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Friday, January 19, 2007

Cold Food

That is, hot food for when you're fighting off a cold, as I think I am now. My first attempt at congee, a New York Chinatown staple, is pretty good. Untraditional, but good.

My congee: Roast a duck carcass and neckbone at 500 degrees until well browned; put them in a 6-quart slow cooker with 1 cup long-grain rice and fill the pot with water. Add a cheesecloth bag of spices—star anise, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, and cloves—and sprinkle in some ground cinnamon (this to approximate five-spice, which uses Szechuan peppercorns; mine were too old and too lost in the back of the cupboard). Cook on low or high until the duck carcass seems to be pretty much done giving up its flavor, but before the rice has started to expand; remove and discard the duck (pull off any bits of meat and return them to the cooker) and the bag of spices. Continue to cook on low or high until the rice disintegrates and "blooms." Season with soy sauce before or after ladling it into a bowl. Garnish with cilantro, chile-garlic sauce, and sliced scallions. I kept the congee unsoy-sauced so I can give some to the bug for supper. I think she'll like the funny texture and meaty flavor of it.
I probably won't be able to post anything for a little while, as I'm completely logjammed with work and I need to just buckle down and do it. One or two frozen pizzas (and warmed-up congee, and maybe some duck prosciutto) are in the Chalmerses' near future, I'm afraid.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Larder

Mr. Chalmers and I made five pounds of jagerwurst on Sunday. Next time we break out the meat grinder we really should make ten pounds. We pretty much followed the recipe in Charcuterie: 5 pounds cubed Boston butt pork with all its fat, mixed with salt, 1 teaspoon sodium nitrite (pink salt), black pepper, ground ginger, toasted crushed coriander seeds, toasted whole mustard seeds (we used black), nutmeg, minced fresh garlic, and nonfat dry milk powder. We put it through the grinder with the coarse plate, then put half of it through the fine plate, then the stronger of the two of us beat the heck out of it to mix it up really well. Stuffed it into hog casings we'd brought with us from Florida—those things last forever in brine or coated with coarse salt. Hung them from hooks under the shelf I put up in the cool pantry for a few hours to let the surface dry. Smoked them with hickory at 180 degrees, or as close to that temperature as we could maintain, for an indeterminate time (four hours?), until the internal temperature of the sausage was about 150 degrees. Plunged the sausages into ice water to chill and prevent shrinkage. They were good hot out of the smoker, but better cold and thinly sliced. The texture is nice: smooth and firm, but studded with larger bits. The casing is a little bit tough, though, and I'm not sure how to prevent that next time.

The next day, we got a whole duckling at Whole Foods in Buckhead (I'd been unable to find just duck breasts), and yesterday I broke it down into parts. Leg/thigh quarters are in the freezer to be made into confit later. I rendered all the extra fat, which came to about two cups—I'll cut this with schmaltz and maybe good lard when I make confit. I took the breasts off and packed them in a mixture of kosher salt, crushed juniper berries and bay leaves, and a little black pepper. Today I rinsed them off, dusted them with a touch of finely ground black pepper all over (I don't like white pepper at all), tied them in cheesecloth, and hung them in the pantry, where they'll dry for about seven days (the temperature in there right now is about, oh, 51.8 degrees, which according to R&P is just right), becoming duck "prosciutto," which I gather you slice very thinly and eat just as you would the real thing. I don't know, it sounds good. I've never had it before. These might take less than a week to dry-cure, because they're flatter than the average duck breast.

Right now it's looking like the duck wings and carcass will end up as a base for congee (or jook), a bland version of which I think would make an excellent baby food. I guess I'll roast them, then toss them in the slow cooker with rice and lots of water, plus, maybe, star anise? For now they're in the freezer.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I have what's known in the knitting blogosphere as an FO. It's so rare that I have one to show for my days that I'm posting three pictures of it. A baby sweater of my own design (let's call it Laurel), made with beautiful, soft Briar Rose Fibers Fourth of July merino. I sure hope it gets cold again in Georgia so the bug can wear it a few times. It's awkwardly made, but it's warm and it fits (that is, it's too large) and it looks like a sweater from the outside.

Monday, January 08, 2007

1885 House

Last night it rained so hard our roof leaked right next to our bed. I'm going to pretend it was a dream, because it will likely never rain that hard again. I sometimes feel like I'm living in a PBS reality series, though. The other day I received huge boxes from my folks containing all the old enamelware I said I'd take off their hands, along with a glass butter churn, a butter-washing bowl and paddle, and a large (maybe one-pound-size) butter mold. We already live like dairy farmers (or bakers); we might as well be milking a cow and making butter . . .

Yesterday we had the usual roast chicken on lemon slices. I was eager to use the new poultry shears I got for eight dollars at Publix.

Laid out flat, seasoned with salt and dried thyme, on top of lemon.

After it had roasted awhile at 425 degrees I added some cubed, parboiled boniato in what I guess was a sort of mojo—fresh tangelo juice and zest, cumin, cayenne, garlic, and salt.

The bug suggested I add some shallots to the mojo, so I did.

The bug rejected, in no uncertain terms, the plain mashed boniato I tried to feed her. But then she couldn't get enough of it after it had roasted in chicken juices and spicy, tangy sauce and been scooped onto my plate. She very much liked the gravlax yesterday, and the grapes I put in her clever feed bag. Her dad gave her a taste of the frosting on the cupcake he had for breakfast this morning and it didn't even spoil her appetite for oatmeal and bananas.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Birthday Salmon

Last week was Mr. Chalmers's birthday, but as he does every year he spent it at a conference. When he comes home today we'll have chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting—I think he asked for that wacky combination a couple months ago, and anyway he's right that I never make chocolate desserts, so I thought this was a good excuse. (It's all fruit and spice around here.) I don't know much about chocolate cake or frosting, so I posted a query on Chowhound asking for the best chocolate frosting recipes ever. It paid off: this is the chocolate frosting I'll use till my dying day (although I have enough left over to last that long in the freezer, assuming it freezes okay—or, rather, thaws okay). It's very chocolatey, not too sweet, not grainy, not greasy or fatty-tasting like a buttercream can be, and not as dense as a ganache. It spreads easily, and stiffens as it cools on the cake but does not become crusty like a lot of frostings do. In short, it's perfect. I used a random combination of Ghirardelli milk and semisweet chocolates, plus a little over half a pound of good bittersweet. Here's a shortened version of the recipe:

Chocolate sour cream frosting: Melt about 2 pounds chocolate in a double boiler. Remove from the heat and stir in about 3 cups sour cream and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. Frost cake immediately. Makes about 4 cups.

The cake recipe I used happened to be very good too. Very rich and moist, but light and tender. I used that crazy "Special Dark" Dutch-process Hershey's cocoa powder, and the cakes are pitch black. (Other things I've made with that stuff look too weird and dark, not like other Dutch-process cocoa powder I've used, so I'm glad to have been able to use up 3/4 cup of it this morning.) This recipe made twenty-four cupcakes.

A lot of my pictures these days are taken when it's still dark out; hence the bad lighting.

The gravlax is ready! Following (sort of) Ruhlman and Polcyn in Charcuterie, I cured a pretty piece of wild king salmon from Your Dekalb Farmer's Market in brown sugar, salt, a little black pepper, and lots of dill—wrapped in plastic and weighted down—for a little over two days. I know approximately as much about gravlax as I do about chocolate cake, but the little schnibbley I took from the thin end seemed a bit too hard and maybe too sweet. It's probably just that I expect it to taste like smoked salmon—lox—a completely different thing altogether. (The Chalmerses will make lox as soon as we have the smokehouse built. I've bookmarked something called, so you know I'm serious. I did not, however, bookmark I think it'll be nice with the mustard sauce I threw together this morning, and thin slices of pumpernickel, topped with strips of the skin that have been crisped and blackened in a hot skillet.

Layer of brown sugar, salt, and pepper mixture, then the salmon fillet skin side down, then more sugar mixture, then dill.

Salmon wrapped tightly in plastic. The juices will run out into the pan, in effect becoming a brine.

Weighted down with cans in the fridge, where the salmon spent about two days.

Salmon unwrapped, rinsed off, and patted dry.

Mustard sauce for gravlax: Whisk together about 1/3 cup crème fraîche, 1 tablespoon grainy mustard, and a touch of honey to taste. Stir in about 1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill.

Yes, I'd had breakfast and made cupcakes and mustard sauce and finished the gravlax before it was time to feed the dogs at 6 this morning. The bug is up and ready to play by 3:30 lately, whether she goes to bed at 4:30 or 7 the night before. These last few dark mornings have given me time to think about how to re-broach the subject of the floodlight the neighbors have decided to point directly at our house and leave on twenty-four hours a day. When I asked about it last week, the guy said it was for security purposes. Is there any specific threat that he's concerned about? Yes, he said, as a matter of fact there are black people who live in trailers and small houses down the road, and they deal drugs on the corner, and sometimes they ride by on four-wheelers.

Happy birthday, sweetheart, and welcome home.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Back in Ghee

I've been holding off on cooking Indian food lately because I didn't have any ghee in the pantry, but now I'm good to go. The other day I made a good-sized batch of my own in the old slow cooker. This may be my one great contribution to the world of food: slow-cooker ghee. It's in the little book I wrote, but basically all you do is
Ghee: Put 3 to 4 pounds unsalted butter (frozen is fine) in a 6-quart slow cooker, turn it on low or high (it really doesn't matter, I've found), cover with the lid slightly askew, and don't touch it or jostle the pot for many hours, until the foam on the top is a bit crusty and browned around the edges and it smells good. Skim the foam off and save it for spreading on fresh bread. Gently pour the clear ghee into a jar, leaving the solids on the bottom behind (discard those solids). This makes whatever this jar is—1 quart, I guess.
Don't imagine that melted or even clarified butter is the same as ghee. It's not even close. Ghee has a distinctive flavor that can only come from long, slow cooking. Usually this is done in a low oven or on the stovetop, which is so tedious and, frankly, wasteful. It's much easier in the slow cooker. Just buy a bunch of butter when it's on sale, and freeze it until you want to make ghee. For some of the really delicious Indian sweets you need a lot of ghee, so it's nice to have a lot on hand without having to buy expensive ready-made ghee.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Eat Poor

Happy 2007! We had the usual Southern New Year's Day food around here, if only because Ingles was pushing the collards and black-eyed peas so hard. (Unfortunately, the collards I tried to grow in the fall were too stunted and scrawny to bother picking; turns out that our soil's nitrogen content, on a scale of zero to 6, is zero. Will try again next year.)

How do you make hoppin' john? This is how I've been making it since I lived in Queens and ate poor all year round, but other peoples' versions are different. Mine is much more flavorful than others I've tasted, but it looks kind of awful.

Cornbread muffin, hoppin' john, and collard greens. Vinegary hot sauce.
Hoppin' john: Sorry these measurements are so vague; this is just for technique, and for comparison's sake if anybody cares. Rinse and pick through 1/2 pound dried black-eyed peas. Put in a pot with water to cover by several inches; bring to a boil, cover, and let soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse again. In a large pot, cook about 6 strips bacon until crisp; remove the bacon from the pot, set aside, and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat. Add 1/2 chopped onion to the fat and cook over medium heat until softened. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until almost tender. Dump several handfuls of long-grain white rice into the pot with the black-eyed peas. Stir in several good pinches of salt and lots of black pepper. If there's enough water left to cook the rice, just bring it to a boil, then cover the pot and lower the heat to low; cook until the rice is done and all the water is absorbed. If not, pour in a little more water before adding the rice. Fluff everything up, taste for seasonings, then crumble the bacon into the pot and gently fold it into the black-eyed peas and rice. It reheats really well in the microwave (see photo above), or you can mold it, cold, into patties and pan-fry them. I think most people cook the peas and rice separately, which would result in a prettier, fluffier dish. But this is how I like it, sticking together in clumps.
I used smoked pork neckbone in the greens instead of hocks, and I don't know why more people don't do this—the neckbone is so much meatier, the meat is easier to get off the bone, it's less fatty, and it's usually cheaper than hocks. You can use just a couple small pieces of the neckbone if you want.

The bug appears to have a bit of a cold, and her dad definitely has one, despite all the potlikker. I blame the plane ride from hell.