Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dandy Dandelions

I've been a bad blogger. I'd like to tell you it's because I've been carefreely picking daisies, ur dandelions, (which I have) but that's only a tiny slice of how I've been spending my time these past few weeks. While I suppose to some, spring brings idyllic pastoral scenes to mind including fluffy, cutesy-wutsey baby animals like bunnies and chicks, I think spring is more a sign a chaos. I have just endured completing my own finals, submitting my graduate thesis, grading hundreds of pages of my students' finals, training for a new job, preparing for and attending commencement, moving out of my office at school, and enjoying a long visit from my mom and sister.

Here in Boise, even the weather seems to be thrown in tumult. After a weekend of 90 degree swelter, today was cloudy, breezy, and I am freezing.

The good news is that this cloudy, breezy, authentically spring weather has revived the beautiful patch of dandelions growing in my alleyway. Before the festivities of graduation and house guests, I had been playing around with dandelions. It is amazing how once you begin to view dandelions as a delicious food source, their presence in your yard transcends to pleasantness and not annoyance. Of course, the neighbors' yards all have the perfectly manicured (and chemically artificial) look of wall-to-wall shag carpeting. I'm sure they cringe when they see our yellow and white puffball dotted yard. But, they haven't tasted these:Dandelion fritters will change the way you look at the misunderstood dandelion forever. The flowers taste, well, like sunshine. As they fry, the little petals meld into a rich, not-quite-earthy, slightly sweet polleny center, which is perfectly contrasted by the crunchy fried batter that encases them.

I adapted this recipe from Kimberly Gallagher at Learning Herbs. (Dandelions are also incredibly healthy for you--although deep frying them probably cancels out any nutritious benefit.) If you're interested in knowing exactly how good-for-you dandelions are, check out the Learning Herbs site.

Dandelion Fritters

dandelion heads, as many blooming, freshly picked flowers as you want
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/4 t. salt
1 cup flour
1/2 cup peanut oil

In a medium bowl, beat egg. Add milk, salt, flour and mix well. Heat peanut oil in a skillet on medium-high. One at a time, grab the dandelion heads by their green base and dip them in the batter. Then, gently place in hot oil. Keep adding batter-dipped dandelions. (If I work quickly, I usually have time to add about 8 or 10 before I need to start turning them.) As soon as they are brown on one side, turn and fry for another couple of minutes. Remove immediately to a paper towel covered plate. Repeat process as necessary. Serve either as a savory side with ketchup and mustard or as a dessert, heavily dusted with powdered sugar.

Dandelion fritters are a perfectly sunshiny dessert. They can (and in fact should) be made on the spur of the moment whenever lovely bright, golden dandelion flowers present the opportunity. If it's too cloudy out, the blossoms won't open, and your fritters won't be worth it. Although some cringe at the thought of eating a weed or worry about lawn chemicals, eating dandelions is delicious and safe. I know that no chemicals or fertilizer has been sprayed in my yard for two years. Even if you don't know the chemical history of your foraging area, if dandelions are growing, the area is free of pesticides. In fact, in researching the safeness and edibility of dandelions, I found that most wild plant foragers won't gather anything unless there are dandelions growing in the area. So, think of dandelions as the proverbial canary in the coal mine as far as eating wild plants goes.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Head Cheese...not for the faint of heart.

In January, I got an urge to make head cheese after reading about M.F.K. Fischer's recipe for "Aunt Gwen's Cold Shape" in the Art of Eating. Head cheese is not cheese at all, but a homemade luncheon meat. It is molded in a terrine and made by boiling a hog's head, taking the cooked chunks of facial meat, snout, and tongue and gelling them together with the cooking stock. The head has so much cartilage that, as it cooks, it creates a natural gelatin automatically.

My Czech grandmother used to make head cheese, both from hog's my family had raised on the farm and later, from hog's heads she had to specialty order from the butcher. After watching her make it as a child, I was so disgusted that I could never bring myself to eat it. But now, as an adult after becoming both a foodie and a devotee to M.F.K. Fischer, I knew I had to try it. At first I tried eating commercially made head cheese but it is extremely inferior and even scarier than eating hotdogs because you just don't know what's in it.

Then, it just so happened that Kent's former boss at the Milky Way used to make head cheese for the charcuterie plate when she worked at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco. Andrea graciously agreed to teach me how to make head cheese the way that would have made Grandma Krahulik proud.

First, however, I had to procure a fresh hog's head. I put an add on Craig's List, and lo and behold, I got a near immediate response. Tony agreed to let me watch him butcher the hog and photo document the process.

The whole experience was horrifying and enlightening and thrilling and, ultimately, delicious. In Gastronant: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave (2005), Stephan Gates writes that after making head cheese, "You'll emerge blooded. You'll be a braver cook, more honest in your relationship to food, and with a deeper understanding and respect for the animals that give their lives to feed us."

What follows is the step-by-step process by which I did exactly that.

This is what a hog looks like moments after it is killed. Notice the spray of water on the hindquarters. This is so dirt won't get on the meat once the skinning begins. To kill the pig, it is first stunned with a shot to the head and then the throat is slit, hitting the main artery of the heart. It is surprisingly quick, and the pig doesn't make any noise.

They start skinning just above the hooves of the rear legs.

As soon as the ankle bones are exposed the carcass is hooked and hung. This helps the excess blood drain.

Once the hide is removed, the head must be cut off next. While it's relatively easy to cut through the neck muscles, severing the spinal cord is more difficult because the curvature of each vertebrae makes it impossible to get a straight cut.

After the head is removed, the rest of the butchering is much less gory. When the chest cavity is split open, as long as the organs aren't cut or burst, everything is rather immaculate. The purple-veined organ at the bottom right is the bladder. Also visible are the small and large intestines. (The belly meat right by Tony's hand is where the bacon comes from.)

Once all the guts are removed, Tony uses an electric meat saw to split the carcass in half lengthwise.

I take the head (and front trotters) home and soak them in cold water to draw out the blood. The head is skinned, except for a strip of hair that runs down the length of the forehead, which makes it look like Piggy has a mohawk.

After soaking, Andrea bravely removes the eyeballs with a fillet knife.

She also scalps the mohawk off until the head looks like this:

After the head gets a high pressure rinse in the sink, cleaning the mouth and nostrils of any gunk, it goes into the pot with the trotters, carrots, parsley, onion, cloves, bay leaf, sage, a bottle of white wine, and enough water to submerge the whole thing.

Then, it must cook for about eight hours at a slow simmer. If it cooks too quickly, the meat will be tough and the stock will come out murky.

Foamy impurities rise to the top and must be skimmed off periodically.

When the head emerges from the pot still steaming, it looks like this:

We pick the meat off the skull by hand. The head (and trotters) have so much natural gelatin in them from the cartilage that the meat is as sticky as if it was doused with glue. The smell is incredibly wonderful. The meat is surprisingly delicious. It tastes exactly the way good pork should. It is tender and succulent.

The tongue gets chopped up too. (But the trotters are discarded. Their function was merely to enrich the stock with gelatinous goodness.)

Andrea decided to add some carrots to the mix for color as well.

Meanwhile, we strain the cooking stock with a coffee filter lined sieve and heat it until it's reduced by half. This stock will have enough gelatin to gel all the pieces of meat and carrot together.

Next, we line two terrine molds with plastic wrap. In a moment of inspiration, Andrea decides to line one mold with thin slices of carrot.

The meat and the reduced broth get poured in the terrine molds.

The head cheese chills overnight in the fridge, and when it emerges the next morning, it looks like this:

I sliced it and served it chilled with cornichon pickles, mustard, and baguette (not pictured).

Head cheese tastes like highly refined, essence of pork. It sort of reminds me of eating cold fried chicken, the meatiness and rich fattiness pleasantly coats the mouth. Taking a bite of cornichon cleanses the palate enough to make you crave the next bite.

I can safely say I am no longer afraid of head cheese. However, I have trouble finding people who will share it with me. (Kent won't touch the stuff.) So, Henry Miller the cat, and I eat head cheese together.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Develop a Taste for Simple Foods

Develop a taste for simple foods. This is possibly the best financial advice I've ever been given. But, it seems like in America the idea of cheap food is dreadful. Ramen noodles and casseroles with Campbell's mushroom soup immediately come to mind, so does Taco Bell. The French, however, have revered, old-fashioned peasant food. Simple, hearty, and delicious because of honest ingredients and skillful preparation. While I'm not a connoisseur of French food by any means, I have deep respect for this type of cooking. I think a lot of times we get caught up with the idea that French food is foofy and fancy but that's not true. Peasant food is powerful because it is down-to-earth, because of its every day ordinariness. Where is the American equivalent of this?

As I'm still thinking through this problem, I think we have momentarily found some very wonderful peasant food indeed in the form of Ham and Bean soup. My mom used to make Ham and Bean soup with the leftover Easter ham. My father loves Ham and Bean soup but wasn't allowed to eat it very often because of the intense flatulence it caused! (Soaking the beans overnight and adding vinegar to the cooked beans helps with this, or you can use Bean-O).

As I fumbled to unlock the door when I came home from school this evening, I could smell it, the deep earthy smell of White Northern Beans and the subtle smokiness of ham. Kent had made the most humble, unpretentious, and delicious soup I've had in a long time. It was creamy without dairy, with just a wisp of salt and smoke from the ham. We ate it with huge slices of rye bread, lightly toasted and slathered with butter. Today was one of those blistery, blustery cold spring days, still perfect for a large bowl of soup. But perhaps also, this meal's perfection was more than the food, perhaps I was enamored with the idea of a dinner prepared for me by someone I love. I'm telling you, there's really something to this food/love connection.

So here's Kent's take on Ham and Bean soup:

Adapted from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1990) "Black Bean Soup Recipe."

Ham and Bean Soup
1 lb. Great Northern Beans
1 t. celery seed
1 onion, slices
1 ham bone
1 1/2 cups cooked ham chunks
1 1/2 t. dry mustard
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

The night before soak beans in water.

Put beans, soaking liquid, and enough cold water to yield 2 quarts in a large pot. Add celery seed, onion, and ham bone. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 3-4 hours or until the beans are soft, adding more water to replace any that evaporates. Remove the ham bone. Puree in a food processor or with immersion blender. Add the cooked ham and reheat, season with mustards, vinegar, salt and pepper.

Sprinkle grated cheese (Parmesean) on top if desired and serve with rye bread.

Serves 10-ish. We still have a big pot in the fridge. I might revamp it with some canned tomatoes tomorrow or freeze some as well.