29 September 2014

Magpie Tales 239: Meditations Before the Slaughter

Autumn in Madeira by Jacek Yerka, via Tess at Magpie Tales

He belches softly, there in the wood
cider chewy-sweet on the tongue
heavy boots oppress a nation of leaves
with yet a smile to be home

Time overseas burnishes the edges
he thinks, of memories and soil
but the mind heart and belly
never forgot, truly forgot their nest

Winter stirs, bares its teeth in the wind
bringing the chuffing of the hogs
reminding the soldier of the butcher's calling:
In this work, Death begets living, not more dying

22 September 2014

Magpie Tales 238: Made For Walkin'

Image via Tess Kincaid at Magpie Tales

boots brogans mukluks
not 'wellies' her look said
I said which do you wear

quick shy smile
under chestnut tresses 
she didn't answer

from over here
now that the rain stopped
looks to me a mismatched pair

at that she stopped
tucked a strand 
behind the shell of her ear

polar blue eyes
with a touch of crow
that mona lisa shone

I wear what I wear
because it suits me
why do yours match?

21 September 2014

This Child Who is My Mirror

This child who is my mirror
Reflecting starlight and suns
Brighter than mine
Who am I to comprehend her?

Double helix uncoiled, split
Heart beating in two places
Daughter's shadow has more grace
Than my substance, I fear

To make her laugh
Is grace for a lifetime
See her smiling
Is a thousand suns

Warmth and light, radiance,
In her coltish presence
My heart a sunflower
Ringing like a bell

20 September 2014

The Gravity of Gravlax

Gravlax 2, 19 September 2014

My physical location often dictates what in the world I will eat, but it does not always coincide with where in the world I want to eat. The boon companion to my peripatetic imagination is a stomach that likes to wander, and is very catholic in its spheres of interest. The idea of a dish will lodge itself in my head without apparent reason. The belly does not rest until it feeds upon that dish. Such is the case of gravlax. It was showing up in my dreams.

For those unfamiliar with gravlax, it is a cured fish preparation of Scandinavian origin. The traditional (and most common) fish is salmon, and the typical curing mix is salt, sugar and dill. Other typical additions are black pepper and aquavit, a Scandinavian distilled spirit flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. In no uncertain terms, gravlax is not the first food that comes to mind when compared to my ancestry and what I typically eat. 

Although, I suppose that somewhere in my bloodline there might be some Nordic genes laying about, DNA echoes shouted out from the Vikings who raided and traded in Ireland so long ago. Interesting to contemplate, and could explain much about my psyche.

But I digress. It is gravlax what held my imagination, so it is gravlax to discuss. In my penchant for whirlwind obsessions, I decided that this time that I would make my own gravlax at home. It requires little hardware and some kitchen basics. Of course, no fixation would be complete without some research. I happily spent some spare time digging up recipes and comparing what I found with what my belly likes to eat.

The root of the cure is salt, sugar and dill. The next flourish is black pepper, ground, or in my case, cracked. Other embellishments were the aforementioned aquavit, caraway seeds, and even fennel seeds. But one spice that really caught my tongue was juniper berries. They are not your everyday seasoning, no doubt. As my current culinary fortunes run, I had a bag of juniper berries stashed in my spice cabinet, apparently just waiting for such a moment to spring into action.

My desire for gravlax intersected with a spur of the moment grocery run, wherein I picked up a fine-looking coho salmon fillet, skinned, of two pounds. I mixed up some salt and sugar, broke out the dill and cracked black pepper, then smacked a palmful of juniper berries with a rolling pin. That act of mild brutality lightly crushed the juniper without pulverizing it. This in turn would add some nice aromatics and flavors to the salmon. The downside was that the rolling pin smelled a bit like a tumbler full of gin.

So rubbing the fillet with the juniper, adding a heavy layer of dill, then blanketing (and I mean blanketing) the fish with the salt/sugar mix, I realized I had no aquavit. Admittedly, the cure would work just fine without the liquor, but the idea of it being in the mix I found fascinating. A quick trip to the liquor cabinet showed that indeed there was no aquavit, but I did have a small amount of single-malt scotch remaining in one bottle.

DING! Imagine a huge light bulb going off over my head. It took almost no time for my brain and my belly to decide that the smokiness of the whisky would be a great match for salmon. So, out of the bottle and sprinkled on the fish. I cut the fillet in half, turned it into a big salmon sandwich, then wrapped it up tight in plastic wrap. The slab went into a plastic tub. I placed a half-full box of kosher salt on top to properly press it together, then placed the tub in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

Chef note: I should point out that the salmon used was as fresh as I could get, thoroughly rinsed and patted dry before curing. Work surfaces were sanitized and knives were carefully cleaned before and after use. The cure does a great job of killing off the nasty bugs, but cleanliness and freshness and paramount. 

Then I waited. During that time I flipped the salmon over about every twelve hours to ensure even distribution of the cure and the liquid it produces. The liquid is a good sign, and is also why the salmon should be placed in a vessel with a rim. 

Three days and then the grand reveal! The salmon was unwrapped. The liquid was somewhat pungent, but did not have that tell-tale "bad fish" aroma of something gone wrong. The cure had turned into a thick, slightly gritty paste on the fish but was easily washed off under cool water. It looked good, smelled interesting.

I laid it on the cutting board to trim off a piece. I hesitated briefly, then decided I had invested a fair amount of time and money in this project so qualms be damned I was not going to let it go to waste. I hoped sincerely it would taste good.

Hallelujah, boys and girls, it did taste good. Salty to be sure, but also sweetly aromatic from the sugar, pepper, dill and juniper. The single malt was there hovering in the background. Concentrate on too hard and it would disappear, but let it go and it would come back to pad lightly around the warmth of the hearth.

Finishing the third slice I began to wonder if I was out of my gourd for wanting to try something like this at home. All the fears and worries about bacteria and parasites and non-professional kitchens crowded into my head, momentarily throwing me off my feed. I hesitated again, knife in hand, twitching slightly above the fillet.

"In for a penny, in for a pound" cried my buccaneer soul. The knife went down. The fourth slice came off. The belly would not be denied, brothers and sisters, nor would the soul. The gravlax was delicious.

05 September 2014

Comfort Food for Plague Years

The universe has a reputation as a cruel and heartless place. Well deserved by most reasonable measures, measures highlighted by the cascade of disturbing news that washes over our daily lives. There is no escaping it, it seems. Horrifying words, images, and sounds burst forth from the screens of whatever electronic device is the weapon of choice in front of our scratched and bleeding senses.

Plague. War. Civil unrest. Even the perhaps lesser evil of data theft, private lives smeared across the ether in a toxic blur of titillation. Everything becomes pornography now, because the trend is think that having an impulse to consume grants the right to consume whatever it is the appetite wants. All because the access is supposedly granted because the victims deserved it and should not have put it "out there" in public.

The fundamental flaw with that line of consumption is that the victims (that is the correct word) do not choose to become violently ill, get murdered by rockets, or be shot for the sake of public display. No one expects their private stuff to get stolen (and data classifies as 'stuff') when they have taken reasonable precautions to keep the stuff from those who do not have permission to possess it.

No one blames the depositors for a bank heist that cleans out the safe deposit boxes. No one blames a kid who gets shredded by shrapnel because he was in the wrong place. No one with any common decency, that is.

All of this has weighed heavily on my mind in recent weeks. From the shooting of Michael Brown to the Russian tanks in Ukraine to the nasty virus eating up West Africa, the plague of bad news has been inescapable. Partly my fault, I know, because I listen to a lot of news while driving in my car.

But partly, it is due to the sheer volume of nastiness going on in the world. The funk thickened today, gelling around my psyche like smothering epoxy. Escape was necessary. The path was an unlikely one, paved as it was with two cans of tuna fish and a bag of egg noodles. Somewhere out on the road today, I did not see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, but my back brain conspired with my belly to convince me I wanted tuna noodle casserole for dinner. It was a stroke of culinary genius.

I had not eaten homemade tuna noodle casserole in decades. The genesis of the idea burbled up in that little kitchen I fancy takes up some space in my brain. In there a slightly frazzled chef hunched over a butcher block table, scribbling ideas in a tattered ledger about what appeasements will be made to the maw that growls under his stained jacket. Today it was the memory of some oddments in the pantry that inspired this jaunt back to food from my youth, food that I had given no consideration except mild scorn and bemusement on the rare occasion when its name would arise in conversation.

Yet today it made perfect sense. I had the tuna and the noodles. A quick trip to the grocery store for milk, celery, peas, and mushrooms took care of the rest. Done with my work for the day, I stood and the kitchen and commenced meditation. Make no mistake, that is what this dish was all about. Cooking, centering, breathing. So simple, so clear, and so far away from the misery outside the walls that I ceased thinking about bad news.

It is important to note that this was mostly from scratch. I had no desire to shortcut the process by getting a box of pre-made "helper", or a tub of something from the local grocery. I wanted to build this thing, tweaking it to meet my needs and wants. Any grace to be gained would have been lost if all I did was rip open the box, pour it in a pan and set it in the oven. There would have been nothing learned. My mind would not have settled. My breathing would not have slowed. I made it the way it asked of me, and it was completely satisfying. This is all I ask of comfort food in the plague years.