So as not to forget. How to open a pomegranate (the right way)!

Sometimes I run across instructions for doing something on the Internet that are so wonderfully easy and sensible, I just want to do it that way each time.  In the case of opening pomegranates, there are a lot of instructions out there but I had not found any good ones until recently.  I tested those new instructions, found them to be everything as represented, then promptly lost them.  Finding them again was no easy task.  So I won’t lose them again, I have decided to embed the video here for your reference as well.  Enjoy!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iHbSzM63Hs]

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Doggies (or Kitties) Grow Up on Commercial Pet Food….

About two years before I met my beloved little poodle, Butch, my cat passed away at the age of seventeen. A ripe old age many may say, but after he died of kidney failure, I had a few years to reflect on why there was no reason he might not have lived many more healthy years had I only known then what I know now about diet and nutrition.

I have since concluded that I was a colossal idiot about how and what I fed my dear Mr. Cat, unwittingly trusting the veterinary establishment to his detriment and slowly killing him with chronic dehydration. You see? I bought the bag.

My vet convinced me it was the good stuff. Healthier for him than the raw eggs, cheese, and occasional gecko he had been living on while he was a stray. In retrospect, however, I now believe he’d have been better off hunting his own. The scientifically-formulated bags of grain and crap we buy aren’t right for any cat or dog however much they may seem to crave it and however much you may pay for it.

Our pet animals simply cannot take in enough water by drinking straight water to compensate for what they need to take in as water content of their food. The grains and other fillers used are indigestible by carnivores and are the source of allergies and auto-immune dysfunction in pets aplenty.

Cats, especially, can only gain access to dietary carbohydrates by consuming them in the gut of prey which actually produce enzymes needed to break these macronutrients down into their various chemical components. Cats’ guts cannot break down carbs at all. Dogs only have limited access to those enzymes.

So why are grains in there? Because the government subsidizes their production, meaning grain is way cheaper than meat, and those fillers make it seem like our animals are eating enough though it’s really stuff their bodies can’t even use. I also suspect, as with people, they also make crap food more palatable—like kitty candy.

And Mr. Cat? Year after year of UTIs? “He’s a neutered male and they’re prone to those.” “Crystals” in his urine? “Let’s switch him to a special, low mineral ‘therapeutic’ diet.” Two years of subcutaneous saline injections? “He’s getting older. It happens. We don’t know why.”

And they don’t know why. Nutrition is about as well-understood by vets as by human doctors. (Read: not at all.)

So when I got my Butch and later fostered a kitten, Gary, I learned about feeding raw. It’s a huge pain, I will grant you, so when I don’t have the time to manage it, I at least feed organic, grain-free canned or organic frozen raw medallions from a reputable source and then supplement with raw meat, skin, bones, fat, and organs as often as I can.

If not raw feeding, just be sure the first two to five ingredients on the canned food or frozen medallions for both cats and dogs are non-pork meat. Not “by-products.” Meat. There also ideally should be a good balance between muscle, skin, bones, and organs.

Should you decide to “go raw,” do your research to learn how and then know this: vets freak out at the idea of feeding bones, even to carnivores, because they see so many critters needing surgery to remove them. Most surgical cases involve COOKED bones, however, not raw.

And pets need to chew raw, flexible poultry bones and connective tissue to keep their jaws and teeth strong. Additionally, bones supply much needed collagen, calcium, magnesium, and other vital minerals to your pets’ diet the way nature normally does—not as an additive. To be sure, your pets’ stomach acid is plenty strong enough to digest soft raw bones long before those bones enter the intestine.

Please note: I do specifically recommend raw poultry bones over raw bones of beef and other large animal. I personally fear that raw bones of larger animals may be more problematic than bones of fowl especially for small dogs, like mine, and domestic cats. I also avoid small, long bones, like poultry ribs, as discussed below.

Cooked bones of all kinds, unlike raw bones, splinter and are easily capable of puncturing esophagi, stomachs and, surviving the stomach, your pets’ delicate intestines. Those bones also lose vital collagen as they are heated. In short, do NOT cook any bones you feed your carnivore!

Also, know your pet. If he’s a gobbler, you may want to grind the bones and meat to a very fine, even consistency before feeding or skip the bones altogether. My dog is a chewer so I feel better about his eating raw bones as he carefully breaks them up with his teeth before swallowing. And, knowing my dog could just as soon choke on dry food, I’ve chosen to feed him the raw and NOT the definitely unhealthful dry.

(The bottom line is you are just going to have to make your own call on the risk-benefit of feeding bones, Cupcake.)

Organ meat is another essential part of a healthful diet for your carnivore as it is rich in needed vitamins and enzymes as well. For goodness’ sake, don’t toss that bag of giblets even if you aren’t into the delights of chicken liver and gizzards. Feed them to your cats and dogs. They will think you are the best!

I even snip chicken, duck, and turkey necks into bite-sized, single vertebrae disks with kitchen shears and disjoint wings for my nine-pound doggie. (I used to give him the whole thing, but then he started “saving” his raw chicken parts between the sofa cushions for later snacking. Mom was not happy. Smaller bits can be doled out to him until he finishes and the rest kept for later.)

The next objection typically raised is about salmonella, e coli, and other crap the establishment wants us to believe is lurking on every bit of raw food ever purchased. My responses are the following:

First, your sweet little doggies and kitties have evolved over eons with gastrointestinal biochemistry specifically designed to kill such critters on contact. If you animal is reasonably healthy, he can handle it! (Read stories of stray pups who make their living on road kill and live to tell, if you don’t believe me….)

Second, feed good quality, organic, pastured meat, if you can. The scariest germs seem to be found on sickly, feedlot, antibiotic-enhanced, Franken-livestock meats. Avoid them. Always. For you too.

Third, cost. Yup. Feeding your animal well and raw may cost you a bit of time or money. That being said, backs and organ meat come free with every whole chicken you plan to cut up anyway. I don’t feed rib bones to my pup because I feel that would just be asking for a medical emergency, but I do skin and trim the back and, between that and the giblet packet, feed him rather well for a two to three days.

My butcher even has been known to give me huge quantities of scrap turkey meat and bones around the holidays—free for the asking. Frankly, it took a little while to trim and pack those “free” scraps, but after re-freezing the gallon bags of meat, my babies ate raw for weeks. You will also find that real meat and fat fills your pet up sooner, and he will eat less in turn. See? Cost-effective.

Finally, practice good sanitation when raw feeding. This includes keeping your pet’s raw feed bowl super clean and certainly washing it following contact with raw meat. Also, be sure to disinfect the areas of the floor and/or kennel where your pet will undoubtedly drag his raw meat “prey” before eating it.

I also cover or bag and refrigerate or freeze meat I don’t plan on feeding within a few hours. Then I take the meat out and allow to warm to room temperature before presenting it to my critter. Chilled food just doesn’t have as much flavor.

As much as I believe in the safety of raw feeding, I do make it a practice to supervise my animal when he eats raw just in case he runs into trouble or decides to wander off with a bit of raw “treasure.” It’s also rather entertaining to see the primal behavior which sometimes surfaces in my sweet, innocent, tame little friend in the presence of raw food. He may shake it, throw it in the air, or pounce on it (as my foster cat, Gary, does). They know it’s prey, people.

Raw food is not just nutritionally necessary from time-to-time, but our animals know the difference between real food and the normal nonsense we feed them in lieu of what they really want to eat. Help them and their health by feeding them they way they need and not the way the industrial food complex would have us believe we should!

Rawr!

King Cake–Just in Time for Mardi Gras

The “King Cake,” like many traditions surrounding Mardi Gras, makes its first appearance after the Feast of the Epiphany at the end of the Feast of Christmas.  And for many New Orleanians, THE king cake is the one made by McKenzie’s Bakery.  Sadly, for those purists, McKenzie’s closed forever in the late 1990s.  But that doesn’t stop every Tom, Dick, and Harry from claiming THEY have the original McKenzie’s king cake recipe.

So as a public service to those for whom Mardi Gras sans McKenzie’s king cake is a tragic nightmare, I am printing below my sister, Sara’s, “original” recipe.  Enjoy and Happy Mardi Gras!

The traditional king cake, decked out in Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

New Orleans King Cake

Cake:

2 Pkgs of Active Dry Yeast
1/2-Cup Warm Water
1-Cup of Heavy Cream
1-Cup Sugar
1-Cup Butter (not margarine) Melted
1-tsp Salt
1 Grated rind of Lemon
6 Eggs beaten (be careful not to over beat)
6-7 Tbs. Of Orange Juice
8-9 Cups of Sifted Flour
_____________________________________________

Icing:

Confectioner’s Sugar and Water enough to make a paste.
_____________________________________________

Colored Sugar:

Add 1 Cup of sugar to 3 separate plastic storage bags.
Add 3 drops of food coloring of desired color.

Knead until sugar is consistent color.

Add more Food coloring to darken color to desired shade
_____________________________________________

Cooking Directions:

In Water combine yeast and water in small bowl, stirring until dissolved and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk, sugar and butter stirring until dissolved.

Add the salt, grated rind, eggs, orange juice, and yeast mixture blend thoroughly.

Beat in 3 cups of flour to make a smooth batter. Knead in 5-6 cups of flour until smooth (It will be sticky).

Round into a ball and place and place in a warm buttered bowl, turning to coat top.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until doubled.

Punch down the dough and divide in half.

Roll each piece into a rope and form into rings and pinch ends together.

Cover and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and move to cooling rack and paint with icing (just enough to help colored sugar to stick; do not coat King Cake with icing)

Immediately upon frosting add colored sugar and pat into the icing forming a thin crust on to of Cake.

Place plastic baby in the underside of cake when cooled.  (No plastic baby; no problem.  Do like the grade school cafeterias, afraid of choking hazards, and use a red bean instead.)

Rawr!

It’s Gumbo Time!

There’s one very simple formula I’d like you all to remember: cold weather + gumbo = happiness.

So, recently, when the temps dropped below 50 degrees, I fired up Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer and got busy. And it’s good I’ve done this a couple of ten times or so, because taking pictures with one hand while making a roux this dark with the other ain’t easy.

Now, when we talk about gumbo, there’s really only two varieties though each has endless variations. Those two are seafood gumbo and gumbo ya-ya. Seafood gumbo is a Creole version of the stew with a lot of Afro-Caribbean influences. It is good just about any time of year, and it’s the kind they mostly make in New Orleans. Even though I was raised on this kind, at some point, I crossed over to the dark side—to Gumbo Ya-Ya.

Gumbo Ya-Ya is the kind they make in Cajun country, around Lafayette. The recipe is simple: it features a very dark roux redolent of chocolate and dark French roast coffee and features no seafood at all; just the Holy Trinity, andouille (prounounced “an-Dew-ee”), duck or chicken, and spices. The most difficult thing about Gumbo Ya-Ya is the technique. And that’s what this blog post is all about.

First, the recipe. The one I have used and likely will always use is published in “The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook” by Ella & Dick Brennan. There’s lots of great recipes in there for all kinds of classic New Orleans dishes, but the only page that is splattered and beaten up in my book is page 38.

Oh, yeah, I made Bananas Foster that time and set off the fire alarm when I lit the rum to deglaze the pan. Of course, earlier that same night, my roux had set off the smoke alarm (two different kinds of alarms, sheesh), but then I stopped using canola oil. Smoke problem solved. Not sure what do about the rum. Flaming alcohol is gonna flash. But that’s another post.

Second, the shopping. You want to get about a five pound roasting chicken, although I’ve used a four-pound or two, three-pound fryers with success. But truly, the bigger the single chicken, the better, as it will have fewer bones than two chickens of an equivalent weight. For all ingredients, I try to buy organic.

Concerning the sausage, andouille outside of Louisiana can be a bit strange. So if you can, try to find a Louisiana brand, like Richard’s. Usually, it’s going to be precooked and in a vacuum-sealed pack like a smoked sausage. A quick shop at Publix and then at Kroger, however, failed to turn up the right stuff on this go round so I got the fresh kind at Whole Foods.

You need about a pound, although I use up to a half pound more to make up for a smaller chicken, if I can’t get the five pound one. If using fresh sausage, put it whole in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until it is firm, easily sliceable, and thereby pot-ready.

Instead of the vegetable oil called for in this particular recipe, I now use ghee or clarified butter. The roux will be cooked at very high heat until it almost burns (it’s very exciting). And every vegetable oil I used smoked too much and gave the finished stew an off flavor. The organic ghee worked perfectly, however, with very little smoking until the very end and added a richness to the dish I really preferred.

When making the gumbo that is the subject of this blog, however, I experimented with lard in an effort to really layer the pork flavors as well as the chicken ones the recipe is designed to highlight. Although the gumbo tasted fine, the lard actually smoked more than the butter and I was missing that richness I mentioned above, so I’m going back to clarified.

Now for chicken stock, the Brennans suggest making yours from scratch. I have a better idea. Kitchen Basics, baby. Available in just about any grocery store, costs about $4, and beats that panties off of anything else. Use either regular or unsalted. (I prefer unsalted.) You will need two Tetra paks of it. Oh, and shake well before opening (or hold your finger over the little flap if you open it before shaking. Made that mistake before…).

Finally, you need flour, celery, white or yellow onions, bell peppers, garlic, and white rice, kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. (See quantities below.) You will also want to obtain a clean, paper grocery bag. How you manage to come by it or ascertain it’s degree of cleanliness is between you and your bag boy.

Third, the prep. Pretty simple, but you need to know how to disjoint a whole chicken—and don’t cheat and get a cut-up one. They suck. So, you get to busy and after you disjoint everthing and cut the breasts across and in half, leaving out the back, you get ten pieces. And trust me, people, do leave out the back. If you don’t, you and your friends better at least practice up on that Heimlich maneuver.

After your pieces are cut, place them on a flat sheet, pizza, or jelly roll pan and season both sides with kosher salt, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Set aside for half of an hour.  While you are waiting for those seasonings to sink in really well, you will want to cut up your veggies.

The most important reason to have all your veggies prepared before starting the roux is that a big bowl of this stuff is what you use to put out the roux just before it bursts into flames. I don’t care how quickly you chop. You will not have time for prepping veggies once your roux is started. Don’t even think about it!

In Louisiana, we refer to this particular combination of veggies as the “Holy Trinity” because it is these three ingredients always used together that gives many dishes in Louisiana their distinctive flavor. The Trinity is similar to a French mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrots, but instead of carrots, we substitute bell peppers.

So, coarsely chop 2 cups onion, 1-1/2 cups celery, 2 cups bell pepper. Put the mix aside in a bowl within an arm’s reach of the stove. Trust me. You will not have time to dash across the kitchen when you finally need it.

Then, separately, mince 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh garlic and, although the recipe calls for minced andouille, I like mine sliced diagonally. It’s a thing.  Take 2-1/2 cups of flour and put it in the clean, paper grocery bag I mentioned earlier.

If you want to go traditional, you will also want enough dry, white rice to make about 4 cups.  It like cooking butter in mine.

Fourth, let’s light this candle! After a half hour has elapsed from seasoning the chicken (and by the time you finish all of this prep, you should have no trouble with this requirement at all), place the seasoned chicken pieces in the paper bag with the flour, fold the top, and either turn the bag over while holding the fold shut or give it a gentle shake until the chicken is just coated with flour. Remove the chicken to a platter and reserve 1 cup of the flour that’s left in the bag.

In Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer I inherited that’s been seasoned for like a hundred years (aren’t you jealous, you should be), heat the ghee until it’s around 299 to 399 degrees and fry the chicken pieces until the coating is just brown. Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through until done. The chicken will finish in the stew. This step is really just to give the hot butter some chicken flavor.

       

Once all the chicken pieces are browned and set aside, the party really gets started when you add 1 cup of the reserved flour from the grocery bag to the very hot oil to make the roux (i.e., fried flour).

 Now repeat after me: once I start the roux, I will not take my eyes off of it for one second, nor will I ever stop stirring until it is finished, no matter what.  **You can call them back. You cannot save a scorched roux.**

And so you CAREFULLY stir, and stir, and stir, getting into every nook and cranny of the pot. Do not splatter the roux onto anything with nerve-endings unless you hate them and can make it look like an accident. The only more painful burn is a melted sugar burn when making candy. Roux burns will make you cry. Don’t do it.

But if you keep your flame high and your fingers crossed and are very, very good, after about fifteen minutes of constant, unerring attention, your roux will be the color of dark chocolate but will not smell burned. Amazing.

Observe:

 

 

 

 

 

Once you reach that dark chocolate color, immediately turn off your flame, add the chopped veggies (but not the garlic), and keep stirring the roux and veggies until those veggies are tender. The smell is incredible and will make your neighbors jealous. And, yes, the roux is hot enough to cook celery, onion, and bell pepper soft with no extra heat. Remember how I told you roux burns will make you cry?

 

 

 

 

Next, place a stock pot or large, heavy saucepan next to your chicken fryer on the stove. Now that the veggies and roux are cooled and not burned because you stirred them like I told you, dump the roux-veggie mixture into the stock pot and pour in your well-shaken and not spilled chicken stock. Bring the stock-thinned roux-veggies mix to a boil, while stirring. Lower heat to a simmer and add the garlic, sausage, and chicken you set aside earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now ignore for about 1-3/4 to 2 hours. Well, maybe not the ENTIRE time. You should probably come back and give it a little stir from time to time, making sure you scrape the bottom to avoid stickage. You know just for funsies.

 

Taste and adjust the salt and, if you like, toss in a few dashes of Tabasco. Hey! It’s your party….

Cook your white rice and serve the gumbo over the rice in bowls with a plate either under or nearby each bowl for the bones your guests will inevitably find.

NOTE: if you or one of your guests is weird about bones in their meat (yes, those people are out there), I have achieved the same flavor and yet avoided table side freak outs by deboning the chicken after frying but before adding it back to the roux-veggie-stock mixture.

The meat goes in the pot directly but the bones are placed in cheese cloth, tied closed with butcher’s twine, and hung like a cachet inside the pot suspended by the other end of the twine tied to the pot handle. Once the gumbo is cooked, just pull out the bag of bones and discard.

Rawr!

Full-fat Oatmeal Recipe

As part of my effort to cram as much fat as possible back into food other people have “low-fat-ified,” I have invented a recipe for oatmeal that actually tastes not like minced cardboard. It’s a riff on one of Alton Brown’s Steel Cut Oats recipes and it’s awesomely good.

For each serving: Measure out 1/4 cup organic steel cut oats. Chop about the same amount of organic walnuts. Boil 3/4 cup filtered water. Melt 2 tablespoons of pastured butter in a saucepan.

Once the butter is melted, add the oats and walnuts and toast for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Pour in the boiling water (very carefully, so you don’t burn your fingers when the steam and splatters inevitably occur). Simmer until the mixture thickens.

Then add 1/4 cup or so of heavy whipping cream. I use a local brand with no ingredients except milk and 40% fat. You can also add fruit, liked diced apples at this point. Allow to thicken a second time. Remove and top with freshly grated cinnamon and honey or evaporated cane juice crystals and serve.

Hey, if you are worried about the extra calories, just wear fewer layers on a cold day. You probably won’t even notice the shivering if you’ve eaten this for breakfast.

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!

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!

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!

Adventures in Pressure Cooking—Boston Butt

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 stalk it!

So when I recently spotted the most bea-U-tiful, locally-raised 4.43 pound Boston Butt with an Animal Welfare Rating of 4 I have ever seen in any Whole Food’s butcher’s case, naturally, I snagged first and planned later. The snow white fat rind covering the roast’s top and sides enrobed evenly-marbled pink flesh. I expected great things of this roast.

A quick Google search on my craptastic Blackberry turned up a John Folse recipe for “Soul Pork Roast.” It seemed like a good start. The “suggested” cook time was 2 to 2-1/2 hours in a 375 degree oven, but I had a better idea: 40 minutes in the ole new pressure cooker! So I promptly e-mailed to myself a link to the recipe’s site before setting off to find all remaining ingredients.

The roast came enrobed in one of those elastic nets, which I promptly replaced with a length of butcher’s twine. (No nasty rubber aftertaste.) I followed the rest of the recipe using lard as the oil and with only a two modifications—(1) instead of waiting to the green onions, parsley, and the dash of hot sauce, I included them with the stock, and (2) I added an extra cup of water to compensate for the loss of liquid through steam. (The extra water was likely unnecessary, however, given the relatively short cooking time.)

I didn’t wait to bring everything to a boil as suggested by the recipe either, and closed the pressure cooker right away, bringing the whole thing to full pressure at a medium high heat. Like last time, when I prepared beef short ribs, the pressurizing procedure took about ten minutes.

When the little yellow button popped up, I started a ten-minute timer and lower the burner temperature to slightly less than medium. After ten minutes elapsed, I checked the steam level to be sure it was steady and then reset the timer adding another half hour.

When the timer alerted the second time, I removed the cooker from the heat and performed the depressurizing procedure. I then plated the roast before carving.

In hindsight, the roast probably should have been cooked another ten minutes for a total of roughly 50 minutes as the very center of the roast was still a bit rare. Because I was serving only two, however, I simply saved that rare part to reheat the following day by searing it in a dry skillet.

The outside parts of the pork, however, were soooooo delicious! Tender and juicy, the roast’s thick, white rind had melted to a soft buttery consistency infused with the flavor of the stock and aromatics.

As with the beef short ribs prepared on my first foray into the world of pressure cooking, all of the seasoning penetrated the surface of the roast and seemed to infuse every bit of it in a way I never achieved using a mere Dutch oven.

All things considered, this really cheap cut of pork—already my favorite readily-available part of the pig—was just as fabulous a subject for pressure cooking as was cheap beef. And feeding four in about an hour for less than $25, the Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner proved itself once again to be an appliance I should never have waited to try!

Bon appetite!