Dump and Dine: Don’t Say I Never Did Anything For You

It’s 5 o’clock. You just got home from a grueling day, your nose having been surgically removed from the grindstone, when suddenly you realize you forgot to make anything to feed the book club gathering in your living room at 6:30 p.m. Or maybe it’s a last minute invite to a really great pot luck or your favorite uncle’s surprise funeral.

Whatever the reason, sometimes life gives us dining deadlines we simply don’t have time to cook for. Well, hopefully, you at least have time to shop or maybe you’ve got everything you need for this dish just lying around at house—or will after reading this post.

That’s why I’ve decided to share with you, Gentle Readers, the secret to my social success. That is, the dish that will get you invited back but that you won’t mind actually making. That is, my Dump and Dine Pasta (the concept graciously given to me by some chick named, Cathy, whom I used to know in New Orleans in 1995. But I digress….)

Dump and Dine Pasta

In some order make or obtain the following:

About one cup of basil pesto. You can make your own from last year’s home-grown basil crop, as I did, or if you hate the people you are serving, use that crap in the pouch with all the chemicals in it. Your call.

About one cup of alfredo sauce. Same note as with the pesto, above. Hatred optional.

One can of diced tomatoes, drained.

One jar of marinated artichoke hearts, drained.

OPTIONAL: About 2 oz of some kind of protein. Smoked salmon or ahi tuna, grilled chicken breast, boiled or sauteed shrimp, etc., will do, according to your taste.

12 to 16 oz. of your favorite pasta shape, cooked and cooled.  Something like farfalle, penne, or fusilli is what you are shooting for. You know, something that will hold a heavy sauce.

Dump (into a 9″ x 12″ dish), toss, and serve. Should look something like this:

The glorious final dish!

See? Stupidly easy. And awesomely delicious. Now, don’t say I never did anything for you!

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!

Just received this lovely press release: CONGRATULATIONS TO FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA

FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA, WINNER OF GLYNWOOD’S 2011 GOOD FOOD ENTREPRENEUR HARVEST AWARD

Co-owner Olivia Sargeant to Receive their Award at a Ceremony in the Hudson Valley and Speak at a Public Forum on October 24 in Manhattan

Cold Spring, NY, October 11, 2011 — Glynwood, the agricultural non-profit whose mission is to save farming, has announced that Farm255 in Athens, GA is the winner of the 2011 Good Food Entrepreneur Award. The Harvest Awards were created by Glynwood in order to highlight innovative work being done on a community level to increase access to fresh, locally-produced food and to recognize leaders across the country whose exemplary work support their regional food systems.

This year all of four of the Harvest Award winners will participate in a panel discussion open to the public to take place on Monday, October 24 at the 92YTRIBECA in downtown Manhattan. Moderated by Glynwood President Judith LaBelle, the winners will discuss their work, their challenges and the models they’ve created to increase their community’s access to locally produced foods. Guests will have the opportunity to speak with the winners at a reception immediately following the event, where they will enjoy small plates prepared with regionally-produced food by top New York City chefs.

About Farm 255–
Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann have created an ingenious model of vertical integration in the sustainable agriculture sector by developing a cluster of businesses that support each other: Full Moon Farms, their own farm operation which supplies up to 50% of the produce served at Farm 255 and also supplies food to 45 families via its CSA; Farm Cart, a food cart that serves “street food” at the farmers market; Farm Burger, two neighborhood burger joints using 100% local, grass-fed beef; and Moonshine Meats, a collective of pasture-based-producers that raise all the meat for Farm 255 and Farm Burger, in addition to operating a CSA for families in Athens and Atlanta, GA. Everything is raised using sustainable and organic agricultural methods. This creative business model has proven to be successful: it supports the owner-farmers of Farm 255, the member-farmers of the cooperative, and the health and wellness of the patrons of their businesses.

Farm 255 also acts as a community hub, serving as a meeting place for those who appreciate locally grown fare and for those who want to learn more about it. Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann consider themselves agricultural entrepreneurs who wear many hats – as mentors for beginning farmer interns, young cooks and service industry professionals; as educators, teaching classes to local Future Farmers of America high schoolers, as well as lecturing at the University of Georgia; and as food activists, providing ongoing awareness about the importance of supporting local food systems to their community.

“We believe,” says co-owner Olivia Sargeant, “that our tireless work within our extended community has been a key piece to introducing the South to a new perspective on farming and food that positively contributes to all points on the food supply chain.”

The complete list of 2011 Harvest Award Winners–
The Glynwood Farmer Award: Sean Stanton, Blue Hill Farm, Great Barrington MA
The Good Food Entrepreneur Award: Farm 255, Athens GA
The Award for Connecting Communities, Farmers and Food: Buffalo Hump Sanctuary, Pine Ridge SD
The Wave of the Future Award: AmpleHarvest.org, Newfoundland NJ

About Glynwood–
Glynwood’s mission is to save farming by strengthening farm communities and regional food systems. The goal is for small- and mid-sized farmers to thrive, on the land and in the marketplace. Located in the Hudson Valley and operating its own sustainably managed farm, Glynwood’s unique niche is to empower communities to support farming and conserve farmland through its community programs, public education and leadership in environmentally sustainable agriculture. Major Glynwood programs include Keep Farming™, the Modular Slaughterhouse Initiative, the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, and the Apple Project: Saving Orchards with Cider, [and this year’s organizer of Cider Week in NYC, Oct 16 – 23]. To learn more about Glynwood and its initiatives, visit www.glynwood.org.

For additional information please contact Geralyn Delaney Graham, geralyn@resourcescommunications.com or telephone 281. 980. 6643.
Learn more about Glynwood’s work to save farming www.glynwood.org

Geralyn Delaney Graham
Principal | Resources Communications
5230 West 43rd Street I Houston TX 77092
o/ 281.980.6643 | cell/ 917. 826.5094

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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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!

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.