Replete Summer

Open fire steaks.

Every year as fall rolls around I look back on the previous three months and mentally tick off all of the things that I should have taken the opportunity to do that I can not do the other nine months of the year here in northwestern Pennsylvania.  I usually feel like I somehow squandered the daily fifteen hours of light and warmth and should have had more hikes, canoe trips, and picnics or sat out on the deck reading until dusk more often than I managed.  I lament not using all of the charcoal I bought in May and realize that I didn’t grill my own hamburger once all summer.  Despite all of my efforts and planning every year, just as soon as I am biting into a Memorial Day hot dog I blink and I am sadly scraping up the last bite of Labor Day baked beans.

Not this year.  No, no, no. As I sit and reflect upon this summer the events of June seem like a lifetime ago.  This summer, there was no opportunity for regret… or rest, or a garden, or any lawn care at all for that matter.  Now that I am finally writing, I realize that I should have taken notes along the way. (To further punctuate this point, I have been writing and rewriting this post for at least three weeks.)  To counteract my typical last minute panic of late August cramming, I packed the months of the summer of 2012 chock full of  travel and events that left me begging for a moment to squander catching my breath and collecting my thoughts. All told, it was worth it.

31 years of life on this island Earth I had restricted myself to traveling by land and managed to develop a healthy fear of flying for no reason other than unfamiliarity.  Never going further than a two days drive from home I had happily been able to get by with packing up a vehicle and committing to the great American tradition of a road trip. Although I am confident that I could have spent my lifetime exploring my 600 mile radius and be absolutely content in its wonders, it was fortuitous that events  finally occurred that forced me into the air and lands beyond.  A good friend from college and native Californian may recall my swearing off visiting his home turf simply because I didn’t want to be distracted.  I had spent time on the East Coast, and I liked it enough that I did not want to risk a visit to the West Coast on the off chance that I would like it it as well, and would it therefore divide my focus.  I love NY…I don’t want to love SF now too damn it!

Yet,my trip to San Francisco was everything that I expected it yo be.  I had an entirely new to me Japanese dish, got to visit one of my favorite breweries, found a new brewery, ate In-n-Out Burger, had a cup of coffee that had the complexity of a fine wine, ate what was hands down the best wedding meal I had ever had, all the while seeing a part of the country that was completely new to me.  It was a great trip and was everything that I feared it would be as I now long to go back.

The beef we used in our Shabu Shabu. The menu said “Kobe”, I knew better, but this was hands down the most delicate beef I have ever eaten.

Also from the Shabu Shabu. If veg could always be this exciting…

Apparently my photographer was being polite during dinner as I could not find any photos of this meal. All I have is this cell phone shot of part of the menu. Done “family style”,the meal came in courses and was shared around the table. Hanger steak! It was all I ever wanted.

As soon as I got back from San Francisco I made my annual Jolly July 3rd pork shoulder and immediately took a three day canoeing/camping trip with a group of guys on the Allegheny Reservoir.  Typically, this is not a situation that brings visions of culinary delights to most folks minds.  I, however, was well aware of the provocative powers that being in the wilderness and extra physical exertion can impart upon the palette. Every meal on a trip like that, whether made around a campfire or thrown together on the fly while traveling, is highly anticipated and fulfilling…and, once that effect had grown tiresome and bland, everything tasted all the better once I got home.

A couple weeks later it was back to the air as I accompanied some of the youth from my church to their national gathering in, of all places, New Orleans.  I had been there once before for my own youth gathering and, as has been been mentioned before, it somewhat sparked my fascination with the culinary world.  It did not disappoint. Even though it had been 15 years since I  had laid eyes on the place, I hit the streets with a comfortable familiarity that was obtained from the shear weight of that first encounter compounded with years of interest of reading and seeing about other things New Orleans is famous for.  Creole, gumbo, biegnets, red beans, bread pudding,  grits, muffuletta, fried chicken, witnessing a planned building demolition, and a return trip to Emeril Laggasse’s NOLA fulfilled the requirements for what I normally would call a good summer.

My plate from NOLA. Pork Cheek Po Boy. I think this image sums it up.

The next weekend involved another wedding feast but the weekend after that I was invited to participate in a turkey barbecue that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. A man I have come to respect and admire over the past couple of years showed me first hand how he roasts almost 150 pounds of turkey over a charcoal fire every year.  With a good  support team, he is able to handle all of the sides to go with it as the cooking fire is utilized for big pans of potatoes and a propane burner boils water for dozens of ears of corn.  This was my kind of meal to prepare. Enough meat, potato and veg for the masses, and then everything else that people bring along fills in the gaps.

IA glimpse inside the roaster which consisted of two other spits like this one.

Another trip into the woods the next week allowed me to experience some more wild cooking sensations.  I cooked some open fire steaks and potatoes for one dinner and broke in a new cast iron camp stove with some chicken and dumplings.  On this trip I came to realize that one of my favorite things is cooking bacon over an open fire.  Already smoky pig fat, coupled with the heat and smoke of a campfire…and a cup of coffee, might just be the perfect start of any given day.

Perfect breakfast griddle setup.

The final days of summer brought with them an event that I had not experienced in some years but I hope becomes a yearly tradition now.  Pig Roast.  All of my favorite bits of summer, rolled up into one day. All-day-meat, smoke, beer, friends and other people’s culinary creations. In a pinch, in coming years, this event could make up for a whole summer of 12 hour work days coupled with record rain fall.

Getting the final temps.

But yet, as I am getting ready to finish writing my post on the passing of summer there is snow in the five day forecast. I suddenly find myself lamenting the missed days of fall and idolising my own mental autumn utopia.  Caught up in my own joy of having throttled all of the living life out of summer, I turned my back just long enough to have autumn slip past me unexpectedly.  As I start to dwell on the things I had planned to do but didn’t, I think of how I spent the last five weeks.  I wasn’t bored.  A lot of memorable things were accomplished.  One happening was planned, with all the familiar weight of excitement and anticipation, but others were impulsive and in-the-moment, and I realize that it didn’t matter.  A lot of what I felt as this summer’s awesomeness came from my excitement and expectations for all that I had planned…just the opposite of ruining a summer by dwelling on regret and wondering what could have been.  In the end, I am reminded that I can appreciate everything that the season offers in any given moment.  Whether it be meticulously planned out or stumbled upon with a bit of serendipity…I just have to stop long enough to recognize it.

All I know though, next summer, will be legendary.


Taking Back Bread

No-Knead Home Baked Bread

As I have mentioned before, there where a couple moments in my life that triggered my awareness to a brighter, better, and tastier world.  One of the first things I realized in my newly awakened state is that the bread that I ate every day growing up was awful  bad …not bread.  It’s not that sliced and bagged grocery store bread is unpleasant in its own right, it is that it has become its own creature that is far removed from the thing that inspired it.  If you were to go into a bakery, I am fairly certain that the last thing on your mind would be to find blandest, lightest, pillowiest loaf that, without much effort, you will be able to squeeze and roll into a dense little bland bouncy ball.  I guess I am not entirely sure what people had to go through prior to the advent of sliced bread, but I struggle to see how it has become the high water mark in time that great things are measured against.

At some point bread became industrialized, and once that happened people stopped using their ovens and stopped using their local baker.  (An interesting look back at it all can be found in this article from The Chronicle).  Bread became cheaper and more shelf stable and up until the 1960’s became the cornerstone of everyone’s diet accounting for up to 30% of everyone’s caloric intake.  What I imagined to be hours of weekly labor suddenly became just an item on a shopping list.  Since then, no one food source accounts for the majority of caloric intake in our diets, but everyone has forgotten how to make a decent loaf of bread and unless you are graced with a neighborhood bakery or upscale grocery store, you are stuck with a choice of white or wheat and if you are lucky, rye.  I say it is high time to take back home made bread!

Well, I actually said it several years ago.  And not to any sort of audience.  There was no exclamation point and truth be told, I said it to myself quietly inside my head.  I was fed up with my local bread options.  The one decent grocery store bakery was shaping its white bread recipe into various bread-like shapes and taking them out of the oven just before their crusts started to brown.  Baguettes, Italian loaves and round loaves on the outside, but Wonder bread through and through.  I knew I could do a better job myself.  All I needed to do was some research and practice.  But before I was practical, I was a dreamer.  I imagined myself getting into the weekly routine of handling dough and shaping it into classic crusty loaves.  I imagined nurturing and keeping a starter for sourdough that I could pass down to my grandchildren.  I imagined the smells and the warmth, I even imagined the forearm strength that I would develop from handling all that dough.  It was going to be awesome!

The first thing I did was get my research material, The Bread Bible.  It was the perfect start.  Detailed and thorough,  it covered every variety of topic and answered all the questions I would have.   And there it sat, just like my regular Bible, too dense and heavy for a casual undertaking.  Like so many other hobbies and good intentions I just never took the time.  I dabbled in it here and there but always ended up taking the easy way out and buying something mediocre at the store.  A couple years ago I recommitted and was gifted a baking stone from a co-worker who was privy to my diatribes on bread but my initiative again fell short.  It was just too convenient to pick something up at the store that required zero prior commitment.

Then, reddit.com led me to this post (possible language and content warning, no one controls what goes on in there.)  Within that post I found this recipe and this video.  The recipe is from a book titled Artisan Bread in five Minutes a Day  and the video is of Mark Bittman of The New York Times “discovering” baker Jim Lahey and his no-knead bread.  The recipes are similar and I am not sure who came up with it, (I am sure there are others) perhaps I should consult the bible to find the source.  All I am saying is that I am not responsible for the recipes and do not take any credit for them, but I am going to use them, and tell you what I think.

First off, I am not going to just cut an paste the recipes, so here is the link to the No-Knead Artisan Bread.

It takes minutes to pull together.  In fact,the longest part of the first step is just retrieving the ingredients and measuring them.

From this…

Water, salt, yeast, and flour.

…to this, takes maybe a minute.  Seriously, I almost got out a stopwatch just to time it.  All you need to do is incorporate all of the flour into the water and cover it and let it sit.

Also water, salt, yeast, and flour.

This is where the best part of this recipe comes into play.  After you let it rise you can store the dough until you are ready to use it.  An hour and a half before you want fresh baked bread, break off a piece and form your loaf, then let it rest.

With twenty minutes of resting left, get your oven setup and start preheating.  The recipe says to use a baking stone and roasting pan but I found that there is some flexibility.  I used a cake pan for the water and in addition to the stone I successfully used a pyrex casserole dish and a cast iron frying pan.  I think the key is using something dense that holds heat, so, I would not try just a regular baking sheet.  The water pan is important because, if you watched the video, humidity affects the baking of the dough.  Again with more research I could figure out exactly what that affect is, but for now all that is important is that it works.

Right before you put the dough in the oven add some flair.  Dust with flour and create slashes in the top with a serrated knife.  I also put on a kettle of water to heat up and add to the pan at the same time the dough goes into the oven.

After 30 minutes the crust is dark brown and ready to come out. All three of my loaves, made on different baking surfaces, came out the same way so don’t be discouraged if you do not have a stone. In addition, I also made the recipe in the video and got a great looking round loaf. It couldn’t be easier. Once you have the dough made you can have fresh made bread in about an hour and half. Not an hour and a half of work but an hour and a half of doing whatever else you need to do while the dough rests or bakes.

Now that it is said and done, I am curious why this has been a mystery until now.  It is pure and simple in its preparation and its ingredients.  Maybe I missed the boat somewhere along the way and everyone is making this recipe already and this post has been a waste of time.  If that is the case then I am mad at everyone for not letting me in on this earlier.  If not, then enjoy! And I expect to see a lot more fresh baked loaves at dinner parties this year.

Round loaf from the video and the three loaves from the no-knead recipe.


Hiatus Recap

It has been a while since I have written a post and the over last couple of weeks leading up to this update I have considered the reasons why.  I realized that it wasn’t due to a shortage of topics but more due to the feeling that I was rehashing the same main idea about food that everyone else with a food blog was:  good food is awesome and I like it. What was I offering that was unique or worthwhile?  Then I realized that there was a second reason I stopped.  Not all food is good food.  Some of it is bad.  Really bad.  I was finding myself wanting to start doing some critiques of things and could not think of how without being mean.  In the end I lost my nerve and just stopped thinking about it and in turn stopped writing.

What did we miss:  I set out on an epic journey to find a pork shoulder with its skin intact, and failed.  There was a week of cooking for a group on vacation.  Mead was made multiple times.  A buddy of mine and I dug a hole in the backyard, lined it with brick, filled it with fire, removed the fire, refilled the hole with about $500 worth of seafood and vegetables and then covered it with sand.   At one point I think I made the best burger I’ve ever had and it involved grilling bacon.  In the fall I started hunting and learned a bit about providing for myself and processing meat.  Many pizzas were grilled.  A rooster found its way into a classic coq au vin.  I got engaged and began to think about what that means culinarily.  I ate at good restaurants and had wonderful meals and a few woefully disappointing ones.  I am sure I am missing things.

I must say though, the peak of my time away from writing came when we dug up all of that food from the hole.  My buddy Jake helped me dream up the day.  A New England Style clam bake.  Not a stove top boil adaptation, but an honest to God, hot pit in the ground bake.  He had Xeroxed two pages of a recipe out of book that included a case of beer and had no trouble convincing me that it was a good idea.  Really, how hard could it be?  A hole in my tiny Oil City backyard is just as good as some hole on a beach.  Seafood in NW Pennsylvania is no longer unheard of thanks to Wholey’s.  We had no experience in pit cooking and marginal experience cooking seafood.  In short, we had no idea what we were doing, but we did it anyway.

Of course there were some hiccups, but I believe the day turned out to be exactly what we wanted.  A memorable summer event was created around good food, good drink, and good people.  Normally, big summer meals happen in some other manner and food is picked based on ease of preparation. “Well, it’s a holiday/birthday/parent day, we should all get together, what are we going to eat?” is a familiar last-minute refrain.  As a result my experience with most summer get together menus center on hamburger and hot dogs and the dichotomy of mayonnaise salads.  A clam bake, on the other hand, made for something a bit different.  The day was a celebration of food, friends, and the slow pace that a summer day allows, yet we all take for granted.  Everyone had a chance to lend a hand and be a part of the process or just sit back and enjoy a drink and conversation.  The food came out in stages and caused the meal to be enjoyed over hours instead of minutes.  That wasn’t exactly planned, and it kind of stressed me out, but in the end it proved serendipitous and added to the evening and made it all the more memorable.  Jake is fond of what I believe is a Yvon Chouinard quote, and it is applicable to that day “The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when adventure starts.”  Setting out on a well planned nature walk isn’t adventure, that Oil City clam bake was adventure.

So, as this mild, albeit grey winter starts to brighten up I am reminded of the days ahead.  Seems odd to be ‘reminded of the future’ but that is the only way to describe that refreshing feeling that there are good times ahead.  I never liked the phrase “the good old days” when people sullenly reflect on happy experiences as if it were a bizarre set of circumstances that caused them and such a planetary alignment will never occur again.  The good days are here now, and they happen when we do something new and out of our comfort zone that protects us from things going awry.  I, for one, aim to make the most of them and not cut corners when I can help it.  I look forward to more long, memorable, imperfect days ahead and taking the time to write about them.

 

Unfortunately my photographer was on hiatus at the time too (she sent her camera to the bottom of a lake), and I have no image to leave here.


Oven Roasted Chicken Showdown

A couple of months ago I saw the No Reservations “Techniques Special” episode.  As many of you know I thoroughly enjoy both the show and its host, Anthony Bourdain.  Obviously the show is enjoyed by many viewers and Tony has made quite a name for himself with both it and his writing.  While typical episodes show Tony enjoying the gastronomic offerings of specific locales, this episode offered basic simple cooking techniques that he felt everyone watching should master.

Several interesting things were presented in the show, but I was most struck by Thomas Keller taking a chicken, putting it in a sauté pan, putting sauté pan/chicken combo in a hellfire hot oven, and then removing golden roasted perfection 45 minutes later.  All he did was truss and salt that bird and exposed it to heat!  That was it! It takes me no less than two days to make a chicken and he had his hands dirty for maybe a minute and a half.  Watch for yourself here:

Now, I am assuming that most who are reading this have either cooked a chicken or have eaten a chicken that someone else has cooked.  From that experience, I am also assuming that you were left thinking that cooking a chicken was a little more involved than what Mr. Keller presented here.  Many many things went through my own head after watching this.  This technique was counter to so many things that I do to cook poultry but at the same time I was drawn to its simplicity and pure…how shall I say…chickeness.

I personally know people who do not like chicken or view chicken as boring.  To them, chicken is dried out economy fare that is commonplace at banquets and weddings in bulk. “Tastes like chicken” is never said with reverence.  Personally, I enjoy the taste of chicken and how well it can go with so many things, but in response to other people’s feelings of indifference towards chicken, I have gravitated towards a more involved cooking method that involves a bit more preparation but guarantees a moist flavorful dish.  It started with a Thanksgiving turkey (a bird even more detested by some) several years ago when I learned about brining from watching Alton Brown, but I now use several combinations of things I have learned to ensure that my bird will be moist and flavorful.  At the center, though, is brining and I now have a pretty set recipe for the brine that typically involves stock (I often make my own for it), fruit juice or sugar, salt and Old Bay seasoning. The brine gets made a couple days before dinner, the bird goes into the cold brine the day before, and just prior to oven time the bird gets rinsed, toweled off, and is given a luxurious massage with butter, garlic and herbs. I do not have a handy dandy video highlighting this process, but I can assure you that it would not be less than five minutes long.

It is, of course, always good to experiment and evolve with all things in life and not get set in your ways, even when you think you’ve got the best thing going. So, in this spirit, I bought two $3 chickens and set out to compare Thomas Keller’s roast chicken to my own. I tried his out first.

The first thing I realized is that Thomas Keller does not use the same chickens that I do. Well, I think I could even tell that from watching the video but I was sure once I started handling mine. I have never ever been told that it was a good idea to let your poultry get to room temperature before you cook it but I am guessing that high quality fresh chicken’s do not have the same problems that our grocery store chickens do. Also note how Thomas wasn’t shy about getting that pepper mill right up inside his chicken, that was either his chicken-only mill or this man has no fear of cross contamination. I was still a little cautious and only let my chicken get up to 50 degrees, which any winter time guest to my house knows is room temperature. Another sign of the quality of my chicken was discovered after I dug out its wishbone. I took that extra step, only to find that at some point, alive or dead, this chicken suffered a serious shoulder injury and had broken its wishbone. I wasn’t sure of the actual need of that step, but I wanted to try it anyways. There is some debate about trussing as well but again, went for it and was all set.

Wings folded back, legs trussed and neatly at home in a sauté pan.

I kept a thermometer in the chicken and only peeked in on it once or twice.  Thoma’s chicken was kept very dry and I was attempting to recreate this.  I quickly realized that there was a significant amount of dripping pooling in the bottom of the pan.  This is normal to me, especially with brines, and for the fact that in a roasting pan there is a rack to provide a barrier between meat and liquid.  Again, I blame the difference on Thomas’s probably-not-$3-chicken.  There was some large fatty bits I probably should have trimmed off on this bird to cut down on some of the dripping, but, I had never had a problem with it being there before.

That was easy.  Really easy actually, and who doesn’t mind a little pan drippings.

I will wait to give my thoughts once the second chicken is done.  Needless to say, I ate the first one and used its carcass for stock for the second one.  I allowed the second chicken to brine for about 20 hours and before it went into the oven I tried to get it as dry as possible and allow it to warm to 50 degrees.  I left the wishbone intact but trussed this bird like Keller’s.  At this point, I realized that I like the pan set up that Keller uses and plan to use it in the future.  I like the idea of being able to use the pan I baked in right on the stove for a sauce…it also looks kind of bad-ass, so it stays.  A word of caution however:  A frying pan that has come out of the oven does not behave like a frying pan used on the stove, especially in the handle department.  My brain is at times a rambling mess of ADD and actions happen without checking in and getting all the facts first.  This was the case when I went to move the pan from the cutting board to the stove and I just bare handed the oven-hot handle with a firm purposeful grip.  Rather than just let it drop, I held on and got that sizzling hot puppy back up on its trivet.  Dumb.  Trussed and dry, I treated the second bird much like the first, and put it into the hot oven until the thermometer read 170 degrees, but this time I was extra cautious with my handling of the pan.

The second chicken. Please note the presence of the 'Ove' Glove over the handle of the pan.

Even from the picture, you can see the first thing I see.  The skin does not look as good.  That is usually the case with brining I have noticed, the skin gets papery and tends to blacken a little bit.  Aside from that, the main difference was in the meat.  Thomas Keller’s chicken, in all honesty, tasted like chicken.  It was pure, honest to goodness chicken.  Its flavor was nothing out of this world, but it would be an easy way to make chicken meat that was to be used in another dish, but I do not think I would serve it as -is.  With all the more that went into it, I can easily respect that.

The chicken that I brined was different.  As my friend The Gourmand said, “It is the best chicken I have ever had”.  He is also one who does not really like chicken.  The meat is perfectly salted and seasoned and moist throughout the entire bird.  Is it better?  I guess I’m not entirely sure when I think of my desire to cook simply.  In addition, some people do not like brines as the extra flavor and moisture takes away from some of the chickeness that I mentioned liking before.  In the end, I guess I realize that neither method is perfect and so yet again, I adopt some of the methods used by a chef and add them to the ever growing complexity of what it takes for me to roast a perfect chicken.  I do not have to do it alone though.  Take your favorite recipes and try them out compared to someone else’s and get cooking!


Farm Fresh and Local

The arrival of spring has brought the start of the Community Supported Agriculture Co-op that Amanda and I joined with two other couples.  If you do not know what that is, I will briefly explain.  Farmers and consumers get together, the consumers pay a fee to join and in return the farmers commit to supply a weekly share of what they produce.  That was all I knew when I signed up and my curiosity was enough to commit.  So for a little over $20 every three weeks I will get an unknown quantity and variety of local produce, sounds way better than the $50 sack of disappointment I regularly get at Giant Eagle.

For more useful information you can go here: http://www.nwpagrowers.com/

Most people’s reaction to me doing this have fallen into two categories.  Both negative.  The first is: “That’s expensive. I don’t spend twenty dollars a week on vegetables.”  The second is “What are you going to do when you get, like, 20 pounds of cabbage?.  What if you don’t know what to do with what you get or you don’t like it?”  I guess there has been a third category when I talk excitedly about my mystery vegetable shipment and I get nothing in response from a reluctant listener and the conversation ends or the subject is changed.  Not everyone has been pessimistic but I feel that my overall perception of negativity is justified when it seems like there is only about ten local subscribers to the CSA.  Why are more people not doing this?

I’m not going to discuss the first category of naysayery because I have no idea where to start.  Either you are not eating enough fresh vegetables or you are getting some pretty sweet deals because where I shop, veggies are expensive.  The second category is actually the main reason why I signed up with the CSA so I will be focusing on that. I would much rather have my menu and recipes driven by what is available to me rather than what my current desire is.  Rather than saying “I am hungry for X, I must go get A, B, and C”, I want to say “I have A, B, and C.  What can I do with it?”  That is how classic French cooking styles even came about.  They took what meager scraps were available to them and rendered them edible.  OK, my situation is a little different than making the most out of anything that you can get your hands on but I feel the spirit is the same.

So, what do you do when your share is full of things that you never heard of?  Well, in addition to the food there is an added benefit of community when you join a CSA.  There is a newsletter with helpful tips and actual people with intimate knowledge of what you are getting from week to week.  Or, you can set out on your own, use your own knowledge or turn to Google.

Among other things, included in my first share was a bag of arugula, a bag of spelt flour, and fresh oregano.  I immediately knew what I was going to make.  Jamie Oliver’s “Scrummy Warm Arugula Salad” and spelt flour pizza.  The salad I have been making for years since the recipe was published in Happy Days With the Naked Chef but I rarely find arugula and make it with other greens.  For the pizza, quick Google search turned up this recipe for Spelt Pizza Dough and I was all set.

The salad in its simplest form is  fried bacon and caramelized onions tossed, while still warm, with greens, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese.  The arugula adds a nice peppery bite to go with the sweeter savory flavors of the other ingredients that is lost if you just settle with leaf lettuce or romaine.   To top the pizza, some on-hand vegetables were stir fried and placed over store bought cheese and a simple homemade sauce.  All told, a quick and easy meal and a new pizza crust recipe which Amanda proclaimed to be the best she ever had.  I’d say that’s a good start, I am excited to see what’s next!


Self-Proclaimed Amateur Chef/Writer Takes a Break to Be a Self-Proclaimed Amateur Designer/Carpenter.

I’m back.   After an unannounced furlough from writing I am back.

Two things occurred to cause me to stop writing for a bit, well, one thing occurred, but it had two consequences, and the thing did not so much “occur” as much as it got repeatedly struck by unwieldy hammer blows by me.

But any good story should start at the beginning, and this story begins with my buddy Jake crawling around between the first and second floor of my house trying to address a frozen pipe situation.  While up there he noticed some empty space between the walls of the first floor.  Jake has experience with this and has a good story about finding a stash of forgotten unmentionable “things” in walled-in empty space in a house he and his wife were renting from her father.   On the ground level I was able to determine that the little hallway between the kitchen and music room had an indeterminate amount of space walled off on each side.  So, in order to get a better idea of what I was looking at, I sensibly grabbed a hammer and started putting holes in the walls.

The two holes that I started with. Both showed a small gap and another wall. A disappointment, but I pushed on.

What I was looking at was two months of consumed free time and a mess that made my kitchen an undesirable place to make a bowl of cereal in, never mind actual cooking.  So, my little project resulted in me having no time to write and nothing worth writing about.  Well. that’s not entirely true, I have a slight backlog of things to write about, including the project.

As I cleared out the walls and opened up the space on both sides I realized that what I was hoping for was true.  On one side I had enough room to make a built in bookshelf and on the other I had enough room for all of my brewing equipment and a wine rack.  (What I was really really hoping to find though was something stashed away in the wall like my friend Jake, but no luck.  For a better account of Jake’s story, go off to http://www.koskersidlewild.blogspot.com/ and ask his wife about it.)

The first step in my project was the removal of all the lath and plaster to create one opening and the removal dry wall to create the other.  This created an inconceivably heavy amount of dusty mess.  However, I did not want to spend any money on the project and I reused as much of the material as I could.  The old lath made a suitable lining of the inside of the brewing space.  The old plaster, on the other hand, was only good for lining the inside of a dozen garbage bags that I took to the curb.

After the removal of all of the wall, I began to reuse the old lath to line the opening that I created by nailing it to the studs that form the bathroom wall.

I am not a carpenter.  I am reminded of this every time I try to attach more than two pieces of wood into a symmetrical shape.  So, with this in mind, I tried to keep the project as rustic and rough cut that I could.  The majority of the wood that I used for the shelves and molding were from old doors and door frames at my parents house.  So, I had plenty of material to screw up on and use until I got it right, and in the end, I always had the excuse that it was made out of RECYCLED HOLLOW CORE DOORS!

But seriously, it was fun and I think it turned out well.

After the hole was lined I used the doors to make the shelves for the fermenters and bottles and everything was trimmed in with either door frames or, well, trim.

The book shelf is made up the solid ends of the doors cut to fight into the space and supported by pieces of door frame.

What was once empty, wasted space is now functional.  The whole experience was also a metaphor for what I strive for in cooking.  I had to use what was available to me to create something functional.  There was some trial and error and doubt but in the end I am quite proud of what I ended up with.  I am glad its done though.  Now, back to the food.


Porcine Spring Grill

While the thermometer does not agree, spring has finally sprung.  The sun has taken a slightly more respectable position in the sky, the robins are back and the chives have burst forth to announce the new season (most people probably notice crocuses first, but I’m always more excited about the chives).   Now with this comes the annual ritual de-winterfication of my outside living space.  I started the process today but quickly lost my interest as I realized that the various leaves and other debris on my deck were in fact frozen to its surface still.  The grill, however, was not, and was eager for its return to service.

And what better way to commemorate opening day than to grill a decent portion of a pig’s front shoulder for pulled pork  sandwich’s for my father’s birthday dinner?  I usually do this later in the summer, must notably, every year on July 3rd, but I welcomed my mom’s suggestion that I make it this weekend as I could use some extra practice.  Not that pulled pork is particularly hard to make, it is more that I am ever evolving the way that I make it and make changes and improvements each time.

Now that I mention it, this allows me to mention some of my hesitancy in writing about a specific cooking process.  I guess the main source of my reluctance  stems from the one sheer simple fact that I have NO IDEA of what I am doing in virtually everything I do cooking-wise.  OK, I have an “idea” of what I am doing, but writing about having an “idea” of what you are doing  generally does not lend to helpful informative reading. I am fearful, I guess, that someone wise and more experienced will read what I write and pick it apart for the hack job that it is and point out the technical flaws in my cooking.  I now recognize that that criticism will ultimately help me be a better cook, after all, it is my own criticism of other people’s cooking that has in some ways driven me to cook in the first place.  Lets get started, and where I usually start, is in front of the computer, comparing recipe’s in order to fine tune and refine what I plan on doing.

Googling a recipe for pulled pork will most likely steer you toward putting a no name boneless pork roast in your slow cooker for a day.  One recipe I saw boasted that it started out on your stove top and THEN ended up in your slow cooker.  Woo!  I guess with that one at least the Maillard reaction will impart some flavor that the slow cooker alone will miss, but seriously (no pun intended) all of those recipes are going to create that same predictable slop that you might as well just buy in tub form at the grocery store.   I have done these recipes before, and if mind blowing tenderness is your only goal, then the slow cooker pulled pork is for you.  With a good bit of sauce, you can seriously use a chip to dip the pork straight out of the crock pot, and that actually is not a bad thing if dressed up nicely with additional ingredients, i.e.,  barbecue pork nachos.  For pulled pork sandwiches though, we want the meat to shine on a higher level that should not be the same consistency of something that could be made out of beans.

As you get into more serious recipes you begin to see some divergence on the proper way to prepare this dish, somewhat reminiscent of the East Coast and West Coast hip hop wars,  but one thing becomes clear: the cut of meat is important, and unlike those simple Google recipes, very specific.  You need a pork shoulder or, at least, part of one.  The shoulders are generally available cut and sold as Pork Shoulder, Boston Butt,  Picnic Shoulder, or Pork Shoulder Blade Roast.  They are all different parts of a whole shoulder and each have their minor differences from the others, but they will all work well, just make sure that they are not already cured or smoked.  There is another debate about bone-in versus boneless, which to me is silly, but I suppose there are some people put off by bones or are willing to trade in a bone for shorter cooking time.  The meat next to the bone is always sweetest and to me, that is the end of the discussion.  If you continue to have an inkling that you can go without the bone, you may want to reconsider your motivations to make pulled pork in the first place.

Once you have your choice cut, give it a night or a day to relax in a flavorful bath.  There are many different homemade options between marinades and brines, try them out, find what you like.  I generally end up with a vinegar based marinade that includes several near empty sauces and mustards from the fridge that need used up, it is different every time, but through trial and error I now have a fairly standard base recipe that I work with.

On the big day, you will want to give ample time for cooking as it is somewhat difficult to plan for  a precise time due to a number of variables with outdoor cooking.  Grill time alone will be between 6-8 hours so you will need to start early if you plan on eating it the same day.  A day long cooking process may cause some people to shudder but it is really almost no work, as the the only thing you are concerned about is temperature control while the meat is on the grill.  Your stress level will also go down with ample preparation and a schedule that allows for some extra time.  Any fans of Anthony Bourdain  already know the importance of mise en place, but if you are not or have not heard the phrase, mise en place is about having everything you need for your recipe on hand and available before you start.  Typically it is taught to young chefs as an everyday professional practice to always be organized and prepared at your job, but it translates nicely to home as well.

The big thing for using a grill to make pulled pork is having a way to have the piece of meat on the grill for that long without it burning up.  This means “indirect grilling” which is one of the main reasons that I prefer a charcoal grill over a gas grill.  It is so much easier to create an even, indirect cooking environment in a round container with a flexible heat source than it is in a rectangle with fixed burners.  About an hour before I’m ready to start cooking, I start my coals.  In the center of my grill I set a brick with a disposable pie plate set in top.  In the pie plate I usually put some liquid and some aromatics, in this case, a can of cooking beer with sage and rosemary.  Fancy.  The coals get arranged evenly around the center well, the brick gives some nice elevation that just makes coal arrangement easier.  Next I put my full smoker box of mesquite wood chips on the coals.  Place the cooking grate, replace the lid, and everything will be all set for the arrival of the pork.

Usually while the coals are initially starting up I create the rub that I am going to use, and here again, your available options of viable pork rubs are limitless.  Buy one at the store or find a recipe that you can rely on to make your own.  Again, experiment, use what you have on hand and find what works for you.  Since the pork will cook over indirect heat, you do not have to worry about what you put in the rub that may otherwise char instantly over direct heat.  With this in mind, I sometimes use diced shallot or garlic in my pork rubs.  Once the grill is all set up and coming up to temperature, I apply the rub to the pork.  This step is a time to not be shy about working with a piece of raw meat.  Take time to work your rub into all the little creases and crevices of the meat.  When you are satisfied, take a deep breath, take the roast to the now smoking grill, and set it over the water pan.  Now it is just about temperature control.  Try to keep the grill at a medium low temperature during the rest of the cooking time, which, as I said before, will be as long as needed, but plan on at least 6 hours.

Now, what to do, what to do?  Read a book, do some yard work, make the other dishes for a meal.  The grill is doing the work for you here, make the most of your time.  One nice option that I like is to make an event around the barbecuing of the meat.  Have some friends over, crack open a few cold beers and put on some old blues music.  To me, that is a summer party atmosphere like no other.  The smells, sounds and anticipation all come together and seem to be just right hand in hand, all to the point that I can not help but think of good barbecue when I hear a good blues track (John Lee Hooker, B.B. King,  The Black Keys) and vice versa.   The nice thing about this is that everything for a good pulled pork meal can be made ahead of time.  Cole slaw, baked beans, and some sort of cheesy baked potato dish can all be prepared  and ready to go with little advanced warning.  The beans can cook all day and potatoes can be thrown in the oven with ample time before dinner and everyone can plate up and sit down when the pork is ready for them.

This has always been the most difficult part for me.  The pork is done when your thermometer reads 170°, but it never fails that when I think I have reached the desired state of doneness, there is still a little bit of pink juice near the center.  I have been able to overcome this with a little patience and proper thermometer placement.  When I think it is done, I go ahead and wrap the roast and foil and let it rest on the grill another half hour or so, and then take it into the house to rest another half hour before I tear into it.  This generally ensures that the meat is thoroughly done and also prevents me from burning myself by being over eager with sampling it.  It is also nice to have a few extra hands to help pull the pork, and by now you should have no shortage of volunteers.  Do yourselves a favor though, have some bread nearby to handle and juices that may try and get away, and also maybe a little sauce for dipping.

Now that it is done and pulled, it is time to serve.  As you have already found out, it is good enough to serve alone and that certainly an option to you and your guests, but I always go for serving it in a sandwich.  Purists leave it as is and provide sauce to be added as a condiment but I usually pride myself on the sauce that I use and toss a little of it with the meat before hand just to enhance the meat’s flavor, but in no way overpower it.  A whole day of effort piled high on one bun and eaten in five minutes, but oh so worth it.  Just to make sure though, you better have a second.


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