Thursday, June 25, 2009

D-Day


I've been on a roll, lately. When I say roll, I want you to think of a soft, squishy bun piled high with tasty vittles. Vittles that are carefully selected, with extra points going to meaty bits with an address of origin I can visit. Last time I wrote, we were driving to Olympia, Washington to pick up 1/4 of Lil'Runt, a steer from a rancher named Gary Iverson. The whole way back to Seattle, with over 200 pounds of local beef weighing down the back of our Lil'pick-up, I envisioned that quintessentially perfect hamburger; the iconic one that appears in your mind while you're driving home, vying for precious real estate with the co-opted McImposters on billboards. There was a time when the meat from the quintessentially perfect hamburger didn't have a home address that I knew of, or a name. But those days are fewer and farther between. Which is both easier and harder. Better and less convenient.

So, despite my best intentions, those co-opted burger encounters still sometimes happen. Case in point: this past weekend, April and I arrived - starving -at a local hamburger joint on Orcas Island. I was hungry and grumpy; a recipe for mindless wolfing. To play the game of instant gratification (without all that messy consciousness-raising), all I had to do was pretend, despite all signs to the contrary, that the source of my hamburger was happy and just had one, very, very bad day.

It's a fool's game.

I know this.

But it helps with the digestion, so I play it every once in awhile.

Contrast this with a recent experience that is more commonplace for me these days. My buddy Jet and I took a day trip to Anacortes last weekend and found ourselves at the docks, talking with a woman about her catch of trapped, local, spot prawns. We asked for a few pounds and she presented them. Live.

I've killed many things in my career. More crab than I care to count. If there is a hell for me, it is run by a very large Dungeness crab with a tiny chef hat perched jauntily on his crabby head. In this hell I'm Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman and I'm being pinched around my middle by a pair of tongs twice my size. There's lots of steam and hot, hot water and then everything goes black. Just like in the movie, Consuela can't hear my screams.


Puget Sound Spot Prawn, live. For now.

I've killed sea urchin, abalone, geoduck, billions of mussels, clams and oysters and some small finfish from my youth. But, as of last week, I'd never killed a live prawn. You might think you'd just throw it in some boiling water. You'd be wrong. You need to keep spot prawns alive or else the head can cause enzymatic breakdown in the flesh. We didn't have a cooler with us and a few hours separated us from home. "Simple," said our helpful fisherman, "here's how you twist the head off." And with that, she cleanly dispatched our first prawn, twisting its head off with an adroit snap of the wrist.

Jet and I took our prawns to the other side of the dock, swung our legs over the side and steeled ourselves for the job at hand. I won't lie, it was sort of brutal. Especially the first few. I never realized how powerful their tails are. They are beautiful, in their own way, and taking a life - even a shrimp life - is still taking a life.

I hope I'm not disturbing you here. I don't mean to. What I mean to do is open a small window onto a path most of us are on - usually indirectly- that includes the taking of life. On September 12th I'm looking forward to cooking a farm to table dinner at Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation. I will be serving duck, every part used, over 6 courses paired with Alexandria Nicole wines. We went out there a few weeks back and while touring the place and visiting the horses, ducks, turkeys and chickens I made a decision. If I am to serve duck on that long farm table in the middle of the fields, then I need to do something I've been reluctant to do. I need to kill those ducks myself. I am not looking forward to this, and I'm not insinuating that if you eat meat, you must kill it yourself, directly. However, as someone in the position of teaching people about cooking, and cooking for many, many people each week I feel like I need to do this.

Dog Mountain is raising 10 ducks for my dinner. One week before the dinner I will go out there and kill those ducks. It will be a hard day for me and a harder day for those ducks but a farm to table dinner is just the kind of venue to challenge myself to do what I haven't. If I'm going to eat meat and teach people how to cook meat, I need to do this. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Standard Deviation of a Steak

Photo Credit: Lara Ferroni

101 of you answered my question about how much beef you consume. You may be wondering why I was inquiring. Let's leave that for a moment and first check my study design and its inherent flaws.

I'm going to have to channel my college self here. Walk with me through memory lane as I plumb the depths of my past to find 20 year old me sitting in a Statistics class. It's 1991. My professor's nose is pinched, a thick mop of black hair hangs down threatening to de-throne his very round John Lennon spectacles. I'm sure I'm wearing flannel or at least thinking about wearing flannel real, real soon. I'm listening to the Indigo Girls on my bright yellow Sony Walkman, playing college basketball and wondering why I can't seem to get a date with a guy.

I'm a sociology major at a liberal arts college. I think it's fabulous and fascinating that I'm majoring in a science that studies people and groups. Despite this, I'm completely clueless about myself. I minored in English and Political Science, which means I'm now college-qualified to write a blog on how awful our past presidential equivalent was. But now's not the time for that.

I remember a few things about my statistics class; I'm getting a flashback of my professor saying that sample size is very important. For example, having 101 people tell me how many times they eat beef (34% report 1-2 a week) is probably too small, but what the hell, I'm not publishing this in the Annals of Beefological Inquiry. I remember that you are supposed to randomly select participants. I think just the fact that you read my blog makes you not random. And not random isn't random. Study design Fail, part #2.

My "scientific" inquiry is further confounded by the fact that I bet a representative sample of non-beef eaters probably don't read my sometimes meaty blog (except for Stacia, hi Stacia!) So that sort of skews my responses. Skew was a very important word in statistics. My friends and I would say "doesn't that just skew the bell curve?" every opportunity we got, regardless of context. As in, "doesn't that nasty white tofu on the salad bar skew the bell curve of tasty delights towards jiggly nastiness?" We thought we were oh so smart and sociologically relevant.

Now that you know that the sample size was too small and the results skewed because it wasn't a randomly selected group, do you still think there is any credibility in analyzing the results? Probably not. But back to why I asked you in the first place. Mostly I was just curious. I was wondering how much beef we're all eating, here in these days of E-coli scares, greater education about the treatment of animals in confined feed lot operations, and other health concerns. But I didn't ask you all what kind of beef you were eating and that's a significant question to overlook. All beef is not the same. Big difference between commodity beef and local rancher down the street beef.

I'm working on an article for Edible Seattle that I've been writing for the last few weeks. I had 4 chefs come to my house for a blind steak tasting of local Washington beef. I think many of us can agree that we need to learn more about the origins of our food. When you begin that investigatory process you should be prepared to have your eyes opened, quite wide. We eat a lot of beef in this country, far too much for what we can produce in any kind of humane, ecologically sound manner. Most of us have no earthly idea where our beef comes from.

I conducted a blind beef tasting because if I'm going to limit my intake from my current amount (1-2 times a week) then damn it I want to pick the best tasting, humanely raised beef from a rancher whose name I know. I even want to know the name of the steer.

The article comes out in September so stay tuned for more amazing photos from Lara Ferroni and the results of the tasting. A recent steak tasting I attended with the passionate Carrie Oliver of the Artisan Beef Institute was with the ranchers themselves, most of whom had never tasted their own steaks as compared to others. It was a fascinating experience. On the one hand you had the wine goddess, schooled in vigorous weekly wine tasting sessions (as she prepares to take the Advanced Sommelier Exam in October) saying she's getting flavor notes of fish, corn nuts, hay, earth and mushroom from the steak; on the other, you had the ranchers saying, "gee, it tastes like a steak to me!" Still, the ranchers did have ones that they favored more than others and it was a learning experience for all of us.

One stood out above all others to me, it fired on all fronts. On Saturday for the first time ever, April and I are taking a little road trip just south of Olympia to pick up a 1/4 steer. His name was "lil' runt" which is some sort of rancher inside joke because he weighed 800 pounds. It's time that I really walk the talk here. I felt the need to discover the provenance of my beef even if that means knowing his name.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A fairy tale dinner

My knight in shining armor (or a long sleeved gray t-shirt, but whatever)

Most of the following events happened. Some are exaggerated well beyond the truth. I call it "creative" license. You would probably call it lying. My family might call it "telling a good story". Let's agree to disagree.

My biggest complaint in this life is that no one, save for a few special people, cooks for me. Even though I travel forth around this land telling anyone who will listen that I'm especially fond of such simple foodstuffs as grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers. Simple stuff. I don't need someone to get all fancy-pants on my account, in fact I prefer it if they don't.

In case you couldn't tell from all of this blather, I'm trying to make you feel sorry for me. I can hear you thinking, "oh, that poor, poor, girl, wasting away because so few people will give her a bite of bread, or a sip of their tea." And then you start thinking, "She's so frightfully skinny, so unnatural for a chef. We can't trust her!"

I know, right? It's totally horrible.

Until one day, several weeks ago (cue dramatic music and sweeping shots of my long, flowing hair blowing in the Star Search industrial fan pointed at my face) I was invited over to the house of a chef by a mutual friend. Chef Trevis was more than happy to cook for me even though we had never met. In fact, he planned a lavish feast. I mentioned to the mutual friend that she should tell him about the garlic-onion allergy I have. Note my use of foreshadowing here.

The day of the dinner arrives (cue royal trumpets). I'm whisked into Trevis and Caryn's home and seated at the head of an elegantly appointed table. The juice of the gods starts to flow and it is only then that we find out our mutual friend sort of kind of oopsie forgot to tell Trevis about my "issue" until 2 hours before the dinner. The whole thing could have been rather awkward but I'm convinced chefs, like kings, sort of get off on this shit. I mean what other than a total change of plans or a burning village can prove your chops. Leaders thrive in times of crises.

Of course - naturally - he had practically planned a multi-course homage to the stinking rose which was well on its way before it got the kabosh. Garlic was everywhere. It was a fragrant virus, run amok through his dinner. I shrank back in horror, like the vampire I am, when I heard what he had planned for the meal.

What would have been my last meal.

Luckily, as fate will have it, I was spared to tell you this very important story. Trevis erased all traces of garlic from the meal, scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees like a simple kitchen wench to remove all remnants and I was subsequently treated to a most excellent repast.


He had me at the first course. I love a dish that is simple, but still has a twist. Large prawns were wrapped in Parma ham, broiled and dipped in warm extra virgin olive oil infused with one each of Serrano & Scotch Bonnet peppers, lemon zest and cilantro


Behold! Above is pictured an ancient dish that has been so bastardized throughout time you might not recognize it. It's called Fettucini Alfredo and no, it's not the gloppy, soupy muck you're used to. It was a glorious balanced combination of al dente fettucini, high quality butter, Parmesan, sea salt and love. I ate so much I hurt. I hurt a lot.

The rest of the dinner included: Tournedos with mushrooms in a beef demi, Frisee salad with whole grain mustard vinaigrette and Chocolate and berry "trifle" with coconut cream diplomat.

Nothing short of a trebuchet was needed to get my royal lard butt out of my chair.

It took all the willpower in my scrawny body to not pocket these awesome copper pans on my way out the door. If Trevis didn't have a few inches on me and a hundred more pounds I might have considered doing an "ashlyn" on him. My friend Ashlyn taught me to hold your right arm way out to the side, wiggle it around like a crazy fool and when your prey is lost in your ridiculousness you steal their shit. It could of worked.


Caryn, Tracey and Jodi (our mutual friends) pose red-cheeked and happy for the camera.

Trevis and his lovely queen Caryn were wonderful hosts and before they sent me on my way, poured me little nips of their house distilled Rainier Kirschwasser and Bing Cordial. For more information, please check out Chef Trevis' blog. This dude is a king and hasn't let MS stop him from lording over his kitchen. Check out his writing on living with MS.

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