Friday, September 30, 2011

Stewed Jack Rabbit and Dumplings

Up to this point, I've been playing it safe. The recipes I've chosen have at least mildly resembled something I've eaten in the past. But that all changes today.

That's right. I cooked a bunny.

I understand that this post may lose me some readers.* That's okay. The nineteenth-century prairie wasn't all dry cornbread and apple turnovers. Pa Ingalls went out hunting, and he brought back turkeys and blackbirds and deer and rabbits. It's about time I investigated some of the squishier aspects of prairie meals.

Now, The Joy of Cooking informed me that while rabbit stew may seen like a foreign concept, many people still enjoy rabbit today. This unfortunately led me to believe that I could procure a dressed rabbit at my local Whole Foods. Not so, friends. I had to call around to a few specialty butchers before I found Central Meat Market, which offers beef, poultry, rabbit, goose, quail, whole pigs, and even partial cows (with a special order). Having never ventured into a specialty butcher shop before, I was a little nervous. But the butcher was quite friendly, and he even chopped up the rabbit for me.

Then I proceeded to psych myself up for this recipe. Josh and I went to the Coggeshall Farm Harvest Festival a few hours before I started to cook, which proved inspiring

We visited a hearth cooking site (manned by a well-dressed young fop), where a whole turkey was stewing over the fire. We heard all about heritage breed chickens. We strolled past a pony ride and tried our hand at checkers. Then we stopped by a crafts tent and petted the angora rabbits on display. They were so, so soft and sweet.

That's when the guilt set in. It's hard to think about cooking an animal for dinner when you're petting its relative at a festival.

Nevertheless, I had to soldier on. So that evening I tried to forget the cute bunnies and focus on the meal at hand.

I started off with salt pork (as if I'd use anything else). I browned some diced-up pieces of pork in a Dutch oven, then removed the pork for later. The rabbit pieces went into the fat to brown (while I tried to look at the pieces as abstract bits of meat. Rabbit ends up looking disconcertingly like chicken, which I wasn't expecting). Meanwhile, I simmered the giblets (heart, liver, etc.) in a separate saucepan with water, and added the liquid to the Dutch oven to simmer with the rabbit.

At this point I wasn't at all sure I wanted to eat this stew for dinner.

But still, on I went. I toasted some flour to a nice cocoa-brown, then mixed it with the chopped-up giblets and some water to form a dark gravy. Then I prepared some dumpling dough (your basic flour-salt-buttermilk-baking soda mixture) and got ready for the final stretch. When the meat was tender, I mixed the gravy and the salt pork pieces back into the Dutch oven, and dropped the dumpling dough on top. After about 10 minutes, the dumplings had puffed into a nice crust, and the stew was ready.

Was I ready?

I tried the sauce and dumplings before I tested the rabbit. The sauce was incredibly rich and earthy--definitely the giblets' doing. It was a little too much for me. The rabbit, on the other hand, was lightly gamey and a delicious combination of chicken and venison. So tasty.

I definitely wouldn't make this stew again (that sauce), and I'd have to work up the courage to buy another skinned rabbit from the butcher before I ventured near it again. But preparing for this stew was a surprisingly sobering experience. It wasn't until I visited that butcher that I realized just how sanitized our mainstream American experience of food has become. I've been accustomed to seeing only beef, chicken, turkey, and pork in the supermarket, wrapped up nicely in plastic packages. Were it not for this project, I doubt I would have fully considered how limited that meat selection really is.

* But not you, Lyuda. You've eaten rabbits before, right?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Apple Turnovers

These are the two things I've learned so far from this project:

1. Pies and pie-like things haven't changed much since the 19th century.
2. Animal fat is sinfully delicious.

You already know that I'm a salt pork enthusiast. Having only cooked with butter and oil prior to starting this project, the pork was a pleasant surprise. But now I've discovered lard.

Oh, lard.

Now, lard isn't as obscure as salt pork. Bakers still use it to make pie dough (and maybe other things? I'm not sure). But I'd never seen it before, and I wasn't sure how to procure it. Luckily, my friendly neighborhood farmer's market boasts several meat stands, and on my weekly visit, one of them happened to be selling leaf lard. "For Serious Cooks," the sign said.* I bought a package and took it home.

Lard looks, unsurprisingly, like a solid lump of whitish fat. The label read "Pork Suet," making me doubt momentarily that I'd bought the right kind. But I gamely sliced off enough lard to fill a 1/3 measuring cup, separating the fat from stringy parts. Then I rubbed it into the flour and salt just like it was butter, and brought the dough together with some ice water. My hands felt a little greasy, but all seemed well so far.

The rest was relatively simple: I rolled out the dough and sliced it into squares, then put a dollop of apples mixed with cinnamon and brown sugar in the middle of each square. Then I folded the dough over the apples to create triangles, and sealed the edges with a fork. The turnovers baked for half an hour and came out steaming and smelling of spice.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous, what with the pork suet confusion and so on. But, my god, that lard made the flakiest, tenderest crust I've ever tasted. These are little pockets of apple deliciousness, my friends, and it's all due to that animal fat.

Salt pork may get my enthusiasm, but lard gets my everlasting devotion.

*I got really excited by the sign. Apparently this project has elevated me to the level of Serious Cook!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fried Fish

Every summer my family spends a few weeks on a small island on a lake in Ontario, Canada. It's pretty rustic--apparently my sister and I just missed the outhouse years--but it's my favorite part of the summer. We spend our days reading on the porch, swimming before every meal, and canoeing around the bay, just soaking up the quiet. The inland bay used to be full of fish, too; my parents tell stories about the giant pike my uncle caught off Bongarde's Rock, and about the prehistoric muskie that spent one summer under the island dock. When my sister and I were little, we could go down to the boathouse and fish off the side of the slip with our plastic Mickey Mouse fishing poles. We never caught anything special, just a few baby rockfish, but we loved to watch the fish swim up to our hooks and dare a nibble.

When we were older, our dad took us out to the better fishing spots in the bay (Bongarde's Rock was a regular stop, what with its legendary history). For a few years we caught bass big enough to eat for dinner. My dad showed me how to clean and gut the fish, and we'd throw the innards to the gulls. Then my mom and my grandmother would fry the fillets to crisp perfection.

(Lest you think we adhered to traditional gender roles, my grandmother was the one who taught my dad how to clean a fish.)

I've been thinking about the island for the past few days, wishing I were still there, so Ma Ingalls's fried fish seemed like the perfect way to end the summer. I'm not quite brave enough to clean fish on my own (and without gulls to take away the remains), so I just used tilapia fillets.

It's quite simple. You start by frying up some salt pork until it's golden, and you remove the salt pork to a platter but keep the drippings hot. (And you know it's going to be good when it starts with fried salt pork.) Then you dredge the fish in cornmeal and a bit of pepper, maybe brushing the fish with a beaten egg beforehand so the cornmeal sticks. Fry the fish in the hot drippings until one side is golden brown, then turn the fillets over to finish cooking.

If you'd like, you can make a gravy to pour over the fish at the table. Once you've added the fillets to the platter, stir about a cup of milk into the drippings until it foams. Then sprinkle the fish with a bit of vinegar, and serve with the gravy.

I tell you, I am a salt pork convert. The fat added a new dimension to the fish, making it salty and rich.* I'm still not used to this pioneer way of pouring a milk-based gravy over a savory meat or fish, but it did taste better than the salt pork gravy. It was absolutely delicious, and the perfect way to end the summer.

*I later found out that my grandmother fried fish exactly the same way, with bacon fat instead of salt pork. That revelation made it all the better.