Saturday, February 26, 2011

What do you expect? They're pigs!

So this year we have two pigs. Last year we had one. I was a little concerned about this growth rate: extrapolating geometrically, it'll only be fifteen or twenty years before New Zealand is sinking under the weight of our pigs. But lately I've realized that two pigs is already some kind of limit. The smell is sort of reaching the house when it gets hot, and Damn! do two pigs that are probably pushing 100 pounds eat. This is a statement about quantity, but also about fervor. If they think they're about to be fed, piggy pandemonium breaks out. The howls and squeals are heartbreaking. An uninformed party would be convinced that I was torturing these poor beasts, even though I'm just standing at the fence with my hands in my pockets.

I've recently nailed the trough down to the fence so I don't have to actually enter the pig run to feed them. I just got tired of being nuzzled and slimed--if not actually nibbled, and not in a nice way--by two beasts that collectively weigh more than I do, while wrangling the trough back into food-receptive position yet again. Even so, the trough is alarmingly small relative to the animals, and even small relative to the amount of food we're now forced to dump in there. For a long time we were feeding them "pig nuts", pellets of virtual Piggy Chow, along with a steady diet of cheesemaking-runoff whey and, now, a box of castoff/windfall apples at midday. But the feed got expensive, so now we're buying wheat kernels and barley from up the valley, soaking it in hot water and dumping it down them. Quite frankly, they should be more discriminating, because I'm becoming convinced that I could shred the styrofoam from the garage and they'd still injure each other trying to get to it.

I am told that pigs are more intelligent than dogs, the obvious implication being that I shouldn't even be THINKING about eating them. And I have no reason to doubt it (the intelligence, that is). But if they're so smart, why haven't they developed better manners? As far as I'm concerned, they could ace a university-grade intelligence test and any charm thus accrued wouldn't survive the next mealtime.

So, bottom line: I take food out to them morning, noon and night. I manage to get most of it--most of it--into the trough without decorating their heads with it. Then I stand back and marvel at the relentlessness of the eating machine thus displayed. And I think about doing some eating of my own.

Does that make me a bad person?

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Nine o'clock rolled around today, bringing both the onset of darkness and the thought "better think about dinner before it gets too late." (sic)

I had no idea what I was going to do for dinner, and the freezer wasn't very encouraging. Then Krys brought in close to a bushel of tomatoes from the garden. We've been leaning on the tomatoes pretty hard lately, but the problem is that the majority of them have succumbed to one plague or another--starting with stinkbugs. Still, lots of tomatoes, there's an avocado on the counter...hmmm. Wait, Sue brought some fresh corn the other day; that's still in the fridge. As is half a head of cabbage that's been waiting a while. That's right, you can shred cabbage, throw it in hot oil with chili to sear and soften it, and toss in a little soy sauce. Hardly a dish, but with a fried egg...and the wholegrain no-knead bread I--funnily enough--just finished a couple of hours ago.

So in a half hour, we sat down to a tomato and avocado salad (roughly chopped fruit, finely chopped shallots, sherry vinegar, olive oil, S&P), fresh corn, seared cabbage with over-easy eggs to run all over it, and still-warm bread with Krys's butter. Don't you just love it when dinner works out like that? Sussing it out makes you feel like a cooking genius, yet it's still simple. Dinner arrives before midnight, and the result is heavenly anyway. Krys made a plum clafouti earlier in the day, and we were so replete we didn't touch it.

[Recipe Sharing Department: I've fiddled around with the No-Knead Bread that has a full-on cult surrounding it, and recently got the recipe that makes it worthwhile. If you have a largish oven-safe crockery or porcelain dish with a cover, and an oven that will go to 450°, you're golden. Try this on:

Wild Bread

350 grams (2.5 cups) white flour
100 grams (2/3 cup) rye flour
100 grams (1/2 cup+1 tbls) whole wheat flour
15 grams fresh yeast or 1 Tsp. instant dry yeast
1/4 cup ground flax
1/4 cup ground sesame
2 tsp. salt
2 cups (480 ml) water

Mix all flours and yeast, add salt & water, cover with plastic & leave
for 15 hrs., or 12 hours, or 18 hours, or however long it takes to double in bulk.

Put a kitchen towel (something that won't stick to dough: NOT terrycloth) in a basket and dust with flour. Generously dust a countertop with flour and decant the dough thereon. Fold it over a couple of times to form a "package", which then lift onto the towel, seam-side down, cover with a damp towel and let rise for an hour and a half.

20 minutes before then, put a large (several quart) ceramic or porcelain baking dish with a cover into the oven and crank it up as hot as your oven will go, up to 480°F (250°C). When the dough is ready, roll it into the pot, turn the heat down to 450° (230°C) and bake, covered, for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 min.
Take out & cool on a rack.

It makes an amazingly well-textured loaf with a crackling crust. Unbelievable that there's so little to it. Thanks, Dorit.]

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Restaurant At The End of The Universe

As you may have gathered, we're fairly far out in the country. I used to say we're 20 minutes from the nearest cash register, but that was before the Yuppie's Dream Cafe (actual name: Monterey House) opened up down the road. It's lovely, the coffee is great, and the view is one of the dreamiest for many a mile.., but it's a bit intimidating to come for a coffee and sit down to white cloth napkins and big bilious wine glasses for water, with a grand piano lurking in the background.

So we're surrounded by miles and miles of commercial wilderness, and coincidentally much lovely country that's tailor-made for bicycling. For a good while, friend Martin and I were in the habit of taking a nice long bike ride before dinner on Movie Night, a trifecta (or tetrafecta if you count the cocktails, wine and beer that follow close on the heels of the ride) that sustained us for some time before work got in the way.

At some point a year ago, we got our official road number and blue-and-white plate for the mailbox. Martin was turning in on his bike, noticed the number, and breathlessly arrived (okay, the driveway is quite steep) at our doorstep with the news: "It's The Answer!" For indeed, we live at 42 Lloyd Valley Road, and (for those of the non-nerdly persuasion) 42 was Douglas Adams's answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Martin was beside himself with glee, never so much as when he realized what to call us. On the basis of all those fine Movie Night dinners, and in view of our far-off location (both locally and globally), he dubbed our house/kitchen The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. So taken by this blinding insight was he, that when his surgery (doctor's office to you) changed locations, he had the old sign repainted, thus:

...and now, we have The Toast, ready when we sit down for Thursday dinner, muscles pleasantly tired, endorphins percolating through the system, cocktails working their magic, a splendid repast before us: "To The Restaurant!"

Monday, February 14, 2011

Zucchini Survival Strategies

Every gardener knows the sipping-from-a-firehose experience of growing zucchini. No matter how little you plant or how assiduously you put it on the table, there's always too much. And when you fall a little behind, they...just...keep...GROWING. There are places where gardeners sneak bags of the stuff onto the neighbors' front porch then tiptoe away.

Just as an aside, one of the few things I've figured out on my own about cooking is what to do with zucchini that have grown to the size of a cricket bat: Oven-Fried Zucchini. That is, cut it in half; scoop out the mealy spongey bit in the middle, if any; cut it lengthwise into pieces as thick as your finger; toss it in olive oil, salt and pepper and maybe some dried oregano; lay it out on peel side down on a baking sheet; and bake at, oh, 375° or so for at least an hour, until it condenses WAY down and takes on a golden hue. If your oven is hermetically sealed, you need to figure out how to let all that moisture out if it's not to basically stew in there. Propping the oven open a tad works for me. So does having a convection fan on.

(By the way, can anyone explain to me why an oven with a fan is called a "convection oven"? Isn't convection what happens when there IS no fan?)

Two people can get through a HUGE amount of vegetable this way. It's not unusual for Krys and me to disappear one of the aforementioned cricket bats on our own. And you can make a lovely pasta, adapted from Marcella Hazan:

Zucchini Sauce with Basil and Beaten Egg Yolk

* enough oven-fried zucchini for two, as above
* 3 T. butter
* 1 t. flour dissolved in 1/3 cup milk
* salt
* 1 egg yolk
* 1/2 cup Parmesan
* 1/4 cup Romano
* 2/3 cup fresh basil leaves, torn by the alabaster hand of a virginal Roman slave boy into delicate, freshly scented shards

(Okay, I made that part up. Do it yourself if you don't have a slave boy or if he's been plucked. If you chop it, I won't tell Marcella if you don't.)

* about a pound of pasta

Get the pasta going.

Melt 2 T of the butter in a pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, stir in the milk/flour mixture and whisk a minute or so to thicken. Add the zucchini and stir to coat. Swirl in the third
tablespoon of butter and the egg yolk, stir to thicken it a tad, then take off the heat before the egg turns to custard. Toss the pasta with the sauce, the cheese, and the basil, and whisk it to the table.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The things we do for beef

To cut to the chase, the cattle got out. We have seven critters ("cattle-beasts", in local, gender-neutral, neutering-neutral, parlance), five that have been around awhile and two that we just got this year. The oldest of the lot is veridically named Psycho: he was traumatized by the trailer on which we attempted to bring him home, and now he's hypervigilant for any two-legged critters and won't let any of them near, especially me.

Here's the story about our land: we put most of it into trees a couple of years ago, and now all we have to do with it is keep the cattle out. But Psycho early developed a taste for adventure, and there's plenty of that on the tree-based--and wilder--sections of the property. You (he) can get lost way up the hill/stream in the bush, or just stand around munching the oh-so-tall grass that's going to keep growing wild until the trees take over. At the very least, you (he) can breathe the heady air of freedom. Some time ago he discovered how to set himself free, which is just a matter--for the average cattle-beast--of walking up to some low, sheep-spec'ed fences that should be electrified but aren't, and strolling right over them. These aren't secure fences, you understand, more like suggestions. So Psycho loves to get away and knows how. Fortunately for us, the other big guys have always been naive in the ways of the world, and Psycho had been going along with the crowd, until recently. There was a jailbreak last week, Psycho taking his naive herdmates with him, and suddenly our confinement problem got a lot more serious.

There is a way to block this egress. It involves stringing electrically-charged tapeline along the boundary. Modern cattle have learned to respect the jolt from the tapeline, but keeping it charged and taut has problems of its own, and if the cattle find an opening, they go to town--not just leaping through, but chewing, stomping and generally making a mess of your boundaries. You may have parallel experience in your own life.

Lately the weather has been hot. Damn hot. But a little shower came this afternoon, and clouds with it, so the cattle that had been wilting in the sun suddenly got an urge to wander, and Krys and I came from town to cattle, except the two little ones, who were looking at the now-trashed barrier with the aspect of a small child left behind while everyone else rides the roller coaster. I went to tidy up the barrier, and as I did I saw one of the big ones disappearing into the bush above the house. (Last time I found them in a reasonably accessible paddock. Not this time.) I followed that one into the woods, and as soon as I showed up, Psycho got wind of me and high-tailed it for the densest, slopiest parts of the property, taking his buddies with him.

Thus began the two-hour adventure of stomping around the property in search of errant cattle. To be honest, I right away gave up the idea of getting them all into confinement. I figured they'd find their own way back into the open, where I could deploy my civilized skills of sneakiness and persuasion, so I set out to explore the farthest, highest reaches of the property, with vertiginous slopes, vast swaths of bracken, areas of pig destruction and even relatively passable forest--passable in spite of the vines that grow for some reason in Tarzanic profusion. I had come home nearly exhausted from playing an hour and a half of squash in the heat today, so I was dragging myself by force of will in the beginning, but after awhile adrenaline or something took over and I became Explorer Steve, bravely wielding his electric-tape pole ("pigtail"), bushwhacking and trail sniffing.

Ultimately, through sheer luck and some unexpected cooperation I did manage to corral four out of the five miscreants and seduce them back to the fold. I think they weren't too sure about their adventure because at one point they were actually FOLLOWING me. But when I finally got back to the house, I was one limp noodle. Never a cocktail that tasted so good, nor shower so sweet. And then it was time to cook dinner. Past time.

I took a chunk of beef out of the freezer (grim poetic justice in that) and stuck it in water to thaw while I collected my thoughts. Mmm, Bittman has a Thai-style stir-fry with basil, fish sauce, garlic and lime juice. That doesn't look too hard. Ooh, two ears of corn are ready! That's just a matter of boiling!!! And there's a pile of okra on the counter. Haven't fried any of THAT this year, and it goes great with corn. And the figs are falling off the cliff as quickly as the goat cheese is headed out, so time for one of the last fig/goat cheese/arugula salads of the year. For dessert.

It took me 45 minutes rather than the promised half hour, but in my cocktail-(Salvaged Melon Daiquiri!)-fueled fug, head swirling with endorphins, muscles sending messages of resignation at an alarming rate, I was surprised it worked out at all. Another feast, and several thousand pounds of cattle-beast are secure for the night. Psycho I'll get back to.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Summer Smugness

I've been trying to figure out how to get back into this thing after almost a year (with sheepish countenance, is one answer), but two dinners this week made it impossible not to start.

Thursday was Film Night at The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (there's one post awaiting). We were having some new people over who were half-sold just on the basis of our food at camp last week (another one), so I kind of wanted to up the ante. I planned to pick up some monkfish at the fish factory (again) for a chiant-and-sage piccata, but fate intervened: no monkfish today. Instead, I had to pull a wild pork butt (insert promissory note #4 here) out of the freezer and give it the Italian milk pot-roast treatment. The tomatoes are trickling in (that's #5) and Krys's last loaf of bread was getting kind of stale, so: Bruschetta!--only with friseed super-peppery arugula instead of basil. The volunteer potatoes are performing, and Krys brought in a bushel of green beans, so they went on the table with butter and salt and pepper. And the fig tree is, after two years, dropping these figs like sugar bombs and some goat cheese is on the verge of expiring, dictating the family classic salad of figs, goat cheese, arugula and shallot vinaigrette. Finally, she couldn't just let others bring dessert, so here comes a clafouti with organic sour cherries and home-made buttermilk.
Bottom line, it wasn't until the middle of the meal that I realized: the only things on the table that didn't come from our garden or from people we know were the salad dressing ingredients. If that's not an occasion for stopping to think and appreciate...

...which brings me to tonight. Look closely at the picture, and you'll see:

* bratwurst that came from the same wild pig
* newly-aged sauerkraut from cabbage in the garden; the beginning of what I think will be a long-term love affair with fermented food (#6)
* first corn of the year
* first tomato salad: just the fruit of the vine, basil, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
* zucchini with toasted almonds from Smitten Kitchen
* Krys's famous bread with a new twist: sunflower seeds and molasses

But wait! Not pictured: dessert. We have Tuscan melons literally falling off the vines. Sadly, we've only just realized what this means: we waited too long, and we've now TWICE faced the depressing sight of a melon past its prime and, what's far, far worse, past saving with, say, homemade prosciutto (#7). Not being inclined to, say, eat it, I figured What's the worst that can happen? I skinned it, blended it with sugar and a little lime juice, and stuck it in the freezer. Of course it froze solid, but a few minutes out of the freezer and rock turned to slurry, so I could fluff it up and refreeze. And that was dessert: Salvaged Melon Ice. Oh, I forgot to mention that temperatures parked over 90° today, so you can just imagine how welcome THAT was.

With the second melon, I smartened up and blended it with an egg white like yr supposta, this time kicking it with some limoncello. Maybe that's #8, maybe not.

So anyway, here we are, with much water on the bridge and many calories across the table. I think that much backing and forthing is coming. Hope you don't mind if it's not all about food.