Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bob & friends were tasty!

The final verdict: Bob and his little friends were darned tasty little birds.

However, their triumphant arrival on the dinner table was marred by equipment failure: first my digital thermometer, which just stopped working, then the entire oven, which decided that temperatures over 250F were really unnecessary and it just wasn't going to do that anymore. So while the breasts on Bob and friends (and the stuffing, somehow, according to the thermometer before it bailed) got nicely cooked, the legs had to be removed and placed directly against the cast iron pan in order to finish and the bacon covering them never crisped up. So I wasn't able to serve beautiful-looking whole birds, but even served in pieces, they were delicious - intense, lovely clean chicken flavour. They were, as expected, a wee bit on the chewy side, but not excessively so.

Were they worth the effort? Probably not. But it was a good exercise, and the result was entirely edible. In the end I could never have really passed them off as quail though, because they were very, very chicken-y tasting.

Now their bones are gently simmering away in what should be a good stock, and we will have Bob & Co., part deux sometime as soup.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

practicing what I preach

Anyone who's spent time around me when the subject of the ethics of meat eating comes up knows my stance on this: if you're not willing to appreciate, understand, and even take responsibility for the fact that an animal had to die to provide you with your chicken satay or steak or whatever, then you probably shouldn't be eating meat. I just finished reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and he came to pretty much the same conclusion. Moreover, he agrees with me that people's lack of willingness to explicitly be a party to the death involved in meat eating has led to the horror that is factory farming. In our eagerness to slough off responsibility for death to a third (or fourth or fifth) party, we also give up control over how that death, and the life that preceeds it happens, tacitly allowing innocent animals to be deprived of anything resembling the life they were developed for and permitting countless lives to be lived filled with disease and suffering.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an absolutely fantastic book, by the way. You should go buy it, or borrow it from me if that's feasible.

Anyhow, in this fabulous book, Michael Pollan goes to Polyface Farm and takes part in an ethical, humane chicken slaughter. He gets pretty freaked out and overwrought, part of which is probably a touch of literary hyperbole, and part of which is likely due to his unfortunate city-boy upbringing (a liability to which he readily admits). But he does it, and he eats the chicken afterwards, and life goes on.

In a weird coincidence, just after I finished reading that part of the book (which conveniently details exactly HOW to slaughter and process a chicken) my friend Richard called to tell me that their four young roosters were getting to be a huge nuisance and a danger to each other, and they needed to be turned into food. Which was mine if I wanted it, I just had to do all the dirty work. Since I was pretty sure that at some point I'd made some comment to Richard and Nancy about being happy to foodify some of their chickens, I agreed, thankful that Mr. Pollan had seen fit to provide so many relevant details about how the offing of chickens happens.

Because, you see, while I am all for taking personal responsibility for one's food, to be strictly honest, I hadn't done much of that since high school. Which to be even more strictly honest, was around 20 years ago. And then, it wasn't chickens, it was ducks and rabbits, and I didn't have to get up close and personal, I had a gun. The only foodstuff I'd been personally responsible for since then was fish. And killing fish isn't exciting or traumatic or anything so much as something you have to do to stop them from flopping back into the water and swimming away.

So, off I went to Sooke today, armed with a newly sharpened knife and my new digital thermometer (for the scalding water) and recently obtained knowledge - from a book never intended as an instruction manual - to kill some chickens.

A bit about the chickens: they are an egg-producing hobby and pets for Richard and Nancy. These particular roosters were the result of letting their original rooster have a little fun, in hopes of obtaining more egg-producing birds. They are also not exactly *real* chickens, they are bantam chickens. Kind of like the toy-poodle version of the chicken. So I was not expecting to get much in the way of a real meal out of them. Also, as non-productive and annoying members of the flock, they'd been pretty much banned from the coop and left to their own foraging devices, which was good in that they were entirely "pasture-raised" (har har) but bad in that they'd spent, as young males are wont to do, far too much time fighting, yelling, and being bad-asses, and not nearly enough time eating. So they were a little on the skinny side.

Fine. I renamed them "quail". They were nice big quail.

Richard and I got set up with our equipment: a knife, a bucket, and a scalding tank. The first rooster was retrieved from the box it was in, in the garage (they'd been banished earlier that day after waking Richard and Nancy at 5 am, crowing enthusiastically outside their bedroom window.) I flipped it upside down, handed it by the feet to Richard to hold, gently grabbed its little head, exposed the bit of the neck I needed and gave a quick slice. This had the desired effect of opening the carotid artery nicely and blood started spurting, then dribbling out, with surprisingly minimal fuss on the part of the chicken. Unfortunately, my efficient slicing action also managed to include the fleshy part of my thumb. Richard and I took a quick break to add some additional equipment to our arsenal: gloves and band-aids.

The remaining chickens were dispatched quickly with minimal drama. They didn't have a lot of blood in them, didn't struggle against their fate, and really didn't even flap until their autonomic nervous systems kicked in with the message that the blood pressure was getting dangerously low - at which point the flapping was largely moot and ceased quickly. I was prepared for some kind of angst or difficulty or SOMETHING (thanks mostly to Mr. Pollan's own difficulties) but honestly, killing chickens is no harder than killing fish, and they stop flopping a lot sooner. When I think about how calmly and easily they died, then I think about what happens to a chicken caught by a racoon, a bear, or an eagle (all of which would have been likely ends for these birds - in fact, one was missing its tail as a result of a close call with a racoon, which resulted in the only named bird of the bunch (Bob of course)), I can't even bring myself to feel the slightest bit of regret for causing their demise. It was clean and quick, even from my unpractised hand.

What was not so clean and quick was the whole plucking and eviscerating bit. Richard abandoned me at this point to go off fishing, so I was left to my own devices. It was tedious, reasonably unpleasant work. Mr. Pollan had a plucking machine do this bit for him and I spent about an hour envying him. Then I spend 2 minutes on the relatively fun task of scorching off the little bitty feathers remaining with the propane torch. Then I spent another hour envying Mr. Pollan some more as I tried to tease the guts out of these wretchedly small little birds. (Pollan had nice big birds.) The actual process of removing the guts is not really much more involved than gutting a fish, except you get a nice big opening to deal with on a fish whereas with a bird you're working with the space between the rib cage and the hips. On these birds, that wasn't even two inches wide, and I could barely squeeze one finger in to run it around the cavity and loosen all the bits from the surrounding membrane. Not fun.

But, in the end, I had four basically clean (a few feather bases left stuck in - I'll either deal with them later or assume that once the skin has a layer of bacon roasted onto it, nobody will notice) nice-looking quail. (YES they are quail. They're the same size, they ate kinda the same things... they're quail, dammit.) And I was exhausted. Pollan was all "I couldn't eat chicken for a few days afterward" and I wondered if I would be the same way... not so much. I could happily cook and eat those little buggers except that I was just too damn tired (the table I was using to gut them on was a little higher than my knees. My back is soooo not amused with me right now.) So yes, I ordered take-out for dinner tonight, but if someone else had offered to cook the birds, I'd be all over that.

I'll post part 2 of all of this when I actually cook Bob and his buddies. I'm going to brine them and slather them with bacon, because they're skinny little things who had lots of exercise, and stuff them with something tasty because we need some extra calories out of them to call them a meal. I'm planning to feed them to my mom on Friday night. We'll see how that goes.

Anyway, mission accomplished: I have food that I took ultimate responsibilty for, and Richard and Nancy can sleep in tomorrow morning. And in the end, except for being tiring, back-hurting work, it wasn't such a big deal. I suspect I have my childhood to thank for that - probably if I'd been raised in the city getting food from the grocery store like 99% of the rest of North America I'd have the same quibbles and ick that Mr. Pollan did.

Anyone reading this and getting grossed or weirded out should probably reconsider his or her eating habits. Yes, I firmly believe that meat is an important part of a healthy diet. But if you can't stomach what goes into it, you shouldn't eat it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

just call me the pickle queen

It's the height of summer produce season and this year I took advantage of the pickling cukes available to actually make dill pickles. But not boring old vinegar-based-need-the-pressure-cooker-pasteurized-bleh pickles, oh no! I hauled out my "Wild Fermentation" book, which has already provided me with entertainment in the form of mead, to see what Mr. Katz has to say about lacto-fermented dill pickles.

In a nutshell, you figure out how salty you like your pickles, make a salt brine accordingly, then clean your cukes, stuff them in a jar with some garlic and dill and some grape leaves to provide tannins that'll keep the cukes crunchy, pour the brine over the whole mess, covering it completely, close up the jar, stuff it in a closet, and forget about it for a couple days. Start tasting a pickle every other day or so until they're the sourness you want, then do a happy dance and put your pickles in the fridge, and enjoy them over the next few months. Or days, if you're me and you go on a big pickle binge. Then you make more, and maybe keep some of those, and maybe you don't because you made the mistake of letting your friends try them and now they all want some too.

Ok, yes, lacto-fermented pickles are good for you and stuff, but that's not why I'm going to keep making them. It's because they taste so bloody GOOD! These are dill pickles like you want dill pickles to be - perfectly balanced between sour and salty, loads of dill and garlic flavour, and lots of crunch.

For the record, my brine solution I *think* is about 4% salt, which is slightly less than Mr. Katz recommends, but I find he's a bit of a salt fiend so I usually tone down his recipes by eliminating 10-20% of the salt. Anyway, I used a heaping tbsp of Brittany sea salt (fine grind) in a pint (2 cups) of filtered water, and that turned out to be just perfect.

I also made some green bean pickles (same deal, except you don't need the grape leaves), with Dave's fantastic beans, the second batch of which is ready as of today and SO amazingly good that I've just about finished the first jar all on my own in the last 2 hours.

I'm also trying some chard stalks as recommended in my "Farmers of Some French Co-op" book (that I've obviously forgotten the actual title of), some with dill & garlic and some with ginger & garlic. This afternoon, child temperament permitting, I am going to turn the remains of our garden carrot crop into ginger-garlic-sesame carrot pickles. I hope. This is getting kind of creative for me, and I don't know how the sesame seeds will work. Maybe I'll just do a couple jars with the sesame, and use just garlic and ginger in most of them. It's not like carrots aren't widely available if it turns out good.

Oh and my little garden has actually produced at least one jar's worth of my OWN pickling cukes, and I can probably even salvage some dill that the aphids didn't get, and the last bunch of grape leaves I purloined were from Emily Carr House (with permission!), so with the exception of the garlic (which I get from Dave's farm), they'll be uber-local pickles. Now if only there was a Bernardin jar-manufacturing plant nearby...

(Oh, and btw if anyone needs some canning/pickling/jam/whatever jars, let me know. I cleaned up my pantry a little while ago and sorted all my jars and I really do have rather a lot.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I've always wanted to make yogurt cheese

Well, maybe not always, but it has been in my head for a few years and I just never got around to it until yesterday. Since my sister is apparently too busy being a domestic goddess to post on her blog (come on, entertain me!), I though I would share my yogurt cheese experience.

The point of the yogurt cheese making exercise is to remove water from plain yogurt, resulting in a thicker, cream cheese consistency, but tasting like yogurt. To achieve this, take some plain yogurt, preferably one with a higher fat content that separates a bit into solid and liquid if you leave it in the fridge for a while (I used Astro Balkan Style). Any natural yogurt would probably be good. The low fat ones probably have thickeners or something to keep them in a creamy-looking state so they might not drain. Take the yogurt and plop it into the middle of a square of double or more layered cheese cloth. Tie it up into a secure little package (I used a twist tie, worked great). Then put it in a colander over a bowl, put a small plate or other flat thing over it and lightly weigh it down with a small can of food or a fist sized rock or something. Light pressure is good, but you don't want your parcel to blow up from too much pressure. Stick it in the fridge and forget about it for a few hours. A surprising amount of fluid should drain off, and the longer you leave it, the more fluid you get out. After a few hours, take it out, unwrap the cheese cloth, and you should be left with a mooshy ball of white stuff, textured similar to cream cheese. Then you can use it however you please, in a similar manner that you might use cream cheese (i.e. spreadable dairy product that mixes well with other flavour ingredients). It would be a good base for bagel spread (savoury or sweet), a good dip base, or see what I did below...

Yogurt/Feta spread:

Take some of your yogurt cheese (probably a quarter cup per person for appies or lunch)
Take an equal or slightly less amount of feta cheese (I think 3parts yogurt to 2 parts feta is good)
one small clove of garlic (per 1/2 cup of base)

Put the yogurt in a bowl, finely crumble in the feta. Mixy mixy. Squish the garlic clove to open it up, but leave it in one piece. Drop it in the mix and stir it gently around for a while. Then fish it out and toss it in the compost. Now you have lightly garlic accented spread, but the garlic is not overwhelming. If you wanted it to be, you could mince the garlic and add it in. You could also add herbs or spices - very versatile. The feta makes it salty, the yogurt makes it nice and tangy and not too heavy which cream cheese can be. I spread this on toasted bread and topped it with a fresh tomato/cucumber/olive salsa. Super good.

Tomato/cucumber/olive salsa:

Chop up nice flavoured tomato into smallish dice - about 1/2 cup
Chop up some cucumber, same size dice (take out the seeds first) - about 1/4 cup
Chop up pitted kalamata or green olives - less than 1/4 cup depending on how much you like olives
Salt to taste
Big squeeze of fresh lemon juice
chopped mint or basil

Mix it all up and serve as a topping or, make the tomato and cucumber pieces larger and serve as a nice summer side salad. Lemon, tomato and mint make a surprisingly wonderful combo.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Have I posted this one before?

This isn't my recipe, but I just have to post it because it is SOOOOO good. I've made it a couple times now and I love it so so much. It's not a thoroughly "traditional" meal thanks to the hoisin, but if you're really uptight about that sort of thing, I'd imagine some tamari, garlic paste and sucanat would do in a pinch instead.

Beer-braised hoisin short ribs

The show this is from on FoodTV has got to be one of the more boring half-hours on television. The host seems like a nice guy but has basically zero charisma. Oh well, some of his recipes are great, and in some respects it's nice to have NOT another Bobby Flay on TV. Also boring as hell but good: French Food at Home. It would be nice if the host would open her mouth to talk though.

In other food news, I've discovered the deliciousness that is duck eggs and I've been quite enjoying them. They're quite a bit richer than chicken eggs, thanks to proportionately larger yolks. My vinegar tarts turned out very nicely using them. So, big thumbs up to duck eggs if you can find them (in Victoria, Choux Choux carries them.)