The Music Lesson

All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of  lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again.  The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees.  It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing. 

I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest.  Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb.  I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself.  It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other,  we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.

Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house.  Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard.  Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour.  So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on.  Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well.  Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.

As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet.  I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid.  I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well.   But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later,  I understood, I got it.

Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university.  He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students.  His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today,  “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”

I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook.  We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play.  While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t.  We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking.  Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment.   I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.

And in this is where the conundrum lies.

I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment.  I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen.   Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.

I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.

So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a  desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.

It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and  I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.

When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked.  I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out.  Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity.   At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes.  I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach.  My knife skills improve and I work on plating.  I want nothing more than to learn to cook.

My style at first is a conglomeration of  all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”.  It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience.  I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.  

I wasn’t born a chef.  I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.

 

To Give Thanks

 

I don’t know why but I always find the silence during heavy snowfall deafening.  It’s a wonderful time for reflection.

Amy moves about uncomfortably in the hospital bed.  I look down at the pulse monitor on her forefinger.   It is a bright red beacon in the darkness.  On her arm closest to me I let my eyes follow the faintly lit trail of her IV line to where it disappears into her taped and bruised hand.  This time they only had to stick her with the IV needle four times before they found a vein that didn’t collapse.

A gray and black leopard patterned blanket, a blanket Lynnie gave to her mom for good luck, covers Amy’s legs.  Three days of treatment again, but this is day three, 4 more hours to go and then we are done for the year.  Every set of completed treatments feels like an accomplishment, no more waking the girls up early to get them to before school care, no more waking up at 2am, panicked, and thinking I overslept and we missed an appointment, or watching the EKG machine obsessively, knowing what each reading means but we are done and in a few hours Amy will begin to come out of it.

I pull the car into the driveway and park.   It won’t be long before Vivian gets off the bus.  I have enough time to get Amy into bed so she can sleep, the treatments are exhausting .  An hour after Vivian gets home Lynnie will get off the bus.  Today is really no different than any other day, the ketamine treatments are a part of our life now.  We get through each day as any other family might and like everyone else we jump each hurdle as it presents itself.

It’s in the passing moments of mindlessness that I find myself reconciling our new life, and much like someone stuck in an abusive relationship I am constantly creating ways to make it livable while ignoring the obvious.

Vivian is upstairs reading and Lynnie is playing with her guys, she is having an interesting conversation with them but I am only sort of listening.   

In the pantry I collect up ingredients.   I load up my arms, a Cambro full of flour, another of sugar, on top of them I lay a bag of brown sugar and a jar of green and red Christmas sprinkles.   When I get everything together I call the girls and we begin measuring ingredients.  It’s time to make some Christmas cookies.

As 2017 exits, we are ending the year much as it began.

I try to give Amy’s days structure.  It is around 1:30 in the afternoon when I wake her.  I bring her coffee in her favorite Klimt mug, sugar in the bottom until it forms an Appalachian sized hill, half and half to cover, and to the top with strong, hot, coffee.

This afternoon I don’t have the time because we are making cookies, but on the afternoons when I don’t have lots to do I lie in the bed next to Amy while she sips her coffee and we talk.  We relish these afternoons.  Sometimes we talk about pop culture, on others it’s about something we read, there are days when we laugh hysterically, some afternoons are spent bringing her up to date on the kids school stuff but it’s on the days we talk about how lucky we are, even in this worst of moments, that we both feel fortunate.  We know that with a few simple turns of fate our situation could be wholly different.  We know we are the exception and not the rule, the fact that I can stay home with Amy while, we hope, she begins to recover is a luxury, that her illness hasn’t depleted our savings is because we have and can afford good health insurance.

We also know we have an amazing family always at the ready to help in anyway but on top of that we have great friends who continually call or text to ask if we need anything.  I will likely turn down the help but it is more with the knowledge there might come a time when we will need it rather than we don’t want it.  Besides when you reach out it lets us know there is a world outside of Amy’s disease and on bad days sometimes it is the best thing that happens.

It is still snowing, it is a lighter snow, and I am thankful.

 

Rusty the Rooster, A Cock of Notable Size, Is No Longer

 

(Arcadia, Indiana)  The barn yard is silent tonight. After a day of carefree sex, pecking Blackie the Rabbit on the head for eating chicken feed, and scaring the children when they try to collect the eggs, Rusty the Rooster is dead.

Long considered the venerable dean of a cadre of free range cocks, he ruled the roost with an iron spur and the swagger of an overqualified pimp. In his career, having been responsible for the care and well being of twenty hens, he was known for his short temper and violent outburst against challengers large, small, and of any species. He wrangled snakes, ate rats, and came face to face with coyotes all the while walking away to live another day.

Of intimidating size and broad girth, Rusty could be seen day-in and day-out in his suit of feathers the color of a dark moonless night.  So dark in fact, his feathers shone with the rainbow sheen of a crude oil slick. His muscular chest puffed out in pride for his flock he wandered the barnyard with a sure footed masculinity not seen since his predecessor Red.

He held many positions on the hen house floor before winning the coq au vin coin toss in which Rhode Island Red lost his head and was steeped in red wine. Now top cock, Rusty took his promotion seriously until middle life when he became an egg addict of such voraciousness he was banned from the hen house in desperate need of a spin dry. Eventually gaining control of his addiction he was let back into the hen house but it was widely known and no secret that he had occasional relapses.

His reckless lifestyle took its toll.  Loosing toes to frost bite after a long winters night out and part of his comb in an early morning scuffle with a racoon he eased into old age believing he was still in charge.  He could be heard making light of his nick name, Starting Gun, knowing he was shooting blanks and was smart enough to turn over his duties to a younger rooster without a life threatening scuffle of which he assuredly would loose.  He was at peace with his place in life.

Whether it be at sunrise, or in the middle of the night after an owl sighting, his cock-a-doodle-do carried far and wide and was sure to wake anyone within range when they least wanted to be. It was on these days everyone wished he didn’t do his job so well.

He went as peacefully as any chicken in the throws of a heart attack could. Rusty the Rooster is survived by Boots the Hen, the only hen this side of Cicero Creek to wear feather chaps, and a whole host of other nameless conquests. Services will be held at the ass crack of dawn in a private ceremony where he will be buried out by the old apple tree alongside his friend and long time companion Mr. Blue fin, the beta fish.

Rusty the Rooster is at rest and so shall we.

The Best Burger in the World

The Best Burger in the World

The sacks on the table, dotted with spots of grease and limp from French fry steam, are from Burger Chef. I have a plain cheeseburger. It is the first burger I remember eating. I eat them with glee and in anticipation of the next time my father would pile us into the back of the metallic green Plymouth Fury and drive us the short distance to the shopping center to pick up dinner from the shiny new burger spot.

Shortly thereafter, we packed up and moved to the country. Everything changed. That’s not to say we didn’t get to eat at burger joints anymore — we just didn’t get to eat at them as often. We didn’t eat at Burger Chef all the time to begin with, but at the new house there were no eateries close by.

At our new home, the height of my formative years, if we ate burgers, it was from the grill on our porch. The burger meal was best on the weekends when we came off the boat after a long day on the lake waterskiing, tubing, and swimming. We were wet, sunburned, and wrapped in beach towels. As we walked up the hill from the water, fresh-cut blades of grass stuck to our damp feet and, at the top, we sat down to the table on the back porch deck with wet hair and water-freckled arms. A pot of long-cooked green beans speckled with bacon, a plate piled high with boiled corn on the cob begging for butter, thick slabs of sliced Early Girl tomatoes, and a stack of juicy burgers hot off the charcoal grill waited for us, courtesy of my mother.

At the table we built our own burgers. Mine was always the same, 1 1/2 slices of American cheese, mayo, thickly spooned onto the top bun, Boston lettuce, and two thick slices of homegrown tomato. By the time I got close to finishing the sandwich, the soft Kaiser roll was soaked with tomato and beef juices, making the last sloppy bites the best — napkin mandatory.

But when you leave home, you stretch your wings, or at least I did, and you experience the world without the watchful eyes of your parents. You do things you shouldn’t and you do things you should. But I figured I’d get it out of my system, experience as many possibilities as I could. I won’t settle on any one thing until I have none left to try:

The Hinkle Burger: Caramelized onions smashed into the patty which is griddled on a big steel flat top. Double cheese means two slices on a single patty, not two patties. College. My first true love. The burger, fries, and blueberry milkshake is a hard memory to run from.

White Castle: A plate of sliders, double cheese with extra pickle. The break-up girlfriend. A friend with benefits.

And then there is the fall I spent in Austin as a newspaper intern. The jalapeño burger, theschnitzel burger, the Tex-Mex burger, the BBQ bacon burger, the Cordon Bleu burger, and the breakfast burger. Incorrigible. Notches on the burger bed post.

The Wheel-In Diner. Post graduation. A goober burger. Peanut butter slathered on a bun, a burger, and your choice of toppings. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

The Corner Bistro. Dream big. The big city cheddar burger. Served on a toasted English muffin. As close to a corner office as I want to get.

The stuffed blue cheese burger, mushroom and Swiss, bacon California Reuben pizza Cajun 1/2 pounder Swedish meatball foie gras wagyu … and ground short rib burger. All delicious but nothing more than meaningless hotel rooms on an endless road trip because in the end, you discover, there is nothing like the comfort of home,  The Lake House Burger.

Stanley Coats: An Introduction

Stanley Coats: An IntroductionStanley Coats, sprawled out in his overalls and dozing on the porch swing, knows he’s becoming the old dog with the saggy balls. The one beginning to get gray around the snout. At the sound of tires on gravel, he lifts his head a little. The dog dozing on the porch floor below him does the same, and they both crack an eye open to see who’s coming up the drive.

The searing pain behind his other eye has abated. Stanley refuses to believe it could have anything to do with a hangover and instead diagnoses himself with becoming his mother. He hopes it’s not terminal.

It’s not that he doesn’t love his mother. It’s the naps. For as long as Stanley can remember, sometime between two or three in the afternoon, his mother always took what he has come to call a twenty-minute sink-down. Continue reading

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A Girl and Her Pig

When I used to go to the bookstore looking for cookbooks to add to my collection I could spend hours flipping the pages of different books.  It was much like when I was younger and I would buy albums, then CDs, flipping through the alphabetized record bins searching for disk in hopes of finding something new and even more importantly, something exciting. As such I am the owner of an extensive cookbook library, or at least it feels like it to me. Not as many books as in some peoples collections but enough none the less. Back when I was really buying I would head to the bookstores and it was nothing to buy two to five new books at a time.

When I got home with my finds I would take them to my night stand and set them down. I would go about the rest of my days business but every night before bed I would thumb through the books looking for the must make recipes. Sometimes straight away I wanted to get out of bed and head into the kitchen. It was hard to contain my excitement and wait until the next day to make a new dish.

In time though I began to experience the law of diminishing returns. It began to feel as if the content of the cookbooks I was purchasing was all the same. A trend would hit and everyone would follow suite. Authors would add their little twist to the fad of the moment and publish. The fads would last about two years only to be followed by the next hot trend. Duck comes to mind, slow food, then bacon and now simple scratch cooking, vegetarian and vegan. The later, repentance for our foodie excesses I suppose.

All in all, this phenomena is what I have termed the “gold rush syndrome”. It is where food professionals scurry from one region, type or style of food to the next looking for a nugget in the terroir. One person strikes gold and everyone mines it until it runs dry.  This syndrome came to reflect the foodie mentality for me and I just can’t do it anymore. It is tiring, the chase isn’t fun anymore,  and once my palette became more experienced it became harder to please.  Even so, there are still books being created that stand out and when I do find gold it is not hard to champion or to shout encouragement and praise. Especially when, from cover to cover, a book is full of useful wisdom.

There is no doubt April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig is one one of these great books, one of the best in this years cookbook class and upon giving it a closer look I discovered it is much more.  A Girl And Her Pig resonates with libertarian resolve.  It is apparent Bloomfield is someone who has taken responsibility for herself and her food and harbors no apologies.  The cover is as punk as punk ever was.  It is Abbey Hoffman.  It is Che Guevara.  It is Frieda Kahlo.

It resonates with the soul of a chef but it is a book in which a wonderful chef does what really wonderful chefs do, they please.  Which is rare in theses days of pop star chefs.  If Bloomfield has an ego she checked it at the door.    She never leaves you with the impression she is better then you but instead you feel she is one of you. Bloomfield uses a mix of classic recipes that, with time,  have become her own and then she laces the pages in-between with food she loves.  Simple dishes like bubble and squeak and chicken in adobo are obviously a few of her favorite foods but they go well with the restaurant dishes too.  What Bloomfield has done is spend time in the kitchen perfecting classic recipes, using her professional knowledge to create food to her liking and with her touch.  It is this dedication that makes the food in this book so special.

Not surprisingly as you get to know her food you get to know Bloomfield. The pages are laced with personal tales of cooking and career and with each turn of the page her passion, which is quietly infectious, builds only to remain with you long after you closed the cover. As such Bloomfield becomes a wonderful voice to have floating around in your head while you are in the kitchen much like a favorite song that always resonates deep within your soul.

Aside

I spent the better part my early years learning to capture moments on film and to see as a photojournalist. Now I can’t escape seeing this way and I don’t want to either. The reality is I enjoy it. I can see things in a way most people can’t. I have a different view, my own view, of the world. One that comes in fractions of a second.

It may seem odd but I set my cameras down and walked away from photojournalism almost twenty years ago, nevertheless throughout those camera-less years I continue to see and continue to record. Now I do it with words.

On a daily basis decisive moments are captured and processed with my eyes. As a photographer, I continued to capture the moments. As a writer, however, I let the moments dissipate and simmer and roll around in my head.

bona fide farm

Over the years, decisive moments switched from concrete images or snippets to ethereal feelings that turn and juxtapose the lives and scenes in front of me into lead sentences and paragraphs. I found myself using words to capture what is suggested, but often unseen, in decisive moments

Words allow me to capture the things photographs can’t. Actually it is more like the words complete the photographs I always want to take. I am pretty sure this is the reason I gave up defining myself only as a photographer. No matter how hard I tried I could never complete the story as I saw it because the pictures I was seeing didn’t exist and couldn’t exist without words.

When these two parts finally came together the images I was seeing could finally be captured. I could get at the whole story and tell it in a way that felt complete.  continue reading Continue reading

Soul Mates

Karilean Borscht with Resolution

Karilean BorschtIt is shortly after all the present opening hullabaloo, when I look up from cutting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in half, that I see the look on Vivian’s face. I catch a glimpse of disappointment in her eyes and it is very clearly the look of self pity caused by not getting everything she wants for Christmas.

I know exactly how she feels. I remember the first time I felt the same way. I also remember the shame I felt for being selfish and while I know which feeling is right at her young age, I am still not sure which feeling is worse.

Oddly, I guess with age I have come to have similar emotions about New Year’s.

For instance, each year when I take stock of myself in the time between Christmas and January 1st, I am always looking back in disappointment at the things I wanted to happen but didn’t, the things that went wrong, or the things that I will have to deny myself to make the coming year presumably better. It seems silly.

After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point out to me that I am a very blessed person, and really, I want for nothing. Well, I suppose I could stand to lose a few pounds, and proudly I have lost a lot this year, but a few more wouldn’t hurt. Even so, I don’t really need to deny myself. I just need to eat differently. Continue reading

Dear Mr. Pepin,

I made a recipe of yours last night. It wasn’t the first time I have made this recipe, in fact, I have made it several times but it has been far to long since it has graced our table, rest assured, this will not happen again. Just in case I haven’t been clear it was beyond delicious as always.

I remember the night I watched you make the gratin on TV. It must have been about three in the morning or somewhere around there. I was still working in the restaurant business and it had been a long night on the line. Now I was home, my wife fast asleep in bed, and I out in the living room and on the couch with a beer in my hand winding down. I was flipping through a food magazine and doing the same with the channels on TV.

Jacques Pepin's Shrimp Gratin
Jacques Pepin’s Shrimp Gratin

At the time I had not seen but a couple shows in any of your many series because our local PBS station didn’t carry them or they were on at times when I wasn’t around. But here you were in the wee hours of the morning in front of the camera, your heavy French accent, broad smile, all as unmistakeable as the sparkle in your eyes. You caught my attention right away.

I watched as you peeled shrimp and even went so far as to show me how to pinch the tails between my thumb and forefinger, then wiggle, and finally you gently pulled and I watched as all the tail meat slipped out of its casing without any waste. Then you sliced a handful of the freshest white mushrooms with such speed and accuracy it could have been a magic trick. You wasted no time doing the same with a couple of green onions. Continue reading

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The Genius of Genius

Sprouts in oyster sauce

 

Reviewing a website isn’t something I would normally do.  In this case it isn’t the website but a feature on the site itself.  You all know I call Food52 home(that is a full disclosure).  I would give the site itself a triple A rating but my aim here is to call attention to a feature within the site, Genius Recipes.

If I were new to the kitchen, or an inexperienced cook, even a seasoned pro this is where I would go to get a bag full of genius recipes.  It is where senior editor Kristen Miglore will make you  feel and look good so  your dinner guest will thank you and your children will brag about you.

I can assure you once you start cooking with these recipes you will find yourself going back time and time again because they work, are dependable and because the recipes are ridiculously delicious.

The real bonus here is they are minimally invasive.  What that means is there are only a few steps and ingredients involved in getting the dish to the table.  What’s the take-away?  In short, it means there is no excuse not to make these recipes throughout the week.  And even if you can’t the Wednesday publishing of the posts allows you to collect the ingredients and prep the recipe for the weekend.

The author behind the feature, Kristen Miglore, does all the hard work for you.  Whats not to love about that?  Fortunately for her readers she brings us a five star recipe each week and then sets it up for success.  She tests the recipes and navigates you effortlessly through the steps as if you were following the blue dot on Google maps to a dive restaurant.   People,  she gives you the keys to the Mercedes, I mean how awesome is that.

So you have a great writer giving you the low down on why this recipe is so good with her fast paced prose, sprinkled with a pinch of humor and it’s always concise.   If asked she will be humble and give all the credit to the community members who pass along recipes but in the end it is Miglore who spots the winners and it is not always easy to recognize great recipes.  She has mad skills is all I can say.

I will vouch for any of these recipes and I can say many have fallen into the weeknight rotation of family favorites.  The Al Forno Penne with Tomato Cream and 5 Cheeses is one of my and the girls favorites.  Nobu’s Fried Asparagus with Miso Dressing became a regular this summer substituting in yard long beans, walnuts and shallots.  In fact, I can’t wait to plant yard longs in the garden again just to make this one recipe.  The Domino Potatoes scored big when the juices from the resting lamb chops co-mingled into the buttery potatoes to create one of the easiest best potato sides ever.  Most recently I have been making Momofuku’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fish Sauce Vinaigrette and alternating in an oyster sauce.  I have also deep fried the sprouts and wow, if you care to take the extra step, do.

Next up will be Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake.  I am making two of them, one for home and one for the school bake sale and while I am sifting the flour I will be thanking Kristen for sifting through all these recipes and pointing me in the direction of the truly genius ones.

Need more genius? Click here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                         Deep Fried Brussels Sprouts with Oyster Sauce

1 pound Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and halved

vegetable oil for frying

2 1/2  tablesoons oyster sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce

1 tablespoon water

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger,  very finely minced

1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, very finely minced

1 tablespoon green onions, minced

1 tsp honey

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       1. Combine the oyster sauce, soy, water, ginger, garlic, green onions and honey in a large mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine it all.  Set aside.

2 Add enough oil to a heavy bottomed 4 quart pot ( I used an enameled Dutch oven) to come no more then a third up the sides of the pot.  Turn the heat to medium high.  

3. Test the oil by dropping in a sprout leaf.  There should be a pause, then, it should rapidly sizzle.  

4. Add half of the Brussels sprouts carefully, they will bubble and pop, then add the rest of the sprouts.  Fry until brown.  Remove them from the oil to drain on a paper towel lined plate.  Toss the sprouts with the oyster sauce and serve immediately.

 

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A Peek Inside Foodquarterly

Obviously we are proud of our accomplishment.  We want to share it with you but we also want to give you a little inside peek at what is between the covers.

What is FOODQUARTRERLY?  Honestly, if I were to put words to it, and this shows my age, it is what in old school rock-n-roll would have been called a “concept” album.   It is a larger look at a particular style of food that has captured my interest.  The content, to me, doesn’t lend
itself to a blog and I felt it should be presented in a longer form.  This issue focuses on the American farm, the next will be on Summertime Rites of Passage and from there it is all hush hush because we don’t want to spoil it.

Inside you will find stunning photography, great stories and fantastic recipes.  We like to keep with our motto.  I hope you enjoy it.

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Edna Lewis: The Taste of Country Cooking

The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.

What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.

When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.

The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so, as it was when written.

Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.

In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.

This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.

Bacon Fried Rabbit

Serves 4

2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt

buttermilk

peanut oil

kosher salt

1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.

2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.

3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.

4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.

5. Serve.

The Chess Game

The Chess Game

There is never a good time for bad news, but there it is, right in front of me, plain as a shadow on a sunny day.

She breaks the news the minute she is in the car. I’m trying to get her in her car seat and the buckle hasn’t even clicked when she blurts it out:

“Dad, I think I want to leave home.”

I move back, still leaning over her. I try to get her freckled little face, her blue eyes, in focus. I don’t have my glasses on. The back of the front seat keeps me from moving back far enough, so I have to squint to see just how serious this statement, this bomb, is.

No hint of a smile; if she isn’t serious, she should win an Oscar.

“Ohhh-kay,” I say.

I walk around the car and wave to Mrs. Davis, Vivian’s kindergarten teacher. I drop my chin, looking down at the pavement and smile. She cast the hook and I’m going to run with it. It’s a good opportunity to connect. Lynnie is at preschool for a couple more hours, I’ve made Vivian’s favorite, chicken noodle, for lunch, and this plan to leave home will make for good conversation over soup and crackers.

It started out as an ordinary day. We all woke up at the usual time; no crying, no wrong-side-of-the-bed. They ate their pancakes, had their juice, and were dressed and ready to go to the bus stop without any of my deep-voiced “matching socks, girls” or you need your gym shoes today”–not even the requisite “if we miss the bus…” threat. I don’t need any of those stern words, meant to teach them that a sense of urgency is sometimes necessary, because for once they got ready before they started playing. Actually, I guess it started as an extraordinary day.

Now, on the way home from school, Vivian and I ride in silence. I’m trying to figure out where this “leaving home” thing is coming from, and she, I am sure, is using the silence as a negotiating tool, to bring her opponent to the table first. It is a short drive home, and I decide not to bring it up again. It’s up to Vivian.

As I open the screen door to the house, I get a good whiff of the chicken stock on the stove. I mention that I made chicken-noodle soup for lunch and ask if she would like a bowl.

“Oh, not now, Daddy–I need to pack,” she says.

“It’s hot and yummy, and you’re going to need your strength,” I reply. Besides, you have plenty of time.”

She consents to lunch.  Continue reading

The Omlette

The sun is just peeking over the horizon. The ninth-hole green looks beautiful in this light. Seems odd that a golf course can look so beautiful, but it does.

It’s five in the morning when I pull up to the back doors of the clubhouse. The double doors aren’t very welcoming, and a smoking station acting as the de facto doorman doesn’t make it any more so. The entire area is hidden from view by a privacy fence and some pine trees. Even if it isn’t intentional, this space reminds you: You are the help.

I open the car door to be greeted by the stench of dead food. A few days’ worth of food scraps–the shit the club members left on their plates mixed with the kitchen trimmings that are no good to anyone but the rats–is rotting in the dumpster until a truck comes to pick it up. The golf-course irrigation system kicks on. I search my keychain for the back-door key I rarely use. I rack my brain trying not to confuse the pin number of my debit card with the alarm code.

Inside, the kitchen is cold. My hours spent here usually center around dinner service, when the kitchen has had all day to become miserably hot. The cold is unfamiliar. I walk to the heat lamps and turn them on, then turn on the flat top.

The thick steel of the flat top takes forever to heat. The hash browns need all the cooking time I can give them to become golden brown and delicious before service. From the walk-in refrigerator, I get out a tray of shell eggs and start cracking them into a bain marie. These will be omelet eggs and scrambles. Lots of kitchens buy their eggs already cracked, but we don’t. I’m not sure why, since the nasty, fart-smelling liquid eggs we use for scrambled eggs on the buffets are cooked right in the plastic bags they come in. I whisk the eggs then strain them through a china cap to get rid of any albumen lumps. I put a six-ounce ladle into the mix. One ladle equals one omelet and no thinking.

Sunday breakfast duty sucks. None of the staff likes it, and hate probably isn’t a strong enough word, either. This is a lunch and dinner club, not a waffle and egg diner. Breakfast is only served once a week, so there’s no rhythm in the kitchen and no one is familiar with the menu. I come in early to do the prep. I don’t have to, and I wouldn’t be here at this hour if it didn’t make it easier for me. I have been making the French toast egg wash, waffle batter, traying up bacon, and countless other crap on the menu for months. I have been expediting food, filling in for whoever’s missing from the line, and we always get the job done, but barely.

My employees are kids who don’t give a shit. They don’t imagine their life will be that of a line cook, dish dog, or salad bitch. The ballcaps they wear are always slightly tilted, and as they grow to care less about their work, their hat becomes a give-a-fuck meter. The more the bill moves from the front to back, the less they give a fuck. The backwards rotation only gets faster as more customers cram into the dining room. If you’re lucky, their hat won’t be completely backwards until the very end of their shift.

I start in on the sausage gravy. We save all our bacon grease. A full scoop goes into the pot and, like a good magic trick, it looks like it sinks through the bottom of the pan and disappears as it transforms before my very eyes from a white solid to a glistening liquid. I add an equal amount of flour, which sizzles a little at the outer edges of the pile until I stir. Thick ribbons begin to follow the spoon as it goes round and round. I cook the roux until it smells like someone cooked popcorn in the microwave. I finish the whole thing off with two gallons of milk, a half sheet tray of cooked sausage, and a whole lot of black pepper. I keep whisking. It comes back to a boil and thickens.

The alarm on my watch goes off–my half-hour warning before service. As if I don’t believe my watch, I look up at the clock on the wall. Shit, it’s pushing seven and no one’s here yet. Usually someone’s made it in by now, if only because they’re out of coffee at home and came in to get a cup.

I hate having to call people at home to get their ass in to work. It’s never surprising to have people just not show up, to hear that a line cook is in jail, or to have a dishwasher scoot out the front door when the cops come knocking at the back. It’s the middle American restaurant business, after all. We’re not talking fine dining, just a run-of-the-mill feedlot.

A server comes in. I feel a perfect storm brewing and decide it’s a really good idea to prep the shit out of every station. The thing is, it’s the middle of summer, so there’s a damn good chance the breakfast service will be extremely quiet, and all this prep will go to waste. People go boating, have cookouts, or do yard work, plus it’s the beginning of the month so the members don’t have to use their minimum for food at the restaurant yet.

The only good thing about a Sunday morning is you ease into the rush. Not too many people are clamoring at the door to get in. They take their time, go to church, read the Sunday newspaper, then mosey on in for breakfast. So as the morning grinds on, it gets busier.

Finally a salad kid shows. He barely knows enough to make salads, but at least he can keep an eye on the bacon in the oven. A body is a body. Now a dishwasher comes in. This kid has worked at restaurants before. He’ll do.

I had a good prep and the people are streaming into the dining room at a nice pace. I’ve found my rhythm. Two omelets, French toast, and an order of pancakes is nothing. It all comes together with sides, all without thinking. I know the routine and I’m feeling good, even smiling, like I’m invincible behind the line. Every bit of this order comes up at the right time and all the plates are under the heat lamps waiting for a perfect omelet, great looking pancakes, and crispy-edged French toast, all at the same time I’m firing two other orders. Two tops, four tops, and more two tops. Keep it coming at this pace and I’ll be fine.

In my mind, though, I feel it coming, like two busloads of senior citizens showing up at a busy McDonalds during lunch hour. At the first lull, I restock everything that’s even remotely low at the stations, but this is like having five sandbags for a hundred-year flood.

Suddenly, it gets busy. I’m in the weeds but I’m turning waffles and flipping over-easies with a sense of urgency and working my way out of it.

And now the tsunami rolls in. I’m beyond busy. My ass is getting handed to me on the very plates I just sent out with that server.

For some reason, everyone wants omelets, then a few scrambles, then even more omelets. Which is great. I can stand at the stove and turn out omelets all day. I have the dish kid making toast, English muffins, and working hash browns like a champ, but we’re still getting buried.

When I’m short hands on deck, a ten top easily becomes the iceberg that sinks the Titanic. And as soon as I think it, a dumb-ass server says it out loud: “A walk-in ten top just came in.”

If I had the time to jump over the line and strangle the bastard, I would, but the row of tickets hanging in front of me is the chain that holds the dog back.

I keep flipping eggs. The ten-top order comes in. Ten omelets. I grin.

Teddy Roosevelt Fished Here

My nephew and I amble slowly up to the creek bank. It’s early enough that the cold morning air causes a light fog to rise off the warm, black water, but does nothing to lift the low-lying cover fogging my brain. I yawn. I wish I’d had that second cup of coffee.

It’s hard to believe Teddy Roosevelt ever came here to fish, here at this nothing stream that runs along the backside of my property. As the story has it, an Indiana politician brought him here for no more than an hour or two. They got off the campaign train, took a break, and fished. But, of all places, why here?

Soon enough the morning sun awakens and colors the tips of the trees on the south bank a glowing yellow, as if someone turned on the kitchen lights. I sit down on a rock, one of those big ones, gray and smooth, jutting out from the edge of the bank. I look across a pool of still water, not studying or thinking, just staring, then I slip one leg into my waders, making sure to get my leg inside the suspenders. In goes the other leg and up and over my shoulders come the suspenders.

My nephew, bare-legged and anxious, has already broken the water and the ripples disrupt the deep blue reflection of the cloudless sky. He strips fly line off the reel and the sound of the drag gears zipping backwards hangs in the air like a fiddle solo in a gospel song on Sunday. A few small mayflies lift off the surface of the water, fluttering haphazardly to freedom.

I’ve long heard that Cicero Creek is a world-class smallmouth bass river, but it’s never been enough to motivate me. I’ve lived on the creek for eight years now and not once fished. I gave up my obsession with fly fishing when I left New York. I always fly fished for trout. Trout seem noble. I have two young daughters who take up my time now, and happily so. Besides, when you ask anyone if they eat the fish, they always say no, the river is polluted.

I watch my nephew back cast and hear the delayed whistle of the fly line as it whips forward. The tippet rolls out and drops the fly perfectly into the water on the upriver side of a sunken log with a forked branch sticking out.

It’s obvious by the force and violence with which the smallmouth bass breaks the surface that it is hungry. The sound grabs my attention, the fish grabs the fly, and Will’s rod doubles down.

It’s a beautiful smallmouth, a glistening seaweed-green on its back with a pearl-white belly. I feel a little of the old adrenaline coursing. It’s way more invigorating than that second cup of coffee would have been.

It suddenly dawns on me that something very similar probably happened, nearly a hundred years ago, maybe right in this spot, at this hole that’s holding some really big fish. I nod my head, understanding, and the vision is clear.

The train, an old wood-fired locomotive, leaving a campaign stop in Indianapolis and now headed to Chicago, stops in the small town nearby. Roosevelt and a few other men get off the train at the small station, and a young kid who knows the stream like the back of his hand, like my nephew does, is waiting to take them by carriage the short distance to this unremarkable little creek.

When they arrive creekside, the elder statesmen look at each other, shrug, and wonder what, if anything, they will catch. Maybe they even wonder why they got off the train, smiling at each other, knowing this kid has no idea of the amazing fishing they’ve done and the beautiful, rushing rivers they’ve seen.

The farmboy, kindly urged on by Roosevelt, goes first, casting under the branch line that hangs out over the water and up close to the embankment. The same thing that happened this morning happens then: BAM! A big smallmouth bass takes the hook and runs the line upstream. Now the two statesmen are really smiling, grateful for this moment of relief from their busy schedule, and they begin to fish.

It’s a banner day; they’re hooking them left and right, talking and fishing without a thought of politics or business. Their guide, the kid, can’t get the fish off the hooks quickly enough. He releases most of them, but some are the right size, perfect for eating, and he puts these on a stringer that is quickly getting full.

The flurry of activity only lasts an hour or two, the same length of time that all good fishing lasts. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of these United States, and company pack up and head back to the Arcadia station.

My nephew and I are doing the same, heading to the car.

I ask, “You ever eat any of the fish you catch out of here?”

He replies, “No, the river’s polluted.”

Click here for the recipe:  Pan Fried Red Snapper with Tarragon Tartar Sauce

Dear Mr. Pépin

Shrimp Gratin

Dear Mr. Pépin,

I made a recipe of yours last night. It wasn’t the first time I have made this recipe, in fact, I have made it several times but it has been far to long since it has graced our table, rest assured, this will not happen again. Just in case I haven’t been clear it was beyond delicious as always.

I remember the night I watched you make the gratin on TV. It must have been about three in the morning or somewhere around there. I was still working in the restaurant business and it had been a long night on the line. Now I was home, my wife fast asleep in bed, and I out in the living room and on the couch with a beer in my hand winding down. I was flipping through a food magazine and doing the same with the channels on TV.

At the time I had not seen but a couple shows in any of your many series because our local PBS station didn’t carry them or they were on at times when I wasn’t around. But here you were in the wee hours of the morning in front of the camera, your heavy French accent, broad smile, all as unmistakeable as the sparkle in your eyes. You caught my attention right away.

I watched as you peeled shrimp and even went so far as to show me how to pinch the tails between my thumb and forefinger, then wiggle, and finally you gently pulled and I watched as all the tail meat slipped out of its casing without any waste. Then you sliced a handful of the freshest white mushrooms with such speed and accuracy it could have been a magic trick. You wasted no time doing the same with a couple of green onions.

All the while you were discussing and telling the audience why you were doing things the way you did them. Like the time I watched you make cauliflower soup and you used the entire cauliflower not just the white florets. You told us how the leaves were full of flavor and nutrients and how in France it would have been a crime to throw them out.

What I watched that night was not the norm. I had seen enough food TV to know. There were no bams, no yelling at young chefs until they cried or some person telling me I can’t cook at home because I am not as skilled as they, no, I didn’t even see someone saying organic, local or sustainable because you didn’t need to say the words to teach them.

No, it was someone doing the hard job of quietly, but realistically, teaching people how to cook and be successful in their own home kitchens. What I saw before my very eyes was a man passionate about food, the table and living. Someone helping people to use and understand simple, easily obtainable fresh ingredients that would deliver great taste at dinner time. It was someone extremely talented in the kitchen, who understands how food works and who has spent years building on techniques he was taught as a child. A person who understands if people are successful in the kitchen they will continue to cook, maybe even start to like, enjoy and use these skills the rest of their life.

You are and will continue to be a wonderful role model and I want to say thank you.

Sincerely,

Tom

Makes 4 servings

1 pound of raw shrimp, 26-30 size is great, peeled and deveined

2 cloves of garlic, minced finely. You want it to cook so really mince it.

2 green onions, chopped

1 cup white or cremini mushrooms, wiped of dirt, and julienned

3/4 scant cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup parmesan, grated

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper

1/4 cup dry white wine

1. Heat you oven to 400˚F.

2. Place bread crumbs and the parmesan into a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of melted butter and season the mix with salt and pepper. Mix everything really well to distribute the butter this will help a great deal in getting the top to brown evenly.

3. Put the shrimp into another mixing bowl and add green onions, mushrooms and garlic. Toss to combine, season with salt and pepper then combine this mixture with half the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle with the white wine and toss again.

4. Fan the shrimp out in individual gratins or one large gratin or casserole. Top with the remaining breadcrumbs.

5. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until the top is brown and the shrimp are cooked through. If you have over lapped the shrimp a great deal it might take longer to cook and you may need to back the oven down to 375˚F so the topping doesn’t brown to quickly. Serve.

Dexas Turbo Fan Salad Spinner-Dryers

Dexas Greens Spinner

I had an email arrive in my box a couple of weeks back from a company by the name of Dexas.  I have never done a sponsored post but in this case I decided to.  I don’t know why, maybe it is just time but instead of me reviewing a product I thought I would just post the email I sent back to Dexas with my likes and concerns for the product.

But time passes and Jeff who sent me the original email,  who is very nice and good people usually don’t stay at bad companies, sends me another email  just checking in or code for, nudge nudge is the post getting close to being done.  Me being me, his second letter sits in my inbox for some time.  I finally get around to actually photographing the spinner  but by now I have used it a lot more.  After I did my initial testing I had some clear ideas, even sent Jeff a letter with my concerns but now I have become comfortable with the spinner and I have changed my mind on several issues.  First here is my letter to Jeff (take note, I removed a portion of the letter about a cutting board, not because it was bad or a bad product but because they didn’t ask me to test it but sent it along for my thoughts.  It is a great product too.)

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the follow-up.  I did receive the spinner and the cutting board.  It came at the perfect time since all my fall greens from the garden are just getting really good.

I have put the salad spinner to the test and really like a lot of things about it, the gearing in the top and the fan are fantastic, really fantastic,  and the offset and size of the handle is perfect.  It is much like a honey extractor I have and feels just as solid.  It does a great job of cleaning and drying greens of all types.

The spinner really is a nice product but I would be remiss in my testing if I didn’t mention a couple of things.  I really like the way the water runs out the open bottom but one of the things I really like about other salad spinners is the ability to store greens in the fridge right in the spinner.  This may seem trivial but for some reason I have found spinners as a storage unit really helps to extend the shelf life of salad and greens.  Are there any plans to make the spinner available with an optional, I’ll say, drip bowl?  I also mention this because I sometimes have a sink full of dishes when I get to the point in my prep that I want to clean greens I have to clean the sink out.  Don’t get me wrong you have a great product and these are just a few of my thoughts.

Anyway, I like the quality and durability of your products and I will look for them in stores around our area.  I still plan to write a post for my blog and will do so soon.  Thanks so much.

Tom

So what did I change my mind about.  Well, after using it and getting used to storing the greens in a plastic bag instead of the spinner I realized how much fridge space spinners of all kinds actually use.  Now the fridge is far less crowded, a definite plus.

In all seriousness this thing is built like a tank and works great!.

In the market for a good quality spinner?   Get yourself one here Sur la Table   or here Dexas.com

The Chicken Massacre at Crooked Creek

Last night’s rain, soaked up by the hot earth, is rising again this morning as steam. As the truck rattles down the long gravel drive and we get close to the orchard, the apple trees emerge from the light fog, the treetops magically floating in a cloud.

Then, through the mist, I begin to see the faint outlines of chicken carcasses strewn about haphazardly–some on their sides, missing wings, their pure white feathers stained red; others with their heads folded under their chests; and some with their chests still heaving, breathing their last. It could be a black-and-white photograph of a Civil War battlefield. Except they’re chickens. My chickens.

My throat drops into my stomach. I stop the truck and put it in park.  I fling the door open and jump out, telling Lynnie, my youngest, to stay put. I walk briskly out to the killing field. I pick up a couple of the dying birds and do the humane thing, wringing their necks and dropping them in a pile.

At first I think it’s a coyote massacre, but I quickly notice that most of the birds have two fang punctures in their skulls, while a few are gutted, their stomachs ripped wide open. I’ve heard that raccoons will bite the heads of chickens and lick away the blood and fluids, which makes the feathers come loose and leaves the chicken bald. When a chicken runs dry, the raccoons leave the carcass and move on. It isn’t hearsay anymore–I’m witnessing this oddity and carnage first-hand.

The sky is still gray and it’s drizzling again. The splashes of blood are diluting and spreading in the rain. As the truck idles in the driveway, I look around the scene again, then the smell of wet dead chicken on my hands and exhaust fumes makes me gag.

I walk back to the truck. I get in, my shirt wet against the seat, and look down at my lap, confused. I left the chickens in their pen this morning because we left early to run a couple of errands. I figured I would let them out when we got back. It seems the raccoon or raccoons ripped the welded wire right off the side of the pen and killed each chicken one at a time. It’s as if they’d been waiting at the woods’ edge, watching me leave, seeing those chickens penned up so they couldn’t run–just like the raccoons wanted. It’s as if they’ve been waiting and watching for months, hoping I would make this mistake.

It’s not like the chickens could have run, anyway. They were meat birds, one week away from being processed. They were plump–fat, even–and meat birds aren’t meant to run; they aren’t even meant to reproduce. But I had raised them perfectly–maybe the best flock of meat birds I’ve raised. Now 21 of 25 are laying dead in a field being rained on: a total loss; a tragic waste.

Back at the house, all I can think is how glad I am that I don’t depend on these birds for my food. Of course, I wanted them to be my food, but I can afford to buy chicken at the store because there are people who raise thousands, even millions of them, and they do it cheaply and, for a couple of extra bucks, even organically. My family and I won’t go hungry.

As tragedies will, though, this gets me thinking about how and why I raise these birds. Like wanting to have more eggs than I need, because I don’t find the ones with poop on the shell to be quaint, so I feed the ones with shit on them to the dogs and keep the clean eggs for myself. Isn’t that the idea, to have clean, fresh, great-tasting eggs? And Vivian and Lynnie like chasing the chickens around the yard and hatching the eggs in the spring, and it’s a great experience for them to take care of the hens. They love the looks on people’s faces when they ask, “What are your chickens’ names?” and the girls reply, “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner!” And I like that they know where their food comes from. They’ve seen a chicken butchered, watched me do the crappy job of plucking a bird, and they know that it’s a hell of a lot of work for one meal.

Raising organic birds takes time–lots of time–and money. I eat probably the most expensive eggs in the county, and, after the massacre, the most expensive chicken, too. My wife thought I was crazy to get chickens, until she tried the eggs and we breaded and deep-fried our first meat bird. But now I’m wondering if she wasn’t right. Not just because it’s an expensive venture in a bad economy, but because we’ve had some other bad luck lately. It didn’t start out that way–the honeymoon years seemed perfect–but now, four years into it, things are going wrong.

Like the time I was at the kitchen sink and looked out the window just as the big Black Langshan rooster jumped three feet into the air, put its talons out, and grabbed at Viv’s back. Viv fell down, and I dropped the dish towel and sprinted to the back door. Then I heard her scream. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her scream, but this time she wasn’t crying wolf. She cried out in such a complete panic that I had no doubt she needed help, desperately.

I’m not a violent person, but that changed in an instant. In a fit of blind rage and adrenaline, I tackled the big rooster, grabbed it by the feet, put my foot on its head, and jerked upward. I broke its neck with such force that I pulled the head clear off, but it was still flopping and spewing dust and blood everywhere. I kicked it away like it was a poisonous snake and immediately checked on Vivian, who was huddled in a corner by the chicken shack, covered in dust and shit.

I was shaking. She was crying.

I was livid. She was scared.

But she was more scared than hurt, and she was going to be okay. The rooster had pecked her once in the face about an inch below her left eye, so she was bleeding a little, but her back, because she had on a jacket, was unharmed.

I couldn’t put all the blame on the rooster. The girls aren’t supposed to go into the pen alone. We’ve had talks about it. I’ve told them that, because they are at eye level with each other, a big rooster like Rusty will come after them because he thinks they’re going to get his hens. He’s being protective of his flock and, because they’re his size, he will attack.

Now, in my kitchen on this wet, bloody morning, I remember pushing the tear-soaked hair away from Vivian’s eyes and tucking it behind her ears, and then, through her tears, between heaving breaths, she giggled a little and asked, “Can we eat him, Dad? Can we eat the rooster?”

I know I’m going to keep raising chickens.
For the Coq au Vin recipe click here

A Hint of Allspice

When I was younger, looking for a cure to the darker moods of the seasonal doldrums, I used to lie with my back on the floor, my butt up against the lounge, and my legs in an L-shape up on the cushion. Using the chair in reverse, basically, I could lay there a long time, staring into nothingness. Well not always nothing–sometimes a spider would crawl across the ceiling and capture my attention.

I didn’t think about time, either, and whether it had any worth. You waste it on stupid things like estimating how many holes are in each ceiling panel and postulating whether every individual panel has the same amount. Sure, I could have gone about it scientifically and actually taken down two panels, counted, and multiplied–but that would have taken away the reason for wasting time by staring at the ceiling.

I’m not gonna lie and pretend things are different just because I’m older, because they aren’t. Now I just find different ways to waste time. Now, I cook. I cook like a grandma with a family reunion just a few short days away.

Even if I’m cooking, I’m not just cooking. Tonight I was somewhere in the Caribbean smelling curry. Goat curry, chicken curry, fish curry–it doesn’t matter, because it’s the spices taking me away, the curry powder with the hint of allspice. Then I realize it’s really the smell of the corner bodega that fed me more nights than not when I lived in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, off of St. Johns Place.

Suddenly I’m walking that street, stepping on crack vials that pop like popcorn under my Chuck T’s, to get to Grand Army Plaza or Flatbush Ave. or the subway station. The clothes the women wear are the color of azure oceans and golden sunsets–islands they know first-hand–not the dour black turtle necks and sullen black chinos of Manhattan, but much more beautiful and vibrant. The neighborhood might have been down but it wasn’t out. The ladies hanging out on the porch stoops and around the wrought-iron gates are laughing at stories of people and islands their kids will never really know.

Me, my hands are full with an aluminum container heavy with curry chicken, rice and peas, and fried plantains. I walk across the street taking in the jazz notes of the impromptu lives that pass in front of my eyes and into my ears. I sit down on my stoop to eat, wide eyed and smiling. I unwrap the plastic wrap to get at the roti, steamed and kept warm by the food underneath. I peel back the foil and lift the top. It is so full of food it is smashed together and flat like a cake, but the smell is the smell of my neighborhood.

I will know this neighborhood. The slap of the sapphire-blue screen door at the bodega. How the first time I order food at the back counter it is a warm ham sandwich with cheese; how over the months I’ll work my way up to a Cubano and a bag of plantain chips; and by the time I move away I’m eating goat neck curry and sucking the bones like I was raised on the stuff.

I turned down the heat on the stove to simmer. Sometimes it is about hunger and quantity, but tonight it’s about the taste, about how the vibrant spice of curry lightens my dark mood at the very moment when I want to run away and never come back.

Get your Bodega Chicken Curry Recipe here

A Different Sort of Education

Honey Bees Polinating Silver Queen Sweet Corn

If the number of dumb ass things you have done in life stops with the number of fingers you have you can consider yourself lucky. Since dumb ass is a matter of objectivity you may need to throw in all your toes too, even so, you should still figure yourself rightly finishing on the high side of exceptional if the number doesn’t surpass twenty.

Thus far I feel I have been lucky.

So the day I went to pick up a hive of bees and planned to put them in the back of the 4Runner I had to scratch my noggin and ask myself if I was putting myself at risk of being downgraded on the DA scale.

You have to understand I spent the better part of a day searching out a hive body full of bees that might be for sale, notice I said might. First off finding beekeepers that use a phone or those that don’t think your the census man is full time affair.

Beekeepers are borderline off-grid-aphrenics. They are skeptics at the very least or they think the world is going to end and if the world isn’t ending they are just planning for hard times. It is just their nature, a lifestyle in fact, and it is all in the oral handbook of beekeeping just ask a beekeeper.

So you have to take a Woodward and Bernstein approach when looking for a hive and start with the officers of the local beekeepers association only to have them give you a list. As you work your way around the call list they gave you you quickly learn a few things. You can never get a definitive answer from a beekeeper, you feel as though everyone is using aliases, at some point you expect to see the name Deepthroat on the call list, and they all have a perfect mid-state Hoosier accent where neck is pronounced nick and next is nixt. This is when you realize the linguistics classes you took in college weren’t for naught, even though it is some twenty years later, but that they still have no real world use.

Meanwhile you hear this lady yelling, and I mean yelling, out the front door of the house for her husband because they still have a phone with a cord that attaches to a wall and you are listening to this yelling but also thinking about linguistics and somewhat thinking your day would be complete if she only let out a hog call. A big suewwwwwwee somehow would take it over the edge.

“I don’t know where he is” she said, then instantly “Oh here he is.” like an apparition appeared before her very eyes.

“This is Garland” he says.

I go through my hole explanation of what I am looking to do only to get to the end of why I need bees, that I have a small orchard, and a huge garden, to hear Garland say he doesn’t keep bees anymore.

And I say, “but I was just talking to Orville Hegemeyer and Orville said,” I get cut short.

“How is Orville, is he doing better? I knowed he was sick for a bit. You know I don’t keep bees on a professional basis anymore I got sick a few years back, had a case of bone shaves. Sold everything but people have been calling me to get swarms, well you know if you got one hive your soon to have ten. Now that my back is better I got a few hives. This spring I am gonna put together a few hive bodies if all goes well I should have three or four to sell.”

I gave him my number, said I would buy a hive, and would wait for his call.

That spring I watched the pink and white blossoms of the apple and pear trees open, brown and drop to the ground. The asparagus came and went as did the morels. Peas and spinach were done.

The phone rang, “I got that hive body ready ‘n full of bees if’n you still want ‘em.”

“Garland I thought you forgot about me!” I said.

“No sir, this weather put things behind almost two months. You still want it.” he said.

He gave me directions.

So that is how it came to pass that I am sitting in a gravel drive with my car window cracked listening to a man with a bee veil on telling me I might want to park on the other side of the house since he really angered a bunch of bees over on this side, another reason I guess to have a door on every side of the house. So I do.

Garland lived in a small white clapboarded ranch in the middle of a small town. It was like the town was built around his seven acres though. He had it all fenced off with that woven wire fence that was big in back yards in the seventies and the house butted up to a big woods but then it was like a regular subdivision for miles surrounding him. At his house though he had peas growing up the fence and green onions planted around the fence row too. He had stuff growing everywhere. Rows and rows. He had two sheds, one for squabs the other for chickens. And bee stuff piled everywhere and hives everywhere.

He was proud of his place and gave me the grand tour as if he had been stranded on a desert island an I was the first person to come along. I enjoyed the three hour tour until finally we wound up at the hive he was wanting to sell me. Eighty bucks.

Funny thing is when I left his place I left with four live squabs, a mess of white raspberry starts and a head full of useful information just because I showed up. I figured with the raspberry starts alone I was down to twenty bucks for the hive.

The hive. I had no bee suit. I didn’t own one. I did all this stuff in such a hurry I didn’t really plan things out. Garland told me I didn’t need one that we would screen the hive entrance and that the sides were stapled to the bottom board and top. He stapled it shut with screen but bees were still flooding out of a small hole at the corner of the entrance. Seems sealing bees in royally pisses them off. I pointed this exit hole out to Garland and he shot another staple into the screen and everything seemed fine. He said besides you will want to drive with the back window down and the two front passenger windows open to keep the airflow going out the back just in case. Then he laughed which didn’t really ease my mind.

I drove with the concentration of a winning Indy race car driver on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. Got home safe and sound. Got the hive safely to its new home.

Now, how to get that screen off with 30,000 angry bees behind it and me without a bee suit.

The Whimsical Mistress

I am a flatlander.

You see in Indiana the northern two thirds of the state is flat, while the southern third becomes the foothills to the Appalachians. It all happened when the glaciers rolled through, which was sort of like pushing a sofa on a Persian rug. The rug in front of the sofa bunches up while everything behind becomes flat. The verity of this occurrence is the hills of southern Indiana are beautifully Rubenesque.


It’s an affair really. And not in a Victorian sense either, because it is more gaudy than that.
    
It is when I smell the musky fall dirt of the southern hills, corseted with orange and yellow leaves and the hickories and sycamores that once held them — now bare-shouldered — become the steel boning that holds the hollers to their unique hourglass shape, that  I become incorrigible. All because this voluptuous landscape is the Indiana home to the American persimmon, Eve’s apple to me, a temptress of pudding, pie, bread and fudge.

Oh the persimmon has her foreign counterparts, Hachiya and Fuyu, and of course they are succulent, trim, and have that hot little accent, but the American persimmon is one of a kind, sort of the saw blade painted with a kountry landscape, kitsch, and probably more closely related to running off with the circus than a fine dining car on the Orient Express.


It’s not like there aren’t persimmon trees in other parts of the state. My neighbor has a beauty, in fact I covet it. It is tall and gorgeous, maybe one of the largest I have seen,  but it isn’t the same. In southern Indiana it is the culture that goes along with the persimmon. It’s the paw paws, maple syrup, grits, ham and beans, and fried biscuits with apple butter. It’s possum and sweet potato dinners and wood-burning stoves. It’s all the things I hated about Indiana growing up but am intensely intrigued by now, albeit in a driving by a fatal crash sort of way.
    
All fatality aside, a good persimmon dessert will leave you in a drool sleep on the couch dreaming the dream of possum and raccoons. Of beating them to the little tannic and orange fires of Zeus, a rare true berry, pulpy and sweet when they finally become ripe enough to eat rather then their typical docket of pucker and gag.

The persimmon likes to flimflam you. It may look ripe and mushy, but when you bite into one it grabs you by the uvula and pulls. It doesn’t let go either, truthfully, it holds on like a spring leech after a bloodless winter. 
    
It is an accomplishment worthy of a diploma, this gathering of the ripe fruits,  because somehow the animals know too, just like they know the night the sweet corn is ready, and if you went out to that persimmon tree on that night, the night they know, you might find it is like a barrel full of monkeys. A tree full of nocturnal varmints having a hoedown, all drunk and giddy on your persimmons.
    
You are thinking of fighting them for it, a barroom brawl, but instead you turn and walk back home, you walk back home because you realize she is a good mistress, the persimmon, and is not exclusive but whimsical, indeed, the very trait that keeps you coming back to her.

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Edna Lewis: The Taste of Country Cooking

Bacon Fried Rabbit

The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.

What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.

When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.

The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so,  as it was when written.

Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.

In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.

This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.

Bacon Fried Rabbit

Serves 4

2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt

buttermilk

peanut oil

kosher salt

1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.

2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.

3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.

4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.

5. Serve.

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Heart and Soul

The tiny bright green stars of okra and the fresh lima beans, so tender the veins show through their thin skins, are nestled into a bed of bi-color sweet corn just shaved off the cob. Together they simmer in a liquid that is mostly melted butter, seasoned quietly with salt and black pepper.

Succotash is a poor man’s dish, made popular during the Great Depression. Somehow I never feel poor when eating it — but then, I feel that way about all soul food.

While succotash is comfort food, not all comfort food is soul food. I can find comfort in foie gras, but foie gras is not soul food. Succotash is.

At the back of the stove, the chicken thighs simmer away. Their crispy brown skin breaks the bubbling surface of pan gravy made with peppers, onions, and celery. There is a reason they call this mix of vegetables the trinity. It goes beyond the Southern flavor they bring to the dish — something distinct, even ethereal.

I am feeling sad. Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s Soul Food fame, has passed away. Over the years, her collard greens recipe became my recipe, her Northern-style cornbread a family favorite at Thanksgiving. It was with her recipe in hand one sultry Friday afternoon some years ago that I lost my red velvet cake virginity.

I pick up the paring knife used to peel the potatoes. It is dirty with powdery white potato starch. Fishing for one of the larger chunks of potato, I stick it into the boiling water, find one, and poke it with the knife, which slips to the center of the potato like it is room temperature butter.

Carrying the potato pot to the sink, I pour it into the strainer. Hot starchy steam rushes up and around my face before disappearing upward toward the ceiling. I let the potatoes sit in the strainer to steam out excess moisture and turn to the stove to stir the succotash.

The oven timer goes off.

I grab a kitchen towel to use as a hot pad and remove the black skillet cornbread from the oven. I can smell the thin, crispy bacon fat-and-cornmeal crust that forms when the batter hits the hot skillet, hiding now under the tender yellow interior. I set the skillet on top of the stove and cover it with the dish towel.

I like this point in the meal preparation.  The point where everything is coming together and there is a final rush to get everything done at the same time so all the food comes to the table hot.

I rice the potatoes.

It isn’t a coincidence the corn, okra, and lima beans are all at their peak out in the garden today.  At least that is what I am telling myself.

I always add the butter first to the riced potatoes so the fat gets absorbed by the starch.  Then I add the heavy cream, salt and pepper.
I like that soul food is about coming together not just as a family but as a community, even more so then it is about eating.  Not that the food isn’t important– it is about the value of sharing, too — but even the food shouldn’t trump the socialization that happens around it.

I taste the potatoes.  They are just the right texture and need no further seasoning, cream or butter.  I scoop them into a serving bowl, and do the same with the succotash, and put the smothered chicken on a platter with its gravy ladled over the top.

It is always lively at our table.  This evening, it might even be more so.

Get the Bona Fide smothered chicken recipe here.

The Chess Game

There is never a good time for bad news, but there it is, right in front of me, plain as a shadow on a sunny day.

She breaks the news the minute she is in the car.  I’m trying to get her in her car seat and the buckle hasn’t even clicked when she blurts it out:

“Dad, I think I want to leave home.”

I move back, still leaning over her.  I try to get her freckled little face, her blue eyes, in focus.  I don’t have my glasses on.  The back of the front seat keeps me from moving back far enough, so I have to squint to see just how serious this statement, this bomb, is.

No hint of a smile;  if she isn’t serious, she should win an Oscar.

“Ohhh-kay,” I say.

I walk around the car and wave to Mrs. Davis, Vivian’s kindergarten teacher.  I drop my chin, looking down at the pavement and smile.  She cast the hook and I’m going to run with it.  It’s a good opportunity to connect.  Lynnie is at preschool for a couple more hours, I’ve made Vivian’s favorite, chicken noodle, for lunch, and this plan to leave home will make for good conversation over soup and crackers.

It started out as an ordinary day.  We all woke up at the usual time; no crying, no wrong-side-of-the-bed.  They ate their pancakes, had their juice, and were dressed and ready to go to the bus stop without any of my deep-voiced “matching socks, girls” or you need your gym shoes today”–not even the requisite “if we miss the bus…” threat. I don’t need any of those stern words, meant to teach them that a sense of urgency is sometimes necessary, because for once they got ready before they started playing.  Actually, I guess it started as an extraordinary day.

Now, on the way home from school, Vivian and I ride in silence.  I’m trying to figure out where this “leaving home” thing is coming from, and she, I am sure, is using the silence as a negotiating tool, to bring her opponent to the table first.  It is a short drive home, and I decide not to bring it up again.  It’s up to Vivian.

As I open the screen door to the house, I get a good whiff of the chicken stock on the stove.  I mention that I made chicken-noodle soup for lunch and ask if she would like a bowl.

“Oh, not now, Daddy–I need to pack,”  she says.

“It’s hot and yummy, and you’re going to need your strength,” I reply.  Besides, you have plenty of time.”

She consents to lunch.

I grab a ladle from the utensil drawer and a couple of bowls from the cabinet.  The soup is simmering.  I ladle up bowls of the golden broth loaded with carrots, noodles and chicken, walk to the table, and set them down.  I go to the pantry and smile to myself again as I grab a sleeve of crackers.

Vivian grabs two spoons from the drawer and we both sit down.  I hand her a napkin.

Again, silence, except for the sound of us blowing on our spoons full of hot soup.  Mine is cool enough and I sip the soup.  Vivian does the same.

“Good soup, Dad,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say, and then, with a note of concern: “Are you mad at me or Mommy?”

“Oh, no, Dad”.

“I just wanted to make sure that isn’t why you want to leave,” I say, feigning concern.

“Oh no, I’m not mad, it’s just time,” she says happily.  “I think I want to see the world and, now that I’m bigger, I think it’s time.”

I takes all the muscle control I can muster not to break a smile.  The look on her face is stone-cold sober.  I know she has made up her mind.

“So can you tell me about your plan?” I ask.

And she does.  In fact, Vivian talks all afternoon:  in the preschool pick-up line for Lynnie, through Lynnie’s nap, over dinner, and on into the evening.  She discusses every detail and wants my response.  She is fleshing out her plan, using me as a sounding board.  She is wearing me down like a constant drip of a water torture session.  I know her, and I know what she’s doing.  She’s building confidence to carry out her plan, watching me to see if I think her plan is workable–and if I’ll give it my consent.

She is going full tilt now, a hundred yard dash of manic talk over dirty dishes, and all I can do is throw up hurdles in front of her.  I ask all the pertinent questions:  where are you going to sleep, what are you going to eat, what will you do for money”  And she has answers–well-thought-out answers: in a tent, in restaurants, and her birthday money will suffice.  Only when she asks me, “Do people in our country all speak the same language?’ do I realize how deeply she is thinking about her trip.

Yes, but in other countries they speak different languages,” I say.

“Well,” she pauses, “maybe I won’t go to Paris.  Maybe I’ll just walk around our country.”

“How long do you plan to be gone,” I query, “Because if you aren’t coming back, I need to let the school know.”

“Five years,” she says with no understanding of time.

Until this point, she had me worried.  I thought she might actually leave;  just walk out the door and down the drive, leaving me to wonder what I can say.  After all, I’ve been encouraging her, talking to her like leaving is a reality, and I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll retract my words.

“Oh.  That’s a long time,” I say with a hint of sadness.  “I don’t know if I’ll recognize you when you come back.  What if we move?  Will you be able to find us?”  The notion of phone calls, letters, or emails isn’t part of her reality yet–neither is the notion of we might not be here when she comes home.

It’s time to press my bluff.  “Well–then why don’t you get your backpack and I’ll at least drive you you up to the mail box.  Get you on your way.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Dad,” she replies.  “I think I’ll at least go to school tomorrow and tell all my friends goodbye.  I’ll leave after school.”

“Well then, get up to bed,” I answer.  “You have a long day tomorrow.  I’ll come up in a minute and tuck you in.”

I’ve listened to Vivian all day and that takes time.  I want to get things straightened up.  I turn on some music and turn to finish the dishes.  When they’re done I start wiping counter tops.

“Dad!” I hear from the top of the steps.  “You gonna come tuck me in?”

I forgot.  By the time I climb the stairs, she’s back in bed.

I sit down on the edge of the bed and tell her, “You can’t leave.  You can’t ever leave.  I need you here.  I need you to help me, Lynnie needs you, and so does Mommy.  You can’t go!”

“Wellll….,” she says, drawing out the pronunciation.  Then she giggles and finishes, “I was beginning to think it wasn’t my best idea, ’cause who’s gong to make me pancakes?”

 

get your soup recipe here ; Chicken and Rice Soup with Saffron