Category Archives: Food Trends

Fantastic Farmer Facilitates Food for Fanatics

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an event put on by our local chapter of Slow Food USA. In its 5th year, the event was called Lambstravaganza. It took place way out in Missouri farm territory, about 2 hours west of our BIG city of St. Louis, at the farm of Dave and Barb Hillebrand. Surprise: the Hillebrands raise lambs. The little one in the photo above had been born just that morning – mom and baby were clearly doing fine by the time we arrived around 3 pm. The Hillebrands also raise chickens (for eggs), a few goats and a few cows (both for their own consumption).

The business, called Prairie Grass Farms, comprises about 540 acres when you combine a number of different locations the Hillebrands are using. They have roughly 700 sheep. The family has been in the farming business for generations. Up until 9 years ago or so, they raised “row crops.” This term is the farmers’ euphemism for corn and soybeans – commodity crops which the government subsidizes. Raising row crops requires lots of inputs (aka chemicals), crops are not rotated and only the chemical companies really believe this is ok for the earth. The Hillebrands know better.

Now they only have animals and grass. It is all very symbiotic, sustainable, good for our earth. Their sheep are kept in relatively tight groups for grazing – protected by movable fencing and some wonderful and devoted working dogs. The dogs keep away the predators: mostly coyotes and fox. The sheep munch up an area of “salad”, trample what’s left as they go and leave their waste to fertilize and regenerate what they have eaten. Other than the sun, the rain and what the sheep leave behind, there are no inputs on the land. The creatures in the soil go to work on the waste and the left over roughage. It all gets mixed in with the soil naturally.

Nature takes care of the regeneration of the herd, too. Dave and Barb have a small number of rams who are able to service the girls. The rams are given full access to the ewes for 60 days a year. One ram can handle about 50 ewes (nice work). The timing of the rams’ access to the ewes is meant to enable, for the most part, the lambs to be born all around the same time of year. They are born naturally, in the field. Dave says he is trying to manage it so that when the ladies are with child and need it most, there is plenty of nutritious fresh grass around to so that they will thrive. Otherwise, during the harshest of winter months, the grass may be sparse, the rain or snow may be heavy and the ladies will be hungry. As needed, Dave brings in some hay and supplemental grain to help the ladies out. But, if most of the lambing can take place in the late spring or early summer, the diet of the pregnant mother can be of the best spring grasses. Also, the lambs will be able to grow and fatten up just on mother’s milk and the grasses. 

If a ewe does not produce, she is “retired.” (Hillebrands’ reputation for their lamb bratwurst is legend.) This is genetic management at the farm level. At first, it sounded harsh to me but then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The sheep have a job to do and in exchange for their job they are managed responsibly and with respect for them and the land. If a particular animal cannot do its job then room is made for one who can.

At Prairie Grass Farms, nothing is wasted, except the wool. And that really is not wasted either. The wool is useless to Dave and Barb. It is not fine enough to sell for anything worth the effort of getting it – they have too many other things to take up their time. So, they give it away for the shearing. The person who does the shearing takes the wool and makes use of it. A good deal for all.

Prairie Grass Farms sells its lamb and eggs at our local farmers’ markets and to many restaurants throughout the area. A number of their best restaurant clients showed up and gave their time and resources to cook for those of us who attended Lambstravaganza. It was a feast of extravagant proportions, as the name suggests, with a host of fine chefs showcasing their creativity in a kitchenless environment. We ate in a barn, open on two sides, with an old tarp covered truck behind us, looking like the perfect set piece. It was a beautiful, blustery day. I ate fabulous food, met friendly and interesting people and (my favorite thing) I learned a whole lot.


Filed under Cooking, Education, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Lamb, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Pork Belly Divine

Every once in a while I am able to get my hands on a whole pork belly from my local pig farmer, without having purchased the whole animal. This may seem like a simple matter, but it is not. Our local restaurant chefs and artisanal (local/retail) charcutiers always get first dibs. The short supply for us ordinary folks is also due to the fact that pork belly has become one of those “it” foods I have talked about before (here). The stuff is being roasted, braised, and sautéed. I’ve even seen it make an appearance  breaded and deep fried. On many of the more modern or experimental restaurant menus, said pork belly is showing up increasingly more often and it is being used in a greater variety of ways: it’s not just your mother’s bacon anymore. 

In the summertime, when the tomatoes are at their best, we can go through a whole mess of bacon here. So, for my family, it takes a lot of fortitude to resist curing every last drop of fresh pork belly I am able to get my hands on. A fresh whole belly weighs about 17-20 pounds with the skin on. When all is said and done, you will probably yield about 65-70% of that weight as  home cured, smoked bacon – maybe 12 pounds in all. Bacon is easy to make, too – have a look here.

This time, with this belly, I was ready to try making something other than bacon with at least a portion of the slab. By the time I recieved word from Colby Jones (Farrar Out Farms) that he had a whole fresh belly for me, I had chosen my strategy. I sliced off two (approximately) 1 1/2 pound chunks of meat and took off the skin with my great big chef’s knife. (I reserved and froze the skin. Eventually I will smoke it and use as seasoning for greens and other vegetables.) I made a brine using 6% salt and 3% superfine sugar. The superfine sugar dissolves very well in tepid water, as does the salt. Adding a touch of pink salt to the brine helped to maintain the pink color of the pork. To the brine I added two bay leaves, some fresh thyme, several whole garlic cloves, and some peppercorns. I made the brine directly in a jumbo zip lock bag and put the hunks of belly in the brine. This was left in the fridge for a day.

Once it was ready to be cooked, I took one chunk of the brined meat, dried it off and put it in a vacuum packing bag. I added a good half of a cup of local honey to the bag – enough to coat the meat, once the vacuum was applied. Now this is somewhat difficult to do with the Food Saver machine I have, since it is not the greatest with liquids. But there is a good trick that I use to make it work. Use a bag that is large enough so that the meat and the liquid hangs about a foot or so over the edge of your counter after it is inserted into the mouth of the machine. This means that your bag will need to be about 18-20 inches long. With the help of gravity, the Food Saver will pull out the air and seal up the bag without sucking out the liquid or creating a faulty closure.

The belly went into the Sous Vide Supreme water oven which was set at 79C/175F. I left it in the bath for 14 hours. When the time came, I took it out of the water oven and quick chilled it to stop the cooking. This is done with a large bowl filled with half ice and half water. Once the meat cooled down, I removed it from the bag, dried it off with paper towels, wrapped it tightly in plastic and popped it in the fridge. I reserved the sweet honey flavored pork juices for a sauce.

The next day I took the belly out and brought it up to room temperature.

Just before it was time to sear and serve my fatty and hopefully delicious treat, I cut the belly into two inch cubes.

Searing was no job for my good old Iwatani torch, however. Instead, I placed the meat into a very hot skillet. As each side of a cube of pork crisped and released, I turned it until all sides were very well caramelized. This took less than a minute per side and by the time all sides were crispy, the inside was nice and warm.

I was able to make a wonderful sauce out of the juice that I had reserved from the bag. I took some apple juice (pure, organic and unsweetened) and reduced it by 50%. I added a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, some cloves and the stuff from the bag that was already highly concentrated with porky, honey flavor. Before thickening the mixture with a little cornstarch, I strained the liquid. My meal was now ready for plating. As sides, I served whipped parsnips and glazed sous vide carrots.

This dish is a real keeper. I would happily serve this to guests. Because of the use of a relatively high temperature in the SVS, the fatty part of the belly was rendered well enough to leave just the right balance of both meat and fat. The pan searing process gave the chunks of belly exactly the right crispness and a perfect texture. The unctiousness of each bite was beautifully counter-balanced by the  mildly sweet and sour, apple flavored sauce. No doubt, this is an incredibly rich and calorie filled meal that can’t be consumed too often without dire consequences to the waistline. However, as a special treat…well all I can say is “everything in moderation.” Actually, my husband’s enthusiastic “wow” said it all.


Filed under Charcuterie, Comfort Food, Cooking, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Pork, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

Fantastic Flavor from Fermented Fruit

For me, many things culinary are an experiment. I often order food I have never tasted before when I see it on a menu and I regularly cook things I have never previously prepared. (Most often, without really using a specific recipe.) I like to try cooking with exotic and unknown ingredients. So, it was no big deal that when I put up a couple of jars of preserved lemons I really had no idea what I was doing! (If you want to know how I made them, have a look here.) Nevermind that I had never cooked with preserved lemons before. Nevermind that I had only eaten a couple of dishes containing them on a few occasions. Nevermind that I didn’t really know anyone else who had cooked with them (outside of the few restaurants where I had experienced them). And, nevermind that I had never tasted them “naked” in order to really know exactly what they are! I just knew they were going to be fun to play with.

I had to wait a month for the fermentation process to work its magic on my lemons but OMG was it worth the wait. During that month, I did my research and read plenty of recipes calling for preserved lemons. I learned quite a bit about how to prepare the lemons for use. Some people utilize the resultant juice and pulp, as well as the rind. Many, if not all, separate the rind from the pulp. Most just use the rind – shredded, chopped or minced. All recipes instruct the cook to rinse the lemons lightly before chopping, etc., to get rid of some of the saltiness and “goop” (though mine don’t seem so salty). Quantities called for vary – from heavy to light – depending on how “lemony” one wants their end result to be. Many, many of the recipes I found were of a Moroccan or North African origin or at least heavily influenced by the cuisine of those areas. Preserved lemons seem especially favored in various tagines (a kind of stew that is cooked in a special kind of vessel) though I have mostly had them as part of a broth or sauce in restaurants.

Once the lemons were ready, I couldn’t wait to cook with them.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like having no idea about what I was doing stop me, was I? Now I don’t have a tagine vessel and frankly, these stews don’t really float my cooking boat so I decided to go in the direction of the broth. With all this sous vide stuff going on in my kitchen, sometimes as my friend Josh has been known to say, I just have to walk over to the stove and turn on the burner! A tasty broth with seafood, fish or crustaceans can be truly easy and satisfying to concoct and it takes no time at all – right there on top of the stove.

I went to the freezer and pulled out some wonderful giant prawns I like to keep around. I tossed those babies (previously portioned out and sealed up with my Food Saver). I put about ten to a package and then when I want to use them all I do is toss the package into a bowl of tepid water for about 15-20 minutes to thaw them. Then they get shelled and made ready for what I am cooking, which takes all of about 5 minutes. Often times, I use the shells as a basis for a sauce but I did not do that this time. Once peeled and cleaned, I set the shrimp aside on a paper towel.

I also took out a pint of rich chicken stock (made from the stewing hens I buy from Farrar Out Farms): this is an important staple in my kitchen. I thawed that stock quickly in the microwave (no, not in the plastic it was frozen in). The stock went to the stove in an uncovered, 4 quart stock pot, over a medium heat.

Meanwhile, I opened a can of San Marzano tomatoes (these are found at my local italian grocery store) scooped out about a pint of these and dumped them into a colander set in a bowl to drain the liquid. The reason for doing this is so that I can pick over the tomatoes to remove the core and any little bits of left over skin. Using my favorite kitchen tool, the immersion blender, I pureed the tomatoes with the liquid. and then strained it through my handy, dandy chinoise into the sauce pot with the stock. The mush that is left over in the chinoise has some pulp and lots of seeds. The resultant liquid is rich and velvety smooth.

To the pot I added a ton of finely chopped, preserved lemon rind and the pulp from the lemons that I had picked over and pushed through a medium sieve (leaving the seeds and membrane behind). Then I let my fingers do the walking through my spice cabinet where I found and added 1/4 tsp cayenne, 1/8 tsp white pepper, 1 heaping tbs of special indian curry powder (use the curry you like), and a tbs of fresh yellow mustard powder. I didn’t add any salt because I wanted to wait to taste the soup after the lemon had cooked into it for a while. With preserved lemons, you have to be careful about salt, especially when you are using the lemon juice from the jar that you did your preserving in. I hit this mixture with the immersion blender again, just to smooth out the lemon and to mix the spices in thoroughly.

Next, I brought the liquid just barely to a boil while stirring and let it simmer for about ten minutes to marry the spices to the broth. Amazingly, there was no froth or foam to worry about – the broth stayed a wonderful velvety texture because of all the straining and blending. I had previously done. When I tasted it, I found that I did not need to add more salt. 

Just before I was ready to serve up my creation, I tossed the waiting shrimp into the soup, turned up the fire a bit and stirred until they were no longer translucent – this took all of about two or three minutes. I had chopped up some fresh cilantro for a garnish and was ready to dish up our meal in my favorite wide lipped bowls. Dinner was a lemony, spicy, amazingly flavorful shrimp stew. With some buttered up, toasted ciabatta to soak up the sauce, Bob and I were completely satisfied. This dish is definitely good enough for company. As a matter of fact, if it was served to me in a restaurant I would return to order it again! I am certain it will work well with a variety of fish or seafood.


Here is a little thing to take note of if you are on a diet: this was a completely healthy, low-calorie meal. The only fat was from the butter I put on the bread (about a tablespoon for 4 nice chunks of ciabatta) and that which naturally occurs in the shrimp. If I were not perpetually on a diet, I would have added some cold chunks of butter to the sauce just before serving to thicken and enrich the soup but, in truth, I did not miss it at all. If you are one of those naturally thin people who never has to worry, I would encourage you to go ahead and add the butter.


Filed under Cooking, Food Trends, Preserving

Of Food Fads and Fashion

This is only part of the collection

Shoes, glorious shoes!

Many foods, spices, ingredients and even particular dishes, are kinda like shoes (very close to the top of my list of favorite things, after food). Once it becomes fashionable, a style tends to hang out for a while and then, no matter how big it became, eventually it grows less important or even fades out completely.  However, with shoes and other things sartorial, trends don’t come on very gradually. Shoe and clothing styles get stuffed down our fashion conscious throats in one season. I am sure there is some invisible panel of fashion nazis who decide that starting next season, patent leather with studs is going to be in. If we don’t fall in line, at least somewhat, others look at us and label us as “old school” or, even worse, just old! 

Thankfully, I don’t think it works this way with food.  Culinary trends and specific foods sneak into our consciousness and down our gullet more slowly and quietly. One might see an ingredient or a particular dish show up once or twice over a period of time, especially if you travel and eat in urban environments. Then bit by bit they seem to mushroom out in the culinary landscape. I don’t know who decides or why, but when a food fashion finally takes hold, just like square toes or pointy, we regularly find ourselves eating in step with the trend.   

I like to refer to these ingredients and dishes as “it” foods. Some people might call them “food fads.” I don’t want to belittle them this way. Even though, in the most non-belittling way, I have to admit they seem to permeate our consciousness in a very faddish manner. Then again, once the meal is over, nobody cares about what you did or didn’t eat – we are not seen as out of step with the fashion, just because we don’t want to eat a particular food or ingredient. We are far more tolerant when it comes to what we eat than regarding what we wear.     

I think, more important, is the fact that we can learn something about what is going on in our society by focusing on these foods. Take the example of one “it” food that I love to moan about: the molten chocolate cake.      

Chocolate Lava Cake photo by Glane34 Wikimedia Chocolate Lava Cake Glane23 Wikimedia      

This dish got a complete hold on menus in the US sometime in the (I’m guessing here) early/mid 90’s. It is, IMHO, a perfect representation of the excesses of that decade: too much chocolate, too much sweet, too much gooey, gloppy goop, often made even gloppier and sweeter with someone’s idea of gourmet ice cream (which often turns out to be uninspired, or in other cases and very telling, the best part of the dish). For years and years we have been subjected to this over-rated, often badly executed and now totally unexciting dessert.  There is nothing new to be done with it, no new flavors, shapes, garnishes, or brands that can salvage the thing, it is just done.      

Sometimes, whole groups of foods are “it” foods. Within the fast few years, comfort foods have started to regain importance. Showing up on the menus of better restaurants, a lot of pub food, whether or not reinvented as haute (i.e. gastropub food) is typical comfort food. Not only is comfort food chef and eater friendly, it brings to mind our fondest childhood memories. Our mom’s fixed comfort food – even if they made it badly and even if we didn’t call it by that name, we loved to eat it. Tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken with rice, beef stew: kids of all generations become utterly nostalgic when thinking of the one that became the signature dish of their household. Formerly limited to the diner, these foods are now being offered as menu staples as well as daily specials in restaurants of all levels. The trend is in full swing and comfort food is “it!”      

At least for now, you won’t find me moaning about this trend one bit. I think that our society needs some comfort NOW. After all that has gone on with our political system, with the turmoil and constant discomfort of our economy, with the rising tide against all that we worked for in the 60’s and 70’s, our society needs some mothering!      

Next up: Chicken Pot Pie with help from the Sous Vide Supreme      



Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Food Trends, Social Commentary