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Archive for the ‘Meat’ Category

Last night, the RSFP served ossobuco.  The platters came out piled with hunks of glistening meat and bone.  Something about about the primal nature of this meal brought out the sillies in us.  We started trying on each others’ glasses.  Some began eating with their fingers.  There was quizzing on food and sex.  And then the marrow sucking began.  While this was going on, there was laughter, of course, which caused a fleck of marrow to fly, projectile-style, from one man’s lips to another man’s shirt.  (You know who you are, friends….) He wore the badge of grease for the rest of the evening, which ended with grappas, noccinos, and amaros.  I wish I had a picture of my friends holding greasy bones up to their puckered lips.  And they, I’m sure, are glad I don’t!

The vegetarians may have been horrified, and luckily for them, were not at our table.  The combination of disgust at the finger-licking sensuality of this unabashedly carnivorous meal, and the ethical divide would be enough for some harsh condemnation of the bacchanalian scene.

Is it enough to say that we know, because of the dedication of Mona and Chris to finding sustainable, local food, that these animals we ate were raised and killed with care and humanity?  Many prefer not to think about this, but when you’re sucking the marrow out of leg bones, the fact of your dinner’s other form as a cute little calf is hard to avoid.

Another way to think about it is as veal shanks braised in stock and white wine and garnished with gremolata—a simple dressing of parsley, garlic, and lemon.  Another perspective is health: a quick google search suggests that bone marrow is nutritious and may even help to account for the low incidence of heart disease in offal-loving societies.

It was, then, a most basic and most complex feast.  And it was delicious.

Since I don’t have any pictures, I’ll direct you to this video of Mark Bittman and Fergus Henderson roasting bones and then spreading the “jiggly” marrow on toast.

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No.  I’m not talking about that mystery conglomeration “corn dog” that masquerades as meat, but meatballs, served cocktail-catering-style on little wooden skewers.  We took Jack to a cocktail reception last night, and his favorite items were the polpetti, or, meat lollipops.  (My favorite was the split date posing as a dish for gorgonzola and a walnut quarter.)

The reception, here at the Academy, was for the new American ambassador to Italy, David Thorne.  Alice Waters was also there, having come from a big Slow Food event, and planning to stay in Rome through Thanksgiving.  I think you can guess which dignitary I was most excited about meeting.

This morning, Jack said, “Mommy, can you make polpetti?”  Yes! And you can help!  So, after dropping him off at school, I stopped at the Super Carni—a little butcher’s shop owned by a grandparently couple, which sells lots of organic products—and asked for “del bovino per polpetti.”  Probably not very correct, but he understood.  Remember how I mentioned that Italians are always, in a tacit and politely bossy way, telling you the proper way to do things?  Well, I had asked for beef, but after half-picking up a piece of beef, he set it down and reached instead for the chunks of veal, which he then put through the old-fashioned meat grinder twice, making sure the texture was to his satisfaction.  I love the immediacy of this operation.

And of this one:

For the recipe, check out this post.

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In my last post, I attempted both to recommend Food Inc., and to criticize what I saw as the overly facile closing message (“vote with your fork”).  There was more to the event, here at the American Academy in Rome, and there is a positive alternative to the dark suggestion of the film that Monsanto may well take over the world.  Briefly, these follow-ups/upsides have to do with braised pork and grass-roots.

Let’s start with grass-roots.  Since the screening, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how depressing the film is.  It seems to offer only the meager solutions of “voting with your fork” and waiting for policy change to adjust the prices of food.  Obviously, more needs to be done and can be done.  One of the people I’ve talked with a lot about these issues is Mona Talbott, the executive chef here.  She is passionate not only about great cooking but also about reforming American food culture through cooking education.  An over-reliance on convenient but unhealthy fast-food is in part a consequence of a general lack of cooking skills and knowledge.  Another part of the problem is the misconception that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked food.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  The Rome Sustainable Food Project works on a tight budget to provide nutritious, delicious, and sufficient food for all of us.  Mona points out that the world’s oldest traditional diets, like that in Italy, have had such long histories of sustaining people in part because they can sustain—with complete nutrition—the most people.  In other words, traditional diets are complete, and they are poor people’s diets.  The basis of the Italian diet is the lowly triumvirate of beans, grains, and greens.  These are affordable. Pasta is cheap.  The cheapest cuts of meat are delicious when cooked slowly.

But cooking, which often isn’t learned in the family anymore, needs to be learned if families are to be fed on these inexpensive foods rather than on fast food.  Actually, many people don’t know anything about food anymore, much less cooking!  If you take a look at my friend Sharyn’s comment on my last post, you’ll see what I’m talking about. She teaches in a university, and her students don’t know about the seasonality of any foods.

Several things need to, and can, happen, with a grass-roots effort. More communities can take on the reform of school lunch on their own, and even put in edible schoolyards (playground gardens) and teaching kitchens.  Children, then, can teach their parents about seasonality and cooking.  Or they can learn about food and cooking by asking their grandparents, as their doing with the help of Bioversity’s campaign Diversity for Life.  Cooking schools can teach home cooking.  Institutional kitchens—like the one here, with its unpaid interns—can double as educational kitchens.   Old routines, like canning parties, can be revived.  (Mona mentioned this today, and you might recall one of my recent posts about the biodiversity scientist I met recently, Stephan, who has fond memories of tomato-canning parties in a neighbor’s garage.)  Children can be taught the basics of cooking, and along with those, the comforts and thrills of cooking, by being included in the process of growing and making food.  With the encouragement of children and community-based campaigns, working parents can be convinced to plan ahead and find the time to put together a healthy meal—even if it’s just rice, beans, and something green.

Mona, who has cooked for the best restaurants and wealthiest people, wants to devote herself to this grass-roots cooking re-education effort when her tenure as the head of the Rome Sustainable Food Project ends.  She’s a real inspiration.

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Immediately after the film screening on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion with two of the farmers who sell their organic foods to the Rome Sustainable Food Project: Enzo Foi, who came with Filippo da Sole, from the farm and agriturismo destination Lo Spicchio; and Giuseppe Brandizzi, from the organic dairy Biola.  The audience had many questions about organic agriculture (agricoltura biologica) in Italy, food politics in Italy, and the differences between the U.S. and Italy on these matters. Enzo told us, without the wish to romanticize Italy for the mostly American audience, that the main difference between the U.S. and Italy, in terms of industrial agriculture, is scale.  Here, as in the U.S., there is a large industrial-farm lobby that shapes the politics; synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used (although the European Union has outlawed GMOs and rBST); small-scale farmers are going out of business.  But, also as in the U.S., there is a movement to expand sustainable agriculture, and to encourage buying locally produced food, and some politicians are helping to promote these causes.  (There are, of course, differences.  Italians know how to eat and have a culture of food, for one!)

More important than the help of politicians, though, is the grass-roots movement exemplified by these men and their families, who are educators and cooks as much as they are farmers.  They farm and cook and eat the way they do because they want to preserve the land, foods, and traditions that have sustained people for centuries and that could—if not cared for—be lost to oblivion.  If you’ve seen Food Inc., consider the proud strut of this rooster compared to the falling-down factory chickens:

Lo Spicchio gallo

After the film and discussion—and in spite of the revolting images of factory farming we’d just seen—we all eagerly went upstairs to the dining room to eat a meal prepared with the ingredients from Enzo’s and Giuseppe’s (and a few others’) farms.  We ate Lo Spicchio pork braised in Biola’s whole raw milk; cardoons roasted with lemon and buttery breadcrumbs; polenta; local red wine; and the most flavorful “blondies” I can imagine. (We eat a lot of braised meat here, in part because Mona and Chris like to cook the whole, traditional, foods of everyday Italians.  The braising cuts are the cheapest cuts.  The other night, Chris and the interns cooked up an amazing meal of braised lamb with harissa, chickpeas with greens, and cous cous.  Simple. Complete. Delicious.)

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My mind and time have been taken up with other writing projects during the past week—my dissertation, about which I won’t talk here, and my story/pamphlet for Bioversity, about which I will talk, at some later date.  But I have to steal a few moments from eighteenth-century literature to do some musing on marjoram.

2034-tb-marjoram

Every Wednesday night at the Academy, the RSFP kitchen cooks an entirely vegetarian meal with local, seasonal ingredients.  Last night, the highlights of the meal were hazelnuts (chopped on a bitter green salad with beets) and marjoram.

Marjoram is often thought of as a meat herb because it can hold its own alongside the most flavorful lamb or venison.  But last night’s main course was potato gnocchi with marjoram and chopped walnuts, pecorino and some wilted green (something chicoryish but not too bitter… plain old spinach?).  It was a risky dish, because the piny astringency and almost medicinal zest of the marjoram could easily have overpowered the humble little gnocchi.  That’s why I’d like to praise, along with the herb so evocative of wildness, the kitchen staff here.  Not only did they create delicate gnocchi for almost fifty people, but they seasoned it delicately with one of the strongest herbs.  The dish had to have been prepared with gentle fingers—to keep the gnocchi fluffy and to crush the leaves of marjoram without mincing out the flavor.  The wine pairing was exquisite, too: a slightly effervescent, green-grassy crisp white from Lazio.  Like a vinho verde, but even greener.

Thanks, guys!

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Going to Venice for a long weekend is like being transported to a different realm.  In this immersed city, we immersed ourselves in grand-scale Renaissance art, long winding walks, gelato, spritz (Amaro—a bittersweet red liqueur—and prosecco), and seafood.  What everyone says about the acoustics stands out as a strong sense memory: without the sound of cars, the ear hears the click of heels on stone, voices talking, murmuring, laughing, and the soft splash of water against stone and brick.  True, there are motor boats, but their rumble is nothing after the roar of Roman traffic.

We ate well.  Oh, yes we did.

On the first night, we turned the corner from the little alley where we were renting an apartment (with 5 others from the American Academy), and happened upon Paradiso Perdito, a wonderfully unlost paradise of seafood, pasta, off-beat music, and attractive diners and servers both young and old.  Here’s a sampling of that meal.

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antipasti

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vino di casa pump

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frito misto

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amazingly flavorful garlicky pasta with a never seen before crustacean

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squid ink pasta

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Jack fell asleep on my lap.

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see the rosemary sprig?

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nicely boned

Other highlights: The dolci, which we all agreed were better than any in Rome.

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how many pistachios are in this torta?

This place especially, which Lisa discovered at 7:30 one morning, by following the aroma of buttery baking, had the most amazing almond croissants we’ve ever had.  They weren’t overly sweet and flabby like so many, but were improbably both dense and flaky, and were almost savory in their delicate sweetness.

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bread turtle?

I didn’t actually take any photos of anyone eating gelato, because I always had a drippy cone of my own to control, usually with some combination of fruity and nutty.  My favorite duo: cherry and hazelnut.  Jack’s favorite: strawberry and cherry.  But this is the place to get it:

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We happened upon this graffito, which to me says, “Is this a gelato I see before me?”

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We also saw lots and lots of art.  Jack was inspired to do some painting, and then ran off to chase pigeons.

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We took one gondola ride, but it only went across the Grand Canal, took two minutes, and cost 50 cents.  Still, it seemed to make everyone happy.

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Susanna & Stephen

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Peter

Our last meal was at the Anice Stellato—the Star Anise—and it was a meal to remember.  I wasn’t so good at photographing every plate, but my favorite dish was a lamb tenderloin rolled in crushed pistachios.  Oh, my….  The wine, a local carmenere blend, and an antipasto plate called sarde in saor, with sardines, polenta, and pickled onions, also stood out.

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Jack enjoyed hanging with the grown-ups.  And I think they liked his company too.

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Aurelia, Jack, Richard, me

(For more photos, check out my Flickr page.)

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wall

wall 2

just wide enough to look or shoot through

I had an interesting personal-historical palimpsestic experience this morning on my way home from dropping Jack at school.  I wound my way to the market street, and went to the last stall, where there is a sign saying “Vendita Directa,” meaning that the fruits and vegetables are sold directly from farmer to consumer.  I don’t know how to explain the presence of bananas from Ecuador on the table, but oh well.

On my way home, I decided to take a little staircase I hadn’t seen before, which seemed to lead in the general direction of the American Academy.  It led to a sidewalk that ran along La Mura—the gigantic wall built around the ancient city.  I knew that the Academy was situated just over the wall, in a sort of nook near the wall’s highest point.  If I just walked along the wall, I’d find a way in.  I kept walking and walking along the wall, as it started to wind down the steep hillside.  Cars rushed by me on one side, and the high wall reflected hot sunlight on the other.  I kept thinking, there has to be a way through this wall!  And then I realized the historical and ironic nature of this walk—about a mile out of my way.  My position on the outside, and my desire to get in, put me in the place of the barbarians the wall was constructed to keep out.  I may be an American, and wearing jeans from the Gap, I thought, but I’m carrying a bag of figs, and I’m trying to learn Italian!

Finally, I decided to turn around, and this time, I spotted a woman pushing a stroller through a narrow doorway in the wall.  This passageway led to the park and playground right near the Academy.  I was in.

Now for some pictures.  Last night, a bunch of us at the Academy did our best to eat as Romans do.  We had a pot-luck barbecue, but there were no barbarian-style hot dogs or burgers on the menu.

I made pizza:

my pizza

Lars and Eva brought sausages to grill:

grill

When the rain let up, we carried all of the food outside to a table under the trees:

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The fire kept burning, and more meat came out.  This was the butterflied leg of lamb Russel and Annie bought at Testaccio on Saturday, along with some sweet cippolline:

lamb

It was a good spread:

the table

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Everything was burning yesterday evening.  For the most part, in the best way.

First, I roasted the two bunches of beets–chioggia and golden–and some of the juice oozed out of the foil onto the cookie sheet.  The whole house smelled of burned beet slime.  The result of roasting, however, was delicious: warm beet salad dressed lightly with vinaigrette, sprinkled with chives, salt, and pepper, and covered with crumbled local goat cheese.

My parents’ best friends, the Ashleys, came down the steep driveway from their house for dinner.  Dad mixed martinis and mojitos (for different people–we didn’t mix).  We sat in the sun on the deck.  The tiki torches were flaming.  We snacked on corn chips and hummus, and the tender, nutty Cobb Hill cheese named Ascutney Mountain (for the Green mountain just south of here).

Ascutney chs

Along with a colorful salad made from our farmers’ market haul, we had sweet corn on the cob from Killdeer Farm, and those sausages from Hogwash Farm–Beer Bratwurst and Chorizo–which promptly caught on fire when Dad put them on the grill.  We moved them around, and the flames gave chase (it always cracks me up when baseball announcers use that phrase!).  In the end, there were some spots of char, but not too many, and the sausages were succulent.

This pyromeal was followed by a campfire, up on the hillside behind the Ashleys’ house, at their well-used fire pit.  The grown-ups nursed our drinks and constructed perfectly melted s’mores, while the boys torched marshmallows, pinecones, leftover Christmas candles, anything that would burn.

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A good time was had by all.

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I am in wholehearted agreement with the motivation behind the New York Times editorial of a few days ago, “Farms and Antibiotics,” and with the legislation it promotes, which aims to drastically reduce the amount of antibiotics used in raising meat.   The figures in this editorial are staggering.  There are so many good reasons to pass this legislation: the overuse of antibiotics leads to super-resistant bugs that can affect human and animal health; the animals are given antibiotics not because they are sick, but to prevent them from getting sick, which surely would happen because of the crowded and confined conditions in which they are raised, and because of the unnatural diet they are fed to fatten them up faster than their bodies can handle; antibiotics in farm run-off (i.e. manure) leach into ground- and open water.

But the problem will not be easy to solve.  It would be simplisitic to think that it’s just a bunch of bad-boy capitalist farmers injecting their animals with too many drugs in the name of profit.   Those farmers are stoking, yes, but are also feeding an insatiable appetite for meat.  The change won’t come with legislation alone but with massive shifts in the American (and first world in general) diet–away from cheap meat–and toward more easy access to healthy, whole foods.  Legislation to limit antibiotic use on factory farms will need to be accompanied by some consciousness raising about the unsustainable scale of the meat industries, and with many more legislative actions. (Michael Pollan had some great suggestions for what these might be, in his pre-election open letter, “Farmer In Chief.”)

The road blocks to changing the first world diet might better be described as an intricate and incredibly strong mesh, made up of socioeconomic inequalities, socioeconomic history, and the history of the food industry and of the first world diet.  A century and a half ago, fresh beef was a specialty food of the wealthy.  That all changed with the invention of refrigeration in the late nineteenth-century.  First came the icebox in upper-class homes; then came ice-cooled warehouses, both of which were unreliable but which led to greater changes .  Then came compressed-air, and electric refrigeration–in homes, in warehouses, on trains, in steamers.  The growth of the refrigeration industry, which was directly related to that of beef, completely changed the culture of meat consumption.  Large-scale cattle farms, slaughter-houses, and warehouses, and the increasing demand they were set up to meet, displaced small-scale businesses of all sorts, and introduced the factory-farming of cattle.  This was when grain-fed beef and the first CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) were implemented.  As supply increased, demand increased, and prices fell.  And now here we are, habituated to a diet of cheap, abundant beef that we are finally recognizing to be unsustainable.  (A compelling and carefully researched description of this history can be found in the new book by Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History.)

The reduction of antibiotic use in cattle will have to go along with a reduction in beef consumption, but because of the socioeconomic realities of beef consumption, this won’t change easily.  We all know that highly processed, “fast food” is cheaper and easier for many to get than fresh, whole foods.  This socioeconomic disparity will have to be addressed as well. (Salmon and shrimp are fast becoming the new beef: the prices are dropping and the antibiotic use is going up.  The Times had a chilling article the other day about antibiotic use by salmon farms in South America.)

If you have the means, switching to grass fed beef is a good idea, but it will only help to keep beef production sustainable if the beef is local and eaten infrequently.  Speaking of which… it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been to Cloudland Farm….

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Pork chops, like buttercups, are my Proustian objects.  At the taste of a chop, especially one brined in cider or served with applesauce, I’m back on Old City Falls Road, at the big yellow house in Strafford, Vermont.  Up the steep hill behind the house and barn—a catch-all space housing tools, lumber, a VW bus, my Dad’s darkroom, a sauna—was the pond where I learned to swim and skate, and the pig pen.  My parents, on the run from suburbia back to the land, had set up a small homestead with a vegetable garden, chickens, pigs, a goat, and two little girls running around in Wonder Woman Underoos in January, because the wood stove kept the living room so hot.

The pigs, Gruntly Squatwell and Squatly Gruntwell, were contented animals until that particular date when my uncle and a few other guys would show up in their pickup trucks for the big pig roundup.  Then the pigs ran around and around their pen squealing for their lives, though they didn’t know it.

The result was a freezer full of pork.  For some reason, I remember the chops best of all.  Sweetish and salty, for me the essence of pork—until I tasted pancetta, but that’s a different kind of experience.  The best, more recent, pork chops I’ve had were grilled by our friend Donia, the energetic and lovely Palo Alto chef and writer.  Her cooking—whether in her restaurant or home—is less a performance than an expression of her nurturing nature.  The food is loved and cared for, as are the friends she feeds.

The technique here is so simple, it barely warrants the formalization of a recipe, but here goes:

Donia’s Pork Chops

In the morning, place four thick-cut bone-in pork chops (organic if possible) in a large baking dish, and pour in a fruity red wine—a Beaujolais, or a zinfandel, perhaps—just to cover them.  Turn them over once or twice during the day.  Just before grilling—preferably over charcoal—season them liberally with salt and pepper.  Grill to mid-rare over moderate heat.  Throw some perfectly ripe buttered halved peaches onto the grill too, for a taste sensation.  Donia also served cornbread and salad, outside on the deck.  What a memorable meal!

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We had the most delicious meal last night.  Sauteed broccoli raab, beet greens, and green garlic from Killdeer, polenta, and spicy grass fed beef sausages.  After our morning with the Jersey cows at Thistle Hill in North Pomfret, Vermont, yesterday, we drove up and down the winding roads and along River Road in search of more cows—this time the black Angus steers of Cloudland Farm.

cloudland steers
“Cloudland” is an appropriate name for the farm at the top of the mountain road of the same name.  There are some long tunnels of trees along this climb that then break open into gorgeous vistas.  Before the twentieth century, the whole hill was most likely a cloudland—open pastures that seemed to touch the sky, for sheep and cattle and countless stone walls.  New growth forest has filled in some of this land, but Cloudland Farm still maintains a thousand acres of pastureland for its herd of grass fed steers.  (They’ve farmed this land for one hundred years.)  Like the population of grazing animals, that of farming families has thinned over the decades, too.  This empty hilltop school is evidence of a once-thriving community:

cloudland school
(The bigger Pomfret school down in the valley is underenrolled, now.  Old farmhouses are being bought up by wealthy non-farmers whose kids have already grown up and stayed in the cities.)

While I shopped around in their farm store, Jack and his cousin stood in the driveway admiring all of the vehicular activity. There was a big John Deere tractor, a skid steer, two ATVs, and a kid-sized pedal tractor.  The boys were happy.

cloudland sign
So was I.  I bought a whole variety of frozen beef, and started thinking about dinner.  Outside, the sun was streaming down at intervals between the big cumulonimbus clouds that have covered this region for over a month, drenching it again and again.  Bill Emmons, the Cloudland farmer, was talking about how little haying he’s been able to do, because of the constant rain.  He was enjoying the chit-chat, but was also twitching to get away and grab this sunny moment to hay.  “I hope I remember how,” he joked.

Visit their website here.

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