seed dreams

Beans are seeds. This isn’t something I ordinarily think about, much less dwell on. But it’s been on my mind since last Saturday morning’s Forrest yoga class with Anne Paulsen.  (http://yoganne.wordpress.com/)  Because while I always leave yoga feeling richer, more ready and willing to face life with equanimity and confidence, this class was particularly special. And even though I’m not at all religious, it seems appropriate to  write about it today, Easter, a day that symbolizes rebirth.

In celebration/recognition of the Spring equinox, Anne started last Saturday’s class by suggesting that we envision a seed of something we want to build in our lives. I, of course, immediately summoned the image of a bean, specifically an Ayocote Negro bean. black runner beansGlossy, dense, and full of possibility. As I held the image of this bean, this seed, in my mind, I focused on my breath, listening as Anne guided us through planting the seed in our bodies, watering it with our breath, and nurturing it with love.

I followed my breath as it moved, creating space, until I found the right spot within my body. I planted my seed in the open space I found inside my hips. Then, periodically throughout the practice, I returned, watering the seed with my breath. My intention was to plant the seed of authentic expression, not in any one specific form, but for my life. To stop trying to be what I think I’m supposed to be for others. To stop judging myself by some imagined yardstick held by others. To be myself. Whatever, whoever that is.

Since last week, I’ve experienced my usual mix of ups and downs, at moments feeling full of hope and optimism, at other times fairly certain that my life is an absolute disaster. Yet there’s been a difference. It’s subtle, and still very young, but I feel a sense of trust that was not there before. I first noticed it last Saturday night, during my second date with the much younger man. I enjoyed his company. He was smart and funny and interesting and interested and sweet. But there was no connection. My heart did not sing. So, at the end of the night, I thanked him and said goodbye, without any uncertainty or regret.

I noticed this new trust in myself again on Monday morning, when I woke early enough to go to Jen Shin’s 6:30 am Forrest class. (http://yoganowchicago.wpengine.com/teachers/?trainer_id=100000299) Like Anne, Jen is an intuitive, generous, wise teacher whose heart is wide open and full of love. Jen’s class is a space entirely without judgment. By the end of class, I found myself letting go, releasing in a way that traditionally has not come easily to me. Another shoot emerging from the seed.

Tuesdays and Thursdays I am lucky enough to practice with the remarkable Gwen Mihaljevich. (http://www.evilstrength.com/) Gwen’s style is much more abstract than either Anne or Jen, yet no less powerful. I do not remember what we did on Tuesday. On Thursday, though, the focus was on learning how to give ourselves what we need, how to be our own support so that we do not need to feed off of others. Which sounds obvious. Yet isn’t. It’s a goal. And a practice.

Yesterday, Saturday, I arrived to Anne’s class late, something that I abhor. In the past I might have abandoned class rather than be late, worried about disturbing others or that the teacher might not like me. On this day, however, I managed to overcome those self-imposed limitations, knowing that I am almost never late, that I would do my best to enter quietly, and that Anne would not judge me but that even if she did, it was not up to me to decide or control her thoughts or opinion about who or what I am.

When I entered the room and laid down my mat, Anne was talking about kindness. She suggested that we feel into the space in our body that felt content, at ease. If that was difficult, we should feel for any area that had some sense of open space. Breathe into it. Allow the space to spread.  So often we focus on what is hard, trying to melt, soften, change. Today, instead, we would focus on what felt good and easy, already soft. Celebrate what is. This, Anne suggested, was the path to rewiring from a place of negative self-judgment to a place of love and acceptance. Focus on what feels good. Be easy.

Today, Easter, I’m starting my rewiring project by focusing on everything I have that’s good as is. I’m cooking, of course, because it’s Sunday and I need food for the week ahead. But I’m not making anything new. So I’m not blogging about food today. And, although since childhood I’ve always celebrated Easter by sharing food and love with either family or, in my adult years, large groups of friends, this year I decided to stay home, alone, to take care of myself. To feed myself love. Breathe in gratitude. Celebrate this new life of mine, as it is, now. This moment is good. And that is enough.

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Vegan Kibbeh with Turkish cranberry beans

I was first introduced to Kibbeh (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kibbeh) at a tiny little restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, Bethlehem restaurant, where I worked, briefly, as a waitress, back when I first moved to the city. I think the job lasted three weeks. I wasn’t fired. Nor did I quit. The owner simply disappeared, so that one evening when I showed up for work he simply wasn’t there. Which was fine. I was not a very good waitress. I was constantly convinced I was going to drop food. It made me nervous. And I don’t think I made enough money to cover transportation costs.

Because there were so few customers, I passed the time by talking to the owner. Or, rather, listening. Mostly he spoke of things I didn’t understand. He was Palestinian. I was a completely ignorant 22-year-old who at that time in my life (yes, I am ashamed of this) was wilfully disengaged from the political process and cared little, because I knew nothing, about the middle east. So I didn’t have any concept of what drove this man to drink various airplane sized bottles of alcohol at the end of each night. All I cared about was his food. He cooked delicious, intriguing food, much of which I’d never heard of or tasted.

I was familiar with hummus, of course, and falafel, both of which he made and made well. But kibbeh? Completely new. It reminded me of the aranciata I used to devour during the glorious bit of my life that I spent studying abroad in Florence, Italy. But instead of gooey rice and cheese, a relatively bland comfort food that one could sink into without thought, food as escapism, kibbeh required engagement. Analysis. One could not help but think about the contrasts in taste and texture brought with each bite, unfamiliar and intriguing. Yet, because of the unfamiliarity, I was overwhelmed. Plus, while delicious, the first kibbeh I experienced was more of an appetizer than a dinner. Not something I would ever cook at home. I therefore never asked for the recipe or thought much about how to make it.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when a friend and I were at Semirami’s, my favorite local Lebanese restaurant. (http://www.semiramisrestaurant.com/) We both ordered the special. kibbeh poached in tomato sauce. It was revelatory! And also inspiring. I was planning to cook dinner for a friend’s birthday the following weekend and had been at a loss for what to make. Because we were going to a play beforehand. Which meant the dinner needed to be made ahead. Yet, because I was cooking as part of a gift, I wanted it to be special. This would be perfect! And I was pretty sure I could it with beans.

Since I started this project, dreamsofmyfava, I’ve stockpiled quite a few beans. Some I ordered and others I received aTurkish beanss gifts, from supportive friends. So I had quite an array of choices to consider. None of them seemed quite right, though. Then I remembered–a good friend recently visited Turkey, where, apparently, beans are so popular that entire restaurants are devoted to them. So she brought me a sack of Turkish beans. Which I’m pretty sure are cranberry beans. Which are my favorite. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/03/cranberry-beans-with-garlic-sage-and-olive-oil/)While Turkey is not Lebanon, and I didn’t actually find any recipes for Turkish Kibbeh, it felt right. Decision made.

Now that I knew what kind of bean I would use, I faced the fact that in addition to making a version with beans, the challenge for this recipe was that I’ve never even made the traditional, tried and true kibbeh with lamb. And when I looked online, I could not find a single example of poached kibbeh. I therefore had no frame of reference beyond my single meal from Semiramis. But, having made the decision, I was undeterred. And perhaps a little manic. Because during that week I was also trying to write a tricky, long, and painfully fruitless brief at work. In my spare time, I was working on organizing a panel discussion on prison reform. And I was also texting back and forth with a much younger man who had asked me out on a date. Which, for where I’m at right now, was terrifying and exciting on pretty much every possible level. In short, my mind was overflowing with hopes and anxieties and dreams.

Thankfully, there was also yoga. Which enabled me to continue moving forward, non-grasping, through the hopes, past the anxieties, and without investing in any dreams. I focused.

First, I read several recipes. All shared the same ingredients of bulgur, lamb, onion, and pine nuts, flavored with allspice and cinnamon. I finally settled on this one from Epicurious as my template because it was baked, not fried. (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Baked-Kibbeh-107351)

Next, I cooked the beans. Because I wanted them to retain their shape, I brined overnight. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/05/brining-beans/) I added spices and olive oil in an effort to create a richer mouth feel and a deeper, more complex flavor.

Beans
1-1/2 c. dried cranberry beans
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
3 T. olive oil
1 thumb-sized piece kombu (for digestion)

Add all of the ingredients to the insert of a crockpot or a medium-sized pot. Cover with 1″ water. If using a crockpot, cook on high for 3 hours, or until done. If cooking on the stove, bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer checking the water level and testing for doneness. They will probably take about 1-1/2 hours. When they’ve done (or a little earlier, when they’ve given up but aren’t yet finished), salt liberally, starting with 1 teaspoon. I believe I used about 1-1/2 teaspoons. Cool in the cooking liquid and refrigerate until ready to use.

Next I started working on the kibbeh, which is a bit of a process.

KIBBEH

Filling
1/2 medium, sweet onion, finely chopped
2 T. olive oil
1 c. cooked beans, drained but not rinsed
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. dried crushed chili pepper
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c. pine nuts, toasted
salt, if necessary

Bulgur mixture
1 c. fine bulgur
1/2 medium, sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1-1/2 or 2 c. cooked beans, drained but not rinsed
1 t. ground allspice
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper

1.  To make the filling, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over moderate heat. Cook the onion until golden, 8-10 minutes. Add the beans and spices, stirring gently to combine, and cook until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the pine nuts. Salt to taste.

2. To make the bulgur mixture, first cover the bulgur with 1 inch of cold water in a bowl. After the dust and chaff rise to the surface, pour off the water. Repeat twice. Then cover the rinsed bulgur with 1″ of cold water and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain in a fine-meshed sieve, pressing down on the bulgur to remove excess liquid, and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.

3. To assemble the kibbeh, I used an ice cream server to scoop about an egg-sized portion of the bulgur mixture into the palm of my hand. I pressed an indentation in the center and added a scant tablespoon of the filling. I then formed the bulgur mixture around the filling. Transfer the filled kibbeh to a lightly oiled plate and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling and bulgur mixture. Refrigerate, uncovered, while you make the tomato sauce.

The tomato sauce at Semirami’s was delicious, unctuous and sweet with definite chunks of tomato and onion. Although I did not identify the spices when I was at the restaurant, from my research I was pretty sure it was flavored with allspice and cinnamon. So that’s what I decided to use. The Semirami’s sauce was also very sweet, almost certainly made with a generous amount of sugar. Since I try not to cook with refined sugar, I decided to use honey.

Tomato Sauce
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28-oz can whole plum tomatoes, chopped
1 medium, sweet onion, chopped medium
1/4 c. olive oil
1 T. honey
salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet, over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until golden, approximately 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the honey and salt to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Okay. Here’s where I took a misstep. What I should have done was bake the kibbeh for about 40 minutes at 350. That’s what I did with this one. And it’s what I’ll do next timebaked kibbeh. As you can see, you then have a cohesive little bundle, which is presentable. But, of course, I, being impatient, over confident, and generally overwhelmed, did not take that route.

Instead, I took the carefully formed, uncooked kibbeh from the fridge and nestled them directly into the tomato sauce. The little guy overhead got the special treatment only because he wouldn’t fit into the skillet with his friends. Who, after cooking on the stove for about 10 minutes and then in the oven, covered for another 45 minutes, looked like this. poached kibbehNot pretty. I tried a bite. It was delicious. But I had to transport this dish to my friend’s house. And then serve it for her birthday dinner. By which point it would bear no resemblance to kibbeh. It would be stew. Which might be okay. But I was not going for stew. I wanted kibbeh.

At this point, the person I was until very recently would probably have been freaking out. So I’m very proud to report that I wasn’t at all stressed. It was improv. The original idea didn’t work. The possibility remained, however, for something new. So. Onward.

In an act of bold desperation, laughing, I took out a baking sheet, lined it with parchment paper, and carefully scooped each fragile kibbeh from the sauce to the baking sheet. Then I crossed my fingers and jumped in the shower. 20 minutes later things were smelling good. They weren’t quitcranberry bean kibbeh poached in tomato saucee firm, but something was happening. And, after an additional 25 minutes, I had these. Not the most beautiful dish I’ve ever made. Not what I intended to make. But, hands down, the most delicious food I’ve ever created. Complex flavor, toothsome bite, and deeply satisfying. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to recreate that magic. But I plan to try. Because even if it doesn’t turn out the same as the first time, I can’t imagine that it will be bad. And even if it is bad, I will have fun. Living love. Full of gratitude for the ability to feed myself and people I love. And, through creating delicious, healthy food, manufacturing joy.

Farinata (chickpea pancake)

This morning, for the first time in over a week, I woke up feeling well rested. I suppose I’m finally used to stupid Daylight Savings Time. But it’s more than that. I feel like I’m back. First, I’m writing about beans again after what feels like a long time not. And second, more importantly, I’m cooking beans again. Which feels good. Not only because I want to write about beans. I want to get back to a bean-centric diet. It is important. Because both my body and my mind work and feel better when I eat mostly beans.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I have not been writing much about or cooking many beans, I’ve still been eating plenty. My freezer is always stocked with a selection of bean-based dishes. But for a little while there the balance shifted. Meat became not quite the center, but probably a quarter of my diet. I felt heavy. Full. Weighed down and not creative. Then I caught the flu.

My physical recovery from what was a very mild flu was fast. But the mental and emotional effect lingered. I was maybe a little depressed. Not a lot. But enough that I found myself suddenly snappish and irritable, rising quickly to anger over the smallest thing. Forgetting about gratitude. Deflecting my emotions. Getting stuck in my head. It was awful. And I realized that this used to be my norm. Which was both sobering and incredibly exciting.

In realizing that this state of rising quickly to anger, feeling ungrateful, and being stuck in my head used to be my norm, I recognized how much I’ve grown and changed for the better in the past few years. And especially in the past few months. Somehow, having my life fall apart has made everything make sense. I’ve learned how to make myself happy, how to manufacture my own source of joy.

Honestly, I think it’s mostly because of yoga. But the time I spend doing improv, writing, cooking, and eating certainly doesn’t hurt. Especially eating. Because of all these things, eating is the only one that I do several times a day, no matter what. After all, if you don’t eat, you die. And my body is especially tricky in that if I don’t feed it pretty much constantly, I faint. So it’s a good thing that this basic requirement for life also provides (or should provide) such rich pleasure. Which brings me to the ostensible subject of today’s somewhat rambling, positive self-help-speakish post. Farinata!

farinataAccording to Wikipedia, farinata, which is also called socca and cecina, “is a sort of thin, unleavened pancake or crêpe of chickpea flour originating in Genoa and later a typical food of the Ligurian Sea coast, from Nice to Pisa.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farinata) I first heard of it a couple of years ago when I read Skye Gyngell’s My Favorite Ingredients. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781580080507-2) Unlike Gyngell, I have not yet dreamt of farinata, but I am with her in loving this delicious chickpea pancake. It is delicious. Also healthy, quick, easy, and adaptable

I’ve tried several different recipes, including the one in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780764524837-0), but I like Gyngell’s the best. My version is hers in every way except the cooking method: Gyngell starts things off on the stove, whereas mine is cooked entirely in the oven. Here’s my recipe.

1-3/4 c. chickpea flour
1 t. sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
3 or 4 rosemary sprigs, leaves only, chopped
1 c. sparkling water
1 T. olive oil
Dolcelatte cheese, for serving (omit to make vegan)

1. Place 1 T. olive oil in a well-seasoned, 12-inch, cast-iron skillet. Put the skillet in the oven and preheat to 425.

2. Mix the flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl, forming a well in the center. Whisk in the olive oil, rosemary, and sparkling water. Let the batter rest for 20 minutes.

farinata with kale salad3. Remove the skillet from the oven and transfer the batter. Bake for 17-20 minutes, or until lightly brown and firm. Flip on to a plate.

To serve, cut in wedges and, if you wish, top with crumbled Dolcelatte (blue) or other cheese. Today I had this with a side of kale salad, minus the cheese and almonds. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/30/kale-salad/). It was terrific. Enjoy!

Pork and beans

One of the first things I learned to cook was “Beanies and Weanies,” a delightful (if, to my adult sensibilities, somewhat revolting) combination of hot dogs and canned pork and beans. I got fancy with it and added brown sugar, mustard, sometimes minced garlic, freshly ground pepper. I probably experimented with dried thyme, which for a while I added to everything (it’s really good in scrambled eggs). Also, once I became an expert in this dish, my specialty, I insisted on baking in the oven rather than cooking on the stove top. The baked version resulted in a thicker, slightly carmelized sauce that even my 9-year-old self recognized as being far superior to the glorpy goo that came off the stove.

Now, all these years later, I cannot even imagine eating canned pork and beans. And, while I appreciate hot dogs, I’m not sure I could actually eat one. Yet the combination, pork and beans, is a classic pairing.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to start writing about the grown-up pork and bean pairing that I came up with last night, when I made dinner for a couple of friends. I had pork, from the pig I helped to butcher last weekend. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) And, while I’ve been making steady progress, I still have a whole lotta heirloom beans waiting to be transformed into something wonderful. But one of the people who came over for dinner last night, someone I love and respect as much as I love and respect anyone, simply abhors beans. All beans. It’s the texture, he says, the gritty beaniness of the beans that he cannot abide.

So. What was I to do with this problem? Surely I could find a way to make him like beans. Because they’re delicious. Especially with pork, which this friend loves. Another friend posted this recipe  on my Facebook wall. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/dining/beans-and-red-wine-party-hearty.html?_r=0) Inspired, I came up with a menu that surely even a bean hater would eat with gusto:

Pork rib roast
White beans braised in red wine
Slow cooked kale with bacon
Pan-fried potato, apple and fennel.

It sounded perfect. But, as the day approached, my conscience spoke louder and louder, reminding me: he does not like beans. I can’t make him like something he doesn’t like. It doesn’t matter what I think. Respect his reality, as it is. Have a dinner party without beans. The blog doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you get to cook for, spend time with, people you love, in your home. That’s what matters. Screw the blog. I would make the menu I came up with without the beans. And it would be great. Because I’ve grown, I’ve evolved. Yes.

Except no. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend on the mat, practicing yoga, or generally trying to become a better person. I remain hopelessly human. My ego was so sure that I could change his mind, make him like beans. Plus I had Vallarta beans in the freezer. I would serve the Vallarta bean puree that I made a few weeks ago with short ribs. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/13/vallarta-bean-puree-with-short-ribs-and-bitter-greens/) I knew it was delicious. When I proposed the plan, trying to sell the beans by name-dropping Thomas Keller, of French Laundry, he agreed to try a bite. But I also agreed to make polenta. To be safe. Compromise is beautiful.

In the end, I didn’t change anyone’s mind. The puree was still gritty, said the bean hater. I don’t get that still, but honestly, the Vallarta beans weren’t a perfect match for the pork. I should have made the white beans. For me and my other friend. But everything else was terrific. And it was super fun. So much so that I completely neglected to take photos. Sorry! Oh well. Here are the recipes. Note that the potatoes in the hash recipe are pre-baked, so you’ll need to think ahead.

Pork Roast
4-rib pork roast
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. The day before you’re planning to serve, wash and dry the roast. Slice between each rib, stopping about 1″ before the bone. Rub all over with salt and pepper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 365. Remove the roast from the refrigerator, tie with kitchen string, and let it sit out for about an hour. Place on a roasting rack in a pan. Toss the vegetables on the bottom of the pan and add the water. Roast until the internal temperature comes up to 130, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with foil, and let rest for 20 minutes. Carve the meat off the bone and serve, either plated, as pork chops, or on a platter, with the bones, family style.

Pan fried potatoes, apples, and fennelpan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard
4 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, baked
1-2 Gala (or other firm) apples
1/2 small fennel bulb, sliced
3 T. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Chop the potatoes into 1/2 or 3/4″ chunks. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in a single layer. Salt liberally, 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the apples into 3/4″ chunks. Turn the potatoes and add the apples and fennel. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the potatoes are crispy and the apples are browning but not soft. (This photo is from last weekend, when I made this for the first time.)

Slow cooked kale with bacon
2 bunches of Lacinato (dinosaur) kale, leaves stripped from the stems
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/4 c. diced bacon

Add the bacon to a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, and cook on medium-low until the fat renders and the bacon starts to crisp. (NOTE: I used the bacon I cured at home, which I foolishly finished in the slow cooker. While it sort’ve worked, the end result isn’t really bacon, as the fat rendered away. So I had to add olive oil. But it tastes delicious.) Add the onions and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion turns translucent. Add the kale, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover and add 1/2 cup of water or, if you happen to have some, white wine. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the liquid has reduced. Serve. Eat. Enjoy.

Inspiration, and bacon, from the Underground Food Collective

I’m making bacon. From the belly of a pig that I helped butcher yesterday. Before you go any further, be warned that this post contains some graphic images. I thought long and hard about including the photos but finally decided to go ahead. Because, really, that’s kind’ve the point of this post, to witness and appreciate the reality of turning an animal into food. I decided to take this class, to learn how to butcher an animal, because I realized recently that if I could not bear to witness the reality of turning an animal into food, I do not deserve to eat meat.

Even though this post is about meat, I’m starting off with this shot of my breakfast. pan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chardThis is pan roasted potato, apple, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard, a sort of breakfast hash that I concocted this morning out of random leftovers and produce that needed to be used. It seemingly has nothing in common with bacon. Except, I suppose that hash and bacon are both commonly listed on breakfast menus. In fact, however, they have everything in common, where both this concoction and the bacon that is curing in my refrigerator were created with carefully sourced ingredients that were combined with love, attention, and the intent to nourish body and soul.

Writing this post was hard for me. I didn’t know where to begin. In the end, I started with the vegetable hash for a couple of reasons. In part because I feel guilty about publishing images of dead animals, worried about causing undue suffering in anyone who sees  this post. Mostly, though, because this gorgeous dish was absolutely inspired by my meat-centric experience yesterday with Madison, Wisconsin’s Underground Food Collective (http://undergroundfoodcollective.org/) Because it’s all connected. Really.

It would be dishonest to pretend away the differences, of course, most obviously the fact that unlike the bacon, no animal died in order for me to make this meal. In fact, this meal, which consists of nothing except potato, apple, fennel, swiss chard, olive oil, salt, pepper, and water, to blanch the greens, is vegan. But I’m guessing some animals were affected by it, somehow, someway. Because I did not grow or harvest this food. It came from somewhere else.

The reality is that the truck this food came in on could have hit a possum on the road. Or maybe the people who harvested the produce are grossly underpaid. Water, our most valuable resource, was undoubtedly wasted to make this food grow and get to to my table.

I could go on imagining a parade of horrors for days. But I can’t. That path does not lead anywhere good, at least not for me. I need to be able to eat. So I will not allow myself to continue. Instead, I will focus on doing the best that I can. Which, for me, as a selfish creature who derives enormous pleasure from eating delicious food, lacks discipline, and gets shaky without regular doses of animal protein, involves eating meat.

Truly, I don’t eat very much meat, at least compared to many. Indeed, my diet is pretty bean-centric. But I eat more meat than many others. Which is difficult. Because I recognize the ethical issues. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

It was this desire to stop being a hypocrite that led me to sign up for the Underground Food Collective’s Whole Hog class. (http://shop.undergroundfoodcollective.org/collections/classes) The Underground Food Collective is a catering company, butcher shop/store, and restaurant, Forequarter, which, by the way, is a semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award. (http://www.jamesbeard.org/sites/default/files/static/additional/2013-jbf-semifinalists-twitter.pdf)

I haven’t eaten at any of the other semi-finalist restaurants, which is sad given that two are in Chicago. But I can attest that Forequarter’s food is out of this world good. Creative, fresh, lively, and ethical. So I was thrilled when I saw that the Underground Food Collective was offering classes. Especially when I finally got in–they sell out quickly. Which makes sense. Because they’re amazing. If you’re into such things. Speaking of which, note that the graphic photos are starting soon.

As the website explains, “[h]e goal of the classes is to provide a hands-on experience to the process. Whether it’s sausage making, curing whole muscles, or breaking down an animal, the participants have the opportunity to complete the process start-to-finish and ultimately take home their own product. The classes are held in our state certified meat processing facility at 931 E Main St.” (http://shop.undergroundfoodcollective.org/collections/underground-meats)

I signed up for the morning class, from 10 – 1. By the time I arrived, the excitement I felt Friday afternoon had morphed into trepidation. There were not only knives lying on the long butcher block table, but saws. I started trembling, remembering 10th grade biology class, when we were expected to dissect a fetal pig.

Suffice to say that my dreams of becoming a veterinarian died that day. Would I really be able to do this? I wasn’t sure. I wanted to. I was interested. And committed. Yet I also felt terribly, fallibly human. And scared. So I jumped at the chance when the teacher, Charlie, asked if anyone wanted to partner with him. Charlie was my safety net in case I couldn’t do it, if my hands refused to cut into the animal or if I had to leave the room to vomit, both of which happened in that long ago biology class.

So. To begin. Charlie started things off by having us, the 8 men and 3 women who had signed up for the class, introduce ourselves and say what we were hoping to get from the class. A corporate chef and one of his employees wanted to bring the knowledge into their kitchen. Several people had received the class as a gift, for birthdays or anniversaries.

One woman was there because she loves Forequarter, and had made this class one of her New Year’s resolutions. The other woman was there because she processes deer with her family every year, and wanted to take that knowledge to a new level.

I explained that I was there because of my belief that if I can’t bear to break them down, to witness what it means to turn an animal into food, then I don’t deserve to eat animals. I felt ridiculous in a way. But it also felt really good. Authentic. Charlie responded to my concerns by explaining that we would be butchering Berkshire pigs, a smaller heirloom breed sourced from a local farm, where they’d had good lives.

Finally, there was a man who works in the industry and has grown to become passionately opposed to factory farming. In the last few years, he’s begun raising heirloom pigs. This was the next step  in his process of becoming.

After the introductions, we brought the first pig out from the cooler. dead pigAs you might imagine from this photo, it was shocking. Yet, unlike the traumatic 10th grade biology class, there was no smell of formaldehyde. There was a smell of blood, but it was faint, clean. There was no revulsion. I stared leaning toward sorrow. Then I noticed a different feeling. Gratitude. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet this challenge on this beautiful, visibly healthy animal. I focused while Charlie walked us through. We would be breaking the pig into primal cuts, starting with the head.

Before making the first cut, you move the head around to find the space between the head and the forequarter, which is what the pigs shoulders are called when the animal has been broken down into meat. Charlie made these first cuts, using a knife to slice through layers of skin, fat, and muscle. Thankfully, there was no blood. This reality was still only the Disney version, as these pigs had already been slaughtered, bled, and gutted. I suppose my next obligation will be to witness the slaughter. But this was plenty real, especially the part that required a saw. The saw was necessary to get through the bone. cutting in halfOnce we had detached the pig’s head, the next step was separating its (her?) midsection and forequarter. Unfortunately I did not get a shot of this part, which may have been the most interesting bit. What you see here is the final cut, through the spine. But first you put your hand inside the pig’s chest cavity to count the ribs. You then use a knife to cut, from the inside, between the 4th and 5th ribs.

I didn’t do it myself, because I was still trembling. But I watched, avidly, until I noticed that my nervousness had switched into fascination. I realized that I was going to be okay. I could do this. Because yes, this animal lived and died for human consumption. Which is an ethical minefield. But I was honoring this animal. I can do no more, at least not where I’m at right now in my life. And with that realization it became fun. It became food. mid section2

What you see here is the center cut, before and after being split open. Once it’s open, you take out the tenderloins, which lie on either side of the spine. You then cut the entire piece in half, which is what you see at the bottom of the photo. We first cut out the rib tips, that triangular piece along the top left.

pork bellyNext, you separate the ribs by slicing under them horizontally.  Here’s a shot of me, demonstrating. Because by this point I totally felt like a pro. Next, we took off the roast, which I think could become pork chops. But we left it whole. Starting at the top, you cut down until you meet bone, then, after scoring a line along the top of the ribs, you saw through the ribs. Then you cut down and remove the roast. Which leaves you with pork belly. At this point, I was so engaged at that I completely forgot to document the pork belly with a photo. But you can probably imagine what it looks like.  We then squared the pork belly off into slabs of bacon. Which we got to take home along with ribs, pork roast, and tenderloin.
lunch

At some point during the day, although I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped for lunch, which consisted of polish sausages,  rolls, sauerkraut, roasted fingerling potatoes, bean salad, pickled beans, and a salad of shaved carrot, celery, and pickled cauliflower. This is a poor photo. But I think it’s adequate to give you the idea.  Charlie also brought in pastries, which of course I tried but failed to resist. Almond croissant. So. Good. I heard the scone was equally great. (http://madisonsourdough.com/bakery/) Yeah. Madison’s definitely got something special going on, as evidenced by the Underground Food Collective’s butcher shop, which I stopped into after class, before heading home. I won’t go on about it because this post is already crazy long, and I haven’t even gotten to the bacon yet. But if you’re in Madison, you should go. In addition to the pork that I took from the class, I came home with house-made pickled cherries, three kinds of dried beans, which I will post about in the weeks ahead, sausage, and smoked bacon. Because, while bacon was among the cuts that I took from the class, I don’t have a smoker. So I’m curing it with salt, in my refrigerator.

At the very end of class, after we’d divvied up our portions of the meat and the rest had been put into the cooler, Charlie gave each of us a recipe for cured bacon, as well as instructions and ideas for what to do with the other cuts. I didn’t take notes. But, as I said at the start, I came away filled with inspiration. So, when I came home, I made up my own cure, which is a hybrid of the Underground Food Collective’s recipe, Charlie’s instructions/advice, and a recipe for beef bacon in Paul Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen, which I happen to have from the library. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9781607741008-0) Okay. Here’s the recipe, with proportions based on a standard sized pork belly. Mine was only 3 pounds, so I adjusted accordingly, but I think this will be easier to follow.

Cured bacon
1 5 lb. piece of pork belly
3-1/2 oz. Kosher salt
1-1/4 oz. honey or maple syrup
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
freshly ground black pepper to taste — I used a lot

Wash and dry the pork belly. Combine the ingredients into a paste. Rub the paste into the pork belly. Transfer to a ziplock bag and seal. I had to use a paper towel to clear the zipper, so you may want think ahead and have one handy. I also double bagged, because the pork belly will exude water as it cures. I then put the whole thing on a platter.

bacon 2I’m sorry to say that I didn’t photograph the process, because I completely forgot. I was tired. But here are a couple of shots from this morning. In the first image, you can see the pig’s nipples along the top. The skin is on now because it’s really hard to take off. According to Charlie, it will come right off at the end of the process.

This second image is more recognizeable as food, closer to what we see in the store. bacon 3Which brings me to a full stop. It is remarkable to me that this bacon, which is now curing in my refrigerator, came from a pig that was killed this past Thursday. It’s sad that this should be so, that we, as a society, are so disconnected from our food that the reality is hard to believe. But I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the process. I believe this pig had a good life. I trust, because I have to, that it was killed humanely. And I know it is going to be delicious.

The curing process will take a few days. I’m supposed to turn the bacon every day, poking it after a few days to see if it’s gotten firm. Once it’s firm, I will remove it from the brine, rise, dry, and bake in the oven at a low temperature until the temperature reaches 140 and it smells done.

Typically, you would set the oven as low as it could go. But I didn’t have any #1 curing salt. Charlie said it would be fine but to make sure it’s cooked. So I’ll most likely set the oven at 225. And cross my fingers.