Sunday, November 13, 2011

A simple breakfast: Sausage-gravy and biscuits

Sometimes you don't think to write about the simple things. The food you can cook (almost literally) in your sleep. The stuff that's as simple as making lemonade or, well, boiling water.

Sausage-gravy and biscuits is one of those things. A simple Saturday or Sunday breakfast dish that's so easy it feels goofy to write about it. But maybe you don't know it. I didn't when I first moved in with my husband Mike 20 years ago. He introduced to me to this classic Southern breakfast back then. At first I didn't know what to think of it, but then I fell for its simple, warm savoriness. It's a great way to start a weekend.

OK, so the biscuits I make are a variation on a scones recipe from Bonniers Stora Kokbok, my trusty Swedish cookbook that is falling into pieces (that cross-country motorcycle trip in the rain about 10 years ago did the book no favors, but that's another story). The thing to know about biscuits (and most quick breads) is that you don't want to work the dough much, because the final product will get tough. Just barely mix the dough together, shape it, and pop it in the oven.

Pre-heat the oven to 485 degrees Fahrenheit.

You'll need

  • 50 grams unsalted butter
  • 450 ml flour (I use a mix of AP and whole wheat)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 200 ml buttermilk (if you don't have any, never fear, you can use milk or cream or half and half instead)
Mix your dry ingredients together in a bowl (flour, baking powder, and salt). Add the butter. With your hands (or you could use a fork, but I like getting my hands in there), start breaking the butter up into the flour mixture. Keep working the butter and flour with your fingers until the mixture feels like sand.

Add the buttermilk (or whatever liquid you end up using) and just mix it into the flour-butter mixture. Don't worry about it being a little crumbly.

Split the dough into two halves. Roll each half into a ball and then flatten it out into a disk on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The disk should be about six inches in diameter. With a butter knife, score each disk into four quarters (don't cut all the way through). Then poke the disks all over with a fork and slide the baking sheet into the oven. Bake for about 11 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Eat them hot with sausage-gravy, or with butter, or with jam.

Because the taste of the gravy almost exclusively comes from the sausage, make sure that you use good-quality sausage. We get our wonderful sausage from Haskins Family Farm. I am especially fond of using their sage sausage for this recipe. Note that I use loose sausage, instead of links or patties. I just prefer the way it breaks up in the gravy. You can use links or patties, but the flavor just doesn't distribute throughout the gravy as evenly. (Also, use pork sausage. Chicken or turkey sausage won't have enough fat to make the gravy thicken.)

  • 1 lb pork sausage (preferably loose, or you can remove the casings)
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • salt and pepper
  • thyme
Add the sausage to a cold pan and bring up the temperature slowly to render out as much of the pork fat as possible. Continue cooking the sausage until it browns nicely all over and is cooked through.

Add the flour to the pan and stir it in. Let the flour cook a bit with the sausage. Let the flour darken as much as you have patience for (the darker, the more flavorful), but don't let it burn.

Add the milk to the pan. Scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Stir the gravy regularly until it thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste (remember there's salt in the sausage, so start with a pinch and work your way up). Add half a teaspoon of dried thyme (or use any other spice or herb that you like; this gravy is easy to make your own).

Serve the gravy over the biscuits. Enjoy. Then feel sleepy, have another cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chicken braised in sherry and red wine vinegars

One of our best friends, Dave, came over for dinner last night. We ate chicken braised with sherry and red wine vinegars over mashed potatoes (homemade, of course) and a side salad. I'd never made it before. I was riffing off the idea of a coq au vin, but I didn't have any wine on hand, so I replaced the wine with vinegars, stock, and a little cider syrup for sweetness.

I was very happy with the results: tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken with a dark, rich sauce. The tanginess from the vinegar set off the richness of the mashed potatoes to perfection. It was one of those warm, hearty meals that you love to eat on a cold fall day.

Dave was also happy with the results. After a second helping, he announced he envied our future selves because they would get to eat this chicken again. So why not make others envy you and try making this dish?

You will need about half an hour to prep ingredients and then an hour to let it simmer.


  • 4-5 lbs of chicken pieces (bone-in breasts, legs, thighs, wings; if you don't have these, you can cut up a whole chicken into eight pieces)
  • all-purpose flour (about a cup)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 3-4 large shallots, minced
  • 2 Tbsp sherry wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider syrup (if you don't have this, use some maple syrup instead)
  • 1 1/2 cups stock (I used a beef stock, but chicken will be good too)
  • smoked paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp dried thyme

  1. Rinse the chicken pieces well with cold water and pat them dry with paper towels. 
  2. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken pieces with salt and lots of smoked paprika.
  3. Dredge the seasoned chicken in AP flour. Shake off the excess and set the chicken aside for now.
  4. Melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. 
  5. When the butter starts bubbling, add the minced shallots. Cook for four to five minutes until they soften. 
  6. Add the chicken pieces to the pan with the shallots and let the flour on the chicken cook to a nice, dark (but not burnt) crust on all sides (start with the largest pieces so they have a little more time to cook). (You are basically building a roux here.)
  7. Mix the vinegars, stock, tomato paste, apple cider or maple syrup and pour the mixture over the chicken. Scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan up into the braising liquid. Stir in the thyme. 
  8. Bring the heat down to low, cover the pan, and let the chicken simmer for an hour. Stir from time to time. 
  9. After an hour, season with salt and pepper to taste and serve over mashed potatoes. Enjoy. And then maybe sneak some seconds a little later. 


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Local food is elitist? Part II

So I knew I had more to say in response to Mark Bittman's article, "Local Food: No Elitist Plot," which I blogged about a few days ago, but it took a Saturday afternoon at the playground to work through some ideas and thoughts regarding the absurdity of calling local food elitist.

(Here's a total side note: A friend of mine asked today if "eating local" included squirrel. I'd say yes, probably; not much meat on 'em though. Maybe a stew? But I digress....)

So this idea that eating local is trendy or elitist stirred up such an angry ant's nest in my mind. But why? Why did it make me so mad?

Let me step back a little. Throughout our existence as human beings (and probably before that), most food was local. Furthermore, seasons, geography, and weather restricted the availability of ingredients. However, these limitations unleashed human creativity (if for no other reason than to stave off the boredom of eating the same dish for the sixth week in a row because that's all that's left after a long winter or dry season). All across the globe, cooks got imaginative, developing techniques to bring out new flavors in foods, tweaking textures and forms, trying new things they found in their environment--continually innovating, refining, experimenting to make the most of what they had.

Local cuisines and flavor profiles arose around the world based in large part on what foodstuffs were available. And with the Columbian Exchange new ingredients spread throughout the world--peppers bringing their heat to the far east and wheat and apples coming to the new world, redefining what local food was, yet maintaining an essential uniqueness, localness, and authenticity.

Here's the contrast: Industrial food--whether you are talking about fast food restaurants, meals in a box, frozen dinners, snacks, sodas, franchise restaurants of any stripe--promotes sameness. National and international brands of industrial foods value consistency almost above all. As a consumer, the idea is that the soda you find in Waukegan, Illinois, will taste the same as the one you find in Oahu, Hawaii.

So, is consistency bad? Well, no. I am an editor, for pete's sake, I crave consistency. But not in food. In food, it gets boring and generic.

More than boring though, consistency trains the public palate; consistency trains people to expect specific kinds of flavors and textures--most of which are nothing like the tastes and textures of home-cooked food made from seasonal ingredients. It takes away people's freedom to develop their own palates, to make their own judgments about how they think a food tastes. If the standard in taste is a fatty, salty snack with a vaguely chicken-y or cheesy flavor or a sugary, squishy-soft thing with a vaguely chocolate-y flavor, how are beets and turnips and quinoa supposed to hold their own? In other words, if a person were raised with a concept of bread as a ghastly white supersoft substance with a slightly chalky taste, how long would it take for him or her to cease to regard a loaf of home-baked, whole-wheat bread as kind of foreign?

And so millions of industrially trained palates continue to crave the same tastes and textures, with a slight tweak from time to time to keep things "interesting," themselves end up being the product of industrial food.

And it bothers me, because it comes back to this idea that people are incapable of taking care of themselves, of making things for themselves, of making decisions for themselves. We are continually sold the idea that this company can make that easier for you, can take away your concerns about this or that. We are continually trained to lack faith in ourselves. It comes back to this idea that people are just too dumb to take care of themselves. (Michael Ruhlman rails against the idea that Americans are too stupid to cook in this blog post.)

But, hey, maybe it's true. News used to be mostly facts, leaving the work of forming an opinion up to the news consumer. Now people are served prefab opinions. People used to (grow and) cook their own food. Now it's served up in boxes, cans, and freezer bags--all prefab because people can't do it for themselves. Most people used to make their own clothes and furniture--now most people are too scared to even try.

But I don't really believe people are incapable of doing and thinking for themselves. Well, to be completely honest, I don't want to believe they are incapable. I want to believe that ordinary people are capable of making their own meals; adapting to local conditions, flavors, and ingredients; developing their own palates and judgments based on real, natural, whole foods. If that belief is elitist, then I'm an elitist. Then local food is elitist.

But you know it's not. Believing people can do, make, and think for themselves is the antithesis of elitism; what it is is faith in everyperson.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Local food is elitist? Part I

I am fan of Mark Bittman. I don't always agree with him, but I do more often than not. His recent post, "Local Food: No Elitist Plot," really pissed me off. Not because I disagree with Bittman, but because of this notion that eating local food in season is in some way elitist and snobby. Really? The method of sourcing food that we've used to get our food for about 250,000 years is elitist? Wow. The fundamental reason for the planet's many and distinctive food cultures is snobby? What a thoroughly ridiculous, absurd idea.

So what's perceived as elitist about it? For one thing, local food is nearly always placed in direct opposition to fast food, junk food, convenience foods of any kind--sort of the local, liberal, environmentally friendly yin to the industrial yang of cheap food. (Don't get me wrong: I know several local farmers, and their political leanings run the gamut.) Fast food is cheap and noncomplex and requires no work to prepare and eat; thus it appeals to many fundamental American values. By providing a lot of food for what seems like little money (here's another Bittman piece about the supposed cheapness of fast food), it wraps itself in a robe of thriftiness, of good old American hard-workingness. By dimming our senses with blasts of salt and sugar, it ensures we are incapable of experiencing the subtler pleasures of real food. And finally, by being so easy to get, it suggests respect for the value of our time. It seems to say, "I understand you don't have time for this fancy food nonsense; here's something that'll get the eating job done so that you can get on with the hard work of your day."

In contrast, local food does not seem cheap, especially if you are used to getting groceries from discount chains. If you typically buy a dozen eggs for 99 cents, $5 for a dozen will sting. However, you pay for that cheap-looking 99 cents in a lot of other ways both financial and, well, moral: taxes that pay for industrial farm subsidies, farmworker abuse, environmental costs, mass food poisoning events, other health costs, and so forth. (I would love to see a study that calculates the real cost of a dozen eggs. If anyone has ever seen one, please let me know.) When you  realize that the farmer at the farmer's market is demanding prices that cover his or her real costs and that you already paid extra for the cheap food at the grocery store, those high prices seem a lot less unreasonable and elitist(1). (Also, you start to ask yourself, who asked my permission to spend my money on appeasing on giant, industrial corn producers?)

Another problem with the seeming cheapness of industrial food is that when you make something seem cheap, people will start to treat it that way. In other words, it loses its value. This may not seem like that big a deal; why would it matter that people think food is cheap? Well, for one thing, cheapening food devalues the very hard labor that people put into growing it (and if you are a meat eater like me, minimizes the life of the animal). And that just kind of sticks in my craw a bit.

But devaluing food also has implications for human culture and health. Sharing food, eating together, teaching one another to cook--all these food-related activities and more comprise some of the most important ways that people create and transmit culture as well as form bonds with one another. When the food you eat loses value, you are less likely to engage in those kinds of behaviors. When you pick up that  super-extra-duper-value meal at the drive-through window and eat it in the car on the way home, you lose opportunities to communicate with other people, to learn something, to teach something, or even to just relax and enjoy your food--to enrich your life. So the food and the eating experience don't satisfy. You end up wanting more (whether food or human interaction is another question). Food loses it specialness; it becomes something to engage in any time, any place. So you eat more. And more. And then the portion sizes seem off if they aren't huge. And the taste seems bland if the food isn't drenched in salt or sugar. And suddenly you find yourself weighing more, struggling with hypertension and/or diabetes, wondering how the heck it happened.

Speaking of wondering what happened, I seem to have gotten off track of my original topic, which was the absurdity of the elitism charge on local food, so I will get back to that in a future blog post. (I've also got some nice recipes for cream of tomato soup and finally made some great red beans and rice.)

(1) Of course, not everyone can afford food from the local farmer's market, but that has a lot to do with the way the current system is set up. If more farm subsidies were shifted from producing mass quantities of cheap commodity grain to local fruit and vegetable farms, it seems fairly certain that local farmers could and would lower their prices. That's more of a political issue, not just a change your personal habits and the market will come kind of issue.

[This was also published (with a prettier picture) at Pick-a-Pepper, a great website devoted to connecting local farmers, food artisans, and producers with local consumers, restaurants, and institutions. Check it out!]