My Month of Meats

I have been obsessed with cooking lately. Cooking in general and meats in particular. I’m really good with a pound of hamburger and have at least two decent chicken recipes under my belt (chicken adobo and oven-fried chicken), but the larger red meats have always intimidated me.

dutch ovenAnd then I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, the “water” chapter, which is all about braising meat: Cooking meat (usually in the oven, covered) for a long time at a low temperature in a small (or large—depending on your reference) amount of liquid. This is the kind of task that a Dutch oven was made for. It sounded so easy that I got a beef brisket and did it.

FlinnI also got a lot of additional recipes from friends, research online, and reading cookbooks. I have immersed myself in the world of meat. I ended up doing a mix of recipes (as per usual) based on what sounded good and what I had in the house. (But I will say the two books I have been consulting most consistently are Kathleen Flinn’s The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, and Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. Both have chapters devoted to braising. The Flinn book has a Basic Braise recipe that I will probably find useful forever. The Waters book has a bit more detail on method and timing.)

The brisket was quite good. I braised it in dark beer which worked pretty well but next time I might use something lighter. Something with a little more snap. And I put the vegetables in too early so they got overdone. The potatoes and carrots weren’t too bad, but the turnips were mush. Lesson learned!

Today I am braising a Boston butt. I had never heard of a Boston butt until a few days ago. It’s a meat from the upper shoulder of a hog. My first pork cooking project. I’m braising it in a mixture of orange juice and soy sauce, with minced ginger and garlic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

pearMy other recent cooking adventure was pear sauce. I found a really good deal on Anjou pears and a friend suggested pear sauce. I’d never heard of it. Just like apple sauce, he said. So I check online for a few recipes (this can take hours, you know, when you get sucked into the online cooking vortex) and it does indeed look as easy as applesauce. Wash and core the pears, cut them up in smallish pieces, add a bit of water and a couple of cinnamon sticks and you’re on your way.

One thing I learned: Add very little water. The pears I got were very juicy, and the sauce was so liquidy I started spooning out the water. In the end, I removed more liquid than I had originally added—that’s how juicy pears can be. The liquid did not go to waste—my spouse loved it! Which made me think of perhaps adding a lot More water next time and making pear juice. Or perhaps I could make both at the same time. I need to think about that; it feels a little too much like having my cake and eating it too.

egg beaterA final thing with the pears: Unlike apples, they did not mash so well with the potato masher. It was like the pears wouldn’t actually combine with the liquid. I tried a whisk and that worked better. Then I tried my little hand-crank eggbeater, and that did the trick.

I’m off to attend the Boston butt. I hope to report good things….

Winter Birding

fox 3I went birding with my friend Eliot a few days ago. We didn’t see a lot, but it was nice just getting out of town. The highlight of the day wasn’t a bird at all, but a gray fox. It was trotting across a snowy field, big as you please, the world its oyster. A beautiful sight.

northern_shrike_cameronrognanI added four birds to my year list, the most surprising being a Northern Shrike. Not because the shrike is so uncommon, but because I usually see them further north and not so close to the Twin Cities.

The most beautiful was the Common Merganser. I think I could look at one of these birds all day.

merganserThe other additions to the year list were Common Goldeneye (duck) and Cooper’s Hawk.

We saw several Bald Eagles—at least six. That’s a miracle story that always makes me smile inside and gives me hope—the rebound of the Bald Eagle population.

I still haven’t seen the Pileated Woodpecker in the woodpecker tree next door. But I’m pretty sure I heard it the other day.

Happy Birding!

Father Knows Best, Coda

One thing I wish I had thought to include in the original Father Knows Best post is that my dad was a conservative Republican and I was a liberal Democrat for pretty much all of our adult lives (he died in 2008). This wonderful conservative man taught me to buy local and to value community. We did not agree on our political parties, but we found common ground. Sometimes we foundered, but we always gave each other leeway, and we often agreed on issues of finance.

I would often start out with a “What do you think of ______” kind of question. You can almost always find common ground if you ask a few open-ended questions. Dad and I did.

Oh my, I do miss my father. I think we would have a bit more in common politically (and economically) today, and I would certainly welcome his take on the Great Recession from a conservative perspective. One thing my father and I agreed on is that you have to work together if you want to get things done. Compromise. Respect. Honesty.

These are Republican values. These are Democratic values.

One of Paul Roberts’s talking points in The Impulse Society is that our political parties have become branded, and as a result, both have pulled away from center (I would also blame gerrymandering and our political processes in general—most especially the caucusing process). While the two parties become increasingly opposed to agreeing on anything, on principle, the country shuts down.

It’s not just politicians. Several of my friends make blanket comments about Republicans. About how they’re ruining this and that. They hark back to Reagonomics and the war in Iraq.

But Clinton was responsible for overturning Glass-Steagall—the regulatory bill put in place after the Great Depression, to prevent another Great Depression. So instead we had the Great Recession, with the government bailing out banks because they’re too big to fail (TBTF), because if they did, they would take down the entire national—or global—economy.

I was super pissed about the government bailing out the banks. It seemed so unethical. I had surprise company in my anger. A lot of Republicans were pissed about government interfering in the free market and using tax dollars to do it. We’ve become so polarized, we can’t even find common ground when we have common ground!

Since the Great Recession, the TBTFs have become even bigger. They are engaging in similar schemes to increase profits and shareholder value. The crucial thing to note here is that they have not changed their behavior except perhaps to increase the risk factor. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an economist, to conclude that this is not a good thing for the economy.

Here’s some potential common ground for moving beyond our current political polarization:

MoneyFinancial reform: According to Roberts, “It’s worth noting that some of the loudest voices calling for financial reform are conservative. Likewise, when the Obama administration failed to break up the TBTF banks or to restrict their capacity to make high-risk gambles, the failure outraged not only liberals but many on the right as well.” The implicit promise of another bailout is, to many Republicans, a market-distorting government subsidy that allows big banks to take government-guaranteed risks that smaller banks have to avoid. There’s even been some bipartisan movement here: In 2013, Republican David Vitter (staunch Louisiana conservative) joined the very liberal Sherrod Brown of Ohio on a bill to force the big banks to dramatically cut the amount of debt they take on. The bill was stalled by the banking lobby. (Why is that even legal?)

spending_banCampaign finance reform: Between 2000 and 2012, spending on presidential campaigns more than quadrupled—to more than $2 billion. Two billion dollars! Since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into politics. A lot of rich people love it, but the average person—even the average Republican—is not in favor. Roberts reports that 7 of 10 Republicans favor an amendment that would exclude corporations, unions, and other organizations from free speech protections for large campaign donations.

It makes me feel hopeful that there’s such strong common ground. I agree that these are good—and important—starting places. And I’m pretty sure my dad would as well.

January Reprise

January was a lot of cooking but also a bit of reading, of course, and a little music. A month of hibernation. I read 11 books (4 each of poetry and nonfiction and 3 fiction). The biggest standout was Dog Years, by Mark Doty, a memoir and a moving tribute to his canine companions. But I’ve already written so much about my January reading that I’ll move on.

After missing Christmas I got nostalgic for family in general and my aunt Glorene’s raspberry jello salad in particular. I’d never made it, but I remembered the ingredients (raspberry jello, frozen raspberries, and applesauce) so it wasn’t hard to find on the internet. Easy peasy and so good. Plus I use homemade applesauce. Yum. This summer maybe I will have enough of my own raspberries to use fresh! (The likelihood of that many raspberries actually making it into the house is quite small. Ah—perhaps I need to plant more raspberries!)

I also made several batches of roasted vegetables (parsnip, carrot, rutabaga, turnip, celery, onion, potato) with rosemary and thyme. I love these winter root vegetables. They are good in soups and stews, too (as in beef stew I will make tonight—rutabaga is an especially nice add to beef stew).

A new thing to me: fried carrots. My neighbor mentioned them. Wellfried carrots why not try? I love carrots and fried anything is better, yes? I cut the carrots in strips and used olive oil and a little rosemary. Partway through I decided to add onion slices and it ended up a very nice dish. Next time I will use part butter with the olive oil though, because—well, butter. Yum.

I had planned to make beef stroganoff in January but I choked at the last minute. In lieu of beef stroganoff I made beef stew (that good old friend) and explored stroganoff using hamburger. Now that I’ve taken that baby step, there’s a good chance I’ll do the real thing.

Another new dish was oven-fried chicken. This also was very easy and good: Cover each piece of chicken with a mix of crushed corn flakes (I used Product 19), oregano, garlic powder, and paprika. Place in well-greased pan and top each piece with half teaspoon butter. Bake at 375 for 55 minutes or so. Turn after 35 minutes. (These were drumsticks; breasts don’t bake as long.)

And I decided to get comfortable cooking beans from scratch, so I tried, using black beans. Not a success. I thought they were done, and since I had done such a small batch and didn’t want them to go to waste, mixed them with a can of black beans to make refritos. Well, after a goodly time cooking (I like the seasonings to mix in), half of the refritos were decidedly crunchy. I cooked those beans so long….

beansSome things I give up on, but beans will not be one of them. I feel that I simply have to know how to cook with dried beans. They’re so cheap and versatile. At least once you figure out how to cook them. I will do the black beans again. I must. I love black beans!

I did not do much with herbs this month. I put up a small batch of calendula oil (from flowers I grew over the summer). Mostly I thought I about what I want to grow this summer. More rosemary, more chamomile, more thyme. Sage, basil, parsley. Maybe I’ll plant more raspberries.

I did get a little more music into my life mix in January: My Christmas present from my spouse was my high school clarinet, reconditioned. I was a little afraid to try it (mostly thinking I’d not even be able to blow a note anymore), but was surprised at how much I remembered (including how to blow a note). I have forgotten a lot. I have the major key notes but am still ferreting out the sharps and flats. It is ever so much fun.

This is one of my favorite times of year. The days are getting longer. The bustle and stress of the holidays have passed. Root vegetables are all the fashion, a time for stews and casseroles and experiments in cooking. A bit of reflection, but February is mostly looking forward. How many thyme plants? Where should I put them? Is the chamomile better in a pot or in the ground? Will the sage come back? I have to remember to make the tincture of yarrow and catnip together this summer….


What I’m Reading Now

I’m one of those people who read more than one book at a time—typically one fiction, one poetry, and a couple of nonfiction. But I have quite a few things in the hopper right now:

  • The Impulse Society, by Paul Roberts (which I’ve already written about and will likely do a follow-up post)
  • Swift Justice: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap (a silly romp of a mystery set in the Twin Cities and what’s not to like with lots of birds and local restaurants?)
  • The Humorous Herbalist, by Laurel Dewey (I’m usually reading some herbal book or other—I go through them at a snail’s pace)
  • The Irrational Season, by Madeleine L’Engle (the third journal in the Crosswicks series, of which I loved the first two)
  • Cooked, by Michael Pollan (which I am reading with a friend)
  • The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore (which I am reading, very slowly, with my spouse)
  • Love Poetry Out Loud (a compilation of love poems that particularly lend themselves to reading aloud)
  • The Subject Tonight Is Love, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (poetry)
  • True Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh (which I want to love but I think is mostly going to be a restating of a book of his I read a couple of months ago)

CookedOne of the reasons I have so many books going is that a few of them are longer term. Cooked, for example, I’m reading with my friend Nancy. It has four parts (fire, water, air, earth) which correspond to four areas of cooking. Fire was about cooking meat in general (but barbecue in particular) and Nancy suggested lunch at a barbecue place to discuss it (not while we were eating though, since we both had our books and went through them quite thoroughly, at least for Part 1). Next month is water (Nancy has looked ahead and assured me it is pasta, so we will go Italian). Part 3 is air—bread. We toyed with the idea of making real bread with yeast, but will likely settle for quick breads and/or muffins. Earth is fermentation. Could that mean anything other than beer? This will take us at least to spring.

You may have noticed toward the end of the list that I’m already moving into February’s reading theme of love. February is a short month and I have a lot of good love titles, so I wanted to get an early start. The reading theme for January was year. Here’s what I read:

  • The Months of the Year: Twelve Sonnets, Folgore de San Gimignano
  • The New Year of Yellow, Matthew Lippman (poetry)
  • A Farm Dies Once a Year, Arlo Crawford (nonfiction)
  • A Householder’s Guide to the Universe, Harriet Fasenfest (nonfiction)
  • Dog Years, Mark Doty (memoir)
  • The Haiku Year, Gilroy et al.
  • Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler (fiction)
  • The Checkered Years, Mary Dodge Woodward (diary)
  • Four Year Old Girl, Mei-mei Berssnebrugge (poetry)
  • Deadline, John Sandford (fiction)
  • The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna (fiction)

And, in the spirit of Shakespeare Wrote for Money (Nick Hornby), I will also record what I got in January:

  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin (fiction)
  • The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, Matthew Carl Strecher (nonfiction)
  • Limber, Angela Pelster (essays, a gift)
  • The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin (nonfiction)
  • Doctor Sleep, Stephen King (fiction)
  • The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen (fiction)
  • Into the Dark, Deborah Moggach (fiction)
  • What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn (fiction)
  • Now & Then, Jacqueline Sheehan (fiction)
  • The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life, Kent Nerburn (local, nonfiction)
  • I Care About Your Happiness, Kahlil Gibran & Mary Haskell (nonfiction/poetry)
  • Just This, Margaret Chula (my favorite tanka poet)
  • Pantry, Lilah Hegnauer (poetry)
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin M Yoder Jr. (fiction)
  • Shakespeare Wrote for Money, Nick Hornby (nonfiction)

One of the things I was most pleased about in 2014 was that I finally read more books than I bought. I guess I felt a need to celebrate that in January by buying far more books than I read! Ah well….

chulaIn my defense I will say that only two were purchased new (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami), both at local independent bookstores. None were purchased from Amazon. Two-thirds were from the dollar bin (mostly at Half Price Books, but also occasionally Magers & Quinn and Sixth Chamber Books). I love haunting the dollar bins at Half Price—you Lino lambnever know what might show up. My most spectacular find this month was Margaret Chula’s book of tanka. Also right up there was Lions at Lamb House, which is Europa and I am such a sucker for those Europa books. This one is about Sigmund Freud, William James, and Henry James. How could I resist when later in the year there is a reading theme of literary characters?

Resolution for February: Read more, buy less.