Farm Burger Supper Series–I’ll be back (if I can get to the phone fast enough)!

Hungry diners await the chefs' offerings at Farm Burger's Summer Farm Supper No. 4.

Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)

The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!

At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.

Chefs Zeb and Ryan take a well-deserved bow.

The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.

The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.

Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.

Patient patrons at the bar.

As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.

Puffed beef tendon by candlelight.
 

It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.

Summertime Sipper--a kind of fig-rosé spritzer

 

 

 

 

Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)

Check out the size of that beef tendon.

My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.

Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)

Red basket sampler. (Potted chicken liver on the right; Scrapple topped with cured egg yolk in the center; Beef heart kifto on the left.)

The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.

Course One.

But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)

Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.

Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.

What remained of Course Two by the time I took the snap. Yu-um. (BTW, the long brown things are fried pigs ears. I know, right?!)

Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.

Course Three.

Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.

Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.

Course Three upclose.

Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.

And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.

The magical Course Four. (Warning: Objects appear less impressive than they actually taste.)

Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.

The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)

Course Four.

And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.

“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.

Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.

The Chefs bask in the afterglow of their triumph in Decatur.

In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.

In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!

The "Goodbye" Course

After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.

How HUGE are those blueberries?

 

 

 

Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.

Rawr!

Best Cold Remedy Soup, Yet….

Like many of you this time of year (and hereafter), I was feeling really run down with a sore throat and general yuck. Knowing I would have to see this cold through on my own, I instantly searched the Internet for a soup recipe that could pull me through the next few days while laid up with what seemed like impending doom. I found this: “Mom’s Cold-Season Chicken Soup” at SimplyRecipes.com.

It looked like a recipe I could handle, even at half-power, so, now, it was just a race against time. And, of course, there would have to be a few modifications….

I drove to my local Whole Foods as fast as my feverish brain could manage to hunt down the ingredients for the soup recipe but not for the recommended homemade chicken stock. (I did NOT have that kind of time!) Instead, I substituted Kitchen Basics (Unsalted) Chicken Stock in a Tetrapak. For the fat, I would dip into the lard I rendered about a week earlier.

Organic vegetables were my call both for flavor and potency, and an organic French bread baguette, as well. Then I made a few changes—Cajun seasoning instead of “poultry seasoning” (whatever that is), and for the bread, a very strong garlic butter using, in my case, pastured butter and organic garlic.

I started chopping as soon as my feet hit the kitchen tile. Luckily, for Sicko over here, there was no mincing called for—just a rough dice—so the veggie prep was quick, and there was still time to pull my garlic butter and bread together.

To make the garlic bread, you just cut a baguette into quarters and for each quarter prepare the following: in a chopper or small food processor, grind two cloves (or one big one) of garlic; when minced, add two tablespoons of cold butter cut into eight bits then pulse the butter and garlic until the mixture sticks to the side of the bowl. Split your baguette lengthwise along the side, spread the garlic butter on each half of the bread. Preheat the oven to 350°.

Now that I was through with prep, it was time to start the sauté.

To begin with, I used way more than a tablespoon of fat for the veggies—more like four. While the veggies were cooking down, I added the seasonings as instructed. Here, however, I doubled the crushed red pepper flakes. (Hey, Sunshine, this cold isn’t going to get over itself!)

At the point I added the stock to the veggies, I also popped my quarter baguette into the oven for about 10 minutes or so until it was hot but not brown. You can toast either closed or open-faced. Mercifully, once the bread was done it was time to serve the soup, as well.

Now this recipe makes about three quarts of soup, and I recommend eating about 1 quart and one quarter loaf at a sitting. Afterward, you will reek of garlic, and you may experience a slight tingling of the mucosal membranes—but hey, that just means it’s working.

So if you are the only one who is sick or the soup works immediately, why not freeze the rest of the French bread and pour the soup into quart-sized containers and freeze it too? Then you can heat and eat the soup and all you have to do is make a new batch of garlic butter for the bread. I did this and it’s just as effective as new!

Feel better the delicious way, while keeping vampires at bay, with this souped-up Mom’s Cold-Season Chicken Soup.

Rawr!

For the Love of Pork Fat (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Render My Own Lard)

As previously announced on Facebook and Twitter, I recently rendered lard for the first time. Here’s an inside look at how that whole thing went down.

It all started on recent a Wednesday afternoon when I visited the Decatur Farmers’ Market in Decatur, Georgia. Among other things, I was looking for a replacement for the lard supplier I had found in Birmingham but lost when I moved away. I had been told Tink’s Grass Fed Beef would be there, but as it turns out, Tink raises pastured pork as well. So naturally, I asked about lard.

“No, Tink’s doesn’t render lard,” I was told, but for $5 they could provide me the fat needed to do it myself if I would come to the Saturday market. I readily agreed and showed up on Saturday hoping to score the goods.

Sure enough, the fat had been put on the truck and off my contact went to retrieve it for me. When she returned, I was presented with a large plastic bag of frozen fat weighing at least 10 pounds. I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated. But for $5, I could afford to screw this up so I soldiered on—with a 10-pound lump of frozen pork fat in my trunk.

When I got home, I placed the lump in my refrigerator and set to work trying to figure out how this mass was to be turned into the white, soft, odorless fabulousness so often imitated by vegetable shortenings but never quite matched and certainly not replaced.

In my search, I found this link to a site called, “A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa,” which provided tantalizingly simple instructions for lard-making using a Crockpot, of all things.  Included were beautiful pictures showing exactly what I was to do. The lard pictured looked like what I wanted in an end result, so I figured I’d try it for myself, after buying just a few supplies.

The goal: finished lard in a lovely glass jar.

Newly purchased cheesecloth and ladle in hand, I followed the author’s instructions as closely as possible with the following results. (N.B. Our gentle reader should now take a moment to familiarize him- or herself with the instructions at the link above. That is so I don’t have to type as much and yet can refer to the article freely whilst pointing out where those self-same instructions may have gone off the rails ever so slightly.)

First, as to the choice of equipment, I was working with a regular, old, Rival Crockpot that was one of the first models to feature a removable crock (circa 1999). Nothing fancy; just low and high.

Exhibit "A": The Crockpot

So I didn’t really get where the “Valerie,” referred to in the first paragraph of the instructions, was coming from advising that unless the Crockpot was “high-end,” low wasn’t low enough and just to “use a stockpot on the stove’s lowest setting.”

In fact, I used both the low setting on the Crockpot and the lowest burner on my late ’80s gas stove, and the gas stove was definitely hotter and harder to control.

This was the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. Still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot.

Pictured here, is the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. It was still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot. The fat in the Crockpot was on for 16-hours, by contrast, and still wouldn’t burn—no matter how hard I tried—which brings me to my next few points.

Nowhere in the instructions does the author address how much fat she is rendering, but still confidently assures us of process completion in (it appears) just a few hours. This is totally misleading!

Time to completion is (I hypothecate) likely dependent on the quantity of fat to be rendered.  In my case, I rendered for 8 hours on Day One; got tired and put the lid on the removable crock, placed it in the refrigerator, took it out the following day, and rendered for another 8 hours before “finishing.”

It seemed to go faster once the volume was reduced (but that is by no means a scientific observation).  At no point did the “cracklings” get crispy as described, however, which brings me to my next observation.

The closest to crispy (not very) I was able to attain in 16 hours.

The author discusses the possibility of a “piggie” odor in the finished lard but attributes the off-flavor to “burning” the cracklings. I believe that attribution is only partly true. In other words, the reason I believe my fat never crisped into cracklings (and therefore did not burn) and the reason I didn’t have any piggie odor to my lard is the same—Tink’s did a great job in giving me very little meat and skin with the fat.

What little protein there was, I trimmed away and rendered separately as an experiment.

All that remained after removing the pure fat.

Sure enough, the lard separately rendered from fat and protein did have a strong piggie scent.

Browned protein and fat cracklings.

The purer fat did not.

The purer fat also did not produce cracklings, which I now believe must contain a good percentage of protein to crisp and brown or to “burn” if allowed to cook further.  Or maybe my cracklings sans protein did not burn because of my next observation.

At no point are we instructed to stir, fold, or otherwise turn the contents of the crock. I did it anyway, for better or worse, because it seemed the fat along edges and bottom was definitely turning brown while the fat in the center remained raw and unchanged. Maybe this is why I didn’t get the “separation” of fat from cracklings or the crisping she described, but after a few hours, I wasn’t seeing that happen anyway so I erred on the side of not causing a fire (I guess).

Lard oil beginning to render from fat. (NOTE: The edges browning while the fat at the center looks uncooked.)

Now, for what went right. As an initial matter, using the Crockpot is a stroke of genius. A virtually odorless process that was totally controllable, the end result of rendering in the Crockpot was just was as article described.

The crock also seemed to make it easier to manipulate the fat than any oven-based method I’d read about, as it sat open and reachable right on the countertop, and yet was still gentler-heating than my stove-top experiment. In fact, it was a happy compromise of the benefits of both traditional methods. And when I got tired of rendering, I put on the glass lid and stuck the crock in the refrigerator so I could restart it the next day.

Also, grinding the fat as the author suggests seems to have facilitated a more even release of oil. Because I found the instructions online (including the suggestion to ask the farmer to grind the fat for better results) only after I’d already received the fat, I hadn’t asked Tink’s for pre-ground fatback. But perhaps that was better anyway. Grinding it myself gave me a chance to trim off the protein beforehand, and grinding wasn’t such a big deal using the little chopping attachment to my Cuisinart stick blender and would have been even less of a big deal in a real food processor.

Step 1: Fat strips ready to be diced.
Step 2: Diced fat ready to be ground.

 

 

 

Step 3: Ground fat. NOTE: I only filled the bowl about half full. Any more prevented an even grind and actually took longer.

After reading the instructions, I naively assumed lard making was simply a matter of heat-for-a-few-hours-strain-pour-chill. Not so!  I was totally unprepared for the huge chunk of time rendering this amount was going to take out of two days.  

Oil being strained through double layered cheese cloth over the colander.

But, at the end of the (second) day, I got a gallon of really high quality lard for my $5 and am happy to have one half gallon of lard in the fridge and another in the freezer. In the final analysis, I will definitely render my own lard again—but hopefully not for another year or so.

"Hot" lard oil on the left; solid, cooled lard on the right.

Rawr!

Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

OMG! I think I just invented the BEST oatmeal EVER!

What started out as a way to empty my refrigerator of all things that may not last another day, ended with the discovery of quite possibly the best oatmeal I have ever eaten—ever. And here’s how you can make it too!

N.B. Get the following ingredients in organic versions, if possible. I did and, believe me, it makes all the difference.

1 TBSP butter (the good stuff–I use a lightly salted, organic-fed, pasture-cow kind)
1/4 cup steel cut oats
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup heavy cream
3-4 medium strawberries, sliced
1/4 tsp cinnamon, freshly grated
3 TBSP Greek sheep’s milk feta, crumbled
1 tsp fresh mint, rolled and sliced across the leaves
Honey to taste

Serves 1, but feel free to multiply.

1. Start boiling the water, if you have a quick kettle. If not, get the water to a simmer and then begin the rest of the recipe.

2. Melt butter in a 2 qt saucepan over medium-low heat.

3. Add oats and toast until nutty brown. Totally normal to hear some of them “pop” occasionally.

4. Add boiling water, give the oats a quick stir and ignore for about 12-15 minutes.

5. When the oats start peeking over the water and look like they are thickening, add the cream, give the mix another stir, and keep simmering for another 5 minutes or so, until they thicken again.

6. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl.

7. Stir in strawberries, cinnamon, feta, and mint.

8. Top with honey.

Rawr!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while suffering through extremes in temperature or moisture-levels:

Could eating poo-burgers save the Earth?,” Jess Zimmerman, June 17, 2011, Grist.org.

Farm pork not going anywhere,” Tom Laskawy, June 15, 2011, Grist.org.

How pasta became the world’s favourite food ,” Caroline McClatchy, June 15, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

The Scariest Chart About Seafood You’ll See This Year,” Daniel Fromson, June 14, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Buy a half-gallon of sugar water at KFC, give a dollar to diabetes research,” Jess Zimmerman, June 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Cheap food: Not what’s for dinner anymore?,” Tom Philpott, June 10, 2011, Grist.org.

Organic Farmers v. Monsanto,” June 10, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Drought gardening: How will horticulturists cope?,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

E. coli: Germany says worst of illness is over,” June 8, 2011, BBC.co.uk.

http://www.grist.org/food/2011-06-07-contaminated-compost-toxins-might-lurk-in-that-bag-youre-buying,” Tom Laskawy, June 7, 2011, Grist.org.

Chef Secrets: Extra Pickle Juice, Please,” James Mulcahy, Zagat.com.

Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while waiting for your sunburn to finish peeling:

The Deli Renaissance,” Vanessa Barrington, June 3, 2011, CivilEats.com.

Mushroom hunting and banjo pickin’ in the Ozarks ,”Daniel Klein, June 2, 2011, Grist.org.

Down with healthy school lunches, says House GOP ,” Tom Laskawy, June 1, 2011, Grist.org.

GROWing a movement,” Vicky Rateau, June 1, 2011, CivilEats.com.

European food outbreak soars; mystery deepens,” AP, June 1, 2011, Nola.com.

In Search of the Perfect Sear, Vol. 1: The Hot Pan ,” Chris Morocco, June 1, 2011, BonAppetit.com.

Kentucky Raw Milk Enthusiasts Live Out Constitutional Freedoms,” Kimberly Hartke, June 1, 2011, HartkeisOnline.com.

Slow Food Gets Prepared by Slow Families,” Sara Tetreault, May 31, 2011, GoGingham.com.

Chasing Chiles: place-based foods & climate change,” April 8, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.com.

Grandma Genevieve’s Strawberry Shortcake

During my brief sojourn to the Motherland a few weeks ago, I happened upon a truck advertising authentic Ponchatoula strawberries. While I have no quarrel with strawberries from Alabama in principle, I’ve never tasted any as sweet and with such well-balanced acid as those from the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain. Naturally, I bought half a flat (about 6 pints) first and planned what I would do with them later.

Then it finally occurred to me to do something I’d wanted to for more than 17 years—obtain and manufacture my Grandmother’s very rustic strawberry shortcake recipe. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere, and for me, it is the preeminent version of the Spring classic. Everything else is, in my opinion, just the ruination of perfectly wonderful strawberries.

Determined to share the love while attempting to reconstruct our heritage in produce, I commandeered my nieces for some of the less hazardous preparation tasks. And so we began by rinsing and removing the tops from the excellently sweet and ripe (though unfortunately small) late season berries.

At the same time, I began preparing three refrigerated pie crusts according to the directions. The first time I used preprepared crusts, I went for the ubiquitous Pillsbury but thought it had too distinctive a “Pillsbury” aftertaste.  Recently, I made it again and used this kind, which was much better:

Now admittedly this was a concession. The real recipe provides the following instructions, however, for the purist: Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup Crisco or lard, and one egg with enough water to form a soft dough. Make three balls, roll each out and bake flat until light brown tile. (I would recommend a 400-degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes.) Cool.

Either way, you will note the crust is rolled out to a circle with a diameter of about 14 inches. Cosmetic perfection is optional as all but one of these crusts will be totally covered with mashed strawberries.  Also, do NOT prick the crust before baking.  I have found bubbles are not only okay but are preferred.

While the three crusts are baking, you will want to begin work on the strawberry filling. To accomplish this component, my Grandmother used to laboriously mash the rinsed and topped berries with a fork in a bowl, one small quantity at a time. 

When my very brilliant nine-year-old niece, Ellie, tried that method, however, she sprayed strawberry juice all over the place and the front of her shirt and it took for-ev-er. I wasn’t any better at it. But because she had so much time to think, Ellie actually suggested an improvement to the method that produced a superior mash, eliminated mess, saved time, and was a heck of a lot more fun—we bagged ’em in a gallon sized Ziploc freezer back and whacked ’em with a rolling pin.

The only danger appeared to be bursting the sealed bag like a balloon as the berries were smashed. Therefore, from time-to-time, we “burped” the bag to keep air to a minimum. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Ellie!

To the strawberry mash, we added 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. If the strawberries are already sweet enough, however, it seems this step may be omitted. But we kept with tradition in this instance and it didn’t seem to hurt the taste any.

By now, surely, the pie crusts have been removed from the oven and are cooling, so it must be time for the (sort of) pastry cream. Grandma’s recipe for the pastry cream omits the flour typically used and calls for using evaporated milk and water. I dumped that bit and came up with the following: Beat in a small saucepan 4 egg yolks until lemon colored. To the egg yolks, whisk in 1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream, 3/4 cup half-and-half, 2 tsp vanilla, and 2 cups of sugar and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to form foamy bubbles and coats the back of a spoon. Do NOT boil!

To assemble, get a big heavy bowl, preferably one made of glazed stoneware. Place the first crust on the bottom of the bowl.

If the crust is too large for the bowl, just gently break it into large pieces and evenly distribute them. Top with a little less than half of the strawberry mixture. Follow the strawberries with a second crust. Again, piecing it together is fine, if the crust is too large. Distribute the rest of the strawberry mixture over this crust and top with the third crust.

Because I wanted mine to look nice and because it didn’t fit, I trimmed the edge of the crust with kitchen shears until it sat level in the bowl on top of the fruit.

Then I poured about half of the pastry cream over the top of the layers, letting it run down the inside of the bowl to touch the layers below. The remainder of the cream was reserved for serving. I then allowed the bowl to sit for about an hour before serving to soften the crusts just a little.

To serve, I cut down through the layers of the “cake” and spooned it into individual bowls. The remaining pastry cream was ladled over each.

The result was pure love. It was just as I remembered it tasting and everyone who has tried it since has commented on the fabulous contrasts between the sweet berries and the savory crust, and between the crunchy pie crusts and the silky cream. Nice.

So if you’ve got a mess of fresh strawberries available to you this Memorial Day weekend, why not try this gloriously easy and amazingly delicious pastry?

Bon Appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while hanging out in the Nicholas Pavilion of the PGA Regions Tradition golf tournament at Shoal Creek Country this weekend:

Girl Scouts censor Facebook criticism of palm oil in cookies,” Glenn Hurowitz, May 5, 2011, Grist.org.

Forget About Horses: A Bourbon Picking Guide for Derby Day, and Every Day,” Tony Sachs, May 6, 2011, HuffingtonPost.com.

How Food Explains the World,” Joshua Keating, May/June 2011, ForeignPolicy.com.

Bad seeds: A plan to phase out the $5 billion in ‘direct payment’ agricultural subsidies,” Jake Caldwell, May 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Strawberry grower shows how to make a profit without poisons ,” ONEARTH, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

Do You Know How Many Genetically Modified Foods You’re Eating? 8 to Pay Attention To ,” Lisa Gosselin, April 25, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Gary Taubes’ sugar article makes an excellent case for diversifying agriculture,” Tom Philpott, April 22, 2011, Grist.org.

Worried about fake food dyes? 4 tips to avoid them,” Brierly Wright, April 1, 2011, EatingWell.com.

Bees feed us: now they need our help,” The Slow Food USA Blog, March 2, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.