The Italian (Duck) Job

Some days even Superman can’t manage to get the cape on.  I don’t have a story for all y’all today, but I do have a dish.  Lately, I’ve been eating cheap duck from my new grocer, H-Mart, which sells five pounders for $2.69/lb.  At that price, it’s almost like chicken to me.  I’ve waxed eloquent on my love for duck in previous posts, so it comes as no surprise that I’m eating more of it at H-Mart prices.   Here is my latest favorite concoction, Canard Italian-style:

photo (2)

Italian Grilled Duck

One whole duck, 5-6 lbs.

Several large sprigs of  fresh rosemary

3 cloves garlic, minced

Sea salt (large crystals)

Pepper

Lemon zest

5 whole shallots

3 large sprigs rosemary

Sauce

1/3rd cup honey

1/3rd cup jerez vinegar

½ cup chicken stock

2 tbs butter

Remove backbone from duck and cut wing sections at first joint.  Reserve for making stock.  Split breastbone to make two halves.  Trim all fat and reserve for rendering for confit, steak frites, etc.

Rub duck halves with mixture of rosemary, garlic, lemon zest salt and pepper.  Refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

Prepare charcoal grill with coals to one side.  Place duck halves skin side down in cast iron skillet and place over hot coals until skin browns well.  Once skin is browned,  flip over and move to indirect heat.  Add whole shallots and rosemary.  Cook over indirect heat approximately 30-40 minutes.

Remove duck halves from pan and tent to keep warm.  Drain fat from pan.  Deglaze pan with vinegar and stock briefly, then add honey.  Reduce liquid until thickened, then add butter.

Remove breast meat from bone and slice.  Cut thigh from leg.  Pour pan sauce over meat and serve immediately with any sides that go with duck.  This being Italian, I would go with polenta and wilted chard, but really, anything would work.  Employ your Italian Imagination.

 

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Home Cookin’

Home. It’s where they have to take you back. In food terms, it’s where you grow, gather, catch, shoot, or otherwise scavenge your sustenance, and in this regard, the closer to where you lay your head down, the better.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting the home I have left behind: the place where I grew up, down close by the river — the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve, as Mr. Keillor puts it. It was summer — a typical broiler — and there, in a corner of a cement parking lot at the abandoned Cedar Mall, was a fresh-faced young lady selling sweet corn off a flatbed truck. The price for a dozen ears was a fraction of what I pay in the 11_16_12-Corn-FieldPacific Northwest, where the climate — not to mention the soil — is less conducive to growing sweet corn. I asked the young lady if the corn was local, this being the early part of the season. “No,” she replied apologetically. “This corn is from Rochester.” For those of you without GPS devices, Rochester is a scant 40 miles from my little town.

With fried walleye on the menu (compliments of my Uncle Paul), a bag of fresh corn was certainly a welcome addition. It’s tempting to fancy up sweet corn by roasting it on the grill — skillfully removing just the silk and soaking the ears, still in their husks, in a saltwater brine — or by slathering on a fancy lime-cilantro-chili compound butter, but on this night, it was fine to simply boil the cobs in salted water, roll them in butter, and serve them generously seasoned with salt and pepper.

The point here is one frequently made in the culinary world these days: eat close to home. Can that concept be taken to a ludicrous extreme? Yes, it can. The foodie haven of Vancouver, BC, a few miles up the road from my new little town, is home to a growing clique of chefs who pride themselves on serving nothing sourced farther than 100 kilometers from Robson Street. While this may be politically correct, it is the culinary equivalent of asking Usain Bolt to participate in a three-legged race. Olive oil, anyone? How about arborio rice?

Still, the point is taken. While I am less engaged by the undeniable political benefits of eating locally and seasonally, I am on board whole hog with the culinary advantages. Take, for example, the humble salad. Every grocery store, from Kroger to Dean and Deluca, features fancy lettuce greens these days, washed, bagged, and ready to eat. You can buy spring greens (in the middle of winter), “Italian” herb greens, butter crunch, red leaf, endive, baby romaine, arugula, and stuff I have never even heard of. And while I’m sure it’s all well-intentioned, none of it can compare to the leaves of lettuce I pluck nightly from my little garden plot. To be sure, they are dressed with extra virgin olive oil (that traveled thousands of miles for my benefit) and some fresh lemon juice (all the way from the Republic of California), but it’s the greens themselves that star in the show — not because I grow better lettuce than anyone else, but simply because I can eat it within minutes of picking.

I am admittedly blessed that my “new” home (since 1990) is one where I can enjoy a veritable bounty of seasonal foods that often rise to gourmet heights. For example, this being 2013, Puget Sound is about to be invaded by literally millions of pink salmon, an anadromous fish that runs here in odd-numbered years, strangely enough. Pinks are not a particularly popular species, from a gourmet perspective. They deteriorate quickly once hitting fresh water and do not transport well. Mostly, they are smoked or canned. However, I once had a screaming-bright saltwater pink, served sashimi-style and topped with a bit of pickled sweet onion and fresh mint, that was out of this world. Add to this that they will readily take a fly fished near the surface, and this angler/cook is on board. Think Pink in 2013!

It’s also Dungeness crab as well as halibut season right now, both of which you can take to the bank. But those are no-brainers. Less well regarded would be something like the amazingly fresh slab of Columbia River sturgeon I picked up the other day, which was marbled in fat like a goose on its way to foie gras. With some Midwest friends on site, ISturgeon painted the sturgeon with a lacquer of olive oil, lemon, green garlic, and fresh oregano, then roasted it on the grill to medium. The fish was meaty enough that it could be carved like a prime rib roast. This we ate with a nice Greek-ish salad of orzo, feta, cucumber, onion, and tomato, herbed with parsley and mint. Sticking with the Greek theme, we had pita and homemade tzatziki for an appetizer, along with fresh local veggies for dipping.

It should be clear by now that while I like my ingredients to come from close by, my influences in terms of preparation are flung far. In any given week, my foodie goggles look to Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Szechwan, Scotland, or southern Minnesota. It’s also worth noting that the two places I have visited recently where I have felt instantly at home — Scotland and Spain – are both culturally quite distant from my Lake Wobegon. Still, I could not have felt more welcomed or at ease than I did, in large part because the way they eat in both countries made utterly perfect sense to me.

I’ll single out Scotland in particular because it gets a bad rap as the home of haggis, while in reality, their produce is peerless. The weather bites, but the food is incredibly delicious. While there, I ate enormous breakfasts of black pudding, pan-fried tomato, and toast, or perfect scrambled farm eggs piled on a California king-size bed of shaved Scottish smoked salmon. Dinners featured medium-rare roasted lamb or Highland beef.

One morning, the chef at our inn pulled me aside and whispered that he had just procured three spiny lobsters from a fishing friend, and if I would like, he would save them for us. lobstah Would I like? Silly man. They were out of this world. Is it any wonder that I felt absolutely at home the moment I stepped off the train in Glasgow? After all, my bloodstream carries at least a few drams of Scottish essence.

So while I like to eat as many ingredients as I can from as close to home as possible without being overly compulsive, it’s important to me from a preparation standpoint to get the hell out of Dodge on a frequent basis. If you have the time and the means to literally do so, I heartily recommend it. My own infrequent forays to places requiring a passport for entry have been among the most culinarily inspiring things I have ever done. Unexpectedly, the best inspiration hasn’t come from the drop-dead incredible, over-the-top experiences I have had by the courtesy of showboating chefs. Rather, it has come from things like the humble pinxto, a rustic boar stew, or a split lobster, simply grilled over wood and with a squeeze of lemon. You know, that old stuff. Pack up that passport and hit the road, Jack . . . if not for real, then at least in your kitchen.

Greek Tzatsiki

1 cup whole fat greek yogurt

¼ unpeeled English cucumber, finely diced

6 large fresh mint leaves, cut into a chiffonade*

1 small bunch chopped Italian parsley

2 cloves minced garlic

Juice from half a lemon

Black pepper

Simply mix these ingredients and enjoy a dozen different ways, as a dip for raw veggies or toasted pita triangles, on a piece of fish or lamb, as a dressing for crisp lettuce greens, whatever.

*mint turns black if it is chopped to hard or fine.  To avoid that, remove leaves from stem, stack them on top of each other and then roll them up lengthwise, like a cigar or tzatziki-healthy-eating-vegetablesother smoke of your choice.  Cut them thinly (and gently) on the bias so they come out as thin threads.  Your mint will stay bright green and add a fresh taste to the tzatsiki. 

Eat well.

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Mr. Jones Goes on a Field Trip

Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

–Robert Zimmerman
Hibbing, Minnesota

I was feeling in need of some adventure the other day, so I grabbed my passport and shuffled my wing tips on over to a place I had read about in the business section recently, but had somehow never noticed in my travels. Not that this is place is difficult to miss; it is a non-descript building in a suburban strip mall, in perhaps the most forgettable town I know — Federal Way, Washington. Harry Potter must have loaned his invisibility cloak to this place.  Verily, it disappears from sight.

My field trip destination was a place by the beguiling name of H-Mart — merely typing those six characters makes me suppress a yawn. Still, I had been intrigued by the article I read, which announced that this Korean-owned, New Jersey-headquartered outfit was expanding into the Puget Sound region with new stores in Lakewood and in the former Nordstrom Rack building in downtown Seattle. Typically, I cannot read beyond the first five words of such articles without lapsing into narcolepsy, but this one was different. Obviously.

The part that perked me up, that stimulated the culinary cortex portion of my brain, was that H-Mart locations feature extensive fresh produce and fresh fish sections. Connecting the dots, we have Korean ownership and lots of square feet devoted to my most treasured areas of any grocery store. Add to this that there is an existing H-Mart less than a mile from my favorite new cantina, a reclaimed burger joint called Los Amigos that has the best menudo I have yet tasted.

Walking through the parking lot, I noticed a surprising number of people emerging from the invisible building as if appearing out of thin air. The parking lot was full of shoppers and I was the lone Caucasian among them — not an alarming situation, but noticeable nonetheless. One thing I have learned as an eating professional is that when dining at so-called “ethnic” restaurants, the fewer funky white boys the better. My expectations began to rise.

Once inside, I had further confirmation that I was indeed not in Kansas anymore. Describing H-Mart as having “extensive produce and fresh fish sections” is damning with faint praise. The produce section alone occupies about an acre of property, at least enough to locate a soccer pitch. I saw fresh greens there that I never knew existed, and fruits that sort of scared me in an Andrew Zimmern kind of way. I am not sure why a store needs to stock 46 different kinds of yakisoba noodles, but apparently there is a market for them. H-Mart meat bears special mention. Not only do you have all the usual as well as decidedly unusual cuts (all at rock-bottom prices) but you also have such products as frozen bricks of pig blood. Of course, there are also pig trotters, snouts, tails, intestines, on and on ad infinitum if you go for that kind of stuff — and I do. In addition to your basic beef, pork, and chicken, H-Mart’s meat section included venison, pheasant, chukar, guinea fowl, and several savage beasts that would require a translator to identify.

My head was already buzzing when I reached the fish counter, at which point I almost needed a defibrillator. A 30-foot live tank featured swimming Dungeness crab on sale for $5.99 a pound, which is simply ridiculous. My local market brags about their “cooked today” dungies that they sell for $12.99. Scores of live tilapia and striped bass finned in a second tank, and a third housed several alarming-sized octopuses, who were most assuredly alive. On ice were probably three dozen different kinds of fresh fish and shellfish, including a mountain of the only head-on shrimp I have seen in the Puget Sound area lately. Does that Asian recipe you found require a sea squirt? H-Mart has them live. They carry piles of fresh squid, as well as the only cuttlefish I can remember having seen in the United States. More good news: they carry a ton of whole fish, which they will clean, scale, trim, and fillet to order. Like chicken, lamb, and everything else, fish is best with the bones in, grilled whole. Don’t try to customize your H-Mart order, though, as the gentlemen mongers wielding the large, sharp knives behind the counter don’t habla Inglés. No matter — a sign above them explains your options. Just decide what you want, point at it, and hold up the corresponding number of fingers. It all works.

The sign I didn’t see at first was the one about not taking any pictures in the fish section. There I was, happily snapping away, when a very cross Korean woman poked me in the ribs. “NO PICTURE,” she said, pointing to the all-too-obvious overhead sign, her English phrasing nearly perfect. Lots of practice, I figure. “You delete now.” While I found this most curious, I complied with the directive, and she watched me trash can my lovely photos. All my photos — except this one:

Idiot fish

 

H-Mart’s fish section is certainly not a paragon of political correctness. They sell fish products there that would induce apoplexy among the good people who compile the Monterey Bay Aquarium Fish Watch list. Still, they take the time to label every piscine item as Farmed or Wild, and they include the country of origin. Not even my upscale Metropolitan Market takes the trouble to do that.  At least at H-Mart you can choose for yourself the level of culinary correctness you desire.

Also, cooks are warned that this is not Whole Paycheck Foods, where you can select superior product while blind-folded.  H-Mart features an amazing variety and some unbelievably fresh product, but it’s definitely a caveat emptor situation.  Home cooks are advised to be able to distinguish between fresh and off-fresh product.

Tempted though I was by the sea squirts, I ended up buying a couple of clear, bright-eyed striped bass that were US-farmed – they are also an MBA Fish Watch “Best Choice” for sustainability — and had them gutted and scaled free of charge. Stripers in hand, I then swung past the to-go grill and ordered the Number 10: sautéed cuttlefish in a spicy red sauce with a generous side of kimchi. Hungry, I ate with abandon. It was a delicious and satisfying way to conclude the field trip. Once back home, I stuffed the striped bass with onion, leek, lemon, and fresh herbs and grilled them at 650 degrees over propane. Charcoal would have been better, but it was raining. Eating-wise, they were firm, sweet, and delicious.

Driving back from H-Mart and reflecting on the experience, those Dylan lyrics above took on a decidedly personal meaning — there is definitely something going on here. I am an adventurous eater, to say the least, but I don’t know any restaurants or even any people hereabouts who are cooking with sea squirts or large quantities of pig blood . . . yet apparently, there are. I wish I had a recipe for some of those crazy vegetable greens I saw, or (even better), I wish I knew a Korean woman who could show me what she has been doing with them for the last 70 years. Unbeknownst to me, there’s been some crazy eating going on here, right under my snout. And I want to get in on it.

Striped Bass:  Stuffed and Grilled

2-3 whole striped bass, gutted and scaledStripers

Half a lemon, thinly sliced (squeeze the other half and reserve the juice)

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

Half a sweet onion, thinly sliced

White part of one leek, roughly chopped

Italian parsley, chopped

Olive oil and reserved lemon juice

Salt and pepper

With a sharp knife, score the outside of the fish down to the backbone, three times per side. 

Make a vinaigrette with the lemon juice and olive oil. Mix together the onion, garlic, leek, and parsley and drizzle with half the vinaigrette.  

Season the inside of the bass cavities liberally with salt and pepper. Stuff the bass with the onion mixture and insert lemon wedges. Tie fish with butcher’s twine to keep the mixture inside. 

Pour the remaining vinaigrette over the outside of the fish, being sure to get the dressing into the knife cuts. Season liberally. 

Get your grill good and hot and carefully lay the fish on the grill, being careful to keep the stuffing contained within the cavity. Cook five minutes and flip once. The idea is to get the skin nice and crispy so that it stays intact and does not tear apart. 

This is a nice summery dish, so serve it with a tossed salad and a decent Albariño, chilled near to freezing.

Eat well.

 

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Mad Menus: Loaf of Meat

My literary empire is expanding.  The last few weeks I have been contributing short pieces to The Spleen (www.the-spleen.com) called Mad Menus, that are essentially sidebars to Claire Moshenberg’s and E.C. Fish’s erudite recaps of recent Mad Men episodes.  I’ll start posting these here as well. 

Mad Menu #3:  Loaf of Meat

Meat loaf.

If you start thinking and don’t just take it for granted, it’s a weird mash-up of a name:  meat and loaf. “Hey hon, how about whipping up a loaf of meat tonight?” It just gets weirder if, like me, you can’t think of it without recollecting the image of the jowly “rock star” of the same name. “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”?  Actually, yes, it is.

A ’60s staple, meat loaf keeps making trendy comebacks as comfort food, especially at restaurants that are anything but comfortable. The whole notion of ordering comfort food at a restaurant, no matter how updated, leaves me cold (Exhibit A:  lobster mac and cheese). When I want comfort food, I want to eat it at home. Also, I don’t want to pay $16.99 for a single slab.

1024px-MeatloafWithSauce

Nevertheless, your basic meat loaf can be improved immeasurably with a few simple updates, which involve both addition and subtraction. On the minus side are eggs and breadcrumbs. If you use a recipe ripped from the pages of The Betty Crocker Cookbook, you’ll want to cut both those ingredients by half. One egg will give you binding action without glueiness. As for breadcrumbs, half a cup is easily enough. Replace traditional breadcrumbs with Japanese panko, or toast and crush your own. By all means, do not use store-bought regular breadcrumbs, which have the flavor and consistency of sawdust.

The addition side is where you can exercise a bit of creative license. I find that meat loaf improves dramatically by combining two kinds of meats. Your mother’s meat loaf was made out of hamburger, but I suggest that you cut that with an equal amount of ground pork. A recent experiment of mine that replaced the beef altogether came out with satisfactory results.

Gianni’s Italian-Inspired Meat Loaf

1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground pork
2 Tbs minced fresh rosemary
Zest from 1 lemon, finely grated or chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium shallot, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 roasted red pepper, chopped
1 medium bunch parsley, minced
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
1 egg
Salt and pepper
½ cup panko crumbs

Lightly sauté shallot, garlic, celery, red pepper, and rosemary until shallot is just softened and rosemary gives off aroma. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

Combine lamb, pork, the shallot mixture, and remaining ingredients; mix thoroughly. Form into mound and place in shallow pan with plenty of room, so that fat drippings don’t spill out. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour.

Serve this with a side of creamy garlic polenta and a succotash made of white beans and corn.  A simple Italian red wine would be fine with this.

Eat well and enjoy the show.

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The Quack-Up

There I was, sitting beneath 26 Edison lights glowing softly over the bar at the Pacific Grill — my friend Gordon Naccarato’s swanky Tacoma restaurant — slurping my second glass of wine, the delicious Townshend T3 blend that Gordon pours there by the glass. Another friend, my mentor Aaron Valimont (then the executive chef at Pacific Grill, now dishing at the Capital Grille in Dallas, Texas), had just joined me after his shift, still wearing his chef jacket, a smear of fresh blood on the sleeve. It was OK, because it was late and any barflies who might have been put off by our appearance had already flown the coop. I bought him a glass, knowing full well that he drank for free, easily deserving it after a 12-hour day.

“So, I had this dream the other night,” I said, as Chef Aaron slurped half his T3 in a gulp. “I had this big bag of cooked lentils in the freezer and I was trying to think of what to do with them, and I had this dream.”

“Oh yeah?” You could tell he was interested.

“I was thinking lentil soup — you know, regular lentil with sausage and some fresh spinach. But then in the dream, it came to me: make it with duck.” I proceeded to outline my plan to roast a spare duck carcass I had in the freezer with a vegetable mirepoix to make a rich stock for the base, then to braise the legs and thighs in red wine . . .

“You dreamt about duck soup?” Aaron interrupted.

“Yeah,” I said. “I made a stock and then braised the legs and thighs until they were falling apart . . .”

Aaron swilled the rest of his T3, which was immediately refilled by Paul, Pacific Grill’s expert bartender. “You dream about food?”

“All the time,” I sighed.

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I figured. You got it bad.” He gulped some more of the Townshend. Euro jazz pulsed in the background; only a couple of patrons still lingered at their tables over blond-brownie sundaes and Frangelico. “I dream about food, too. All the time. Menus, farmers’ markets, techniques.” He paused for a second and drained the rest of his vino. “Good luck with that.”

Yeah, good luck with that indeed. There is a saying that suggests “moderation in all things,” which is perhaps among the biggest crocks of all time. Life is not only short, but uncertain; there is precious little time for moderation. One is advised strongly to live and live large. As the people of Minneapolis now know, we live in a world where the interstate freeway bridge you are driving across (specifically, I-35 on August 1, 2007) can and will simply fall down, dropping you into the muddy Mississippi below. If you take nothing else from this missive, please make it this: there is not a moment to waste. Ours is a universe of chaos and beauty, with chaos prevailing often enough that it should give us pause.

Humans wishing to hedge their bets are well-advised to live in the present. For those of us who cook, who dream of things like duck and lentil soup, this means getting a few things straight. For me, one of those things is to know what to do with a duck — surely the bird that God had in mind when he invented poultry.

Duck can be tricky. I grew up in a duck-hunting household, where it was not at all unusual for Sunday dinner in January to feature a brace of bluebills. Sad to say, too many of those precious birds ended up overcooked, their splendid carcasses in the trash bin rather than in the stockpot, where they belonged. Today, if I had three quarts of duck stock, deeply rendered and reduced from wild widgeon and gadwall bones, I would hire an armed guard for their protection.

Since I long ago gave up hunting wild duck (not that I wouldn’t accept an invitation in a heartbeat to join your blind), my duck these days is not only purchased but tame. Not that there aren’t some splendid birds to be had out there. Two of my favored purveyors at the Proctor Farmers’ Market (Tacoma, Washington) — Little Eorthe Farm and CalendulaDuck Farm — have gorgeous dead ducks to sell me from time to time, free-ranger Muscovies who lived calm, happy lives in a barnyard. At prices approaching $50 for a single bird, cheap they are not. Nonetheless, I would argue that they are a great value indeed, far exceeding in culinary satisfaction anything one might procure from the freezer section of the local grocer at half the price.

The key with a fifty-dollar bird, of course, is not letting a single ounce go to waste. Here’s how I proceed. First, remove the leg/thigh segments where the thigh joint meets the body. These cuts are generally tough and tendon-y, especially the leg. However, when cooked in the French confit method, immersed in their own fat for half-a-day at 190 degrees, they become a dish so melt-in-your-mouth delicious that words themselves fail. I would have to sing for you in order to fully describe the sensation.

Similarly, remove the wings, reserving them for a stock. Once the bird is fully cut up, carefully carve the breasts off the bone, trimming (and reserving) the deeply fat-layered skin to the edges of the meat. Now you are left with a large carcass, from which you should 378867_2949341021377_1724769795_ntrim all remaining fat/skin from the back. Trim any excess fat from the leg portions as well as the breast, and place it in a pan to melt; this must be reserved, as it is a precious essence. As for the carcass, brown it in the oven and then boil it with a vegetable mirepoix — celery, onion, leek, carrot, garlic — for five hours or so (this results in a house that smells so good, it deserves its own Glade scent).

From a single bird, you now have the following: boneless, skin-on breasts (meal one); Duck fatleg/thigh portions for confit (meal two); a carcass for stock (soup and sauce base); and a batch of precious duck grease for confit and/or the best damn french fries you have ever Duck Friteseaten. Each element results in a dish that is its own special occasion, one that makes life worth living.

While the stars of this show are the boneless breasts (these rival Heidi Klum’s, in my book), the dish I will leave with you is the humble confit, this recipe being one I shanghaied from Thomas Keller’s splendid cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Not that this dish differs all that much from any other confit recipe, but I believe in offering credit where credit is due. Keller’s restaurants — like The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New   York — are paragons of culinary sophistication, but Ad Hoc approaches cooking with humility; it offers a rustic, approachable take on everyday eating at its very finest. You won’t cook like Keller every night, but if you do so once a week or even once a month, that’s a helluva start.

Ad Hoc Duck Confit

2-4 duck leg/thigh sections, trimmed of skin and fat to the edge of the meat

4-6 cups rendered duck fat

Herb Salt:

⅛ cup kosher salt

2 tsp. brown sugar

1 bay leaf, broken into pieces

2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped

⅛ cup Italian parsley, chopped

¼ tsp. whole black peppercorns

Rub each leg/thigh section with one tablespoon of the herb salt and store overnight, flesh-side up and covered in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator. 

Remove from refrigerator, rinse well, and pat dry. Nestle the pieces closely in a baking dish, crowding them without overlapping. Cover completely with duck fat, topping up if necessary with olive oil. Cover with foil or a lid. Cook at 190 degrees for eight to ten hours. Remove and cool. Refrigerate if using soon, or store frozen for up to six months submerged in remaining fat.

To serve, drain and wipe off the fat and fry each portion, skin-side down, until the skin is crispy and golden brown and warmed through.  Served on a bed of cabbage braised in a small amount of champagne or cider vinegar.

This music clip In Too Deep is from my friend Kevin Bowe’s new album Natchez Trace.  It features the screaming fiddle of Scarlett Rivera, who you probably last heard on Dylan’s Desire lp.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_dxrwmWbMU

Eat well.

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When Numbers Get Serious

“Red means run, son, numbers don’t add up to nothin’…

                                                            –Neil Young, from “Powderfinger”

As it happens, I was running the numbers the other day, as I am prone to doing. Maybe you’re not like me, but I am, and when the numbers start running, it’s hard to get them to stop. For example, I once ran the numbers on how high the fines would mount if I wereroy with ball caught and cited every time I played off-leash fetch — which is against the law in local parks — with my beloved Labrador Roy. My annual bill added up to $325,000. Today, that amount is now approaching a cumulative $3 million. That he is worth every penny is beside the point.

The equation that burrowed its way into my brain the other day was equally discouraging.  Regular readers of this blog know that I crossed the half-century barrier some three years ago and am now rapidly reaching an age of three score. I’m no Christian scholar, but if memory serves, we learned in Lutheran confirmation classes that our biblical allotment of years is something like three score and twelve (that’s 72, for those of you keeping score at home).

Simple subtraction results in a number that gets your attention, or at least mine. In my specific case, the calculus proceeded thusly: even if I get more than my biblical allotment, I probably have, at most, 25 years of serious fishing left. I am talking about fishing big, cold waters, wearing waders, and getting in deep enough to produce a shrinkage effect. Given that I might engage in such expeditions three or four times a year (let’s be generous and call it four), I have maybe 100 angling excursions left in my lifetime. Probably fewer.

And that is when I did a big gulp.

When the equations running in your head reach the result above, it’s time to throw out the calculator and joint up the fishing rod. Regardless of age, none of us have any time to waste. Readers will be comforted to note that my efforts in this regard resulted in quite a stellar 2012. My tally for the calendar year was 110 fish caught on a fly, including the first 11 steelhead trout I have ever caught in my life. When I was a boy and we were getting skunked while trolling Rapala lures behind our Lund boat, my dad would exhort me to “fish harder,” which on the surface seems to be not only a joke, but a contradiction in terms of epic proportions. However, this year I finally figured out what he was talking about. I fished harder. On the down side, I burned through a generous share of my remaining allotment. It’s a morbid thought, but it’s undeniably true.

Still, there are opportunities, even when time is short. When faced with his own imminent demise, Warren Zevon had the epiphany that it was essential to “enjoy every sandwich,” and it comes as no surprise that this is a notion with which I am down. Forget sandwiches; I have thousands upon thousands of meals left before me — even more if I go easy on the empty calories. Hallelujah!

Multiple Facebook foodie photos notwithstanding (see my “Food Porn” photo file on my FB page), I have ample, almost unlimited, room to improve the quality of my consumption. The idea, of course, is to eat well without dying from it, for the obvious purpose of living to eat another day.

Currently, I might make a really nice meal a couple-three times a week. Even for a foodie like me, most nights (though it embarrasses me to admit it) we eat the current-day equivalent of sloppy joes and frozen pizza. An intentional effort even two more nights a week stands to double my cumulative culinary output. This takes little more than a few minutes’ thought for the most part — just the time required to make sure that I have the right ingredients on hand and a recipe in mind. In commercial kitchens, they call this “getting your ‘meez’ together,” as in your mise en place. While squeezing in two more fishing adventures a year would be a near impossibility (barring an unlikely relocation to Craig, Montana), two more good meals a week that require little more than a few minutes’ thought seems doable.

The poet Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” When the numbers start running in my head like the bulls in Pamplona, this is a couplet I should keep in mind. It might even help with my cooking, and certainly with my peace of mind.

I struggled to come up with a recipe that directly relates to our Topic of the Day, so forgive me if this has a pulled-out-of-the-hat quality to it. For years, I attempted to cook steak in the Florentine style, with unsatisfying results. I figured it was because I was using the wrong kind of cow. That was part of it, but not the whole reason. It took a trip to FlorenceFlorence to set me straight, a practice I highly recommend when you find yourself stuck. Steak Florentine is simply good-quality steak, salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and it is usually served with one of my favorite side dishes, garlicky wilted spinach (again with the lemon). My mistake was in squeezing on the lemon prior to grilling, which resulted in a steak that tasted pretty much like my non-Firenzian efforts.

In Florence, they prepare and serve steak dinners differently. High-quality beef (they will tell you theirs is somehow special and not found anywhere else on earth — yawn) is grilled to medium rare, cut into strips, and served at the table mounded on a platter. Quantity is determined not by steak size, but by the number of individuals who will be eating. The essential lemon is squeezed on the sliced meat at the table, not prior to cooking. This results in a remarkably bright dish with flavors that leap like Carl Lewis off the palate. The acidity of the prominent lemon flavor is a perfect foil for the rich, fatty-flavored beef (apologies to my veggie and vegan friends; I know this grosses you out).  Psychic balance is obtained by eating a reasonable, human-sized portion of meat, as opposed to finishing off that 12-ounce New York strip yourself, not to mention the accompanying spinach side.

Beefsteak Florentine and Wilted Spinach

Thick-cut, high-quality steak (6 oz. per person served)

Salt and coarse ground pepper

Lemon

1 large bag or bundle fresh spinach

Olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped

More lemon

Steak Preparation

Prepare a hot grill, either gas or charcoal (the latter is preferred). Keeping the steak whole, season it liberally with salt and pepper. Let it rest an hour at room temperature. Sear on the hot grill until medium rare, three to four minutes per side. Watch them cook — don’t go in and watch the ballgame. Once cooked to desired doneness, remove from the grill and allow to rest on a warm platter for five minutes. Cut into strips against the grain (on the bias, if you are fancy). Squeeze fresh lemon over the cut meat. Serve immediately.

Wilted Spinach Preparation

This dish cooks fast, so if you have your meez together, you can make it while your cooked steak is resting.

Clean and pat dry a good amount of fresh spinach (it is amazing how much spinach cooks down, so use a lot). Sauté chopped garlic in a large non-stick pan with a modest splash of good olive oil for about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted — maybe two minutes, max. Salt and squeeze on lemon to taste. Serve immediately.

This simple but elegant dish deserves a special wine: a super Tuscan if you have the dough, or perhaps a Barolo or a Barbaresco from the Piedmont region. Regardless, this is the time to go large and red.

Dinner Music

Today’s musical selection could well have been “Powderfinger” by Neil Young, quoted at the top of this missive, but I have chosen instead this selection by the great and underappreciated James McMurtry:

Eat well.

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Mississippi Redux: Happy New Year

Author’s Note:  While I am working up a new essay, I thought I would share an old one from September 2011 that I recently reworked and expanded with the help of Amy Milligan, editor extraordinaire of The Spleen (www.the-spleen.com).  If you live in a cold, gray and/or otherwise miserable part of the world, this one is a taste of summer.  Enjoy. And be sure to click on the outstanding clip of Simone Perrin at the end.  Happy New Year. 

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Until I was nearly ten, I lived just blocks away from what I took for granted was the world’s greatest river, the Big Muddy itself, the mighty Mississippi River. We lived on a spacious double lot hedged by honeysuckle and lilac at the intersection of two gravel streets, Sunset Drive and Cartway Road, neither of which really went anywhere. I walked across the street to school and came home for lunches of Spaghetti-O’s and bologna-and-butter sandwiches. In the summer, I played baseball on an actual sandlot, caught flies that made either butter or fire, and captured frogs that I sold to a bait shop for fifty cents a dozen, a princely sum.  In the winter we skated on frozen ponds and hurled balls made of snow. 

Of course, one indulges in such nostalgia and sentiment at one’s own peril.  To be sure, not everything then was rainbows and puppy-dog tails.  I grew up in the mid-sixties, when Kennedys and Kings were killed with alarming regularity, and we were trained in school to expect and deal with nuclear holocaust by hunkering under our wooden desks.

And then there were the summers, filled with tornadoes and thunderstorms that would shake, rattle, and roll a house right down to its foundation. One year, my best friend’s home received a direct hit from not one but two twisters in a single night, an event that haunted me until my father was inspired to purchase a surplus metal army helmet to serve in lieu of a security blanket. 

Still, memory speaks, as it must. For me, for those days, my memories are of a big backyard, bare feet, and a river rolling past.  From before the time when I could remember, my father took me fishing on the Mississippi for smallmouth bass. We fished from shore in a sweet spot just downstream from Elk River, Minnesota, on property owned by family friends, Dave and Judy Goddard. Dave and Judy owned and operated a daylily farm, of all the crazy things. One might ask, where have all the daylilies gone? But for such questions, there are no answers.   

Over the years, I have fished in all kinds of water.  Lakes and ponds, oceans, seas, and Sounds.  I have fished in waters salty and fresh, still and moving.  Any water holding fish that can be caught with a rod and reel is good by me.  But I love a river.  If you watch and listen, if you tune in, a river gives up her secrets, no underwater radar gizmo necessary.  That bend along the undercut bank, that’s where the current has carved a deep cold hole.  A little soft water seam next to a hard current where dirty foam swirls?  That is a fishy version of the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.  A sloping rocky shoreline can mean a crawfish ecosystem of epic proportions, crawfish being the Snickers bar of the fish diet.  A river tells a story – but you must watch.

At the Goddard farm, we fished a hole where a set of rotted pilings driven into the bottom near the shore hinted at a story that spilled a secret.  Sixty years previous those pilings anchored a dock where steam powered paddle boats would pick up produce grown in the fertile local fields for easy transport downstream to Minneapolis and St. Paul. With paddleboats long replaced by internal combustion vehicles, the pilings no longer served a purpose, but they kept a secret.  There, right against the shore, was a depression in the riverbed deep enough to dock a large boat.  This kind of drop off, especially near shore, is exactly where smallmouth bass like to school.  At the upstream ledge of the drop, the current slows, not only making it easier for the fish to fin against, but depositing food at their doorstep.  At this underwater cafeteria, leeches, minnows, crawfish, worms and aquatic bugs of all sorts drop out of the current, helpless to the carnivorous smallmouth below.  It is the riverine equivalent of a basement barcalounger stocked with an endless supply of Cheetos.  

In those days, there was no such thing as “catch and release,” except for fry deemed too small for the pan. We fished for keeps, our stringer always heaving by evening with a legal limit of beautiful bronze-backed smallmouth, so heavy it was sometimes hard for me to lift. These fish were astoundingly strong and amazingly beautiful; a three-pounder would bend your rod right down to the cork handle. We fished with bait — night crawlers, usually — and when those ran out, we would turn over river rocks and snatch crawfish bare-handed, which the smallmouth seemed to prefer even more. 

Smallmouth bass are bareknuckle brawlers.  If you are ever in an underwater bar fight, you want a smallmouth as your wingman.  I grew up assuming that all fish were passionate and would jump out of the water repeatedly to try to spit the hook out of their mouth that you had planted with a hard set when your bobber dove. A smallmouth will run and roll and will strip the line off your reel.  Bear down too hard and they will break your line.  Or, they will find a submerged log, wrap you around a sunken limb and snap you off.  If you fish for smallmouth, over time, you learn not to cry when the big one gets away.   

I don’t remember a single day of fishing at the Goddard’s that wasn’t sunny and hot, and when the bite would go off around midday, my father would send me up the bank with a dime to buy two bottles of cold pop from the machine in the Goddard’s farm office – an Orange Crush for me and a black cherry for my own pop. Judy, who called me Peter Johnson (because my middle name is Peter and I am John’s son), of course never took the ten cents. “You keep that dime, Peter Johnson,” she would say. “But don’t tell your dad.” At that time, a dime purchased two packs of baseball bubblegum cards, any one of which might contain a coveted Twin:  Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, or Jim Kaat, but never did. 

Once our limit was attained, usually by late afternoon or early in the evening, we would heave our stringer of fish up the bank and into the Buick and head on home, stopping to leave a couple of nice ones with Dave and Judy. Just down the road from the daylily farm, we pulled over at Parker’s roadside vegetable stand, where we would secure a dozen ears of sweet corn for a dollar — a real splurge. This Minnesota August corn was, I guarantee you, the best damn corn in the world. 

After photographs in the backyard beneath an ancient weeping willow, my father would fillet the fish, expertly carving off boneless slabs of smallmouth meat. My job, until I learned to fillet myself, was to shuck the corn, a task I took on with all the actual relish that Tom Sawyer only pretended to while whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. If there is any job more satisfying than shucking cobs of sweet corn, I don’t know what it is. I shucked for sheer pleasure, not for speed, peeling off long green leaves one at a time and then silk strands until a nubbly, naked cob was revealed.  Normally insistent on higher levels of efficiency, my Dad let me take my time with this job.  It was 1967 and I was seven years old.  There was no hurry.

We always ate the fish the same day they were caught, and we always cooked them the same way: dipped in an egg wash, dredged in saltine cracker crumbs, and fried in hot oil. The corn I shucked was boiled briefly in salted water, then slathered with butter and sprinkled liberally with salt and pepper. We had tartar sauce that my mother made at home with Miracle Whip and sweet pickle relish. Most Minnesotans are raised with the belief that walleye is the king of all fish, and I will grant that walleye is terrific, as is the noble crappie. But for my money, you can’t beat a smallmouth bass, especially one you caught fresh from the big river.

But everything changes, even rivers. There is a saying that you never visit the same river twice, and in my experience, this has considerable veracity. A number of years ago, as an adult, I went back with rod in hand to the Goddard’s smallmouth hole where I grew up and found that the 10-foot deep-hole that once harbored seemingly limitless schools of smallmouth bass had filled completely with silt. The river has its way. There are no means to stop it and no sense in shedding tears over it. Somewhere downstream, another hole has been carved, and some new kid keeps watch while floating a bobber over an underwater ledge in the hopes that a fish will bite. That’s life, as it has always been.

These days, while I still fish a fair amount, I hardly ever eat the fish I catch. I fish for torpedo-like trout with impossibly small flies and almost always I throw them back, convinced that the catching can continue only if we stop killing so many. But I know a fresh-looking fish when I see it, and sometimes I can’t resist. Smallmouth bass has never been preferred out here in the West, not commercially or for sport, so one must make do in these parts with such species as halibut, salmon, and black cod, not to mention clams, oysters, crab, and mussels.  It’s not so bad, I have to admit. 

As for favored preparation, I haven’t ventured all that far from home. Since moving to salty shores, I have become exceedingly fond of halibut.  Like smallmouth, halibut is white and flaky, with a clean, sweet flavor.  People dress it up with glazes and marinades and fancy salsas, but for me, a simple preparation that allows the flavor of the fish to come through is best.  My favorite halibut dish owes a huge tip of the cap to my father’s smallmouth. I call it Halibut P3, and it goes a little something like this:

Halibut fillets

Japanese panko bread crumbs

Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Finely grated parmesan cheese

Milk

Mix together the panko, parsley, and parmesan (P3).

Dip the halibut in the milk, then dredge in the P3 mixture. Let it sit awhile. 

In a cast-iron pan, fry the crusted halibut in very hot canola oil until golden brown on the outside and just cooked through on the inside. Be careful not to overcook. Serve with lemon wedges. 

With this, I like to serve a black bean and fresh corn salsa that includes cilantro, diced jalapeño peppers, red bell peppers, sweet onion, garlic, cumin, lime, and canola oil.   Or my Mother’s Minnesota-style potato salad.

This would be great with a nearly frozen bottle of bargain-priced Saint-Véran wine, from the Mâcon region in Burgundy. Best served outdoors at sunset, at the end of a hot day.

And now listen up as chick-i-doodle Simone Perrin yoddles a Hank Williams river song.

 

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