Sky Full of Bacon

Michael Ruhlman had a heartfelt post the other day about taking his 10-year-old son to see Food Inc. You should read the whole thing; go there, I’ll be here when you’re done.

Okay, so as it happens I read that right as we were in the middle of the Lake County Fair, where my 10-year-old son Myles was showing his lamb Arachnophobia (they took second in the weight class). And I thought as a result of raising his own lamb Myles had a pretty different perspective from the average kid about his food, or even the above-average kid who’s just been to see Food Inc. So I asked him on camera if he had anything to say to Michael Ruhlman’s son about that experience. Here’s Myles on raising a 4-H lamb (this was shot on my little point and shoot camera, so it’s not as big and fancy as a Sky Full of Bacon video):

My 10-Year-Old Talks About Raising His 4-H Lamb from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

So we were walking back to the house the other night, a group of 8 or 9 of us since my sister and family were visiting… and suddenly I yelled… JUNEBERRIES!

Several trees, probably planted as they’re in a sort of parkway near our house.  Yet the apple-red fruit was completely undisturbed; if someone who planted them once picked them, no one does now.  There were two younger trees, which were fairly full of Juneberries, and one older one which was absolutely abundant:

After ID’ing the oval, serrated leaves on the computer to make sure we had the right tree, I tried them.  The harder reddish fruit was sort of like a tiny plum with a couple of grape seeds in the middle.  It was all right, but nothing to get THAT excited about.

We went back today, though, and by now most of the fruit, especially on the older tree, was a rich grape-purple.  And those were much more complex and interesting— not only more depth to the plum flavor, but an orangey note that had been completely missing the other day.

The ripe purple fruit slid easily off the stalk without breaking, and my helpers and I soon filled a small bag.  I’ll make a custard tart with them this weekend, I think.

Here’s what the trees look like, at least the younger ones, to help you spot them around town:

Meanwhile, not that anybody will likely read a blog over a holiday weekend, but I’m deep into production on the next two podcasts, so blogging will likely be light.  If you have bored computer time, click on “7 Links of Terror” and there are plenty of cool things to visit there.  Meanwhile, I shot at the Shedd Aquarium and a restaurant yesterday as I tackle the subject of fish, and will be talking to a rep from a major green fish co. in a couple of weeks.  Not sure when the finish date will be, but I’m working, anyway.

One of the things that didn’t make it into the urban foraging podcast was Art Jackson’s and my extended, and quite literally fruitless, search for juneberries, aka serviceberries. Only afterwards did it dawn on us that searching for June-berries in August was not exactly the brightest thing we could have been doing. I’ve been curious, now that June is not only here but quickly departing in a torrent, and had in the back of my mind that I should call Art up and see if he wanted to search for Juneberries…

…but he already has. He’s found them, and he’s cooked with them and eaten them. Check out his post.

First in a new feature in which we eat cheese, and blog cheese.

I’ve decided I need to get more serious about cheese. By which I mean, there’s this cheese scene in America, and I basically only buy cheese by type— hard, soft, goat. Put them in front of me and mmmnnnummmnmm, I eat, but I don’t analyze.  I don’t remember what I liked, and why.  I need to take cheese more seriously and thoughtfully. Hence this new feature, in which I’ll write about specific new cheeses in our fabulous cheesy era of great cheese.

But first: radishes. I went to look at my Earthboxes the other day, and wow, French breakfast radishes were practically forcing themselves out of the ground, like mandrakes getting ready for a good scream. I don’t think the miracle of growing had ever been quite so forcefully impressed upon me— a couple of weeks ago, mud, that has somehow been turned into this bright pink and white thing. I think it’s the color that really struck me. I’m used to green coming out of the ground, but this was like something made of bright plastic had grown there. It was like I was harvesting Christmas ornaments, or Barbies.

Anyway, I plucked some out of the ground and washed them, to slice and serve on rye bread (Lithuanian rye, Today’s Temptations) with some goat butter, in imitation of how they are served at The Bristol. And then I unwrapped my three new cheeses from Whole Foods. They were:

At the top, a raw milk cheese, Constant Bliss from Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont. I love their description of it:

Constant Bliss is based on a Chaource recipe, which we modified to suit our production schedule and cheesemaking facility. The result is a cheese which hardly even resembles a Chaource. It is a slow ripened lactic curd made only with fresh, right out of the cow, uncooled, evening milk. We actually begin the cheesemaking process before the cows have finished milking… It is aged 60 days before it leaves the farm, and is a ‘sell it or smell it’ item for retailers… We named Constant Bliss after a revolutionary war scout killed in Greensboro by native Americans in 1781.

Because nothing says cheese like death by tomahawk. At right, with the orange rind, is another Jasper Hill raw milk cheese, Winnemere (or is it Winnimere? There seems to be no consensus online), made seasonally (the season just ended, actually) and washed with raspberry lambic beer and wrapped in spruce bark. At left is Truffle Tremor, a soft and creamy goat cheese with bits of black truffle in it, from the well-known goat cheesemaker Cypress Grove in Arcata, California.

Let’s start with the latter. Truffle is an easy flavor to use to dress up foods, or to overdress them, and it’s often synthetic, so it’s nice that the truffle here is both subtle and seems complex and multidimensional—in a word, real. I don’t think this is a brilliantly made cheese, but it’s certainly a good one, and high quality as flavored cheeses go.

Constant Bliss instantly seems to have greater depths, to have more going on. The simple gooeyness of the camembert-like texture begins to develop, like a Polaroid, into an almost tomatoey ripeness. It’s a strong cheese, not in the stinky sense, but just in that it refuses to go away for a while, hanging around on the tongue showing attitude.

Finally, Winnemere, with its splendidly diseased-looking rind:

You taste little fruity hints of the lambic and the spruce at first. The creaminess settles in on your tongue for a long night of watching B.J. and the Bear reruns on MeTV, when suddenly you smell—hey, is that vanilla? Who vanillaed in here? And you’re looking at Winnemere and it’s going what, I don’t smell vanilla and you’re saying dude, you’re totally vanillaing in my mouth.

Winnimere seems to have attracted a lot of excitement in the cheese world, as most things only available half the year do, and rightly so. It’ll probably be gone in a few weeks, so grab it now and be prepared for it to do whatever it wants to in your mouth.

El Mariel is a Cuban sandwich place that has opened up next to the popular Habana Libre on Chicago. If “Habana Libre” conjures up Hemingway and stiff tropical drinks, El Mariel refers, of course, to the Marielitos, the people who crowded onto boats to escape— or not— Fidel’s rule and land in America. Which makes the Cuban part seem a little more immediate and harsh than at the very picturesque, almost stereotypically so, Habana Libre.

The menu is short and basic, so I ordered the most obvious thing: a Cuban sandwich. I also ordered papas fritas, which is to say French fries, not realizing that homemade potato chips would be served alongside it. Oops.

Before I got any of this, though, the proprietor, a burly mustached man hard at work on some sort of baking project, offered me a cup of soup on the house. It was chicken soup, nothing great, but perfectly okay, fresh vegetables and real chicken, what’s not to like? That was pretty much how I felt about the Cubano, too— nothing that would change my life, but an entirely decent rendition, far from skimpy with the ham, and offered in an atmosphere of eager and hopeful hospitality. I found the attitude winning even when the food would have served its purpose today and been forgotten tomorrow. That will bring me back, to see if El Mariel develops into something more interesting in time.

El Mariel
1438 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 226-0455

In my podcast Eat This City, urban forager Nance Klehm notes (starts at around 12:45) that milkweed shoots can be eaten something like asparagus, and that the pods, when very young, can be cooked like okra. But then she says she doesn’t like to eat them, because they’re the only food of the monarch butterfly, and she’d rather eat other things (since she can and they can’t).

This notion piqued my curiosity, though, since I had milkweed growing in my somewhat neglected front yard patch last year. The kids and I had observed it in its various phases— and best of all, spotted the occasional monarch dining in our front yard. So the notion that monarchs needed it for their own food was by no means abstract— but at the same time, omnivorous foodie that I am, I couldn’t help wonder what milkweed would taste like. Here we are in the season when ramps are all the rage, I could be the first on my block to try another bit of locally grown, wild flora.

So I went into my weedpatch of a front yard and examined the shoots. There were 6 or 8 clusters of about 4 to 6 shoots each. Surely I would not do any harm to simply thin the clusters out by one shoot each, they wouldn’t all grow to butterfly-feeding maturity… right? That at least is what I told myself.

I came back inside with a fistful of young shoots, thin and tender, only a few leaves at the top, leaking sticky white sap from the cut end. Then I began looking up how to cook them. The news at first was very far from encouraging:

Milkweed is typically found in dry habitats, especially in dry, disturbed areas like roadsides, pastures, and dry stream beds. Although eating milkweed is rarely fatal to humans (because it tastes nasty), livestock occasionally die from eating it. Young shoots of milkweed can be eaten, but only after thorough cooking. Never eat parts of mature plants. Milkweed sap can cause a rash on people with sensitive skin.

Then I found this, by a guy who’d not only eaten them without changing the water three times (as all the recipes recommended to rid them of bitterness and toxicity), he’d eaten them raw, and lived into his 70s to tell the tale:

Eventually I tried milkweed shoots boiled without changing the water; furthermore, I made sure to begin the process with very cold water so I could “set” this elusive bitter principle just to see what it tasted like. (I had expended so much time, water, and cooking fuel to fight this chemical culprit that I was becoming anxious to meet him.) The result was perfectly delicious without even a hint of bitterness. I drank of the cooking water, too, and it tasted mild and pleasant, like green beans. After that I went out and ate a small quantity of milkweed shoots raw, and they were rather tasty. So then I tried the milky sap by itself – only to find that it was without any noticeable unpleasant flavor. It turned out that our bitter enemy was too much of a coward to even show up.

Who to believe on the internet? In the end, I took the small chance of following the recipes that said cook it for 15 minutes in the same water, no changes. Someone had to be the first to taste tomatoes, grapes, hemlock. I started the pot boiling and meanwhile, figuring that asparagus was the model here, I whipped up a simple butter-lemon-tarragon cream.

15 minutes later and, well, they were already so soft that it was hard to imagine how more cooking and more changes of water wouldn’t have turned them to puree. I took them out and tasted one.

Yes, certainly asparagus-like, not quite as strong-suphurous… and a little sweet note which asparagus never has. Interesting enough to try once, little reason to want to make it a regular part of your spring diet. Which was a relief; had I found it wonderful, I would have had to ask myself whether it was ethical to call attention to eating milkweed in a way that might influence others to go out and start stripping fields of newly grown shoots.

Yet of course, the only reason I’m asking this question at all is because I happen to have a factoid about this one plant in my head. How many other times have I called attention to something delicious, heedless of the fact that today’s foodie trends to watch list is tomorrow’s endangered species watchlist? My clusters of ethics are clearly rooted in a vast field of locally grown, wild ignorance.

So take my word for it. Milkweed’s okay if you’re a native American during a slow bison season, but it’s nothing to get excited enough about to make it worth taking from the mouths of butterflies. No particular need to add this one to the heavy list of sins we gluttons carry.

Although I am awfully curious about this:

Wild Food Recipe: Sautéed Milkweed Pods and Mushrooms

In this recipe, I removed the immature seeds – the inner white part of the milkweed pod. I looked for young pods, which tend to be small, rough textured, and do not split open easily.

I wanted to see if cooking the insides of the pod would make it stringy, like cheese. In this case, I used white mushrooms, so I could focus on the milkweed.

Last year I shot a couple of quick videos about my son’s involvement in 4-H at Wagner Farm in Glenview.  I probably should have done a full-fledged Sky Full of Bacon about it, but this is one of those cases where being a parent and being a filmmaker just proved too much to do well at the same time.  (It was definitely good practice for the podcasts, though— I learned how sensitive the mic is to picking up my breathing, making me sound like an asthmatic running a marathon through much of this!)  Anyway, here are the two videos from last year, showing him exercising and feeding his lamb, and then the day of the auction at the Lake County Fair.

My Lamb Triskaidekaphobia from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Triska Goes to the Fair from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

He has a new lamb this year, a bigger one, named Arachnophobia.  He’s an old hand now, it was fun watching him last week helping wrestle them into the pen, as if every 10-year-old knows how to handle a herd of sheep.

Last year I bought three Earthboxes* for my otherwise largely unused deck.  The result was a wonderful bounty of lettuce and arugula (as shown above), a smattering of tomatoes, a few herbs and a little disappointment with strawberries and peas.  You can read more about it all here.

This year, I bought three varieties of greens, some French breakfast radishes which apparently grow best mixed in with other stuff, and some beets and rainbow chard just for something different, what the heck.  I dug out last year’s fertilizer, topped off the boxes with some new potting mix and fertilizer, and just managed (with the help of an eager 7-year-old) to plant everythng as the rain started falling, a good excuse to clean up tomorrow.  Here’s what’s we planted:

* So what’s an Earthbox?  It’s a container that’s extremely efficient about using water, having a reservoir underneath and a cover on top.  So it basically makes for excellent, idiot-proof container gardening with a very high yield for the space.  My first Sky Full of Bacon features Bruce F., who has over 30 do-it-yourself Earthbox-like containers on his roof in Wicker Park.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out:

Sky Full of Bacon 01: How Local Can You Go? from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

I owe thanks to many folks lately: Monica Eng for this nice blurb about Beard nomination links at the ChiTrib, Adam Kuban at Serious Eats for linking Raccoon Stories, Helen at Menu Pages and Chuck at Chicagoist for links for that podcast as well.

Meanwhile, Nance Klehm, urban forager and star of podcast #7, Eat This City, has turned up twice in the news in the last couple of days, once here at MSN and once here in the Chicago Reader. The latter is an especially interesting project of hers (hence my headline), check it out!

(Followup to Coppablogging and Coppamergency.)

When last we saw my coppa, it had green splotches which I washed off with vinegar.  Back into the wine fridge for a couple of weeks, and finally I decided now was the time.

But, as in a horror movie, I had no certain idea what would lie behind the bandages once they were removed… flesh of tantalizing beauty… or of unspeakable horror?

I peeled them back, slowly…

A little white mold, the good kind, but no hideous green or orange growths.

The smell, too, was the good funkiness of old school salume, not the bad funk of rot.

I sliced it in half, then cut myself the thinnest slice I could and tasted it.

The flavor, like the smell, was funky and deep, but not offensive in any way.  The texture was supple, buttery.  This being mulefoot, it’s more fat than meat, which is perhaps a slight disappointment, and I could wish for it being a little more salted, and perhaps a little more dried— it’s very much like raw meat in the middle.  But for a first try, I was extremely happy with having come so close to my model.

Half for me, half for Hammond whose pig it was.  So he has something to really look forward to when he comes out of his current self-imposed fast. Hey, I got yer satori right here, pal.

P.S. So I also had half of the lardo, as described here and here, hanging in the fridge for an extra few months. I took that down at the same time and sliced into it:

If there’s any difference between what I took down some months back and this, I can’t taste it. Had it been by itself, it might have dried out a little more, which would have been fine, but with the coppa in the same fridge losing its moisture, it didn’t come out any differently. So, three months, six months, doesn’t seem to make a vast difference when it comes to lardo. It’s all good.