Thursday, August 25, 2011

Keeping It Simple. Stupid.


Back in the spring, I ordered 20 chicks with the idea that I'd be eating a lot of eggs. A few died just after they arrived, which seemed normal. (If I were shipped in the mail the day I was born, I might die, too.) Then a dog killed one of them. Now I have 16 left, and for the most part they've been a real pain in the ass.

I feed them every day and give them water. I let them run through the barnyard, then lock them up at night to keep the foxes at bay. If I go anywhere, I need to line someone up to chicken-sit. It might all seem worthwhile if I were rolling in eggs, but up through last week there had been exactly zero. The chickens just weren't old enough to lay. The thought crossed my mind, more than once, to throw in the towel and have a 16-chicken BBQ.


Then, last weekend, I traveled to Germany to attend a friend's wedding. When I got back to the farm I was feeling slightly jet-lagged and very cranky. I opened the door to the chicken coop to let the birds out. And there, nestled in a handful of wood chips, was an egg. I caught myself smiling as I stared at it. It's amazing how something so simple can make you feel so good.

For the life of me, I couldn't settle on what to do with that first egg. I considered making a custard, maybe an omelet, maybe a souffle, but none of those felt like the right move. I phoned a friend. We talked about the egg for what might seem like a long time to anyone who hadn't spent all summer waiting for one. You can do a lot with an egg, she told me, but sometimes it's the simplest thing that's just so good.

There is no egg preparation as wonderful as a perfectly fried fresh egg with its crunchy browned edge, just-cooked white, and runny, liquid yolk. And frying an egg perfectly is not all that easy, either.

The trick is to start with a very hot pan to get the crisp edge on the white, then to reduce the heat and cover the skillet to cook the rest of the white through. Covering the skillet traps the heat inside and gently cooks the top of the egg while the bottom stays crisp. The beauty of this technique is that there's no need to flip the egg over, which is the point where I usually screw things up by breaking the yolk. Instead it stays perfectly runny.


Sliced Tomato Salad with a Perfectly Fried Egg

1 ripe tomato
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg

Thickly slice the tomato and put it on a plate. Sprinkle tomato with shallot, vinegar, 1 Tbsp. oil, and a pinch each of salt and pepper.

Heat remaining 1 Tbsp. oil in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet over high heat until very hot and just starting to smoke. Crack the egg into the skillet and cook until the edge is crispy, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to very low and cover skillet. Continue to cook the egg until the white is set but the yolk is still runny, about 2 minutes. Top the tomato slices with the egg and drizzle with oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Bother With 57 When You Can Have Just 1


Heinz is the undisputed queen of all ketchups. If the virtues that you seek in a queen are perfectly balanced delectability and a color that mirrors the reddest of supermodel lips, then she's your go-to girl. She's beautiful, efficient, tasty--and available. I'll be the first to admit that at times, she's been my go-to girl, too.

But, like many beauties, Heinz can be shallow, even a little trashy. When you ask a bottle of Heinz to describe herself and the third thing she tells you is "high fructose corn syrup," she seems a little cheap. And that's because she is.

Here's the lesson: Appreciate the appeal of Heinz Tomato Ketchup--even fool around with her once in a while--but know that for life, the ketchup you really need is one with substance and depth. You need a ketchup you'll want to see every morning over breakfast and every night at dinner. You need a ketchup you can raise your kids on.


Ok, enough of that metaphor.

Heinz not only dominates the retail ketchup market with 60 percent of sales, it also has a strong hold on the ketchup-tomato seed market. Last spring I planted Heinz 1350 VF tomatoes in my garden, and now they are ripe and ready for picking. I spent a few hours this week restocking my pantry with enough tomato ketchup to get me through the rest of the year. Over time, I've tweaked my ketchup recipe. Its rich tomato flavor and subtle heat are lightly sweetened with brown sugar. Spices add comfort, and roasted garlic depth.

I don't need to choose just one ketchup for the rest of my days. But if I did, Heinz would find itself alone, sitting on the grocery store shelf.


Homemade Ketchup
Makes about 1 quart

This recipe is just the sort of inspired D.I.Y. project that promotes a good home cook to a legendary home cook. One caution: The ketchup splatters a bit as it boils and reduces, but, as you'll see, the outcome is well worth the mess and the time involved. This ketchup is one you can feel really good about eating. It is wholesome, substantial, and (most important) delicious.

1 tsp. coriander seed
1 tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp. mustard seed
1 bay leaf, broken into pieces
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
5 lb. ripe sauce tomatoes; such as Roma, San Marzano, Heinz 1350 VF
1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 head of garlic, roasted
1/4 cup capers with brine
1/4 cup hot sauce
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

Toast the coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they are several shades darker and very fragrant. Finely grind the seeds with the bay leaf in a spice mill.

Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and cook until well browned; this will take about 10 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, including the ground, toasted spices. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have broken down. This will take about 45 minutes. Puree the ketchup in a blender or food processor, then return it to the pot. Return ketchup to a simmer and continue to cook until it reaches a pastelike consistency. This will take 1 1/2-2 more hours. Toward the end of cooking, stir the ketchup more frequently to prevent scorching. Season the ketchup with salt to taste.

Place ketchup in sterilized canning jars while still hot, then cap jars and process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Let the jars cool at room temperature until they seal.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mak & the Chip Attack


My cousin Makaila is a girl of action. She has two speeds: fast and fierce. If she's not steering her little car at top speed down the steep drive of the farm lane or sprinting after chickens, then she's up to her elbows in dirt. Makaila is two years old, and by the time she's 22 she'll be a force of nature. It almost frightens me to think about it.

Around the farm, we all do our part to keep her out of trouble. That's the job I was engaged in back in April when she and I planted Yukon and red bliss potatoes. It was fun at first; we cut eyes from old potatoes and placed them in the dirt. Each chunk of spud would become its own plant. Eventually, however, Makaila got bored and focused on convincing her father, Leif, to take her on a tractor ride. A few minutes later Leif was firing up the old Ford 8N. Makaila can be very persuasive.


The potatoes we planted sprouted, green and enthusiastic, up and out of the earth over the past few months. Then, a few weeks ago, the greens started to yellow and brown in the heat of summer. Now they've all but died away. That means it's time to dig up what's below. Potatoes are one of the most rewarding harvests in the garden. In fact, digging them up feels a little like Christmas. There's no telling exactly how many potatoes will emerge from the ground as you heave soil with a spade, each shovelful of dirt bringing more spuds to light.

Freshly harvested potatoes need one to two weeks to dry and form their skin or "cure". It's important to keep them in a dark place as this happens. If you don't, they will absorb the sunlight and create chlorophyll, which is what has happened to potatoes that have green skin.

Makaila is due for a farm visit soon, and I want her potatoes to be ready when she gets here. I'll dig up some Yukons and place them in the cool cellar of the farmhouse for at least a week. Then, just before we're ready to grill our hot dogs for lunch, I'll slice them paper thin and fry them into chips. Whether you're two, 32, or 92, the absolute best topping for any grilled dog is crumbled potato chips.


Potato Chips
Makes about 8 cups

4-6 Yukon or russet potatoes (about 2 lb.)
4 cups (approx.) vegetable oil (for frying)
Fine sea salt

Wash the potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water to cover. Pat 1 potato dry. Using a V-slicer or mandoline, cut the potato into paper-thin slices (about 1/16" thick) and let the slices stand 5 minutes in another bowl of cold water to cover.

Drain the potato slices and spread them without overlapping on layers of paper towels. Blot the slices completely dry with another layer of paper towels.

Heat the oil in a 3- 4-quart pot until a deep-fry thermometer registers 375 degrees F. Working in batches of 8 to 10 slices, fry the potatoes, turning once or twice, until golden, 1 1/2-2 minutes, making sure the oil returns to 375 degrees F before adding the next batch. As chips are fried, transfer with a large slotted spoon to paper towels to drain; sprinkle with salt. Cut and fry remaining potatoes in the same manner.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hopped Up!


If you haven't brewed your own beer, I bet you know someone who has. Thanks to the craft-brewing boom of the past 20 years, just about everyone has access to great microbrews--even people who have no interest in making them. But I'm the kind of guy who likes making things, so a few years ago I ordered some hop plants to use in my home brew.

The hops grew so quickly and vigorously that I could barely keep up with the trimming and training they require (like ivy, they are climbers and are usually grown on twine or wire). The literature I received with the cuttings warned me not to expect any hops the first year. I ended up with about a gallon of them anyway.


If you've got rich soil and lots of sun, you will find that hops are incredibly easy to grow, and if you have a few square feet of dirt in your backyard I recommend you plant some next spring--even if you don't plan on making beer (more on that later). Here are some tips:

* You'll need to plant rhizomes instead of seeds because the plants are either male or female. Only the female plant produces the flowers, which are the actual hops. (If this sounds familiar to some of you, it may be because hops are part of the botanical family Cannabaceae; so is marijuana.) Like the other members of that family, hops contain complex (and volatile) chemical compounds. Some of these, like dimethylvinyl carbinol, may have a calming effect on the human nervous system. They may relax you. Of course, alcohol also has this effect. That's why when you drink too much beer, you get sleepy.

* Order your hops so they'll arrive in the spring, after the chance of frost has gone. Form a small hill for each rhizome. Plant with the buds pointing up, and cover with an inch of loose soil. The hills should be spaced at least three feet apart if the hops are of the same variety and five feet apart if they are different. Mulch well. Within two to four weeks you'll start to see hop shoots rise up out of the ground.

* Stake a length of twine on each hill, securing the top to a building, fence, or pole, and when young vines are about a foot long, wrap them around the twine in a clockwise direction. They will grow. And grow. And if you're lucky, you'll get some hops that first year. Cut them down to nothing in the fall. Prune the weaker vines after they sprout again the following spring.

As I said, hops aren't just for beer. The shoots that corkscrew up out of the ground in the spring are quite tender and can be sauteed like asparagus. And the hop flowers themselves add a sharp, bitter herbal punch to anything they touch. Some forward-thinking chefs, like Pat Combs at the Paws Up resort in Montana, have even been cooking with hops. Combs stuffs hop leaves with hop flower petals, cheeses, and aromatics before tempura-frying them to make a cheesy-herbal beggar's purse. In a review of the dish, one writer claimed they were so delicious that she would have forgone all other food that evening in exchange for more of the crisp-fried hop purses.

The recent heat waves have left me feeling a little lazy compared with Chef Combs. I'll keep his recipe tucked away for some cooler weather. Instead, this week I'm folding my plant's flowers into a hopped-up bruschetta made with the garden's first tomatoes.


Hopped-Up Bruschetta
3-4 servings

If you have trouble finding fresh hops, basil flowers make a worthy substitute. Once the basil plant has gone to flower, its pungency increases and its herbaceousness becomes slightly bitter and hoplike.

1/2 small garlic clove
Kosher salt
1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 small onion, sliced
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2-3 fresh hop flowers (not pellets) or basil flowers, torn
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
6-8 pieces toasted country bread

Mince and mash the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt. Combine garlic paste with 1/2 tsp. salt, the tomato, onion, oil, hop flowers, and pepper. Top the toasts with the tomato mixture and serve.