Tonglen for Thanksgiving. Also, a ham and links to many recipes.

Early this morning, after starting water for coffee, I put a ham in the oven. For Thanksgiving. Which I’m celebrating this year at home, in Chicago, with a small group of dear, long-time friends.

I have so very much to be grateful for. The group of friends who are coming for Thanksgiving, the core of my urban family. My biological family in Florida. Satisfying, interesting work. Exceptional yoga teachers. Robust health. So much that to list it all would take my entire day, which I need to spend in other ways.

So maybe for now I’ll just focus my gratitude on Slagel Farms hamthis ham. It’s from Slagel Farms. I’m hoping it had a pretty good life. And I’m certain it will be delicious both on its own and then later, when I use the bone for some form of bean soup. This sort’ve ethical (I eat meat with qualms) ham was also affordable, because a friend from yoga invited me to join her and another friend in ordering directly from the farm–we all agreed that 15 dozen eggs divided among the three of us was not crazy. At least not right before Thanksgiving, a holiday that for me is almost entirely centered on cooking a traditional feast that calls for large quantities of eggs.

As I’ve said here before, there is little that makes me happier than cooking for people I love. Therefore yesterday, as I made cornbread for dressing, gluten free pie crusts for pecan pie, and cranberry orange relish, and while I rubbed salt and organic coconut sugar and black pepper into the very expensive organic turkey that another friend and I bought through the food co-op that I hope one day will form here in Chicago, I danced in the kitchen. I felt joy.

Side by side with the joy and gratitude, however, upwelling into unexpected spaces, I also felt, still feel, grief and anxiety.

I feel grief because the man I’m in love with is no longer in my life, because one of my sisters died far too young, and because I’m in the process of releasing so many delusions about who I am, what my life is, how I fit into this world. I feel grief about the state of our world, for all of those who are suffering untold horrors. For the contemptuous ways in which we humans too often treat each other and ourselves. And I feel anxiety over who knows what. The state of the world, yes, but also for some nameless unknown. In my life, anxiety comes in tiny waves that roll relentlessly through my small self, constant stories about this and that, him and her, me, them. It is the background music of my life.

Looking back, I think I’ve always been anxious. Indeed, at my sister’s memorial service earlier this month someone who knew Valerie long ago told me that her (this woman’s) babysitting career ended because of me. Apparently I would not stop crying no matter how she tried to comfort me. I was too young to remember that particular episode, but I have countless childhood memories of curling up with various pets, finding solace from the storm of feelings that I did not know how to handle and that no one around me was equipped to understand or resolve. It was the 70s.

As a young adult I found relief from anxiety in marijuana, which I smoked for years and years. It worked in a way. I was able to function in social settings, I was able to relax and feel normal. Have fun. But I believe that smothering my anxiety with drugs also choked off my ability to grow into the person I wanted to become. Because contrary to everything I learned as a child and young adult, anxiety is not something that needs to be pushed away. It is an invitation.

For the past month or so I’ve been doing an online meditation class through Dharma Ocean. Like Forrest Yoga, the form of meditation taught at Dharma Ocean is an embodiment practice. But meditating is for me much more challenging than yoga. There are no poses. There’s just you, on the cushion.

When I practice yoga I know I’m supposed to be feeling my body. And sometimes I do. But usually, despite continual attempts to stay in my body, I live primarily in my head and mostly in the future. Worrying, planning, thinking. I know that the solution is to practice yoga each morning at home, to meditate. And every day I have the best intentions. Then, most days, I make coffee. I write in my journal. Time passes. I have to go.

This is my life.

It’s happening again now. If it were a regular Thursday I wouldn’t mind too much because I would go to Gwen’s 4 pm class at Yoga Now. But today is a holiday. There is no class. I’m on my own. I want to meditate, I want to practice yoga, to have ceremony for and with myself on this day, to show up and do the things I know I should be doing to be fully alive and able to be my best self. Instead I’m here, in my head, trying to work this out in writing, to share my experience with all of you. Which is important to me. I’m not sure why. Lately I think maybe writing is yet another way in which I distance myself from my feelings, another distraction, another defense mechanism. But, at least right now, I think that’s okay.

Last night, lying in bed, I picked up one of the books on my crowded nightstand.bedside books Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It is one of the books I have to read and write about in order to reach Level Two certification for yoga teacher training. Like so many of those books, I’ve read it before. And I can’t seem to get it together to do the rather daunting homework. So instead, as with the other books, I pick this one up on occasion, open it at random, and read a few words here and there, usually before bed.

Last night I opened to chapter nineteen: Three Methods for Working with Chaos. The second method is Tonglen, which Pema Chodron describes as follows:

“When anything difficult arises–any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful–instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in…. When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in–not just the anger, resentment, or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation. We breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame–it’s part of the human condition. It’s our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it’s like to stand in another person’s shoes. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe it in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering. Then we breathe out, sending out a sense of big space, a sense of ventilation or freshness. We do this with the wish that all of us could relax and experience the innermost essence of our mind.”

In reading this I realized that while I might not have made time to meditate or practice yoga, I could easily practice Tonglen throughout the day whenever I felt grief or anxiety. I started right then, in bed. Breathing in the sharp pain of missing people I love who I will not see again in this lifetime. Allowing the feeling to permeate my body. Softening around the feelings, enfolding them with compassion for myself and all the others in the world feeling those same feelings. Exhaling a hope that we might all be free from suffering. That seems a good wish for today, for always.

Today I certainly won’t practice yoga. I doubt I’ll make time for formal meditation. Instead I am going to cook and clean a little in preparation for my guests. Then I’m going to spend time with them. Between now and then, though, I am going to practice Tonglen. I shall be sending out hope that all beings be free from suffering. Including you, whoever and wherever you are. Thank you for reading this. May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself. May you accept yourself as you are. And may you have a Thanksgiving that is happy, whatever happiness means for you. For me, sometimes happiness comes in feeling sadness. It is the happiness that comes from knowing I am alive. I am grateful.

“Cream” of broccoli soup

broccoli soupThis was a spur of the moment, I’m hungry, what’s in the fridge, kind’ve meal. Perfect for the cool weather we’re having in Chicago these last two days. I made the soup last night but brought leftovers to work today, which is when I decided to write this post. Because it’s so good! And because maybe you, too, have bone broth, white beans, and roasted broccoli in your fridge. If not, maybe this post will inspire you to make some. I like to make big batches of bone broth and beans (separately, as in one batch of bone broth and one or more batches of beans) when I have the time. I then freeze  small containers for later.

Indeed, that’s exactly how I wound up with 2-cup containers of bone broth and white beans in my fridge. I’d taken both of them out of the freezer a couple of days ago, after I finished teacher training, without a specific plan but knowing I needed food, didn’t have time to make anything, and would be able to make something quick, easy, and nourishing. And voila, broccoli soup! To make it I just combined the broth and the beans in a saucepan with leftover roasted broccoli, heated, and pureed with my handy immersion blender, which may be my most useful kitchen tool.

Because this was so simple, there isn’t really a recipe. But I don’t think I’ve blogged about bone broth yet. So that’s what I’ll discuss. Briefly.

I’ve been making bone broth pretty steadily for the last year or so. At first I made a new batch every week. That was great when my boyfriend (who wasn’t ever really my boyfriend and is still gone and who I still miss terribly — broken hearts SUCK) was around to create interesting soups and help me eat them. But he usually wasn’t around and I pretty quickly figured out that once a week made way more broth than my freezer could hold. Now I make a new batch whenever I use up the last container from the freezer. It’s a good system.

My recipe, if I can call it that, is based on this one from NourishedKitchen. Basically, you roast a chicken, cut off the meat, then simmer the carcass for a couple of days with vegetable scraps, a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, and filtered water. I used to let it go for days for perpetual soup, like the recipe at Nourished Kitchen. But I prefer the richness of single batch broth.

Allegedly, bone broth will heal your gut, fight inflammation, reduce joint pain, inhibit infections, and, my favorite, promote strong, healthy bones. I don’t know if any of these claims are true. And I don’t care. Because it’s delicious, easy, affordable, environmentally responsible, and, at the very least, more nourishing than store-bought chicken broth.  You should definitely make some. As an alternative for the vegans and vegetarians, use extra water next time you cook chickpeas and use that instead. It is wonderful.

Vegetable stock from ends and trimmings

Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. So long that I’m not sure what to say. Except — hello! And I’m sorry for the lengthy silence. I think all of my creative energy has been absorbed into researching and writing an opening brief for the crazy case I’ve been working on since July. Which still isn’t quite finished. But almost.

So. Here I am. Without anything nearly as elaborate as my last post. But perhaps something much more useful: Vegetable stock made almost entirely from the scraps leftover from making other food. Which is something I’ve thought about a million times. But I never seriously considered it until I read Peter Servold’s Paleo By Season. Which is not to say that I’ve suddenly signed onto the paleo diet. I have not. The paleo diet is, in fact, almost antithetical to my preferred way of eating because it prohibits beans and grains, both of which I very much enjoy. But even though I don’t subscribe to the plan, I like to read paleo cookbooks because everything is gluten-free. I always get great ideas.

Like this veggie stock, which, as Servold  notes, is a perfect way to make use of scraps instead of throwing them away. He gave me a blueprint and confidence that I can make something delicious out of scraps. So I finally decided to give it a try.  Because winter is coming. My garden is closed. I won’t be able to use the compost pile for a while. Plus, like I said, I’ve always wanted to try making stock out of ends and trimmings.

Servold’s version (which he includes not as a standalone entry but in a side-bar with a recipe for Marinara sauce), consists of peelings from 5 carrots, some yellow onion, parsley, and water. The version I made today used almost all of the leftoveer bits from the vegetables I used in my most recent variation of lentil stew with cabbage and root vegetables, which I put together one morning last week before work. In addition to 3 carrots and 2 parsnips, I added a couple of turnips and used a shallot instead of garlic. (Although this post isn’t supposed to be about the lentil stew, I feel compelled to note that my latest batch turned out really well, perhaps the best ever, with the turnips adding a slightly bitter note to cut the sweetness of the carrots and parsnips.)

Because I was thinking about making vegetable stock when I made the stew,  I put everything except the cabbage , which I didn’t think would be good for a stock, into a container in the fridge, thinking I would make stock later. Then of course I forgot. Because all week I’ve been completely absorbed in my work. Which has been good. I forgot how much I like that feeling of complete engagement with a big piece of writing. At times it is overwhelming. But then you get to the end. And there is this wonderful sense of emptiness combined with satisfaction. Ahhhhh. Mental space and a feeling of accomplishment. One day, if I ever manage to make meditation a regular part of my life, perhaps that sense of spaciousness will be commonplace. And perhaps I won’t need an external sense of accomplishment. For now, though, both are something to celebrate.

Especially now. It is Sunday and I have no big case to think about, no oral argument to prepare for, really nothing much going on . A day off.scrap stock Which of course I knew would include cooking. But what? After coffee, I looked in the fridge. Noticed the container of scraps from the lentil stew. Remembered my plan to make stock. Checked to make sure everything was still fresh, then threw it into a pot with half a small onion, a sprig of parsley, and 8 cups of fresh water. I brought it just to boil, then covered part way and simmered for about an veggie stockhour. Then I strained and let it cool. The end result is exactly one quart of fairly light, fragrant, not overly sweet veggie stock. Which is not only delicious but also environmentally responsible and practically free. If you decide to try it, I’d encourage you to use whatever you have with an eye to some balance between sweet and savory and probably steering clear of cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. The ratio I used was about 4 cups of vegetables (3 cups ends and trimmings plus parsley and half an onion) to 8 cups of water. If you try it, please let me know how it turns out and what you do with it! I think I’m going to make some soup. First, though, I’m going to take a walk. Say hi to some trees. Breathe some air. Enjoy mental space. Have a great day!

black bean tacos w/ sauteed kale, chevre, and tomatillo salsa

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about space. For example, so far my favorite of the sketches I’ve written with my comedy ensemble is almost entirely silent. This despite countless hours of writing and rewriting and working on other, more densely worded pieces. The space of silence. And I’m pretty sure the reason my garden isn’t as productive as it should be is because I filled every single square. The plants don’t have enough space to reach their full potential.

Of course, as seems to be the norm of my life lately, the place where the concept of space has been most profound is yoga. One of my teachers has also been fixated on the concept lately. I don’t know if I got it from her or she got it from me or if we both came to it separately in the way that ideas float around the universe and land on people who are in the same place. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is this realization that growth requires space. I’m slowly learning that the insistent pushing and tight control I’ve always thought was necessary actually inhibits growth. Instead, it happens when I stop trying so hard, when I let go. Which does not come naturally, at least not at this point in my life.

Yesterday I finally unpacked the last of the boxes left over from my move, including the ones marked “random,” which I’d left so long because I just couldn’t deal. Up til now my tendency has been to hold on. Not obsessively. I am no hoarder. But I find it difficult to let go, both physically and emotionally. So, yesterday, as I faced the boxes full of journals and photos and letters and a million tiny fragments of who I used to be and lives I used to have, I decided to practice this new concept of space by getting rid of everything.

Of course, because I’m me, that didn’t happen. I had to go through it all first to make sure there was nothing essential. Which meant that my unpacking of these few boxes wound up being an all-day trip. I traveled through time, looking at snapshots and reading journals and letters that spanned decades.  I succeeded in letting go of some things, but I kept a lot. And by the time I finished putting everything away I was spent, definitely not up to cooking. Yet I needed real food, something nourishing. Not cheese and crackers or chips and dip.

My original plan for the day was to make frittata. With cauliflower and Swiss chard, something that I eat very, very happily every couple of weeks. Because It’s super easy and delicious. But, when the dinner bell rang, I had no taste for eggs. And no desire to cook. Although I had beans in the fridge, that was not what I wanted. Because, as much as I love them, one can only eat so many beans in a week. It’s true that I haven’t written much lately, which could be interpreted to mean that I have not been cooking and eating beans. But my silence means only that I have not cooked or eaten beans worthy of writing about.

So it was with great reluctance that I pulled out some beans. Black ones. Then, behind the black beans, I found a small container of leftover kale that I’d sauteed a couple of days before and forgotten. In a flash of inspiration I remembered that on a whim the day before I’d picked up chevre. And suddenly, just like that, I was totally excited about dinner. In the space of letting go of my plan, I made up something new. Which turned out perfectly.

black bean taco w kale, goat cheese, and tomatillo salsaThe amounts listed below make a single serving. Multiply as needed.

1/2 cup cooked, drained black beans (canned are fine)
1/2 cup sauteed kale
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
chevre
2 flour tortillas
1 T. grapeseed oil
salt to taste

1. Heat a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. (If you don’t have a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, rub a tiny bit of oil on the skillet before you heat it up) Warm the tortillas, turning, until lightly browned. Roll the tortillas together, put them on a plate, and cover with a kitchen towel or another plate so they’ll stay warm.

2. Add the greens to the skillet for a few minutes, until they’re hot. Put the greens aside and wipe out the skillet.

3. Return the skillet to the heat and add the grapeseed oil and a couple of tablespoons of water. Let it heat for another minute, then add the garlic. Saute for 3-5 minutes, until the garlic is very soft and the liquid has evaporated. Add more water if necessary. When the garlic is soft, add the black beans. Use the back of a wooden spoon to mash some of the beans. Stir, adding a bit of water to keep the beans from drying out, until heated through, another 3-5 minutes.

To assemble the tacos, divide the black beans between the two tortillas. Add the greens. Then top with goat cheese and tomatillo salsa. You could certainly make your own salsa, and perhaps one day I will post a recipe. But this time, being lazy, I used a jarred version. Frontera. It was good.

Slow cooked ragu with pork ribs and white beans

kitchenThis is my next to last day in the condo I’ve lived in for the past ten years. Here’s the partially dismantled kitchen, with my beloved, giant refrigerator/freezer. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I bought the condo just before we married, which makes the move complicated and fraught with feeling. So many hopes and dreams are bound up in this place. At first I found myself incapable of packing, paralyzed. Thankfully my friends rescued me. Now, the day before my move, I’m still not ready. But I will be.

Last weekend, while we were packing, one of my friends recounted the David Sedaris story about his brief stint working for a small moving company. When they showed up for a job, the movers found the client in the kitchen, cooking pasta, having packed absolutely nothing. Ha! So funny. So not any of us, we laughed. We continued packing, my friends efficiently, me sporadically, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would be ready when the movers arrived. But later that night, after my friends had gone home, I started thinking about that story, this time empathizing with that girl.

Until then, I’m not sure I was capable of empathy in this situation. I’ve always been a person who does what needs doing.  Absolutely not the person who lies around waiting for someone else to take care of her, oblivious. Cooking pasta while your belongings remain strewn about your apartment? That would never be me. Because such behavior would be inconsiderate, rude, wasteful. Crazy. I definitely have my crazy side, but historically it has never manifested as an inability to act. At least not in my adult life.

No. My crazy has always been too much action. When in doubt, do, that’s my motto.

Until now.

Now, suddenly, when faced with this huge change, one that I’ve known about for months, I’ve somehow emerged into this new form in which I’m incapable of acting on my own, without help. It’s absolutely terrifying. Yet, in some strange way, also liberating. Because, somehow, I’ve learned to ask for and accept help from people other than my family. Which is kind’ve amazing. It is a gift of intimacy and friendship that before now I’ve mostly seen only from the giving side. Yet receiving is just as important. It allows for others to express their generosity, their love.

On my way to recognizing this gift of receiving, I started to see that maybe the girl in David Sedaris’s story refused to pack her belongings not because she was lazy, or selfish, or inconsiderate, but because she was simply incapable of doing what she was supposed to do. I saw that because I could see it in myself. I didn’t know where to start with packing. And then I felt guilty. So I used avoidance techniques like television. Or sleep. Until my friends came over and saved me. Then, after they left, I felt capable of taking on surmountable tasks. Familiar, known tasks that I can control, things that I know how to start and finish them, by yourself. I understand this now because that morning, once I decided to cook, I lost the lethargy, felt like myself, relatively calm and in control. The contrast was illuminating.

I started by looking in the freezer. Most of what was left–various flours and other dried goods–can be moved. But I still had the ribs from my hog butchering adventure in February, as well as pork stock that I made from the rib roast. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) I had initially planned to do something with just the ribs. But, while I’ve never made ribs and white beans before, I had seen recipes. And it seemed like the most practical option: and easy, nutritious (if not exactly healthy), one-pot meal that I could eat all week.

In normal circumstances, this is the point where I would spend some time with my cookbook collection. I’m old-fashioned like that. I love nothing better than to lie in bed, reading about food, and then fall asleep daydreaming about individual recipes, food combinations, and menus. This time, though,  I had no cookbooks, because they were the first things to get packed. And I didn’t really have a lot of time, because I’ve been weirdly exhausted. So, after a quick online search to get a general idea, I decided to wing it.

ragu with pork ribs and white beansWhat I wound up with is not at all what I planned. It far too much tomato for a one-pot meal. But what I wound up with is a terrific ragu sauce over pasta, hearty and satisfying. I will definitely make it again. Here’s what I did.

1 lb. pork ribs, cut into 3-rib sections
1 c. dried white beans (I’m using navy beans, but any white beans will be fine), soaked overnight
1 sm. onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, diced
3 c. chicken or pork broth
1/2 c. red wine (optional–I had some in the freezer)
2 T. tomato paste
1 28-oz can crushed (or diced) tomatoes
1-3 T. olive oil
1 thumb-sized piece of kombu (sea vegetable, for digestion)
pasta

1. Drain and rinse the beans. Transfer to the slow cooker.

2. Rinse and dry the ribs. Season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 T. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the ribs until brown, 3-5 minutes on each side. Transfer to the slow cooker, on top of the beans.

3. Add additional olive oil to the skillet if necessary. Saute the onions for 2-3 minutes, then add the carrots, celery, and garlic. Saute for another3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste. Saute for another minute or two, stirring. Then add 1/2 cup of red wine or broth, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any browned bits, and turn the heat to a boil. Cook for 1 minute and then transfer the mixture to the slow cooker. Add the tomatoes and remaining broth, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Fish out the bones and the kombu, and salt to taste.

4. Boil pasta, drain, and top with freshly ground pepper and grated Parmesan cheese.

Cranberry bean soup with potato, Swiss chard, and banger sausage from the Underground Food Collective

This soup is a textbook example of how a single ingredient can inspire a new creation. And, perhaps more importantly, how one can repurpose leftover ingredients to make something entirely new and completely delicious.

When I was at the Underground Food Collective’s butcher shop this past Saturday, I decided to buy a sausage to go with cranberry beans that I’d cooked earlier in the week. But I wasn’t sure which sausage to get or what to make. There were several options, including a Moroccan goat sausage and chorizo, both of which sounded good. But I decided to go with the English banger, a simpler, non-assertively flavored pork sausage. Then, when I came home from Madison, I put it away and pretty much forgot about it.

Sunday night, as dinner time approached, I looked in the fridge to see what was available. I’d been so caught up in blogging and cleaning and general business that I hadn’t even thought about planning for dinner. Plus I knew in the back of my head that there was plenty of food. But what?

As it turns out, I had about 2 cups of leftover cranberry beans with perhaps 3 cups of their cooking liquid. If you don’t have leftovers, here’s a link to my post on cooking basic beans. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/02/basic-beans/) It’s easy.

Returning to my search for pre-cooked food, I also found about 1 cup of Swiss chard leftover from Sunday morning’s breakfast potato, apple, and fennel hash. Then, I noticed a single, lonely Yukon Gold potato on the counter, just on the verge of sprouting. It definitely needed to be used. Inspiration: I would riff on Portugese kale soup. Simple, easy, and sure to be delicious.

cranberry bean soupThis photo is from yesterday morning, when the soup was cold. Which I don’t recommend for either eating or photographing. Except when seen cold, it is evident that there’s almost no fat in this soup except for the sausage itself. Which is pretty cool.

I could have made it without the sausage, of course, and it would have been pretty good. In fact, the next time I have leftover beans, I probably will make a vegetarian version. With the sausage, however, it was absolutely brilliant, hearty and satisfying without being cloying. Plus the sausage inspired the soup, so I suppose the vegetarian version to come could not exist without the carnivorous mother. Here’s the recipe. If you try, I hope you like!

2 c. cooked cranberry beans, with cooking liquid or broth
1 medium sized Yukon gold potato, diced
1 c. cooked Swiss chard or other cooked greens, chopped
1 mildly-flavored sausage

1. Brown the sausage on all sides, for 7-10 minutes over medium-high heat.

2. Meanwhile, combine the beans, their cooking liquid or the broth, and the potatoes in a medium saucepan. Salt to taste, depending on how highly seasoned your cranberry beans are, and bring to a simmer. Add the sausage, cover, and cook on low for 15-20 minutes. Remove the sausage and transfer to a cutting board. Add the greens to the pot, cover, and turn off the heat. Wait 5 minutes or so and then slice the sausage into half rounds. Stir the sliced sausage into the soup. Serve with lightly toasted bread.

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.