Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas everyone!

Santa brought me a knit hat — some assembly required.

It’s quiet around here. The nearest relatives are at least a state away so we got to sleep in. Outside it’s bright and sunny. A light breeze with a cloudless blue sky and no white stuff on the ground. A good day for a long walk.

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Porch Repair

Bored? Buy an old house. There will always be something to repair or paint. Our house was built in the 19th century and has since been remodeled and added onto by various owners. The last addition was the front porch. Looking at the brickwork and some old photos, we’ve concluded that the house started with a wooden porch. By 1950, that had been replaced with a concrete stoop. The current porch was built by the people we bought the house from just before they put the house on the market. The weather has not been kind to the porch and the railings and floor boards are now rotting.

We started the project by removing the bottoms of the railings and pulling up loose flooring. We quickly discovered, it wasn’t just the floor boards that were bad — joists were rotting too.

We eventually determined that the rot was confined to the edges of the porch away from the house. A few feet in, the joists are solid. So we cut away the outer four feet of flooring. Looking at the rotted bits, we concluded the builders had used 4d bright finish nails which had rusted and wicked moisture into the flooring and joists.

Since we’d cut the flooring off flush with a joist, we sistered in a 2×4 so we’d have something to nail the ends of the new flooring onto. The other joists also got 2×4 sisters so we’d have a flat nailing surface. While we were working, the herald of spring, a red-headed groundhog, popped out to enjoy the sunshine…

… and saw her shadow…. Once it quits snowing, and things dry out and we’ll pick this back up.

Posted in Home Repair | 1 Comment

Salt Pork and Potato Stew

Many people in the United States will read the title and make a face. In this country salt pork has largely devolved to mean a hunk of salty pork fat – something to be avoided. But it wasn’t always this way. Until fairly recently, salting was a common method for preserving meat both fat and lean. And once preserved, the product is shelf stable at room temperature making it ideal for feeding an army on the move.

Since this post is part of the continuing epic of Charcutepalooza, the first step to making this stew is making salt pork. The cut of pork I chose was half a picnic shoulder. Had it come from the other end, we’d call it a ham shank.

To simplify things and speed the curing along I removed the bone and cut the meat in two, perpendicular to where the bone had been. The halves where then liberally coated with a cure consisting of a pound a salt, half a pound of sugar and less than an eighth teaspoon of sodium nitrate (it doesn’t take much).

The pieces went into a gallon-sized ziplock bag which in turn went into a dish to catch drips and the whole lot went into the refrigerator for three weeks. Every day or two when I remembered, I’d flip the bag over to help redistribute the liquid.

The result of the process is very salty, very dense, fine grained pieces of meat which will be unfamiliar to many modern cooks including the author. I find myself in the position of the car-chasing dog who caught one – what do I do with it?

Fortunately my cookbook collection includes a copy of Ida Bailey Allen’s Money-Saving Cook Book (1). In it she gives a recipe for salt pork and potato stew which I mostly followed below.

Scald a half pound of salt pork in boiling water to remove some of the excess salt. Then dice the pork and fry it in a stew pot over low heat. You may need to add a tablespoon of oil depending on how lean the pork is. Once it starts to brown, add a pound of coarsely chopped onions and cook over medium high heat until they become translucent. Add two and a half pounds of peeled and cubed Russet potatoes along with six cups of water and a teaspoon or two of ground black pepper. Simmer until the potatoes are tender. Ms. Allen recommends adding minced parsley during the last few minutes of cooking and serving with croutons. I settled for fresh bread on the side.

Despite its simplicity or perhaps because of it, this is a very nice stew. The starch from the potatoes, the sugars from the onions and the soluble proteins from the pork yield a substantial broth. And the cooking process transforms the pork into sweet-salty morsels which are firm but not overly chewy.

(1) Allen, Ida Bailey. 1948. Money -Saving Cook Book. New York:Triangle Books. 248 p.
Posted in Charcutepalooza, Cooking | 5 Comments

Lentil and Rice Soup

It’s comforting to know there’s a pot of soup simmering on the stove along with a loaf of fresh bread. This is especially true when it’s your reward for yet another day of shoveling snow.

While this is lentil and rice soup, the pancetta is what makes the diner sit up and say “Ooo Mommy” (food science humor). And by happy coincidence, pancetta fits into this month’s Charcutepalooza challenge.

To be fair, I should mention that my pancetta predates Charcutepalooza – I made it last December after the previous batch ran out. I started with two pork bellies (about 20 pounds) and dry-cured them following a recipe similar to the one given by Ruhlman adding juniper berries and lots of coriander. This batch was thicker than usual and took nearly two weeks to cure. Once cured, I hung the meat to dry on the elegant rack over the closet door in my office where it currently shares space with a country ham.  Once the weather starts to warm up I’ll wrap the pancetta in freezer paper and move it to the basement.

The remaining ingredients for the soup are less esoteric – carrots, onions, lentils and rice. Brown rice works best because it holds its shape and doesn’t turn mushy. Start the soup by cooking half a cup of diced pancetta in your soup pot over low heat. Once it starts to brown, turn up the heat to medium and add a cup each of diced onion and sliced carrots. Cook stirring occasionally until they start to brown. Next add a pound of lentils and a half cup of rice along with two quarts of water. This is also the time to add additional spices – I added a teaspoon of cracked black pepper, half a teaspoon of dried thyme and some chopped up fennel tops I found hiding in the crisper. Turn the heat down low and simmer until the lentils are tender.

And there you have it – bread and soup for winter’s day.

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Snowpocalypse 2011

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Some pictures from last weeks snow storm and the aftermath. Click for a larger image.  

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Chicken proscuitto and Pasta alla carbonara

In our last episode, the evil insane cook had wrapped our heros in cheesecloth and hung them up in the basement to dry. Listen now as the cook’s wife says, “And you’re positive that eating this won’t kill us?”

The transformation from fresh meat to proscuitto is pretty remarkable. Fresh chicken is pale and squishy while the salted and dried version has a deeper color and is firm enough to thinly slice. The latter also has a more concentrated flavor than fresh chicken. It’s also very salty probably because the pieces are so thin. I think when I make this again, I’ll cut the salting time down.

The dish I choose to make with my proscuitto was Pasta alla Carbonara which apparently translates to pasta made in the style of the charcoal makers. If true, charcoal makers eat pretty well. The dish consists of mixing hot pasta with eggs and cheese — the heat from the pasta soft cooks the eggs and melts the cheese. Extras for the dish can include pancetta, olives or in this case proscuitto.

Considering I’d made proscuitto from scratch, it didn’t seem right to use pasta from a box so I took a slight detour to make the pasta. The first step is grinding wheat into flour (did I mention this detour is in the spirit of Carl Sagan’s recipe for apple pie from scratch?) The grain is hard white wheat which I think tastes better than hard red wheat. Going from wheat berries to flours takes three passes though the mill, with the burrs set closer together for each pass.

The general rule for making pasta dough is to allow 225 grams (about a cup) of flour and one egg per person. It also tastes better with a fat pinch of salt. To make the dough, the flour is piled on a board and a well hollowed out in the center. Break an egg into the well and mix flour into it with a fork. The pile will want to flatten out so the free hand is used to push flour into the center. As each egg is incorporated, add another until all the eggs and flour are combined into a stiff dough. If the dough is sticky, add flour; add water if the dough is too dry. Then the dough ball goes in the fridge for an hour or two wrapped in plastic. This gives the flour time to hydrate and form a protein network.

I probably should have added more water to the dough but a bit of kneading made if pliable enough to work. The dough was divided in two and each half rolled out to about the thickness of a dime and then cut into rectangles. From there the pasta went in a big pot of salty boiling water. Unlike dry pasta which takes ten to fifteen minutes to cook, this is done in about five — it would have been even faster if I’d used AP flour. One other thing about cooking fresh pasta — drop the pieces into the water separately or they turn into a wad on the bottom of the pot.

While the pasta cooked I made up the rest of the dish. Sliced proscuitto went in a pan to crisp up and brown. The chicken proscuitto was fairly lean so it was accompanied by a good splash of olive oil. Once it was pretty nearly done, I added a few cloves worth of sliced garlic and let them cook long enough to be fragrant. At this point the pasta was drained and mixed with the proscuitto followed by the eggs and cheese — one egg and an ounce or two of grated cheese per person seems about right. The easiest way to get an even coating is to the beat the eggs, add the cheese and stir the mixture into the pasta. Serve with more grated cheese on top.

The final dish had a good combination of flavors (salty, chickeny against the bland sweetness of pasta and tangy cheese) and textures (firm pasta against the creamy egg and cheese sauce). Like I said, charcoal makers eat pretty well.

Posted in Charcutepalooza, Food | 4 Comments

Charcutepalooza and Chicken Chili

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Charcutepalooza, it’s the brain-child of Mrs. Wheelbarrow and Yummy Mummy. The idea is a distributed group learning experience about the craft of curing meat. Each month a new challenge is posted. The challenge for January is duck proscuitto.

This should have been a simple task. Cover duck breasts with salt for a day then wash off the excess, season with pepper and hang for a week to dry. Just one problem – no duck. Maybe it’s not duck season or they all flew south but there weren’t any in the store.

Well then – chicken proscuitto it is.

The process starts with boning out two chickens and then salting and hanging the breasts. That left me with quite a bit of chicken. The bones will go in the stock pot for soup and the rest went into chili.

Cube up the chicken (or beef if you’re a traditionalist) and brown in a dutch oven. Then add the spices and enough liquid to half cover the meat.

The spices used in this chili included 3 or 4 dried chile anchos, a tablespoon each of chile pequins, cumin and oregano and six or eight garlic cloves. Dry-roast the cumin then grind it with the chiles and oregano. I use a coffee/spice grinder or a blender. As for the garlic, throw it in whole or smash it — doesn’t seem to make any difference.

Simmer over low heat until the cubes fall apart (about 4 hours). adding liquid as needed. Once cooked, the sauce can be thickened with a tablespoon or two of corn flour (masa harina) or toasted ground pumpkin seeds. Serve over rice or cornbread with cheese and sour cream.

Meanwhile, the proscuitto is downstairs drying and should be ready for its starring role in dinner early next week.

Posted in Charcutepalooza, Food | 2 Comments