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

Madeira Tart

Madeira Tart

This is a tart with an agenda. Its roots are old fashioned and small town but don’t let that fool you. It is as luscious and silky as Scarlett Johansson sauntering the red carpet. It is as lascivious as True Blood and as beaten-up as Mickey Rourke on a bad day.

There are tarts and then there are tarts. The best are the kind that even your mama would like. Never suspecting or questioning what makes up its character but just enjoying it for what it is because it is so good. All the while, later, you know you are going to lick your fork like…well, lets just say it is a tart that likes to please and it will.

Truly, it is like fine champagne on a Sunday afternoon. The basis of this tart has been around for a long time, the old fashioned egg custard pie, you know the one with nutmeg that has shown up at every family reunion since people started having reunions.

Well, take that base and an idea from Alice Waters and her Marsala cream pots, add in the videos on the FOOD52 site from Shuna Lydon about cooling your custard and then use duck eggs(again Waters idea) which make for an even silkier tart and what you come up with is nothing less than sexy. Never fear, I have written the recipe to use chicken eggs but if you ever come across fresh duck eggs by all means use them to make a custard.

SERVES 8

For the crust::

1 cup all purpose flour

1/4 cup semolina flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 finger pinch of salt

For the custard::

1 1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons madeira

4 large eggs, or 3 duck eggs

For the custard:

1. Place the milk into a sauce pan and scald it over medium high heat. Remove the pan from the burner. In a mixing bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, madeira and salt. Temper the eggs by whisking in a 1/2 cup of warm milk and then add the rest while whisking. Cover the bowl and place the custard base into the fridge. You want it to be cold. It can sit in the fridge overnight which is probably best but at least let it get to 35 or so degrees. You could do this in an ice bath if you are in a hurry.

To finish the tart:

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl and using a large wooden spoon mix all the crust ingredients smashing the butter into the mixture with the back of the spoon until you have a cornmeal and cous cous looking crumble. You can use your hands rubbing them together with the mixture between them to make some of the bigger chunks smaller.

2. Place an 8 inch tart pan onto a sheet tray. This will make it easier to move around and get out of the oven. Dump the crumbles into the tart pan. Press the dough up the sides, packing it tightly as you go, and then work toward the center until you have a crust. Bake the crust for 20 minutes. Remove it from the oven.

3. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Strain the chilled custard through a fine mesh strainer to remove any albumen pieces. Pour the custard into the tart till it is half full. Place the tart into the oven and then finish filling the tart. You will probably have about a 1/2 cup of base left. I made a little extra so you wouldn’t come up short in case your tart pan was a little bigger.

4. Back the tart for 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake it for another 20 to 30 minutes or until set. Depending on how cold you custard is will lengthen or shorten the baking time. If you give the sheet tray a gentle but sharp shake the tart should jiggle like jello if it is done. If it creates waves that look like you dropped a pebble into still water continue cooking.

5. When the tart is done remove it from the oven and let it cool completely. Cut and serve.

Smoked Herring Salad

Smoked Herring Salad

Why do so many people fear canned fish? I don’t mean tuna, it doesn’t even count. Was there some massive food poisoning event in the United States back in 1908 or something and the canned fish market never recovered or do we just have a lot of closet canned fish eaters in this country.

Canned fish is brilliant, don’t laugh, I am being totally serious. It is really tasty, it harmlessly sits in your pantry ready to be used and is as tasty as the day it was packed.

Maybe people don’t know how to use it or maybe when they were little their parents always told them they wouldn’t like it and so they never have. My guess is most people who say they don’t like it have never tried it or it has been served to them right out of the can bathed in some sort of funky sauce.

No, what I am talking about is fish packed in oil, be it, mackerel, herring or sardines, smoked and not smoked. The omega-3 dense bait fish, well not mackerel it is higher up the chain then the other two, but fish oil rich nonetheless.

It’s as if you have to go to Eastern Europe, Nordic countries or Russia for your recipes and I am good with that. These countries now what to do when it comes to canned fish. I trust them.

This recipe is of Dutch descent. Being the herring eaters they are you can count on them for good recipes.

Serves 4

1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon Dusseldorf mustard or Dijon

1 teaspoon whole grain mustard

1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1 tin smoked herring or mackerel

2/3 cup celery, chopped

1 cup yukon gold potatoes, boiled and cubed

6 cornichons, chopped

2 to 3 beets, roasted, peeled and cubed

2 hard boiled eggs, shelled

a handful of peas, fresh or frozen

2 teaspoons chives, chopped

2 shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Combine the mayonnaise, mustards and vinegar in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to combine.

2. Add the celery, potato, cornichons, peas and herring. Smash the eggs into chunks and add them to the bowl. Stir to combine. The herring will break up into small pieces with some hunks much like if you were making tuna salad. If you want big hunks of herring then garnish the salad with it.

3. Divide among 4 plates and garnish with the beets and shallot rings. Garnishing with the beets keeps the salad from turning pink.

4. Serve

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Dover Sole with Herb Oil and Zucchini

The delicate flavor of white fleshed fish, for me, is best when cooked simply.  In fact the most important thing is seasoning the fish properly and making sure not to overcook it, which is a good reason to salt it an hour before you want to eat and why it makes sense to finish cooking or re-warming the fish in the oven.

This dish is a great recipe for entertaining because you can brown the fish without cooking it completely and then when you are ready, you can finish it up in minutes in the oven.  I also find it is a great dish for date night at home or a special occasion dinner for two, such as an anniversary.

Finally, the fish you use is up to you.  I love Dover sole but it is hard to find, you are going to have to skin it, and then bone it too.  Flounder is an excellent alternative as is halibut.

Serves 2

1 large whole Dover Sole, skinned, or other flat fish

5 fresh basil leaves

1 sprig of thyme or savory

extra virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the fish

3 baby multi colored carrots

1 or 2 zucchini depending on their size

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350˚ F. Salt and pepper the fish on both sides.

2. Place the herbs into a mortar. Using the pestle grind and bruise the herbs into a coarse paste. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of fresh ground pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and mix to combine. Set the oil aside.

3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet(non-stick if you are more comfortable with it) large enough to hold the fish easily and comfortably. When the oil is very hot but not smoking add the fish. Brown the fish on both sides it doesn’t matter if it is cooked through or not, then remove it to an oven proof tray.

4. Clean out the skillet and place it back onto the stove. Slide the fish, and two oven proof plates, into the oven to finish cooking or warming it. Add a glug or two of oil to the saute pan, add the crushed clove of garlic then add and sear the zucchini. Season it with salt and pepper then turn it and do the same to the other side.

5. Plate the fish, put the zucchini on the plate attractively and using a mandolin or by slicing the carrots thin, garnish with the carrots. Drizzle some herb oil over the fish filets.

6. Serve.

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

The Great One

Recently, for what seems like the millionth time, I sat down and watched the original The Hustler. Not because of the story, although it’s a great story; or Paul Newman’s blazing good looks, although his blue eyes are piercing, even in black and white.

No, this time I was watching the Great One: Jackie Gleason. He completely captivated my attention. He’s not in many scenes, but he steals the ones he’s in, hands down. You can almost see Newman studying him right there on-screen, as though his blue eyes are fixed, mesmerized, on the great acting Gleason is doing.

Their first scene together might be one of the best in any movie. Gleason comes up the stairs, enters the pool hall through a set of double doors, and there he is: the presence, the clothes (who else could wear that hat?), the je ne sais quoi. Newman’s eyes might pierce, but watch the banter between the two and notice the moments when Gleason smiles and his eyes are nothing less than sparkling. That sparkle in Gleason’s eyes has fascinated me for months. I’ve gone back and watched old footage of him on talk shows and other clips of him talking with folks. I thought “je ne sais quoi” was about the best way to describe the sparkle, but then I realized it was much more. Continue reading

Fried Bologna Sandwich on Challah with White American Cheese Sauce

Fried Bologna with White American Cheese Sauce

I was probably thirteen or fourteen years-old the first time I had a fried bologna sandwich and I will never forget it. I was watching some TV show and they ate it on the show. I thought I had seen the most amazing culinary treat ever. I went to the kitchen and made one and was shocked to find bologna was even better hot.

I used to save my school lunch money, for things I shouldn’t have been buying, and came home from school starving. My mom wouldn’t make me anything to eat because it was my fault I was hungry.  That said, she didn’t care if I made something for myself and from that moment  on  fried bologna became a staple.

This is my ode to the days of old, I don’t eat one of these often but when I do this is how I want it served.

SERVES  1

4 thin slices of good garlicky German bologna, French garlic sausage, or mortadella

2 slices of Challah, toasted

1 large egg

1/3 cup heavy cream

1 1/2 teaspoon Nathan’s mustard

3/4 cups grated white American cheese

3 dashes Worcestershire sauce

2 dashes Crystals Hot Sauce

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 green onion, sliced

1. Place a small sauce pan over medium heat and add the cream and mustard. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat. Add the Worcestershire, hot sauce and cheese. Stir to combine and continue to heat until the cheese is melted. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

2. Place a medium saute pan over high heat.

3. Fold each piece of bologna in half and then into quarters so it looks like a triangle. Place the four triangles into the hot saute pan and sear until it looks like a hot dog that was over cooked on a campfire. Remove the bologna and place it on the bottom slice of Challah and top with the remaining toasted bread.

4. Reduce the heat on the pan and add the oil. Fry the egg to your desired doneness.

5. Pour the desired amount of sauce over the top slice of bread and then top with the egg and green onions. Serve with an ice cold Pepsi, or Coke if you must.

Meyer Lemon Tart

Meyer Lemon Tart
Meyer Lemon Tart

I have been making lemon bars for many years now from a recipe by John Taylor also known as Hoppin’ John.  A while back I thought it would make a great tart, and guess what, it does. If you like Low Country cooking you should search out his cookbook Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry. It seems like a good time to share this recipe.

SERVES 6 TO 8

For the crust::

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup all purpose flour

1/4 cup semolina flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

For the custard:

2 to 3 Meyer Lemons, zested first then squeezed for 1/3 cup juice

5 large egg yolks

3/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup ussalted butter, room temperature and cubed

zest from two Meyer lemons

powdered sugar, for dusting the tart

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In the bowl of a mixer, or in a bowl and mixing with a wooden spoon, cream the butter with sugar and salt. Add the flours and mix well. The shortbread crust will look crumbly and like cous cous or cornmeal. Turn the dough out into an 8 inch tart pan and press it evenly into the pan starting with the sides and working toward the center. Place your index finger over the top of the flutes and push the crust upward using you index finger as a back stop.

2. Slide that tart shell into the oven and bake it for 20 minutes.

3. While the tart is in the oven combine the eggs, sugar, zest, 1/3 cup Meyer lemon juice in a heat proof mixing bowl and whisk to combine the ingredients.

4. Place the mixing bowl over low heat, if you are worried about this you can most certainly use a double boiler, and whisk the custard until it starts to thicken. It takes about 13 minutes on low so it will take longer in a double boiler. Once it is very thick, like warm pudding and leaving ribbons as you whisk, remove it from the heat and whisk in the butter.

5. When the tart crust is done remove it from the oven and add the lemon curd. Bake the tart another 10 minutes or until set.

6. Remove the tart from the oven and let it cool completely. Once cool sprinkle it with powdered sugar just before serving, slice and serve.

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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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