Tuesday, January 28, 2014

We ate horse meat for a year

In 1951, the Coast Guard sent my father to Stanford for graduate work in personnel administration. We lived in Palo Alto which sits between the the headwaters of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific. I was 5 and have only disconnected memories...mostly about fruit which was everywhere: apricots, those black plums that are dried into prunes, avocados, sweet, crunchy figs and lots of yellow jackets.

And then there was the horse meat. The family took part in a dietary experiment for a year. Maybe we were supplied the meat. Our assignment was to have a number of meals each week based around "viande de cheval". I have foggy but definite memories of family discussions about the horse meat. As I recall, we thought it was just ok; kind of dry and tough because it's so lean. We were all kind of adventurous, food-wise but it was my father who had the experience. He had eaten horse meat as a boy during summers in France. 

not my grandfather
Jason, my father, was raised in a kind of 19th century style by a French governess in New York...his first language was hers. He and his brother, John, saw their father Albert J. Kobler, only at breakfast. It was boarding schools and France each year. It all sounds lavish, and I guess it was; peopled with very fancy bridge partners including the Aga Khan, William Randolph Hearst and Walter Winchell. Grandfather Albert died well before I was born and Father never said much about his Park Ave. youth and, sadly, I was incurious. However, his experiences gave him a love and knowledge of French food (including horse meat.)

He joined the U.S.Coast Guard when War was declared and there met my mother (who was also a Coast Guard officer.) They both got out when the war ended and he worked for about 3 years as an advertising copywriter. It was enough. New York didn't offer the life he wanted. He/we went back to sea and we commenced our lives, moving from place to place as a military family. All that remains of grandfather Albert is an incomplete set of ornate demitasse cups and saucers and the bespoke silver service you can see at the top of my blog posts.

We ended up eating a lot of horse chili. Like venison, which is also dry, it needs moisture and time to become tender enough to enjoy. Spice doesn't hurt either. That was it though, I've had no horse meat (knowingly) since 1952.

Nowadays, we still love chili, particularly when it's bitter outside. And we think it needs corn bread and a green salad with a dairy dressing of some kind.

Mother used canned beans, ground meat and a bit less spice than I do but it was, and is, always a meal that was familiar, homey and warming. She made her chili in Puerto Rico, both Washingtons, Hawaii, Connecticut and so on. I prefer to cook up dried beans with a cheap cut of meat, fatty but trimmed, cubes of beef or lamb, but any game, poultry, substantial mushrooms, tvp, etc. would work except seafood which doesn't like to be cooked for a long time. 

First, cook your beans                                    brigid burns
First those beans: they must be cooked until you can easily crush them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. I don't over-flavor them, an onion, a couple of whole garlic cloves, a very small piece of lean fresh or cured pork. A mostly naked ham bone is ideal. Maybe a bay leaf. I simmer them slowly until creamy. Depending on the age of the beans, which I never know, it will be from one to three hours. Most beans will do although lima bean chili just seems wrong.

brown the meat first, then add the onions

Sear the meat thoroughly, being careful not to burn the delicious browned layer that forms on the bottom (called the fond [French for 'foundation'.]) Do the meat first and then add lots of chopped onions and garlic. Season lightly each time an ingredient is added. If you are doing a vegetable version, toss the chopped onions very lightly in flour to make a kind of an onion roux. Begin to add a mix of dried, fresh or canned chilies as well as chile powder, paprika, cumin and oregano. When the onions are soft add enough liquid to scrape up and dissolve the good bits on the bottom. I have used water, beer or wine but, whatever I use, I watch the pan carefully and when the first liquid has cooked into the solids, I add a second liquid, preferably a rich stock but even lightly salted water will do in a pinch. It's a further distribution and deepening of all of the flavors.

Next, add tomatoes and begin tasting, I never know how much acidity and sweetness the tomatoes will bring. I am not interested in authentic Pedernales River Chili (Ladybird Johnson's recipe.) I'm more interested in the flavor profile that pleases Brigid. She has a sophisticated palate and it is her own: although she is from the mid-West her tastes were complicated by a 10 year immersion in New Orleans. After the tomatoes begin to break down, add the beans and as much of their cooking liquid as needed to make the chili a bit soupier than you like (knowing that it will thicken further.) Simmer slowly for an hour, continuing to taste and adjust. The things I use to balance the flavors vary but almost always includes soy sauce, honey or molasses, vinegar or lemon, red miso paste and the hot stuff of the moment (at this moment it happens to be the Korean chili paste, gochujang.) To truly finish the chili properly, let it cool down and age for overnight.

Our Chili, tonight's supper!

Remember, corn bread (I don't care for the sweet variety but serve it with butter and honey) and salad. Chili likes toppings: grated sharp cheddar, chopped raw onion, cilantro, parsley, sour cream, pico de gallo or guacamole all can be stirred in to good effect. I would say olĂ© but the fact is that chili is not Mexican, it's more like American cowboy. In the 1800s, chili was made up and then dried in bricks to be reheated with water on the trail.

This is more a list of ingredients than a recipe, I believe that chili should be a personal expression...so saddle your own horse.


1 pound of dried beans, cooked with an onion and 3 garlic cloves until creamy, when they are done, add salt and pepper.

1 pound of ground or cubed beef browned evenly.

1 pound of yellow onion, chopped and softened in the beef pot

1 pound (or a bit more) of good canned tomatoes, crushed

1 cup of beer, wine or seasoned water

1 cup of strong stock or bean cooking liquid

To taste: chiles, chili powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper.



Sunday, January 19, 2014

Baked Asheville (with pork candy)

Asheville is surrounded by very old mountains.

We have wildflowers.

We have waterfalls.

We also have lots of restaurants and a rocketing food culture. Big time. James Beard nominees and finalists. Articles popping up everywhere, a couple hundred food blogs (maybe a couple hundred and one.) The choices for dining out have grown hugely (especially if you like pork.) There's even a recently published history of Asheville's particular cuisine: Asheville Food: A History of High Country Cuisine (which I have not yet read). We have glamorous chefs and bakers, we have bad boy chefs, we have wondrously myopic food artisans. I can't imagine that anything more needs to be said about our bursting barrel of breweries but we also have distilleries and cideries.

mountain food culture, old school (Brigid Burns)

May I suggest that things have changed? I have been working in the Asheville food world for over 20 years. When we moved here in 1991, there was good dining at the Marketplace and The Richmond Hill Inn... also...um... the Grove Park Inn. There were mainstream American bakeries, lots of yeast and pillowy breads. We had Frank's Roman Pizza and lots of diners with Greek names. Asheville still has deep affection for the Mediterranean Restaurant that has been an institution since 1969.

We shopped at Ingles, Harris Teeter, the Fresh Market, Bi-Lo and Food Lion, Dinner for the Earth (now, of course, Earthfare) the French Broad Food Coop and a single tailgate market. Now we have updated versions of most of these as well as newish players in Green Life (Whole Foods, the behemoth), Trader Joe's (eliminating the last reason to envy Greenville, SC), and TJ's estranged brother Aldi,Amazing Savings, Katuwah and a sprinkling of mostly Mexican Tiendas. For anything exotic we have Kim's Oriental, Foreign Affairs and several other ethnic shops. At last, one does not have to make one's own pelmeni, Siberian style stuffed pasta (or worse, to try and substitute tortellini [as if they can't tell the difference]).

Our resources are now nearly complete, whether or not you care for the package in which a particular element arrives. Nearly everything one could need is available to cook (or raw) and serve literally anything you wish. Fresh galangal, candlenut, jaggery or gulub jawa, Thai peppers, long beans and bitter melon, both gochujang and gochugaru...all available! A vibrant community of local farms brings stunning produce to the tailgates. I am still surprised every year to be able to find purslane, lamb neck, honey, sugar plums and tatsoi along with foraged nettles. morels and ramps. We even get descent seafood driven up from the coast.

We even found our constant companion at the City Market in the Public Works parking lot. You need to be careful. The Humane Society or Brother Wolf often have booths offering the irresistible.

                                  Mookie                     brigid burns

The artisan food community is growing rapidly. We have locally made miso, cheeses, smoked, cured and fresh meats, superb chocolates, preserves, heirloom grains milled into meals and flours. And bakeries? Funny you should ask, we do have many bakeries for every taste and requirement but there's more. Here is the true story about how I got to Asheville in the first place:

We parked behind a strip of shops on the corner of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues in northwest DC. to shop at great bakery, Marvelous Market in case you were there. I got out of the car and noticed a van with these words painted on its side... French Baking Machines. It was a moment...I dropped everything I was in order to be someone completely different and, as it turned out, very much more my self. My former wife Margaret was in on the epiphany, she shared my need to start feeding people. Up until that moment I worked for the US Small Business Administration, after that moment I was a bread baker.

I was 45 when I made that hairpin turn. I got a business card from the disdainful French driver/technician. He doubted I could learn to make real bread. It must be in ze blood. Well... apparently it is. It never occurred to me that I might not have it in me or that I might be "tone-deaf" to bread. I had fallen in love with the idea of baking. In short order the idea became the life. I called the boss at headquarters in New Jersey and proposed to buy one of his ovens if he would put me together with the best baker he knew.

I followed up with the oven man who sent me to Dan Leader, owner of Bread Alone, 100 miles north of Manhattan (my home town). We agreed on a fee and he became my sensei. He took me from that moment (not knowing how to bake bread) until two weeks after Blue Moon Bakery was open and running. I spent a couple of months learning and doing everything that could be done in Dan's bakery. Margaret (who had visited as a child from her native Kentucky) picked Asheville as a good place to try and we never looked back. We met Laurey Masterton who persuaded us to move in next to her shop in the building on Biltmore Avenue (the spot where City Bakery is now.)

So we packed up our daughters, Nora and Emily, and drove to our new home. From the moment we opened our doors the city welcomed our family and our bread.

I found the knack to make artisan breads (and then made the breads 10.000 times as Hank says one must in order to become good at something.) Ashevilleans found that they loved those breads. Blue Moon was the first such in Asheville (and I think the first in the state, maybe the whole South.) The bakery was just a bit ahead of the curve when I started the boules rolling 22 years ago. This coming March (2014) will be the 10th annual Asheville Artisan Bread Festival founded and nurtured by Steve Bardwell and his wife, Gail Lundsford of Wake Robin Farm Breads. (For festival news and schedule http://www.ashevillebreadfestival.com/.)

I am still here, baking less and cooking more. We are here, Brigid, Mookie and me; we still love the mountains, wildflowers and waterfalls, the glorious cooks and foods of Asheville and each other. Bon Appetit!



Sunday, January 12, 2014

Indulgence (it's a good thing)

Dagwood Bumstead cared for only 3 things

My list is longer than his but our top three are nearly identical. Eating, sleeping and Blondie (although my Blondie has silver and black hair and is never publicly ditzy.) The devoted pursuit of these goals throughout one's life might be interpreted as cardinal sins.  I don't care. I fully intend to keep it up.

Of course gluttony needs balance...just not repudiation. I hold this to be true for all of the "sins" that harm no one. They should not be avoided; rather, they should be perfected. Some folks base their lives on love, or obedience, or law. My animating center is the pleasure principle. I realize, of course, this is everyone's core drive, even yours. I choose not to fight it. For your sake and mine, DON'T GET ME STARTED!

Any effort spent seeking pleasure for oneself or others is worthwhile. Don't take my word for it...from a little ditty that was sung to Tutankhamen and his court:

god this was good
Let thy desire flourish,
In order to let thy heart forget the beatifications for thee.
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee,
Being anointed with genuine marvels of the gods' property.
Set an increase to thy good things...

Back to Dagwood and gluttony. I make room in my life for overeating. It offers a distinct pleasure in its own category. Like the pleasure of quenched thirst; the taste of coffee in the morning, the perfect crunch of a perfect croissant, occasionally eating too much is on the joyful side of the spectrum. I am not trying to persuade anyone of this truth, It is self evident.

To be absolutely truthful, I indulge this desire infrequently and I level things out with short term fasting. Everyone knows the I-would-eat-the-whole-thing-if-I-could feeling. From time to time I simply indulge that desire. Privately. Usually around midnight. A whole bag of cookies. A whole pint of ice cream. A dozen chocolate truffles. Or, like Dagwood, a serious sandwich.

this only looks like a crime scene, it was a glorious burger

Eating something wonderful can be an excellent way to balance too much moderation, the over disciplined life. We all know someone who never, ever gives in to impulse or indulgence. It's just so sad.

this cake made my fridge happy

The failure to indulge one's self from time to time is a serious character flaw. A primary cause of hypertension. Care for an extra meal? Yes, thank you: rich beef stew on toast, half of a of strawberry cake, seven or eight poppy seed and honey hammentaschen.

A Jewish gift to the world

Maybe I'll just break off a lunch plate sized piece of hazelnut brittle.

if you add chocolate and grind it all up, homemade Nutella

It is good to have extravagant moments. What I mean to say is that I give and have the most fun in the space beyond needs. Just enough is not enough. If ever I were to get a tattoo... 



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Milking the Tangerine (one more time)

So, they weren't tangerines after all.  The beautiful candied tangerines I've made are actually beautiful candied calamondins. My alert Sisinlaw determined the truth, packed a box full of the little devils and sent them to me in the literally frozen north South. I know we are in the mountains, but, trust me, 3 below 0 is News in North Carolina.

calamondin flower

They are like kumquats in that the skin is the sweet part. You can use the juice in the way and in the same quantity as you would lemon or lime. And they make a spectacular marmalade which I finished yesterday; truly, this is the easiest preserve I've ever made. Modest tedium. Modest equipment, a candy thermometer is helpful. A pot, some sugar and water. To wit:

1. Be sure they are pesticide free and wash the fruit thoroughly. Remove the stems completely and, working over a pot (avoid aluminum or unseasoned iron, I use enameled iron) slice them in half and squeeze the juice through a strainer to save all of the juice and none of the seeds. It's a mild struggle to get them all out but the ones you miss will appear later as you cook the marmalade. It is either infuriating or calming to dip the bitter seeds out at that point. 

Now, the fruit can be chopped but I find that I lose too much juice and I leave it in halves until later.

2.  Add enough water to cover the fruit and juice. Move the pot to the stove and bring it to a boil. Maintain a low boil for 20 minutes and remove from the heat, cool and then refrigerate over night to coax out most of the natural gelling agent, pectin.

3. The next day, measure the mixture and set aside an equal amount of sugar. This is a general rule of thumb when making jams, one to one, fruit to sugar. Bring to a rolling boil and gradually add the sugar, stirring until you are satisfied that it is dissolved. Continue to cook until the thermometer reads 220 degrees. It will take about a half hour and it does need to be watched. As the temperature slowly rose, I stood over the pot with a pair of scissors and snipped the fruit into small pieces. Be careful, it can stick to your skin and burn like napalm. After it's cooled enough to handle, carefully spoon it into sterilized jars.

brigid burns

I want to keep some of these jars for a long time and so I processed them. With fresh lids tightly screwed down I placed the jars in a pot covered by an inch of water. They boiled for ten minutes and I cooled the jars in the water.

You don't really need to process marmalade, just refrigerate it. As it happens, there is no space in my fridge so I'll store these in my "pantry". We have everything here except space. At any rate this is so tasty I'd rather not run out.

On a final note, I notice that my blog is dominated by a single color and I do not want to come across as a monochromaniac. It's just not me. And so, I hereby pledge to avoid the color orange (except for a piece of carrot) for the next three posts. For the moment, black is the new orange.