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.
I know a lot of people hunt for trophy deer, the bucks with the big racks. I don’t. I am always looking for a yearling. A small deer that is tender and mild in flavor. For me it is the difference between lamb and mutton. I have eaten mutton but would always choose lamb over mutton if given the choice.
When I do kill a deer the first part of the animal I eat is the liver. It is so, so good. Something about it does it for me, it feels nourishing to eat this part of the animal when it is at its freshest.
For the pickled onions:
1 bunch scallions, roots trimmed and whites cut into 2 1/2 inch lengths. You want twelve pieces.
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup rice vinegar, do not use the seasoned kind
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For the liver:
4 pieces venison, or other, liver, cut 1/2 inch thick, the are small but very rich, you can up the amount if needed
4 pieces speck or good smoked bacon
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup flour, for dredging
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons pickled onion liquid
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup carrot, small dice
1/2 cup onion, small dice
1 1/2 cup fresh peas
1. Place the scallions, in a single layer, in a small heat proof container. In a saucepan bring the water, vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil. Pour over the scallions and set aside to cool. This can be done up to a day in advance.
2. Season the venison with salt and set on a rack over a sheet tray with sides. This will catch the juices.
3. Combine the mayonnaise, buttermilk, mustard and pickling juice in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Reserve 8 of the pickled scallion batons and chop, should have 4, the rest and combine with the dressing.
5. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Place a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add the bacon. As the fat starts to render turn up the heat. Cook until nicely crisp. Remove the bacon and the pan from the heat. Place the bacon on a paper towel lined oven proof plate or tray.
6. In another pot add the butter, onion and carrots. When the onions start to wilt add kosher salt and pepper. Then add 2 cups of water. Let the carrots cook until tender.
7. Place the plate with the bacon into the oven. Season the liver with pepper, remember you already salted them. Dredge the liver pieces through the flour and shake off any excess. Place the bacon pan back on the stove over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of safflower oil.
8. When the oil is hot, gently place the liver into the pan.
9. Place the peas into the carrot and onion pot and turn the heat to medium high.
10. Once the venison pieces are nicely browned turn them. Be careful not to over cook the liver. Cook medium rare to medium at most.
11. To plate. Place a smear of the sauce onto a plate. Using a slotted spoon place a nice helping of peas next to it. Place a piece of venison liver onto the sauce. Top with bacon and garnish with pickled spring onions.
One perfectly good reason to buy whole slab or make your own bacon is you get the smokey rind. The pork rind is perfect for keeping a roast juicy and adds tons of great flavor, and besides, when the smokey hammy fat oozes down on the vegetables, oh my…
Wrapping a roast in fat is called barding. It is so simple and so delicious. It is a technique of days gone buy in America but I often see it done in ethnic markets and in different countries around Europe. If you live in Indianapolis Klemm’s carries the smoked rinds but you might want to call first to make sure they haven’t sold out.
If Brussel sprouts offend you, which I just don’t get, feel absolutely free to substitute other long cooking green vegetable. Parsnips, potatoes, celery root, and the list goes on, would be good too.
1 four rib, bone-in center cut pork loin roast
1 piece of smoked pork rind, often found at German butcher shops
4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 lb. Brussel sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
8 to 10 pearl onions, peeled, or small onions cut into wedges
8 to 12 garlic cloves, trimmed and peeled.
a handful of thyme sprigs
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
grape seed oil
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1. Season the roast with salt and pepper. Place the bacon rind onto the meat side of the the roast and tie it into place with kitchen twine.
2. Heat a 12 inch skillet over high heat and add the grape seed oil. Add the Brussel sprouts and carrots without crowding them. You may need to do this in batches. Season them with salt and pepper. Brown them well then place them into a large casserole.
3. Brown the onions in the same pan and any remaining sprouts or carrots.
4. Place the remaining seared veggies and garlic into the same casserole and set the roast on top. Strew the thyme branches across the top of both the vegetables and the roast.
5. Place the casserole into the oven and set a timer for 30 minutes. Stir the veggies around turning them to coat them in the drippings.
6. Set the timer for another 30 minutes and stir the veggies again.
7. Go another 30 minutes but this time check to see how the roast is coming along by either the squeeze test or with an instant read thermometer. It should read 150-155 degrees.
8. If it is not done stir the vegetables and check it again after 15 minutes.
9. Once the roast is done cut it into 4 chops and serve along side the veggies.
A French onion soup recipe isn’t exactly uncommon. I am not even going to say this one is the best as in best ever French onion soup because that would be like saying my religion is the best, or the only, which is just not true.
So why publish or blog this recipe? Well because it is a really solid recipe and I want to talk about technique. In other words even if you already have an onion soup in your repertoire and have no intention of ever making a different one maybe you might pick up a little tidbit of information that you might want to apply to your already fantastic recipe.
There is nothing complicated about this recipe so if you have never made French onion and think you might want to, well, here ya go.
I did use rendered bacon fat in the recipe and here is why. I wanted to replicate some of the richness that I find in the ramen noodles recipe from the Momofuku cookbook. The smokey onion-y goodness of the fat is unbeatable. If you take offense to bacon fat then oil or butter would work just fine.
I use fontina cheese here. It is not the traditional comte or gruyere. Use what you like. I like all three but one is easier on the pocket book but that is your call.
Check your broiler and make sure it works before you start the recipe.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/2 tablespoon bacon grease, butter or vegetable oil
7 cups yellow onions, trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch slices
1/4 cup garlic, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 cup red wine
4 cups richly flavored stock
1 tablespoon dried thyme
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1/2 pound Fontina, grated
4 to 6 toast rounds, or as I did, I griddled an English muffin half in rendered pork fat
1. Place one of your soup crocks on a sheet tray and put it in the oven. Try to adjust the oven rack so the top of the crock is about 5 to 8 inches from the broiler. Remove the tray.
2. Place a heavy bottomed large pot, the wider the pot the better the onions will cook, over medium heat and add the fat.
3. Once the fat has melted add the onions. Season them with about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and, I like lots, fresh ground black pepper.
4. Walk away from the pan and do something else in the kitchen. Don’t stir them until all the onions have wilted down. The more you stir them the longer they will take to color. Don’t up the heat either you don’t want them seared brown but gently browned. So if your pan is not so heavy bottomed you may need to turn the heat down. Cooking the onions to the right color and consistency will take at least a half hour maybe even an hour. Drink a glass of wine, listen to some music and call it happy hour. Get your zen on and be the turtle, slow and steady. The hare’s onion soup sucks don’t go there.
5. Cook the onions until they soften, have gone from amber to brown and you notice brown bits of onion on the bottom of the pan. Those brown bits are flavor be careful not to burn them, turn the heat down if you need to. Add the garlic and thyme and cook until the garlic becomes fragrant. About a minute.
6. Add the cup of wine to deglaze the pan and reduce it by half.
7. Add the stock and bring the pot to a boil. You can turn up the heat if you need but then reduce the heat and simmer the soup to bring all the flavors together, twenty minutes or so.
8. Grab a tasting spoon and take a taste. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.
9. Preheat your broiler. Bowl up the number of bowls you need. Place them on a sheet tray. It is much easier to grab one tray then to try to grab 4 or 6 crocks with gooey cheese on top. Get the sheet tray out.
10. Top each crock with a toast round or English muffin, then pile on the cheese and bake under the broiler till everything is gooey and golden brown. Remove them from the oven and wait at least 5 minutes before digging in- these things are thermonuclear.
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
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
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.