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Sunday, July 26, 2009

BLT from Scratch Challenge

Well, I bake my own bread, grow my own tomatoes and lettuce, make the best mayonnaise, ever, and have been talking with Mike about doing our own bacon when we get our side of pork this fall (we were disappointed with the bacon from the butcher that processed our meat last year). One of my favorite authors and bloggers, Michael Ruhlman, issued a challenge to readers to make their own BLT from scratch: that is homegrown veggies, homemade bread and mayo (ours with backyard eggs, natch), and home cured bacon. I'm so excited! I'll look for pork bellies at the Hillsdale farmers' market today, where I'm going to pick up fresh chevre culture and rennet from Chrisssie of Kookoolan Farm. If I don't find pork belly there, Laurelhurst Market has bellies and is open today. The race is on...hope our lettuce doesn't bolt this week!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Have a Couple Cold Ones on Me...

Sometimes, even I, Ms. Homemade-and-Farm-Direct, find myself at Trader Joe's with my kids, throwing a bunch of convenience foods into my cart. Yesterday was such a day. I blame the abscessed tooth and low-grade infection I've been dealing with for weeks that's left me super tired (sleeping as much as 11-12 hours a day when I can), with little time or energy for baking or preparing our usual snacks and fixings for on-the-go meals.

So, there we were, two hungry kids and a hungry mom, aimlessly wandering through the prepared food bonanza that is TJs. We headed for the tasting station at the back of the store; the offering of the day was a tomato and tsatsiki soup. Cool and refreshing, Annabel and I both liked it, Luc, not so much. Trader Joe's "recipe" combined one quart package of Trader Joe tomato soup with one pint of Trader Joe tsatsiki. While I could make my own tomato soup, I knew that with how I've been feeling, that wasn't going to happen soon. I also immediately recognized that after I have my tooth removed Wednesday morning, I'd be glad for nourishing, liquid sustenance, so I grapped one of the aseptic packages of tomato soup. I had my own yogurt, cucumbers, and everything else I need to make tsatsiki at home.

As I reviewed a couple tsatsiki recipes, I was reminded of another cold, yogurt-based soup that I love this time of year. Since I'm on antibiotics for this infection, I've been making sure I eat lots of yogurt, sauerkraut, and other probiotic-rich foods to keep my gut flora happy, but I'd enjoy these for their cool, refreshing flavor whether they were good for my gut bugs or not!

When I have a bit more energy, I'm making Elise's gazpacho soup on Simply Recipes, using roasted tomatoes and red peppers.

Refreshing Tomato & Tsatsiki Soup
About six one cup servings

1 quart tomato soup
1 pint yogurt
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
salt, pepper

Combine ingredients in a large, flat-bottom bowl or pan. Use an immerson blender to liquify cucumber.* Season with salt and pepper to taste (I used 1 generous teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper).

*If you don't have an immersion blender, use a regular blender or food processor to liquify the cucs, then combine with remaining ingredients.

Cucumber and Wasabi Soup (adapted from Epicurious)
Six one cup servings

3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1/2 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1-2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
1 pint yogurt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

Use a blender or food processor to liquify cucumbers with all but the last two ingredients. Whisk cucumbers with yogurt and chives in a bowl. Can be made up to one day ahead of serving.

Visit Kelly the Kitchen Kop for more Real Food Wednesday posts!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Southern Potato Salad with Sunchoke Relish

Last Sunday I stopped at the Sassafras Kitchen stand at the Montavilla Farmers Market, intrigued to find Southern food amongst the Sol Pops and Thai-2-Go, and drawn by the half-pint jars of something stacked on the table. Drawing near, I learned that there was Sunchoke Relish in those jars and eagerly accepted an invitation to try some on a chip. Like all good relishes, this one had a perfect balance of sour and sweet, with a nice mustard tang and crisp, thin slices of sunchokes. Longing for more, I was delighted to see the offering of Potato Salad with Sunchoke Relish on the stand's menu. Along with a plate of potato salad, I bought a jar of relish, looking forward using it in potato salad with my homemade mayonnaise later in the week. I typically make a more German-inspired potato salad, with a sour cream-based dressing, dill pickles, and Westphalia ham, but this tangy Southern version was the perfect complement to my Maryland Fried Chicken.

Southern Potato Salad with Sunchoke Relish

If you can't pick up a jar of Sassafras Kitchen's Sunchoke Relish yourself, try this recipe from Lemonbasil, which looks to me like it would make a very reasonable facisimile.

2 pounds fingerling potatoes
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 cup sunchoke relish
salt, pepper to taste

In a large pot containing enough water to cover by a couple inches, bring potatoes to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes. Mix mayonnaise and relish. Drain potatos in a colander. When they are just cool enough to handle, slice potatoes into bite-size pieces and return to cooking pot. Toss sliced potatoes with mayonnaise and relish while potatoes are still warm, which helps them absorb the flavor of the dressing better. Add salt and pepper if desired. Serve warm or cold.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oregon-Raised Maryland Fried Chicken

Warning: This post contains descriptions of slaughtering and butchering chickens.

For many reasons, I have long been interested in raising chickens for meat, but until recently, the only meat (as opposed to egg-laying) breed I knew of was the Cornish Cross. This is the white chicken raised by commercial growers, but I was reluctant to raise them myself as they have many health problems due to their extremely rapid growth.
Cornish crosses tend to have weak legs, heart attacks, congestive heart failure. They don't forage well or tolerate heat, because they tend to just sit around the feed trough and won't cross a yard to get water. Not the bird for me to include in my free-ranging backyard flock!

This spring, I learned about the availability of chicks derived from American and European heritage breeds that were developed to meet the standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range program. The "Le Poulet" breed retains the chicken's natural instinct for foraging outdoors and because they are slower growing, do not have the health problems associated with the Cornish Cross. I knew I had found my bird.

So, in late April, we picked up five Le Poulet chicks and three layer chicks and kept them inside under a warming light. A few weeks later, we moved them outside and by the 4th of July, the broilers, now pullets, were nearly the same size as our hens and twice as big as the layer pullets that had hatched the same week. Independence Day morning, Mike, the kids, and I loaded our meat birds into our car and took them to a friends for butchering. Her family had raised 35 of the same chickens and had rented equipment to ease slaughtering and feather removal. Another family, along with a couple other women who were interested in learning about the butchering process, were already working when we arrived.

The gendered division of labor reminded me of when I helped butcher on my uncle's farm as a girl: the men dispatched the animals, while the women took care of most of the remaining details. Honestly, I preferred my jobs to theirs, though I watched Mike put a chicken in the killing cone and slit its throat. If I didn't have him around for such a task, I'm sure I'd find the mettle to do it myself, but I was glad not to.

When I arrived, Tiffany, who has been helping raise and butcher chickens for three years now, showed me how to remove a chicken's oil gland, feet, head, neck, and organs. The work was fascinating and gruesome at the same time. We worked outside, shaded from the hot summer sun by a canopy set up on the deck over an old kitchen counter top. Doing productive work in convivial, supportive company made the morning go by quickly. (I don't have pictures, but Matron of Husbandry, one of my favorite bloggers, has a post about butchering chickens that depicts a process much like the one we used, though we were working on a much smaller scale.)

Our kids wandered in and out of the house, occasionally asking the moms questions about chicken entrails or watching the dads do their work. My kids (3 and 6) had known from when we first got the chicks that some were going to become meat for us, and while both of them had expressed some sadness that morning about butchering them, in the end, they were excited about the opportunity to complete the circle and eat meat from these animals they had helped raise.

A few nights ago, we finally did just that. I love fried chicken in the summer, and especially like cold leftovers, so I thawed the two smallest birds, both just over two pounds (the others had been between 3.8 and 4.0 pounds), and cut them into pieces, which I soaked in buttermilk for 24 hours, dredged in seasoned breadcrumbs, then fried in beef tallow. Frying chicken is messy work--the stovetop was covered with grease afterward--but this was well worth the clean up required. Crisp skin enveloped tender, moist meat. After giving thanks to the chickens whose meat we were about to eat, we enjoyed our first bites in silence puntuated by an occasional, "Mmmm..." That was the best ever. Thanks again, chickens.

Southern Potato Salad with Sunchoke Relish is the perfect accompaniment.

Maryland Fried Chicken (adapted from Alton Brown's Fried Chicken)
Old Bay is a classic spice combination that Marylanders like myself usually associate with eating Chesapeake Bay blue crab in the summer. You can find Old Bay at some retailers or make your own blend. Beef tallow is an excellent frying fat, with its high smoking point and savory flavor, but sunflower seed oil is a good substitute. Maintaining the correct temperature is key when frying. Too high, and the skin will burn before the meat is cooked. Too low, and the chicken will be greasy. If you don't have a thermometer, monitor the chicken closely. You want it to develop a crisp skin quickly, but brown slowly: note that it must cook on each side for 10-12 minutes. With practice, you'll learn what setting on your stove gives you the correct temperature.

Serves 8

2 2-3 pound fryer chickens, cut into eight pieces
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup fine breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning or similar homemade blend
about 1 cup beef tallow or sunflower seed oil

Place chicken pieces in a non-reactive bowl or pan and cover with buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate 12 to 24 hours.

Melt enough beef tallow (over low heat) to come just 1/8-inch up the side of a 12-inch cast iron skillet or heavy fry pan. Once the fat liquefies raise heat to 325 degrees F. Do not allow fat or oil to go over 325 degrees F.

Drain chicken in a colander. Combine bread crumbs, flour, and Old Bay in a shallow bowl. Dredge chicken in the bread crumbs and shake off excess.

Place chicken skin side down into the pan. Put thighs in the center, and breast and legs around the edge of the pan. Cook chicken until golden brown on each side, approximately 10 to 12 minutes per side. The internal temperature should be right around 170 degrees. (Be careful to monitor fat/oil temperature every few minutes.)

Drain chicken on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan, which drains better than paper towels or bags.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Strawberry Meditations

Recently, I had a rare afternoon at home alone while my husband took the kids fishing. I still had most of a flat of strawberries leftover that I had bought early in the morning for making a small batch of jam for a canning class. Sitting in the quiet house, I sat myself in front of the flat and slowly hulled and carefully sorted the berries, enjoying the buzz from their intoxicating aroma. The smallest, most perfect specimens went into a bowl for no-pectin preserves. Larger perfect ones I sliced in half for the dehydrator. The slightly mushy, slightly underripe, or otherwise imperfect but edible went into another bowl for sorbet, cheesecake, and syrup.

It was the first time in a while that I've had some quiet time to myself and I relished every slowed down minute of it. I wouldn't trade being a parent for anything, but I do miss meditative moments spent doing mundane, yet enjoyable tasks like hulling and sorting strawberries. It seems to me my grandmothers and aunts had more time for these things. As I worked, memories from when I was a girl, shelling beans for my Aunt Helen under the shade of a giant oak in front of the Pennsylvania farmhouse where my dad grew up flitted through my mind. I could feel the gentle afternoon breeze, hear the leaves rustle and the 'plunk plunk plunk' of beans in the enamelware bowl. I often find myself transported across tens of years and thousands of miles when I'm working with food, whether in the kitchen or the garden.

I sometimes wonder why I spend the time that I do preparing food. Sure, we save some money, my homemade food tastes better and is more nutritious that store-bought, but I do worry if I'm using my time as wisely as I should. Could I make more money than I save if, for example, if I spent my baking day doing something to generate income? Perhaps. That's the rationale many people use to explain why they don't prepare food at home and I understand it. The truth is, I enjoy the craft of preparing food, how it engages all my senses, evokes deep seated memories, and helps create what I hope will be fond memories for my own children. I feel connected to my faraway family and to those who have passed away, to the earth and its amazing abundance, and to people everywhere, who are, at that very same moment, sorting strawberries or shelling beans.

What is it that you enjoy most about preparing food at home?

This is my first Real Food Wednesday post! Visit Cheeseslave to read posts from other Real Food bloggers!