Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Food We Eat,

Save the bones for Henry Jones

...Cause Henry don't eat no meat

I love soup. I love to make it, eat it and serve it. It  pleases me to dice carrots and potatoes just so. To fry bacon at the start of a chowder.  The aroma of bay simmering with celery, tasting for salt, to find the one addition that takes it home. I have powerful, indelible memories of the way in which a soup has returned me to life. 

Once I was caught in a unseasonable blizzard, high in the Cascade mountains. We struggled through the snow for hours, dressed  for July. (For a year I had almost no feeling in the tips of my fingers and toes.) Finally, after huddling together overnight, we were led down the mountain to the safety of a large, warm barn. Someone fed us tomato soup and saltines. At the time, it seemed as if I were literally thawing. That soup is forever with me.

It is hard for me to believe how perfectly delicious reconstituted bouillon is after weeks of NPO, nil per os - nothing by mouth. Yet it is certainly true, even lukewarm from a plastic mug. 
The word, 'restaurant' originally named a cheap, strong soup available at street stands in France. It meant "that which restores." Soup recharges us, it can give us virtually everything we need to survive. When those of us have enough, we give soup to those who do not.

We have been eating soup for 20,000 years. In the beginning we cooked with hot stones. Pits in the earth, rocks with natural hollows and bags made of animal skins were filled with water and meat. Stones were teased from a fire to the mix and renewed until the soup came into being.

Ah, yes. The feet.

Soup is a metaphor for community, family and home. An ultimate soup would be built with what each neighbor brought to the pot. Animal, vegetable and mineral. Anything that is edible. It warms us, fills us, fuels us. Cool soups even refresh us in the heat. Soup does, in fact, restore us.

clam or cod?

"But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt." Moby Dick, supper in Nantucket. 

Every culture has a soup at its heart. Vietnam has Phở, pot-au-feu for France (technically a stew but served with its glorious broth), here in the Yucatan it's sopa de lima, Portugal has caldo verde, bean soup, minestrone, avgolemono, cock-a-leekie, hot and sour, miso, borst, dal and schi. I don't recall much soup in Hawaii but they probably do something with pineapple and spam.

I think I love soup so much because of way it blooms and concentrates flavor. I'm just going to say this once...canned soup is less than the shadow on the wall. I am not above using some but my expectations are very low. Sometimes, we do have a Proustian moment with chicken noodle or tomato soup (yes, from the red and white cans.) Still, not much truly good comes from a can.

stop talking

The pace of cooking soup is forgiving. It is best on low heat for a long time. I am referring to meat based broths for the most part because, to me, they seem the most restorative. Over time the collagen and gelatin in meat, fat and connective tissue melt and leach from the bones into the soup. It isn't just flavor, as these thicken the liquid and soften it to silk. As the soup deepens the aroma begins the meal as it fills the house with anticipation. Chicken broth, in the later stages begins to smell like honey. There is nothing like it.

B was feeling under the weather which is rare but always sends me to the soup pot, such as it is. We are leasing a furnished house and the cramped and awkward kitchen is barely "equipped." Instead of a nice stock pot I have a smallish stew pot. This presents a problem. It is tedious but I make the broth in layers.

one doesn't share soup. sorry.
The first layer is the meat. I like to use more than one sort, this one included beef shank (a nice inexpensive cut with bone, fat and gristle), the remains of a roast chicken and three flanken-cut pork ribs (cut across, rather than in between, the bones.) There isn't room for many vegetables so I squeeze in half of an onion. garlic cloves, slices of ginger and whole pepper corns all covered in water.  I hold this at a slow simmer for about 3 or 4 hours or until the meats are very tender.

When I can easily push the point of a knife into the meat I take it all out of the broth. As the meat cools enough for me to handle, I add the vegetables to the pot. Carrots, celery and more onions. If I have them I might add turnip, rutabaga, fennel, even radishes (which taste like turnips when cooked) When the meat has cooled, I slide it off the bone and set it aside. All of the bones, sinew, skin and gristle goes back in the pot for another few hours.

Foot note?

Well, actually...a note about feet. Because hocks (sort of like ankles) and feet need to be the most flexible part of an animal's anatomy, they are full of small bones, gristle, tendons and skin. These, as I have said, are good things in a stock. As the collagen breaks down it forms gelatin. It was once common to serve calves foot jelly as a dish both both sweet and savory. Gelatin itself has no flavor, only structure. The jellied broth was also considered nutritious and often served to the ill to help them regain strength.

One reward of gelatin is a miracle of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai or, soup dumplings. A strong and flavorful stock is chilled until solid and cut into cubes. These are added to the stuffing in pasta purses. When the sealed purses are boiled, the gelatin melts and reforms the broth. I use the technique to make sure pot pies remain juicy.

Basta for the feet! Trust me, throw in a couple of chicken feet or a pig trotter. Your soup will be better...hands down.

So,,,back to B's soup: When I feel as though I've gotten everything out of the carrot and bones (a couple of hours, I strain it through a colander into a large bowl. Because we only have the one pot I wash it and put it back on the stove. Next I strain the soup again back into the pot, this time with a wire mesh strainer.

There will be a layer of fat on the surface. If I have the time, I let it cool and shove it in the fridge. The next day it is set like jello and the fat will have formed a layer that I scrape off. If I'd rather not wait, I have three more options. If there isn't a lot of fat, you can actually blot it off with a paper towel. Or, there are fat separators: cups that have a spout which pours from beneath (I don't know why, but I have never owned one).

More commonly I skim the fat with a cooking spoon. Placing the pot mostly (but not completely) off the fire helps. When the soup begins to boil the fat collects opposite the heat and it's easier to skim. If I have not allowed the stock to boil but kept it to a lazy simmer, it will be clear.*

Soooo, I now have a rich broth which can be seasoned with salt and pepper to taste and drunk or spooned from a mug. It is more likely that I will begin adding freshly diced vegetables (almost anything), herbs and a starch (rice, beans, corn, potatoes or pasta.) Occasionally the vegetables I've used to make the soup will still have flavor and texture and those go back. And greens are wonderful additions.

I trim the meats that I have set aside and add them. As an extra treat I often shred the pork and beef with my fingers and fry them in a bit of oil until crisp and chewy. If I have made a bean soup (worth a devoted posting, some day) I might brown some flavorful sausage to add.

And when it has become soup, it helps B to feel better, to feel and be nurtured. That is exactly what I like to do.



* There is another way to produce a clear broth. It is a method used for Phở (truly one of the great soups of the world). Before you begin the broth, place the meat and bones in the pot and cover with cold water. Gradually bring to the boil, then drain and discard the liquid, rinse everything off. Then start again with fresh water and add the vegetables and herbs. This blanching does not weaken the final broth.

I never salt my broth until it's reached the final strength.

He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the four legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying-pan on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half of the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a spoonful from the plate. 'Chrise,' Nick said, 'Geezus Chrise,' he said happily." 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Too important to be taken seriously

An anatomy of craving

Here's the thing: we have limited time. Joseph Conrad understood, "We live in the flicker..." Furthermore not only is life brief but it includes pain, want and privation.  This is not a complaint, it's just what is.*

Within our flicker we are moved by instinct, need and desire. Instinct is our animal nature and culture generally rules that it should be suppressed and controlled. Personally, I'm not entirely persuaded that animal nature is the bad part.

turn your back to temptation

If we exercise enough discipline over and with our instinct we stay out of jail, We then spend the bulk of our time levering need and desire. Religion and politics tend to obstruct our path to desire and forbid one pleasure or another. They understand nothing about balance.

I know (at first hand) that the discipline of abstinence, control and suppression is hard. Survival is not enough, we should get prizes. This is were I come in. I am all about rewarding us for the effort that is life. Our senses are like gods who leave us in peace if only we placate them. So, help yourselves out:

it's your favorite

Indulge one another

That is to say: seek and provide the unnecessary, over and above that which is required. An indulgence is a special pleasure that we cannot always have. Food is the fundamental reward. Here is a formula you might consider: subtract everything about food that one needs for survival and whatever is left is the indulgence. A meal provides sustenance and delight. Additionally, good food rewards the entire being. Beside eating there is only one other activity that so thoroughly involves each and all of the senses.

boom, boom and boom

I know I can be tiresome on the subject but, to cook with knowledge, time and skill is an amazing thing. Cooks get to live by a principal: to feed someone well is the whole point. I can pull the taro from the ground and hand it to you. Or, I can dig it, bake it, peel it and pound the hell out of it first and then give it to you as poi. (Assuming that you like that glop.)

the aforementioned pineapple

This is all about why the time and effort required to make something special is worthwile. I think about the level of indulgence that I am creating as I properly trim a pineapple, arrange carrots on my quiche or peel poblanos for rajas in crema.

I should be clear; this is not altruism. It is about treating myself well. It is about feeding my cravings which are all over the map. To make myself a strawberry cake would be an extreme indulgence. If I make it for you, I am a saint who eats well. A saint with cravings.

knew you were coming, baked a tart

I aim my efforts straight at strong desire, craving. Sometimes, I simply must have something, as they say in New Orleans, "...a little sump'n, sump'n."

My cravings change: I must have cookies, crispy chicken skin, ice cream, fois gras, pizza and chocolate (of all kinds, particularly dark but also very, very good Swiss milk chocolate.) Sweet, meaty shrimp. Juicy, just to the pink side of red beef; potatoes in any form. Ripe, chilled strawberries. Pie crust, caramelized anything, caramel itself, fatty pork and apples, deep, healing and round bodied chicken soup. Capers, anchovies and olives. Pot roast with lots of carrots and red wine, one day to cook and a day to age and deepen. Coffee. Cream. Butter. Cheese...god, how I love cheese. I could go on.
L>A>Burdick's, the best

As you might guess, I do not take well to being denied. I have some experience with the many forms of denial and, while I understand its utility I prefer the flip side. If I am jonesing for crispy fried chicken, chocolate or curry and cannot have it, I petulate (it should be a word.)

Sadly, I can not always have Burdick's chocolates or the green chili chicken enchiladas that Heather Hannon makes. There is not always a Trader Joe's around the corner. These are hard things but I have learned to accept them. Apparently it is true, you can't always get what you want. As it happens the thrill is the thrill and I can get my jolt with something else (it helps to like almost every edible.) But I do not ignore it when I crave, I need something.

give me some of that...I will love you                           Brigid Burns

I have learned much about desire and its fulfillment from Mookie. She speaks for herself. Just look. Such absorption. Perfect focus. Pure performance art. She's a dog equally stubborn and smart. Also cute, spoiled and a fan of all food but, particularly the food on my plate. Like me and virtually everyone I know, she believes that treats are the best part of the day.

I try to be prepared at all times for the crave. There are two things in my fridge right now that can soothe the cravening beast: those rajas in crema and a simple pastry dough.

waiting to be burned

The poblanos are our current house rage. It's such a simple idea: pepper strips (rajas is Spanish for rags) stewed in cream. Poblanos have a gorgeous deep green, near black color. They are mostly mild but occasionally, and unpredictbly, some will be pretty hot. You have to taste them to find out but it's a clean, dry heat that is particularly good nestled in the cream. When they are allowed to ripen further, they all develop some heat. When dried they are chiles ancho.

Char the peppers in an open flame until they are uniformly black and blistered. When they are all finished put them in a paper bag or a lidded container so that the heat can continue to loosen the skin. Scrape and peel, slit them open and remove seeds and ribs. Slice them into strips and stew them gently for about 15 minutes in crema with a bit of salt. I use a dash of cumin.

(Crema is a Mexican cultured cream that is like a very slightly sweet and pour-able creme fraische. If you can't find it use any unflavored cultured creme thing from yogurt to Icelandic skyr. You do wanted it to be liquid so you might want to thin it with cream or milk. It is one of my favorite things about Mexico.)

The lovely smokey flavor, the heat and the fruitiness steeps in the cream. We love them as a side dish and as a layer in sandwiches or tacos. A good spoonful stirred a chicken soup is the bomb, I tell you, the bomb! The soup takes on a chowdery richness that is stellar. In fact, it has joined the list of dishes that we crave.

charred and ready

Some nights when I am unable to sleep, you might find me in the kitchen blanching almonds or toasting and mixing seeds and spices for dukkah (I'll explain another time.) I could be found rubbing butter into flour for a new batch of pastry dough or pickling mustard seeds, straining yoghurt for labneh or salting lemons. When my larder is stocked I am at peace and ready for guests or my own cravings. Life is good.

Keep coming back and I will talk about the pastry dough.

Cheers for now


 *About the trials of living, since I am almost 70 I've had my share of nasty times. I calculate that I have had about 750 miserable days out of more than 25,000, roughly .03%. Not bad. I can expect about 11 bad days this next year. I can do this