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billy goat grilled

By on Sep 22, 2013 in craft, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Behold a sizzling rack of goat ribs. Lovingly marinated in olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs, licked by flames until the surface becomes that beautiful crusty brown that causes an instant salivation for those of us in the human omnivore sect. It does not, by any stretch, taste like chicken. This is not about a recipe for goat ribs.   On a warm dry day on a mesa in Colorado, surrounded by scrub brush and mountain vistas, I was for the first time in my life brought directly into contact with knowing where my meat came from.   Before the ribs arrived on my grill, they were a part of a goat. That seems like a redundant piece of information. Of course ribs came from an animal. But this is the first time I met the animal. This was a goat owned by Ron and Pam Brown, a lovely rancher couple who were generous enough to let me watch the process and carefully explain everything they were doing. These folks raise almost all their own food, down to the meat. It is not some Luddite or hippie commune sort of thing. It is simply the way things used to be done and they still just do, except Pam wields a smartphone from the saddle of her horse. Near the end of the process Ron cut the ribs off and generously gave them to us so we could try them. He said he did not like them as much as pig ribs, but we had to try goat, roasted low and slow. Pam took the rest of the edible parts of the goat, rubbed them with a savory bit of seasoning she calls “Pig Paste,” then slow roasted them until the meat just falls apart, then froze it in small packages for the future. Before the goat was slow roasted into delicious oblivion, the goat hung suspended from a bar on a forklift so they could easily butcher the animal. A faint iron tang of blood hung about from the fresh slaughter, but no other scent (short of the wide open air and juniper lurking about.) Ron and Pam were quickly moving around the goat, cutting it up, removing the insides, with Ron explaining the best process for opening up the body cavity to remove the organs. Some choice bits of liver and heart were set aside for the cats. Pam invited me to pick up and join in with one of the sharp knives. “Don’t be afraid, join on in!” I held tightly to my camera and just kept watching. Goats are pretty small anyway, and I am the definition of inexperience when it comes to butchering anything. Short of chopping up a chicken in the kitchen. I don’t think that counts. My uncle Gene had come along for moral support (I am the city slicker of the family, no one was really sure how well I would deal with this, including me.) He helped to steady the bar the goat was hanging on so Ron could more easily work, and to remove the skin once it was loose enough to come off. Ron was showing me the best places to start cutting to remove it, and explained that it was best to do it as quickly as possible, since it was easier when it was fresh. This may sound strange, but when the skin is on, I kept seeing the animal. With the skin gone, I saw the food. Gene is a very experienced hunter (one of the reasons, along with my Grandma, that I grew up having venison, and also the reason I have had antelope meatloaf,) and he and Ron were discussing the dressing of game in the field. The way they were dressing this goat, was much cleaner than trying to field dress a deer out in the mud. They talked a little about slaughterhouses and those big commercial farms where cows are raised in pens. My uncle had told me about the unbelievable stench of CAFOs years ago, and in recent years I have driven by them a few times and experienced it for myself. It smells wrong. And then Ron said something that caught my attention.   “I worked in a commercial slaughterhouse for a year and a half, and there was a rendering plant out back. Every time I smell meat in the supermarket, it smells like that rendering plant.”   In a word… ew. Meat that doesn’t smell like meat, but the process of separating fat and occasionally blood, fur, and feathers from the rest. Some of this is for stuff like lard, but some of it is for… other things. I have read that some rendering plants have to be pretty remote because the stench is so bad. And that is what Ron smells when he smells supermarket meat. To be fair, I didn’t ask him to clarify the smell. It could have just been the scent of lard. But the way he said it, it did not sound pleasant. It is one of the many reasons they grow and raise almost all their own food. They really do know where it is coming from. Before Pam pulled in with the forklift to hoist the goat so it could be cleanly dressed, it was time to kill the goat. It seems harsh to keep saying “kill,” but if...

evil truffle genius

By on Aug 5, 2013 in dessert, process, sustainability | 4 comments

Candy. Who doesn’t like candy? We have a primeval urge to eat sugar. At its most base form, it brings us energy. At a more complex level, it can bring us joy. Remember being a kid? That moment when your tongue hit a sweet treat? A bite of melty chocolate? A hard sugary candy nubbin? Even bad candy was still pretty good. And as adults, we still love candy, but in some cases… the flatly sugary smack of an artificially flavored sugar eaten by dipping another hard sugary stick into it no longer holds any allure. The artificial flavors have become tinny to our palate, and I know I for one can no longer take the insane sugar hit of my youth. These days I tend to seek out more nuanced sweets, things that hit me in small, deeply complex little doses. Thank the gods for local confectioner, Katherine Anne Confections. I was in a local coffee shop recently and noticed they were selling some of Katherine Anne’s truffles.The young woman behind the cash register saw me ogling them and said “oh yes, those are amazing. That woman is an evil truffle genius.” Fig balsamic. Bourbon Cherry. Creme de Menthe. Java. Blueberry Gin. Raspberry St. Germain. Strawberry Earl Grey. Toasted Coconut Rum. Blackberry Fennel. Goat Cheese Walnut. Apricot Basil. Yes, these are all truffle flavors.  And that is just the truffles. There are also caramels, creamily succulent, causing uncontrollable eye rolls of joy as you slowly chew, rolling every last bit of flavor about your tongue. And the marshmallows. OH the marshmallows. For those of you who have only had marshmallows from the store, dry and shoved full of air, you have not lived until you have had a handmade marshmallow. The truffle genius extends to a world of marshmallows delicately flavored by cinnamon, rose water, and in a particularly inspired summer treat, a shandy marshmallow (using local Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale and lemon juice.) So I dare say that young woman and her declaration of Katherine Anne as “an evil truffle genius” was dead on. Except for the part where Katherine Anne herself does not actually appear to be evil. To begin with, she is a fellow Wisconsinite by birth, and a lover of Star Trek (except way more hardcore than I, having read all the books,) so of course I liked her immediately. Also, how many high end confectioners have you met that stroll in with a fresh green streak in their hair, and discussions in the shop involve shock that one of the women there has never seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? She has been in business for many a year now, and if you are a lucky, lucky person you have encountered her goods at many a local farmer’s market or coffee shop or cafe.  Or perhaps someone who loves you has sent you some from her online store (because obviously they love you if you get these delectable sweets.) And now, for those of us in Chicago, she has opened a small storefront, a charming little spot where curly glass jars and gilded plates proffer up a tantalizing array of the truffles and caramels of the season. I even spied a stack of s’mores, a pillowy homemade marshmallow betwixt graham crackers and cloaked in dark chocolate. A mere glimpse of it made me blush. They were kind enough to let me come in on a production day, where a small crew whirled around the small production kitchen (which you can totally see if you stop by their shop.) Ingredients were weighed, stirred, tempered, rolled, dipped, and sprinkled, all to a host of music which may or may not have been boy bands of the 80s. There was a never-ending succession of beeps coming from the myriad timers sticking to the refrigerator. I am still not sure how they managed to track which timer indicated what, as they all sounded exactly the same, and yet things whirred along. In the few hours I was there, I saw them whip up two large batches of marshmallows, dip hundreds of truffles, create another truffle filling, and then I was distracted by the seductive sight of a fresh round of caramel being poured out. Not just any caramel. This was caramel infused with orange and thyme. And if I was keeping track correctly, walnuts were added. For all the sugar rolling around, there was not a drop of corn syrup. Katherine Anne is dedicated to using all-natural ingredients, and locally sourced when she can. Obviously, no one is growing cacao beans in Illinois, but we do have cows who provide the cream, and bees who help out with all that honey. The cherry bourbon truffle uses bourbon whiskey from Few Distillery, who I visited earlier this month. If she can get something local, she will. This is something I am finding more and more as I meet more folks in the craft food industry in Chicago, be it chocolate or booze. Everyone seems to be very supportive of everyone else, and always willing to lend a hand, whether it be working with farmers to get local ingredients (hooray for keeping the local economy rolling!) or loaning a few bottlecaps (which is a story for another day, since this is ultimately about this candy store.) I am sure somewhere out there enmity exists, maybe two food...

of meaty matters

By on Jun 23, 2013 in process, sustainability | 0 comments

L et’s start at the beginning. I am not a vegetarian. To all of my friends who are vegetarians (and you vegans as well,) I will say… this entry is not for you. I absolutely respect your viewpoints, but still… I am not a vegetarian. I am also not an absolute carnivore as well, slavering at the altar of bacon (although I do like bacon.) I try very hard to be a conscious omnivore, trying to be aware of not only where my meat comes from, but also my consumption levels. I do not actually subscribe to the theory that a meal without meat is not a meal. I could keep rolling on in my reasoning about being an omnivore rather than a vegetarian, on the subject of elitism perceived and real in the organic food movement, but that, dear reader, would take a whole other entry. Possibly a book. And I’ve read a lot of books already out there about these very subjects. So today… this is not about me cooking meat. This is a new experiment. Photographing process. Knowing where my food is coming from. I was raised in Wisconsin, which means I grew up seeing farms where you actually saw cows grazing out in the fields. The smell of manure wafting off the fields was not that bad. This is what I thought was normal. Of course this is where our food comes from! Happy cows were not from California, they were from Wisconsin, dammit! It seemed so natural! In my 20s I started learning more about our industrial food complex, and the specter of the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Again, this could be another long entry, but suffice to say if you have ever driven by one of these, the stench is unbearable, the conditions horrific, and when I drove by several earlier this year on a road trip, I could not help but think of how far away the cows munching on green grass with the faint sweet tang of manure scenting the air were. And if I was going to eat a cow, I wanted the cow of my youth. Fortunately, I am far from the only person who thinks like this. Enter Rob Levitt. Rob Levitt is co-founder (along with his wife Allie) of the Butcher & Larder, an honest to god butcher shop here in Chicago that focuses on locally sourced, sustainably grown meat (theirs comes from only a few local farms that they have personal relationships with.) The initial slaughter and cleaning are done before the meat arrives at the shop; the final act of butchering is done here. Rob was kind enough to let me come in one day to hang out with my camera to photograph some of their process. If I was a better journalist, I would have pried far more and asked many more questions, but I’m not. I like to observe, just taking it all in. Rob and another new butcher to the shop, Jimmy, were more than happy to explain to me what they were doing and showing me the various cuts, explaining the various reasoning behind why they were cutting up the cow (and pig) just so, and they really do go from nose to tail. They truly value educating their customers beyond “hey, this is a steak.” And they truly respect the meat. I got there at 11 AM, just as the first delivery of the day was coming in. It was a cow, grass fed and grain finished, that had been dry-aging for 14 days, which apparently mellows the flavor of the meat and makes it more tender. The enormity of the animal, even in cut into sections, is apparent. At one point Rob flipped a part of the rib cage area, and I could not help but think of the ribs that get served to Fred in the opening titles to “The Flintstones”. Jimmy, who was newer to this, was carefully working on the shoulder area, explaining how there were so many more cuts of meat than people realized, particularly in this tricky area of the cow. He was carefully cutting out the neck area, exposing one a tender cut of beef on par with the more familiar tenderloin. If memory serves, it is the palerol. I bought the very cut I saw him take apart and grilled it hot and fast with a little salt. Not having a grill, I had to beg a friend for the use of theirs (with the promise of sharing the meat, of course,) and so we uncorked a good bottle of red wine, sat out in the glorious summer breeze, and were swiftly reduced to primal grunts of contentment while slowly savoring the tenderness speared on the ends of our forks. Jimmy pointed out that the cow as it was brought in probably weighed over 700 lbs., but by the time they were done cutting it up, it would yield 350 lbs. of meat. And trust me, these folks do not let a scrap that can be used go to waste. They even sell the coveted marrow. The trimmings that were edible but not salable as larger cuts were carefully stowed away so when someone walked in looking for hamburger, they could take the trimmings and grind them fresh, right there. When Rob was working on a pig, he pointed out the...