“You can still live with grace and wisdom, thanks partly to the many people who write about how to do it and perhaps talk overmuch about riboflavin and economy, and partly to your own innate sense of what you must do with the resources you have, to keep the wolf from snuffing too hungrily through the keyhole.
–MFK Fisher, from “How to Cook a Wolf”
Now that we are well into the New Year, I am once again appreciative for the modicum of self-awareness that prevents me from making resolutions. Lacking almost completely in anything resembling resolve, I let the Holiday come and go without so much as whiff of a plan for self-improvement. A friend of mine who once held the world record in the marathon claimed in a magazine interview that he had no discipline at all, a comment many find strange coming from someone who ran 26 miles back-to-back faster than 99% of people on earth can run even one. He added “but I AM determined. There’s a big difference between being disciplined and being determined.”
With both Salazar’s dictum and MFK Fisher’s quote in mind, I am reflecting on notable successes of the culinary sort and celebrating those rather than steeling myself with resolve. Recently there was a dinner of double-thick pork cutlet, dusted with pulverized fresh rosemary from the backyard, seared in cast iron and then pan roasted. This was served with a splendid Sauce Robert, which has become one of my favorites. Bob Sauce is easy and piquant, qualities that top my list in matters of romance as well as sustenance. This sauce is simple to execute, a reduction of white wine with shallots, butter, a dollop of beef demi-glace and then mustard and lemon to finish. More butter if you want it thicker. The sauced cutlets went nicely with mashed potatoes and crunchy green beans. A meal worthy of a modest fist pump, if not a Lambeau Leap.
Upon further review, I noticed something interesting. While the pork cutlets were courtesy of Mrs. Safeway, neatly encased in a styro platter and shrink wrap, most of the remaining Meals of Note came from off the grid. The left of the dial. Out yonder.
Part of this is due to the fact that we have taken recently to procuring meats via children’s 4H projects. A quarter steer, mostly grass fed, neatly filled my undersized, urban freezer and cost $2 a pound, slaughtered, butchered, wrapped and delivered. We got every cut from t-bone, tenderloin and brisket to hamburger and soup bones. The hamburger alone has been worth the entire price. I serve it chocked with fresh herbs, Worcestershire, and grated onion. The second to last chuck roast recently became Beef Burgundy (or boeuf bourguignon or beef stew) a la Julia Child. I took her advice and first fried the chuck chunks in hot bacon grease to form a nicely carmelized crust. This made all the difference.
Next up was a whole spring lamb, which tipped the scales at 100 lbs. hanging weight. The lamb chops, pan-fried and served with a shallot, black mission fig, and red wine reduction would have been a bargain had I paid $40 per plate at the Metropolitan Grill.
I am still saving two ample hind legs for a future special occasion. When that day comes, I will marinade them in a mash of horseradish and roasted garlic, then roast it in a blazing hot oven to form a crust that will seal in the essential lamby juices. It will be just barely medium rare.
As noted previously, both beasts came to our house via teenager 4-H projects. Thinking about this gives me a bit of pause, as well it should when you are eating something that probably had a name. Then again, I should probably pause even longer for those creatures of God raised in miserable agri-industrial conditions, such as the afore mentioned pork cutlet. Politicizing my eating tends to curb my appetite and therefore I try to avoid it whenever possible. Taken to its logical conclusion, political eating leads inevitably to veganism, and I’m sorry, but “that dog won’t hunt,” as my Cajun friends would say.
Instead, I believe I will simply and contentedly continue down the path I am on, the one that frequently veers off grid, if not off the map altogether. The 4H projects have been a triple word score win – not only has the meat proven tastier by multiples, but it has come at a fraction of the price that I would pay for a far inferior product at Fred Meyer. And, some nice country kid got a wad of cash for her wallet.
While this satisfies both the epicure and the miser in me, off-grid dining does not always mean cheaper. Case in point was the Christmas Duck. This fall I started procuring lovely chicken eggs from my new friend Carrie Little of Little Eorthe Farms (www.littleeorthe.org). Carrie sets out a booth at my local farmers market (Proctor Street in Tacoma) with produce from the small family farm she operates in outer Orting with her husband Ken. After a couple of happy egg purchases, I took her aside one gray Saturday morning and inquired as to whether she knew where one might procure duck eggs. Her eyes got big, always a good sign.
“Why, I have duck eggs right here,” she whispered. She led me to the back of her booth and uncovered a clandestine stash of gorgeous Muscovy ovum. I purchased a half-dozen robust beauties at a dollar each and made a splendid Spanish tortilla that night with some leftover confit, sweet onions and Manchego cheese. Yum!
While eating the tortilla, the thought came to me. Where there are duck eggs, there must be ducks. The next week I sidled up to Carrie and waited until there were no other customers around. In hushed tones, I inquired as to whether they ever, you know, slaughtered any ducks. “In fact, we have too many boys right now” Carrie cooed. “We are culling the flock next week. You are in luck.”
Negotiations ensued and in a week I found myself driving out to Orting to pick up a 7 pound beauty, fully-dressed with webbed feet intact, never frozen. I paid $40, a princely sum no doubt (and well in excess of supermarket prices), but one that ended up being worth every penny. I carved the ample breasts from the carcass and separated the plump hind quarters. Saving every sliver of yellow fat, I rendered a cup-plus of purified greasy golden goodness, which will be used for roasting potatoes and/or deep-frying pomme frites. The carcass, wings, and neck were roasted golden brown and then added to a vegetable mirepoix, which made a stock deserving of its own armed guard.
For dinner, the boneless (but skin-on!) breasts and thigh quarters were simply dusted with Chinese five spice powder and then pan roasted to medium rare. If you are cooking a fattened duck yourself, one trick is to keep draining the fat as it cooks, or else you simply poach the bird and don’t get a nice mahogany-colored, crispy skin. Also, start with the thigh quarters – they need at least 15 minutes longer cooking time. Even then, mine turned out a bit tough. In the future, my duck thighs will be reserved to be rendered into a tender confit, which is another column all on its own. Remind me to talk about duck confit with warm cabbage salad dressed with vinaigrette sometime.
This philosophy, taken to its logical extreme, results in rolling your own. Or growing your own as is the situation here. A couple years ago I won the lotto and secured a community garden plot in a nearby city park. The plot costs $35 a year, for which I get pre-season tilling and water. I guess I could justify the expense by the hundreds of dollars I save on produce or the lack of pesticides, but those are secondary benefits. Fresh grown crops simply taste better. My 350 square foot plot cranks out an amazing abundance of veggies. Too much for us to eat, a fact to which my neighbors will happily testify.
I’m not sure at all if this off-grid thing is going to save the culinary world or not, but then again, that’s not the idea. I lack sufficient resolve to be a food-hero. Instead, my quest is to procure and prepare the best tasting food I can find at a price I can tolerate. If that reduces my carbon footprint, or qualifies me for Team Locavore, I suppose that’s a outcome I can get in line with. I still spend a lot at Safeway and Metropolitan Market and always will. I’m not going to press olives into oil, churn my own butter or milk my own cows any time soon. But if you have a pick-up pulled off to the side of the road and are selling chanterelle mushrooms for $5 a pound, you’ve got a deal. Give me $20 worth.
Lamb Chops with Black Mission Figs
Lamb chops (1-2 per person depending on size and appetite)
4 Tbs finely chopped fresh rosemary
Fresh Black Mission figs (2 per person, quartered lengthwise)
1 shallot, diced
Quarter cup rich beef stock
Pat chops completely dry and let sit at room temp for 30 minutes. Dust with rosemary, salt and pepper. Bring cast iron skillet to high heat and sear each side of the chops until nicely caramelized, a 3-4 minutes. If thick cut, finish the chops to medium rare in 375 degree oven. Remove from pan and keep warm. Drain fat from pan. Add shallots and cook a minute or so. Add the figs and the red wine. Reduce by half. Add the beef stock and reduce farther. The figs will melt a little. Pour this mixture over lamb chops and serve immediately. Crumble with gorgonzola cheese if you like that.
Serve with mashed potatoes, braised chard and a stout red wine. I would go with a sturdy Rhone.
Happy New Year and Eat Well.