Sky Full of Bacon

I’ve never really bought into the whole Mad Max/Matrix/The Road view of apocalyptic awfulness after technology breaks down.  Maybe my view is shaped more by 70s science fiction movies like A Boy and His Dog, but I don’t see people instantly becoming punked-out Visigoths in drag racers.  My feeling is, they’d open a lot of flea markets in crumbling old buildings.

That’s pretty much the feel you get from the Logan Square’s Farmer’s Market in the winter.  Even in the summer it’s more ragtag than tony Green City, but in the winter… it feels like a lot of nice folks getting by as best they can.  Making music, sharpening knives, selling honey, whatever it takes.

There’s hardly any produce, other than mushrooms; I picked up some grass-fed beef and some eggs, that was about it.  I did buy some honey from a farmer near Elgin, and younger son told him about our adventure in honey-harvesting, so he gave him a beeswax candle of a fish for free:

A woman had a bread business called Crumb, “Earthenware Baked Bread,” which by the look of them, I think means she’s using the no-knead method, they had the sharp edges from sticking to the pots they rise in that those breads seem to have.  I tried some, they were all cold so it was hard to tell if they had much flavor, but I bought a loaf of wheat to eat tonight, we’ll see how it is.

Floriole was there, younger son had a cherry turnover thing from them, but I was most excited to see that the macaron lady was there:

After having tried making them once myself, I was eager for a taste of a more experienced baker’s macaron.  The orange one with chocolate cream inside was pretty great in the sample I tried.  Still not a cheap treat, but half the price per macaron of Nomi’s.

A little luxury to break the long winter, and keep us all from going Visigoth.

I must be coming up in the world of meat-oriented blogging, because I recently got three offers of meat samples. One was from a very well-known brand; I thought about this one, and finally decided that even if it represented their attempt to make a little higher-quality product, a laudable goal, it’s a type of meat I make myself, so what am I going to say? “This is better than their usual stuff, and still not a patch on my homemade”? I just decided I didn’t need to get into grading big time products in categories where I have a strong bias for the little guy and all he stands for. Especially when the little guy is me.

Another one, though, even though it’s clearly a marketing-driven product, was just so damned bizarre I had to try it. It’s Perky Jerky… caffeinated beef jerky. Yes, that’s right, it’s the first Red Bull rival made from actual bulls:

Look at it this way— you’re on the highway, you stop, you need a snack and some caffeine, so… why not get them in the same delicious, easy to eat package, and not have to pee again in 20 miles?  Now you see the genius of Perky Jerky, right?  Right?  Okay, it’s one of those things that either makes sense to you, or never will; you either drive down the road munching greasy salty meats, or you don’t. (I mostly don’t, although I’ve been known to pack Paulina Market landjaegers for a trip.)

Okay, bizarre as the concept is, it’s actually pretty good as jerky goes (and my son had just bought some jerky at Trader Joe’s, so I had a reasonable standard of comparison).  Tender, reasonably good quality beef with a teriyaki flavor to it; certainly by the standards of gas station cuisine, it was of a much higher quality than Slim Jims or the like.  The only hitch for me was, there’s no dosage information on the bag; I had no way of knowing if a whole bag was the caffeine equivalent of drinking a Coke, or if one little triangle would have my kids bouncing off the walls at 2 am.  And it’d be all too easy to scarf a bag down, and then find yourself feeling ready to drive to Patagonia without sleeping.

* * *

But the most intriguing meat I was offered, the most serious one, came from a guy in Milwaukee who has started an artisanal meat business like La Quercia. La Quercia isn’t big— Herb Eckhouse said their prosciuttificio is about a third the size of a small one in Italy— but Bolzano Artisan Meats is smaller yet, an employee and a half, says owner Scott Buer. All the same, they’re doing what you’d hope they’d be doing— buying quality pork (he started with Jude Becker’s Berkshire hogs, but plans to transition to mostly Wisconsin naturally-raised meat, including what must be Valerie Weihman-Rock’s mulefoot pigs, as seen in Sky Full of Bacon 5 and 6), and curing it by the old school simple means, salt and herbs and time. (Thyme and time, really.)

Buer sent me two meats, guanciale (cured hog jowl) and pancetta (cured belly, same meat as bacon, but without the sweetness and smoke of American bacon). Here’s how the pancetta looked, the ruby red color and thick fat striping of the Berkshire hog:

I would have guessed Berkshire by the look of it and I would have guessed the simple cure by the fact that it smelled exactly like the things I’ve cured following traditional cures, like guanciale and lardo— a musty salt smell leavened by a pine-forest note of the dried herbs.

I was making pizzas the day it came, so I decided to use the pancetta on a tarte flambee:

Looks like peppermint candy, tastes like pork.  What could be prettier?  The base is creme fraiche, liberally sprinkled with pepper and dotted with partly caramelized onions.  Here’s how it looked when it came out:

I often find commercial pancetta bland next to bacon, but this had a full pork flavor sharpened and transmuted by the curing process, denser with flavor (and certainly chewier) than the often limp product you buy.  Unfortunately I’ve never had the La Quercia pancetta, so I don’t have a really stellar comparison, but it seemed to have all the virtues of its origins using superior pork, and of its handling with no modern shortcuts.

For the guanciale, well, there’s one classic dish that this cured meat figures in, bucatini all’Amatriciana.  Hog jowl is an incredibly lush fatty meat— sadly, it’s a cut that’s often ruined during the inspection process (they slice through the jaw to inspect the glands) and discarded or sent for rendering.  But barbecue places in the south will put it in beans, resulting in incredibly silky, fatty beans, and just handling it, it was like pork meat made with the best hand cream you ever owned.

The last time I saw a pattern like that, little pink archipelagoes of meat in a sea of fat, was on a kobe beef brisket.

I vaguely follow a recipe in Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian*, although it’s a dish almost too simple to need a recipe.  Interestingly, they say (copyright 2001) that guanciale is impossible to find in the U.S., and suggest various substitutes.  How quickly things change: I’ve had access to no fewer than four different American guanciales lately.  Admittedly, two of them were homemade (my own and Chuck Sudo’s).  One key thing about the recipe is that, even though it still says guanciale, they clearly adjusted the quantity of meat upwards to produce the desired amount of cooking fat, because when I used 6 oz. of actual guanciale, I had a swimming pool of fat in my pan.  3 oz. will do you just fine.

So you dice the guanciale, fry it, scoop it out with a slotted spoon and let rest on a towel.  Add some red pepper flakes, then fry a 28 oz. can of tomatoes in the oil, chopping them as you go (I used my own canned tomatoes from this summer) for about ten minutes while the pasta (bucatini or, if you can’t find it, spaghetti; I don’t know what difference the hole in the center of a bucatini noodle makes) cooks.  Add a couple of tablespoons of good parmigiano-reggiano, mix till melted.  Toss all that with the pasta, place in bowls, sprinkle the guanciale on top and grate some peccorino romano as desired:

It’s a wonderful comforting dish and Bolzano’s guanciale brought it lots of lushness (in the sauce) and crunchy porkiness on top.

So I liked both of the meats they sent me a lot— though it has to be admitted, these are fairly easy as cured meats go, hard to screw up at least once you’ve made the crucial decisions to spend the money on the best pork you can get and to cure it with no funny business.  The real test, which I’m looking forward to immensely, is the speck prosciutto, which will be ready in April.  Speck prosciutto is a particular style, smoked with rosemary and juniper— you may remember I linked to these photos of a speck plant high in the hills of Italy— and while it won’t be directly comparable to the La Quercia prosciutto (or their speck, for that matter), because it is a different style, it should have many of the same virtues of the longer curing time breaking down more of the proteins and making it all just that much more complex and umami-riffic.  It will be a wonderful thing if these first meats from Bolzano prove to be the beginning of a serious artisanal cured meats movement in Wisconsin, comparable to the improvements in Wisconsin cheeses in recent years.

In the meantime, you can get Bolzano guanciale and pancetta at several places in Milwaukee, including the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Glorioso Brothers, as well as at farmer’s markets in several Wisconsin cities.  (CORRECTED: At this point, it’s only Wisconsin-inspected, so he can sell it via the internet to individuals, but not to retailers or restaurants who will resell it.)  And Perky Jerky, I’m sure you can get that at several gas stations on the way up there.

* Search inside the book for bucatini and you’ll find the recipe.

I hadn’t been to Green City since the summer market closed, but figured I could stand to stock up on some things before making Christmas dinner. Or for the long winter. This was a true winter market, the ends of things, the makings of spare winter meals, but there were still enough things to be had to keep you connected to the growing season behind us and ahead.

We picked up some Honeycrisp apples outside, and some freshly roasted chestnuts, which my older son and I munched on as we looked over things, enjoying their hot, meaty texture.

I saw Oriana, of Asian pear and Sky Full of Bacon #8 fame. She only had some small and rather misshapen pears (not that that is bad for flavor). As you might have guessed from the cold, wet summer and fall we had, it was not a great year for her; she said only about 60% of her trees produced decent fruit, and the basket I got had about a dozen of the brown-skinned pears and precisely one yellow one. At first I thought she had something new wrapped up in a napkin– lychee nuts? But it turned out to be the apple cider donuts from the people a stall or two over. She gave one to each of my sons. Now she’s not only handing out too many samples of her own stuff, but of other peoples’, too.

I hadn’t planned to pick up a jar of Traderspoint Creamery’s herbed creme fraiche, but in the process of spreading samples onto crackers for my kids, I sort of smeared a sign on their table, so I pretty much had to. When I got home, it made a nice filling for an omelet with some excellent eggs from Mint Creek (I think). I did plan to get Nordic Creamery butter, which has been raved about at LTHForum. I’m not as wowed by their cheeses as some people, but I picked up one aged cheddar anyway.

Nichols has various heritage apple varieties— some red and bumpy, others brilliant yellow. None perfect enough for supermarkets— these are the apples you see in old still lifes, next to pheasants and violins. We noshed on a couple of things— a Hoosier Mama assortment, a crepe, some elk salami from the elk guy— and then I saw a name that I hadn’t expected to see ever again: Snookelfritz. About five years ago, a lady sold handmade ice cream under that name, and I thought I put a ginger ice cream she made on my ten best list at LTHForum or even Chowhound (apparently not, I can’t find it) but then she moved to California, or so I heard. Well, she’s back, she was flattered to be remembered from way back when, and though she can’t sell the ginger under Green City Market’s more stringent rules about ingredients being produced locally, she had some very nice flavors including an excellent pear ice cream I liked a lot… just a few minutes ago, in fact. So look for her in future markets, an old friend returned. A few more months and many old friends will return.

I know lots of people who can foods around this time of year, but I had never done it myself before last Sunday. I’m pretty game for tackling new culinary techniques, even ones with a risk of botulism attached to them, but this was one thing I wanted somebody to hold my hand on the first time I did it. It’s one thing to inspect a piece of coppa to see what’s growing on it, sniffing and poking it yourself, but another to peer into a sealed jar wondering what life and death might be growing inside it.

The estimable Cathy Lambrecht, LTHForum co-founder and whirling dervish of the culinary-historical scene (if you don’t know her from any of those activities, you saw her helping prep raccoon in Sky Full of Bacon #9), is a hardcore canner and, frankly, someone who takes the Jack Webb approach to canning, the rules exist to be followed exactly, just the USDA regs ma’am. So there could have been no better guide for my first foray into canning.

So what got me canning this year? Well, that’s a little bit of a family historical tale.

I’ve posted and even given talks based on the cooking of one side of my family, my mom’s German Mennonite side. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned the other side, my dad’s— and at first glance there’d seem to be a reason for that. They were Irish Catholics, not a group noted for fine cuisine, and they were in Kansas in the middle of the 20th century. Steak, meatloaf, hamloaf— that’s pretty much what I remember them eating, and they ate it out as often as they did at home. They had an active social life right up until most of their friends had died, and my dad summed it up with a story he liked to tell about when he was first in the Marine Corps and the recruits were getting a little maudlin about their silver-haired mamas slavin’ over a hot stove. My dad replied that he could see his silver-haired mama slaving over… a hot game of bridge.

Yet Lillian Gebert (nee Davison) was a very good cook for her day, and my mom made sure to save her recipe box when we cleaned out her house (she died in 1990). And surprisingly, though her side didn’t come from a farming background within living memory (her dad was an executive with a department store), she was the one who occasionally made things to can. If she ever canned fruit or vegetables, I don’t remember it, but there were two condiments she made every year as long as she could: honey mustard and piccalilli sauce.

I’ve never felt a need to make the honey mustard— commercial products like East Shore taste exactly like I remember it— but the piccalilli has long been a mystery, tantalizing me. What is piccalilli, you ask? Well, that’s part of the problem: it’s a lot of things. Search for “piccalilli recipe” and you will find quite a range of preserved condiments seemingly with little beyond the idea of pickling in common. At one end it’s a British pickle with a distinct Indian influence, much like chow chows and chutneys; here’s a good example of this kind of British piccalilli, cauliflower and cucumber in a pickle turned bright yellow with turmeric.

Since the name is almost certainly British, that’s probably where it began, but it came to mean something rather different in the American South. Basically, in America it’s a green tomato relish, and became something of a traditional way to use up any green tomatoes still clinging to the vine when winter hit. You might find things like cabbage in it still (as in this recipe), but basically it was a sweet-sour relish made of green tomatoes and green and red peppers, with notes of spices like cinnamon and allspice or cloves.

As the cloves suggest, it goes well on ham, and in fact that’s pretty much all I ever did with it as a kid, put it on ham sandwiches. I’m sort of curious now what else you might do with it. Yet even if my use of it was not terribly sophisticated, it was a pretty bold taste for an 8 or 10 year old to develop a love for, and was probably one of the first genuinely complex things I really appreciated.

So I opened Lilly’s old recipe box, found the recipe, and… nope. It didn’t work that way. The one recipe I wanted was, of course, the one that wasn’t in there. (I have to wonder if, stupidly, I didn’t pull it from the box some years ago, and put it somewhere that it will never be found.) Instead, I had to do some detective work, trying to piece together what was Lilly’s likely recipe based on the tastes and recipes of the time.

I made some suppositions based on memory. It definitely had cinnamon, and I remembered her spending some hours stewing it, so that suggested cinnamon sticks; this was the 60s and 70s, so it probably didn’t have any heat to it, no more than ketchup does. I doubted that she used green tomatoes, that’s a Southern thing we really didn’t know in Kansas much, and she might not have even had red peppers— the color of hers was probably a mix of red tomatoes and the ubiquitous green bell pepper. Clearly it was vinegar-based, both by what I remembered of the taste and because it would need it for preserving, and that obviously implied a lot of sugar and some salt to balance.

Online and in one of Cathy’s many, many vintage midwestern cookbooks, I found a couple of recipes I felt looked right, close enough that I could wing something of my own and make adjustments during the cooking process. Cathy and I picked Sunday to do the canning, and so I set out Saturday with one son driving toward DeKalb, looking for farmstands (I was using enough that it was worth driving out into the country versus paying city farmer’s market prices).

* * *

I chose that direction because I knew another place in the area I wanted to try: Ream’s Market, in Elburn. Elburn is a small town about 15 minutes beyond the edge of Chicago suburbia, and Ream’s is a great little old school butcher shop that answers the question what you do for fun in Elburn: you make sausage all day long. They have an amazing number of different kinds of sausage, most of the bratwurst variety (I picked up a South African style called Boerewors) but including some dry cured salamis (I bought some little finocchino, which are excellent). Not suprisingly, Ream’s is the hub of activity on a Saturday afternoon in Elburn and luckily for me and a hungry boy, there’s a guy with a hot dog cart selling Ream’s incredibly flavorful and smoothly-ground brats and housemade hot dogs.

We continued on Rt. 38 toward DeKalb and saw two farms with farmstands. I drove past the first one to one called Yaeger’s, which had seemed appealing since it also claimed to have Halloween amusements (a corn maze, an inflatable jumping and climbing something or other). Fact was, though, it was pretty small and on a drizzly day, fun looked minimal. So we stuck to acquiring some tomatoes and some corn, plus one pumpkin. Doubling back, we hit the other stand (I don’t remember the name but, hey, it’s the other stand on Rt. 38 between Elburn and DeKalb) and found a much better range of produce. I bought a big box of Roma tomatoes for $12, and some beets as well (I’ve done refrigerator pickles of beets before, but I figured the Romas and the beets would give us something to can while the piccalilli was still stewing). That was all I really saw, this late in the season, that looked like the kinds of thing I’d like to have in my pantry. Relatively cheap produce acquired, we headed back to Chicago to await canning the next day.

Would my piccalilli match up to my memories of Lilly’s?  Stay tuned for part 2.

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St
Elburn, IL 60119-9167
(630) 365-6461

I did a CSA for the first time this year, and while some of it was just ready supply (I made a lot of zucchini bread), I can think of a couple of things I got in my CSA, or grew in my Earthbox, or bought at the farmer’s markets which really surprised me with how much better they were than what I’d been buying, or avoiding buying, for years. Despite all the arguments about whether organic or farmer’s market or whatever produce does or does not contain more Flavora-6 or Nutritia-9, this stuff blew me away with its more concentrated flavor and, I am convinced as a result, concentrations of many other good things compared to watery supermarket versions of the same species. Here’s what surprised and delighted me this year:

1) French breakfast radishes. I’ve spent a happy life not eating radishes, but I had radishes with butter and dark rye bread at the Bristol last year, and after staring at it with a definite WTF? expression, suddenly I had an epiphany and not only wanted more radishes, I wanted to grow radishes. And so I did, as I described here. They were a hit through much of the summer, I’m now a committed radishophile.

2) Kale. Another vegetable I think I’d managed to live several decades without eating, but what started to sell me on it was having the cavolo nero, black kale, at various fancy dinners (such as the mulefoot dinner; you can see it in process at Vie in my video on that dinner). Kale soaks up porky flavor beautifully, as well as any collard green-type southern green, but it keeps more of its own texture than those greens, which get a little seaweedy by comparison. Not that they aren’t glorious, but I like the sturdier kale best.

3) Celery. This one really surprised me. I got celery in my CSA box a couple of times and it’s just amazingly more flavorful than watery, styrofoamy supermarket celery— small, dark green, packed with peppery flavor. A little of it adds a lot of vegetable depth to a soup or other use. I’ll never look at this often rather mediocre and forgettable utility player the same way.

When I first saw that Michael Pollan had written a ten-zillion-page opus on the state of cooking, eating, the Food Network, Julie and Julia, and other such weighty topics, my first thought was that this was way, way too much to read onscreen; Pollan has written a piece about how our lives are too busy for cooking, at a length that our lives are too busy to read.

My second thought was, I’m about to spend ten zillion hours in the car going to and from Wyoming, so I’ll print it out.

And so I wound up reading a foodie manifesto during perhaps the least foodie week of my year, in the least foodie place I can remember going to in just about my entire life. I mean, Wyoming is a marvelous and beguiling place to visit in many ways, a state where they bother to put up population signs for towns with two-digit populations (if only someone in Emblem had died right before they put the sign up, I might have seen a one-digit one) and then follow it with a sign announcing the local cattle rustling heritage museum (every town seems to have a museum of something that happened between 1870 and 1900).

But as far as food culture goes… in terms of restaurants, it’s pretty much, where do you want to eat a preformed hamburger patty and frozen fries today? Apart from a smattering of Mexican and Chinese (no part of America is bereft of those), that’s pretty much it; when a shopkeeper in Cody asked my wife where she was from, the name “Chicago” immediately prompted a five-minute lament on the state of what little Italian food there is in Wyoming, which basically concluded with the axiom that Italian food gets steadily worse from the Rockies on. (To judge by the Jersey-in-1957-amber menu of the place down the street from him, he knows whereof he speaks.)

This made Wyoming an interesting context for considering Pollan’s points, which are roughly these: We may celebrate Julia Child as the progenitor of food TV and our foodie culture, but actually our modern food TV is her antithesis, great at encouraging us to watch more and more hyped up food-sports shows, but largely discouraging our own venturing into the kitchen to do anything more than assemble processed junk a la Sandra Lee—and her advertisers. We have the food TV we have because it suits the world of processed foods we live in, where no one has time to really cook and the habit itself is rapidly being lost.

As a market researcher sums it up (in the best quote in the piece), “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So cooking has become a niche pastime, like quilting or radio controlled aircraft. Yet niches can occupy pretty big territory sometimes, and after a week in Wyoming I came away convinced that they can even cover entire states.

It’s not that processed foods weren’t all over Wyoming— in restaurants, as I said. But restaurants are scarce enough outside major tourist stops that it’s clear this is one state where people don’t eat out every night. Meanwhile, go into a grocery store and, sure, amid the frozen dinners and Lunchables and Kleenex-brand sandwich bread, there’s a surprising amount of natural, organic and just old-fashioned real stuff being sold even in very small towns. (A lot more than I’d bet you could find in towns five times as large in Illinois.) Somebody in Wyoming is certainly cooking better than you can eat out in all but the largest and wealthiest tourist-oriented towns like Jackson.

And the proof of that for me was certainly that several of my better meals were in little cafes which seemed to be no more than an extension of the proprietor’s home— not that they were objectively great, but that they were usually the most real, the least prefab, the ones that seemed the most rooted in a local housewifely sense of how to make things as opposed to drones following the instructions on the Sysco box.

In short, Wyoming seems to be one of the last outposts of the old food culture— before the processing that Pollan decries, but also, before the heroine whose legacy he celebrates.  Maybe those two events are not as opposed as we assume.

*  *  *

The standard narrative, which Pollan seems to assent to, casts Julia Child as the great liberator of the American home cook— even as American cooking began declining right as she appeared on the scene.

True, she gave status to the act of cooking at a crucial moment for American women— but look at how she did it: by encouraging us to abandon American cookery for French technique. Far from championing American cooking (like her fellow West Coasters James Beard or Alice Waters), by the time she really turned to her life’s work she was a classic eastern establishment WASP trying to lead the masses toward European tastes and sophistication.

And to be honest, can you really say she succeeded? She tried to teach us French; we all learned Italian instead. Part of the reason Julie Powell’s blog project was such a novelty is precisely because so many people own Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking… and so few ever crack it open now.

What’s more, to the extent she has had an influence, hers was a pivotal step in turning cooking from something you did well for the sake of others at your table, to something you do for self-expression.  And the problem with turning cooking into a Me Decade pursuit, like jogging or meditation, is that it’s no longer necessary— it’s just something to be done when you feel like it.

It’s telling that the only woman in 21st century America who actually cooks every night is doing it for her blog, not her husband— and that she’s therefore remarkable enough to warrant a movie about her strange lifestyle.  Child set out to teach America how to cook a better cuisine, but on a certain level the message America took away was that its native cookery was inferior—and thus not worth the effort being put into it. Or the effort it would take to pass it to the next generation.

Partly as a result, preparing food became a self-conscious act, and American cookery ceased being our indigenous cuisine and became just one more concept. It’s easier to accept the artifice in processed foods when it’s all an act anyway; in a true beef culture, Wyoming hamburger stands would pride themselves on handformed fresh beef as a matter of principle. But when hamburger stands are about fitting the concept of a hamburger stand, all that matters is that you carry off the concept convincingly. If the meat’s a little worse, play the oldies a little louder; it will average out.

Now, I don’t mean to lay every box of T.G.I. Friday’s Frozen Jalapeno Cheese Poppers at Child’s feet. Obviously the main reason Americans stopped cooking is because both sexes are working now, and working more, and the time just isn’t there. But that lifestyle change also owes something to the feminist movement telling housewives to throw off their chains and find their real meaning at a desk rather than a stove.  The chain of American cooking passed from mother to daughter broke in the 1960s, and if the most influential food personality of the decade didn’t have something to do with it, who did?

Ironically, it’s precisely the meaninglessness of her boring desk job that drives Julie Powell to find meaning by taking up cooking, discovering in it all the things that corporate bureaucracy lacks— tactile pleasures, finality followed by a fresh start the next day, instant feedback, real appreciation.  She turns to Julia Child to help rescue her from a less satisfying life without realizing the irony that Child is part of how she got stuck there in the first place.

Like I said, hardly any blogging for the next week, so here’s my second post of the day. But hey, I’m doing a bunch of cooking and other tasks, so no time to sink deep into the editing headspace anyway.

Went to Green City this morning, Fruit Slinger had twittered about some gold cherries so I bought some of those from him and two other types; the gold are pretty but there’s not really that much flavor, by far the best were some Bing-like dark ones.  Then I spotted these:

The last carton of Fraises des Bois!  Actually they became the last when I took the next to last one.  Tiny, tart, prickly little wild strawberries.  Not the greatest strawberry I ever had, but at least interesting and different.  After so much blog trafficking about them, I had to buy a tiny, pricy carton.  Sucker.

I also picked up the first sour cherries of the season (and immediately put one son to work pitting them when we got home for future pie use), and some black raspberries— if you’ve never had black raspberries, they’re a definite thing to look out for, not really like red raspberries at all but a great blackberry-ish flavor eaten atop some Scooter’s vanilla custard or something creamy like that.  They grow wild around here too, if you want to look for them (I know a school garden where they grow, somewhat but not entirely deliberately).

Came home, made a tart crust and a creme patissiere, and…

Tart with fraises des bois and urban foraged juneberries.  I call it Tarte des blog.

(Earlier Juneberry post: I Found Juneberries!)

If there were a dish that involved asparagus and strawberries, it would have been the salvation for Green City Market today, as plenty of both were on hand. A little sunshine might have helped too; we were among the hardy few in a decidedly sparse crowd.

I stopped by a new cheese vendor, Saxon Homestead Creamery, variously recommended by the likes of Michael Morowitz and Mike Sula. We sampled our way down the line and to our surprise, even the 7-year-old voted for the slightly funky raw milk Green Fields cheese, as well as one called Evalon LaClare Farm cheese. (Cheese Log post to come in a few days.)

At Cafe Floriole we got something to nosh— in this humidity, the crusts were soggy but the good stuff in the middle was still plenty good, I was very happy with a little goat cheese and green onions. A moment later I spotted something else someone (I think Monica Eng) had recommended:

Apple cider donuts! Okay, I don’t think I went quite as gaga for them as she did, but they didn’t exactly last long, either.

By the time I got to Fruitslinger’s stand I had three quarts of strawberries, so I didn’t really have any need to buy any more from him, but we chatted for a moment. I asked him about the fraises des bois (wild strawberries; they were planted, as a sort of cliffhanger, last year on his blog and they turned up recently on his Twitter feed.) He said ten minutes earlier Mark Mendez from Carnivale had bought everything he had. Then he searched around and produced one for me to try. Tart, not that different from the other strawberries. Wait another week or two, he said. When they’re good… his eyes rolled back in his head. (Here’s what happened to them at Carnivale.)

Got some green tomatoes from Growing Power, I’ll make fried green tomatoes in a day or two. Got a new glass bear full of that great black raspberry honey, some pork shoulder and hamburger from a new beef supplier, some eggs (all sold out closest to the parking lot, still available closer in). We went home, damp but happy. Tonight I made strawberry shortcake, tomorrow a strawberry-rhubarb pie and probably an asparagus tart.

This is how my life works now. I read about tarte tatin at one blogger’s site. So I go to Green City Market and wind up buying the apples for it from another blogger.

Ruhlman made it sound good and easy, so I found a recipe for it in (another blogger) Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible. I knew I was going to make an apple run Wednesday because I had made a terrific apple pie using Mutsu apples, so I wanted to stock up on a few of them and cut them up for pie and vacuum seal/freeze them.

Although I grant you that Honey Crisps are damned tasty apples, and it’s no mystery why they’re the apple of the moment, I also think of them as the tramps of apples, easy and obvious in their sugared-up appeal, their in-your-face 44DD flavor. Instead I looked over the other apples and two Charlie Brownish varieties (small, irregular, bumpy, a little sad-looking) caught my eye. Of course I can’t remember their names, now, but they were both old varieties. The goldish ones were especially pretty; I just ate one and it wasn’t complex but had a nice astringent apple-juiciness, like apples used to taste before that brazen hussy Honey Crisp came along.

The reddish ones screamed pie and were said to be good for that, by Fruit Slinger himself (who I had talked to many times, but never until yesterday actually talked about being a fellow food media outlet with). It was a gray drizzly day, nearly over for him, and he looked very ready for it to be over, but he did give me his imprimatur on my choices and purposes for apples, so I felt blog-approved in my purchases.

Anyway, so here’s the gist of tarte tatin. Make some caramel with butter and the juice that dripped off of your apple slices as they sat in sugar and lemon for half an hour. Arrange the slices as neatly as you can in rings.

Cook, basting frequently, till the caramel is nice and thick. Let cool a bit and fit a crust over it. Bake.

Flip like a Spanish tortilla (plate over pan, one firm decisive flip, listen for plop). Fix any egregious spots while still warm and wet. Let cool and harden.

Take another picture, it’s so pretty.

It was very good, accompanied by (instead of Ruhlman’s creme fraiche) Scooter’s custard, although as a dish I’d still rank it second to a first-rate American apple pie, or the apple tart with apricot marmalade and custard I make from this book.

Here’s yet another blogger, suggesting something else to do with apples from Green City in a nice little video she made. Who knows, I’ve probably seen her there, too.  Life’s like that.

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Today was one of those days where you’re doing ten million crazy things, those of you who watch the next Sky Full of Bacon will see just how crazy, so when I got home from them and my wife had wound up stuck with the duty of picking up the kids in Rogers Park and the dog in West Town, I figured the least I could do was cook dinner.

I remembered something I had been importuned into by my youngest son. We’d gone to Trader Joe’s a week ago, and they were giving out samples of, well, let’s call them Trader Giotto’s Nouvelle Spaghetti-Os. Take a 32 oz. box of TJ tomato soup, a couple of tablespoons of TJ pumpkin butter, and a couple of cups of TJ pasta in an O-ring shape. Boil pasta, heat soup with pumpkin butter, dash with soy sauce (Trader Jao’s?), drain pasta, dump into soup mixture, let absorb soup, and in not much time… instant dinner. So I bought the ingredients, fully recognizing that I was taking a step into the kind of mix-three-packaged-products cooking that I loathe and, understandably, associate with the worst cooking show in the history of mankind, Semi-Homemade With Sandra Lee. I hated myself for doing it, but I knew the night would come when it would be handy and make a kid or two happy.

And so it came and I made it. To be honest, it wasn’t bad– too sweet, as you might expect (some recommended parmesan helped there), but at least of some interest, I didn’t mind it a bit. In fact, it made me want to sing a song, a la Mad magazine (*Sung to the tune of “Sandra Dee”):

Look at me, I’m Sandra Lee
Lousy culinarily,
Won’t cook a meal ‘less it comes with a seal
To open, Sandra Lee

Taste it! Hey, I’m Rachel Ray
Eating on forty dollars a day
I’ll double yum a sauteed chewing gum
Oh my God, I’m Rachel Ray*

So are you concerned that I’ve gone over to the dark side? Ironically, at the very moment I was being a kitchen ho and making my family dinner out of jars, bags and Tetra-Paks, I was engaged in the most diametric opposite kitchen activity I can imagine. Well, okay, maybe not THE most, I hadn’t nailed an eel to a board to skin it, but close enough. A pair of pork bellies had just arrived from my friends at Northeast Iowa Specialty Meats, and so once I had the Trader Joe pumpkin butter cooking in the Trader Joe tomato soup, I turned my attention for a moment to pouring pre-mixed (by me) cure into the bags with the bellies, adding some maple syrup and smooshed juniper berries, and sealing them up to cure in the beer fridge for the next 10 days or so. Semi-Ho dinner, but homemade bacon. We all find ourselves with such culinary split personalities from time to time….

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