Thursday, December 23, 2010

How I Know Goose Down Works

After a big breakfast of chorizo fried up and smothered all over eggs and tortillas, then an unfruitful-for-everyone-except-me-'cause-I-got-new-slippers-and-boy-oh-boy-are-they-great excursion to the bizarre bazaar known as the Swap-O-Rama, I embarked with old Crazy Hair on a mission to "deal with" two beautiful wild geese a friend of his had shot up North. As I learned a few weeks ago, for most, being a city guy chef really means little when out of the comfort zone of delivery trucks bringing already "dealt with" stuff to your back door. With the exception of fish, I'd never really cleaned anything the whole way--I'm talking flying feathers and bristles and steaming guts here. I've seen it done, and have worked with cleaned whole pigs and halves of cows (which, by the way, was done in sublime fashion with a pig by a friend via tutelage from the beyond capable hands of one of the city's best butchers/larders). Sure, these are birds--easier to distance oneself from than the gently masticating cows and funny and cute pigs of the world, when they are warm, at least--and my hunter friends laugh at me when I talk about this, but still, looking at something and not being able to get out of your mind that it is just sleeping as you begin to rip feathers out of its body can be a bit of a task. But, with a great reverence for the lovely creatures in front of us, we did it anyway:
We read that despite the fact that blanching the birds quickly in warm water helps the plucking process, it was better to not blanch so as to avoid any "cooking" of the birds before it was intended. So, there was a lot of grabbing, holding, and ripping involved.
Disjointing the wings by gently working a boning knife through the tendons in the "elbow" got a lot of the feathers out of the way--helping mentally as we worked through a seemingly endless scape of feathers only to be greeted by soft fuzz underneath. Goose down is coveted for a reason--softer than much else I've ever felt, and the birds were pretty well insulated despite a long rest in the refrigerator.
When we'd finally made it through all that down and removed wings, we removed the heads (which can be done as described with the wings above, or Christmas Story style with a cleaver), then hung the geese to singe any remaining down with a blowtorch. One goose was pretty smooth; the other gave some trouble and got a fair amount of rips in it. It could've been the goose; it could've been the plucker (me). Who knows. But the layer of skin and fat, despite all of this, was still really nice and thick despite the cosmetic blemishes.
So, after a couple of hours outside, noses dripping, hands frozen, covered in feathers, we went back inside to finish the job. In the sink, we gently sliced open the geese on the tail end to eviscerate them. Some interesting smells found their way out--the most prevalent one of pond mud made perfect sense.
We rinsed everything and set the hearts and livers aside for instant eating...
...and had our ready-to-use geese. The more torn up one is currently in fat for confit; the other will be a roast tomorrow night.
The livers were fried and sliced...
...and Crazy Hair pulled out some pork heart and venison to join the party. Being outside and in the circus land of swap-o-rama had made us all tired and hungry and cold, so we drank some scotch, then some wine, ate some lovely bass broiled with soy standing up...
...then sat down to a papaya and grapefruit salad with an interestingly named super hot dressing happily full of fish sauce served with the sliced goose liver, pork heart and venison.
Being out in the cold was exhausting. But what a great day and experience--reminded me of anytime I've killed an animal to eat, and how that re-centers me a bit an reminds me of the respect we should all have for what we eat. I've always thought that if you're going to eat it, you've got to be able to kill it, at least once. And certainly, you've got to be able to clean it. Doing this makes you respect it a bit more, and this is one of the more important relationships that needs to exist between us and our food, don't you think?
PS--Be sure to check out the link to the pig butchering above--you'll find more links to some pretty amazing pictures of that event by someone who really knows how to use a camera. Here at F.o.t.D., that's still a pretty major work in progress.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Food Obsessed Mind Changes Gears Quickly

I started another batch of kombucha a few weeks ago, and I think he's ready to go. Kombucha is usually brewed from black tea, into which a bit of sugar and the happy little guy below, known as a scoby, are introduced. Then time does the rest--the scoby is basically a cake of bacteria and yeast that converts the tea and sugar into several things, among them a really great tasting acetic acid that makes the drink oh-so-very-sour. Some claim there are great health benefits gained from kombucha, others say that's just not true; I'm not here to make a claim either way--I just love the taste of it. Why am I bringing all of this back up, if I wrote about it before? Well, I've done some more looking into capturing the carbonation put out by the yeast in the scoby; and have had some solid results. In today's case, I've added a small dosage of muddled pomegranate seeds, agave nectar and the kombucha itself, then added it all back into the main batch. The sugar in the nectar will feed the yeast, who will output carbonation, and I'm hoping that the pomegranate will flavor things positively while offering a deep ruby color. We'll see how it goes: I'm expecting a nice, fizzy acidic drink in a week or so. Meanwhile, I advise you to get to a produce market and load up on pomegranates--'tis the season. And I've gotta go--my crazy haired friend just dropped off an extra bahn mi. Time's a wastin'!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ice on the Lake, Pine in My Cup

When the days get dark early, that means the lake gets nasty and then freezes in the most interesting ways. Today, I spent the better part of the afternoon out on the lakeshore up off of Bryn Mawr Avenue, fueled by the infamous (in my world, at least) double chicken platter at Aloha Eats. I love the lake in the winter, especially up where I was today--no one is out there, it's quiet as can be, and really quite lovely. Big ice drifts form, creating an artic landscape, but what I love is how the water freezes on the little piers during the wetter, windier storms. If you carefully walk out there, you'll see some of the strangest formations--ice that looks like gingerbread icing covering the metal posts and cables, big shards of ice crushed up against the concrete--and hear some really cool creaking and cracking noises from the ice below.

Of course, standing out there for a couple of hours creates the need to warm up, and if you feel like you've been pickled a bit too much lately and want to leave the big strong dark beers out of it, heat some milk with a bit of sugar, cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate. Put in a pinch of salt, chile powder (the kind that's just chiles ground up--no cumin or anything else, and certainly not "taco mix"), a bit of cayenne, and some vanilla. Whisk it all up nice and hot, then drink it down. It'll do the trick. Of course, a little bit of hooch never hurt, either. And if you should get a pine needle in there from your Christmas tree, well, we'll call that good luck.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beef Necks Be Good

I wanted to cook a dinner for some recently affianced friends, so I took a stroll through the snow up to Harvestime. Lucky for me, they'd just gotten a big load of beef necks, so I grabbed some, a few short ribs, and a couple of pig trotters. These joined onions, carrots, garlic, soffrito, guajillo, serrano and a ton of other aromatics in a slow cooker after a good sear, and they all had a nice hot bath in stock and wine all night long. In the morning, I threw some pasta dough together, strained the braised goodness and left the bones and meat in the broth to cool in the fridge.
When I got home that night, they were there waiting for me, wonderfully gelatinous and jiggling like a fat man's belly. I picked the meat and made a quick tomato sauce--onion, garlic, tomatoes and a bit of that gelatin which, upon hitting the pan, melted right into a thick stock. I pureed it all, then fried some maitake, cremini, and nameko mushrooms in butter.
I added the beef I picked from the ribs and neck bones; slowly adding some of the stock, then some tomato sauce as it reduced, for about an hour. Everything got rich and deeply colored and flavored as we rolled out some pasta "rags"--misshapen little sheets of pasta, usually left over from cutting circular ravioli, in this case done to order as I craved big chunks of toothsome pasta.The quick finish: boil the pasta, give the sauce a touch of the pasta water, then toss everything. Finish the plate with shaved fennel, parm, parsley, pomegranate (that wonderfully tart fruit responsible for Persephone, Demeter, and Hades' plunging the earth into winter each year), grapefruit (both zest and wedges) and olive oil. A really hearty winter dish--for engagements or otherwise.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Get Thee to a Piggery

Living in Chicago, I'm fortunate to be in proximity to some of the best food around--from tamales out of a street cart to fancy-pants-whatever-starred-cheffed-by-such-and-such restaurants. But some of my best meals in this city--nay, in this life--have been given to me in the very capable hands of some good friends. Who are these people that I am so lucky to have been thrown in the same pot with? They vary as much as the options described above do--from the bags of myriad cookie varieties from a friend each Christmas to the people who show up on my doorstep (and end up asleep on said doorstep) bearing cheese, champagne, bourbon, cigars and cotechino on New Years Eve. However, this Sunday, I'm talking about one group in particular who have in the works an amazingly gluttonous tribute to the great Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal (not to be confused with another legend by the same name in Paris). My friends at Xmarx are putting on this show down at dodo@Dino's in Fulton Market, and more information on the dinner can be had here. It'll be a indulgefest of massive proportion; have a soft bed and plenty of psyllium husk ready afterwards...and be ready for maximum satiation.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Noodles and Carrots, With Apologies to Kitchen Aid

In my eternal quest to find homemade noodles, I was turned on to Jibek Jolu by a video posted by the Chicago Reader's Mike Sula earlier this year. It's a Kyrgyzstani restauraunt just north of Lincoln Square on, well, Lincoln just south of Foster. In Sula's video below we're shown an impressively simple method of making noodles--not as flashy as the soba makers in Japan, or the Chinese noodle maker in the the second video--but I can assure you they are just as good and have the delicious backbone of really well done homemade food: a feeling more than it is a flavor or texture.

When describing the food I ate here to friends, I found myself having a hard time doing so in a way the place deserves. It isn't sexy; it's solid. It isn't outrageous; it's comforting. It's not the next hot thing, but it is the place I'm going to head to quite a bit this winter. The noodles made in the video wind up in a dish called lagman with a rich broth and stewed beef and peppers; a carrot salad sharpened things up, and the lentil soup they brought me after I sat down was rich and salty in the best of ways. Check it out. And here's to these alternative ways of making noodles--no machines, no cranking--just some patience and skill passed down through the generations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

When a Guy Gives You a Duck That Was in the Air That Morning, You Cook it Up and Eat It

I had the extreme fortune of traveling to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River over Thanksgiving. Included in this trip:
  • Outfitting in new winter gear (just in time) via Farm King, a store full of Carhartt and the like, luxuriously empty on Black Friday when I went. (What am I doing in the city?)

  • Eating a delicious huarache (a big huge disk of masa topped with good things I wrote about here) in a curious and unexpected Mexican restaurant, one of a few, in a small midwestern town of less than 10,000, which were all attached to pretty well stocked Mexican groceries, on par with what can be found in Chicago.

  • The obligatory Thanksgiving feast, complete with traditions such as corn pudding, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We brined a turkey for a few days and roasted it, of course--and had a couple extra breasts in the brine that we rolled and smoked a couple days later over what could be one of the greatest backyard, creekside, all-year-long firepits I've known. When the breasts were finishing up, we grilled a huge bone-in ribeye, I'm talking a couple of inches thick, and roasted some vegetables in foil as well. Where'd we get the vegetables? We got them the night before when dining at a place in Peoria, IL, called June, where the chef (a guy by the name of Josh Adams who is more enthusiastic about farms and farmers and vegetables than the oxyclean guy is about soap) came out to chat and wouldn't let us leave without a big bag full of crazy vegetables for us to cook. Ahh, the benefits of being in the industry. Oh, and did I mention this bonfire took place around 33 degrees or so? Fire warm. Carhartt, too.

  • Whiskey at 8am Thanksgiving morning in a small bar full of smoke on said Mississippi River. Tastes good. Too good. Too easy. So we left after one and went to a friend's cabin on the river. This man, a science teacher, is also quite the hunter/fisherman/maker of bloody marys. Stories were exchanged in the taxidermy-filled cabin, cigars blazing, deer sausage on the cutting board and in the belly. Toasty from the wood burning stove (and booze, I suppose), we decided to go out on the river on his boat. It was that good kind of really cold that I like so much walking along Lake Michigan in the winter--no one else around, really biting and invigorating and cleansing. We spotted a few bald eagles, so much larger than the back of any dollar bill has ever led me to believe; a woodpecker (also really huge) whose breed, I was told is that of the Woody Woodpecker; and a few ducks here and there hiding from the hunters. Back in the cabin, I asked how a city guy who might be interested in tasting one of the ducks he shot that morning might be able to acquire one. Thankfully, instead of handing me a shotgun (yeah, I grew up in Colorado, but no, I never learned to hunt), he took me outside and pulled out a duck he had shot that morning before our arrival. It was a diver duck, he told me, and as such had very small parts. He easily plucked the feathers and removed two tiny breast for me. The legs on these guys were really scrawny and do not lend themselves to cooking very well, nor did the organs--but the breasts, he told me, were strongly flavored. "Livery" was the term he used. I licked my lips and thanked him. Seeing how it was Thanksgiving, I held off cooking the duck that day. But when the time came a couple days later, I got a pan hot with some butter and fried those two breasts, getting a nice dark sear on one side, flipping them, and spoon-basting with butter. They came off nice and medium-rare. I gave them a rest, then sliced. Delicious. Strong. Ducky. Just as a heritage breed turkey tastes like turkey, as opposed the the tastes-like-chicken-bred broad breasted white, this duck, flying in the midwest just days earlier tasted like duck is supposed to taste. I recommend it. Just be sure to remove any shot left in it.

All in all, it was the kind of trip that makes a city dweller wonder what he's doing in the city. But I suppose proximity to this sort of thing is, for now, good enough. I know a guy here who is out hunting before showing up to work in the absolute middle of Chicago at 5pm (to be clear, he is hunting in rural Illinois; working in Chicago). That lovely winter isolation can be had out on the lake during the coldest times. And sometimes, sometimes the city skyline on a blustery, wintry night can be as stunning a a sky rich with glowing stars. And where else am I going to be able to wake up to Metropolis, eat at Anteprima or Schwa, drink at the Hop Leaf, shop at Reckless and Myopic, create with crazy-haired guys, and see that noisy Hanukkah truck driving all over the city, all in the same week?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Oh, and Get Some Soffrito in That Oven!

While you're Glad-Braising those ribs in the last post, why not make some soffrito at the same time? Soffrito is a building block of flavor that will add richness and complexity to pretty much anything. Dice a few onions up nice and small, maybe do the same with a couple of carrots and celery stalks. Put them in a nice heavy pot, and cover with olive oil and add some salt. Seems like a lot of oil, and it is, but it is well worth it in order for the soffrito to cook nice and softly, and will ultimately provide you with some tasty olive oil. Let this simmer on low, low heat for a couple of hours, stirring now and then. And hey--the low low oven you have going for those ribs is the perfect environment for this to happen. When things are nice and deeply caramelized, add some tomatoes. In the summer, use fresh--cut them in half and squeeze to discard the seeds, then grate the tomatoes on a cheese grater to make a puree of sorts--in the winter, use crushed canned tomatoes, drained off. Let this go for a couple more hours, then fold in some minced garlic and remove from the heat. The flavors will have concentrated to a fragrant, deeply delicious chunky paste--and are ready to be stirred into anything to bump up flavor--a backwards mirepoix, if you will. It'd be good spread on bread; this time I roasted some peppers and folded in soffrito and chives for a nice peperonata. Whatever you do, in your excitement towards the soffrito, don't forget to take your ribs out of the oven.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

City Ribs So Tender You'll Forget to Take Pictures of Them When They're Done

I like to eat ribs. But when one doesn't have the space/cash wherewithal to have a smoker or a Big Green Egg, one develops a good substitute that results in really nice, tender meat. What do you need for this method? Just a bunch of plastic wrap, some foil and an oven. Oh, and ribs, plus whatever you want to flavor them with (if anything at all, because, as we all know, pork tastes pretty good itself).

Take your ribs (last batch I had was a couple racks of baby backs from my beloved Gene's, and was cut with a generous portion of the loin still attatched, making them the meatiest baby back ever, with apologies to whoever ended up with the loin itself after me) and rub them with salt & pepper, then whatever else you want. I used dried oregano, ancho chile powder, cumin and smoked paprika, among other things. Cut them in half if space requires. Wrap them tightly, a few times, in plastic wrap, then in foil, and put them in a pan in the oven as low as it'll go. This will be somewhere around 225. Leave them in there for awhile; I left these meaty ones in overnight, which that night was about midnight to 6am. It might not take that long for yours. The ribs essentially braise in their own juices, low and slow. Poke a knife through the foil when you think it's done. If it's tender, it's done. Don't over think it.
I finished mine on the little smoky joe on the fire escape, city style--just to get some sort of smoke going, and then glazed them with a reduction of apple cider, thyme and guajillo chile. Things stay really moist this way...and it's a great substitute for the big smoker. (When I lived in Atlanta, there was a church that had a big crocodile-shaped smoker parked out front all the time. It was easily 30 feet long, and nasty looking as all get out. Whatever church-goer made that had some serious welding skills, and certainly smoking skills to match.)

At any rate, give this method a try. It works with anything you want to make tender and falling apart, like pork butt. Don't worry about the plastic. It doesn't melt into a weird liquid--it just gets more firm and sticks to the foil, not the meat. Of course, you could sous-vide things, given the right size equipment and a beer cooler full of hot water, but then, if you're the kind of person sous-vide-ing things, you probably already have a system down.