Category Archives: Food Matters

Eat Alberta 2014

Tasting boards from Eat Alberta 2014

Eat Alberta 2014 Tasting Board. Photo courtesy of Jens Gerbitz.

This past weekend we held the fourth annual Eat Alberta conference at NAIT here in Edmonton.  Eat Alberta is a one-day conference designed to teach Albertans how to find and prepare local food.  We do this with hands-on kitchen sessions, classroom presentations, and critical tasting sessions, all of which are led by local farmers, chefs, and other food experts.

At the end of the day guests are given a tasting board that features some notable regional products.  I’ve prepared these boards for the last three years, and this year I promised to reveal the details of how each component was made.  Over the next week I’ll be posting recipes and procedures for each of the following:

  • Bison Jerky – Medicine Man bison round, lightly cured with salt and herbs, then dried.
  • Fresh Goat’s Milk Cheese – Homemade with Fairwinds Farm goat milk, garnished with nasturtium leaves.
  • Pickled Vegetables – Strathcona Market vegetables pickled in homemade cider vinegar: cucumbers from S4 Greehouses, carrots from Helen’s, and beets from Peas on Earth.
  • Smoked Whitefish – Slave Lake whitefish with pickled red onion and dill.
  • Crackers – Three types of cracker – rye, spelt, and red fife – made with Gold Forest grains.
  • Yogurt Tart – Bles-wold yogurt, McKernan rhubarb, and Mill Creek Saskatoons in a pastry cup.

Stay tuned!

On Recipes and Cookbooks

There are always mysteries in old cookbooks, because even the most unpoetical depend on the existence of a living tradition for the cook to know when the result is correct.

-Charles Perry, from In Taste: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery

 

A stack o' cookbooksI think this post is particularly appropriate to the Christmas season, as in the next couple days thousands of cookbooks will be purchased and given as gifts, and even more recipes will be searched out online and acted out in home kitchens.

I myself already have an Alexandrian hoard of cookbooks.  Some of them are completely useless.  Others have changed the trajectory of my career and home-life.  I also record recipes very meticulously, and oftentimes those recipes get published on this site. If you can’t be in the kitchen with someone then a recipe is as good a way as we have to teach them how to cook a certain dish.

That being said, recipes are not everything that we think.  They are not the secret essence of the dish, and rote following of a recipe is no more effectual than reciting the words of a prayer.  A recipe on its own, no matter how detailed, is woefully insufficient if the cook is not familiar with the dish and the traditions from which it comes.

Let me explain.

 

Part One: Technique-Driven Cooking

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.

-Chinese proverb?  As a child this saying was always attributed to “ancient Chinese wisdom,” but for all I know it’s from Reader’s Digest.

 

Once I had gained a bit of confidence in the kitchen, I eschewed recipes.  This was partly because I had a basic idea of the proportions needed make mayonnaise, or beef stew, or mashed potatoes; it was partly because I thought I could adjust salt, vinegar, and spices by following my own palate; but mostly it was because I realized that technique affected the final dish far more than the amount of any one ingredient used.

By way of example, let’s discuss How to Cook Green Vegetables.  Here is a description of how to blanch asparagus, taken from a recipe in Joel Robuchon’s The Complete Robuchon:

Wash and trim the asparagus.  Prepare a dish lined with 4 layers of paper towels.  Bring 2 quarts (2 l.) water seasoned with 1 tablespoon coarse salt to a boil in a large pot.  Plunge the asparagus into the simmering water and cook for 2 minutes, turning them with a skimmer.  Remove with a skimmer or slotted spoon to the paper towel-lined dish to dry, patting it with paper towels as necessary.

These are very specific instructions that will no doubt yield bright green, firm but tender asparagus (though 2 minutes seems like a long time for anything but the oldest stalks…)  Now compare that passage to the following excerpt from The French Laundry Cookbook:

Raw green vegetables appear dull because a layer of gas develops between the skin and pigment.  Heat releases this gas, and the pigment floods to the surface.  But this happens fast, and pretty soon, as the vegetable cooks, the acids and enzymes in the vegetable are released, dulling the green color.  At the same time, pigment begins to leach out into the water.  So the challenge is to fully cook a vegetable before you lose the color, which means cooking it as fast as possible.  There are three key factors to achieve this.  First, blanch in a large quantity of water relative to the amount of vegetables you’re cooking, so you won’t significantly lower the boiling temperature when you add the cold vegetables.  If you lose the boil, not only do the vegetables cook more slowly, but the water becomes a perfect environment for the pigment-dulling enzymes to go to work (these enzymes are destroyed only at the boiling point).  Furthermore, using a lot of water means the pigment-dulling acids released by the vegetables will be more diluted.

Keller goes on the explain the importance of heavily salting the water, and of shocking the vegetables in ice water once they are cooked through.  Keller’s description of big-pot blanching is more useful than one hundred recipes on blanching the several green vegetables available to modern cooks.  More essential, transferable information is conveyed than any number of ingredient-lists and procedures.  In other words, the Robuchon recipe gives you bright green asparagus every time you prepare that specific recipe, while Keller gives you bright, green vegetables for the rest of your cooking days!

For the sake of completeness, below is a picture comparing the colour of dull, raw peas (above) to vibrant, blanched peas (below).

A side-by-side view of dull, raw peas, and vibrant, blanched peas.

Another case study: How to Brown Meat.

Here’a description of how to brown beef from The Complete Robuchon.

Heat the … olive oil in a large pot over high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the stew meat and brown all over, about 5 minutes.  Remove the meat to a dish with the skimmer.

This, I think you will agree, is another very precise but more or less useless instruction.  What is hot oil, for instance?  What shade of brown should the meat be?

The colour of properly browned meat and the methods to produce it are difficult to convey in a cook book.  And there is no formula for telling how long it will take to cook a certain piece of meat to perfect doneness.[1]  In fact, Brillat-Savarin went so far as to say, “We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.”

I didn’t learn how to brown meat until I worked at Jack’s Grill.  Most of the proteins were seared in aluminum frying pans.  We would put a bit of grapeseed oil in the pan, then put it over medium high heat.  Only once the oil was starting to smoke did we add the meat.  This is the heat that is required to properly brown a small piece of meat without over-cooking the interior.

I would describe the colour of well-seared meat as deep amber.  Bits of fat should be a lustrous bronze.

The best technique-driven books I’ve come across are Ruhlman’s Twenty, and On Food and Cooking (perhaps a bit dry and scientific for the beginner, but it has several important details about technique).  There are several brilliant books from famous chefs and restaurants that are structured as cookbooks (ie. a set of recipes), but are much, much more valuable for their spirited insights into techniques.  Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast comes to mind, as the recipes themselves are too cursory to be truly useful, but the broader ideas on how to prepare off-cuts are brilliant.  Curing, breading, and deep-frying a pig’s tail, for instance.  I feel similarly about Magnus Nilson’s Faviken and The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.  Fantastic books, but not because of the recipes themselves.

 

Part Two: Ratio-Driven Cooking

The first person to really open my eyes to the power of ratios in cooking was Michael Smith.  In the cheesey introduction to his Food Network show Chef at Home, he says, “My secret recipe?  Cooking without a recipe!”  Corniness notwithstanding, I think Michael Smith did a great job of teaching essentials about ingredients, flavours, technique, and ratios.  I remember him making a barbecue sauce using equal parts ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar.  This is far from the perfect barbecue sauce, but it’s a fantastic starting point that frees you from recipes.  It’s easy to remember.  Mix the ingredients, then have a taste.  More acid?  More sweetness?  Add onions or garlic or paprika or cayenne?  This is the kind of starting point someone needs to develop their own repertoire.

A few years after this introduction I read a book called Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  Ruhlman is one of the most influential food writers in the States (he had a hand in The French Laundry Cookbook, and helped fuel the charcuterie renaissance with his book Charcuterie).  Of the five books that most changed how I cook and think about food, three of them are at least partly written by Ruhlman, and Ratio might be in first place.

Case Study: Crêpes

Ruhlman explains that the basic ratio to make crêpes is 2 : 2 : 1, liquid : egg : flour.  This is dead-simple to remember.  The most common form would use milk and all-purpose flour.  Change a third of the flour content to ground wild rice, and fold some cooked wild rice into the final batter and you’ve made wild rice crêpes without a recipe.

The book contains ratios for everything from baked goods to sausages to custards.

 

Conclusion: The “Food” Section at Chapters

The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.

-Nietzsche

 

Based on observations during periodic visits, I think “Food and Cooking” is the fastest growing section in the bookstore, besides possibly “Graphic Novels.”  It is a seductive set of shelves, with heavy folios and gorgeous photography.

But.

Have you ever walked through a dollar store and felt a little bit sick in thinking about all the cheap plastic junk in the world that doesn’t need to exist?  Lately I’ve felt that way about cookbooks.  There are many fantastic books on those shelves  – a few of them have quite literally changed my life – but most of them are unnecessary, redundant cash grabs.

I see the proliferation of cookbooks as a symptom of the meager culinary traditions in our society.  Frankly the proliferation of foodblogs is the same.  While there are some very, very useful books out there, what folks interested in cooking need to do is find a friend, relative, or business that can show them how to cook.  There are countless ways to do this in Edmonton.  Small cooking schools and conferences are popping up all over (eg. Get Cooking, Taste Tripping, Seasoned Solutions, Allium Foodworks, Eat Alberta.)  Shovel and Fork is a lot broader than “cooking,” and offers classes on several food crafts like gardening, cider-making, and pickling.

Last year I helped Kevin Kossowan host a hands-on pig-cutting day at Sangudo.  After some preliminary explanations and words of advice, it was time for the students to pick up their knives and cut up the pigs.  “How should we hold the knife?  Like we’re cutting a steak?  Where should we cut?  Where exactly?”  After a few such questions I had to stop answering, and only reply, “Just start doing it,” again and again, until they did.  With that single stroke of the knife, each nascent meat-cutter immediately learned something that no book could ever teach them.  Then they were off to the races and the learning and the conversation could really begin.

 

 

1.  The folks at Rational probably disagree with this statement.

On Units of Measure

This is possibly the dorkiest thing I’ve ever written.

Measuring cups and spoons

In some respects Canadian culture is a grab-bag of European and American attributes.  Nowhere is this mash-up more complicated than the blend of metric and US units that every Canadian uses in daily life.

I estimate that every day at work I do about 57 unit conversions in my head.  I know, for instance, that 8 fluid ounces is a good portion of soup for an individual, and if I need to make soup for 10 people, I’ll need 80 oz.  But the can of tomatoes that I will turn into soup is labelled 2.84 L.  80 oz is 10 cups, which is 2 1/2 quarts, which is roughly 2.5 L, so one can of tomatoes will suffice for the job at hand.

US v. Imperial Units

Canadians often say that the Americans use Imperial units, but this isn’t true.  The British Imperial System was not standardized until 1824, well after the Americans had won their independence.  The Americans use a system called the US customary measure, which uses a collection of measures from the imperial system before its standardization.  As such, while the nomenclature for the British and American systems is almost identical, many of the measurements are different.  Both measure volume in gallons, for instance, but the imperial gallon is 4.54609 L, while the US gallon is about 3.785 L.

When Canadians make reference to fluid ounces, or gallons, we are almost always referring to US customary units, not British Imperial units.  One notable exception is in ordering “pints” at a bar.  First of all, very, very few establishments in Canada offer true pints.  In both the imperial and US customary systems, one pint is half a quart.  However the two systems define quarts differently.  In the imperial systems a quart is 40 fluid imperial ounces, so a British pint is 20 ounces x 28.41… mL/oz = 586 mL.    In the US system a pint is 32 fluid US ounces, which corresponds to 473 mL. Unfortunately we don’t take the term “pint” as seriously here in North America as they do in the UK, so when you order “a pint of beer” you are basically just asking for draft beer, and the establishment can serve you your drink in whatever glass they want.  (Find out why this is a problem here.)

 

Volume v. Mass Measurement

Volumetric measurement of solid pantry items like flour and butter is a hallmark of traditional North American cooking.  After Lisa and I hosted an Austrian culinary student for a summer, he went home with a set of measuring cups just so that he could use the many recipes he wrote down while he was here.  Volumetric measurement of solid ingredients does not exist in European kitchens: they weigh solid ingredients with a scale.

The explanation I have heard for the origin of volumetric measurement in North America is that on the frontier it was more practical to carry around a set of measuring cups and spoons than a set of weights and scales.  This kind of makes sense to me when I think about a pioneer family in Alberta, but I don’t see how the practice could have spread back east to the places that were settled for hundreds of years before that, like New York and Quebec.

Volumetric Measurement as a Source of Inconsistency.  A cup of flour can weigh anywhere between 4 and 6 ounces depending on the wheat, grind, brand, packaging, and whether or not it has been sifted.  Sugar and salt have similarly different masses per unit of volume depending on brand and coarseness.  These ingredients should always be weighed.  An electronic scale accurate to 1 gram is an essential kitchen tool in my mind…

 

Metric v. US

The metric system is often touted as “more accurate” than US customary measure.

Accuracy v. Precision.  The best way to explain the difference between accuracy and precision is to imagine a target with concentric rings surrounding a bull’s-eye.  The shooter is aiming for the bull’s-eye.  Accuracy would be defined as the proximity of any individual shot to the the bull’s-eye.  Precision would be a measure of how tight the shooter’s groupings are.  So if the shooter never hits the bull’s-eye, but has a very tight grouping of several shots, we would say that he is precise, but not accurate.

With units of measure, the smaller the unit the more precise it is.  If you have two rulers, and one only marks centimeters, while the other marks millimeters, the latter is more precise, but not necessarily more accurate.

But strictly speaking grams are not a more precise unit that ounces.  For instance 50 g can be represented as 1.7367 oz.  Humans find it much, much easier to deal in whole numbers, so it is easier to remember the number 50 than the number 1.7367, even though they represent equivalent measures.

The beauty of US customary measures.

Will Jim and Peter be devoured by the killer ants? Will Psycrow destroy the Earth? Will the U.S. ever adopt the Metric system?

-from an episode of Earthworm Jim

While there is no doubt that the metric system is more intuitive, easier to learn, and superior in ease of computation (read more here) the US system has its benefits, especially in the kitchen.

For instance: in many cases the US system produces small, whole numbers that are easy to remember and perform arithmetic on.  An appetizer-sized portion of protein is 3 oz.  An entrée-sized portion of protein is 6-10 oz, depending on the context of the course and what is being served.  A typical large egg weighs about 2 oz.

I often write about the power of cooking with ratios instead of conventional recipes, and working in ounces makes ratio arithmetic a breeze.

On a more abstract level, the US system also has more character and soul than the metric system.  Inches, miles, horsepower, and degrees Fahrenheit all have a special resonance to North American ears.  They’re quaint.  It’s kind of like when the NHL changed the Campbell and the Wales Conferences to the Western and Eastern Conferences.  Of course this is more intuitive and easier for outsiders to understand, but the NHL gave up a little bit of its history and character in the process.

 

The Positively Baffling Units of the Canadian Professional Kitchen

Temperature. Canadians measure ambient temperatures in degrees Celsius, but oven temperatures in Fahrenheit.  For instance: I know that room temperature is 20°C, and a hot day is 30°C, but most quick breads are baked in a 350°F oven.  I do a lot of catering in private homes, and if the homeowner has a fancy oven from Europe that displays temperature in Celsius, I am completely lost.  The temperatures for sugar work are always in Fahrenheit.  The only temperatures that I can comfortably move between Celsius and Fahrenheit are the finishing temperatures for meat (a medium rare roast beef is 55°C and 130°F).

Distance. Personal height and short distances are in American feet and inches.  Long distances, especially distances between cities, are in metric kilometers.  Track events are in metric, though when I was growing up we had to run a 1.6 km race (a mile).  In the kitchen, both systems are used, but I would argue that the American predominates.  Classic knifework is explained in American units:

  • small dice: 1/4″ x 1/4″
  • julienne: 1/8″ x 1/8″ x 2-3″
  • brunoise: 1/16″ x 1/16″

Understanding long Canadian distances in miles is a distinctly prairie gift, due entirely to the Dominion Land Survey.  (Most of Canada west of Winnipeg is surveyed in American miles. The Wikipedia article on the DLS explains why, and is also just really, really fascinating.  You should read it before you eat at RGE RD.  Just kidding.)

Speed. For people under the age of fifty, speed is always in kilometers per hour.  Sometimes familiar phrases from the States (miles per hour, miles per gallon) will sneak into our vocabulary, even though we are actually referring to the metric equivalent.  Obviously this measure has little use in the kitchen; I just included it for the sake of completeness.

Weight. This is an interesting one.  I would say that most Canadians deal exclusively in American pounds (notably: baby birth weights and personal weights), with the following exceptions: ordering meat at a deli, or purchasing small quantities of marijuana.  In the professional kitchen pounds and kilos and ounces and grams are all used frequently.  In most of the restaurants I’ve worked in, for some reason meat is ordered from distributors by the kilo, whereas fish is ordered by the pound.  Conventions for sizing seafood like shrimp and scallops uses pounds.

Volume.  This is one where we are so confused that we are actually comfortable in both metric and American.  From millilitres to fluid ounces and cups and quarts and litres and gallons.  Alcohol is always ordered by the US fluid ounce.  A “2-6” is a 750 mL bottle of liquor, which is about 26 fl. oz.

Alcohol Content. In Canada all alcoholic beverages must be labelled with the percent alcohol by volume (ABV).  In the states some regions use or used to use percent alcohol by weight (ABW).  Because alcohol has a different density than water, these two measures are not equal; the ABV measure will always be a higher number than ABW.  I’ve heard that after Prohibition was repealed, many producers in the states provided the ABW system, with its lower numbers, to make the drinks appear temperate.

The other common measurement that appears occasionally in Canada is the proof system.  The American proof number is double the ABV.  So 90 proof bourbon is 45% ABV.

 

Old Timey Units

I love you a bushel and a peck
A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.

-Doris Day

 

I leave you with the hilariously precise definitions of some antiquated units.

  • drop = 1/60 tsp
  • dash = 1/8 tsp
  • jigger = 3 tbsp
  • peck = 2 gallons
  • bushel = 4 pecks = 8 gallons

Breaking the Fast

In grade eight we studied Japan.  I remember learning that they eat cold rice and pickles for breakfast.  I was revolted.

Many years later, in the summer of 2010, Lisa and I hosted an Austrian student named Dominik.  He was staying in Edmonton to work at some of the hotel kitchens in the downtown core.  He usually started work late enough that I had time to cook him breakfast before he left.  We went through a few days of yogurt and granola and toast and the like.  One day he started work even later than usual, so I made scrambled eggs and hash browns.

The expression that I had made when I first heard about a breakfast of cold rice and pickles – something between a scowl, a grimace, and a gag – now appeared on Dominik’s face.

“Potatoes? For breakfast?”  He was incredulous.

I understood his reaction better once I had been to Austria.  No matter where I went, and whether I was staying in a hotel or a hostel or a friend’s house, breakfast was the same: buns, cold-cuts, cheese, and coffee.  Sometimes liver spread.

It seems that morning foods are full of medieval stricture.  An Italian would never drink a cappuccino after noon, nor would a Bavarian eat weisswurst.  I would never eat rice before noon.  Perhaps the belly and mind are a bit sensitive after being “starved” for eight hours, so we seek familiar, comforting food.

The hearty, starchy, meaty breakfast is definitely a hallmark of North American cuisine.  If the Austrian breakfast seems austere to you, I understand that the French and Italian versions are even more so, often consisting solely of milky coffee.

Do I eat the kingly meal of bacon and eggs every morning?  Of course not.  But on weekends, holidays, and any other day that I have more than fifteen minutes to prepare breakfast I do.  I associate good breakfasts with weekends and hangovers and holiday Mondays.

Anyways.  With all this in mind I’ve been writing about breakfast dishes.  I’ve already written about a few classic breakfast foods (bacon, pancakes, doughnuts, jam and jelly, soft-boiled eggs).  Expect more over the next couple months.

Pig Kill in Sangudo, Alberta

It takes a village to kill a pig.

-Jeffrey Steingarten

 

The drip cooler at Sangudo Custom MeatsThis happened ages ago, back in September, and Kevin has long since posted a fantastic video about it, but I want to write about a pork butchery workshop that took place out in Sangudo, Alberta.  The workshop was put together by Kevin Kossowan, and hosted by Jeff Senger of Sangudo Custom Meats.  The day started with the killing and processing of one of Jeff’s own pigs.  Since it was Saturday and there were no inspectors present, the kill took place on Jeff’s farm, then the pig was processed at Sangudo Meats.  The day continued with a hands-on meat-cutting class, and finally some demonstrations of sausage-making and other charcuterie preparations.  I’d like to tell you about how the actual kill happens, and how a pig becomes two sides of pork.  I’ve spent a bit of time with the pigs at Tipi Creek, and I’ve cut more than a few sides of pork, but this was a part of the cycle that I knew very little about.

All my culinary references tell me that animals are stunned either by electric shock or a captive bolt.  This may be true in larger abattoirs, but in smaller operations the pig is stunned by a rifle shot to the forehead.  I knew this before visiting Sangudo because a few times I’ve found the bullet in the side of pork I purchased.  Once it was lodged in the atlas joint, where the head meets the neck.  Another time there was a trail of bloody, damaged meat running through the head, shoulder, and into the belly.  The skin of the belly had stopped the bullet, and it lay in the fatty meat.

Immediately after Jeff shot the pig, it fell and started writhing violently.  Two men held it down, one kneeling on the neck, the other where the belly meets the leg, near the groin.  A third man wielding a boning knife cut the pig’s throat, just above the heart, severing the major aorta.  Blood ran like water from a tap.  The kicking subsided after half a minute or so.

The pig was taken into the abattoir, dragged by a hook in its mouth, and hoisted by the same hook into a scalding tub, which was steaming generously, but not boiling.  The pig wanted to float, so a stiff rod was used to keep it submerged.  Jeff occasionally let the pig bob to the surface so that he could pull at the hair.  After about thirty seconds the hair came off easily, at which point a large basket transferred the pig from the scalding tank to the debristler.

The debristler rapidly rolled the pig so that its flesh rubbed against a grate, pulling off hair and the first few layers of skin.  As the pig spun, Jeff directed a large blowtorch that singed hairs that could not be reached by the debristler, especially around the head and legs.

The debristler was stopped so that the trotters could be singed to remove hair and loosen the toenails, which were then removed with a special hook.  Attached to the hook was a bell-shaped scraper that was used to clean burnt debris from the skin.

An incision was made in each foot, between the bone and the Achilles tendon.  The two ends of a special, curved bar were slid into the incisions and the pig was hoisted so that it was hanging by its feet.

Jeff made a circular cut around the anus, then sliced towards the belly, around the genitals.  The end of the bowel was tucked into the guts to prevent spillage, though this shouldn’t have been a huge issue, as the pig was starved for a day before being killed.

The organs were removed more or less in one piece, following the digestive tract from the rectum, past the kidneys to the intestines and stomach, pulling out the nearby liver, heart, and lungs, and finally the esophagus and tongue.  These organs are inspected by the government employee who is present for the kill and evisceration of every animal that will be sold to the public.

With the organs removed, the carcass was washed with a spray hose, inside and out.  The carcass, still suspended by the feet, was cut with a huge saw hanging from the ceiling.  The pig was broken into two halves along the spine, but remained connected at the head.  The hanging carcass was then slid along a track to the weigh station, then into the drip cooler to chill.

Over the next few hours rigor mortis sets in and the muscles stiffen.  It takes a couple days for the muscles to soften again.  This is mostly through enzymatic activity.  The pig is now familiar to any meat-cutter, and ready to be broken into primals.

This was an experience.  Thinking ahead to the day, I was sure that the evisceration would be the most difficult part to handle, but in actuality it was the kill itself.  As when watching Kevin’s other videos about abattoirs, I found myself nervous or maybe anxious in the few minutes immediately before the kill, but once the animal had died and was still, the feeling left.  After that there was no anxiety or revulsion at all, just a profound interest in what Jeff was doing to transform the animal into meat.

I’m hugely appreciative to have been invited to Sangudo that morning, and very grateful to Jeff and others like him who do this work every day with diligence and respect.  It’s not pleasant by any means, but God is it important.

On Curing Salts (and Fearmongering)

Have you seen this commercial for McCain’s frozen pizza?

“What do other companies put in their pizzas? Something called sodium nitrite…” Those last two words are pronounced with a blend of confusion and self-righteous disgust. The molecular diagram of the compound is flashed across the screen for further effect.

The food industry is quick to pick up on trends.  My generation was taught to read labels, and to mistrust “chemical” ingredients, including curing salt. However:

The resistance to… ‘scientific’ ingredients has always seemed to me misguided. In the objector’s mind a line is drawn between science and cookery, which usually turns out to be entirely arbitrary. No one objects to table salt (sodium chloride) or table sugar (sucrose) in a recipe, but an ingredients list that includes fructose or sodium citrate is viewed by some with suspicion.[1]

The Complete Skinny on Curing Salts

How salt preserves food

Imagine microbes within a piece of meat. When salt is first added to the meat, there is a relatively high concentration of salt outside the microbes, and a relatively low concentration inside. The cells of the microbes try to equalize the salt concentration on both sides of the cell membrane by expelling water and taking in salt. This ultimately either kills the cells or severely reduces their functionality. The meat itself also loses water and takes in salt, thus making it inhospitable to any microbes that show up later. That is how salt preserves food.

The difference between table salt and curing salt

Cured meats were once made with table salt, sodium chloride. This is the salt on your kitchen counter, and the salt you taste when you swim in the ocean. However, for hundreds of years we have known of other salts, naturally occurring in small quantities, that are even better at improving the flavour and storage-life of cured meats.  These are curing salts.

One such salt is potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, which is still used in Europe. In North America, potassium nitrate has been replaced by sodium nitrate, which was found to be more reliable.

The reasons why these nitrates are better than table salt at preserving meat are several and complex. Here’s an example. Iron oxidizes fat, turning it rancid. When added to meat, nitrates form nitric oxide, which binds to iron atoms, preventing them from oxidizing the fat, and prolonging the storage-life of the meat.[2]

The difference between sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite

While nitrates have been added to cured meats since at least the 17th century, in the 19th century it was discovered that salt-resistant bacteria in the meat convert the nitrates to nitrites, and that nitrites are actually the active curing agents.

Now sodium nitrite can be added directly to curing mixes. Meats that will be cured for only a short while (say, a few hours in a smokehouse), are treated with sodium nitrite. Meats that will be hung in a cellar for several weeks are treated with a blend of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, which is slowly converted to nitrite, thus protecting the meat for the entire curing process.

Retail forms of curing salt and terminology

Here’s where it gets really confusing.

You can’t buy 100% sodium nitrite (unless you work at a pharmacy, maybe). It will always be cut with regular salt. In the US the most common form is a mixture of 93.75% sodium chloride, and 6.25% sodium nitrite. Brand names include Insta Cure #1 and Prague Powder. When buying from butcher suppliers in Edmonton, the most common mixtures are actually 95% sodium chloride, and 5% sodium nitrite, possibly with trace amounts of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which is an anti-caking agent. The mixture will likely be called F.S. Cure, which is made by a company called First Spice, then packaged for the supplier that you are buying from.

In the US, curing salts are tinted pink so that they aren’t confused with table salt. This gave rise to the terms “pink salt” and “tinted cure mix” (TCM) for sodium nitrite. For some reason, this precaution is not taken in Canada. The curing salts I buy are white as snow, though they are still sometimes called pink salt. It’s commonly believed that the pink colour of cured meats is from the pink die in some curing salts. This isn’t true: it has to do with the chemical reactions taking place in the meat.

In the US sodium nitrate is sold in a mixture of 92.75% sodium chloride, 6.25% sodium nitrite, and 1% sodium nitrate. It, too, is usually died pink in the US, but left white in Canada. The most common brand name is Insta Cure #2. From butcher suppliers around Edmonton you are more likely to be sold the F.S. Salami Cure, which can be used for all kinds of dry-curing, not just salami.

Health concerns

Curing salts have been demonized as carcinogens. Here is a quote on the subject from the preeminent food scientist, Harold McGee.

…at present there’s no clear evidence that the nitrites in cured meats increase the risk of developing cancer. Still, it’s probably prudent to eat cured meats in moderation and cook them gently.[3]

Conclusion

Curing salts are in fact what make traditionally cured meats safe to eat. The simple truth is that dried sausages like salami that will be hung in a cellar for several days or weeks must be treated with nitrite and nitrate.

To completely avoid curing salts is to avoid the unique flavours and textures of traditionally cured meats like salami and bresaola. As for the “nitrite-free pepperoni” on McCain pizzas: traditional pepperoni is dried, and therefore requires the addition of curing salts. If McCain pizzas have nitrite-free pepperoni, this means one of two things: either they are improperly curing their meat, or they are not drying their pepperoni. Obviously the latter is what is happening. I would argue that the sausage on their pizza cannot properly be called pepperoni, as it isn’t dried. Too bad pepperoni isn’t a protected designation.

References

1. This is Heston Blumenthal in the history section of The Fat Duck Cookbook. I wrote the quote on a scrap piece of paper, without the page number, and have since returned the book to the library. Bad journalism.
2. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 174.
3. Ibid. Page 125.

The Story of the Buffalo

How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?

-Ernesto Geuvara, in The Motorcycle Diaries

Eating the Buffalo

The poster-beast for the nose-to-tail movement is the pig, and I have devoted the last few years of my life to learning some of the near-countless preparations of that animal. I’ve cured hocks, bellies, and hams, stuffed intestines (“casings”), boiled trotters, skin, and bones to make stock, rendered fatback to make lard, made black pudding with pig’s blood, and tried my hand at making headcheese.

For some reason I only recently related the bison meat at the market to the buffalo I learned about in history class. Only recently did I recall a teacher telling us that the Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo. As a child, it sounded gross, but now it’s a revelation.

Buffalo jerky!Given my interest in charcuterie, my favourite buffalo preparations involve the preservation of the meat. The Plains Indians dried the bulk of the meat near a campfire to make what was essentially jerky. This is a hugely underused preparation, well-suited to our landscape. (My cracked palms and chapped lips can testify to how dry Alberta is.)

While jerky was common in the southern plains, the Indians of the northern plains developed pemmican. I think every Canadian child hears about pemmican in school, though few have seen or tasted it. My memories of pemmican from elementary school are these: first, it sustained the voyageurs; second, it was made of meat and berries, which seemed a very strange combination to me at the time. (Meat and fruit has since become one of my favourite pairings: pork and apple, rabbit and prune, duck and cherry…)

At its heart pemmican is actually dried meat and fat. On the plains the meat was almost always bison, but venison and, in the north, moose, were also used. Dried meat is “shelf-stable,” but pemmican is more than a way to preserve the meat: it is an easily portable meal high in energy and protein. Dried strips of meat were pounded very fine and then mixed with rendered buffalo fat, which supplied needed calories and fat-soluble vitamins. That’s pemmican: dried meat powder in fat, roughly equal parts by weight.[1] Sometimes dried saskatoons were added to the mix, though this increased the rate of spoilage.

Most often pemmican was eaten as is. Occasionally it was seared, or served in water or broth, at which point it was called “rubaboo.” I have seen occasional reference to pemmican in outdoorsman circles, where the term is sometimes used to sell energy bars and trail food. Otherwise pemmican is considered a historical curiosity.

Other parts of the buffalo were cooked fresh, notably the kidneys, liver, and tongue. The blood was used in soup.

The Plains Indians’ use of the buffalo went far beyond food. Bones were cracked and boiled to get grease, which was used as fuel for fire. The hides from spring and summer hunts (when the fur was relatively thin), were made into leather and became tipi covers, bags, clothing, and, later in history, saddles. Hides taken during the winter hunts became the robes and gloves that made surviving the prairie winter possible.

The Buffalo Hunt

In the nineteenth century the buffalo herds were crippled by disease and over-hunting. Once the Plains Indians obtained horses (first brought to North America by the Spanish), buffalo could be hunted by individuals, instead of the traditional group methods based on herding. While the Europeans’ trading routes were established largely around the beaver, the buffalo became an important resource to feed the employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies. There was a good living to be made provisioning the trading posts with pemmican or fresh meat, and many natives began hunting for trade instead of subsistence. As further incentive to hunt, buffalo robes were popular in eastern Canada and the United States as sleigh throws, and in the latter half of the 1800s the hides were made into industrial drive belts.[2]

To aggravate the situation, the American government was fighting a war against several groups of Plains Indians and, recognizing the natives’ dependence on the buffalo, openly encouraged over-hunting. In 1875, for example, when the Texas legislature considered a bill to save the last of the Texan buffalo, General Philip Sheridan, commander of the US Army in the plains region, dissuaded them, saying:

[The buffalo hunters] are destroying the Indian’s commissary, and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.[3]

While there was no direct elimination policy in Canada, the Canadian plains lost most of their herds, as the buffalo migrated across what is now the border. Also, American buffalo hunters regularly crossed the forty ninth parallel into southern Alberta. So too did traders in moonshine, who exchanged illegal whisky for buffalo robes. These groups (in part) necessitated the creation of the North West Mounted Police, and their post at the confluence of the Elbow and Bow rivers, Fort Calgary.[4]

The End of the Plains Indians’ Way of Life[5]

By the time the Canadian government came to sign treaties with the Indians of the North West, the buffalo population had been decimated: it was clear that their traditional way of life could no longer support them. When it came time to bargain, the Indians demanded to be given the opportunity to farm. Treaties 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 each contain clauses that were intended to help the Plains Indians become farmers. (The reserves in the Edmonton area, such as the Enoch Cree reserve, are part of Treaty 6. The reserves of Calgary and southern Alberta, like the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), are part of Treaty 7.) These clauses promised certain livestock and farming tools, like plows, but no formal instruction on farming. The Indians were expected to rely on the local missionaries for farming knowledge.

There were serious logistical problems in the distribution of the promised provisions, especially in the Treaty 6 area. The natives could not settle their chosen reserves until the government had surveyed the land, and they were not eligible to receive their equipment until they had started cultivation.

To help the Indians, model farms called “home farms” were set up in areas 4 and 6. They were intended to teach the natives how to farm, and the resulting crops would help feed them until they were self-sufficient. This plan, too, eventually failed. Most of the first government-appointed instructors were from Ontario and knew nothing of the Plains Indians or farming on the prairies. There was also confusion as to who owned the farms’ produce, some teachers thinking that they had the right to sell to outside communities. The home farms were abandoned in 1884.

More failures came when Hayter Reed was appointed the Indian Commissioner of the North West. Part of enticing settlers to the west was a promised market for crops. Reed came under pressure from white settlers who resented the support given to the natives who were potentially competing in the same markets.

Reed believed that civilizations move in an irresistible, linear progression. He also believed that groups should move through each of the stages of civilization in order. Therefore the Plains Indians, who had recently been hunters and gatherers, should not move directly to the modern farming being practiced in Europe, but should first be “yeoman farmers.” They shouldn’t, therefore, have access to mechanized farming equipment, like tractors or threshers: they should be subsistence farmers that only produce food for their families, not for the larger market.

The failure of the Canadian government to provide agricultural assistance, promised by the treaties, was a major factor in the development of poverty and social depravity on Indian reserves.

Conservation

By 1900 there were fewer than 1000 buffalo left in North America. There were twenty three buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, and several others on private ranches.[6] Most, however, were in the Canadian wild, notably in the northern parklands, where there was a distinct subspecies, separate from the plains bison, called the wood bison. Wood bison are larger, have shorter coats, live in smaller groups, and do not have the pronounced migratory patterns of the plains bison.

To protect the remaining animals, buffalo ranges were formed and stocked with animals from private herds. In 1906 the Canadian government purchased buffalo from a Montana rancher, and a year later founded Buffalo National Park near Wainright, AB. Interestingly, before being brought to their home in Buffalo National Park, which hadn’t been completely fenced off, the buffalo were kept in Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton. In rounding up the herd so that it could be shipped to Wainright, some animals allegedly eluded capture, stayed in the park, and founded Elk Island’s modern herd of plains bison.[8]

Woodbuffalo National Park was established in 1922 to preserve the wood bison. In 1926 thousands of buffalo were transferred from Wainright to Woodbuffalo, resulting in the hybridization of the Woodbuffalo animals and a huge loss in genetic diversity. The Wainright herd also introduced tuberculosis and brucellosis to Woodbuffalo. It was thought that the wood bison subspecies had been lost, but in 1957 an isolated herd of pure wood bison was discovered in Woodbuffalo National Park. Some animals from this herd were transferred to the northwest shore of Great Slave Lake, where the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary was formed. There is now a Bison-Free Management Area between Woodbuffalo National Park and the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary to protect the pure herd from hybridization and disease. The area is monitored in the winter months and, as a final measure of security, hunting buffalo is permitted in the area.[7] Other pure wood bison were sent to Elk Island National Park.

With the loss of genetic diversity during conservation, many buffalo herds are now prone to leg problems.[9]

Meat Market

The 1990s saw the growth of a market for buffalo meat. To my mind, consumers are a bit confused about what they’re buying. Lots of people complain that buffalo tastes too strong, or too “gamy.”
Any distinctive, wild, “game” flavours come from an animal’s diet more so than any inherent characteristic of the meat. While some buffalo are raised on native grasses, others graze on a uniform diet of commercial forage and are grain-finished, just like cattle. I have had some flavourful buffalo (notably from First Nature Farms), but I’m not sure I would describe it as gamy…

At any rate, groups like the Bison Producers of Canada shy away from the topic of taste, and sell their product as the healthy red meat alternative, as it has significantly less fat than beef, and is a good source of iron and other nutrients.[10]

Conclusion

My goal in writing this history is not to arrive at a moral decision on buffalo meat. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about the life and slaughter of specific animals on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider an animal from a broader perspective – to wonder not just what bison meat is the most ethically or sustainably raised, but rather why it is we raise and eat buffalo in the first place. Reconciling the past and present is becoming a theme on Button Soup.

References

1. Euler, John. Pemmican! ©195-? Government of Canada, Department of Indian Affairs. Page 8.

2. Marsh, James H. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Vol I. ©1988 Hurtig Publishers Ltd. Edmonton, Alberta. Page 295.

3. Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny. ©2006 Clarion Books. New York, New York. Page 56-57.

4. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Page 315.

5. Ray, Arthur J. An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People, Third Edition. ©2010 Key Porter Books, Toronto, ON. All my information on the natives’ transition from hunting to farming is from the chapter called (appropriately) “From Hunting to Farming.”

6. The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny. Page 59.

7. All of this information on conservation efforts in Canada is from the “Bison” article in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Page 233.

8. I say “allegedly” because of this cheeky Parks Canada publication.

9. From the Slow Food website, specifically the Ark of Taste article on The Great Plains Bison.

10. From the Bison Producers of Canada website, specifically their comparative nutritional information.

Food Legislation

Public health food regulations, and all other laws regarding food in Canada, are well-intentioned, and drafted to protect consumers. Most make perfect sense within the context of the industrialized food system, where people do not, and cannot, know everything about the food they eat.

When cooking, eating, and drinking outside the industrial system, food legislation often conflicts with food culture and individuals’ rights. Here are some examples.

Alberta Public Health Food Regulations

The provincial public health food regulations apply to operations such as restaurants, food stands, farmers’ markets, bake sales and the like. While I consider the restaurant scene only a peripheral component of our food culture, some of the restrictions put on restaurants clearly reflect how we think of food. In fact, several of the most pleasurable ingredients and preparations are misunderstood and considered too dangerous to allow.

In our food regulations, temperature is the only wholly acceptable way to control bacterial growth. Temperatures below 4°C inhibit bacterial growth, while temperatures above 60°C kill most bacteria. Perishable food can be in the “danger zone” between these two temperatures for no longer than two hours before it is considered unsafe and unfit to serve.

In the food safety courses of Alberta Health Services, there is mention of the other ways to curb bacterial growth (such as controlling acidity, moisture, and sugar content), but none supersede the two hour danger zone rule. Restaurants can’t, for example, dry cure salami or saucisson sec by the traditional methods. For these sausages, ground meat is mixed with curing salt and a bacterial culture that produces acid, which inhibits the growth of pathogens. This is what gives salami its characteristic tang. Next the meat is hung in cellar conditions (between 8°C and 15°C) for a few weeks to dry. The removal of moisture further prevents the growth of pathogens. Even though bacterial growth is precisely controlled by salting, pH adjustments, and thorough drying, a health inspector would see that the meat is being held in the “danger zone” and document a critical violation of food safety.

Some of the greatest “low and slow” cooking methods, like confit and smoking, hold meat in the danger zone for more than the allotted two hours.

The health inspector’s mantra is, “Hot food hot, cold food cold,” meaning that food should be held and served with an internal temperature either above 60°C, or below 4°C. Serving food at these temperatures can be disagreeable, especially cold dishes. Several high-fat foods should be eaten at room temperature. Examples include pâtés, rillettes, the bacon on caesar salads, and cheese. The fat has to be at room temperature for two reasons. First is appearance: you want the bacon on your caesar salad to shine, not have globules of congealed white fat. Second is flavour and mouthfeel: the warm fat coats your tongue and helps distribute the bacon flavour. High quality cheeses should be taken out of the fridge hours before being served. I would make the same argument for hard-boiled eggs.

Which reminds me, raw eggs in all forms are discouraged: mayonnaise, and, incredibly, meringue. Even when meringue is baked, the mixture doesn’t get hot enough to pasteurize the egg whites, and is therefore not safe to eat.

I agree that controlling temperature is the most effective way of controlling bacterial growth. I also admit that most of the restaurants in Edmonton have no desire to cure their own meat or smoke ribs for ten hours. Restrictive food regulations obviously don’t cripple the restaurant scene. I just think they reflect our general lack of food knowledge and appreciation.

Unpasteurized Milk

This is probably the most publicized conflict between public health and individual rights: both provincial and federal legislation prohibit the distribution of unpasteurized milk. There is, however, a now-famous Ontario dairyman who sells shares in his cows, enabling him to legally distribute raw milk to the many “owners”.

To me the most interesting discussion surrounds raw-milk cheese, as pasteurization kills naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes that help develop the flavour of ripened cheese.

It is legal to sell cheese made from unpasteurized milk, so long as the cheese has been aged for more than sixty days, as the salt and acid in the cheese make it impossible for pathogens to survive this period of time. The problem is that soft, ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert reach their peak flavour and texture after only thirty days of aging.

The sixty day minimum aging applies to all provinces except Quebec, which in 2008 passed a law allowing the sale of raw-milk cheese aged less than sixty days. My understanding is that this cheese could not be sold in Alberta, as food moving between provinces is regulated by the Food and Drugs Act, which upholds the sixty day aging minimum for raw-milk cheese.

The last time raw-milk cheese was in the Alberta news was in early 2003, when an E. coli outbreak was traced back to a cheesemaker in Leduc called Eyot Creek. There was a flurry of articles on the outbreak, and distribution was stopped immediately. The results of Capital Health’s investigation were never thoroughly discussed in the media. To my knowledge, Eyot Creek didn’t violate any regulations, and their cheese, while made from unpasteurized milk, was aged for at least sixty days. It seems to me that the E. coli would have been introduced after the aging process, and therefore didn’t originate in the raw milk. This wasn’t addressed in any article or press-release that I have come across. The media coverage enforced the public’s mistrust of raw-milk cheese.

To quote Harold McGee: “It will be genuine progress when public health officials help ambitious cheesemakers to ensure the safety of raw-milk cheeses, rather than making rules that restrict consumer choice without significantly reducing risk.”[1]

Game Meats

Hanging pheasantsSelling game meat, or “trafficking in wildlife”, is prohibited by the Alberta Wildlife Act Regulations.

Larousse‘s entry on Canada gives an idea of how important game could be in our cuisine. “Four-fifths of the country consist of stretches of water and forests, rich in ground game … and game birds… However, the state forbids the sale of these delicious foods which are reserved for private consumption.” This includes restaurants. If you have ever had venison, boar, pheasant, rabbit, or any other “game animal” in a restaurant in Canada, is has been farmed and slaughtered in an abattoir.

Game meat is flavourful because of the variety of plants on which the animal feeds. Farmed animals never have access to the same quality or variety of feed as wild animals. In farming, the robust, complex flavour of the animal is lost, and the meat becomes a simple novelty.

I don’t mean to malign the many hunting regulations that ensure future generations of Canadians will be able to hunt and taste game meat: it’s just strange that someone who lawfully kills wildlife can’t sell me the meat.

Home-Distilling

Most food-related regulations only restrict the sale of potentially harmful goods. For instance, it’s not illegal to drink raw milk, or to make unripened raw-milk cheese, it’s only illegal to sell it.

The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Act, however, prohibits any manufacture of liquor without a license, even if in small quantities for private consumption. To obtain the Class E Liquor License required to distill alcohol you must be running a commercial operation that produces hundreds of thousands of litres of alcohol a year.

The dangers of home-distilling are completely exaggerated and misunderstood. Most ridiculous is the idea that the stills often explode. This myth is a vestige of the days when open flames were used to boil the mash and evaporate the alcohol. If home-distilling were practiced regularly in modern homes, I’m sure electric burners would be used. (Maybe don’t smoke while you distill.) To convince you that ordinary people can practice alcohol distillation safely, we recently partook in homemade schnapps from Austria, to no ill effect (besides, obviously, the intended intoxication.)

Given our historic association with grain-growing, prairie home-distilling would be a boon for our food culture.

On a completely unrelated note, 83% of the price of liquor goes towards federal and provincial taxes.[2]

Abattoirs

I have come across a few articles saying that provincial meat inspection regulations can be prohibitively expensive and sometimes result in the closure of small slaughterhouses. This is especially a concern for producers in isolated regions, such as coastal British Columbia, and producers of niche animals, like sheep, because there are fewer abattoirs they can use. The closure of local abattoirs means that these producers have to travel farther, sometimes much farther, to kill their animals. Travelling not only adds to the cost of the product, but stresses the animals and reduces the quality of their meat.

I recently spoke to an Albertan pork producer who was interested in selling blood sausage, but who couldn’t procure his pigs’ blood fresh enough, due to travelling time between his farm and the abattoir.

Conclusion: Underground Food Culture

The good news is that, with the exception of distillation, none of the above regulations dictate what you can do in the privacy of your own home. You can dry-cure meat, even though is stays in the danger zone for weeks. You can eat raw eggs and wild game and even ripen raw-milk cheese to perfection. In a weird way, if you take a few tentative steps outside of the industrial food system, the above food legislation will force you into very close contact with your food. For instance, since I can’t buy wild venison from a butcher shop, I need to learn to hunt, or at least befriend a hunter. Either way, I am being brought closer to my food than I would at a butcher shop. That’s my lame attempt at a silver lining.

References

1. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. ©2004 Scribner, New York. Page 56.
2. Kendall, Kay and Bokji, Sandi (Ed.). Distilling Industry from The Canadian Encyclopedia. ©2010 Historica-Dominion. Site accessed on Monday, July 19, 2010.

Also, all the above-mentioned legislation is available online.

Language and Food

A big ol' pork hock from K&K FoodlinerThe precision of the French language in describing the actions, equipment, and raw materials of the kitchen is unmatched, and it reflects their strong appreciation and understanding of food.

Consider the diagrams of pigs that show where the different cuts of pork come from on the animal.  The British, North Americans, and French all have traditional ways to divide the animal.  You’ll notice that, on the French diagram, not only are more parts of the animal used, but where the British and North Americans discern only one cut of meat, the French often have many.  The part of the animal that we call the shoulder, or butt, forms at least three cuts in French cuisine, each with their own name: palette, épaul, and plat de côtes.  To the French gourmand, each section of the shoulder has distinct textures and flavours.  A discerning English-speaking diner might be able to detect these differences, and could probably come up with good descriptors as to their location (“the front part of the shoulder,” “the back part,” and so on), but the fact that we don’t already have names for those unique parts shows that we don’t consider it an important distinction.

The greatest showcase of the relationship between language and our appreciation of food is the word “fond”.  It’s a French word, so the “on” is nasal and the “d” is silent. Fond is the caramelized stuff that sticks to the bottom of a pan, especially when cooking meat.

Capturing fond is important to developing the flavour of a dish, especially when making stocks, sauces, and braised dishes.  When meat is seared in a stainless steel pan, fond will develop.  To reclaim the fond and its deep caramelized flavour, you must degalze your pan.  Simply add a liquid (wine, stock, even water) then scrape the bottom of the pan to release the fond, which will dissolve into the liquid.  This liquid is now gold, and almost as valuable as the meat itself.

Despite the transcending depth of flavour fond adds to a dish, there is no English word for this stuff. Believe me, if there was, I would use it.  French words sound pretentious.  We should really invent a short, descriptive, Saxon word for fond. The relationship between language and understanding is so intimate, it’s hard to tell which is more accurate: we don’t use fond in cooking, so we don’t have a name for it; or we don’t have a word for fond, and so we don’t use it in our cooking.

To say that fond has been neglected in our culinary heritage is misleading, because there is actually an entire industry devoted to eliminating fond from our lives: the non-stick cookware racket.  The reason that we have non-stick cookware is that generations of housewives spent an appreciable part of their lives scrubbing fond from their pots when they could have simply deglazed, which would have made their food better and the dish-washing quicker.

And so when people ask, “What’s so French about French onion soup?  It’s just onions in beef stock.  It could just as easily be called English onion soup,”  I say that the answer is in the luxurious use of fond to develop the flavour of the onions.  If you caramelize onions over very low heat, a delicate fond will form .  If you shake or stir the pot so that the onions are pushed and pulled over the surface, the moisture from the onions will pick up the fond and clean the pot.  The secret to French onion soup is doing this again and again for several hours.  As English-speakers we owe our knowledge of the existence of fond to the French, so we should gracefully relinquish any claim to a decent onion soup.

Slow Food says that the primary way to preserve tradition and combat industrial food is taste education.  I propose that the foundation of “taste education” is giving people a precise, vivacious language with which to talk about food.  For instance, you don’t need a sophisticated palette to detect tannins in wine, as they are a pronounced textural sensation.  The trouble is that people don’t know that the granular mouthfeel of some red wines is a result of tannins, and end up using words that stifle conversation and understanding. (People often describe tannic wines as “dry,” which is descriptive, but confusing, as in winespeak “dry” is the opposite of “sweet”.)

It is almost never the case that someone lacks the faculties to detect a certain flavour, just a combination of their never having stopped to think about taste, and then not having an adequate arsenal of words to employ.

Fat is Flavour (A short tirade)

Fat is perhaps the main source of flavor [sic] in meat.

-Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs, Sixth Edition

 

Nothing in particular inspired this post, but it could have very easily been a piece of low-fat cheese, or the pastry icing at a health bakery, or maybe just a dry pork chop. I want to write a bit about the judicious use of fat to make eating more pleasurable.

Fat content in specific cuts of meat

The most common cut of pork in the supermarket is the boneless loin centre chop. This steak is the leanest part of a very lean muscle. It also happens to be the driest, and least flavourful cut of pork. This is not a coincidence. The fat marbled throughout a piece of meat gives flavour, moist mouthfeel, and tenderness, as the fat separates bundles of protein. The rib steak, from a section of the loin closer to the shoulder of the pig, while not as uniform or lean as the centre steak, is more flavourful, juicy, and tender, largely because it has more fat marbled throughout its mass.

The same comparison can be made between beef sirloin steaks and porterhouse or t-bone steaks, or white and dark meat on poultry.

The removal of fat from supermarket cuts of meat is health-driven, but it is part of a larger trend that distances us from the origin of our food, as well as several of the chief pleasures in consuming it. Think of the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Bones are flavourful, and crispy skin gives textural contrast to succulent meat. If the rarity of fatty cuts is health-driven, what’s the excuse for removing bones and skin? It’s like a weird control-tactic from Brave New World: take away all reminders of mortality so we are more content and docile.

I digress.

Cooking with rendered fat

Jars of rendered fat: duck, beef, and pork

When searing meat in a pan we most often turn to neutral oils with high smoke points, like canola and grapeseed. If we really want to make our dish flavourful, why not sear our meat in its corresponding fat? Start a beef stew by searing chuck in tallow. Sear and baste a pork chop in lard.

Rendered animal fats can elevate non-meat dishes, too. Potatoes benefit immeasurably from the added depth of flavour. Duck fat is a common choice in France. Interestingly, McDonald’s used to cook their fries in pure beef fat, before “the public’s concern about cholesterol forced them to change to pure (though dangerously partially hydrogenated) vegetable oil.”1

Try pie dough with lard instead of butter, especially if you’re making tourtiere.

If you’re wondering how to obtain rendered fat, here are some ideas:

  • The simplest way is to ask your butcher for scraps, then render them yourself. It sounds like an ordeal, but it’s easy. In fact, I have a post about rendering pork fat into lard, and one about rendering duck and goose fat.
  • You can also save scraps yourself. Buy larger cuts of meat that you have to trim yourself, then save the fatty scraps in the freezer until you have enough to render. Having raw (that is, un-rendered) fat in your kitchen also opens up the world of sausages, pâtés, and traditional mincemeat pies.
  • Start making stocks at home. Buy whole poultry instead of just breasts and save the carcasses in the freezer until you have enough to fill a large stock pot. The gently simmering stock renders the fat out of the meat trim. That fat rises to the top. When you cool your stock, the fat will solidify and is easily removed in one solid mass. The amount of fat you are left with depends on how thoroughly the carcasses have been picked over and (obviously) the amount of stock you are making.

Cooking with craft foods that release fat

. The most common example is bacon. Countless classical French recipes begin by cooking bacon, then searing other meats and sweating vegetables in the rendered bacon fat. Most notable are braised dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, to which the bacon is later reintroduced. My great aunt used to save bacon fat to fry bread for breakfast.

Eggs fried in chorizo and its delicious, spicy, rendered fatSausage works well too, but free-form sausage is better than cased sausage. The key to preparing quality cased sausages, like bratwurst, is to keep the casing in tact so that no fat is lost. This is done firstly by not scoring or puncturing the skin, and secondly by cooking on medium-low heat to prevent rupture.

Free-form sausage, on the other hand, is usually cooked and then added to a more complicated dish. The best example is Mexican-style chorizo, which is a spicy, fresh sausage. No casing means that more fat ends up in the pan, and the fat leached by chorizo is almost as valuable as the meat itself. It is bright red, and infused with paprika and chile. Try cooking some free-form chorizo, then remove the meat form the pan, leaving the fat. Fry some eggs in that fat and add the meat back (at left). Chorizo also works wonders on rice dishes. Cook chorizo with some onions. Add raw rice and coat it with the rendered fat. Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven until the rice is cooked. The pilaf will come out stained with the spice and pork-flavour of the chorizo.

Italian-style sausages, usually flavoured with pepper and fennel, work well in this way, too. They are sold in casings, but you can squeeze the meat out and use it free-form.

Cheese is another example that was recently brought to my attention. Cheese is not usually a base flavour like bacon, but when a meal is starting with seared cheese, maybe a saganaki meze, don’t waste that cheese fat. You could cook your keftedhes in the same pan, or at least fry some bread in it.

That about does it for my rant. I’ll return to a (slightly) less self-righteous tone next post.

Reference

1. Steingarten, Jeffrey. Fries, from The Man Who Ate Everything. ©1997 Vintage Books, New York. Page 415.