Mesclun

Live Long and Prosper

Mesclun season is about gone here now, but the fall season is just around the corner. The idea of having a real mixture of baby greens came from the beautiful French province of Provence, where mesclun is a fixture in farmer’s markets.

This mixture of lettuces are the result of a 99 cent purchase of seeds from Ebay. In the adjacent bed there is also Mizuna, Bak Choi, and Broccoli Raab. It’s a virtual UN of salad greens.

A planter is all anyone needs to grow Mesclun, which is a note to poor sods who live in cities. I always serve mine with some jumped up remoulade sauce–with honey and hot sauce added.

An International Pot Lid Competition

It’s the USA versus France in the World Cup of Pot Lids

Pot lids are the most underutilized kitchen tools. They save energy, and can also improve greatly the quality of a dish. If you want the pot to boil faster, put a lid on it.

Here we have two distinct styles of lids, the left American and cast iron, and the right copper and French. The American is made by Lodge, the French by Bourgeat. They will be judged by aesthetics, construction, and versatility.

Aesthetics

There’s nothing more attractive in the kitchen than a French copper pot with a riveted copper lid. The French are off to a fast start. I once sat next to a fabulously dressed woman at a French movie during an International conference at the University of Illinois. Her three friends were equally well attired, and they spoke only French. I saw her again the next day, heading one of the conference sessions. Turns out she was the French Minster for Culture under President Mitterrand. France 1, US 0.

Construction

The US turns this period into a rout. Cast iron lids can make a pan into a semi-pressure cooker, especially those on Dutch ovens. As a student of mine said, who was a professional cook, “Nothing lasts forever, but cast iron lasts forever.” France 1, US 1. Into extra time.

Versatility

This extra time is going to be a beast. The French lid is like the AK-47 of lids- it fits our pots and theirs. But then off the bench comes the best US all rounder–the cast iron skillet lid.

Soup to Nuts

Is it a skillet or a lid? False choice–it’s both. Too bad it’s not a striker, as it’s shot bounces off the post with a few seconds to go in extra. Could this be decided on penalty kicks?

Not if I have anything to do with it. As Jon Stewart famously said after an actual World Cup was decided on penalty kicks, that was like deciding the NBA championship “with a game of horse.” Buy some of each, and like Scarlett O’Hara, you’ll never go lid-less again. I think that’s what she said.

Barbecue Without the Smoke

Does Slow Cooked mean Barbecue?

I really can’t get excited about smoking some pork for hours over hickory coals, when one the best pit barbecue joints around is a few miles away from me (the Top Hat in Blount Springs, AL), and they sell the stuff expertly cooked by the pound. This may be sacrilege, as I live in the state with the most barbecue joints per capita in the country, and we have manifold styles of barbecue, but I make mine without smoke.

How can that be done? I stole a method from the great chef Rick Bayless, who in turn stole it from some cooks in Mexico. I believe composer Igor Stravinsky said, “Good composers imitate; great composers steal.” Same thing with cooks.

The technique is essentially to boil dry a big piece of pork two or three times, and to let it fry in its own fat the same number of times. Fill up your pot with water up to the top of the piece of pork, and just let it bubble. It takes anywhere from two to four hours to do this, so this is really slow cooking. The result is some fabulously tender meat. Just don’t forget the salt. Maybe it should be called Neo-barbecue.

Making Sheet Pasta for Lasagna

Some Nice Pasta

The South is thought of as a fried chicken, hush puppy, and biscuit kind of place, but we also have a long tradition of Italian influenced cooking. In fact, the first reference to the mafia in the US was in the New Orleans Times in 1869, which reported about “well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city.” Not that I am trying to perpetuate a stereotype or anything, but one of the best restaurants in the city reportedly still has a room reserved just for mobsters.

However, my favorite restaurant was the now closed Corsino’s in Montgomery, Alabama. No room for mobsters there: it was an Italian family run place with diner booths and metal pedestal tables. I don’t get that far south often anymore, but they formerly had two options for buying wine–by the glass or by the jug. We always went for the jug.

Their food was rock solid, and they flew in desserts from New Orleans. Their pizza was great, but their lasagna was the best. Now I’m reduced to making my own. I’ve taught myself how to make fresh pasta.

The secret is the ingredients, and there are only two or three. Bill Buford, in his superb book Heat, gave away the secret. He studied in Italy with one of the most traditional and famous pasta makers, and she said it was good eggs, and good flour. In fact she used bootlegged locally grown eggs, which is an EU story that is too complicated to get into here. Here’s the pasta recipe for one big dish of lasagna.

Ingredients

1 cup Antimo Caputo 00 flour from bella Napoli (Naples)

1 jumbo Egg (I currently have pasture raised)

Water if needed

Pasta Machine

This is an Imperia pasta machine, which is Italian, and not absolutely necessary, but it really speeds up things.

Double Yolk Egg

With an egg this big, no water was needed. Just kneed these two things together, and progressively roll into thinner pieces with the pasta machine. Here’s what you end up with.

Finished Lasagna

Let’s eat!

Salad Dressing Maison

“Here We are in Our Summer Years, Living on Ice Cream and Chocolate Kisses”– Billy Bragg

I’m always amazed that people actually buy salad dressing, as it takes less than a minute to make a really good one. Here’s my latest creation. By the way, all that title means is “House Salad Dressing.” Once again, everything sounds better in French.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon Dijon Mustard (Most of the mustard seed actually comes from Canada)

2 tablespoons Catsup

2 tablespoons Mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Sweet Pickle Relish

Salt

Honey to taste

Chipotle Hot Sauce to taste.

The last two are the kickers. This stuff is delicious. Some Romaine lettuce, Cucumbers, and Tomatoes are going to disappear tonight.

My Favorite Egg Joke

The Yolks on You

This is a slight variation on a really old joke, that Woody Allen used in Annie Hall. Here it is.

A man goes to a psychiatrist with a problem. He says,

Patient: “Doctor, my brother thinks he’s a chicken.”

Doctor: “So why did you come instead of him?”

Patient: “Because we need the eggs.”

Everybody needs eggs.

Enterprise #22 Food Grinder

An Industry Standard

This 1886 design is so perfect that it is still being made today, and has become the standard meat grinder. (This one has the 1886 patent date on it.) Though this is the hand crank version, there is a pulley available that can be used to hook this up to an electric motor. I happened to see one in use during a cooking show set in Cambodia, where an entire sausage factory was being powered by just one of these grinders.

Full of Heavyosity

One of the benefits of this being the standard is that one can be had on the cheap, and I paid fifteen bucks for this one. Someone had put the cutter on backwards, which had made it non-functional. I re-ground and sharpened it, and put it back on the right way. There are also innumerable attachments.

Grinder Plates and Sausage Stuffers

Here’s a vintage grinder plate, a used one, and a new one. The one with the large holes is used with the somewhat deadly looking sausage stuffers, which allows anyone to go crazy making sausage. That’s why I have intestines in my fridge, aka sausage casings.

There’s an even larger version of this, the #33, which is handy if your name is Dr. Lecter.

Great Southern Food Essays–“The Pleasures of Eating,” by Wendell Berry (1989)

Every writer runs across an essay occasionally, and says, “Damn, I wish I had written that.” Let’s just say that there are probably thousands of writers who wish they had written “The Pleasures of Eating.” Brilliant and prophetic at the same time, it has to be the best takedown of the current food system dominated by big agriculture.

I’m just going to start with one of the finest sentences I’ve ever read. “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.” Industrial sex? What a comparison. Every time I drive past a fast food place like Chickin-fil-whatever, I have the same thought.

Here’s another zinger, about how oblivious people are to the garbage they are eating. “One will find this same obliviousness represented in virgin purity in the advertisements of the food industry, in which the food wears as much makeup as the actors.” I actually had a student who worked as a food “stylist” and photographer, and she sprayed her food with hair spray before she took a picture of it. Enough said.

I will end with the thesis, which is something of an odd way to end, but it is “the proposition that eating is an agricultural act.” I won’t give all of Berry’s recommendations, but a revised version of the entire essay is posted on the interwebs. Alas, it omits the industrial sex reference. Read it, and weep anyway, for the current state of our food system. Then go to your local farmer’s market, and buy some real food.

I saw Mr. Berry once, when he gave a reading at the University of Illinois. He drove up from his farm in Kentucky, and showed up wearing a pair of overalls. That’s what we call keeping it real.

Enterprise #602 Food Grinder

American Foundry Work at it’s Best

This little one hundred plus year old food grinder has become my favorite. Simple and easy to clean, it’s everything a food processor isn’t. I have even managed to assemble a complete set of cutters for this beauty.

A Nut Butter Cutter. Seriously.

Yes, that really does say “nut butter cutter.” It works like a charm. The others grind meat like no body’s business. I also have a giant Enterprise #22, which is large enough to run a small sausage factory. I’m only going to use it for whole pork shoulders from now on. Buy one of these off of Ebay while you still can, if you’re into old school and sustainability.

More Taters, Precious

Just out of the Ground

I now have a couple of months worth of new potatoes, because I grew these myself. Those in the picture are Yukon Gold and Russet potatoes. It’s next to impossible to buy potatoes of this quality. You have to grow them yourself.

With that said, hereby hangs a tale, as Shakespeare might have written. I come from a line of many generations of potato farmers, and my grandfather Earnie claimed to have started the sweet potato industry in Alabama. Here’s the story.

During the 1920’s, farmers from the South would travel to Northern industrial cities to work during the winter. Folks from Cullman would go to Cincinnati to be among their fellow German descended folks. Factory work paid better than sitting on your butt all winter.

Factory owners caught on to this migration, and instituted a rule that no one who quit to work at a higher paying factory could be re-hired by another one. Before the days of Social Security numbers and other ID, my grandfather just used a different name, every time he moved from factory to factory.

He would also look for markets for anything he grew. One day he ran across a grocery wholesaler who was really interested. Here’s how he would describe the conversation:

Wholesaler: “So what do you grow down there in Alabama?”

Earnie: “Our main crop is strawberries.”

Wholesaler: “Too perishable. They’d be rotten by the time they got up here.”

Earnie: “We also grow lots of sweet potatoes.”

Wholesaler: “Sweet potatoes! Oy vey! I can never get enough sweet potatoes. I’ll take three carloads.”

Earnie: “I’ll get three guys to bring up three carloads.”

Wholesaler: “No, I want three train carloads. That will just be the start.”

And thusly every sweet potato in the county was sold, and an industry born. The first time I walked into our first Whole Foods store, I saw a big sign that said “Local Sweet Potatoes,” next to the picture of a farmer I went to high school with. Taters run deep.