I tweak and republish this post annually; I think you’ll see why when you read it.
See, I’m not out to be tragically hip, in fact quite the contrary. Or maybe Matthew Selman said it best; “I wish there was another word than foodie; how about ‘super food asshole’, or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” I just don’t wanna go there.
Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but right now, many are judged ‘Great’ because somebody took a really, really nice pic of some food, or is on the fast track to be the next Food Channel Super Food Asshole. Frankly, when the ‘best’ food blog sites reject people because they don’t meet criterion such as that, I’m more than not interested, I’m actively turned off.
I write about food from some pretty simple perspectives. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you, in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is not very good. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well. To be honest, if no one read this blog, I’d write it anyway, because I do it for me first and foremost; I gotta share what I love. That’s just how I’m wired.
So, when I look at ‘real’ food blogs, I see the stuff that, fairly often, folks ask me about here, or more to the point, ask me why I don’t do these things. There are three oft repeated comments, and they are,
Why don’t you list nutritionals and calories,
Why don’t you post prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?
So, in a nutshell, here’s why;
Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have any idea about that. If I list a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and on and on. This ain’t a restaurant, and I’d bet your house isn’t either; neither of us needs everyone to eat the same portion. For the record, I predominantly do recipes for two, with planned leftovers, the idea being general efficiency, and the fact that anything good will be great the next day. Other than that, you’re kinda on your own. I mean I can give you a great biscuit recipe, but how big you make ’em, and how many y’all wolf down is kinda your gig, right?
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition IS important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to this is to buy carefully and thoughtfully. Buy locally whenever you can. Read the labels on food and avoid the stuff that’s truly bad for you. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can, from scratch, at home. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as we go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just click on our link for Calorie Count and go to town. There’s a mobile version out for your Apple or Android smart phone as well now.
Next comes prep and cooking time.
Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely close to humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same level, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I can stem, seed and core a tomato blindfolded, without cutting myself, in about 15 seconds; can you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally; does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? If I can prep Dish A in 10 minutes and you take 20, should you not make that dish? Of course not! And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right NOW?! Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – Who gives a rats ass how long it takes if you have the time and want to make it? If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.
Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a whacky spice cabinet. You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicated lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much stuff is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? If you’re asking me, I think the question is rhetorical. And frankly, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second; in this day and age, almost anyone in this country, and many others, can get anything they want. I recently shared a bacon recipe with a pal from South Africa. He ended up having to go all over creation to find several ingredients, but he did it, ’cause he really wants to try my recipe. Kinda like that last discussion on prep and cooking, huh? Ive mailed corn meal to Australia and mustard seed to Israel; if you can’t get something you wanna try, hit me up, I’ll help. I’ve also gotta point out that we constantly encourage and desire experimentation, so if you’re making it, put what you like in it: Give us credit the first time, and then it’s yours…
I say that if you love cooking and great food, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir; who knows what you’ll do with them?
We do this because dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. If that ain’t good enough, so be it.
It’s Gathering time. Every year at this time, we head sixteen hundred miles due east, to the shores of Squeedunk lake, in north central Minnesota. There, at the home of Grant and Christy, we meet with friends old and new to celebrate stringed instruments, and much more – This is our Tribe.
We own www.luthiercom.org, a site dedicated to the building of stringed instruments, and the sharing of that arcane knowledge with anyone and everyone who wants to take part. The Gathering is an unusual thing for a modern day social networking site – A dedicated time for friends from the ether to actually meet in the real world, at a truly magical place. There is much talk, much sharing of special skills, much music played and sang, and very, very much food and drink. Monica and I are Co-Hosts and designated event Chefs, and it couldn’t be more fun to do – The Gathering is a magical place to cook.
Grant and Christy grow much of what they eat, so virtually all the produce we use in 5 days of cooking comes from their gardens. So do the hops with which Grant brews gallons and gallons of beer for the event. Everything else we cook with is local – This year, Ron brought a gift from Winona LaDuke – some fresh buffalo meat for us to work with, as well as his family’s Georgia sourwood Honey, (He’s also brought some amazing moonshine back from there over the years, I can tell you!) We had 14 dozen of the most amazingly fresh, local eggs as well, with deep yellow-orange yolks and true substance to them. Grant’s son Jim and his partner Shel made incredible cheddar bratwurst from venison they’d harvested last year, right on the property.
A neighbor contributed a whole bunch of fresh walleye fillets – It being Friday night, they got fried two ways – in cornmeal and tempura. Donna did panfish ceviche that was to die for. Mitch brought his rightfully famous slow cooked, pulled pork with Carolina mustard sauce, and Lis brought amazing puerco pibil, cooked in banana leaves from the tree in Grandt and Christy’s living room. This is pretty typically how it goes.
In the last couple of years, we enjoyed a ridiculous excess of shiitake mushrooms, but the weather didn’t cooperate this year, (fear not – We had all the dried and roasted/frozen we needed, as well as some fresh chicken of the woods Bonnie foraged and brought along, which is good, ’cause we feed a healthy crop of vegetarians too!.
We did, however, have a bumper crop of beautiful poblano chiles, and lots of traditionally harvested wild rice, so we paired those with Winona’s buffalo – They were, of course, a big hit.
We cook three meals a day, but they’re timed and spaced specifically to accommodate the laid-back atmosphere of the gathering. Brunch gets eaten right around noon, the midday meal slides to somewhere around 4 PM, and dinner to between 8 and 9 PM.
After that, it’s music on the main stage, and maybe a trip down to the Round Heeled Woman, the underground speakeasy – Yes, there’s and underground speakeasy, and in fact, the back door that establishment is a ladder down from the room we stay in – I told you, this is truly magical – It’s not uncommon for music and even lutherie activities to go in well into the wee hours, (and that’s why brunch is at noon).
Our work ranges from brunch for a dozen, to lunches and dinners for 50 or more. Folks volunteer to pitch in, and we cheerfully put them to work on prep and cooking as needed. Chris and M and I do some planning, and most years, we more or less follow the gist of that, but as the saying goes, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy – We’ve planned to do a coffee roasting demo for 2 years now and have yet to get around to it, and we never did salt cure egg yolks, but hey, just wait until next year.
We did two batches of salt potatoes that the crowd went nuts over, paired with fresh chimichurri. And our Yakitori Sauce marinated a couple of wonderful pork tender loins – Hmmm, this was a very pork-centric year, huh? There was amazing fruit, so blueberry, raspberry, kiwi, and mango Pico de Gallo all made a showing, along with mango butter and granita. Biscuits and pie dough were about as deep as the baking got, ’cause it was kinda warm this year.
We didn’t take enough pictures, but, hey you get the idea, right? It was another fabulous time with friends old and new – The new ones are a gas to watch – John Joyce came up from the twin cities for the first time, arriving on Thursday evening into the middle of our chaos. At first, folks can be a bit intimidated with the craziness, intimate relations, and long running jokes and shtick, but those who get it are quickly drawn in. John brought some beautifully made instruments, number 13 being his newest – She’d only been strung up for 4 days before he arrived, but she sang like an angel. I’m glad to report that JJ is now hooked and is expected back next year.
And that’s how it goes. Interested? Wherever you are, you’re welcome to join us. I guarantee you’ll be blown away in the best sense of the words. Stay tuned for next year’s dates.
Gathering Swing – It’s what happens once you get here and get into the rhythm of the place.
Swing on through. What you’ve come for will be here in spades, be it playing a bunch of hand made instruments, or working on or talking the technical and artistic aspects of building them.
If none of that is for you, there will be plenty of non-builders here to discuss art, history, philosophy, archeology, geology, and a dozen other things. And if that don’t float your boat, there’s more great food and beer and music than you can shake a stick at.
Whatever your bailiwick, you can immerse yourself in it, or do as I do, and drift in and out of things as you see fit. Of course, since I’m the Chef, I spend more time on food than anyone else, and that’s exactly how I like things.
Chef swing – A Chef working a thing like this has to do a lot of planning, but probably not as you might think it’ll go – we plan main courses, sides, and deserts, to some degree – But any given meal may need to feed 12 or 60, and everything in between.
On top of that, folks will bring stuff – some will tell you they’re bringing it, and some won’t, and their level of concern over how and when the dish gets used will vary as well. Blending all that, making enough food, and having ample contingency plans for leftovers is par for the course, and requires diplomacy, humor, and quick thinking.
Take the chickens that became the main dish for Saturday night. Somewhere around 20 folks who’d said they were coming didn’t, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a bunch of left overs – No problem… They found their way into frittatas the next morning, or tarts for brunch after that, and finally into incredible chicken pot pies Sunday night, (if I do say so myself – and I do…)
Here’s some eye candy from the weekend – If anything floats your boat, drop me a line and I’ll give up the recipe for ya.
It’s called Stringfest, but for those of us who founded it, it’s just the Gathering – An offshoot of an instrument making website owned by a few friends and I, The Luthier Community. This is the tenth anniversary of this event, a weekend that binds hand made instruments, musicians, artists, and friends, with great food as the glue.
The Gathering happens at our dear friends Grant and Christy’s place in rural northern Minnesota. As the years have passed, the compound has changed to accommodate the annual visitors. There is now a pretty swanky bunkhouse that sleeps a bunch, plus the main house, a main stage, as well as indoor and outdoor kitchens.
From humble beginnings, the event now draws quite a few folks, so the big meals during the weekend have become events in and of themselves, feeding 50 or more some years. As fate would have it, I’ve become the event Chef, which means I get to coordinate all the meals and do a bunch of cooking as well. And that has perks, I might add – Monica and I get a private suite right next to the big house – A rare treat at an event like this.
There certainly are meat eaters at this thing, and there’s plenty of proteins to appease them – most of which are hand made within a few miles of here. That said, there are a lot of vegetarian and veggie-leaning folks as well, so we do a lot for them. Frankly, that’s pretty easy when you’ve got the fixing just a short walk down to the tunnels. One of the first things we do is go tour the gardens, to see what’s looking good and ready to go – Here’s a little sample of what we found this year. I’ll share some recipes and pictures over the next few days, without a doubt, so stay tuned.
Now, when you get a bunch of artists together. There is definitely some drinking going on with all that food and music. Grant makes all the beer for the event from scratch, with hops grown right here as well. It is amazing beer, everything from a light summer ale, to a gorgeous IPA, and a stunning chocolate stout. There’s even a sparkling apple cider – I don’t know what the alcohol content of that stuff is, but I can testify that it sneaks up on ya if you’re not careful! He leaves some of each uncarbonated, making it perfect for cooking, and I take full advantage in darn near every meal.
Fresh berries are in season here in the Pacific Northwet. Driving pretty much anywhere, you’ll come across roadside stands offering blueberries, strawberries, raspberries – Not to mention cherries as well. While you might think you’d be better off in a store, it ain’t necessarily so. Stop by a few of these stands and you’ll quickly learn to spot good from bad, (and most are quite good). A roadside table put out by the growers themselves is almost always a sure winner for price, freshness, and truly supporting local small businesses.
Of course, the chief and oft unspoken danger of such stuff is not being prepared to store, preserve, or use what you buy – I don’t know how often I hear about great produce going to waste, but it’s all too often. As such, have a plan or plans in mind for what you intend to do. Canning, freezing, and quick use are all good ideas, but be sure you have the time set aside, and the equipment you’ll need – Last thing you want to do is find that you’re out of rings and lids after doing up a batch of preserves, right?
We freeze a lot of berries, because it does a good job of preservation, is relatively easy and quick to do, and lends itself to spur of the moment use down the road. Keeping in mind that berries are quite delicate, here’s what we do to get the best quality out of a batch.
Gently rinse berries in cool water, then place them in a colander lined with clean paper towels and allow them to dry a bit.
Cover a clean baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper, gently spread the berries evenly across the sheet.
Put the sheets into your freezer and allow a nice hard freeze before removing them, at least 3-4 hours, or more. Transfer berries to hard containers or plastic bags, mark them with the date, and you’re done.
We do different sized containers based on the amount needed for intended use – enough for a pie, a batch of ice cream, etc, and mark that volume on the bag or container as well. If you have a vacuum sealer, you certainly can and should package hard frozen berries that way, as it will minimize air contact, freezer burn, etc. if you don’t have one of those toys, sucking the air out of a filled ziplock will do a pretty good job as well. Carefully packaged and sealed berries will last 6 to 9 months in a freezer, no problem.
So, what about that immediate use? Try this amazing ice cream recipe – You can thank us later. The bourbon, for the record, adds a nice little hint of smoky, woody sweetness, but more to the point, it’s a fantastic little trick for home ice cream makers – The little bit of high proof booze keeps your scream from turning into a frozen brick, that all too common malady.
Blueberry, Vanilla & Bourbon Ice Cream
1 Quart Heavy Cream, (at least 30% milk fat)
1/2 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons local Honey
1 Quart fresh Blueberries
1 Tahitian Vanilla Bean
2 Tablespoons Bourbon
In a sauce pan over medium heat, add the berries, 2 tablespoons honey, and the scraped seeds from the vanilla bean, (put the remaining bean in some sugar, or vodka, and let it steep for future projects).
Stir steadily as the berries begin to simmer and pop. When roughly 3/4 of the berries have burst, remove the blend from the heat and transfer to a blender, (or use a stick blender if you prefer). Pulse until you have a smooth, uniform purée.
Pass the purée through a single mesh strainer into a smaller mixing bowl; send the skins, etc to your compost bucket.
Place the purée bowl in larger bowl 1/2 filled with ice and water, and allow it to sit, stirring occasionally to aid cooling.
In a large mixing bowl, combine cream, 1/2 cup honey, and bourbon. Whisk briskly until uniformly incorporated.
Process the cream mixture in an ice cream machine or churn. When the ice cream is well formed, slowly add the puréed berry mixture. When it’s uniformly incorporated, send it to the freezer.
Kitchen knife confidential – Knives are quite simply at the heart of a Chef’s tool chest. Whether you do food for a living, for fun, or out of necessity, they should be at the center of yours, too. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about cooking knives, and a few solid truths. First, in answer to the question most asked, ‘Do Chefs really always carry their own knives,’ the answer is a resounding yes. Were you to attend any serious cooking school, you’d be required above all else to have your own knives with you from day one – No knives, no school…
In any serious kitchen across this world, the same rule applies – while they’ll be stocked with cookware, hand tools, and the like, you gotta have and use your own knives, period, end of story. And yes, when we travel, we bring our own knives with us, without fail. Knives to a Chef are like a glove to a pro baseball player – Personal, bordering on sacred. Many professional Chefs are truly knife obsessed, and many are collectors. Buying a new knife when changing positions, venues, or promoting is quite common. The kit a Chef uses daily and brings along with them when they travel vary from extremely simple to foot locker complex.
The power of the knife, at least from the male perspective, surely stems from its roots as a weapon of war and personal defense. Just as a soldier would pamper and never be found without a sword, so it goes in the kitchen, (This is my deba! There are many debas like it, but this one is mine!”) That sort of heavy stuff generates some fairly hefty superstition around the tool as well, some of which might surprise you.
How much of this weighty chef emphasis translates to the home kitchen? A fair share, if you’re savvy and serious about your cooking. There are solid reasons why you should buy, keep, use, and properly maintain a decent set of your own; efficacy, safety, and performance first among them. That said, this does not imply the need for expensive, by any sense of the word. My Sis, Ann Lovejoy is an inspired and extremely talented chef, and she uses an inexpensive set like these here – they serve her well, and when they get too dull, she buys more – If that seems like blasphemy, it ain’t. Sharpening isn’t for everyone, especially if that process gets between you and the joy of cooking.
My friends Christy and Lissa have between them some pretty nice quality knives that get sharpened, I’m fairly certain, once a year, when I visit northern Minnesota to play music and cook.
And then there’s me, with a set built up from a core of custom knives forged by a local maker, (every aspect of them chosen by me, made to my exact specifications), augmented by a few specialty varieties I use occasionally. Where you lie on the spectrum depends on a bunch of factors, wallet, willingness to perform maintenance, and expected performance chief among them. What’s best is what works well for you, so let’s explore that.
First off, which knives do you really, truly need? The answer is, not many. There are a bunch of opinions on this, so I’ll add mine – A kitchen can get by very capably with a full sized chefs knife, a smaller derivation thereof, and a parer. That’s it- seriously. Nine times out of ten when I cook, some variation on that theme is all I use. Often enough, it’s two of those three.
A chefs knife could mean the traditional western shape and size, usually found in anywhere from 7″ to 12″ lengths, (there’s also a Japanese variant known as a Gyutou, which is almost identical in shape to a western chef knife). The chefs knife is the workhorse of your kit, so the length depends on what wields most comfortably for you. For most of us, that’s going to be an 8″ knife, with which you can do almost anything. If you watch food porn on TV, you might see a whole episode of Chopped or Iron Chef wherein a chef or Sous uses nothing but their big blade for everything they do – That kind of dexterity depends on thousands of hours of knife work in order to be accomplished safely – And that’s why there are shorter knives for folks who don’t do this professionally.
The eastern chefs knife, the Santoku, means ‘three virtues’, a nod to the fact that this knife is equally good at slicing, dicing, and mincing. Like a western chefs knife, there’s not much you can’t do with a good Santoku. They are generally lighter in weight than a western blade, which certainly speaks to their popularity. Of the two options, I opt for the Santoku; I like the shape and balance better than the traditional western blade, so that’s what I use exclusively. Since the shape, weight, and balance of chefs knives vary considerably, you’ll need to do some handling in order to determine what floats your boat.
While western chefs knives feature what I’d call a drop point blade shape, a Santoku has what’s known as a sheepsfoot tip – that difference can be a real key to comfort of use, (AKA how often or likely you are to cut yourself using one – One of the big reasons I favor a Santoku). Your chefs knife will do everything from cutting up poultry to chopping vegetables or slicing fruit; it’s only downside is its size, which means a smaller knife is prudent for more delicate work. Western chef knives sold commercially are most often stainless steel, while the Santoku is commonly made from high carbon steel – More on that in a bit.
The smaller derivative in western knives is often called a utility knife, while Japanese variants are the Deba or Nakiri – Again, shapes, points, and lengths vary considerably, and require hands on use for a proper buying decision. As you can see from the picture of my knife roll, I use a small Deba as my second knife. This knife does everything a chef knife will do, but on a smaller scale, and by the same token, can break into the realm of tasks usually assigned to a parer. The greater weight and length of this knife both advantage and disadvantage versus a paring blade.
And finally there’s a parer, called just that in western patterns, and either paring or Petty knife in eastern versions. A parer is usually around a 3″ knife with a thin and somewhat flexible blade. This is the knife to use when field stripping a chile, cutting supremes of fruit, or any other fine kitchen work requiring precise control. My personal parer has a somewhat thicker and more rigid blade than this design generally does – That’s my preference, and one reason I use knives that were made specifically for me.
As you can see from the various pictures here, and from any store that sells cooking knives, there are a bunch more variants in both western and Japanese styles. The truth of the matter is that most of these are highly specialized and intended for professionals who depend on their knives for their living. This does not imply that home chefs don’t or won’t need to get some of these over time. My personal quiver also includes a boning knife, a slicer, and a large, heavy cleaver, because I buy proteins in bulk and butcher at home. Filling out my kit are a thin, flexible clip point parer, a birds beak or tourné tip parer, a small, serrated slicer, and a serrated bread knife. That said, I’ll note that I’m not a guy who keeps kitchen tools around that I don’t use, and all of those have remained with me long enough to earn their places. It’s unlikely that either you or I will need an offset slicer, tomato knife, or a hankotsu, but if you ever do, have no doubt there’ll be somebody out there happy to sell, or make you one.
So, you’re ready to buy some knives – What kind they’ll be is a primary consideration, and in so choosing, you’ll need to decide what they’ll be made of. The primary decision in blade material is stainless versus high carbon steel. While there are many derivations and combinations, (including high carbon stainless, just mess with your head), the primary difference is the addition of chromium to the basic blend that makes high carbon steel – That chromium imparts enhanced resistance to rust and corrosion – stainless steel. Now, there’s some seriously hard stainless out there,I can tell you first hand – I’ve had some stainless knives that took a lot of work to sharpen – but when it’s all said and done, the truth is that high carbon steel will stay sharper longer than stainless and is notably easier to sharpen – As such, if you don’t want to fuss with a lot of sharpening, you should keep that in mind.
Next you’ll be picking blade shape and size, and finally, handle shape and material – As I mentioned above, choosing knives isn’t generally something to be done online; you’ll want hands on to know what feels right to you. All of these factors impact the cutting ability of any given knife for you, let alone balance, feel, and comfort. There are grips or handles made from every synthetic thing you can name, as well as a wide variety of woods. This too is an important consideration, impacting how sound the tool feels in your hand, how long they’ll last, and how much work will be required on your part to maintain them. Again, get into the custom realm, and you can and will pick not only handle material, but grip shape, wood, as well as bolster and rivet material. Whether or not all that matters is up to you.
Every variant from cheap over the counter, to decent, to very high end production knives, semi-custom to true custom, is out there. While Henckles and Wusthoff, and Shun to Khun make great knives, there are small batch makers in both schools, here in the states and overseas, that you can check out. And then there are the true hand-makers, like Andy Gladish of Element Fe Forge here on Washington State’s Guemes Island – The man who makes my knives. His knives combine artistry with the age old science of hand forging; they are a delight in the hand and a joy to use. As with many makers, Andy sells production knives, as well as semi and true custom work. His stuff is, frankly, probably cheaper than it should be, which is your gain. If you find yourself at a farmers market up here in the northwest corner of the state, poke around and you’re likely to find Andy. You can have production pieces from him for under $50 a piece, and you could easily do a very, very nice three knife set for under $300. For hand made knives, that’s amazing. Wherever you live, you’ve likely got an Andy close by – If you’re to the point where the thought of a handmade blade or two appeals, go find them. In my case, the chance to collaborate with the maker, choosing blade composition, length, weight, flexibility, adding some pretty rare ebony handles made from wood I’ve had in my stash for a long time, coupled with brass bolsters and rivets, was the heart of why I wanted to go custom – It allowed my personal experience and preferences to be translated to the tools themselves – My recipe, in essence.
Finally, a note on sharpening, and on choosing between western and Japanese knives – Japanese blades are traditionally sharpened on only one side, known as a chisel grind, and as such are made in variants designed for right and left handed chefs. Western blades are generally sharpened on both sides, most often in a straight V, but also found in compound, and hollow grinds.
Pay strict attention to what your buying if you’re going to maintain your knives yourself – You’ve got to be able to consistently and safely sharpen whatever you chose.
Whether you sharpen by hand, or mechanically, or have it done for you, depends on your level of comfort and willingness to fuss with things. Whether you have expensive or cheap knives, they need to be sharp. The reasons are simple and twofold – Dull knives don’t perform well, and they’re dangerous – The former leads to the latter – pushing extra hard on a dull parer has caused more hand injuries than you can shake an E.R. at, so don’t go there.
As a woodworker, I’ve always sharpened my own tools, from chainsaws to chisels, and that’s how I do my cooking knives. That said, I appreciate efficiency and maximum time in cooking, so I’ve tried many variants of the mechanical sharpener, from $19.95 hand held versions to the $180 electric, three-stage version that sits in my kitchen these days – While I’d personally never sharpen a chisel or plane iron with anything mechanical, I’m happy to do so in the kitchen, with the right tool, (and Andy uses a simple belt sander for the job); if hand sharpening appeals to you, check out Scary Sharp, the method I use for my hand tools.
Something like my Chef’s Choice unit, with diamond, hard steel, and leather stages, will make any blade shaving sharp in short order. That said, that device will enforce the only grind it knows how to do on your nice, new knife, either sharpening, changing it radically, or possibly ruining it, so be careful. Sharpening is as much art as it is mechanics. Putting a good edge on a knife puts you in touch with the feel of the metal itself – What it’s made of, how hard it is, and how it responds to the heat and friction of sharpening.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with Chris and Liss having knives sharpened once a year. They’re both good cooks, and they know what they like. I, on the other hand, am kinda seriously OCD about sharp, so mine get far more attention. That said, I just handed a full set of Henckles that I bought in 1998 to my youngest son, some 18 years later. They’re far from worn out, and he’ll get decades more of good user from them, without a doubt.
Apples are easily among the most beloved, and most maligned fruit out there. They’re beloved because of all they were and could be, and maligned predominantly because of the crap that mass production, grocery store apples have become.
Malus domestica is a member of the Rose Family, grown worldwide, with more than 7,500 known cultivars. Apples come from Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, can be found to this very day – here in the U.S., you can find starts for that very tree if you wish.
Yet not so long ago, most grocery chains carried maybe five varieties, two of which were delicious, (Red and Golden, neither of which actually are delicious…), along with Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji. There are deep problems with all of these, and here’s why. These varieties, all of them that you find in the store, are bred not so much for flavor as they are for the ability to withstand storage, travel, and stocking – Those are not attributes we’re wanting in an apple, frankly. Nowadays, there are more varieties in most stores, but we still have the problem of freshness. 90% of the time, what you’re buying is last year’s crop, or maybe this year’s from New Zealand, that travelled thousands of miles to show up in Your Town, U.S.A. Neither of those options brings apples at anything close to peak freshness.
Apples grown in this country are a late summer, early fall crop. For large scale commercial purposes, apples are picked slightly green and then, since 2002, sprayed with 1-methylcyclopropene, a chemical meant to prolong use storage. They’re then waxed or shellacked, boxed, crated, and stored in an low temp/high CO2 environment to discourage ethylene production. There they stay for an average of nine to twelve months. They may, (and often are), also treated with fungicides while in storage.
It’s important to note that buying organic may not save you from all these ills. Much large scale organic farming has been bought out by mega-corporations, and they can and do still use the same 1-methylcyclopropene, wax, shellac, and extended storage techniques as non-organic fruit.
1-methylcyclopropene, trade name SmartFresh, is supposedly not toxic to humans or the environment, but there’s a distinct problem with those claims. According to an article published by the American Society of Horticultural Science, “1-MCP is being used on 16 horticultural products, but much commercially relevant research on its effects is proprietary. For example, research using 1-MCP to increase potential for shipping longer distances or increasing market share of various fruit is being undertaken around the world under confidentiality agreements.” Meanwhile, PesticideInfo.org basically notes that most specific information regarding the potential effects of SmartFresh are “not available,” which is disappointingly in keeping with the ASHS’s findings.
Add to all that a Canadian study that shows that much of the good stuff in apples is seriously degraded after only 3 months of storage, and you’ve pretty much got the big picture view of why store bought apples suck. Fresh apples provide notable dietary fiber, simple, easily digestible sugars, and lots of polyphenols, a potent antioxidant. Yet stored for 9 to 12 months, pretty much all that antioxidant is gone.
But enough doom and gloom: All is not lost – in fact, there’s much light at the end of the tunnel; heirloom apples are making a broad come back, and some cool new varieties are coming available as well. From New England to the Pacific Northwest, and much in between, new-to-most-of-us varieties are finding their way to market. From Community Supported Agriculture, (CSAs), small scale farms, renewed interest by long time growers, and robust university level agricultural programs, variety is returning. Just yesterday, we got notice from our local CSA that one old variety, (Gravenstein, introduced to the U.S. in 1822), and two new varieties were available for as long as they last. A couple weeks ago, in northern Minnesota, I was introduced to the Oriole variety, developed by the University of Minnesota, (as was one of the varieties we were offered here, the Zestar). The Oriole was marvelous; tart, crisp, with just the right sugar balance – Perfect for munching or cooking.
Find and read Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character; you’ll find your spirit buoyed, and your interest piqued. Do some research for your neck of the woods – Google heirloom apples and your town, then go out and find them. Hit your farmer’s market or local CSAs. Once you’ve scored, preserve apples the way it’s been done for centuries – can some, dry some, freeze some, and enjoy it all.
Now, let’s cook with some – Here’s what I did with those Orioles in Minnesota, as well as a couple more favorites. Use whatever varieties you find that float your boat – Ask the producers which varieties making for good cooking, and go with those.
Urban’s Apple Crisp
10 Cups fresh Apples
1 Cup Bakers Sugar
1 Cup Quick Oats
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup plus 1 Tablespoon Whole Grain White Flour
1/2 Cup local ESB Ale
1/2 Cup unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon real Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
1/4 teaspoon Coriander
1/4 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Baking Soda
Pinch Sea Salt
Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack square in the middle.
Rinse, core, seed and slice apples about 1/2″ thick, (I like the skins on, you can peel them if you wish)
Pile sliced apples into a 9″ x 13″ baking pan, glass preferred.
In a small mixing bowl, thoroughly combine bakers sugar, tablespoon of flour, cinnamon, coriander, and pinch of sea salt.
Hand sprinkle that blend over the apples, then pour the ale over all.
In a larger mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, baking soda and powder, and melted butter. Blend thoroughly by hand, then pack that evenly on top of the apples.
Bake at 350° F for 40 to 45 minutes, until topping is nicely browned.
Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.
Belgian Waffles with Apple Compote, Bacon, and Cheddar
Heat oven to Warm, add plates for each person, the bacon, and the waffles.
Make the recipe for Belgian Waffles here – 2 to 4 per person, depending on iron size – set in warm oven to hold.
Fry 3-4 slices of fresh, local bacon for each person – set onto paper towels in warm oven.
Slice extra sharp, aged Cheddar very thin and set aside.
For the compote, (enough for 4 to 6)
6 fresh Apples
4 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon Grape Seed Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar or local Honey
1/4 teaspoon True Cinammon
1/4 teaspoon Vanilla paste or extract, (If using beans, scrape seeds from 1/2 bean).
1/8 teaspoon Allspice
Pinch Sea Salt
Rinse, core, seed and slice apples to about 1/2″ thickness
In a sauté pan over medium heat, add oil and butter, allow to melt and heat through.
Add sliced apples, agave or honey, and all spices, toss to combine thoroughly and coat with the oil and butter.
When the blend starts to simmer, reduce heat to medium low and sauté for about 15 minutes, until apples are very tender.
Remove from heat and allow to rest for 15 minutes prior to serving.
To serve, lightly butter waffle, add strips of bacon, then compote, then top with cheddar.
Then there’s the savory side…
Chutney is a favorite of mine since I was a kid, making it with my Mom each fall. The combination of fruit and savory elements is a big winner; apple chutney goes great with pork, chicken, wild rice, even soufflés, believe it or not. It’s easy to make and stores well; it’ll last 2 weeks refrigerated, and much long if you decide to water bath can it. Spicier, more piquant apple varieties make for better chutney than the overly sweet ones do.
Apple Chutney – About 6 Cups
10 to 12 fresh Apples
2 fresh large Navel Oranges
1 large Sweet Onion
1 Cup Live Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup local Honey
1″ piece fresh Ginger Root
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground Turmeric
1 Cup Golden Raisins
6-8 Cherry Tomatoes
Rinse, core, and seed apples, then rough chop.
Rinse, peel, stem and dice onion.
Rinse, peel and mince ginger root.
Rinse and pat dry oranges; zest and juice both, set that aside.
In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, combine all ingredients thoroughly, then bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Reduce heat to medium low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 to 50 minutes, until the mix has thickened notably and most of the free liquid is absorbed.
Remove from heat, transfer to a non-reactive bowl and allow to cool thoroughly. Store in clean, glass canning jars, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
And of course, I wouldn’t be me without including an apple salsa. Rather than a cooked or blended version, good apples lend themselves especially well to a pico de gallo style salsa. Again, pick a tart, spicy variety when you make this one.
Urban’s Apple Salsa
4-6 fresh Apples, (about 2 Cups volume)
2 fresh, firm Tomatoes
1/2 small, Sweet Onion
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1 fresh small Lime
6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro
Drizzle Agave Nectar
Sea Salt and fresh Ground Pepper to taste
Zest and juice the lime, set both aside
Rinse, core, and seed apples, then uniform dice.
Toss apples into a large mixing bowl, then add lime juice and zest, and toss to incorporate.
Peel and stem onion, then fine dice.
Rinse, core and seed tomatoes, then fine dice
Peel, seed, and devein jalapeños, then fine dice.
Add all veggies to the mixing bowl and toss to incorporate.
Add agave, pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper; taste and adjust seasoning.
Allow salsa to rest in a non-reactive bowl for at least 30 minutes, refrigerated, prior to serving.
My friend David Berkowitz is a true renaissance guy; on any given day, he might be mixing sound at Wolf Trap, or building guitars of truly sublime beauty and power; often enough, he follows that up with some very inspired cooking. I’ve seen great dishes with influences from French, through Middle Eastern and North African come from his talented hands. The former launched this question the other day.
“Do you have a good recipe for lamb merguez? The ones I’ve found around here are mostly beef and then end up having kind of a gritty texture. Not sure why that is.”
As always, big thanks for asking; first, let’s look at that grainy issue. Merguez is highly spiced, and on top of that, if those makers close to Dave are using mostly beef, I can see a few potential issues. My first suspect would be not processing at cold enough temperatures – With as much dry spice as merguez boasts, you need to make sure that everything is really cold – Meat semi-frozen, spices fully chilled, and all vessels frozen throughout production. If those steps aren’t taken, then I’d think the chance of ingredients separating is quite high, and that’s the number one reason sausage will get grainy. Secondly, beef is quite marbled compared to lamb, or at least the most common sausage making cuts are, so potentially one could have a meat/fat ratio issue there. And finally, for a relatively heavily spiced sausage like this, you pretty much gotta add a bit of liquid after grinding and work that into the mix before stuffing.
Merguez is a French derivation of the Berber word for sausage, mirqaz. This is a fresh sausage, bright red before cooking, made from mutton or lamb, and heavily laced with North African spices – chiles, garlic, fennel, and cumin are dominant notes. The characteristic red color comes from paprika and harissa, a Tunisian chile paste. While some recipes just add chile flake or powder, as far as I’m concerned it’s not the real deal unless it includes harissa, and that too should be home made. We make ours with roasted red Hatch and Serrano chiles, and it’s got all the heat you need – Knowing David as I do, I’ll bet his version will have Habaneros in it, if not ghost chiles – He’s that kinda chile head…
Traditionally, Merguez is stuffed in lamb casing, and you can get those online from Butcher & Packer, Amazon, etc, but frankly, there’s nothing wrong with using beef or even synthetic if that’s what you like. Served with a nice couscous and a cucumber salad with yoghurt sauce, you’ve got a truly fabulous meal.
First off, here’s the harissa; refrigerated, it’ll last a couple weeks in an airtight container. It’s great with all kinds of meats, veggies, and even eggs.
5 red Hatch New Mexican Chiles
5-7 fresh Serrano Chiles
3 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1 teaspoon Coriander
1 teaspoon Caraway Seed
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
Set oven to broil and a rack on the highest setting.
Place whole chiles on a dry sheet pan and roast, turning steadily, until skins are blackened uniformly.
Pull chiles from oven and set aside to cool.
Combine coriander, caraway, and cumin in a spice grinder and pulse until uniformly blended and powdered.
Remove skins and stems from cooled chiles. If you’re a heat weenie, use gloves when processing them, and you might want to remove some or all of the seeds, (but you should feel shame for doing that, because this stuff is meant to pack a punch.)
Smash garlic, peel, and remove nibs from both ends.
Load all ingredients but the salt in a blender or processor and pulse to a uniform paste.
Add half the salt, pulse again and taste; adjust salt as needed.
Store refrigerated, in an airtight, glass container.
And here’s the sausage. If you have access to local grass fed lamb, that’s what you want; the benefits of that far outweigh commercially packed stuff. Whatever you get, make sure it’s as fresh as can be. Lamb gets a bad rep for being funky, but to be honest, that has far more to do with how the animal is raised and fed than it does the meat itself. Lamb fat is more piquant than beef, but the beauty of lamb is that the fat isn’t marbled into the meat nearly as much, so when you trim, you can remove exactly as much of the fat as you like, and end up with beautiful, lean meat to work with. Lamb fat is traditional for Merguez; you can add some pork or beef as well, if you like. I use 50% – 50% lamb and pork fat; that balance makes a sausage that many folks really enjoy.
NOTE: I use a Kitchenaid grinder and stuffer attachment, so I’ve got a stand mixer basically set up when I build this sausage. If you have a dedicated grinder, prep your stand mixer with a paddle blade attached before you start.
Real Deal Merguez Sausage, (Makes 4 pounds of pre-cooked sausage)
3 Pounds Lamb Shoulder
1 Pound Lamb, Pork, or Beef Fat
1/2 Cup Harissa
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Ice Water
6 cloves Garlic (pick uniformed sized ones)
2 Tablespoons hot, sweet Paprika
2 Tablespoons Sea Salt
2 teaspoons Fennel Seed
2 teaspoons Cumin
2 teaspoons Coriander
1-2 teaspoons Sumac
Natural Casings, 28mm to 32mm
NOTE: Sumac has a tart, citrusy flavor that is potent and complex. Try a dab on your fingertip and decide how much you like it, then add either 1 or 2 teaspoons.
Have all spices and Harissa refrigerated and thoroughly chilled.
Meat needs to be semi-frozen prior to production; I usually trim and size it, then lay it on a small sheet pan and put that in the freezer. All bowls need to be frozen as well.
Trim all gristle and connective tissue from lamb and fat.
Trim meat to size so that it’ll feed smoothly through your grinder.
Set grinder up with a coarse plate for your first run.
Casings should be thoroughly rinsed, inside and out, then soaked in warm water for 30 minutes prior to stuffing.
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add fennel, cumin, and coriander; toast spices, (staying right with it, ’cause they can burn really quickly), mixing with a fork for 1 – 2 minutes until their fragrance tells you they’re done. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.
Smash, peel, trim ends from garlic, then mince and set aside.
Transfer cooled spices to a grinder and process to a uniform powder.
Transfer ground spice to a small mixing bowl, add sumac, paprika, and sea salt, blend thoroughly, and set aside.
Set one of your chilled bowls up inside a slightly larger bowl with plenty of ice in it – snug your receiving bowl down into the larger so it’s well iced.
Run fat and meat through your grinder.
Add spice blend, harissa, and garlic to ground meat and combine thoroughly by hand. Return grind to freezer.
Set your grinder up for a second run with a fine plate, with the same iced set up for your receiving bowl.
Set a small sauté pan over medium high heat.
Transfer bowl with sausage grind to your stand mixer with a paddle blade attached. Add half the ice cold water and process at fairly low speed, (2 or 3), until you’ve fully incorporated the water, about 1 minute. Sausage should be moist and slightly sticky; if it’s not quite right, continue mixing and add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until you get there.
Hand form a small patty of the sausage, (about 3″ around and 1/4″ thick), and return the rest to the fridge. Cook the patty through, 1 – 2 minutes per side. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. If you add more seasoning, blend with the paddle on the mixer. You can add another teaspoon or so of water, if needed.
Set up your grinder for stuffing; fill about 3/4 full and twist into 6″ links. Coil and refrigerate for at least 4 hours prior to cooking.
Merguez should be cooked over wood or charcoal. Once you’ve got nice, glowing coals and a preheated, brushed, and lightly oiled grate, grill to an internal temperature of 155° F. Allow a 5 minute rest prior to serving.