May 2010


It’s frigid and gross outside, and I don’t want to go to the store. I’ve managed to do one load of laundry, poorly, and it’s in the wash for a second time because I didn’t load it with enough water.

I don’t want to go outside. It has been raining for the last few days, and just going out to the mailbox depresses me. What can I do to occupy my time? Looking in the fridge, there’s a little bit of food. I made a nice tomato sauce a few days ago. There’s still plenty of cheese. I think that there’s an egg or two. Capers are in the cupboard, and I have a few nice sardines and some breadcrumbs. I think tonight will be a pasta night.

***

Back in school, making pasta was a regular thing. There would be a couple of dishes on the daily menu that were beef, maybe a chicken, a fish or two, a nice green salad, and a few sides. There was almost always a pasta dish. Our instructor, being from New York, and one of the most Italian-American individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, most often insisted that we learn how to make pasta ourselves, so that we were better able to assert ourselves in the kitchen when it came time to forge our creative path. With little more than salt, flour, and egg, we were able to create and stretch the canvas for limitless possibilities to expand our culinary horizons.

With each week, we went over different recipes that were indicative of the regions of Italy. There was a cream sauce in the north served alongside the bread of the week, a cracker-like grissini, a Bolognese, a thick, meat sauce that filled you up and could have been served alongside a boeuf bourgignon as a main course, and a lightly dressed Southern style with lemon, oregano, breadcrumbs, and golden raisins. Through our weekly endeavors, we learned about how the sauce for a carbonara, when whisked properly, blended the fat from rendered bacon with a lightly coddled egg to create a proper emulsion when finished with a flourish of cheese. We learned that Agnolotti, Tortellini, and Ravioli were all different regional takes on the same basic structure. Agnolotti al Plin, or Agnolotti with a Pinch, was in reference to not only the shape of the pasta, a filled pillow with a crimped edge, but was also a sly nod to their inventor, who had a fondness for pinching the pillowy bottoms of his female kitchen staff as they prepared the dish. They can be made with a meat, cheese, or vegetable filling, but from region to region, depending on what herbs, spices, or proteins were available, the recipe as well as the shape will differ.

Since I have a bunch of different items in the fridge, I think I’m going to do a mishmash of all the different regions with my pasta. Capers and sardines are decent bedfellows, and you could even throw a tomato in there for flavor, as they all come from the same region, but since there’s basil, onion, and garlic in the sauce, that makes it a little tricky to adhere to strict regional laws of cuisine.

Moreover, and don’t tell anyone this, I used a Rex Goliath Merlot in the sauce. A (gasp!) French (double gasp!!) blended wine flavored drink made in (triple gasp!!!) California! It’s definitely not my favorite, but it’s palatable, affordable, and it was the closest bottle I could reach when I was making the sauce.  If I can gulp down a glass while the sauce is simmering, it’s fine and dandy for me as a usable wine.

Anyhow, the sauce? It’s taken care of. Just a quick reheat, maybe a bit of a reduction, and it’ll be ready to serve with the pasta.

Ah yes, the pasta. Down at the market, there’s a nice pasta stand called Pappardelle’s. If you’ve ever been down there, you’ve probably heard them in your periphery as you walk by, trying to sell you on their product by offering the all-too-unfortunately-concocted mess they call “chocolate pasta”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I usually like it if they lead with their strength.

They’ve got a lot of awesome pastas there. Flavors abound, from a Lemon Trenette to a Basil and Parsley Mafaldine, to Harissa linguine, and a Red Onion Pappardelle, those really wide noodles that I just find fantastic for enjoying every last morsel of sauce.

The one thing that bothers me about it is that they charge $10/lb for it. For flour and water and a few dry spices. Maybe for the Saffron or the Portabella Pasta, I could see charging a premium, but this always got me thinking if I could make my own at home.

I knew I could, what with the years of pasta making experience I had already been so quick to forget. How hard could it be? I’d seen Molto Mario enough to figure out that you needed to make a well, put some eggs down in the center, and whisk it all together for a few minutes, roll it out, and, MIRACLE OF MIRACLES! You would look down and there would be pasta.

Easy.

So a while back, I had received some farm fresh eggs from a local vendor at the market. Six of em. Some brown, some green, all of them exciting. I went to the Italian store up the way to get some 00 flour, just like Mario Batali used. I didn’t have a rolling pin, but I wasn’t about to get one. I had all these empty wine bottles lying around that had worked just as well for me over the years.

Got them home and found a recipe online. Simple enough. 2 cups of flour and four egg yolks. Started off with two cups of 00 on the board, made the little well in the center, and separated the yolks, one by one, into the well. I whisked them together, breaking them up and incorporating a little bit of flour at a time. The directions told me that it would start coming together, and when it did, to knead it for about 15 minutes until it became elastic.

My dough was flaky, like a bad pie crust. I turned it out onto the board, and started kneading, hoping that it would come together.

Five minutes went by. Ten minutes. My arms started to burn. Fifteen minutes. I took a break. My abs hurt. It was like doing an exercise on a CPR dummy that wasn’t responding. Somewhere, my instructor was laughing. The dough was not stretchy, nor was it elastic. It was a rock. The instructions said to cover it with Saran Wrap and place it in the fridge for twenty minutes. I really didn’t think that it was going to help.

It didn’t. Twenty minutes later, it was harder than before I put it in. There was only one thing I knew about how this pasta would turn out. I knew the sound it would make when it hit the bottom of the garbage can.

Thud.

Crap. Those nice eggs, too. Didn’t cost me anything, but it was a waste of beautiful product. I ended up using the dried pasta we had in the cupboard, and it seemed to turn out alright. Sadly, it wasn’t the fresh dinner I’d hoped for.

***

The next time I made fresh noodles, I wanted to get it right. I used the Mario Batali recipe. 3 3/4 c. of flour, 5 whole eggs. Ah. Whole eggs. I’d run into the problem earlier with my mayonnaise, where I used the whole egg instead of the yolk, yielding a broken, sloppy mess on my hands. Alright. Problem number one was solved.

I got to mixing, doing the well-method, and luckily, I only had to knead it for two to three minutes, according to the recipe. Fantastic. Wrapped it in plastic, let it sit on the counter for twenty minutes at room temperature, and it was ready to go.

Already, I could see that the texture was like what the first recipe said it should have been. You could pull it with your finger like a dough hook, and it would snap and spring back when it reached its breaking point. Much better.

I cut off a small hunk, and floured the board. I rolled it out as thin as I could, taking great pains to keep it well floured so as not to stick. When I simply could not roll it any more, I took my sort of thin sheet, rolled it up, and sliced it, tagliatelle-style.

When you roll up a pasta, and you don’t get the cut just right, as it unfurls, it becomes a zigzag of curiousity that really never quite resembles what you see in the pictures. Still, it was better. It was edible, and I was able to put it in a boiling pot of water and serve it with all the zest of a semi proud home cook.

***

I saw all those fancy pasta machines at the Italian Market. They were about $150. I don’t have that kind of scratch laying around. What could I do?

I forgot about making my own fresh pasta for a couple of weeks, until I picked up a copy of The Stranger, and saw that, right by my bus stop, at Ross Dress for Less, in the housewares section, they had pasta machines for $20!

20 bucks? Joy of Joys! I did a little dance, and then I drank a little water, for what I had, I had to get and put it in the pasta machine, and I had to do it soon.

After work one night, I went in, and I got that pasta machine. For twenty dollars, it was the best investment. I brought it home, used my Mario Batali recipe for pasta, and cranked it out. I cranked out all kinds of pastas. Thin sheets for lasagna, thinner sheets for wild mushroom and leek tortellini, and all manner of thin fettuccine for dinners on cold nights such as this.

What it came down to, though, was this: How was I going to ensure that my fresh pasta would make it from the pasta machine to the pot without sticking? Sure, there was a lot of flour on the board, but I always had a clothes drying rack or something similar on which to hang the pasta to dry before cooking it. What to do?

I learned something important that day, in addition to the restated fact that necessity is the mother of all invention. If I want to make a fresh pasta, I can do it myself, but with an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, a better sense of satisfaction comes about with the end product. More than that, sometimes an answer to your query is right in front of you. As we were cranking the noodles out one evening, we needed a spot to hang the noodles. I usually plopped them in a pile, shook them loose from one another, and threw them in the pot, hoping that they would turn out delicious if not only somewhat edible. My better half, the one who somehow got the looks and the brains in our relationship equation, ran into the other room, and came back with the answer. It was so simple, and I was and continue to be impressed by her novel solution to my problem.

Could it be that it was all so simple?

***

So, tonight, it is Pasta. The stars are aligned. The MOON IS IN THE SEVENTH HOUSE! JUPITER IS ALIGNED WITH PLUTO!

Tonight’s dinner will be like a big cable knit sweater that someone keeps knitting, and knitting, and knitting. *

*Except that instead of yarn, it will be a long string of pasta. Um…Yeah.

I haven’t made risotto in a while. It’s one of my favorite meals. It’s a comfort food, and it’s a food that you can serve any time, day or night, satisfying for lunch or a drunken snack late in the evening, not that I would advise preparing such a thing under the influence without proper training.

That’s the big thing, right there. Risotto, to me, is the chef’s version of easy mac. For the time and effort it takes to shake out a package of cheese powder and fill a tub with water, microwave, stir, let it rest, etc. – all those things that make Easy Mac so repulsively easy, I can make risotto.

Wine Wall at Ristorante Norman

It all started at a little restaurant on Via Pietro Micca in Torino, Italy. Ristorante Norman. After a school day at the Institute of Biscuits (name changed), a few friends and I would take the tram to center city, sit out in front of the restaurant on the Piazza, drinking double espressos (record for an afternoon for me was 13), do generally cosmopolitan things, and eat gelato for three hours before piling into the tiny kitchen on the second floor salon, above the confectionary shoppe. The front room was stacked with, on the left side, a gelato bar, running the length of the front room, towering tables of marrons glace and torrone, and on the right, an ancient, brassy espresso machine. The back room, where the bosses hung out, was akin to a mansion’s reading room or library, with tall stacks of wine bottles lounging behind glass in floor to ceiling displays.

Fontana Angelica

The Salon at Ristorante Norman

Off to the side, there was a glass door that took you up to the second floor, overlooking the Piazza Solferino and the gorgeous Fontana Angelica. Up the stairs to the second story, and we were greeted with a gorgeous dining room with classical place settings, elegant linens, and antique dinner service. Back in the kitchen, we filleted flounder, wrapped soft cheeses in grilled zucchini, chopped spinach, seared duck breasts and marinated swordfish for the evening’s service, and relaxed in the community of working side by side with our fellow kitchen staff.

***

Torino, or Turin, is most famously known for three things: the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that alleges the depiction of Jesus Christ on its facade, FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) Motor Company, and most recently, hosting the Winter Olympics. More than those three things, it is also home to LaVazza coffee, Martini and Rossi Vermouth, and a cuisine that is showcased by pastries and chocolates as well as its heavily German and Austrian influences.

Where most people think of Italian food as a plate of boiled noodles, a couple of meatballs, and a slop full of sauce, it’s so much more than that.  When I was 18, I worked in a restaurant like that. Paisan’s. Housemade, yet preboiled noodles, Meatballs the size of your fist, and garlicky sauce that would make you wince with its overabundance of kick.

Northern Italy, in contrast to the tomato, lemon, caper and oregano based recipes of the south, is more about the cream based sauces, hard cheeses, wild mushrooms, and game meats such as duck and pork. Alba, in the Northwest corner, is famous for their white truffles, which like seasonal items like our Rainier cherries and Midwestern ears of corn, make their appearance for only a short time per year, harvesting typically in late October. You get them while you can, and put them on everything from Risotto to Pasta to meats, and you can preserve them by infusing them in oil or butter to extend their intoxicating aromatic shelf life for at least a few weeks.

In addition, it is only two hours from the Mediterranean. Within mere hours of the catch, fish is destined for the restaurants of Genoa, Nice, Marseilles, Turin, and its neighboring city of Milan. Mackerel, flounder, Branzini and sardines are only some of the amazing options that the sea has to offer to the regional menu.

***

Back in the kitchen, we take the service at a relaxed pace, as learned from the cultural wisdom of Italian grandmothers and their old world habits. Just a short drive from Turin, in the city of Cuneo, is the home of Slow Food, a movement started to showcase regional and artisanal methods of food preparation while ensuring that these traditions are not forgotten. Along with stringent rules enforced by the D.O.C. (Denominazione di origine controllata), the Slow Food Movement is everpresent in most kitchens in Italy, or at least those that are worth their salt. When you get a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano, it’s going to be the same method of preparation every time. Aside from small differences in the vintages of grapes, wine and balsamic vinegar with the D.O.C. stamp will taste like they’re supposed to taste- exactly like the label says they should. Most importantly, it is an unspoken rule in most kitchens that no food is served before its time. Whereas I’ve worked in many kitchens where the idea is to get the food out to impatient diners in a regimented, almost machinelike fashion (you lose your identity- less man with the plan, just the man with a pan), here, there was an understanding that the table was a place to rest, talk, and enjoy the company of your dining partner over a glass of wine, knowing that the care put into your meal was taking place behind the swinging door of the kitchen, and that you’d get a plate that was quietly and simply remarkable.

It’s the same way everywhere in Italy. You pull out a bottle of wine, cork it, and talk. Things happen. In America, diners expect and often times demand to be waited on. There is an air of servitude about it all. In Italy, people were just happy to be taken care of. That’s the secret handshake right there.

The restaurant, as you can see from the picture up there, was only about 30 seats, and rarely were we full. It gave us time to think about what we were doing, be patient with our food and ourselves, and plate quality food. Here, there are so many instances of cooks who burn out, have substance abuse or depression issues, or worse. Returning to the States and cooking in large scale kitchens, I burned out on the idea that the success of my career was dependent on how many plates a night I was able to crank out without having any dissatisfied diners who sent it back. We cater to those poor souls who cannot be satisfied with a work of art. I’ve learned through my experience in Italy that if a sprig of parsley was out of place, it was not the end of the world. If there was a smattering of sauce that was not perfectly drizzled, it would be okay. It is about the flavor of the overall meal, and the creation, on the plate, in the kitchen, and in the dining room, of an appetizing setting for an enjoyable experience. That is why I do not cook in a restaurant. I put the love on a plate, and although the diners would eat it, the plate was returned empty.

***

Service would finish around 10 or 11, and we’d all go out and sit in the dining room with the stragglers, open a bottle of wine, and start our end of the night meal. Grabbing what we had from the back, we’d take a handful of chopped onion and some fresh thyme, throw it in a pan with a rough chopped clove of garlic, and swish it around a pan for a few minutes. A few sliced mushrooms,  a splash of the wine, a handful of rice, and a few ladles of hot stock in the pan, and we had a risotto. Hearty, simple, filling, and satisfying after a long day.

Risotto started off as peasant food. All that you ate was all that you could grow. There was a little bit of rice, maybe some herbs, some green vegetables, and whatever flavorful broth you could make out of what was around. If you were lucky enough to have a chicken, it would be chicken broth that you had simmered the bones in all day, trying to extract every ounce of flavor and nutrition from your harvest. If it was celery or carrot, you’d put some of that in there. The point was that after raising your vegetables and animals, getting your mileage out of them as a source of protein, the last and final step was to take your time and see what else you could make. Cyclically, then, your stock would go into your risotto, which you would serve with the bread you had made that day, some vegetables harvested from the garden, and maybe the meat off of the next butchered animal.

In the dining room, we’d be sitting around, checking the pot every couple of minutes, agitating, etc., and with about five minutes to go, we’d grab a portion of meat, either beef, duck, or whatever we had around, and sear it up as a quick addition. Nothing more than a little salt and pepper. Three to four minutes a side, and as we flipped it, we’d test the risotto, turn off the heat if it was done, and throw a bit of grated parmigiano in there, letting it rest. That’s the secret.

We’d let the meat rest for a few minutes, slice it, and then serve it over spoonfuls of the savory risotto with a drizzle of reduced balsamic.

That’s a Risotto

All we had was a basic simmered rice dish with a little bit of attention, and we could enjoy it at our leisure. I prefer this outlook on eating where we take our pleasure from the sum of our experiences. The total enjoyment of a meal for me is the process of the meal itself. Going to get the ingredients, fabricating them, hanging in the kitchen while something is cooking and absorbing the smells and sounds of everything that is going on. One of my favorite sounds is a sizzle. My favorite smells are onion and garlic. As for my favorite sights? Among them are a plate of food that I’ve produced, and the person sitting across from me who I hope will enjoy it.

***

With that said, I need to get going. I’ve got a stock to make, and some vegetables to chop. By the time the night is through, there will be a most satisfying meal of risotto in my past, with some leftover stock to use for whatever I’m feeling like putting on a plate tomorrow night. I’m already looking forward to it.

Check out the Slow Food Website. It aims to give you a new outlook on how you treat, and think of, your food: http://www.slowfood.com/

So we’ve got a giant fridge filled with cheese. Four or five kinds.

We’ve got the Tillamook baby block of Cheddar, which is always good for Grilled Cheese. It seems that I’ve been spoiled coming from Wisconsin, where cheese grows on trees, and it is as abundant and inexpensive as something like coffee should be out here.

(It’s not. Coffee is expensive and I don’t enjoy paying a lot for my coffee.)

Still, in the fridge, we have our own standby cheese, market cheese, and Calf and Kid Cheese. You remember Calf and Kid, right? It was that lovely little store down at Melrose Market I talked about last week. I got really excited when I saw that on Facebook they were bringing in the Mozzarella di Bufala de Campagna. I’m not a huge fresh mozz fan, but 1) supporting local business, 2) enjoying fresh items that are out of the ordinary, and 3) eating cheese are some of my favorite things.

So we planned a nice little picnic on our way downtown to see the local show at the movieplex, and we stopped by the Cheese shop on the way down. There were two packages, with pictures of our water buffalo on the front, and one of them had my name on it, if my name were “Campagna” or “Bufala”. I suppose it could be either for the sake of the story.  It was either that or the local cow’s milk fresh mozz, which was going to be more firm, fresher (not travelling from Italy), but also much different in flavor.

Buffalo it was. A nice loaf of crusty Italian inspired bread, some leftover arugula pesto with almonds, and a freshlike tomato from the City Market, and we had ourselves a date with Italy.

The woman behind the counter sliced it up for us, and we went down by the dog park with our backpack full of stuff. There’s not a lot that is more fun than watching dogs frolick while you’re eating tasty food. Picnics are great. You should try one soon.

***

Now it is the next day. There’s still some buffalo mozzarella left over, in addition to all the Cheesefest Cheese. We’ve got a cheddar and a gouda and a Spanish Mahon type cheese, and some cubes. A lot of cubes. I’ve made a focaccia with green onions and sliced garlic with herbs, and we’re going to have a fondue as well. There’s a cheese plate, and I think I should get some fruit for a fruit plate, and maybe some vegetables for the fondue, assuming that we can find our missing power cord. If not, there are far worse things than sitting around and eating cheese.

The salmon burgers of the previous post are at their resting state, and I have made a canteloupe drink that is full of canteloupe, orange flesh honeydew, simple syrup, soon to be a bottle of Orange Blossom Muscat, and seltzer with ice.

Buns are coming. There are many pickles to be had. Pickled ramps will make their final appearance of the season, and I hope that everything comes together so we can grill the burgers on the roof, even if it happens to be cold.

I have laundry in the washer, and I’ve vacuumed, and there’s always this pinch in the back of my mind that says that I have to write something. Just getting it out of my system helps a great deal, although I tend to ramble. I don’t know if I have it in me to make a blog with footnote postings, but the that’s not how the internet works. People read this stuff because books are not cool anymore. That’s why we have the iPad and the Kindle and those waiting room copies of People Magazine.

Anyhow, back to the cheese. I’m going to put the remainder of the mozzarella on the focaccia, and hopefully finish it on the grill, should we get the weather I’m hoping for.  The cheese is the best kind of floppy mush, and it has enough creaminess to cause seizures in small dogs. All the good weather in the world won’t make a difference if I don’t get in the kitchen and clean up after the cyclone that has ripped through there in the last two hours.

I work at a fish market. This much is clear. What makes my fish market different from many others is that people at my fish market buy the whole fish.

What do I do with a whole fish? I don’t know how to cook it!

Don’t worry. We’ve got that covered. 45 minutes to an hour in the oven. Liberally salt and pepper it, make bread slashes, and a lot of oil on top. It’s great, and now you’re a great cook.

Okay, but a whole fish is too much food.

No it’s not. An average sockeye salmon of 4 pounds feeds a family of four comfortably for two meals.

I’m not going to eat that much fish in two days!

Nobody said you had to. Fortunately, since we are not a grocery store, we get our stuff directly from the source. Guys are out at auction on the shores of Neah Bay picking out king salmon every morning. We’ve got flights coming in overnight from Alaska, where the fish just lands in our laps 18 hours out of the water, and not sitting in some warehouse somewhere. With a fresh fish, you can actually keep it fresh without freezing it for up to a week after it has been taken out of the water. A fish you buy Monday will potentially still be fresh on Saturday, equally if not moreso than a storebought equivalent.

How do I know? Easy. Stocks of Norwegian Farm Raised Salmon came from their farms in Norway with preservatives and loads of extra oils to keep the fish from drying out. After processing, it is packed and chilled for a day or so, and then shipped to the nearest airport by truck. It then goes through customs, maybe gets on a plane that day, and is then shipped out to any number of airports around the world. It is either picked up at the airport and taken to a local fish warehouse, where it is shelved in cold storage for a number of days until it is purchased by a grocery store. After this, it is shipped out the next day, where it will potentially sit for two to three days before putting it on display or selling it. Then, you take it home, cook it, and worry about your health if it is on the verge of turning. If you don’t eat it within a day, and it turns south, you call up your fish shop, and tell them it’s bad. It’s not just bad, it’s old. But how old? By the time a piece of farm raised salmon reaches your plate, it can be out of the water and still exhibiting signs of “freshness” (i.e. not going rancid) for 14 to 21 days. Anyone who tells you that the day-glo orange farm raised salmon was in the water this morning is lying to you.

Okay, Gross. You’ve sold me on your fresh fish. I can realistically eat it twice in a week.

Yes you can. As demonstrated by our little farm raised salmon experiment, fish keeps for a long time. In addition, here are some ways that you can choose to eat it.

1. Sashimi/Poke/Tartare/Carpaccio/Ceviche

It's Me, Carpaccio!

Only the freshest tasting fish is used for these. At least I hope it is. The industry standard in Japan has been to superfreeze their seafood for sushi, dropping the temperature down to -76ºF to completely arrest the decomposition of fresh seafood, enabling the full stoppage of bacterial growth at the fishes’ eutectic point, or the point where the product goes into full thermal arrest.

If you can get superfrozen stuff in the store, fantastic. That is one way to ensure the proper storage and handling of your fish.

The second is by freezing the freshest fish yourself at home. With the monger of choice, pick out the freshest fish possible (Copper River Sockeyes that were just in the water yesterday? Excellent), take it home, and throw it in the freezer for a few hours. For the novice fish cutter, this is an easy way to thinly slice your fish without necessarily having the greatest knives or knife skills.

Poke for Me, and Poke for You.

Third, in addition to the freezing, there’s always little additions to the fish that you can add and still eat the fish at a point where you can still consider it somewhat raw.

Think about Tartare. Carpaccio. Ceviche. All of these, you eat raw. You’ve got a raw egg on top of the tartare, but you also have the addition of mustard. Mustard is comprised of two primary components: Mustard Seed and Vinegar. The vinegar acts as a killer of all things that want to give you a stomachache by promoting the environment high in acidity where bacteria fears to tread.

Carpaccio and Ceviche, same thing. Many times with carpaccio, you can brush it with a quick vinaigrette, which has one, two, or many times three of these great safety features: vinegar, mustard, and lemon juice.  Ceviche is probably the easiest raw seafood product to understand, as it’s only citrus that “cooks” the fish by acidulation. It’s something you can see, and a texture difference you can feel when you eat it, and yet it’s safe to eat. Remarkable.

2. Salmon Salad

So you’ve cooked, stuffed your face because the salmon was so good that you just couldn’t eat another bite. Wait. There’s still more salmon left over? You can make sandwiches with it tomorrow. Take a little piece of salmon, some bread, and cheese, lettuce, tomato, etc. Instant meal.

Either that, or take some mayonnaise, green onions, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, and whip it with flaked salmon (it doesn’t have to look pretty. It’s just like making tuna sandwiches) into a spread. Put it on crackers. Put it on tea sandwiches and have a fancy ladies’ lunch! It’s all good!

3. Cured Salmon

Hey, you. How many times do you go to the store and see those tiny packages of lox, like the little 4 oz. ones, for $10? I’ll tell you. ALL THE TIME. Until this point, did you ever think that for the price of a fresh salmon fillet at approximately $15/lb or less, you could make your own at home in only 24 to 48 hours? That’s roughly half the price! I do this all the time, and it’s the easiest thing in the world. You have salt and sugar at your house, right? Yeah, so do I. Take a ratio of salt to sugar at 4:1, add some fresh cracked pepper, some fresh dill, and put it on top of that extra piece of salmon that you have left over from your dinner that you just couldn’t cook.

Take a lemon, slice it in half. What you should have is a piece of salmon with a thin salt mixture on top, like a crust. Now, squeeze the lemon over top of the mixture until it is moistened, and then put it between two plates. Press down on it and drain a little bit of the liquid out. Anything that’s not touching the fish is not going to flavor it. It’s just going to make a mess.

When you’re done, put it in the fridge. To avoid spillage of any excess liquid from the salmon as it dessicates (that’s what it’s doing; the salt is leeching out all of the moisture as a method of preservation. Drier foods have a lower spoilage rate and longer shelf life than moist ones), wrap the two smushed plates in Saran wrap. On the shelf, put some kind of heavy weight on it. Find a bottle of ketchup, box of salt, or a fireplace brick, and rest it on top of the plate, letting it rest overnight in the fridge.

The next morning, flip it, being careful to drain any excess liquid that may have accumulated. In addition to the salting, the most old school method of preservation, the lemon juice adds the extra punch of killing the surface and subsurface bacteria via acidulation (Remember that?). Let it rest another day and night in the fridge.

When you wake up the next morning, rush to the fridge and open your present. Scrape off all the excess salt, giving it a light rinse underneath the faucet if you wish, and pat it dry. Then, with your knife, slice at a severe angle very delicately towards the thinnest part. You should have very nice strips of lox style cured salmon for more sandwiches and things! Serve them with cucumbers!

Okay, but that still doesn’t address the fact that this fish is whole, and I can’t cut it up. I’d butcher it.

Well, that’s a very good point, but fortunately for you, I’m a professional. I’ll gladly fillet or steak your fish to your specifications for no extra charge. There’s even a sign there that says it. Fortunately for you, this works out to your financial advantage, as purchasing a whole fish at 9.99/lb and having us fillet it for you is a much better deal than purchasing one pound at 14.99/lb. Currently, I average a yield of about 76% on a whole salmon, and if you purchase a whole one, that saves you at least five dollars. It’s like getting another meal for one for free! You can sample out these cool ways of preparing fish with that extra piece. It’s a sweet deal!

Great. Sign me up. I’ll take your finest fish.

Done and Done.

***

All that to get to selling one fish. Here’s a little story about the fish industry that I love to tell. Back in the day, when the Halibut fisheries were becoming more and more popular for Alaskan tourists, fishermen would rent out their boats and charter tours with Cruise ship patrons to go out and catch the big ones, often times offering to fillet the fish for free, pack it up in a box, and send it home with them.  This only helped to fuel the high demand for halibut that we see today in our little shop and across the country. They’d vacuum seal the fillets, freeze them, and ship them out to customers who were willing to pay out the *Ahem* nose for this sort of thing.

What the customers didn’t know was that as they thought they were getting the best of the best, the finest of the finest, the fishermen saved the bones and the head. Nobody knew what to do with it in the lower 48, unless you were of a first or second generation family from an Asian or a Mediterranean country, where you’d save the collars and bones for a soup.

It was the heads that made such an impact. These fishermen were saving the heads and scooping out the flavorful, delicate cheeks, the best part of the fish, for their dinner. The cost of their trip was paid for by the customers willing to pay for gas, use of the boat, and their guiding and filleting expertise. With maybe five or ten decent halibut on board, they could take the cheek meat and eat comfortably with their families for a week for free. Customers had no idea what they were missing.

Now look at them. In restaurants, what do you see as a specialty item on the menu? Cheeks. Veal Cheeks, Beef Cheeks, Pork Cheeks, Halibut Cheeks. Have you ever sat down at Thanksgiving dinner to someone carving a turkey and watched them fully dismantle a bird? If they do a good job, watch carefully. For the expert, there is always one person who will sneak into the kitchen and flip that carcass breastbone down onto the table, and scoop out the “oysters”, those two little pieces of meat along the back. They are moist, flavorful, and nearly every turkey that is eaten in the United States each year is served without regard for these tasty morsels of meat. More often than not, these go in the trash, unless you’re in the know.

***

Why have I told you this story? What does it have to do with our current blog post? Here’s the thing that most people coming through the market don’t understand: Even when I cut their fish, fillet it for them, and send them home with a 76% yield, there’s still a spoonful or two of meat on the carcass of a salmon. Simply by taking a spoon and running it along the backbone, you get long, boneless, beautifully fresh and tender strips of salmon ready for burgers.

How interesting, then, that this week was the first week of Copper River Salmon season.

A little background: Copper River Salmon Season is the first fresh run of the year in Southeast Alaska. Called the Copper River for its rich mineral deposits along the banks, it is a 300 mile long river which is one of the steepest in the world, dropping 3600 feet in altitude (an average of 12 feet per mile) over its course. During the spring, Salmon return to the Copper River to spawn, swimming the journey to lay their eggs at the top of the river, weaving through the Chugach National Forest. The salmon that hatch swim down the river, out to sea, and feast for four years on pristine vegetation in the icy cold waters of the North Pacific. Every year, Mid-Spring, they return to their place of birth, swimming for over 1000 miles, exercising their muscle and becoming lean, mean, tasty machines. For Twelve Hours on the morning of Thursday, May 13th, Twelve more on Monday, May 19th, and Twelve more today, the mouth of the Copper River, a 5 mile wide delta just outside of Cordova, Alaska, is netted, and these fish are the first, freshest, and most highly prized salmon that we’ll see in stores all year. Twelve hours at a time, those waters supply the salmon that will feed a hungry mass of customers on the West Coast who have been feverishly awaiting a fresh Alaskan Salmon since November.

courtesy ronniebrugge.com

Chugach Yerself a Happy Little Tree

And boy does the price reflect it.

Copper River King Salmon prices started at $39.99/lb for the whole fish this year. Sockeyes came in at $29.99/lb on the first opening. In my opinion, this reflects both quality and demand. At the mouth of the Copper River, there are an average of 5 sockeye for every king salmon. As the season progresses and the boats are allowed to go further upstream, this ratio drops to about 3:1. Still, what prices indeed!

There are those people who’ve gotta have them. You can see it. They’ve been calling for weeks, asking about it. “When’s Copper River start?”

“When’s the Copper River Season?”

“Got the Copper River yet?”

And we say “Not for another month,” or “Not for another week.”

This week, I told people all about it. I told them exactly what I’ve told you. And they bought the fish. I’d make some joke about how they bought it, hook, line, and sinker, but it’s all true. It’s some of the best tasting salmon you’ll find, and as the fish are flown overnight (They are fishing right now. 18 hours from now, those fish will be netted, harvested, gutted, boxed, and shipped overnight to my store. 24 hours from now, they will be in someone’s possession for dinner), you can’t possibly find anything fresher.

And now that people are buying it, what of the bones? At the first sign of Copper River arrivals, all the employees who had been in the business showed up prepared.

What's that you've got there, Amelie?

So we get to scraping the bones. After a busy Sunday, it sounded like three guys playing muted washboards. Now we know why that thing that they guy plays in Santana looks like a fish. If you scrape the bones, it makes exactly the same sound.

And it’s all free. It’s all, amazingly, what people would, and do, normally throw out. Why would they do such a thing. Out of each salmon, with the right mixture, you have enough salmon trim for at least one, if not two salmon burgers.

Sunday was rocking. I have six pounds of salmon meat. I am going to make the finest effing salmon burgers this great nation has ever seen.

Here’s what you need:

Raw salmon meat, about a pound or two.

1 red onion, finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

green onions, finely chopped

peppers, red and yellow, finely chopped

parsley, finely chopped

1 jalapeno, minced

Salt

Pepper

Oil

Japanese Breadcrumbs

Fresh Dill, finely chopped

Take your salmon. Make sure it’s pretty mushy-like, enough that you can squeeze it through your fingers if you try. If not, run a knife through it a couple of times to make it so.

Put it in a bowl, and add all the other ingredients, save the Breadcrumbs and the Oil.

Mix them up. The salt and pepper can be seasoned liberally into the meat mix.

Sprinkle enough breadcrumbs over top of the mixture so that you can only see flecks of orange through the top. Mix it in, incorporating by hand. (Get your hands dirty. I do it all day, and it enables me to not take myself so seriously. I mean, I smell like fish all day. How serious can I get?)

Does it need more breadcrumbs? Is it too wet? Let it set in the fridge for half an hour. Then try to make patties or large meatballs with it. about the size of a tennis ball should be good for one meal. It’s about five or six ounces.

Is it not sticking together? Add a little bit of oil and let it sit again for 30 minutes. Try it again.

Here’s a note: I normally don’t care about chopping things so precisely, as I want it to taste good and don’t particularly care if it looks good. With that being said, if you chop everything into really small pieces, it will be easier for you to patty things up. If not, they’ll fall apart on the grill and you might look foolish. As I said, I have six pounds of this stuff, and although I’ve probably made over 10,000 pounds of salmon burgers over the years, I still run the risk myself of messing up every time. With six pounds, I run the risk of looking foolish in front of however many people six pounds of salmon meat may feed. (It’s about thirty) Take it from me- Chop them up fine, and that’s one less hassle you’ll have to deal with later.

SOAPBOX OF THE DAY:

Contrary to what many people may believe, Alaska’s greatest contribution to the United States is its natural resources, and at the top of the list is salmon. So often, we tend to forget. With the recent spill of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it is easy for us to see the immediate destruction on the way of life of so many people who are affected by a terrible disaster. Often times, it is Nature at its cruelest, with the ravages of Hurricanes uprooting oyster beds and effectively decimating entire populations of indigenous species of plants and animals. The government is subsidizing many fishing operations in that area who have been affected, and this week I’ve talked to some of them. More than the immediate effects, the lasting damage done to hardworking people whose lives depend on the bounty of the sea is irreparable.

Twenty one years ago, there was an oil spill that we all remember- The Exxon Valdez. This year marks the first year that populations of Alaskan Spot Prawns are large enough and clean enough to harvest out of those waters. It is a test fishery, but slowly, the numbers are coming back, and they have been approved to fish in a limited run.

Bristol Bay is Alaska’s largest run of Sockeye Salmon. 99% of all fish caught in Bristol Bay are sockeye, and if you’ve ever eaten it, you know just how delicious it can be. If it was Alaskan, chances are pretty good that your fish came from Bristol Bay or someplace pretty close. It is Alaska’s most important source of income generating natural real estate, but it is being threatened.

Progress, in Alaska, means generating new sources of revenue. In addition to Tourism, Ice, and Fish, the other big industries up there are gold and oil . The progress that Big Oil has made in Alaska may be far more largescale than we are equipped to deal with, but for the mining of other natural resources surrounding Bristol Bay, it is equally, if not more, perilous.

From the Bristol Bay Alliance website:

Despite its abysmal environmental record and the fact that it is the single largest source of toxic releases in the U.S., the hardrock mining industry is subject to some of the weakest, most outdated regulations of any major industry in North America. In a 2004 report Alaska Community Action on Toxics declared the mining industry “Alaska’s largest toxic threat.”

Those who live, work, and attempt to prosper if not simply survive, want us to know that we do have a choice, and they are hoping to gain more of a voice in the freedom to continue to promote all of the renewable resources their state has to offer.

The Bristol Bay Alliance is a group of fishermen, business owners and local citizens working to help ensure that the people who live, work, and play in the Bristol Bay region have the most influential voice of any group regarding the future of our land and waters. (They) will educate people on the potential dangers and consequences of open pit mining in an area that depends heavily on clean water, healthy spawning grounds, and pristine habitat.

As with fishermen and women in the Gulf, their livelihoods are at stake due to the hubris of the mining industry, but this time it’s both Oil and Gold. What we can do to ensure the success of the fishing industry up there, and give hope and promise to the stocks of salmon that are our most precious resource coming out of Alaska?

Vote with your mouth. Eat Wild Alaskan Sockeye. Any place you see it. If there’s a restaurant that is serving it, what they can do, and what you can tell them about is the Alliance. It is a partnership with restaurants that provide signage, facts, and information to the public about their plight, and encourages them to show their support with their forks. There will be a time, maybe not this year, when we exhaust our open pit mines full of gold. Fish is a sustainable and renewable resource that circulates year after year. We owe it to protect the population for generations to come. Help save the species, save the environment, and save the jobs of those whose lives depend on commercial and subsistence fishing out of Alaska.

Please visit the Bristol Bay Alliance website, read it over, and donate your time and energy to helping out a cause that is timely and worthy of saving. Yes, they need money, but by showing your support with your palate, it proves that the value of Sustainable Wild Alaskan Salmon is far greater year after year than a fully exhaustable and finite supply of mineral deposits.

Bristol Bay Alliance: http://www.bristolbayalliance.com/index.htm

For those of you who read the blog post yesterday, and who have been following the saga of Bill the Butcher as it unfolds, there is an update from the author of the original article. Says Matthew Richter:

Bill the Butcher, Seattle’s newest “local and certified organic” butcher shop, doesn’t disclose where it gets most of its meat, as discussed in this week’sfeature. “We don’t want to confuse the consumer getting into too many ‘this farm, that farm’ things,” one of the owners told me when I tried to find out the source of the meat I was buying.

There are 18 certified organic beef ranches in Washington state, as detailed here(you have to search the PDF for “cattle” to find the ranches). I hadn’t gotten through to all of them by the time the story went to press. At last, I have gotten ahold of all 18. Not one certified organic beef ranch in Washington state sells beef to Bill the Butcher.

Damn.

Damning.

It is less a case of whether or not they actually do get certified organic meats (as there may be out of state sources, which the article alludes to as being as far away from as Nevada), and more a case of their employees blatantly lying to their customers as to what the definition of local means.

We need to have a clearly defined status of local produce/product. The locavore movement did a great job of setting the 100 mile radius, but I’d like to amend it just a bit.  Anyone who can drive to a farmer’s market in the morning, set up and sell all day, and drive home before they have to get to bed should deserve to be called local. It still means low food miles if you can fit a day’s worth of broccoli in the back of a truck, drive it to the market, sell as much as you can to make it worth the drive, and come home, you’ve still put fewer miles on your car than it takes to ship a load of stalky asparagus and waxy peppers from Chile.

When I was at the Dane County Farmer’s Market (personal aside: one of the best run public markets in the country- more on that later), there would be people who would drive from Green Bay to Madison every Saturday morning by six AM, set up and sell until two, and drive back. There were Amish families who baked through the night and had a neighbor drive them down, wait for them all day, and drive them back two hours to rural Loganville, Wisconsin. Every weekend.

A friend who sold honey at the Farmer’s Market decided to sell his wares to Whole Foods, and he would drive to Minneapolis once a month, stock two or three stores, and drive home in the same day. Same with Chicago. He deserved to be called local.

Look at this picture:

How could you not want to take advantage of all the great things that are growing down there? You have a forest full of blackberries, morels, ramps, etc. A lake full of trout and crawfish, and beyond the mountains, acres upon acres of farmland and orchards.

The motto of the small farm is not “Crank it to Bank it.” A farm is not an enterprise, nor is it to be considered a gross tool of entrepreneurial wanderlust.  That’s selfish and unfair to the efforts that hardworking people put forth to run most small farms. So rarely are those who own the land as family farmers motivated by money. If it comes to them, it’s fantastic, but I highly doubt that they got into it to become millionaires. Like fishermen, a lot of them were just born into it.

The motto of the small farmer is closer to “All In a Day’s Work. Not Necessarily Thrivin’, but Survivin’,” and as Russ the Butcher pointed out in his Stranger Bio,

They’re doing what they love for very little money, and it’s good to give them a resource to get their product out.

That just about says it all. Thanks, Russ.

ETA: Please pass this on if you read it, agree with it, or think that other people need to hear it. Retweet it, repost it, put it on facebook or link to your own blog. I just got a little passionate, NETWORK style about this article.  I appreciate the time, and thanks for stopping by.

I picked up a copy of the Stranger the other day. If you’re not from around here, the Stranger is Seattle’s weekly, similar to the Village Voice, Chicago Reader, etc. featuring the advice columns of Dan Savage. That’s how you know it.  Anyhow, front page news had the headline “Mystery Meat- How Organic is Bill the Butcher?”

Ooh. An intriguing expose.

I read through the article, (linked at the bottom of this post), and had an immediate response. I’ve worked in some level of the chain of supply for meat for about fifteen years, ranging from being the guy who checks in the locally produced lamb to the guy who sells you your bacalao. I’ve gone through meat cutting classes, and have a decent grasp on what makes a good cut of meat. Certainly, through my tenure in the industry, I know what it means to be a decent purveyor of quality product at prices that reflect what kind of meat it is that you’re getting. Online classes to discuss the quality, source, and importance of sustainability of fish were always at my disposal. So what’s my beef with the beef?

In the article, a few things stood out.

(T)here’s one thing Von Schneidau and Owens won’t share, and that’s the names of the putatively organic ranches that supply the shops.

Bill the Butcher’s marketing and in-store signage explicitly state “Certified Organic and Natural Beef, Lamb, Veal, Goat, Cheese, Fish, Chicken, Pork, Game” (its website says “only locally sourced and ethically raised meat”). When asked, butchers at two locations said, “Everything in the case is organic.

And the most damning of all condemnations, a response in the article from one of their own purveyors of chicken:

The chicken farm is the one source that Bill the Butcher is forthcoming about: Dog Mountain Farm in Carnation. David Krepky, co-owner of Dog Mountain, says, “Yeah, I told them not to use the word ‘scavenger,’ because they’re not.” The chickens are kept in an indoor/outdoor pen and given feed to supplement whatever bugs and grass they find in the outdoor part.

Dog Mountain Farm’s chickens are highly regarded, sustainably and humanely raised heirloom chickens. But Bill the Butcher’s butchers also claimed that the Dog Mountain Farm chickens were certified organic. “No,” says Krepky, “they’re not organic. The organic feed comes from Canada, and it’s like twice as expensive.” Are they certified natural? “Nope,” says Krepky, “neither. They’re just good chickens.

How is this fair to people who want to sell ethically raised meat? It’s not. It is misleading by the person who you are supposed to trust to keep your family healthy. When you go to get a haircut, you trust the barber to make you look good. When you go to the bookstore, you trust the recommendations of who is selling you the book. Buying your food should not be like buying a car. Why should you have to do the research on where your food comes from? It should be there in black and white. If it is organic, prove it. Show me. Tell me where it comes from, what it eats, how it’s raised. If you’re charging premium prices for a supposedly premium product, I expect you to be able to tell me what kind of grass your grass fed beef is pastured on.

They don’t even do that:

When asked which ranch a flank steak came from and what the cow ate, the young butcher at the Woodinville store replied, “Well, it’s not like I can ask this steak where it came from, you know. But I can tell you that everything here is local and organic.”

Come on. This is appalling to me. How on earth can you possibly employ someone who is as inept at their job as this? Where on earth is this an accepted practice, to be mediocre about the product that you sell? Yes, you can tell us where the steak came from. What you cannot do is exactly what you just did. You cannot say that this piece of meat is organic.

You can say it’s all natural. You can say it’s “beyond organic”, whatever that means. You can even say it’s organically raised or fed, but you cannot say that it is fully organic. The pastures, the grain, the conditions of the soil, the proximity to contaminated sources of clean, untainted drinking water? All of these have bearing on whether or not you can truthfully sell something as what you purport it to be.

On to the fish- there is no way that you can certify a fish organic in the United States. Such a classification does not exist, adhering to the rules set forth by Fish and Game, NOAA, USDA, etc. Show me which pond, which lake, which river you’ve certified organic, and then drink out of it to prove to me that it is fully safe. The closest we can get to Organic fish certified to United States standards is to have an accompanying seal of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent third party organization who does testing to ensure that a wild caught fish is harvested in an ecologically sustainable manner, one that is least detrimental to the environment (dragging, minimal bycatch, etc.), and a method and cap for the season that is not counterproductive to the continued flourishing and cyclical repopulation of the species. Even though it’s also designed as a marketing ploy with the extra added cache of being able to put it on your product and jack up the prices, they do their research.

Bill the Butcher?

According to Owens and Von Schneidau, some of the meat is USDA certified organic and some is certified natural—a certification monitored by ranchers themselves, not the USDA. Then some is what Von Schneidau calls “beyond organic”—certified as neither, but “grass-fed and sustainably ranched” and personally checked. Von Schneidau says, “My specs to [the ranchers] are ‘x, y, z,’ and we get as close to that as we can to call it ‘Bill the Butcher.'”

The thing is, this in itself is utter noise and PR nonsense, designed to put the customer at ease. Still, they go into no depth as to what X, Y, and Z actually happen to be. When I sell a fish, my X is that the fish must be purple, the Y is that it should have sharp pointy teeth, and the Z is that it should taste vaguely of the sea. It’s a crazy sounding analogy, but it’s my prerogative how I’m going to use it to sell my product. If those were my criteria, would you really want to buy a fish from me?

Neither would I.

***

There are so many things that I want to say about this, so many wrongs that need to be righted. Their staff needs training, badly. They need to be more honest with their customers relating to how they are marketing their product. Right now, all they’re marketing is themselves as a high end butcher for a high end clientele. That is their niche. Having worked that angle on a larger scale, I can tell you that their business is relying on the fact that the pseudo-educated consumer will ask a bunch of regurgitated questions that they’re supposed to ask but have not the wherewithal to fully comprehend the answers to. I’ve been guilty of misleading customers before, sometimes based on what I’ve been told to tell them, but also because I know that they won’t have the patience to check it out on their own. Shopping at one of these places and assuming that you’re getting the best quality food should be a right. People treat it as a privilege accompanied by whatever luxury car they’re driving. It doesn’t matter so much to them that the food quality is paramount. You take home a piece of 40 dollar per pound cherry leaf wrapped bleu cheese, your dinner guests are going to know that you take your food seriously, but it will never get past the superficial level of the Ooohs and Aaahs that your cheese plate receives as you serve it alongside your bottle of trendy Croatian reserve Tempranillo style wine drink.

People see the price tag, they see the words organic, and they go crazy for it. It’s an Adult Pokemon Syndrome. It’s de rigeur. Those who can afford to shop organic do, but many of those who don’t have a strong desire to feed their family something healthy, and see an organic roaster as a small indulgence. Small home cooks who like doing something special every once in a while, they’ll purchase a bison steak, or farm fresh eggs, but not on a daily basis. There is a small, yet passionate and everexpanding group of conscientious consumers who are just as inquisitive as I about the transparency in their food supply. Jill Lightner, a Seattle food writer, is one of them. She writes:

“It’s what a consumer should expect. It’s impossible to tell whether a label means something without a consumer devoting an absurd amount of time… This is exactly why transparency in sourcing is the only thing that matters. If you know the ranch, you can visit the ranch, see the animals, and ask questions. If you don’t know the ranch, you’re relying on a marketing department.”

By this point in time, if you know me and my food buying, cooking, and eating habits, you know this: I try to purchase locally sourced ingredients. I try to use fresh produce, organic when I can. When I can’t find locally sourced stuff, I try to purchase from a locally owned small business at the market. I can’t always afford the nice vine-on tomatoes, so I get the conventional romas. I can’t always afford to get a 6 dollar dozen of cage free brown eggs at the creamery, so I’ll save that small indulgence for when I want to make a great fresh pasta or a delicious omelet. Eating fresh food should be a right. I want to know where my food comes from. I shouldn’t have to ask you.

***

So what do I do? How do I resolve this problem that I’m having with this guy’s meat? I don’t usually buy it, so there’s no harm in saying that I won’t shop there. So I’ve got that going for me. Still, I need to take the initiative and find a new place to feed my curiousity and quench the seething fire that lives inside my belly that wants to cook all of Bill the Butcher’s steaks to a crisp.

Prior to the publication of this article, I was speaking with a coworker, and he asked me if I’d been to the new butcher up on Capitol Hill. He’s one who gets equally excited about food. There’s usually something delicious cooking at his house, whether it’s simply a good dinner, or something thoroughly out of the ordinary, such as veal sweetbreads and grilled tuna collars.

“Which one?” I asked him?
“Just a little place up off of Pike Street.”

I thought about it for a second, and then gave it not a second thought until yesterday. I yelped for a Capitol Hill Butcher, and came up with Rain Shadow Meat Company on Melrose. Brand Spanking new, I recall that their butcher was also showcased in last week’s Stranger Chow Bio (linked at the bottom), and he went by the Butcherly name of Russ Flint.

What a great way to introduce yourself to the world. “Russ Flint-Butcher”. Such a great title for your meat guy.

We don’t eat meat much over here. That’s not to say that it’s taboo. I’ve been encouraged to buy more meat to satisfy whatever carnivorous urges I may have, but I cook what I know we both will eat, so a lot of times, that’s either fish or vegetables. I do feel healthier eating like this, and I think that it’s wise to vary your diet, so with that in mind, I took a stroll over to the Melrose building, just a block from our old place.

It was a beautiful day, and I thought to myself as I walked over, “This is what I should be doing with my time off, all the time. What better way to spend an afternoon?”

I spent about fifteen minutes walking down the sunny side of the street to soak up the nice bits of sunshine that we have going for us here in Seattle. These times have been few and far between, but it just happened that it was ideal for my little sojourn down the hill.

I got there about three P.M., across the street from Bauhaus coffeeshop, and there, where used to sit an empty warehouse, was a huge one story, gutted space with sliding windows on the front to promote an open air atmosphere.  As I walked in, the space was nearly vacant. There was a large open court in the center, flanked on the right by a butcherblock cheese shop, The Calf and Kid, and on the left by a 15 foot case of meat. There was Rain Shadow.

Two guys were busy with an old school hand crank sausage press, linking up country style breakfast sausage for the case.  I was acknowledged over the counter, and let them keep on linking while I checked over the wares.

It’s a spartan case, maybe four or five small porterhouse/t-bones, a little ground lamb, some gorgeous pork chops, and a fryer/roaster or two. And the hangar. Three six to eight oz. hangar steaks, perfectly trimmed, on their own individual pieces of butcher paper.  On the other side, the breakfast sausage, some lamb crepinette in caul fat, house made duck confit, slab bacon, farm fresh eggs, poussin, a larger game hen, smoked hocks, everything you could want, just in small quantities. And on top of the counter, huge soft pretzels. Very tempting.

I took the hangar. Every item had a label that said what farm it came from. They utilized the duck that they weren’t going to sell. They ground their own meat for sausage, and spiced and stuffed it right there. I walked around the corner, and this was exactly what I was hoping for.

There was a window into the meat cooler. You want transparency? You want an honest butcher? How about these guys? Every piece of meat was on display, complete with the name of the farm stamped right on the package. There were hanging pork bellies being cured for pancetta, a standing rib roast on a meat hook, and a grinder with the grinder log hanging on a hook in plain sight. Awesome.

I don’t remember where my hangar steak came from, but I do remember that it had a name. At least, the farm did. Painted Something, Thundering Hooves? I was just happy to know that I could see that I was getting what I wanted out of my butcher. And it wasn’t even that expensive. I paid $3.80 for a hearty hangar steak, and across the way at Calf and Kid, they were no less accommodating. I walked over, and the ladies were talking about roommates and boys, according to one. “That’s alright, keep on doing what you’re doing. I’ll flag you down,” I responded.

I like shopping at my leisure, and being honest and full in my explanations. In order to prove I’m serious, I like to ask about a couple of things in the case, but before I could, one of the women came over and passed me a patty paper with a spreadable cheese on it.

“Try it. It’s a great burrata. Just done up a few days ago, so it’s not quite ripe yet, but it’d go great with apples.”

I tried it. She was right. It would. I had some pickled ramps at home (remember those?) and I’d read an article about a recipe utilizing them with a ricotta mint crostini with a little fresh olive oil. Simple, seasonal, delicious.

I asked her about the ricotta, and she instantly went over to give it the sniff/taste test. It was getting down towards the bottom of the container, and she said she’d been tasting stinky cheeses all day, so she might not be the best judge of the cheese’s body.

“It’s on the last day. You still want it? Here, try some. See if you can use it.”

She passed it over to me, and it tasted great. It was a sheep’s milk ricotta from Black Sheep dairy, one with a very low salt, and it tasted so much more creamy than any other store bought stuff.

“Yeah, I’ll be using it tonight.”

“Just give me three bucks. I’ll get you a nice scoop.”

What? Really? I’ve done that at the fish shop, giving the friends and family a little nod, but she was so forthcoming with her honesty that it was equally as refreshing as that one bite of cheese.

Nice. Got the steak. Got the cheese.

I wandered to the back corner, where there was Marigold and Mint. It was just a tiny shop, with some alliums, a few bedding tomatoes, and a stem case. I had heard the proprietor call out to the meat stand earlier.

“Russ, if you have anyone who wants fresh vegetables, I just brought some in from the farm.”

Score.

I checked it out. She had three flats, one of multicolored radishes, another with flowering broccoli rabe, and the third with stark white baby japanese turnips.

I asked her a little bit about where they come from.

“Oh, these are from my family farm, Oxbow Farm in the Snoqualmie Valley. I was a bit late this morning because I was digging them up. It’s all organic. I think I’m going to go $3.25 a bunch.  You can be my first customer for fresh produce.”

Yes, I sure can. And I was.

I asked how the turnips were.

“They’re pretty sweet. You can just sautee them or roast them, but don’t cut them in half. They tend to dry out pretty quickly if you do. These are the first of the season, so they’ll get a little bit more flavor in a couple weeks, but these are still really mild.”

In total, I left with one steak, four fresh eggs for an omelet, a scoop of ricotta, and a bunch of beautiful turnips. What a dinner I would make. I spent my walk back pondering what I’d do with my turnips.

I had some shallot at home, and some balsamic, and some honey. I sauteed them for a few minutes until they were almost tender but still firm, and then added a splash of balsamic and a drizzle of honey. I tossed them around for a minute or two, and let them rest and absorb a little bit of flavor.

Next, into the pan with the steak. I marinated it in some balsamic, sliced garlic, some olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh thyme for about an hour. Once again, just a quick sear in the pan was all it took. About two to three minutes a side and five minutes of rest later, I sliced into it, and it was a perfect rare, still cool on the inside. Any steak, I’ll try to go Medium Rare, but with a hangar, a great rare sear is perfect.

With the ricotta, I added a little salt and pepper, some olive oil, and fresh chopped mint. I put it on top of some baguette slices, and topped each one with a pickled ramp. It was a satisfying local meal.

With it, I had a Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and a glass of homemade ginger ale with a sprig of that fresh mint. On a day like yesterday, nothing proved a more satisfying way to end the day.

***

So where does that leave me? First, away from Bill the Butcher. I don’t necessarily have a problem with people and stores that sell random cuts of meat, as that’s what we’ve all grown up on. There is a sticking point, though, when I find out that I’ve been lied to by the people I trust. I hate hucksters, snake oil salesmen, and anyone who promotes their business as above their consumer, gauging their knowledge over that of their customer, and realizing that there’s a buck to be made. That rooster doesn’t crow in my backyard. How many times will someone have to call them on their lies before they fix what is inherently wrong with their prematurely implemented system of business as usual?

With Rain Shadow, Calf and Kid, and Marigold and Mint, these guys are doing all they can to make their small businesses thrive, and for what it is worth to you, for your health, for your mind, and for the sake of your community, go shop there. Make someone’s efforts in selling quality, honest product worth their time. They’re there not out of fitting the mold of every other shop. You can tell that there’s a passion, and a real personal investment in addition to all the hype of a marketing ploy such as the one presented by Bill The Butcher.

As the Paul Shaffer Orchestra once said (sang), “Know know know know know know know know your cuts of meat.”

Baby Japanese Turnips

Seared Hangar Steak with Balsamic Honey Glazed Turnips

Ricotta and Mint Crostini with Pickled Ramps

The Offending Article:

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/mystery-meat/Content?oid=4040872

The Butcher Who Saved My Dinner:

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/chow-bio/Content?oid=4040855

Rain Shadow Meats:

http://www.rainshadowmeats.com/

Calf and Kid’s Blog:

http://calfandkid.blogspot.com/

Marigold and Mint:

http://www.marigoldandmint.com/

I’m going to bust out the grill this weekend. We have such an excellent view of Puget Sound from our roof that it would be a crime not to. More importantly, there are just so many great things to grill.

Down at the market these days, we’re seeing the first fresh stalks of local Washington Asparagus pop up. Little streaks of purple, tight tops of florets, and thick stems that aren’t too fibrous. Just right. There’s always an abundance of peppers, onions, and mushrooms from around here, and I’ve got some of each.

In addition, I made coleslaw last week with Jicama and blood oranges with a little bit of sesame seed and some rice vinegar that has been setting up. I think it will be ready by Saturday, and still crunchy. There’s some fantastic mizuna mustard greens, a few local lettuces that are really starting to pop up, and plenty of fresh fruit to go along with it.

I’ll see if I can pick up some oysters to grill, as well. I hear all the time about barbecued oysters, but I have yet to try them. This may be the weekend that we get things off the ground. I have some of that bulldog sauce, the peckish fruit and vegetable based barbecue marinade for Japanese food that will work ever so well with the briny oysters to finish them with a glossy sheen.

Coming out of Wenatchee, there are apples. Loads of apples. The last few times I’ve made a dessert with apples, it has just been the simplest of tarts, the tarte tatin. Slice Apples, put butter and sugar in a pan, Caramelize, cover with pie crust and bake. Flip it over when you’re done, and let it cool. What you’re left with is a gorgeous, sweet, impressive dish. Yeah, it’s sweeter than most anything you can think of, but it has fruit in it!

I’ve made this with apples, but this time, I’ve decided to make the dish with pears. I’m reminded of an old Eddie Izzard bit about pears; Always walking by the bowl of pears, looking over your shoulder at them, still hard as a rock. Leave the room for a minute, come on back, they’ve already passed their peak of freshness and are a glob of mush. I’ve nothing to worry about, as on my way home, I bruised the pears. Nobody’s going to see them, and they’ll be all sugary anyway. I went to the store yesterday and bought a  couple more.

There will be sausages, oysters, shrimp, salads, chips, etc. What a great way to start the summer season.

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