Monday, March 1, 2010

See food, eat it

We went camping a few weeks ago, and what a reminder it was how friendly this place is to grazing. "Living off the land" actually has meaning around here.

When we first came to NZ (more than ten years ago!?!), I went scalloping out in the bay with Graeme Marshall, fishing guru. There was no stalking or subtlety about that operation though. You take a motorboat out, drop a dredge off the back and tow it along the bottom for fifteen or twenty minutes. The hardest part is hauling this thing full of mud and other bottom-dwelling detritus back to the surface, but if you've found the right place, there are also dozens and dozens of scallops, looking for all the world like a gas-station sign.

And Nelson scallops are something else: a plug of crustacean goodness attached to a orange-pink liver-shaped something-or-other. You slip your knife in near the hinge and sweep along the shell to release it open to find a throbbing organism that has the good stuff almost incidentally: a ring of gills top and bottom, a garland of gristle studded with tiny gleaming eyes (or so it would seem), a dollop of mud and all the other messiness. But with two well-practiced circular strokes of the knife (and after a few dozen to practice on, everyone is well-practiced), the meat slides off with only a few little odd gobs clinging thereto. Generally, the meat goes into the bowl for the classic quick-cook, but often enough it finds its way into your mouth, where it becomes not only the freshest possible sushi--with all the lusciousness you imagine--but stays mixed up with a touch of guts, brine and (I picture) the bodily fluids of the organism.

In short, it tastes like life.

But there's regular fishing, too. A few weeks ago, Eamon and Wendy brought us along on one of their family fishing expeditions to the Marlborough Sounds. The arrival day was devoted to scalloping, then we targetted blue cod. It's the perfect fish for kids. Assuming you find a productive spot (not hard with a little intelligence-gathering before setting out), it's a matter of dropping the right lure to the bottom and jiggling it around. The fish hook themselves quite well, and they're not too much for kids to handle (legal minimum is about a foot long). Pretty easy to clean and fillet with two swipes along the spine, but the results are out of all proportion to the convenience. Pan-fried, with just a dusting of flour and a little lemon juice, and you've pretty much got a definition of what fish is supposed to be: delicate, sweet and just oozing seafaring allure. I took Kim fishing when we were down in Stewart Island some years ago, and not only were we hauling them in as fast as the crew could clean them, but the dinner we had that night is still burned in my memory.

And then there's mussels. They flourish on rocks all along the coast here, and the four-meter tides offer casual predation. Often turned into mussel fritters, I personally have never managed to get past just steaming them in white wine and garlic, then tearing into them with your bare hands.

So anyway: we went car camping at a national park campground on the beach at Totaranui with the usual gang. The day we arrived, a party had already come back from a neighboring beach with a couple of buckets of mussels, so that was a fine how-do-you-do: lounging around with full wine glasses, luxurious cheeses, Krys's bread and hot steamy crustaceans still easing open.

Fortunately, there was also more than one boat in residence, and they weren't just used for snorkeling. One day, a bowl of scallops materialized in exchange for helping shuck a mess of them. We never got round to having them that night, which is not such a bad thing because the next day there came blue cod and red snapper (another game fish, but one that expects more patience), along with more mussels. And so it was that "camping" dinner came to feature a seafood chowder that was hardly anything more than impeccable, sterling fish--just enough potatoes, seasoning, wine and broth to bind the whole thing together. Not only staggeringly good, but entertaining as well, from imagining how much people would pay, in how many other places in the world, for such a meal. Call me Mr. Schaadenfreud, I guess.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with

There comes a time in the cook's year when cooking goes from...I almost said "inductive to deductive," but I'm not that obnoxious. I mean that you live much of the time in a world in which you decide what to cook, then assemble the ingredients. But eventually the garden takes over, and you respond to what's in the basket. We seem to be at that changeover point right now.

We went to dinner a few days ago with Eamon and Wendy and their kids, and as we're leaving, good old Eamon reaches into a fridge and comes out with what must have been 20 pounds of wild pork that he'd shot a couple of days before. And not just scraggly chunks of gnawed flesh, either, but BIG hunks of roastable, stewable, meaty goodness. A fair bit of it wound up in a Tinga Poblana, a Mexican stew with chorizo, onions, tomatoes, chipotle and potatoes. But the central role was of course the pork, and it just sang. No special treatment, just started off with large chunks cut from the shoulder and "casserole" (a mystery cut that, well, I haven't asked) and proceeded per normal pork but with stellar results on the table for Movie Night. Martin is partial to wild pork, but, living in town, he doesn't get much of it, and he was over the moon.

Anyway, this dish entails cooking the browned pork into a stock, and then using only a small part of it in the finished dish. So Krys cooked up some pinto beans in the remaining stock, and that was dinner tonight: sort of a blank stew, nothing but plain, creamy pinto beans (again, WHY don't we pay more attention to beans? They're so damn good), the stock, and some leftover bits of pork, garnished with chopped tomato and avocado, cilantro and chipotle puree.

But wait! One of the zucchini plants is producing these little ribbed zucchini that are supposed to be eaten in an almost fetal state with blossoms still attached. They're a little past that stage, but still wanted to be experienced as essence of zucchini. So I cut them into thickish diagonal slices, threw them into shimmering hot olive oil in a huge non-stick pan, and tossed them often enough to get them to brown before they turned to mush. A little salt and pepper was all she needed: no onion, no garlic, no thyme. Nothing in here but zucchini. Yum.

Salad? Just put a bowl of peapods on the table and munched down on them.

In this state, you not only let the food drive the menu, but you let the food be itself. It's fantastic when the food steps up and delivers, and it's amazing and wonderful how simple cooking gets when the food really shines.

It's looking like a great summer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cracking the Pot Roast Nut

You may recall that we acquired a cattle-beast some months ago, albeit all cut up and now resident in our purpose-bought chest freezer, several hundred pounds' worth. The most noteworthy artifact of acquiring a whole cattle-beast is that you don't get to pick and choose (duh). Rather, you get exactly the cuts of beef that the beast produces, in a statistically identical distribution. For the present purposes, this means, contrary to your average supermarket presentation, you get rather a few steaks and other cuts of the most popular varieties and bits such as brisket that you can pretty much figure out what to do with. But you also get a lot (read: A LOT) of bits and bobs that "normally" find their way out of sight and out of mind: ground beef, stew beef that might as well be ground, and, in the case of New Zealand, you get around a dozen instances of the "rolled roast".

Formally, the rolled roast is derived from slabs of the meat that lies between the skin and the ribs (if memory serves), which are (as the name suggests) rolled up and tied with twine. Practically, it means a cylindrical lump of meat, fat and gristle about 5" in either dimension. In case it's not obvious from the description, we're talking about the toughest pieces of flesh you'll ever have to deal with, either in the kitchen or on the plate.

Hence the challenge.

How to render the rolled roast edible, or even palatable? My first stop was the Zuni Cafe cookbook. Mimi Rodgers has an elaborate pot roast recipe that includes pureed root vegetables and many steps to a yuppie-friendly presentation, and I tried it. Clearly it wasn't developed with the rolled roast in mind, because after several days of marinating and several hours of cooking, the results were edible, but clearly hankered for a more, shall we say, SELECTIVE cut of meat.

However, Mimi (and God bless her and that book; there's more practical--and novel--wisdom and elegant writing than in a decade of run-of-the-mill cookbooks) does have a memorable point. Contrary to the received wisdom of cookbooks from Joy onward, she likes pre-salting meat. Theory being that, rather than toughening the meat by drawing out moisture, EXTRA long exposure to salt ultimately tenderizes the thing.

So this time, I put it to the test. I made up a preparation out of whole cloth. I unrolled the roast into its 1/2" thick slabs, sprinkled them generously with salt, pepper, roughly-chopped garlic and dried thyme. Rolled it back up and stuck it in the fridge for three days. Took it out and browned it all over in olive oil. Added onions for long enough to soften and brown. Then threw in a few cups of beef stock and red wine, and put it on barely simmering. For hours. Hours and hours. It must have been seven hours from initial simmer to the plate.

...and for many of those hours, the lump of flesh stubbornly insisted it was going to be a palate-defying, character-building lump of chewy gristly obviously-flesh-with-a-bad-attitude. But by the time the gardening work was done and it was time to throw in the carrots and the new potatoes, it was looking like real food. And when I finally plopped it on the cutting board to rest, it flopped down in surrender, yielding to dismemberment like a cooked apple. It rejoined the pot likker on the plate and the root vegetables like old pals. And it tasted like, well, it tasted like meat ought to taste: crude and rich and flavoricious and reminding you that it came from somewhere. Somewhere nearby.

So there you have it: salt, rigourously applied; and slow cooking, over a long-ass period of time. Not that hard, really. I'm surprised it seemed like a challenge.

And to think, we've only got eight or ten of them left.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fun with Pork

A few weekends ago (Labour Day in New Zealand, symbolic kickoff to the summer) included the Sunday of the Ngatimoti Festival, fundraiser and country fair for the Ngatimoti School. When the girls went there, 10 (!) years ago, it had three classes for seven grade levels, but now they've rocketed to five classes, and are subsidized by a hell of an event: Several thousand people show up to eat, shop for trinkets and crafts, go to kiddie rides, and get a little taste of the country. For example, there's a kind of lotto adjudicated by a cow's ass: a ten-by-ten numbered grid about 20 feet on a side. Buy a ticket, get a grid location. When enough of them sell, a cow is led through the area and, well, guess how they determine the winner?

So now we do a slow zoom from the ruminating multitude, over to the far corner where the Wild Foods booth sits, marked by a plume of smoke rising from the back. As the camera glides past the tent, we see a great long spit over a great big fire, where a great big pig (big in appearance only; actually only about 100 pounds) turns slowly over the fire, as it has done since about 4:00 AM. Black as soot from tooth to tail in a thick charred crust, much of it still has the bristly, though charred, pelt of wild pork. That's because it is. Neighbor Saul not only got up at 3AM to cook this thing, having shot it a few days ago in another neighbor's driveway.

The amazing thing is, black as the gyrating corpse is, it's not ready yet, and it's nearly noon. It won't be ready for another hour, as Saul demonstrates to me by sticking a big knife into the ham and showing the blood still running. This gives me an opportunity to harass Saul about not getting up early enough. Also, I notice Eamon's friend Stu beavering away at a barbecue inside the tent. Stu's a big guy, a builder by trade, and he looks like he's cooking in a world that's two sizes too small. Griddle plates are on, and what are those yellowish things he's flipping? Why, they're whitebait fritters!

It's the saving grace of this stand with the belated pig. Whitebait is the young form of a strange kind of primitive trout. Skinny, a couple of inches long, and semi-transparent, they're caught in nets by the fisherfolk who line the banks of river outflows and estuaries around the country. They're a cult item, if the word "cult" can be applied to the entire population of a nation. Invariably mixed with eggs and, cooked into fritters and served as sandwiches, whitebait is one of the more inexplicable infatuations of the Kiwi. Fritters made with whitebait and egg taste pretty much like, well, egg. At least to my Philistine palate.

Anyway, the pork deficit has prodded the demand for whitebait fritters to a frenzy, and there are ten or twenty customers waiting to be served when I show up with my exquisite timing and Eamon all but lunges to press a spatula into my hand, points out the second barbecue, and dives into making more batter as Stu and I go "head down, bum up". A couple of hours later, we had made several hundred of the things apiece and raised well over $2,000 for the school--with a little help from other support.

...but not before the pig finally achieved edibility. Down from the spit and borne onto the table, with three or four rough characters clawing at it to pile it into trays, thence to sandwiches for the ravening masses. It wasn't exactly the fork-tender down of Carolina pulled pork, but it wasn't bad, either. Wild pork is real meat, and it's going to blow your grain-fed beef and your dainty saline-bloated chicken breasts right off the table. It's for people who like meat, full stop. This pig tasted like exactly what it was: wild critter hunted down, cooked over a fire and thrown unadorned onto the tribe's banquette, ripped stem to stern into manageable chunks complete with gristle, odd bits of bone, and even little tufts of charred bristles peeking out here and there. For all my exertions, I got a couple of ribs. And THAT was reward enough: crisp, sweet, chewy and, well, real.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ania, Guest Cook

We had the girls in New Zealand for the holidays, which really meant sharing them with Wellington, but they were around on the "farm" enough to make us glad we have the place to hang around with them, uh, at (!). And also, to appreciate having a kitchen spacious enough for the four of us to operate at once--as opposed to the "one-butt kitchen" that my sister complains about, or even the marginal two-butt kitchen in Berkeley (big, friendly, and well-appointed, but not amenable at all to gang cooking).

Anyway, in the interval between Kim's and Ania's departures, we got into the kitchen with Ania, who has become quite the flairy vegetarian cook. And it was a blast cruising the food supply and brainstorming the possibilities for dinner, to say nothing of cooking together and repeatedly toasting "another feast". Here's a couple of nights to give you the, you should pardon the expression, flavor.


* A batch of tomatoes from the market, which are getting increasingly viable, connected with the basil now emerging in the garden: slice, shred, olive oil, done.

* A few oranges, also from the market, mused a connection with olives, which led to toasting some fresh-shelled walnuts, and using some feta from the fridge. Heap up a bed of chewy, semi-bitter greens from the garden. Toss, and crunch away.

* The centerpiece: a heap of almost the year's first potatoes, right out of the ground, scrubbed and steamed. What better way to exploit the fresh dill than dill butter on top?


On the eve of departure, we went for a swim in the river and used the six or eight minutes of commute time to riff out a few ideas for dinner; too many, really, but we wound up doing them all:

* Of the cauliflower (last year's plants, still producing), steamed then pan-fried with garlic, hot pepper flakes and fresh mint.

* The expected tomato-and-avocado salad (with shallots and vinaigrette) took a turn, when the avocados looked less than appealing, into sliced tomatoes garnished with basil-oil guacamole (not oil OF basil, silly: olive oil infused with basil flowers).

* Haloumi that Krys and Ania had made that day from our blessed farm milk, sliced and grilled. (A bit too enthusiastically, I'm afraid. The charcoal was so hot that the cheese charred in the couple of minutes I had my back turned. Oh well, this is what knives are for.)

* Raita with shredded cucumber and carrot

* Finally, the piece de resistance: Couscous and Corn Salad with Grilled Zucchini (not from the garden, alas, but close), Grilled Sweet and Hot Peppers (from the freezer; last year's bumper crop blesses us yet again), and Spring Onions (just starting in the garden)

...and it only took two hours in the kitchen!


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Drama of the Tomato

January 8: we ate the first tomato of the year.

Ania was here till yesterday, and hope there was that she would get some fresh tomatoes before decamping back to Austin. And indeed, in the sheltered area next to the garage, there are tons of green lumps. But then, a couple of days ago, one of them started going pale, and this morning it had taken a decided turn to the yellow. In fact, it was yellow all over. In fact, it was a yellow tomato, and it was ripe!

One single tomato, sitting on the counter amongst the now-sheepish red hothouse tomatoes from the market. Finally, at lunch, we cut into it, and sure enough: the best tomato of the year, smelling of the vine, bright, sweet and biting in equal (though still modest) measures.

Yeah, we've had some sugar peas, the odd head of cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce. But this. THIS is the beginning of summer eating.