In Shopping for Food on March 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Week 30, kind of

A few months ago, after teaching a cheese class, I was approached by one of the students — it turns out she’s one of the organizers of the Bucktown Apple Pie Festival, and she wanted me to enter and write about the contest. She pressed her card into my hand and whispered conspiratorially, “Winning’s all about the crust. You’ve got to get that proportion of lard to butter just right, you know?”

“Oh, I know,” I said knowingly, even though I had no idea what I, or she, was talking about. I’d never used lard before, never even seen it; it seemed both antiquated and totally British, and I was pretty sure I’d never be able to find it for sale. Plus it’d been years since I’d bothered to make a pie crust, placing it, at some point, squarely into the too-much-trouble-to-bother-making-from-scratch category. (Other items in that category include potstickers, croissants, and tamales. [Lobster and crab, incidentally, I place in the too-much-trouble-to-eat category. The work-to-food ratio's all wrong.])

But then I went up to Harvestime in Lincoln Square, where I like to stare curiously and fearfully at the offal in the meat department cases (cow tongues are really gigantic), and I saw it: a bunch of blocks of lard stacked on top of the stainless steel meat counter. (It was Armour Brand, which I looked up online because I was pretty sure Armour also made hot dogs and I thought making the hot-dog-and-lard connection was kind of genius, and would make a good bit of blog trivia. It turns out that Armour has a pretty fascinating and strange history that I won’t go into here. But suffice it to say that the lard I bought is connected to Chicago, the origins of labor unions, Breck girls, Dial soap, Greyhound busses, and military food poisoning.)

With the words of the apple pie contest lady whispering through my head, I bought the lard; I had to; I had to win the contest, even though I hadn’t made a pie crust since I was 16. (The Last Crust was for an apple-cranberry pie that I baked for my dad’s birthday. When I unveiled it, he wrinkled his nose — the slightly more polite adult equivalent of that finger-pointing-down-the-throat gesture — then said: “Cranberries? Nothing worse in the world than cranberries.” I took the pie to school, where the science teachers I TA’ed for fell on it like jackals. One told me, after hearing that my dad had rejected a homemade pie, “Boy, I wish you were my daughter.” I swear I’m not making this up.)

So the lard came home with me, and because as soon as I got home I lost interest in making pie and winning pie-making contests, it sat in my freezer for a couple months. But it nagged at me and fell on my foot every time I went in there searching for popsicles, so I did what I usually do when I don’t know how to make something: I scheduled a pie-making class. Nothing like the prospect of public humiliation to make you want to learn to do something really, really well.

But before I get to the lattice crust pie I made, which surrounded a bunch of apples liberally dosed in Chinese five-spice powder and merits a blog entry of its own, let’s explore lard a bit:

Made from rendered pork fat, lard fell out of favor about the same time it was decided that eggs were bad for your cholesterol, olive oil was superior to butter, and animal fats were what’s killing everyone. It’s been regarded as an unhealthy, unsexy cousin of butter, and the words “rendered pork fat” tend to be off-putting in the marketplace vernacular, so when a flaky pie crust is what’s at stake, most people reach for Crisco or other vegetable shortenings — but those shelf-stable butter substitutes are hydrogenated, meaning that they’ve got loads of trans-fats and will kill you with irony if not elevated cholesterol.

But lard’s actually not all that bad for you — inasmuch as something that derives 100 percent of its calories from fat can be “not all that bad for you.” It’s got more unsaturated fat than saturated fat, meaning it’s not as bad for your heart as you might think, and because it’s got a higher smoke point than lots of other fats, foods fried in lard actually absorb less oil.

(Understand that I’m not positing lard as a health food here. I’m just dropping science.)

With the increased interest in “real foods” — and by real,  what’s meant is minimally or unprocessed ingredients that were around long before hydrogenation, Red Dye No. 5 or high fructose corn syrup — and traditional cooking methods and recipes, lard’s actually enjoying kind of a renaissance these days. A few years ago, Britain actually experienced a lard crisis, which has to be one of the best descriptions ever for a nationwide ingredient shortage.

The British Lard Marketing Board, which warns that its website is ‘NOT suitable for weirdy vegetarians,’ is doing its best to keep lard visible. Literally. You can get t-shirts, coffee mugs (“Even Jesus Ate Lard!”), tote bags, mousepads and thong underwear from the Lardstore, their online gift shop. The BLMB website’s chockful of useful lard-centric trivia, songs, and scientific facts such as: Chips cooked in lard taste over a thousand times better than those cooked in namby-pamby oil.

Few recipes call outright for lard these days, with the notable exceptions of chocolard, which I hope to God is a joke, and lardy cake, a traditional British dessert that kind of seems like a croissant-pannettone-fruitcake mashup. It’s yeasted, studded with raisins and citrus peel, heavily spiced, and can be made in loaf form or shaped into swirls like cinnamon rolls.

Even most pie crust recipes don’t call outright for lard, which is a shame: using it in combination with, or instead of, butter in a pie crust recipe will, as my Bucktown Apple Pie contest co-conspirator said, produce an outstanding pie crust — one that’s super-flaky and crispy, and that audibly shatters when you cut into it with your fork. And making a killer pie crust’s much, much easier than I’d remembered — as in, it takes about all of five minutes. Visual, though not audible, proof to follow next week(ish).

Searching for the Right Words

In Thinking About Food on March 5, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Even when I wasn’t writing during my winter hiatus, I’d check in with the site periodically to see if my blog was still getting much traffic (it was not) and if the search terms leading people to it were still hilarious (they were).

It still amazes me that, aside from the term ‘Smart Cabbage,’ the two queries that most often lead Googlers to my site are: are pork belly and side pork the same thing? (yes), and can I eat a Cuban sandwich if I’m pregnant? (yes, yes, a thousand times yes). I was wildly excited to see that someone searched for ‘def leppard hysteria listeria’ — word of my awesome anti-anti-raw-milk-cheese-paranoia song must’ve spread — and pleased that so many of the ingredients that puzzled me are stumpers for other people, too. The number of hits I get for ways to deal with pork belly, black currants, guanabana, palm sugar and salt roasting are encouraging — could Smart Cabbage actually be helpful? Because that would be rad.

I have to say, some of these search terms would make much, much better blog names than Smart Cabbage, like:

  • Teaching Cabbages to Talk
  • A Girl Who Hates Canning
  • Haters Town
  • How to Make Alien Clothes for Kids
  • A Meat Sliced Like Bacon
  • Tamarillo is Not Tomato
  • I Put Some Chili Powder On My Bum; It Was a Bad Idea

Some queries, as ever, fall into the terrifying/perplexing/bewildering category:

  • scaring pregnant women
  • stew maker Mexico acid
  • eating pregnant smart babies
  • girl funnel up ass with sugar
  • which compound can disintegrate bones: lye or lime

A couple speak eloquently and clearly for themselves:

  • anchovies are gross
  • my husband’s canning my ass

Don’t believe me about the pregnant food confusion thing?

  • pregnant cuban sandwich
  • can I eat a cuban sandwich while pregnant
  • can you eat a cuban sandwich while pregnant
  • can pregnant women eat cuban sandwiches
  • pregnant women cannot eat cuban sandwiches
  • can pregnant women eat deer summer sausage
  • garlic shoots for pregnant women
  • can pregnant women eat tamarillo
  • why are radishes bad when you’re pregnant
  • gruyere and pregnancy and listeria
  • can you eat cold leftovers the next day when pregnant
  • hosting out of town guests while pregnant
  • can pregnant women eat cabbage
  • where do pregnant women put cabbage

Some of these, I have no idea what the searcher was searching for, or how, exactly, they were directed to my site:

  • white jersey taste taste
  • gastronomic pedernales
  • headache from one nostril
  • cartoon kids sitting in diner cakes
  • fed ladybug black currant jam
  • smart and final avocado sauce
  • guanabana shirt
  • spoon stupid prop skin
  • sentence that smarts use nosebleed

Some people have questions I cannot answer:

  • how does butter with weed smell like
  • what is the nutritional value of corn nuts
  • how to cabbage with pork hogs
  • what does the hiatus from Japan eat
  • why is cabbage goopy
  • is canning procrastination
  • where to buy a police grade bullhorn

Here’s hoping 2011 Smart Cabbage is as entertaining for you as it’s always been — in front of and behind the scenes — for me.

Long Time, No See

In Thinking About Food on March 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Or, What I Did On My Winter Hiatus

I made this:

and these:

and a bunch of these:

and this:

(Before anyone asks, no, I didn’t make the crib. I made the sheet. And the third picture’s of burp cloths made from old t-shirts, which came from cleaning out our drawers to make room for baby stuff.)

The Burger (so named because she’d kick like crazy in utero whenever I ate The Husband’s secret-recipe hamburgers) was born in early January, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch, nursing and reading food magazines and cookbooks. The single best thing I’ve read about child nutrition came not from a website or a medical journal or a parenting guide, but from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat:

Good eating starts in the cradle. … The moment baby is put to the breast, he or she learns that eating is one of the foremost pleasures of life; seeking that pleasure is also how he or she stays alive and keeps growing. … [An obstetrician] told me that one of the reasons breast milk was better than formula was that its taste changed all the time. Whatever a woman’s been eating informs the flavor of her milk, and so a breast-fed child has a varied diet from the very beginning. That’s to say, the baby learns that unpredictability is in the very nature of food, of life — that change and difference, within a secure context, are not frightening but desirable and to be savored.

Now that The Burger’s almost two months old [cripes!], and I’m finding time to shower and eat lunch and even sometimes cook a little bit, I think it’s time to return to Smart Cabbage and its purpose: to eat, or cook, a new food every week. I imagine the recipes and preparation will be markedly simpler than before — I don’t exactly foresee having the time to make a two-day pork bun, or to spend a whole day making a batch of tamales — but the goal of expanding my (and now my daughter’s) culinary horizons is an important one. I may not get to it every single week, particularly since not working outside of the house has me totally clueless as to the day and date, but hey: getting out of pajamas is a major coup these days, so blogging practically deserves a Medal of Honor.

Since I haven’t been working [hooray for maternity leave! boo for no second income!], we’ve been making a concerted effort to be better with our food dollars: cooking at home every night, packing lunch for The Husband every day, eating leftovers, planning menus and writing detailed grocery lists. The underlying theme to all of this is being organized — I take time to plan, keep the fridge (relatively) clean, find coupons online (I saved $28 at Whole Foods, suckas!). And (perhaps most importantly) I did a thorough inventory of our freezers and our pantry, making a list of contents of each and taping it to the outside so I can see at a glance what I’ve got. The challenge is to find ways to use up all of the ingredients we’ve (okay, I’ve) amassed over the past while. Tons of meat from our amazing meat CSA. Bulk grains and legumes that I’m sure I had a plan for when I bought them, but instead wound up languishing in pretty glass jars in the cupboard.

So what’s on tap in the near future? Fideos! Celeriac! Curry leaves! Ethiopian red pepper simmer sauce! Rack of lamb! Stay tuned!


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