Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The soul of a pig, day 3.

Today is about breaking up the pig carcass into recognizable parts. This is the fun part. Also the scariest, as I realize that we are casually sticking knives into thousands of dollars worth of pork. That belong to a restaurant that has invested a great deal of time and care, not to mention money, in these pigs. While we are in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Later I look through the hundreds of pictures I took over the past three days, and there are several shots of K., the executive chef, hovering nervously near the edge of the frame as various people hack away at the precious halves of pork.

But first C. has to demonstrate, and it is like watching a sculptor create a head out of a shapeless block of marble as mountains of fat and muscle and bone fall into loins and ribs and layered sheets of belly. This kind of pork is almost equal amounts meat and fat (or perhaps rather more fat than meat), and the meat is richly marbled and a deeper red than ordinary pink-white pork. Definitely not "the other white meat." He moves quickly and assuredly with his knives and a weird plastic contraption that uses a loop at one end to remove the rib bones, instead of slicing off the rib section as you would with a regular pig. My photographs are blurs of movement as he trims away errant flaps of meat, separates muscles along the seams where they join together. Very little is wasted, which is important when you have such an expensive animal lying on your counter.

Unwilling to individually be held responsible for half a pig, D. and I work together. I am nervous, until I stick the knife between the ribs and pull it towards me, and I have to sink or swim. We follow the natural lines of the meat, trimming away as little as possible, tidying up as we go, stripping away ribs, turning the belly into a neat rectangle. I feel braver than I did a few days ago. I also feel like I will never scrub this layer of pork fat off my hands. I don't know if I will ever have a whole side of a pig to myself, and certainly it is doubtful I will remember everything I learned here, but as a life skill it might turn out to be a useful one.

Later, we have a simple dinner together. More roast pork - I have probably eaten at least ten pounds of roast pork in the last four days (including all that roast pork belly on Chinese New Year's eve) - more salad, some of the headcheese and blood sausage we made yesterday. M. whips what I believe is rendered and chilled fat into a smooth, airy paste, serving some plain and some infused with herbs, spread on toasts. It gleams like rich frosting, or very expensive face cream, and it is incredible. Everyone is excited about everything they have learned, excited to be part of this group. They talk about doing it again next year, in New Jersey and in Michigan, looking ahead. But this is the first workshop of its kind, and it has been such a privilege to be a part of it. We exchange email addresses and phone numbers, and I promise various people the photographs of these three days, having already downloaded them to my laptop and shown them to anyone who would sit down and take a look.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The soul of a pig, day 2.

We meet in the kitchen of the restaurant that is hosting this three-day event, and who actually owns the six or seven pigs we slaughtered yesterday. There are urns of coffee and lots of snacks, but today we are focusing on something a bit more important: the organs. Soon the kitchen is in chaos, tubs of pigs' heads and hearts and livers, kidneys and slabs of lard. I find myself cleaning hearts, slicing them open, removing the large ventricles and any clots of blood, then moving on to kidneys with their translucent membranes that have to be carefully peeled away. Other people are carving the cheeks out of the heads and trimming livers.

The heads go into a pot to be boiled until all the meat slides off, and later I find myself picking through the steaming bones, stripping away every bit of meat and skin, discarding the eyeballs and any stray bits of bone. It's disgusting, particularly when I have to dig around for errant eyeballs to make sure that they won't wind up in the sausages. Can't have that in a high-class joint like this one. The meat is ground up for headcheese, which along with a gruesome (yet tasty) mixture of blood and various seasonings, grain, and for some sausages, chunks of tongue, is stuffed into plastic casings and lowered into sous-vide baths that look remarkably like the water baths we use in the lab for keeping reagents at the proper temperature. I feel like I am covered in a thin film of pig fat, although I wash my hands so often I probably won't have any skin left on them by the end of the day.

Lunch is an assortment of organ meats cooked in various ways, in two different soups and sautéed with onions and made into canapés served on bits of toast fried in olive oil. There are roasted ribs, impossibly slender and with barely any meat on them, but incredibly rich-tasting. There are salads and more cookies, and a taste of a prosciutto made in-house and aged for thirteen months. It is incredible. Everything is incredible. I have never eaten in this restaurant before, and unless I win the lottery, I probably won't ever again. But their attention to detail and their clear passion for what they do is unbelievable, from the owners to the head chef to every last member of the staff, and I feel very lucky to witness it.

It is an interesting group of people here, mostly professionals, and I am at once humbled and exhilarated to be amongst them. This is not some feel-good entertainment for yuppie foodies who smugly shop at farmer's markets and are hoping to find some spiritual salvation in watching a pig slaughter. These people are here to learn. There are the owners and chefs of the restaurant we are working in, of course, and various other chefs and owners of other restaurants around Washington state. There is a private chef from New Jersey who is planning on raising the pigs for the New York market, as well as a farmer who raises naturally pastured chickens and goats in Michigan (and soon these pigs as well), and a couple from the Bay Area who plan to start their own farm. They are focused, intense, and eager to try anything.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The soul of a pig, day 1.

H. asked me, later in the day, at which point the pigs we were slaughtering ceased being animals and became, in my eyes, food. When I saw them rooting around in their pen this morning, I tell him. He looked slightly alarmed. It worried me that I could be this callous. This is an idea I have been working towards for the better part of a year, the idea that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I would have to accept that it starts with a living, breathing animal that ran around outdoors before it came to its timely demise. And was not merely a clean, plastic wrapped cut of meat in a styrofoam tray in the cold aseptic shelves of the supermarket. It is not something new - one of my earliest memories is of playing with a lively, bright-eyed pigeon that very shortly afterwards became our luncheon soup - but I had never been in at the death, so to speak. When the opportunity to watch (and perhaps participate in) a pig slaughter came along, I leapt at the chance.

So there I was on a freezing Monday morning late in January, wearing fur-lined rubber boots and layers of fleece and long underwear. (To keep us warm there is hot coffee and, at one point, bourbon drunk in a toast to the soul of the first pig). I had gotten lost, and when I finally arrived at the farm the first pig had been killed and cleaned, a small young pig destined to be our dinner that night. (This is the prologue). It went into a pit dug in the ground, wrapped in what appear to be banana leaves, layered with dirt and bricks, and then covered with coals, which K. proceeds to set on fire using a propane torch longer than his arm. I sign a waiver releasing the restaurant hosting the event from any responsibility should I manage to injure myself during the next three days. The group - some fifteen or twenty people, several of whom work at this restaurant, which shall remain nameless - and others who have flown in from places like Michigan and the Bay Area (later someone from New Jersey shows up). These are professionals, serious people - farmers and chefs - and the other lone amateur is the sort of person who cures his own salami at home. I feel like an imposter, and I am way out of my league.

Our instructors in the art of pig-killing are an Austrian couple who own a farm where they raise rare breeds of different animals - pigs, goats, and chickens, I think - and they are here to teach us how to slaughter and butcher a rare breed of pig that has started to make waves on the American food scene. They demonstrate, walking us through every step, and then various members of our group take turns, with their guidance. It all starts with a wicked-looking tool called a captive bolt gun. I pick it up later, and it weighs a ton. I will spare the reader the precise details, but it happens very quickly. In no time of all the pig is stunned, bled, and dragged into an empty tub (basically, a bathtub someone found on Craigslist) and washed with bucketfuls of boiling water. A powder made from powdered pine pitch is sprinkled over the pig's coarse, curly dark hair, and more water is poured over. The powdered-and-dampened hair sticks together in clumps, which you scrape off with a weird metal cone-shaped tool. Any errant hairs that stubbornly refuse to budge are singed off with a fearsome butane torch, the bigger the better.

Finally, the pig is completely bald, now pink-white and smooth all over, except for the black hooves. It gets hoisted up and tied to a backhoe, then raised until the pig's head is several inches off the ground, belly facing outwards. C. begins cutting away, opening up the body, removing the organs, gesturing with his knife to emphasize various points, his wife, I., explaining when his English falters. Soon the carcass is hanging in two halves, and each half is carried some distance away to hang from the roof of a shed, out of the way. Time for the next pig. Wash, rinse, repeat. Soon people (not including me - I spent the day watching the action from a safe distance, taking pictures until my battery dies, and eating cookies) are getting the hang of things, from the initial stunning of the pig to sawing the cleaned carcass in half along the spine. Hours pass. As the sun begins to slip away and the sky darkens, we clean up and get ready to head back to the restaurant, five minutes away.

At dinner we sit down to roast pig(let), finished in a wood-burning oven and served with a tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce infused with herbs. The pork is tender, the skin crisp (but, alas, not crunchy) and slightly smoky-tasting. There is a bean salad and a green salad and all sorts of little snacks, and pig's brains sautéed with caramelized onions, with eggs and without. Alone the brains are like softly scrambled eggs, more extraordinarly, delicately flavored than the ones with eggs.

I take a cookie for the road.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chinese New Year.

My father is in town for a brief visit (he is here for Chinese New Year, and my mother is in Shanghai with her father for the holiday), and we are trying to cram in all his usual food desires in the short time he is here, beginning with teriyaki chicken wings the night he arrived and a steak dinner the next night. But tonight it is Chinese New Year's Eve, and we are off to A. and B.'s house, to celebrate the new year a day early. (B. is scheduled for surgery tomorrow, and the family wants to have this dinner before he goes into the hospital. But of course his procedure is delayed, because his surgeon has some emergency and has to reschedule. Such is life). It feels strange to drive down those twisting, winding roads to our friends' house with my father; usually I am alone, or with K. We have known them a long time. When my parents moved to Taiwan I became absorbed into this family; I have spent nearly all my holidays with them for some years now. While I was growing up, and my family was intact and not spread halfway around the world, I rarely saw these friends. Now their rituals have become mine. I don't mind the prime rib in addition to roast turkey on Thanksgiving, but their traditional Chinese New Year dishes are a long ways away from our usual hot-pot dinner, which I have not had since my parents moved away. I miss our own traditions.

Still, there are compensations, like the slices of roast pork belly, all layers of chewy meat and melting fat capped with a crunchy layer of skin, salty-sweet and incredibly addictive. There are all kinds of smoked meats too, duck and two kinds of sausage and more pork belly, darker and chewier and more intensely flavored. I prefer the roast pork belly, which I keep eating as if they were potato chips. There are bowls heaped with steamed broccoli and some intricate dish involving various items I can't identify and copious amounts of something known in English as "hair vegetable" (it really does look like strands of curly black hair, and I avoid it as assiduously as possible), and a giant braised pork shoulder that falls apart when you poke it with a pair of chopsticks. There is steamed rice, in a giant cooker that holds up to sixty cups of rice (or several small children), and soup made with conch, and for dessert there are round dumplings made of rice flour, stuffed with black sesame paste, floating in a broth made hot and spicy with lots of ginger and sweet with sticks of hard brown sugar.

We head home, stuffed full - in my case mostly with pork belly - and hoping for a good year ahead. I call my grandfather, in Shanghai with my mother (she is spending the new year with her father, as I am with mine, the symmetry of a far-flung family at holiday time), to wish him happy new year. It takes a little time to get through - half the Chinese population of the world is trying to reach the other half - but then his voice comes through, that familiar grumble of my childhood, the usual brief conversation that ends with him hanging up in the middle of my goodbye. This is how it always is, always will be, and I love him all the more for it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday Lark.

I am later than usual, well after six, and when I walk into Lark the booths along one wall and banquettes lining the other are all full. Loath to occupy one of the four-tops in the middle of the room, I opt for a stool at the tiny bar at the far end of the dining room. I have never sat here before, I tell K. (I have been seated at just about every other table in the room). F. greets me from behind the bar, as he pours me a glass of water and heads off to other tables with goblets of wine. From the bar I can see into the kitchen, and for the first time I realize that the podium-like station where J. (the chef/owner) stands all night is kind of a last stop for every dish that leaves the kitchen, where he can examine each plate, wiping the rim, scattering a little more salt, giving a last ok before it is floated out and served to the waiting diners.

I order my dinner quickly - two of the night's specials, because that's how I roll - and settle in to chat with whoever happens to be behind the bar. Different servers come in and out, to pour water and wine and mix drinks for the diners that are filling the room. (When I look back over my shoulder, I see that all the tables are full; by the time I leave people are waiting on the couch over by the front door). They begin telling me about the animal rights protesters that set up shop the night before, waving signs and showing movies about how foie gras is produced. The story comes to me in pieces, like parts of a puzzle, each teller giving a new detail, the next person expanding on it. One person tells me about the guy dressed as a duck, another tells me how one of the protesters tried to stop another server from coming in to work. D. tells me that they sold more foie gras that night than they ever have on a single night. I wish I had been there to see all the action, but then my dinner arrives.

First comes the black cod, crisp-skinned fish over a bed of diced beets, some creamy vinaigrette and a salad of curly something-or-other tangled with translucent slices of fennel, an explosion of textures and flavors. The vinaigrette is a little bit like tartar sauce, only better, and I love tartar sauce. It is addictive. Then come the pork cheeks, so tender there is no need for the steak knife, over a puree of root vegetables intensified with a touch of - could it be? - truffle oil. I see the guy who has joined me at the bar is chowing down on the pork belly - apparently a gift from the kitchen, as he used to work here - and am momentarily envious, but I can have pork belly any time. Inspired by the previous night's events I order the seared foie gras instead of dessert. It is served with caramelized slices of pear and slices of pain d'epices, a sort of sweet, dark, cake-like bread, like a spice cake, and a little salad.

But then I find myself wanting a little sweet something (or perhaps I just want to stay a little longer), despite my foie gras 'dessert,' so I order the pomegranate sorbet, which comes in a little Staub soup plate, sprinkled with slivered almonds and pomegranate seeds, and it is so good I want more. The guy next to me - it turns out he now works at Spinasse - is eating the lemon parfait, cool layers of tangy mousse capped with whipped cream and a feathery tuile. But I have eaten those before, and I prefer to save them for summer nights, and that is months away.

Friday, January 16, 2009

(Not) the same old thing.

For months, maybe even years now, I've been making the same pasta dish, chard or escarole chopped and braised with caramelized onions and sausage or bacon and perhaps a handful of mushrooms, minced parsley and grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano if I happen to think of it. Often there is orrecchiette in my cupboard; sometimes there are twists of trofie in the freezer. I have made it with bacon or with sausage, spicy or mild, chicken or pork. A few days ago I made it with spicy Italian goat sausage. M. thought it didn't taste particularly like goat, but that may be due to the Lagavulin 16-year old scotch I was pouring with a generous hand. (The goat sausage, an impulse buy at the farmer's market, was very good - spicy and just a little gamey, but not too much so). I have fed it to my parents and to my boss and to various friends, most often C., who shows no sign of being bored yet. But that day will probably come.

The nice thing about pasta is that once you have a workable formula, you can throw something together with whatever you find in your pantry, your fridge, your freezer. On impulse I invite C. for dinner. But I had pasta-with-chard-and-sausage on Tuesday, and spicy-sausage lasagne on Wednesday, and now I want something different. Not the same old thing. I find Brussels sprouts and onions and some bacon; there are chicken thighs and trofie in the freezer. Brussels sprouts in pasta? Why not? Brussels sprouts and bacon are a classic combination. I shred the sprouts finely, slice the bacon into lardons, chop the onion into a reasonably tidy dice. It is a moment's work to debone the chicken thighs, season them with coarse flakes of sea salt and freshly ground pepper, slide them under the toaster oven broiler. The bacon is fried crisp, the onions and sprouts sautéed until they begin to caramelize around the edges.

This week's trofie are made with chestnut flour, which gives a more interesting flavor that goes well with the sprouts and bacon. If I had had any I would have added chopped chestnuts, lightly toasted, with the pasta, to intensify the flavor. Maybe next time. For now I have a new dish to add to my repertoire. For dessert, I have a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and a swirl of honey, while C. plumps for Thin Mints unearthed from the freezer. The perfect, impromptu, weeknight dinner.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dinner for one. Spinasse.

I am called in to work again. I tell them I will be late, because I have to go to the market, where I buy bundles of greens and carrots, eggs that promise to be organic and free-range and Grade A ("or better"), potatoes and chestnut trofie pasta, and two tins of Mariage Frères tea, one an Earl Grey tangled with tiny blue flowers (for C.) and the other English Breakfast (for me). I buy a loaf of sourdough bread, and some Naughty Nellie cheese from the same farm that produces the Silly Billy I saw at Lark last week. They tell me the chef buys their cheese every week, and hand me samples of everything to try. And then I head into work, knowing that at the end of the day I could reward myself with dinner. Perhaps I would go to Spinasse. It's been a while.

At Spinasse there is only one seat left at the bar, and I have to dislodge the poor guy sitting to my right so I can wiggle ungracefully onto my stool, elbowing the chap on my left as I do so. (Apparently I continue elbowing him all throughout my dinner, because he finally says "I'll just give you some space here," and moves his seat, rather pointedly, three inches closer to his own dining companion). My server says to me, "You look familiar. Do I know you?" and I point out that I have eaten here several times before. The chef/owner waves at me from the kitchen. He is not yet at the point in the evening where his hair is sticking up in all directions, but he will be. I order the ravioli, decline a glass of wine, and wiggle into a slightly less uncomfortable (it is never really comfortable here, when you are wedged between two complete strangers at a tiny bar that rather unwillingly seats six or seven) position.

As usual, two crostini arrive, one spread with fresh ricotta, draped with a single anchovy, and dusted with fennel pollen. I feel either my palate is insufficiently sensitive, or the anchovy overwhelms the pollen, because I can't taste anything but anchovy. The other crostini is spread with a pâté of black trumpet mushrooms and chanterelles, which I prefer. Then my pasta arrives. Tonight's ravioli is filled with a purée of Jerusalem artichokes, which I always feel taste a bit like a cross between an artichoke heart and a potato, two of my favorite things. The ravioli are simply sauced with a little (ok, rather a lot of) butter with a scattering of toasted pine nuts, grated cheese, and fried sage leaves, still crisp. I eat my ravioli and watch the action in the kitchen - there seems to be more people in there every time I come in - as well as the locomotion in the dining room at my back, as people come in and out in a flutter of coats and kisses.

I refuse dessert and chat with my server about Claudio Corallo, whose chocolates I have been hoarding. He likes the orange-infused chocolate, but I prefer the one with the big sugar crystals that crunch with every bite. It's time to go home, but first I have to dismount awkwardly from my stool, pushing it out from under the slim metal railing that separates the bar from the rest of the room and then contorting myself under the railing before putting the stool back and collecting my bag and coat from the floor where I dropped them. The elderly couple dining in relative comfort at one of the communal tables looks on in amazement at my lack of grace, and I smile and say goodnight before heading out the door.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year. (before and after).

Last night we headed to A.'s house, down a twisting, winding road, a steep, narrow driveway that curled like the ribbon torn from a Christmas present, to the house set like a wedding cake against the darkness of the lake beyond. The kitchen - acres of dark marble and wood, even bigger than my dining and living room combined - was curiously empty, until people started arriving and it became the usual bustle of activity. B. directed me to the pantry, where I found boxes of frozen mini quiches from the gleaming fridge, emptied them onto the gleaming expanse of dark granite countertops and lined the little quiches up in neat rows on baking sheets, slid them into the smaller oven (the giant commercial-style stove has two ovens and six burners, each one igniting with a roar like a jet engine's). Spring rolls are being fried in a deep wok, and I steal one as they begin to pile up like so many Lincoln logs on a paper-lined tray. R. arrives laden with salad fixings, and I rinse lettuces and (ineptly) spin them dry, tasting her dressing as she mixes away, suggesting lemon and orange zests to brighten the citrusy blend.

Dinners here revolve around a giant prime rib, roasted slowly with sliced onions and cracked pepper and served with a gravy boat of au jus on the side, a green salad, and a salad made of, among other things, fruit cocktail and Cool Whip. I mean Miracle Whip. I can never remember which is which. It is always the same meal (with occasional variations), the same people, a big family related by blood and marriage and love, the usual suspects. We meet again for New Year's day, as we did for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day and Labor Day, every other holiday and birthday in between. Sometimes we are at this sprawling wedding-cake of a house lined in marble, other times we are at D.'s house, smaller and cosier and with much less marble.

D.'s house is where we gather tonight, for New Year's day. The guests are much the same as the night before, with few exceptions. There are platters of shrimp cocktail, and dishes of lasagne, bubbling hot and spicy with Italian sausage, steamed broccoli and green salad and garlic bread on the side. A simple dinner. The lasagne has a brown crust on top, the way I love it most, and I keep eating more (alternating with broccoli, to alleviate the guilt) until I am so full I want to go lie down in the living room. But the living room is full of the click-clack of mah-jong players shuffling their tiles, and my ride is heading home, being one of those early-t0-bed-early-to-risers who gets up at five am to go swimming. We drive home discussing our route, and laugh over the peculiarity of Seattleites who spend all car journeys discussing the other possible ways of getting somewhere. It is a good way to begin a new year.