Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apple-cider braised pork with mustard

Any of you who follow my blog regularly probably know this already, but I love pork. Especially the pork the Haskins family raises locally. Fall is the perfect time of year for pork (although I won't argue with grilled spare ribs on a hot summer evening; heck I won't argue with pork anytime really--just gimme).

Fall fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, squash, and cabbages go beautifully with pork: a little sweet-sour sets off rich fattiness so well (or maybe that's fatty richness?).

Anyway, I was wrestling (as usual) with what to make for dinner tonight earlier today, and I remembered I had a nice piece of pork shoulder (also known as pork butt) left from a recent CSA-share pickup. The idea of a little pork with some apple cider syrup and mustard in a low-slow braise started simmering. One thought led to another, and I threw together a quick braising liquid and let the pork cook over low heat all day long, which was especially nice as the rain came in with colder air. Is fall finally really here? It doesn't seem to want to make up its mind.

Although it takes hours to make, this dish is one of the easiest things you can imagine. Just combine the ingredients in a Dutch oven, set it on the stove, and leave it alone. All day. If you are so inclined, you could flip the meat over at some point, maybe pour some of the liquid over the top of it a few times. You know, just to stir things up a bit. Or maybe to grab a quick taste of the braising liquid, make sure you added enough salt. That kind of thing.   

Here's the recipe:

  • 1 4-5 lb piece of pork shoulder
  • 4 Tbsp apple cider syrup (if you don't have this, replace the syrup and the water with 1 cup of fresh apple cider)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 onion, halved and sliced
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper
  • smoked paprika (optional, but it's good)
  1. Place pork shoulder in the Dutch oven, season (very liberally) with salt, pepper, and paprika
  2. Place onion slices and garlic cloves around the pork
  3. Mix apple cider syrup, water, mustard, soy sauce, and apple cider vinegar in a bowl and put it in the Dutch oven with the meat, onions, and garlic cloves
  4. Bring the liquid up to a boil on high heat, then cover the Dutch oven and lower the temperature to the lowest setting on your stove
  5. Let it cook over slow heat for 4-5 hours; check on it from time to time (mostly to waft lovely smells into your kitchen). When the meat starts sliding off the bone, it's done.
I served the braised pork (which came out tender and rich) with some red cabbage sauteed with apples and apple cider vinegar. The contrast of salty and fatty with the sharpness of the vinegar was lovely. I think I might use some of the leftover meat to make quesadillas tomorrow.... Or, maybe I could heat up some leftover meat and braising liquid and serve it over some homemade mashed potatoes. Mmm. Now that sounds good. Heck, you could drizzle the braising liquid over some toast and call it a day.  


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Perfect fall rainy-day comfort food: Lobster mac and cheese

The tree across the street lights up like a red flame every time I open the door--especially on dark, gray, and gloomy days like today. The temperature has a bit of an edge, but the cold hasn't really set in yet. Still, it was a nice day for some rich ooey gooey comfort food like lobster mac and cheese. Of course, lobster is a luxury ingredient, but every once in a while, it's nice to splurge. This mac and cheese is almost as comforting without the lobster, or you can add some cooked, crumbled bacon and peas to replace it. (I confess I belong to that tribe of people who nearly worship bacon.)

Baked mac and cheese comprises three main parts: the pasta, the cheese sauce, and the crumbly topping. The pasta is easy enough--just read the package instructions. The cheese sauce is basically a Mornay sauce (or a Bechamel sauce with cheese in it), and the crumbly topping is a crispy mix of fresh bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley. Diving into this dish is something like opening a surprise gift: First there is the crispy golden-brown crust. Break through that, and you find a warm, silky, cheesy pasta center. Yum.

So, here's how to make it. 

Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees.

Part 1: The Pasta and the Lobster
  • Cook 1 lb of macaroni (any shape you like, but small, chunky shapes seem to work best) according to package instructions. Drain and set it aside. 
  • Pick over 1 lb of thawed lobster (or fresh if you have it) to remove any pieces of shell. Chop the meat into bite size pieces.    

Part 2: The Cheese Sauce
  • 4 cups of shredded cheese (a blend of Gruyere and Cheddar is nice)
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 Tbsp AP flour
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • salt (to taste)
  • 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
  • dash grated nutmeg
  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. (Don't burn or brown the butter.)
  2. Whisk the flour into the butter. Let the butter-flour mix simmer gently for a few minutes (don't let it brown). By the way, this is called a roux.
  3. Vigorously whisk the butter-flour mix, while adding the milk slowly. Add the garlic pieces. Stirring steadily, let the sauce simmer and thicken for five to 10 minutes. 
  4. Remove the garlic pieces and discard them. Add the cheese to the sauce one small handful at a time. (If you dump it all in at once, a big ole glob of cheese will sink to the bottom of your milk sauce, kerthud, and you won't be able to fix it, so take your time).
  5. When all the cheese has melted evenly into the sauce, add salt (taste it, the levels of salt in cheese can vary a lot) starting with half a teaspoon at a time, white pepper, and nutmeg. Leave the sauce over low heat while you prepare the rest of the dish. 
Part 3: The Crumbly Topping
  • 2 slices of bread, torn into pieces
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 1 Tbsp dried parsley (fresh would be better, but you have to make do sometimes)
Whir the ingredients in a food processor or blender until you get an even, fresh breadcrumb mix.

Now, here's how to put it all together:
  1. Butter a baking dish. Add the pasta to the baking dish. 
  2. Add the sauce to the pasta and stir.
  3. Add the lobster pieces (and any juices). 
  4. Mix all the stuff together in the baking dish; make sure the sauce, the lobster, and the pasta are evenly distributed.
  5. Sprinkle the crumb topping over the mix. 
  6. Slide the baking dish into a 350-degree oven and let it cook for 50 minutes until you have a golden-brown dish of deliciousness. As for me, I think it may just be time for seconds...


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reductivist thinking: How to get into a world of trouble

"Yet it is precisely this kind of thinking--the belief that productivity can and should be measured in units of time and output--that led us to the current state of affairs that produces food for the masses in the most productive, inexpensive manner possible. When we set aside as unimportant a concern for quality, for relationships, for 'meaning' in our daily food and daily activities--values considered by some to be ridiculously silly and romantic--then there is no argument. Yes, when we set those values aside, there would be little reason to ever grow our own food. Let others do it faster, cheaper, and more efficiently."

--Tanya Denckla Cobb, Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat (Storey, 2011, p. 12)

I received my copy of Tanya Denckla Cobb's new book last night, and already this quote has been jittering around in my head, bumping up against other ideas that have taken root over several years, making connections.... I have no doubt that I will have lots more to say about this book, but I want to get a few ideas down and perhaps bring them together into a stew. A delicious, nutritious stew. Heh.

If the concepts of productivity and efficiency are the only values we espouse, what does that make us as people? Well, boring. But more than that, reductivist thinking like this robs us of the values that make life interesting, satisfying, meaningful, and worth getting up for. Even those with very little infuse their lives and days with the tiniest things and moments to create meaning beyond mere survival.

In a society that talks about numbers and efficiency as much as ours seems to, losing sight of ourselves as human beings with all our bumpy, inconvenient, irregular peculiarities is pretty easy to do. If you look at, for example, the business pages, you might imagine that our world were populated with digital symbol readers that only see value in the size of a number.

Mike (my husband, for those of you who don't know that already) and I have talked about this idea that many people have lost sight of the fact that money is a representation of something, a symbol, a cipher. It’s not value itself. It’s a symbol of work, of things that have value like food and clothing and art and medical instruments and so on. The intrinsic value of money is the value of the paper it’s printed on, no more than that (ok, so maybe some ink and labor costs rolled in there too). But that representation has in some monstrous way taken over many people's minds. Some talk incessantly about return on investment, not in terms of the actual value you got out of the investment, but in terms of numbers, of symbols. Replace the numbers with ampersands and hash marks and tildes, and you start to recognize the absurdity of what's going on.

When you become blind to the value that underlies money, all kinds of decisions that (I hope) go against the grain of our humanity suddenly make more sense. Snip the tails off pigs so they don’t get infections because they are in excessively crowded conditions and start biting each other? Sure! Let’s do it, we can reduce deadloss and maximize space by squeezing in more pigs. More pigs=more pork=more sales. (Oh, we'd better figure out a way to make people buy more pork. Let's get someone smart in marketing on that. Oh I know, how about a triple pork burger with bacon?) Poison field workers with toxins while we sterilize the soil and grow hard, insipid tomatoes? Well, let’s consider the gains: More efficiency? Check. Less spoilage? Check. What about damages to the workers? Oh well, they are migrants and illegals, they don’t have the money or the wherewithal to sue us, the cost of that is negligible. What about taste? Seriously? Who cares? Especially in the middle of winter; everyone expects to have all kinds of foods all the time now.

Reductivist thinking. It gets us into a lot of pickles. (Not literally, of course, who wants to be swimming with the pickles? Where did that phrase come from anyway?) Sorry, got off track there. I was talking about reductivist thinking. Reductivist thinking detaches the symbol of meaning from actual meaning, leaving a strange, hollow, and mutilated thing. If we see only the broken representation as reality (hey, anyone else getting shades of Plato's cave here?), value becomes increasingly hard to recognize without a dollar sign on it. It's sad, and I think it stunts us all (some more than others).

Reductivist thinking does other nasty things too. Like the persistent belief that factories can manufacture food better than the earth can. Really? Plants have been around, evolving, for about 450 million years, give or take a few years. And we think we can think replicate or even do better than something that's worked that long at making itself better? We think we can turn our food intake into a mathematical equation (x protein + y carbohydrate + z micronutrients = health), sure that more vitamin C or protein or selenium will solve our health problems. But what we need is balance. Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve in living. Going extreme is just another form of reductivism. An example of reductivist thinking is glaringly obvious in American politics. One side says, "Conservatives good!" and bangs their chests, and the other side says, "Liberals good!" and puts on a riproaring display of monkey power. Woo hoo. But they don't see each other. We don't see each other. (Believe me, I can be as ornery about my views as the next person.) We don't see all the stuff we share, all the values we have in common, because all we see are the symbols that we have clothed ourselves in. How did this state of affairs come to be? How did we lose sight of value and meaning and stop caring about these things? How did we forget to value what is real, and worship only the symbols? And above all, how do you change it? You have to learn to see past the symbol and re-learn how to recognize value.