Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cold weather calls for comfort food!

It’s been a damned miserable, unending winter, hasn’t it? Two days ago, I spent a joyful (not) hour out in the snow shoveling our sidewalks and driveway. After finishing the job, I went back inside, poured a cup of coffee and watched the wind and snow that had started up again (it was supposed to be done according to the weather idiots) completely undo all of my efforts. By the time I went outside to try my luck again, the temperature had dropped by 5° celsius! By the middle of the night, it was −22°C. Living in Canada, you can’t expect balmy weather in January (unless you live in Victoria, BC), so it’s not unexpected, but January 2014 had been ridiculous!

I find one of the best ways to overcome the blues when the weather’s bad outside is to cook one of your favourite comfort foods. On the comfort food front last year, I presented my recipe for roasted chicken, my favorite comfort food. We’ve refined that recipe a bit and this refinement will be dealt with very soon in a post. Promise!

Today, though I’d like to tell you about my close second favorite comfort food: Shepherd’s Pie.

I’m talking about the real thing, made with ground lamb. I’ve never understood how people can call this dish Shepherd’s Pie when it’s been made with beef. Are they suggesting that the shepherds rustled their neighbors cattle? Making it with beef just seems wrong to me – but then, I really like lamb. In England, from where this simple dish hails, cottage pie is what they call ground beef cooked with a topping of mashed potatoes. Somehow when Shepherd’s Pie migrated to North America, that simple fact was forgotten – or was ignored in order to allow cheaper beef to be substituted for lamb.

A good Shepherd’s Pie can be a simple affair made with onions, ground lamb, a bit of gravy and mashed potatoes piled on top. We make it with a few additional things, but it’s still a pretty basic recipe. It can be made quickly, and when served piping hot with some sort of vegetable on the side (I prefer Brussels sprouts or lightly steamed broccoli), the howling wind outside, the driving snow, and the biting cold seem somehow diminished.

What do we add beyond the bare bones ingredients? Since we adore mushrooms, you’ll find lots of sliced ones in our pie. The flavor and texture of the gravy is critical, too, so much attention is focused on making that particularly toothsome. The texture of the mashed potatoes is also important, especially if you’re hoping there will be leftovers – and there damned well better be!

So if it’s cold and damp and miserable where you are, head down to the market, buy the ingredients and make this simple, hearty, and sustaining dish. For winter fare, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 4 (but this can be easily doubled or tripled)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium onion
  • 2-3 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbs bacon fat (or whatever oil you wish to use)
  • 1 lb lean ground lamb
  • 1 lb cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 Tbs flour
  • 2 Tsp paprika (Spanish or Hungarian – your choice)
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika (ditto)
  • 1 Tbs Worchestershire sauce
  • 2 Tbs minced fresh parsley (Use flat-leaf. It has more flavor.)
  • 1 Tbs dried rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp dried mustard
  • 2 cups stock (lamb is best, but chicken also works)
  • 4-5 large mashing potatoes
  • 4-5 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste for both the meat and mushroom mixture and the mashed potatoes (more on this later)

METHOD

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Get the stock heating.
  2. Slice the onion thinly. You don’t want big long pieces, though, so quarter the onion lengthwise, then slice. Using an ovenproof skillet or frying pan, sauté the onions over medium heat in the bacon fat or oil until they’re translucent.
  3. Now smash the garlic with the side of a knife so it starts to fall apart and stir into the cooked onions. Cook for another two minutes so the garlic doesn’t have a chance to burn. 
  4. Now add the lamb and mushrooms and cook everything together until the lamb is pretty well cooked through. If your lamb is fatty, pour off the fat. Hopefully it isn’t because you’ll also be pouring off juices.
  5. Sprinkle the flour over the meat mixture and stir it in, cooking for an additional 3 minutes.
  6. Add the paprikas, Worchestershire sauce, parsley, rosemary, and mustard and stir them in.
  7. Pour the hot stock over the meat mixture and cook until it’s bubbling and starting to thicken. Next, add salt and black pepper to taste. I generally add about a teaspoon and a half of salt, and a very healthy grinding of black pepper. Set the pan to simmer very gently while you prepare the mashed potatoes.
  8. We pressure cook potatoes because it’s quicker. If you boil them, fine. In any event, cook your potatoes until they’re just done. After draining, throw them back in the cooking pot and over medium heat, dry them until their surface is dry and flaky. Add the butter and when it’s melted, turn down the heat and mash the potatoes. Do yourself a favor and use a potato masher. This will give you lovely fluffy results. Using a mixer is not a great idea because your potatoes will come out with a gluey consistency.
  9. When the potatoes are mashed to your liking, add the milk, a good grating of nutmeg, and season with salt and white pepper. (White pepper is much better with mashed potatoes than black, in my opinion.) If the potatoes seem a bit too dense, add a little more milk. You want the consistency to be somewhat creamy.
  10. When you’re happy with the texture and seasoning of your mashed potatoes (I sometimes add a bit of garlic powder, or throw a half dozen garlic cloves into the pressure cooker with the cut up potatoes – if I remember!), spoon them on top of the meat mixture (they look nicer with a few artistic swirls), and pop the pan in the oven for 20-30 minutes. If you want, right at the end, put a bit of grated cheddar (this is an British dish, after all) on top of the potatoes and melt the cheese/brown the top of your pie under the broiler.
  11. Now, spoon some onto a heated plate or into a bowl and warm your insides!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Lonzino Report, Winter 2014

My latest efforts. Note the fancy 4-string tie.
Since I seem to be spending January talking about what’s going to come and updating where this blog has been, it seems sensible to talk about one of my ongoing projects: curing and drying our own in-house lonzino.

To bring everyone up to speed on what this is, a description is necessary, since it’s not a very well-known commodity. If you need to know more by way of background, click HERE to read the first part of our ongoing series about this delicacy.

Clear now? One thing that got me interested in making this less-know Italian delicacy is the fact that I really like well-made bresaola (something I’ve yet to try my hand at – unexplainably). Our household also likes peameal bacon, a Canadian specialty, which can most easily described as pickled pork loin that’s been rolled in cornmeal. Sounds not as appetizing as it is, doesn’t it? Think of it this way: corned beef is pretty much the same thing – and who doesn’t like corned beef? Sliced thinly and fried up, then served on a fresh hard roll, there’s nothing quite like a peameal bacon sandwich. (If you ever visit Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, Paddington’s Pump and the Carousel Bakery make worthy versions).

There’s also something called Canadian bacon, which, oddly enough, is not the name we use north of the 49th parallel. You do see it in the States, though. Up here (and in Britain) it’s called back bacon. Regardless, it’s made from (you guessed it) pork loin that is dry cured and then smoked. Think of this as a very meaty bacon-like product. (And it’s something else I should also make sometime.)

As far as lonzino goes, though, it is a lovely thing when it’s made well. My first attempt, as noted in the above linked post was slightly less than successful because it dried too quickly. Once we figured out that higher humidity than our basement generally produces was necessary, our subsequent batches have been things of loveliness and have become a favorite gift to pass on to friends. Now that we have a professional meat slicer (our Avantco 9" deli slicer), things are even easier – and more professional in appearance.

Being an inveterate recipe tinkerer, each time making it (8 now) has seen one thing change in the cure. We started with mattikaarts.com’s recipe, then took a bit of a left turn based on what flavors and aromas we like in our cured meats. The current herbs and spices I’ve used are simply lashings of fennel seed, black pepper, juniper berries and fresh bay leaf. What I changed up this time out was to toast it all to change and intensify everything – especially the aroma, it seems. I’ve resisted sampling the results since the two pieces of lonzino were only hung to dry a week ago, but it does smell incredible. Once I’ve settled on our recipe, I will share it here. I’d be interested to see what other people think.

My one other nod to experimentation in this batch was to cure it for slightly less time. We don’t appreciate salty salume around here, and my previous two batches of lonzino were a tad on the salty side, not badly mind you, but less would have been even nicer. One of the main reasons commercial products tend to be so salty is that the manufacturers are trying to disguise the flavor of inferior ingredients. Since we’re going the extra mild to source humanely-raised and butchered pork, why hide its exquisite flavor?

To make sure everything is safe for consumption considering it was a bit less cured, I used the requisite amount of curing salt based on poundage. Again, this is something I don’t normally use because I’m lonzino is a whole muscle meat. Another reason to use curing salt where I don’t in bacon or guanciale, for instance, is that lonzino is not cooked before eating, much like prosciutto. The last thing I want to do is kill my guests with tainted meat. Botulism is not fun.
_____________

Update: I wrote this piece last Thursday and since then the lonzino is drying quite nicely. Currently it’s lost 20% of its weight. The goal is 30% and we might reach that by Sunday. I can’t wait to taste this batch!

Addendum: You’ll notice some white on the casing of the righthand piece of lonzino. This is white mold and something that’s encouraging to have on this or homemade sausage you may be drying. This kind of mold discourages the formation of bad mold (green and especially black mold) and also slows down the drying of your meat. This is a good thing (as noted above). I’ve also heard tell that white mold also improves the flavor. Not having enough experience of that, I won’t comment – but it would be nice to know!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Time to get back to making (and eating) food!

Like most families, ours shared a lot of good meals this past holiday season. Down in the New York area where we come from, Vicki and I made two large meals: one for 14 people and one for 12. This post is sort of a wrap-up of our holiday season.

The first was a party to welcome our two latest additions to the family: Rena and our grandson Jackson to the annual festivities. That involved making a huge lasagna, containing ground beef, Italian sausage meat, three kinds of cheese (ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan), mushrooms, spinach, plus marinara and béchamel sauce. The real bummer is that there were no sources of fresh pasta near where we were staying, so we had to use that stuff with the rippled edges.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? It was, but with two of us wielding knives, the job was manageable. Unfortunately, there was an ice storm back in Toronto that shut down the airport so the meal was delayed by 24 hours. Lasagna turned out to be the perfect choice for the main course in this case because it’s something you just pop in the oven when the time comes. [Sidebar: Make sure you leave enough time to cook it. The thicker and denser the lasagne, the greater the cooking time. Also allow for 20-30 minutes of resting after coming out of the oven so it has time to cool a bit and set. It makes a huge difference.]

Two days later, it was back to the kitchen for Christmas dinner. Much as we have gotten fed up with making the exact same meal for 41 years, it consisted of turkey with stuffing, vegetables, cranberry sauce and two pies plus cookies for dessert. Maybe next year we can talk people into something else. How about a nice roast beast with Yorkshire pudding?

The past few years, we’ve been buying organic, pastured turkeys from Hemlock Hill Farm in Cortlandt, NY. They are a bit on the pricey side, but the extra money is very well-spent for such well-raised and butchered birds.

Don’t tell my mother-in-law, but our big secret for cooking a succulent and flavorful turkey is to brine it. Believe me when I say that it makes all the difference. Done correctly, the whole bird is infused with the flavors of the herbs, fruits, and spices you put into the solution, and just the correct amount of salt. It’s also critical for any roast meat to rest for at least 15 minutes before carving so all those luscious juices sink back to the center instead of running out onto the cutting board. What must also be taken into account is that the temperature of the meat will go up 5-8 degrees (F) while it’s resting. We take our poultry out when the internal temp is 165° and it rises to about 171° after 20 minutes. That’s a little lower than “government recommended cooking times”, but if your bird is at 180° in the center, the outside – especially the white meat – will be overdone and dry. I also have a good trick for cooking your bird faster and juicier which I’ll be sharing with you all. The year’s 15-pound turkey (stuffed) took under 2 1/2 hours to reach the magic temperature.

One recipe I haven’t changed for years is our orange cranberry sauce recipe. Making fresh sauce is simplicity itself and a job that can be done way in advance, so you’re not going nuts on the day. The flavor also improves as it sits, and that’s also a good thing.

Vicki always makes the stuffing and everyone who tastes it for the first time (like Rena did – Jackson was sleeping at the time) comments on how extraordinary it tastes. Her secret is simple: lots of fresh herbs.

I’m sitting here thinking, Why am I telling you about meals that have already taken place? You may be interested in trying some of the things we make, and all I’m doing is torturing you with descriptions of them. I’ll make you a deal. If enough people let me know they’re interested in any of what I’ve described, I’ll lay out over the course of several posts all the recipes and information you need to make this festive meal. It may be best to wait until next fall since turkey and all the trimmings are also generally on the menu for Thanksgiving, but I will come through for you. Expect the following recipes as summer turns to Autumn:

  • Roast Turkey
  • Bread and Walnut Stuffing
  • Orange Cranberry Sauce
  • Killer Pecan Pie

Our big gift this year was a semi-commercial vacuum sealer. These things are new since I worked in kitchens, but having bought lots of meat and cheese that have been packaged in them, I know how incredibly valuable they can be to people like us.

I plan to do a review of it, but it’s too new and we haven’t used it enough yet. The reason for buying a more robust unit is because we’ll use it a lot – more than the Avantco slicer we were given last year (although I love that machine) – and I want to make sure it will do what we need over the long term. Stay tuned for that.

Back on the curing front, we’re in the middle of curing five pounds of pork loin for our first batch of lonzino this curing season. I didn’t want to start it earlier because the drying process requires daily monitoring. Two of the three really critical things about making good lonzino are ensuring that it doesn’t dry too quickly (the outside gets hard and impenetrable so the inside doesn’t dry out enough) and of course you heading off any bad mold growth [Sidebar: white mold is good. Green or black mold, definitely not!] and take steps to get rid of it. Caught early, it’s not a problem. Just wipe it off with a rag dipped in white vinegar. If bad mold gets a few days’ foothold, though, you’re going to have to chuck your carefully crafted charcuterie.

I may need to pick up some more beef bungs which are what I encase the pieces of lonzino in while they’re hanging. It works very well to aid in a slow, even drying that yields the best product. Expect a full report soon because I’ve tweaked the recipe yet again.

So basically, there’s a lot to come over the next few months. Winter means soup around here, so expect some fantastic soup recipes. We’re experimenting with a linguine with white clam sauce that’s almost ready to share. And that’s just a peek at what’s planned.

There will be lots of good eating around AMFAS before spring arrives. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Speaking of sensible, and still on the topic of eggs…

If the subject of egg classification and what it means to the nutritional value of this food has you confused – and quite possibly unhappy since it seems yet again that consumers are being jobbed by large-scale growers – I have something additional to add that is pretty mind-blowing.

In many parts of the world, eggs are not washed which makes it possible for them to be stored safely at room temperature. Here’s one article I found. Please read it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait patiently! And then there’s this (you’ll have to navigate past the add on the landing page).

If you’re in North America, especially the States, you probably read both articles with eye rolls and disbelief, with comments such as, “They’ve got to be kidding!” going through your head.

But wait – as the advertising saying goes – there’s more.

I remember speaking to an experienced yachtsman a number of years ago, you know, the type of guy who’s crossed the Atlantic a number of times and thinks nothing of it. He told me that they never refrigerate eggs on any of the boats he sailed on. There wasn’t enough fridge space, due to the things that really needed it, to waste on eggs – which he said didn’t (he was British). Their eggs, in those 2 1/2 dozen flats, were simply turned end over end once each day. Moving the air bubble (that grows over time) around inside of the eggs kept them fresh for a month or more. He swore what he told me was accurate – knowing that I’d probably try it some time, and not wanting to me to endanger my life.

Here’s the thing I’ve found out since: apparently this won’t work if the eggs have been washed as they have to be by law on this side of the Atlantic.

You probably noted in the article that the EU’s feeling is that not allowing eggs to be washed encourages better animal husbandry. After all, who’s going to want to buy a dirty eggs, especially if the dirt is bird poop? A North American egg can have poop on it, be washed and dried and all appears good. But what if it wasn’t handled correctly? What if the birds were not inoculated against salmonella (the most common pathogen found on eggs) as is required (at least in the UK. I haven’t been able to find the EU rules about this).

So what it boils down to is this: you have to know just who is farming those eggs you’re buying and what there practices are. If everything I’ve read is true and accurate, I would be more comfortable with the European model.

More important, though, is to be able to ask questions about the eggs. You can only do that with small producers who you can approach and talk face-to-face with, maybe even visiting their farms. Armed with the knowledge these articles – and many others on the Internet – you can ask the right questions.

I took a trip to our local supermarket while working on this post. The packaging on eggs is confusing, in some cases, probably deliberately so. I was trying to pick out the best quality eggs to buy, and nothing I saw and read gave me the confidence to pick out something nutritionally sound, humanely raised and also safe. Can you get all three from “supermarket eggs”? Not the way they’re sold now.

On the other hand, if you buy from someone who has a roadside sign or is at your local farmer’s market, can you be sure they know what they’re doing in handling their livestock and your potential food?

I guess it all boils down to this: is it worth your time to source excellent eggs? You know I’m going to say yes. But one of my reasons will probably be surprising: it’s enjoyable. I like reaching out to the people producing the food I’m putting on my table every day. I want to be able to look them in the eye when I’m talking to them and know I’m being told the truth. I enjoy going out to a farm, getting a chance to observe the chickens. Do they look healthy and well kept? Are they content? Is the farmer even willing to let me see his operation?

If you’ve found the right person, they will welcome you. Then you can buy with confidence if you like what you see. Chances are, if you’ve made a friend, they will be doubly careful. After all, who wants to harm someone they know.

Chances are you will pay more than you do for the regular eggs most people purchase at their local supermarket without a pause for thought. But I’ve also found you’ll probably pay less for the fancier supermarket eggs that claim to be organic (but were the chickens kept in those tiny cages?) or free-range (but did that just mean they were raised moving around on a concrete barn floor?). Does Omega-3 really need to be add to eggs, or is this just to compensate for poor nutrition provided by what the chickens are being fed?

As for whether to refrigerate eggs or not, if I can purchase eggs raised to UK standards, I see no reason to doubt their standards are safe. And for all of you out there, I will do that and report back. The only egg farmer who I know could provide these doesn’t have eggs at the moment because his hens are moulting (a good thing since this means he doesn’t have them under 24-hour lighting to avoid this problem).

Bottom line: Our eggs are being supplied by operations that are too large and too focused on profit margins. This leads to shortcuts needing to be taken in order to remain competitive and still make the maximum amount of money. Taken from one viewpoint, who can blame these companies for doing this? But from the viewpoint that food should always be the highest quality it can, battery chicken practices, de-beaking, and all the rest are completely unacceptable. We can, and always should, do better. It’s up to us, the consumer, to demand the best for the chickens who supply us with food.

To my mind, smaller egg production operations are the way to go. I just wish the government would get out of the way and let this happen. Marketing boards are outmoded in so many ways, and nowadays they’re actions and regulations are based more on protecting large-scale producers than the consumers. If this changes, will we have to pay higher prices? Of course, but with it will come higher quality. But we have to demand it. I will not by “supermarket eggs” anymore. It’s my way of protesting. It has taken me time and effort to find farmers who treat their chickens humanely and properly. My reward for this is better tasting and ultimately more nutritious food. I also like the fact that the farmer is getting 100% of my money.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Are you doing your best when purchasing eggs?

First of all, Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a t’riffic holiday. I received a very special present which I’ll be writing about very soon. The first batch of our pancetta is now finished drying, and we’re already enjoying the guanciale I started in November. There’s lots to write about!

But I’m going to begin 2014 by mounting my food soapbox. I’ve been doing a spot of research and want to share it with people who care about the quality of the food they put into their mouth. This post will be a two-parter, and the second will blow your mind. Please stay tuned for that one!
_________________


There’s nothing like a good egg or two for breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday, is there? Since they’re also used as ingredients in so many things, especially baking, cooks use eggs a lot. But the state of the eggs you can buy in stores is one fraught with difficulties, if you care past convenience about what you eat.

Personally, we’re very careful about where we get our eggs and concerned very much about how they were produced. Those horrible shots of battery chickens, basically turned into egg laying robots, kept in minuscule cages, never seeing the light of day. For many reasons, we will not buy any eggs that were produced that way. I’ve met a few chickens in my time, and they are surprisingly wonderful creatures: loyal, friendly, curious and quite entertaining to observe.

Here in Ontario, where we have the Egg Marketing Board that is very much skewed to favor the large egg (ie: battery chicken) producers, getting humanely-raised eggs means skirting the law in most cases. To be honest, there are larger (but not the largest) producers who do their best to give their chickens a better life. But even so, those efforts fall short of what chickens really need to live well.

So we buy from farmers who keep a small flock of chickens, birds that get to run around the barnyard and adjacent fields in order to supplement their diet with bugs, grubs, worms, grass and other nice things that make up a chicken’s natural diet. Yes, they do get some grain from their owners to help them along, but these are not just free range (a confusing and misused term), they are pastured – and that makes all the difference. [Sidebar: Free range apparently means they’re not kept in those tiny cages. It is an industry term to make us all feel better while doing very little for a chicken’s welfare.]

Does a pastured chicken lay better eggs? Absolutely. The ones we buy (especially during the growing season) have beautiful, almost orange yolks. Because they’re really fresh, the white stands up in a proud, tight circle when you crack one into a frying pan, not running out into thin strands. This translates into a fresh, more intense eggy flavor that’s unmistakeable. There’s also research proof that eggs from pastured chickens are higher in nutrition and lower in cholesterol.

We also know what exactly is in the chicken feed our friends use: no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. In one case, the chickens are more pets than a source of farm income. The eggs they lay are more of a benefit to the farmer than a necessity.

Will I tell you who these fine folks are? No. Quite frankly, it could get them in a world of trouble.

You see it’s against the rules of the egg marketing board, a government agency that has teeth if it needs to use them. Their regulations favor corporate production primarily because egg quota is just so expensive. If a farmer wants to keep, say, a hundred chickens – rather than a hundred thousand – he/she can’t do so, except for personal use – unless they shell out to purchase quota. The economics means they have to produce eggs in large numbers.

Some farmers skirt around these government regulation, but they could be subject to irate government inspectors and possible fines at any moment. So they sell only to friends, people they can trust to keep quiet. I’ve heard if you put a sign up by the road saying “Eggs for sale” and you don’t have egg quota from the marketing board, you will eventually be told to remove the sign and desist – or face fines. People get around it by putting up signs saying “Fresh Eggs”, which isn’t illegal.

It’s all very silly on one level, and frightening on another. There are many who would like to be able to buy exactly what they want to eat, raised in a way they think fair and humane, but often, we can’t, and in this case, you’re on the windy side of the law if you do. That’s not good.

Eggs are only the tip of the food marketing mountain. Perhaps one day, regulations will become more sensible. In the case of “cackle fruit”, our health would be better off for it.