Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Norman Chronicles: Braising Saddles

Butchering your own meat can be intimidating, especially if, like me, you're not all that familiar with the traditional cuts and where they come from. The fun part is looking at it from the perspective of how you want to cook it, then making your decisions based on whether you like roasts or chops, or bone-in or boned-and-tied chunks for grilling or braising.

The saddle, for instance (left, held by Melinda at Portland's Culinary Workshop). As its name implies, it's the section of the back where you'd think a saddle would go, and it kind of looks like one. Containing the loins and the lower end of the ribs, you can cut chops and loin roasts from it, but I decided to cut it straight down the backbone and have a large, bony chunk of roast to braise.

Some folks might recoil in horror over braising this piece of meat rather than boning out the roasts and loins, but lamb loins are fairly small strips of meat, and I was already cutting chops from the upper end of the ribs.

See what I mean about getting to make decisions based on how you plan to cook it? Plus how cool does that backbone look sitting in the pot?

Michel's Braised Lamb

This lamb recipe is terrific braised and served the same day, but for a real treat make it a day ahead and put it in the refrigerator overnight. Holding it for a day gives the flavors a chance to meld deliciously, and it's easy to remove the solidified fat and the bones before reheating. Served with polenta (I used Ayers Creek Farm Amish Butter polenta), this is so good it's made converts of friends who say they don't like lamb.

1 4-lb. lamb roast (shoulder, saddle, etc.)
1 med. onion, coarsely chopped
1 med. red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 pasilla, ancho or poblano pepper, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tsp. cardamom pods, crushed, using just seeds inside
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 c. prunes, coarsely chopped
1 c. chicken stock
15 oz. can diced tomatoes (approx. 2 cups)
Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In medium hot braising pot, brown shoulder in olive ol; salt and pepper each side. After first side of lamb is browned, add cumin and cardamom seeds to the oil around the lamb and briefly stir to toast. Add garlic and onion, stir until golden. Add peppers and stir until softened. Add canned tomatoes, stock and prunes and stir. Cover braising pot and place in middle of preheated oven. Simmer in oven at least 3 hours.

Remove lamb from pot. Cover and hold on heated platter. Skim fat from liquid in pan and bring to boil to reduce. Season to taste and pour over lamb.

Read the other posts in The Norman Chronicles: Getting to Shepherd's Pie, Shanks and Hearts and Neck and Neck.

The View from My Upstairs Window

I promise I'll get back to writing soon, but in the meantime I'm enjoying this spectacular fall weather. Hope you are, too!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gratuitous Friday Cuteness

Pander: verb 1. to act as a pander; to provide gratification for others' desires. Especially: "pander to the basest emotions." noun 2. Pimp.

Like a great meal occasionally calls for a touch of sweetness to cap it off, some weeks need a bit of the same to draw them to a suitable close. And there are few things sweeter than a passel of sleepy six-week-old Corgi puppies.

And no worries, they're all spoken for, so you don't have to worry about definition number two, above.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Livin' in the Blurbs: Oregon's Uniqueness Exemplified

Health care is a big topic these days in many sectors, not just in Congress, and many Portland restaurateurs are taking the unusual step of providing health care their employees, including servers, kitchen staff and dishwashers. Businesses of 50 or fewer employees are not required to do so by the Affordable Health Care Act, so providing this vital access costs small employers a great deal. Local restaurant owners Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz of Biwa have debuted the innovative practice of adding a 5% "Health and Wellness" service charge on guests' checks, with a card accompanying it explaining that the money goes into a fund to pay for health insurance for all of the staff, as well as bonuses for the cooks and dishwashers. The response from customers has been universally positive, as has been the response from staff, some of whom have never been able to afford health care before or have put off surgeries due to the expense. Happy and healthy employees committed to a place that cares about them—now that's a good business model.

Details: Biwa, 215 SE 9th Ave.. on the corner of SE 9th and Ash. 503-239-8830.

* * *

Draft horses, working breeds almost lost to the mechanization of farming, are experiencing a resurgence of interest, not just from preservationists and horse breeders, but from young farmers who are integrating them back onto the land. Seen as less expensive and easier on the land than trucks and tractors, they're also used as part of a rotational system of fertilizing and renewing pastures. Oregon is a hotbed of the return of plowing with teams of horses, and you can see these gorgeous creatures doing the work they were bred to do at Heiser Farms' Draft Horse and Mule Plowing Demonstration on Sat., Oct. 26. Some of the best teams in the area will be making an appearance and the farm store and farm activities will be running, so it should be a great day to get out in the country.

Details: Heiser Farms' Draft Horse and Mule Plowing Demonstration. Sat., Oct. 26, 10 am-2 pm; free. Heiser Farms, 21425 SE Grand Island Loop, Dayton. Map.

* * *

When Ben Meyer first started his restaurant-cum-beer parlor Grain & Gristle on NE Prescott, he wanted the menu and pricing to be modest and accessible to we average Joes and Janes. That ethic of accessibility has gone several steps further with his new establishment, Old Salt Marketplace, a combination restaurant, bar and butcher shop. Designed to serve the diverse communities and incomes of its neighborhood, think of it as Laurelhurst Market for the rest of us. Imagine delicious food, simple wood beam construction and affordable prices, and you've got the vibe. Along with its own farmers' market set up on Thursday evenings in the parking lot, it also boasts a cooking school, Good Keuken, owned by Blake van Roekel, formerly of Robert Reynolds' Chef Studio. Offering classes on a wide range of topics from urban foraging to butchering to baking holiday cookies, she's about to debut an innovative series of classes with top Portland chefs, all priced to sell.

Details: Good Keuken, 5031 NE 42nd Ave. 503-753-1655.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Norman Chronicles: Getting to Shepherd's Pie

When a friend offered me one of her sheep that was going to be slaughtered this fall, I couldn't have said yes fast enough. After all, it had been born in April in the pasture she rented from a neighbor and had been raised almost exclusively on pasture grass and hay, supplemented with a little grain.

Norman as a baby.

I'd first met the lamb, named Norman, when he was born into the small herd my friend had. His mother was a big ewe and there was every indication little Norman would be large, too, since he grew much faster than the other lambs born at the same time. Very tame and with melting brown eyes, he always stood to be scratched behind the ears while the other sheep crowded in to get the hay my friend, Kim, and I would throw out.

Kim had hoped to find a reasonably priced mobile slaughter unit to do the job, since Norman was more family pet than livestock and her husband, though he's a hunter who had done a lot of field dressing of deer and elk, was particularly fond of him and didn't want to have to do the kill. Unfortunately no one could come out to do it in a reasonable amount of time, and it was left to her husband to manage the task himself.

Norman grazing in his pasture with his pals in the group on the right.

I offered to help, since at six months old Norman was fully grown, weighing in at around 200 pounds, a lot for one person to manage in a steep, uneven pasture. When we went out to the pasture, a pile of grain was poured on the ground and Norman eagerly started munching away at our feet. A shot to the back of the head dropped him instantly—he literally didn't know what hit him—and the last few beats of his heart pumped the blood out of his body through a slit made in the artery in his neck.

Lest I sound like a cold-hearted so-and-so, for me the moment of the kill is always fraught. I always hope the end is quick, painless and without struggle, which, in the three kills I've attended, has been the case. All of the animals were killed in the pasture they were born and raised in, with (or by) people they trusted, not trucked hundreds of miles to a processing plant to die with strangers in a strange place. Which, from my perspective, makes their pasture a much more humane place to end their lives, both for the lack of stress to the animals and, because hormones are released into the muscles when animals experience stress,  how it affects the final quality of the meat.

Dry-aging in Kitchen Cru's walk-in.

Norman was gutted and loaded into a wagon, then hauled to a pine tree in an upper pasture near the house. We hung the now-100-or-so-pound carcass from a device called a gambrel, a ratcheted device that was slung over a branch, that could hoist the animal to make skinning easier. As Kim's husband worked, I held it steady and smelled the lamb-y aroma coming from the still-warm meat.

Melinda ready to rock.

Clad in a game bag, a giant stretchy sock to protect the carcass, then wrapped in a plastic sheet and bungied in the back of our truck, I drove down the freeway feeling a little conspicuous, but no one honked or pointed or, worse, called the cops. Norman was destined to hang for five days in the walk-in at Michael Madigan's Kitchen Cru, the only place, for various reasons from USDA regulations to the start of deer season, that I could find for a pasture-slaughtered lamb his size.

Grinding trim pieces for ground lamb.

Dry aging, or hanging, in a cool (below 40°) environment helps the natural enzymes in the meat start to break it down without spoiling it. As the cell structure breaks down, it causes the meat to become more tender and the flavor to become richer and more intense, according the John Neumeister of Cattail Creek Lamb, who was kind enough to advise a newbie on the particulars of dry aging.

Layering on the mashed potatoes for a classic shepherd's pie.

Now weighing about 75 to 80 pounds—dry-aging causes a carcass to lose moisture, approximately 15 to 20% of its weight—Norman traveled to Portland's Culinary Workshop where co-owner Melinda Casady and her array of butchering skills and tools made quick work of breaking down the carcass into its component parts. I chose to leave most in large, braisable chunks with a few roasts and chops, leaving the legs on the bone for special occasions, and hoping Dave can cure and smoke the breasts for bacon.

Packed in a cooler and transported to the freezer in our garage, Norman will be the subject of many toasts at many meals this winter. Thank you, Norman.

Shepherd's Pie with Ground Lamb

For the potatoes:
2 lbs. whole potatoes
4 Tbsp. butter or margarine
1/4 c. milk
 Salt to taste

For the filling:
2 lbs. ground lamb
1 onion, chopped into dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium carrots, diced
1 c. chicken broth
1 c. frozen peas
1 tsp. dried thyme or tarragon
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400°.

Peel the potatoes if you prefer, then chop into 1/2" dice. (I used Yukon golds so didn't bother peeling them.) Put in medium-sized pot, cover with water and bring to boil over high heat. When water boils, reduce to low and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 mins.

While potatoes cook, heat large sauté pan over medium heat, add ground lamb and brown. When browned, drain off all but 2 Tbsp. of fat. Add onion, garlic and carrots to lamb and sauté till tender. Add chicken broth, peas and herbs and bring to a simmer, cooking for a couple of minutes. Season to taste with salt, then remove from heat while you mash the potatoes.

When potatoes are tender, drain them and add butter or margarine and milk. Mash with potato masher until smooth and thoroughly combined. Salt to taste.

Put lamb mixture in 9 by 12-inch baking dish and smooth the surface. Drop mashed potatoes onto the top of the lamb in dollops, spreading the potatoes out with the back of a spoon or spatula to completely seal in the lamb. Place baking dish in oven and bake for 25 minutes until potatoes begin to brown. If desired, you can then briefly place the baking dish under the broiler to crisp the top further, but it's not necessary.

Read the other posts in The Norman Chronicles: Braising Saddles, Shanks and Hearts and Neck and Neck.

Read about a lamb butchering class I took from Melinda in Class Cut-Up. Thanks also to Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and Ron Muise of Fearann Kisha for their help and advice.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Fine Vintage? Only Time Will Tell

Harvest 2013 is winding down. The last of the grapes are picked and heading into the wineries to be sorted, crushed and made into…well, whatever the winemakers decide they'll be. This photo of the final white grapes from the Wirtz vineyard is by my friend Clare Carver of Big Table Farm.

Of this vintage, she said, "We are in the final weeks of harvest now. It has been a 'tough harvest,' not for lack of quality in the fruit, only because it hit hard and fast and required quick and flexible movements on the part of the whole team in the winery and the picking crews.

"Fruit had to be picked and processed at a moment's notice, as mother nature was particularly fickle this year. Though with all that I think the wines will be beautiful and elegant," she wrote, then added the usual winemaker's caution, "but of course only time will tell."

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Kevin Gibson Gets a Place of His Own!

I don't normally write about the latest-and-greatest restaurant news, since there are other places that do that job and do it well (Eater, Portland Monthly, Portland Food & Drink, et al.). But there was one piece of news today that deserves trumpeting here, and that is word that Kevin Gibson, co-owner and former chef at Castagna and the magician behind the back-to-basics Evoe—under Gibson's hand the best restaurant in Portland according to GoodStuffNW—is soon to open his own place.


According to Eater's Erin DeJesus, it'll be located in the former June restaurant space on East Burnside, undergoing a slight makeover before a targeted November opening. With Gibson's longstanding relationships with local farmers and a well-honed knowledge of how to make ingredients shine with the least amount of fussiness, this is going to be one of those places that defines local eating. Can't wait!

Read a profile of Gibson I wrote for NW Palate magazine.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Honey Cookbook Gives Recipes and Insights into Bees

"Throughout my childhood, happiness was honey for breakfast. And when oatmeal wasn't on the menu I slurped at honey combined with melted butter dripping from the nooks and crannies on a toasted English muffin and washed it down with honey-sweetened hot tea diluted with milk." - Marie Simmons, "Taste of Honey"

Marie Simmons, author of more than 20 books on subjects like figs, rice, eggs and muffins, said the best part of writing her latest book, "Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking with 40 Varietals," wasn't getting to try dozens of different types from all over the world. It was learning about the insects that produce it and how they turn the nectar from flowers into this ubiquitous sweetener.

A fan of honey for as long as she can remember, before writing the book she already had a collection of six or seven different honeys. During her research, those few jars became what she now calls a "library" of more than 100 jars that she keeps alphabetized on shelves in her Eugene garage.

Read the rest of the article and get the recipes in "Oregon cookbook author Marie Simmons delves deep into honey."

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Still Life, Transylvania

My friend Linda is traveling in Transylvania. She sent this photo and said "this is fresh sheep's cheese ready to brine. Just in from the dairy."

See Linda's other photo from her travels.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Method to My Madness

I go a little crazy this time of year. I feel the chill in the air, hear the leaves crunching underfoot and piling a little deeper every day, and it makes me feel like grabbing what little is left of summer and saving it for the cold, damp days to come. Especially when I hear that Anthony and Carol at Ayers Creek Farm are starting to bring in their astiana tomatoes.

For the last three years I've roasted and grilled dozens of pounds of them, let them cool, then bagged them in zip-lock freezer bags and tossed them in the freezer. The roasting concentrates their already deep flavor, and using them in a pasta sauce or for braising a pot roast is like adding the taste of a late summer day to whatever I'm cooking.

The method is simple, the time spent well worth it. And if you make enough, it'll make summer last till next summer comes around again.

Roasted Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 400°. Chop tomatoes into large chunks, about 2" across. Place in shallow roasting pan and place the pan on a rack in the middle of the oven. Roast for one hour or until tomatoes are tender and some are starting to brown on the edges.

Scoop from pan into large mixing bowl and allow to cool. Remove skins if you want (they should just slip off), then ladle into quart freezer bags. Freeze and use all winter!

For grilling method, see Tomatoes Galore.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Into the Woods with Jack

I heard my e-mail inbox ping with an incoming message.

The subject line: "Sharoooooms!!!" It was from one of my favorite people, Jack Czarnecki, Oregon's master of fungi and maker of truffle oil. He was inviting me along to forage mushrooms with two of his most eagle-eyed compatriots, Dick, whom I'd met on a previous expedition, and Chris, who, like Dick, is a retired teacher. I've been on a few expeditions with Jack gathering these denizens of the forest deep, and it is always an educational, entertaining and thoroughly exhausting experience, since he moves like a bear up and down hills, tirelessly seeking his quarry.

First stop, Joe's Donuts.

Our quest this time was for matsutake mushrooms, highly sought-after for their distinctly spicy, sweet aroma. Jack said he loves them for the persistence of their flavor when cooked, unlike many mushrooms that tend to lose the intensity of their flavor when combined with other ingredients. We'd also be picking up white chanterelles, which flush in the same locations as the matsutakes. Both would be featured on upcoming menus at the Joel Palmer House, where Jack's son Chris has taken the helm, allowing his father to 'shroom at will.

Find the five matsutakes.

Since we were heading up on the flanks of Mt. Hood to various hunting grounds that he and his pals had explored before, we met up at Joe's Donut Shop in Sandy, a requisite stop to ask Wy'east's blessing for the hunt and to plot the day's traverse of the mountain. After consuming coffee and several of Joe's namesake pastries (I particularly liked the applesauce, though they've now got pumpkin on the list), we headed out, turning off onto a series of Forest Service roads to the first in a series of stops.

Out in the open.

Though there were jokes about blindfolds, Jack knows I'm completely befuddled once we get off the main highway. Plus the fact that he knows the narrow, rutted roads like the back of his hand and drives them accordingly. In the car he described the matsutake and its habits like it was a member of the family, complete with tales of chance meetings and great hunts past.

But once we stopped the car and got out, he was all business. He handed me a long-bladed knife, scoffing at the Swiss Army knife I'd brought as insufficient to dig out the deeply rooted matsutake. Since I'd never foraged for this particular mushroom, and the fact that it can at first look like a number of deadly amanita mushrooms, he took pains to show me how to properly identify it.

The telltale dusty root.

The matsutake, like many fungi that grow in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, are found in areas where there is deep, moist duff from the fir trees. Sometimes they're sticking up from the surface, but most often you'll spot one barely emerging from under a hat of fir needles, or even still beneath the surface, only given away by an oddly placed hump on the forest floor. The good news is, they tend to erupt in clumps, so once you see one breaking the surface it's good to scan the area for any cracks or clumps that indicate other matsus nearby.

Jack spotted some almost instantly, and said it was important to get the whole mushroom out, root and all. That's because the most important indicator of the matsutake is at the root end, where it will have an ashy, grey dust clinging to it. The second indicator is the sharply defined gills under the cap, which emit the distinctly spicy, sweet aroma this mushroom is known for.

A happy man.

After this lesson, Jack let me go off on my own, though I always kept in sight of one of the veteran foragers, not only because they had walkie-talkies, but because they always knew how to get back to the car, a crucial skill when you're wandering around in the wilderness. Fortified by Heidi's forager's lunch (huge cold-cut, cheese and onion on rye sandwiches and her signature giant chocolate chip cookies), and after making several stops that filled up the back of the Truffle-Mobile, Jack's trusty Subaru wagon, we headed back to town.

As big as my head!

The guys were particularly impressed by my find of not just one, but three huge cauliflower mushrooms (ahem), in addition to a not-too-shabby-for-a-beginner matsutake and chanterelle take. Summing up over the required dinner at SE Powell's Om Seafood—mushroomers are apparently big on talismans in the form of restaurants—Jack said that in all his years in Oregon, going on two decades now, this may be the best year he's seen for mushrooms of all sorts. It was theorized to be some combination of warm-but-not-too-hot days followed by rain but not-too-much rain (it's like talking to vineyard people) that caused the crazy flush of all kinds of hot mycorrhizal action.

Whatever the reason, it was a thrilling day, not only because of the amount of mushrooms taken, but because I got to be one of Jack's select crew, a compliment of the highest order. Thanks, Jack!