minute with beads of sweat running down my back I’m going to off myself. Turn off your computers and go do a rain dance, for crying out loud.

Joint Custody

John called me a few weeks ago and said “Do you want a whole artisanal Tennessee ham?”

“Sure,” I said, on account of I’m not a complete idiot. “Why and how?”

The band’s publicist, it turns out, during or after Bonnaroo, had been driving around and stopped at some joint in Gallatin for lunch. The ham sandwich–smoky, fatty, and piled high for $6–was one of the best he’d tasted. So he talked to the proprietor, learned the story, and placed the order. The story is that the owner has been on a mission to revive the tradition of dry-cured country hams, feeling as he does (and rightly) that those icky, rehydrated “honey-baked” hams and their ilk are an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. So he’s working with a local farmer to raise pigs that are happier and fattier than the awful, industrially produced standard. He’s not using any heirloom breeds, because he wants to be able to offer his “prosciutto” sandwich at a price that a truck driver can afford. His hams are cured, aged for a year, and then smoked for a good deal more (making them more like a smoked hillbilly jamón).

Now John has been pretty much off the pig for a while, so he figured I’d be interested in keeping it company. And just this morning I was wondering when it might arrive. Then, after lunch, whilst outside tying our exploding tomatoes to a trellising structure I had just built, who should I see walking up to the house carrying a large white bundle?

It arrived swaddled (from the inside out) in: a recent copy of the Tennessean, a black trash bag, and a complete layer of white duct tape. It weighed close to 25 pounds. I say “weighed” because we accidentally ate some of it after unwrapping it. Just to be sure it was OK. And it’s quite a lot more than OK. There’s a fair amount of pepper in the cure; after the silky, smoky bite there’s a lingering heat not unlike good pastrami. And as you can see, there’s plenty of fat. I’ll be using the fat for cooking for the forseeable future as we slowly whittle this leviathan down to the bone.

I went and found a heavier-duty hook amongst my vast collection of random hardware and installed it in a choice location where it is unlikely to concuss any passing friends or family, and there it hangs. That’s it on the right, next to some guanciale, duck breast, and bresaola, all the products of the meat-curing class we had here a couple of weeks ago. The kitchen smells GOOD.

I told John that he can have visitation rights. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go carve off a few more slices. Just, you know, to make sure it’s still OK.

I Love A Parade

We were in Vermont for the weekend, enjoying some absolutely perfect weather. Some swimming, a little (unsuccessful) fishing, and general relaxation were the totality of the agenda. And eating. That too.

I brought a cooler full of garden, and we worked our way through it over the course of our stay. To begin, a glorious treat in the form of our first zucchini flowers stuffed with local smoked gouda, dredged in local eggs and whole wheat flour, and fried quickly. I served them on a plate that my Mother made sometime before she made me.

Next up, we had a variation on many of our recent meals: some form of protein on top of stir-fried garden on top of a starch. They’re all sort of phone-ins, but as long as I keep mixing up the specifics and the ethnic leanings, I can create the illusion of variety. In this case it was beautiful grass-fed ribeye atop broccoli, peas, carrots, zucchini, green beans, and herbs on brown rice vermicelli with a somewhat spicy Thai-adjacent sauce of sesame oil, rice vinegar, nam pla, soy sauce, curry powder, and a bit of maple syrup. Lots of Thai basil helped.

The next night, we had wild sockeye salmon with garlic scapes and an interesting sauce that I’ll be working on over the coming months; it was sort of an accident, and got me excited about an intentional version that could go one of several ways. I seared the salmon in an iron skillet, which was pretty hot, and as I messed around with my sauce components it got hotter still. So when I went to deglaze with wine, and found that there was hardly more than a sip left in the bottle, and then followed with maple syrup, the syrup caramelized pretty hard before I added more moisture in the form of vinegar and soy sauce. So I whisked in a bit of sesame oil and poured it over the fish. It hardened into an almost candied crust with excellent flavor and a too-durable chew, but it got me thinking of Heston Blumenthal’s salmon with licorice crust and how the caramel could be modified to be more supple and seamless with the meltingly tender rare-in-the-middle fish. So I’ll get back to you on how that goes.

After dinner I turned some local strawberries and rhubarb into that perennial favorite, even adding a lattice because I was asked nicely.

Our last night we had Vermont-raised quail on garlic scape risotto with sautéed bok choy. We bought the quail at the Saturday farmers’ market, and they were very tasty, but I was pretty mad that I had been sold six semi-boneless birds frozen in a pack only to find that there were in fact just four in there. I will be contacting the farm to determine whether this was an honest mistake or just sleazy hucksterism.

We returned home to a happy garden (a friend watered it ) and ate stir-fried garden with tofu on leftover refried brown rice. Tonight we ate penne tossed with sautéed garden and guanciale. See what I mean? But because I care, I’m not going to bore you with those pictures. Instead, I’ll leave you with a couple of shots of a very unhappy mouse who we found upon our arrival in Vermont. It had probably eaten a crumb of old poison somewhere in the house, and was easily scooped into a container and released outside. Milo was very taken with its fuzzy cuteness, as we were too; if they didn’t gnaw and shit on everything and carry deer ticks, I wouldn’t mind their ubiquity. There was much other captured and released wildlife as well–butterflies, a frog, a salamander, tadpoles–but none had the nimbus of fuzz that this little varmint did.

Sour Grapes (But In A Good Way)

I was out of town, so this link is a few days late. The new issue of Chronogram came out on the first, and in it is my profile of a Benedictine monk who makes extraordinary vinegars. I’ve been messing around with them a great deal in the kitchen, and they are a joy to use and to eat.

photo by the not-at-all sour Jennifer May

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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