Blogus interruptus. I jumped on the blogwagon like everyone else, and slacked on my updating. Redesign and relaunch is in the works.
Blogus interruptus. I jumped on the blogwagon like everyone else, and slacked on my updating. Redesign and relaunch is in the works.
As much as I admire the commitment and delicious outcome of projects like Live Baconblogging! and the Romance of Canning, I lack the restraint required to prep, cook…and wait. I’m not a patient person when it comes to cooking projects. If I cook, I want to eat. I’ll cook all day, maybe even two days, as long as I get to eat the results as soon as the cooking part is over.
Inspired by culinary impatience, this Edible Cocktail and a yen to do more than vacuum-seal chicken breasts with my FoodSaver, I’ve been “flash pickling” all kinds of good stuff using little more than the marinator/tube accessories on the FoodSaver, and a few basic pickling recipes. In a few hours, I can make gorgeous, crisp-tender (if sometimes mouth-sucking tart) pickled okra, green beans, cauliflower with carrots and jalapeno, Jerusalem artichokes, beets, onions and chiles. (Flash-pickled "dilly" beans + Chris' legendary Bloody Mary's=a thing of beauty.)
One caution for the Darwin Award contenders: this is not a technique for jarred, put ‘em up pickles. You cannot make flash pickles, put them in a jar, store the jar in your pantry for six months, eat the pickles, and live. The pickles should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
I’ve never done any true, old school pickling, so I can’t say how flash pickles differ from “quick pickles” (although it just sounds cooler) or how they compare to the real dill, but this process couldn’t be easier. Bonus: it doesn’t require boiling jars.
1. Clean and cut raw vegetables and pour into marinator box.
Notes on other veggies: I found that leaving the stem/cap on okra keeps the slime-factor down. For bigger veggies like beets and Jerusalem artichokes, cut into small/thin pieces, no more than about 1/2 inch thick.
The vinegar solution varies, and I’m still toying with recipes. I’d like to try doing Japanese tsukemono. ronnie_suburban also recommended The Joy of Pickling, and I’m hoping the pro-picklers—ahem, Cathy2—will add expertise on basic pickling formulas.
For okra, I use white vinegar and a little water, along with the seasonings. For the cauliflower medley, I used straight cider vinegar with seasonings, but it’s far too strong. (In the future, I’ll cut with water, and may use tarragon vinegar).
One minor glitch in flash pickling in the marinator box: the veggies float to the top, so they’re not completely immersed in the vinegar solution. But I haven’t noticed any raw, un-pickled spots, so I’m not sure this makes a difference. The new FS has a “marinator” button that keeps sucking the air out at intervals, presumably helping the vinegar soak into the vegetable faster.
Pickled Cauliflower Medley
1 pound cauliflower, washed and broken into bite-size florets
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
2 jalapenos, washed, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds and seeded*
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 tsp. black peppercorn
1 tsp. celery seed
1 tsp. mustard seed
1 tsp. pickling salt
* If you like heat, don’t seed the jalapenos.
2 pounds small okra
2 cups white vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tsp. pickling salt
1 tsp. dill seed
1 tsp. celery seed
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. mustard seed
2 Thai chiles, sliced in half
p.s. I’m working on Cool Stuff You Can Do With a Vacuum-Sealer, Part 2: Sous vide. If anyone has a professional immersion heat circulator to donate to the cause, drop me a line me.
As Election Day draws near, and most of us are still waiting for the virgin miracle of the bank bailout (a.k.a. the Worst Gouging of the American Public Ever, or WGAPE) to happen, I hear derogatory references to "pork" all over the place. Pork barrel politics. Pork barrel projects. Pork barrel spending.
Please stop smearing the good name of this most delicious, beloved animal. Find another metaphor for the greedy, bloated, corrupt fleecing of the people.
Saw this at a Burger King, somewhere between Columbus, Ohio and Alexandria, Louisiana. Apparently it's old news (shopperculture.com ran this photo back in April), but I haven't seen the inside of a BK in a while. Probably would have never seen it if it wasn't for my sister's new Coke Icee habit, which apparently BK sells now, too.
I could snark on about the absurdity, the blasphemy, the nerve of the Fast Food Man making it easier for consumers to funnel high-fructose corn syrup down their gullets, but let's face it: it's marketing genius.
To laugh, or to cry?
I’m trolling the aisles of Casa del Pueblo, a Mexican grocery here in Pilsen, and I see an end cap display with bags of big, fat kernels of yellow and red (technically “maize negro”) corn. I buy a bag. I’m feeling nutty. Corn nutty, to be exact.
Although I love a good, spicy CornNut, without industrial strength fryers, I think the at-home cook is only capable of producing cancha, the long-lost Peruvian cousin of the commercial CornNut. Not quite the Frito-fied, greasy, salty, crackly through-and-through treat the way a CornNut is, cancha is a cornier snack—more of a semi-popped, old-school healthy-ish version (thus, the “feel-good”).
To roast or fry? was my first question. A cursory search for recipes and hints online for the answer: either. Whatever the cooking method (I tried both), a good soak in water is required. I soaked the kernels for about 20 minutes, but I think a longer dip might produce better results. According to Wikipedia, the commercial CornNut is soaked for three days.
To fry: I heated canola oil (enough to fill the skillet by about 1/8”) until shimmering (not smoking) over a medium-high flame, then carefully poured the kernels into the hot oil. It’s tempting to watch the kernels pop and sizzle…until you get hit in the neck with a shower of searing-hot spittles of oil.
A tight-fitting lid is critical for keeping the oil burns to a minimum. And, like making stovetop popcorn, you want to give the skillet a few shakes during cooking -- a far better method than opening the lid, stirring the corn and getting hit with oil and flying kernels. I teach what I learn the hard way.
After 5-10 minutes, the kernels start to brown. I didn’t time the process, but I’m guessing it took 10-15 minutes total. I gauged by the microwave method, waiting until the sound of popping kernels died down to a few (or no) pops.
Pour the browned kernels over a grease splatter screen set over paper towels and newspaper. Sprinkle with Tony Chachere’s [SASH-er-eez – for anyone who’s ever been befuddled by the pronunciation of this Louisiana seasoning]. Wait until cooled. Eat. Tasty.
Conclusion: The fried-in-oil stovetop method, while slightly messier and more conducive to injury, produced a crunchier, corntastic cancha. I will soak the kernels longer and fry in a deeper pot next time to keep the splatter down. The oven-roasted kernels were fine, but didn’t achieve the same level of crispiness and had more of a burnt flavor. Even with the fry method, the center of the kernels remain slightly chewy, like popcorn. The longer soak and fry might achieve a closer-to-CornNut level of crunch.
Cochon de Lait, Mansura Louisiana
I’ve made no secret of my love of pork, but there’s really more to the story than a simple taste for bacon and cracklins. It’s really about pork consumption as a social ritual—the simple act of sharing the experience of preparing, cooking and feasting on this divine animal with friends and family. The heritage sausage-making party, for example. We spent 7+ hours drinking beer, sharing recipes and carrying on family traditions that, no doubt, our parents and grandparents thought would die out with their generation. The 50 pounds of sausage was just a tasty bonus to the occasion.
The Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, Louisiana, is another example of a fine tradition in swine cookery that runs deep in my family. Every year, this sleepy backwater with French roots (it was named by early settlers, ex-soldiers of Napoleon, for its resemblance to the prairies of al-Mansurah, Egypt) hosts a three-day throw-down whose guest of honor is the succulent, slow-roasted pig. The festival is held every year on Mother’s Day weekend, and for as long as I’ve been going back for the festival and family gatherings, we have our own cochon de lait at my aunt and uncle’s house, a mere two blocks away from the festival (mostly because Uncle Ed insisted that his recipe was better, but also, at least partly, because it was the one way to get all umpteen of us in one place at one time, to hold hands and say grace before dinner). This year, we didn’t have Uncle Ed around to bark orders and run the show, but the next generation did an admirable job of carrying on the tradition. Here’s a look at how it went….
It starts with a big metal box, a fire and, naturally, an old swing-set rigged with a motorized rotisserie.
All of the prep for this feast took place in the cold room, a small outbuilding with a walk-in refrigerator. Back in the day, this is where my grandfather and his family did a lot of food prepping, particularly for a boucherie. The cold room was mostly off-limits to us as kids, and it sat unused for years, but it was recently brought back to life—with new sinks, a hot water heater and other amenities.
A true cochon de lait is 25-30 lbs., although as the crowds have gotten bigger at the festival, so have the pigs. The 50-ish pigs cooked at the festival are 200+lb. Chester Whites from the LSU Agricultural Center, but we decided to stick with the more traditional size. The pig is dressed, the skin is scored…
…and seasoned (that’s Tony’s Chachere’s Creole Seasoning—a staple in any Southern kitchen)…
…and the pig is pinned between two large sections of fencing wire.
Once secured, the “rack” is attached to the rotisserie. The motorized rotisserie is a technological improvement from the old school “poke it with a stick to turn it” method.
The beauty of the motorized rotisserie is not only in the saved labor, but also in the amount of time it frees up to do things like…make beignets. Since we were cooking outside already, it seemed only natural to fire up the propane and eat a few batches of deep-fried dough dressed in powdered sugar.
But something is wrong. The beignets are delicious, but there’s a flavor that seems to be missing. What’s that, you say? Pork? Yes! Pork! A little nugget of homemade sausage, enveloped in beignet dough…
…deep-fried to deliciousness. (You can barely see the sausage, but believe me, it’s in there, and it was good.)
It’s time to check the pig. See the perfect circle of fat drippins on the ground below the pig? Momentary consideration was given to how the fat-soaked ashes and dirt would taste on a cracker.
We believe in eating a pig from the root-y to the toot-y. Hog’s headcheese is not my favorite, but the old school likes it, so we attempted to make it. First, one must pay proper respects to honor the head.
Then, one must remove the extraneous bits and pieces—eyeballs, tongue, brains, ears and the tip of the snout.
It seems a shame to waste such vital organs on an animal, so in addition to our contribution to the culinary arts, we attempted some sculptural art with the leftovers.
Headcheese bits rolling around in a pot of boiling water isn’t as photogenic as you would think. I’m not posting the few photos I have for simple lack of quality, and all-around grossness. Really. It isn’t pretty. But it tasted alright on a saltine cracker.
It’s time to check the pig again, anyway.
It’s looking good, and our pig consultant told us at this point that it was time to turn off the rotisserie and move the rack closer to the fire to crackle the skin. After six or eight hours of slow turning, the meat surrenders and the browned, oil-slicked skin is crispy, cracklin’ good.
A little bit of history on Mansura’s Cochon de Lait
Beginning with Mansura’s Centennial celebration in 1960, the Cochon de Lait Festival became an annual event that drew tens of thousands to town to celebrate the pig. My dear mom, who probably never dreamed how the honor would haunt her, was Miss Mansura High 1959, which put her in the very first parade associated with the Cochon de Lait (that’s her in the middle).
In the weeks prior to the first festival, the ladies and gents of Mansura donned 1860s-era clothing—long, high-neck dresses and bonnets for the women and beards, bowler hats (or red berets) and string ties for the men—and traversed the state in a caravan of busses to promote the Centennial and attract visitors to the festivities.
amazing footage of the bus tour (compliments of a guy named Mike
Hildenbrand, who discovered a cache of old film reels from the
Centennial when he moved back to his childhood home after Katrina
washed him out of New Orleans in 2005). The footage is classic, twitchy
16MM of Mansura’s finest, tumbling into and out of busses at the
different stops along the tour. The men are giddy, slapping each other
on the back, nearly every one cupping a cigarette, cigar or pipe to
light, or pulling a drag off the one dangling from his lips. They pass
through Opelousas, Lafayette and Franklin, Louisiana. They cruise down
Canal Boulevard and spill out of the old Falstaff Brewery in New
Orleans. They pose and preen on the steps of the Capitol building in
Baton Rouge. I get a frisson when the few frames of Papa, my
grandfather Lysso, flash across the screen. He’s sporting the requisite
beard, beret and vest, and he’s got his arms around two women. He gives
each a peck on the cheek. Neither of these ladies are my grandmother,
Pressed for details about exactly what went on on the gender-segregated busses, old-timers blush and chuckle, and say things like, ‘It was something.’ A sense of fraternal decorum seems to prevent them from saying more. What happened on the Centennial bus tour stayed on the bus tour.
Reading local newspaper clippings about the Centennial, it’s pretty clear that, although the organizers hoped to draw a big crowd, they were genuinely shocked at just how big a crowd actually showed up. More than 10,000 made the pilgrimage to Mansura’s Centennial cochon de lait. The town officials and Centennial organizers, including my great uncle Merlin Coco, instantly realized the crowd- and revenue-gathering potential of an annual festival. So on May 24, 1960, a mere month after the first celebration, Mayor Kirby Roy petitioned to have Mansura legally declared the state’s official Capitale de la Cochon de Lait, a decree that was signed by the notorious Governor Earl K. Long. From 1960 to 1972, Mansura turned into a hotbed of dancing, carousing and, of course, feasting on a menu of roast pig, dirty rice, candied yams and other French, Cajun and Creole heritage eats.
If it’s possible for a town to be too good at something, Mansura was too good at throwing a party. As the organizers anticipated, the festival crowd grew—and grew. In 1966, just six years after the Centennial, an estimated 45,000 people showed up. (This is a town that, in the 2000 census, registered a population of 1,573.) At the height of the festival’s popularity in1972—the year Edwin Edwards, another of the state’s colorfully corrupt politicians, was parade marshal—a reported 100,000 revelers poured into Mansura. It was also the year Boone’s Farm came to town. Bottles of Strawberry Hill and Apple Blossom flavored wine made its way into the bloodstream of the festival, and things got real ugly from there.
By 1972, the party had reached critical mass. Undercover State police camped out in the side pasture across from another aunt and uncle’s house to covertly observe the cottage industry in drug trafficking. “Harley riders and campers parked wherever they stopped—in yards, in the middle of the street. There was nudity and making out in public,” my aunt, Laurie Ranheim, recalls, still wide-eyed at the memory. “The wahwees were sleeping in ditches right in the front of the house.” Wahwees [wah-WEEZ] being, in the family lexicon, shady, unsavory types with questionable hygiene, illegal habits and little in the way of moral fortitude. Think: Hippie meets redneck.
Too many people. Too much trash. The streets and side-yards of Mansura twinkled with shattered glass. The way people describe it, the town looked like New Orleans the Wednesday after Mardi Gras, only not as good. It’s hard to point a finger at one particular thing that pushed the festival’s organizers to call off the Cochon de Lait after 1972, but the lethal duo of cheap wine in glass bottles features prominently in the legend. Food writer Calvin Trillin, reporting from the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival in one of his first food dispatches for The New Yorker, laments the demise of the Cochon de Lait with no qualms about placing blame:
“I am justified in holding the idea man who developed soda-pop wines personally responsible for the fact that the Cochon de Lait Festival in Mansura, Louisiana, ended before I had a chance to sample the cochon. May the next belt-tightening in the wine industry (or the advertising industry, if that is where he's harbored) find him in an expendable position.”
For the next 15 years, the newly dedicated Cochon de Lait Civic Center in Mansura, a pole barn attached to an open-air pavilion, was a venue without its marquee act. The people of Mansura “decided to stop and rest for a while” (a quote from the Chamber of Commerce’s history of the festival, which is far too polite and dignified to go into the specifics of why), but Mansurans can’t resist an excuse for a good time, particularly one that involves the beloved pig roast. The only thing surprising about the rekindling of the festival in 1987—by a younger generation of locals, many bearing the same last names of the festival’s original organizers—is that it didn’t happen sooner. But it’s been going steady ever since.
A true cochon de lait is the kind of spectacle that can hush and awe even the rowdy crowds of the hungry and beer-fueled that the festival attracts. From the piles of pecan wood and hickory stacked inside the roasting shanty to the primal, visceral draw of fire and cooking pig, it is a mesmerizing sight to behold the rows of pigs roasting in their wire rotisserie cages.
At first glance, the Cochon de Lait might look like any of the small food festivals happening in towns all over the map, like the Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana, or the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California. There are the dentally-challenged carnys running the terrifying rides and luring customers into chance games with promises of giant stuffed a Tweety Bird or Tazmanian Devil. There are arts and crafts stalls where you can have your name carved, burned or painted onto just about any surface you can imagine. But from there, the Cochon de Lait takes a sharp left from corporate, cookie cutter festivals. They’ve got meat pies. Hot boiled crawfish. Boudin and (sigh)…boudin balls, crispy-fied meat-y, spicy, rice-y orbs.
The schedule of events for the festival is a roster of unintentionally hilarious contests. The beer-drinking contest is notable for the fact that there are two—one for the men, and one for the ladies. In theory, my personal favorite should be the boudin-eating contest, because what’s not to love about speed-eating tubes of spicy rice and pork sausage? But the fact that this delicacy is hard to come by (short of a special trip to Ron’s Cajun Connection in Utica, IL) makes it a shame to see it consumed with such heedless disrespect. But, in fact, it’s the greasy pig contest that I love the most. The simultaneous thrill and horror of watching packs of sweat- and dirt-smeared kids high on cotton candy chasing after squealing, lubed-up piglets is something everyone should experience at least once before they die. I am proud to say that a handful of my nieces and nephews—most of them what my aunts and uncles call “city kids”—have tackled and won a few greased pigs. More gratifying than the smile on that kid’s face is the sight of his or her dad walking away from the fairground, tentatively holding a burlap sack containing the thrashing, squealing piglet.
For the past few years, every time I go back for the Cochon de Lait, I’m always afraid it’s going to be the last. It’s the same old story: the festival is a lot of work for the town. The old-timers are getting tired and the kids don’t want to take up the tradition. Go while it’s still going.
*NOTE: This was originally posted on LTHForum.com
I had to say it out loud somewhere, and something tells me it wouldn't be a good idea to post about it on the dinner blog on TheNest.com (where I'm blogging about food and cooking for newlyweds).
But about that blood. It was served with bits of tripe, soft tofu and pickled-tasting veggies in a spicy, broth-y szechuan sauce. I think the dish is called "chang wang".
The blood was congealed and sliced into small, square slabs. It looked like liver. It tasted like liver. If someone had told me it was liver instead of blood, I probably would've eaten more. But I think the two slices I ate sufficed.
Although I have a long way to go, I'm slowly building my repertoire of consumed innards and bits. I've had sweetbreads (at the now defunct Longbranch restaurant in Abita Springs, LA) and plenty of tripe in menudo. Lots and lots of liver. Braised oxtail ravioli. Tongue tacos. Head cheese. Beef heart. I've nibbled a chicken foot. (I don't care how many times I'm told it's a delicacy...chicken feet are really not tasty.) I know my list pales compared to the likes of Anthony Bourdain (pulsing cobra heart, anyone?), but it's not a competition. It's a personal challenge. I think the eyeball taco at the Maxwell St. market may be next on my list.
Grains of Paradise
It’s technically a member of the ginger (Zingiberaceae) family, and goes by a number of different names: Guinea pepper, malaguette, Alligator pepper, malagueta. It was a highly prized spice in the Middle Ages (thus, the name), and is in Moroccan ras al hanout, it’s a flavoring in beers and spirits, including aquavit, and it’s in the Tunisian spice blend galat dagga.
I’ve seen lots of references likening the spice to cardamom, although it’s a completely different flavor to my palate. To me, it’s peppery with a tangy, ginger-like heat, and maybe a pine-y or citrus (like yuzu) end note. Ah, whatever. It’s interesting, and I've been using it in everything lately--in dressings and meat rubs, egg dishes, soups.
Until I was old enough to know better, just about every time I asked my mom, ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘What’s for lunch?’ or 'I'm hawngry. What's there to eat?', she'd say, "Air custard and love."
She's leaned against the mustard yellow Formica countertop in front of sink where the big picture window overlooked the driveway and the Joneses, our neighbors', sideyard. The Joneses were Pentecostal, which didn't mean anything to me other than the fact that the girls could never ever cut their hair and they always wore long denim skirts. They couldn't wear shorts, which in Louisiana, seemed to be the cruelest form of punishment for I don't know what.
My mom would stand there at the window, dishtowel whipped over her shoulder, taking long, slow sips from the dainty white coffee cup with the pewter blue trim that matched her daisy-patterned everyday dishes.
"Air custard and love," she'd say and, depending on how tired or frisky she was feeling, she'd either say it like I should know better than to ask such a dumb question and I should just make myself a sandwich, or she'd say it all sing-songy, like there might actually be such a thing as air custard and love. And when she said it like that, I'd have ths momentary daydream about a fictional custard.
It would be burnt sugar syrupy on the bottom, dense, sweet and egg-y like the kind my dad would make on special-special occasions. It was a big deal, custard. So when she offered it up so freely, so instantly, and with the heart-shaped surprise in the middle (maybe it’s chocolate-filled!)—as I always imagined the “love” part would be inserted into this special air custard—I’d indulge myself in this brief, delicious fantasy. Maybe, hidden in a corner in the refrigerator I hadn’t yet foraged, she’d pull out one of the clay, grey custard cups assigned solely to this treat, remove the square of plastic wrap with raindrops of condensation stuck to it, and hand it to me, along with the red Bakelite-handled spoon my siblings and I always fought over.
More than the custard itself, it was the offer of this treat when there were no other kids around that made it such a luxury item in my mind. There always seemed to be too many kids, too many mouths, too many school uniforms and outgrown shoes, to justify such such individual indulgence from either of my parents.
I'm not sure when it really dawned on me that "air custard" wasn't any kind of custard at all, and the love part didn't really seem so important unless it was somehow covered in chocolate. But I get it now.
Ah. Valentine's Day. Love and chocolate. Candlelight and romance. Turkey sandwiches and beer.
You hear single people bitching about how depressing and awful Valentine's day is, but it ain't so hot for the coupled-up, either. Such high expectations, such hope for magic and romance. Such crap. After one particularly spendy and utterly disappointing Valentine's dinner at a restaurant we loved in NYC, I vowed never to go out on this occasion again. We choose to stay home--to avoid the glut of amateurs who flock to "fancy" restaurants for overpriced prixe fixe menus, cranky waiters and, let's be honest, second-rate food. So many restaurants must realize that people who pack the house on Valentine's are so desperate for a romantical evening, they'll overlook mediocre food. Um, not me.
I decided to cook Chris' favorite, instead. Capellini with homemade Bolognese. How quaint. And yet, it turns out, cooking at home has the same libido-snuffing potential as slogging through a foot of snow and ice to eat a faux romantic meal.
Here's what happened. I had such great success with the sausage-making endeavour, I'm now obsessed with grinding meat. I ground up a few strip steaks that were slightly freezer burned (due to getting buried in the depths of a cube freezer) and some boneless pork country ribs and veal.
Making Bolognese is not difficult, but it IS time-consuming, as I found out. The problem started when I decided, 'WTF, I've got at least a pound of each type of meat, why not quadruple the recipe?', which called for 1/4 pound of ground beef, pork and veal. So I did.
If only I had read the recipe start to finish, and realized that the cooking time for a single recipe was three hours, a doubled recipe would be four hours...you do the math. Say, five or six hours of slow and low simmering time?
The recipe requires the liquids (first milk, then white wine) to evaporate. When you jump from one cup of each liquid...to FOUR, well, it takes a long time.
I started prepping at 3, so the milk simmer started around 4, the wine simmer started at around 5, the addition of the tomatoes and reserved liquid happened around 6...and then the real cooking started. Suffice it to say, we didn't have bolognese, sauteed rapini and a lovely bottle of red for dinner. We had turkey cold cut sandwiches and beer. Oh, and three (yes, three) tasty Vosges truffles from the box Chris brought me.