Roasted Dinner


Some readers of my blog may notice that I’ve increased the standard size of my images from 450 pixels to 600 in width. I hope this agrees with y’alls screens as wellbetter as it does mine. It’s an old picture but I’m posting it anyway because it’s time again I put up a picture.

So, I am keen on these purple potatoes. At least one farmer in my neck (pain in my neck?) markets a purple potato as a novelty, which is not very reassuring, but I assure you they can be fantastic. First rate. Color aside. I don’t know anything about the ancestry or breeding history of purple potatoes. When I started buying them years ago I thought there was only one variety, but that was before I got smart. Some are, indeed, better than others, deeper colored or better textured, and some are certainly better named, but all I’ve tried have been decent to excellent for roasting.

With that, I present you with one of my favorite I’m-too-tired-to-cook recipes (though I make it as a side sometimes for some of my fanciest meals, too):

Roasted Dinner:

dice waxy potatoes
slice onions
possibly turnips
jerusalem artichokes if you got ’em
that kind of thing;
throw in some unpeeled garlic cloves (or peeled)
so that all the things are roughly similar sized
or otherwise calculated to be done cooking at
approximately the same time,
and put them in a bowl
and slather them in fat
and sprinkle them with salt
and maybe herbs
or something
and put them on a tray,
fairly tight,
and put them in a fast oven (hot, fairly hot)
until done.

I hope you like it. It’s one of my favorites.

P.S. My mother calls this dish “roasted rooties.” Fair enough. My own name for it is drawn from the title of a book I own but have never opened, “The Transcendental Boiled Dinner.” I forget by who.

the feral vermonter’s sweet-ass walk-in refrigerator

Visiting a friend I am overcome with the glory of his walk-in. Situated just off the kitchen, during the day it doubles as his sunroom (wherein he is starting some two dozen different varieties of bean plants, in January, pretty much just because he can), but at night it has been a joy and a pleasure and a great aid in my remembering how to make pie dough using the Julia Child Mastering* method, wherein everything must be kept frosty. Incidentally I love the Mastering instruction and my results from it, and recommend it everywhere. It tells you exactly what to do, finicky-like, but also tells you you’ve got to get your hands dirty and get the feel of it, which cured me clean of any residual ambient fear of pie dough. So.

*…the Art of French Cooking, Knopf 1961.

[**addendum** I thought I might add that the sunroom is just an old porch glassed in with old wooden storm-windows, two by fours and spray foam insulation. Took about a day and a $100.]

goose and pig, rich and poor

A $140 frozen goose is for sale in my home town. In fact, I think the shop has three. Also, indiscriminately labeled “pork fat” for $6/lb. In tiny packages.

In West Virginia, my last attempt to buy a goose ended in “well, if you can catch one, sure.” I wasn’t offered to shoot one, and chances were good it’ve been a soup-bird. And a goose will bloody you in hand to hand combat. So. Before that, I bought my geese in Virginia. For a reasonable price. I’d have to ask my wife. It’s been a while now. Too long.

The last time I bought pork in West Virginia, I was given ten or twenty pounds of fat and a head, and a couple bags of bones, for the asking. Nobody else wanted them. They are not specially priced gourmet tit-bits there. This is an amazing, beautiful, sad thing.

I love to eat geese. I love pork fat. I love limitless amounts of stock in four flavors (pig, goat, lamb, beef) simmering on my stove all winter scenting and humidifying my house and filling my chest freezer for free. My sister’s first sentence was “goose a’bit me,” and I have now my own preverbal daughter. I really don’t know what to make of all these facts.

One must be resourceful.

eat the rich

In West Virginia, I buy my beef by the 1/4 animal, hanging weight, and keep it in the chest freezer. Hanging weight is after slaughter, skinning, cleaning and beheading, but before dry-aging, which evaporates some of the weight. This year, hanging weight of the (tiny) bull we went in on was 472 pounds. So our quarter was 118 pounds, for which we paid $2 a pound, plus a $70 processing fee. This came to $2.60 a pound, call it $2.75 after hanging: bones, chuck, heart and tenderloin. The farmer takes a somewhat better price than he can get from the stock sale, which would otherwise take their de facto organic, grass-fed beef, ship it to Kansas, abuse it, force feed it, pump it full of antibiotics and dump it on the commodities market. So, in West Virginia, my family, we eat a lot of beef.

In Vermont, we wouldn’t. At least not Vermont beef. It’s not beef country: pasture is too precious, what is left of it, land values and taxes too steep and the winters too long. The market, however, the ethical demand, there, will bear silly prices: twice the farmers’ market retail in West Virginia. Thus they have beef.

In fact, Vermont is not farmer country at all, rosy-goggled stereotypes aside. The only thing, that I can see, that a Vermont farmer (barring a dairy producer) has over a West Virginian is proximity to markets that will bear a premium price for premium produce. This is bad politics. If food can’t be produced cheaply, it can’t be sold cheaply, and then poor people can’t afford to eat much local food. I include myself in this category. It’s a shame. It’s a truism: local foodism is an uppermiddleclass phenomenon. The rest of us in a place like Vermont, if we want to eat well, it’s variations on beans and rice. Sometimes it seems like we are the serfs of the second-homers. As I see it, the future of economical farming in places like Vermont only clarifies this relationship: the only land economical enough for economical production will be leased from the rich under the stipulation that production be kept aesthetically pleasing. If that doesn’t make us peasants then I suppose it must make us artists, subsisting one way or another on the patronage of the rich.

Of course, lacking this market, despite all their advantages, West Virginian farmers typically still have to work full-time, outside jobs. And still are broke. But, the market is improving. The quality of their produce is improving. If local foodism escapes the mental clutches of the salesmen to the uppermiddleclass, West Virginia could be a farmer’s, and a poorly funded eater’s paradise.

If I lived in Vermont I’d probably fill a truck bed with coolers and go south every fall for my meat, food miles be damned. Clearly, there are some inefficiencies in the Natural Beef market. Failing that I’d have to pasture my own freaking cow. On borrowed ground. Keep it pretty.

highland cattle

highland cattle

“These animals, often called Kyloes in their native land, have been made familiar to the outside world through the art of Sir Edwin Landseer. They are a small, rough-coated mountain breed, having long horns. The original Kyloes were mainly black, but lighter colors—dun, red, fawn (and an occasional white with black points)—have since been established and are now preferred. They are essentially a beef type, and when fattened in lowland parks and feedlots produce a fine, though small, carcass of beef.”

—from The Cattle of the World, by Alvin Howard Sanders. (Washington: The National Geographic Society, 1926.)

Nicolas Freeling on cookery books

“Aphorism number two: this is not a cookery book because such things are whited sepulchres, that tickle but do not satisfy. They appear each year in swarms, burgeoning in spring like horse-chestnut buds, and about as much use—decorative, gentlemen, purely decorative. Nothing wrong with that, no, but the bad cook who buys a bundle of recipes thinking it will turn him into a tolerable cook is in for disillusion and so are all his friends. The worst cookery books are the ones that give formal recipes. The least bad are the coffee-table books, glamorous affairs that waffle on about the little place on the banks of the Loire: the illustrations are lovely and there are historical, archaeological and botanical interests. Most wicked are the dogmatic ones which give quantities and times, peremptory stuff about giving your chop seven minutes each side. The inexperienced cook, starting confident in his mentor, becomes flustered by strange gaps in the information, is confused, irritated and finally exasperated—what should have been a nice meal turns out spoilt and it’s the wretched book’s fault, not the cook’s. You cannot teach cooking out of a book any more than you can carpentry. No two stoves, fryingpans, ovens—come to that no two cooks—are the same. No good writer on food gives formal recipes. “A recipe has a hidden side, like the moon,’ remarks James de Coquet tolerantly.”

—from Notes on a Kitchen Book, 1970.

the traveling kitchen

The issue of leaving the house, sometimes comes up. Sometimes it’s more than a day. My wife and I, we try to prepare. Once, and for years, our traveling kitchen included olive oil, pasta, knives, a cutting board, garlic, herbs, onions, at least one cast iron pan, and many things I am forgetting, too, that we no longer carry. We did this because we had to eat, and eating in those days was a very difficult thing. Even so, we spent wads of dollars everywhere we went, buying wine, meat, various ingredients in small measures. These days, more people seem to eat, so it is less of a trouble. We are on the road, but we have pared down considerably. Here is an inventory:

a one-pint capacity wooden mortar and pestle.
a primitive knife grinder (sharpener)
a silicon spatula with a broken-off handle
a wooden spoon
cork screw
sea salt

These things, we cannot do without. Sharpish knife, crusher and muddler, reasonable things to stir with, the possibility of having something to drink, and a salt that won’t make us feel slightly ill. Please don’t ask me to do a double blind on that last one. I don’t believe in double blinds.

(See relevant link posted previously here, and while I am adding addenda, I may own up to usually bringing a coffee kit as well. This year, though, it being winter, I’d run out of beans, so have been instead at various mercies.)