Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Horrible Mistake

After cooking a terrific Lesser Cuts and Guts dinner last night, (which I'll tell you about later in the week) tonight I made a terrible mistake. Now I don't always eat the Lesser Cuts, nor should you. Here's a story about my dinner tonight that was not going to be a Lesser Cut. I wanted it to be fast, easy, and good. At least I got the first two right.

Personal commitments kept me busy during the day, so I went to the local megamart for some staples and to pick up something to cook for dinner. I wanted something quick and easy to cook, yet at the same time tasty. I thought “Gee, a steak and baked potato with some sauteed spinach would be nice.

So I grabbed some bagged spinach and a decent looking baking potato. Of course these things are hard to screw up. Then I looked for some fresh chives for my potato. The only fresh herbs available were those that come in the little plastic boxes. The one box of chives on the shelf was just disgusting to look at. Most of them were wilted and beginning to rot. I can only surmise that this was brought on by the frequent mist of water sprayed onto the produce. The water gets into the air holes of the box, trapped inside, and rapidly accelerates the rot process. Fortunately, at 6:30 on a Sunday evening, there was someone working in the produce section who found a fresh looking box of chives in the back. The sad thing is, even though I told him this last box of chives was rotting, he left it on the shelf. Someone, no doubt, will grab this box without looking carefully at the contents, only to come home with something inedible.

But my frustration didn't end there.

I had to find the steak I wanted. Being disappointed with the selection of steaks in Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, I asked the "butcher" what else they had. He showed me some decent, but not great, looking porterhouse steaks that were on sale. They were even labeled “All Natural” whatever that means. I picked the best looking one and off I went.

Now I'm not expecting some amazing eats here, and the price was certainly right. I thought “Wow, that was a great deal.” Forgetting that you get what you pay for.

I got home and made my dinner. The spinach and potato were good. Heck, even the chives weren't awful. But that steak? Ug! Just terrible. The texture was beyond bad and the flavor was just barely existent. Clearly this was beef that came from some feedlot somewhere. The quality was just so bad.

It got me to thinking. A lot of people out there gladly buy this garbage, take it home and cook it and think “Wow, what a great meal.” It's a shame. The people who run these megamarts are selling America a lie. They tell you, this a great, natural food that you can get cheap. Excuse my harsh words here but, BULLSHIT!

We need to demand better. People need to learn that the food these megamarts are selling us is generally crap, is raised in ways that produce foods that are unhealthy for us to eat, is raised in ways that are bad for the environment, and taste like stuff I wouldn't feed a dog. It's a sin!

I stopped buying chicken at megamarts over a year ago. It started when I wanted to roast a whole chicken for dinner one night. Now, I'm single, and a small chicken would feed me and leave plenty of left overs. I get to the megamart and I was stunned that the smallest chicken in the store was seven pounds. SEVEN POUNDS? What kind of hormone pumped chicken weights seven pounds when it's dressed? And that was the smallest bird I could find. I was disgusted. I haven't bought chicken from a megamart since. Nor should you. The chickens I buy now are certainly more expensive, but you know what? They're organic, raised humanely, are better for me, and taste really really good. So screw the corporate chicken giants that are Perdue and Tyson. These companies don't care about the well being of their animals, what their production methods do to the environment, the quality of their product, and worst of all they don't care if you die. All they care about is a good quarterly earnings report for their stock holders. Well they're not getting my money anymore, and they shouldn't get yours either.

So I guess I don't get to buy protein at the local megamart anymore. I'm fine with that. Actually I'm happy about it. You should do a bit of your own research, do some taste tests and I'll bet you come to the same conclusion.

Next time you buy some meat ask where it's from. Ask how it's raised. Ask if it's allowed any pasture time. If you're at the megamart I doubt the guy behind the counter can answer these questions. You might get some double talk corporate speak though. Heck, the guy I bought my steak from tonight couldn't even answer the simplest of questions like; How long should I cook this for? But, if you make the choice to pay a bit more and shop at a butcher shop or fish monger, you're likely to get straight answers and the guy behind the counter will sure as hell know how to cook the damned thing.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bacon is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!

Who doesn't love bacon? I know a guy who's wife is a vegetarian except for bacon. It's that good. You know what's better? Homemade bacon! It's so simple and delicious that after the first time I made it I swore I'd never buy store bought bacon again.

How simple? Well, I'm here to show you.

First start with a 3-5 pound pork belly. I like the belly I'm going to cure to be at least 1 inch thick. Mine is a Berkshire belly that I bought from Becker Lane Farms. These guys are certified organic and raise their animals humanely, feeding their pigs certified organic feed and give them plenty of pasture time. Not only are these practices good for the environment but they also deliver some really tasty meat!

OK enough about organic already! Let's get to the bacon!

I'm doing a brown sugar and maple cure. I enjoy the sweetness this cure adds to the bacon.

So I start with a ¼ cup of brown sugar, ¼ cup of kosher salt (I love irony!), a quarter cup or real maple syrup, and of course, the star of the show, our Becker Lane Berkshire pork belly.

I began by combining the brown sugar and the salt, then mixing in the maple syrup. The cure looks like this

After that I just spread the cure all over the belly

Then just pop the belly into a well sealed bag. You can use a 2 gallon zip lock bag, but since I didn't have one I just used a turkey bag and made sure to squeeze out most of the air and tied a good knot to seal the bag.

Notice that I've left some room in there. Over the next week this baby is going to release a good amount of liquid. That's the cure at work. The salt pulls the water from the protein and that's how the meat is preserved.

Now all I have to do is pop it into the refrigerator and turn it over once a day to redistribute the cure and the juices.

You also may have noticed that I didn't use any pink salt. Pink salt is a nitrite salt. It's typically used in curing but, as I learned this week, it isn't really essential. I found this out while at The Butcher and the Larder, a great new butcher shop here in Chicago. Rob told me if I do it this way and don't like the results he'll give me another belly. Somehow I don't think Rob will have to pay up on that bet.

So, with the idea that simple is better, I left it out.

Next Saturday I'll pop this baby into the smoker for an hour and a half or so over apple wood and that's it.

Easy to make, simple ingredients, and really delicious.

You should try it!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Open Your Mind Part 2

I never really understood people who are picky eaters.

I've cooked for and had dinner with people who have flat out refused to taste some particular dish that they thought they wouldn't like. Now, its OK not to like something. But you've got to at least try it. Otherwise you could talk yourself out of missing something you might just end up loving.

While I eat just about anything, there are some things that I don't like. The raw pulp of tomato, can't stand the stuff, super oily anchovies, not so much, and oddly, I'm not a fan of olives. But you know what, I've tried them all, many times over. If someone says “Wow, this is fantastic, you have to try it” and it contains something I may not be fond of, I try it. Usually I don't care for it, but in some cases I'm surprised. Like the time I was served an heirloom tomato salad at an Italian restaurant that I frequent. I didn't think I'd like it, but someone told me it was amazing, so I tried it. It was spectacular. The perfect balance of basil, peppery olive oil and garden fresh heirloom tomatoes. And if I had said “No I don't want that” I'd have missed out on something really amazing.

So where do I get this idea that I have to try it? Well, when I was growing up we weren't given the option of saying no at the table. If mom was making it, we were eating it. Period. You see, I grew up in a middle class house. My dad worked for the city and my mom was a secretary. Money must have been tight, but every night we sat down to dinner together and ate. And when mom cooked it, I was eating it. Like it or not. While I love broccoli and cauliflower now, I hated them as a kid. We ate a lot of that stuff back then.

There was the one time I got my revenge though. It was St. Patrick's day, and even though we are a Polish family, mom always made corned beef and boiled cabbage on St. Paddy's day. So there I was, a stubborn 6 year old. I ate my corned beef and boiled potatoes, but that sulphery smelling quarter head of boiled cabbage sat there on my plate, staring me in the face. I was told that I was not leaving the table until I ate my cabbage. I was upset and crying. Thowing a bit of a fit actually. Long after my sister had been excused from the table because she had cleaned her plate, and after much insistence from my parents, I knew I didn't have a choice. I wasn't happy about it but I dug in. After the second bite though, my stomach lurched, I gagged and that damned cabbage, along with a good portion of my dinner ended up back on the plate, and the table, and the floor. Needless to say, I was excused.

Now I'm not saying we should make ourselves puke trying new foods, but we should have an open mind about things we've never tried.

Oddly, a lot of the food we hated as kids was usually because of improper cooking. I don't know many kids who liked brussel sprouts. Usually they came from a can and were boiled to a disgusting consistency. I made dinner for some family a while back and served  roasted brussel sprouts. I found them at the farmers market that morning, still on the stalk. I coated them with good olive oil and a bit of sea salt and popped them in the oven. They were gorgeous. A few people declined, but after a bit of pressure from me they gave them a shot. You should have seen the looks of surprise in their eyes. They were stunned that something that could taste so horrible, but when prepared well, could taste so amazing. So when you say you don't like something it just might be that you've never had it propperly prepared.  But you won't know until you try.

Have you ever had bone marrow? It's actually quite trendy now, but when I was a kid you never saw it in a restaurant. At home we used to fight over who would get the precious bit of marrow from that little bone in the center of the round steak. If you haven't had it you've got to try it. Sure it looks like a big gelatinous snot, but spread it on toasted bread with a bit of parsley, capers and shallot and WOW! It's like butter on crack.

When it comes to trying something new, that I've never had before, I dig right in and you should too. You might find out you really like something and realize you've been missing out your entire life. For instance, imagine the first guy to ever eat a lobster. He must have though to himself “Gee, that big bug over there looks pretty gross. But I'm hungry. I already know that the sand doesn't taste very good, let alone how my bowels reacted to it, so maybe I'll eat the big, gross looking sea bug over there.”

Imagine his delight when he realized what an amazing discovery he made. I bet his fellow villagers threw him a parade too!

So the next time someone asks you to try something you've never had before and your initial reaction is “YUCK, NO WAY!”, think to yourself for a second about the guy and the lobster, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might throw a parade for the person who offered it to you.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Open Your Mind

So you're at the local megamart shopping for your groceries. You look into the meat section and see the pristine looking steaks. They're neatly cut and placed into Styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic.  Do you ever think about where that steak or pork chop came from?
Well, it came from a living being. And that animal gave its life to feed us.  But a lot more comes from a pig or a cow than the tenderloin, loin and other more desirable cuts, and I think it's our responsibility to pay homage to that animal that gave its life to feed us. We shouldn't eat the best and throw away the rest. There are a whole lot more delicious pieces to that beast than the cuts you're used to eating. Aside from cuts like shoulder, belly and head, there's something called offal. That's the guts of the animal. And all of these things, when prepared properly, can be delicious beyond compare.

But do you eat these things? I do, and they're amazing.

Actually I bet a lot of you already do eat these lesser cuts and some of you don't even know it.

Who doesn't like bacon, what about sausage, or osso bucco? These are all lesser cuts that come from an animal. And you know what? They're delicious!

So let's go back in time a bit, to the times of our ancestors.  In those times there was no supermarket, or butcher to visit. Before domesticated animals we ate what we caught and hunting was hard, like really hard. So when an animal was killed in the hunt we ate everything we could and even made valuable items from what we couldn't eat. Clothes, weapons, and even jewelry were made from the remains of the hunt.  So if you're a vegetarian or the vegetarian's hezbollah like cousin, a vegan, did you know that some of the first couture fashion and jewelry came from animals? Anyway, when we killed an animal during the hunt, which at times was a really dangerous operation by the way, we ate every last scrap we could. Liver, kidneys,and  heart were all prized sources of protein and over time people developed really tasty ways to cook these things.

So the next time you sit down to eat your steak, pork chop, or even chicken dinner, think about the other things that came from that animal that had to die to feed us. Think about what happened to the head, the guts, the less savory cuts.  And maybe, next time you go shopping, you'll ask about a cut of meat you might otherwise not choose. Ask the butcher how to cook it. Sure, it might involve some extra effort to cook, and often more time to do so, but in the end I'll bet you're really happy with the results.

If you've made it this far congratulations. In this blog I'll talk about these lesser cuts and guts that I cook and eat. I’ll tell you how to make some amazing food and  I'll also take a look at eating sustainably, locally, and all in all better. I'll try to update this blog a few times per week and hopefully you'll not only enjoy what you read but eat better too.

Bon Appetit!