Friday, September 19, 2014

Gravy basics

In case someone who doesn't cook stumbles upon my blog... a word about gravy. 

Gravy doesn't come from a packet of powder or a can. To make gravy, brown your meat in a pan. A heavy pan, preferably cast iron works best. Browning is accomplished by washing, thoroughly drying and salting the meat, then searing/frying the surface of it in a little fat - that means, lay it in a hot pan, with the pieces not touching each other and leave it there, not moving it around, until it has visibly browned, then turn over and brown the other side. Once browned, remove the meat or push it of the sides of a very large pan. You can then brown some onions in the fat and meat drippings if you like. Push the onions to the sides of the pan. 

Once that is done, add a little more fat if necessary (and it will be with lean meat). Cook a tablespoon or two of flour (depending on how much gravy you want to make) in the fat until it smells cooked/nutty, not like raw flour and slightly brown. Then, add either water or broth (chicken, beef, even veg broth) - a cup or two total (depending on how much flour you used - about 1/4 cup at a time, stirring it into the four until there are no lumps and everything is a beautifully smooth and brown gravy., making sure to scrape all of the the meat and onion bits off of the bottom of the pan and into the gravy. Then, add your meat back in (if desired) and slow cook everything together over low heat, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Salt and pepper to taste. 

A word on fat: suet (beef fat) is always the best fat for frying, because it adds richness, without adding much flavor on its own and has a high smoke point. However, you might want to use bacon fat - just be sure to add less salt since the fat will be salty. Olive or canola oil would be fine, but not as good. Butter would not be a good choice, because it burns quickly. Lard, chicken or duck would be better than butter. Remember though, too much or too little fat will ruin gravy. Too little, and your gravy won't come together, too much and you'll have greasy gravy. When you are browning your ingredients, if things start to stick, add more fat. If it looks greasy, add more flour.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The importance of a palate

About an hour ago, Hank Shaw (author of Hunt, Gather Cook) reminded me of something.  He Tweeted something about cooking with venison fat.  I not only grew up being told, but everything I've read up to his point, told me that venison fat had an undesirable flavor.  I'm an adventurous eater, but I never gave it a try - and, it seemed like a waste.  Hank said that some deer fat is really good (he didn't give many details, but did say pre-rut, fat and young).  This was a major head slapping moment for me.  I know how to render fat from other animals and I'm just slightly more of an animal fat fan than Bill Cosby. ("Praise the lard!")  So now, I have new fat with a familiar flavor....

Suddenly, hundreds of recipes came to mind.  I could use deer fat in recipes that include the foods a deer eats.  I could use deer fat to flavor other foods.  I could infuse deer flavor in whiskies.  Everything from  mushrooms and ramps to deep fried nuts to infused bourbon... even popcorn ... even fish deep fried in deer fat (for a hint of surf and turf) come to mind.

This reminded me of the importance of a palate.  The most important factor in becoming a good cook is a palate.  Some people are born with one, some people develop it.  A palate, loosely speaking, is the learned talent of remembering each flavor to the extent of being able to "almost taste" it when you think of it.  This allows you to combine flavors in your mind and come up with recipes.  This is why most good cooks do not use written recipes.

Reading all of the cookbooks ever written will not make you a good cook.  Most good cooks can completely ruin a dish trying to follow a recipe... we all make mistakes.  You become a good cook when you can imagine the finished dish before it is cooked an know what goes in it and how it is cooked only with your imagination.  This sounds complicated, but is is no different than learning words and composing sentences.  The beauty of it is that once you have learned the words, if your talent permits, you may be able to compose the culinary version f the works of William Shakespeare.  After the basic learning, it will be your talent that comes through.  Your dishes will be your own expressions. They may be simple and plain, as most speech is in the average day, or they may be your own "Hamlet".  But, it all begins with learning the words and how they are used... or, learning the flavors of each food and how they combine with others.

I was almost unbelievably fortunate - blessed - to have had a mother who was an amazing cook, from a family with a long history of good food.  I was fed rich and unique foods before I could even digest them.  My family was determined to introduce me to the flavors.  That is why I have never understood kids who are picky eaters.  I ate what I was given, and actually did love it.  Before the age of 5, I loved bitter chocolate, pickled mushroom caps, hot mustard and summer sausage.

Anyone can develop a palate, at any age.  You need only eat every food you can find, in its most simple state and learn the flavor.  Then, just think... "what would go good with this...".  Start simple - one ingredient at a time.  Perhaps, start with butter and/or toast.  What would butter go well on?  What would be good on toast?  Then, expand.  Then learn how different cooking techniques affect the flavor and texture of the food.  Then think, how would this (ear of corn, steak or fish fillet) be baked, broiled, roasted, fried.. or raw, pickled, etc.?...

Even if you do not cook, developing a palate will make you a cook.  If your arms and legs were paralyzed, you could imagine the flavors, instruct the actual cook and satisfy your taste buds.  If you love food and aspire to cook, go no further until you have developed a plate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Robert Toombs on Southern Hospitality

I'll be passing through one of my favorite towns later this week: Washington, Georgia.  I am reminded of this great quote by fellow UGA alum, the Confederate Secretary of State, Robert Toombs: "If a respectable man comes to town, he can stay at my house. If he isn't respectable, we don't want him here at all."

Stay "unreconstructed" y'all...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Surf Fishing tip: fish the tides

This is a very basic tip, but I've been really surprised how many folks have been out fishing at the wrong time and doing nothing more than wasting bait and getting sunburned.  At first, I thought that they just enjoyed fishing but, all week, I have been hearing complaints that "no one is catching anything."  I've caught fish and landed them every day but one and even on that day, I had fish bite but couldn't land them.  The reason is very simple: I fish the tides.

Each day, I go out two hours before high tide and fish until two hours after.  Sure, it is inconvenient, but that is when the fish are biting.  I have caught fish before, at other stages of the tide, but on a beach like Holden's, high tide is really the only consistent time when you know the fish will be feeding near shore.  At high tide, bigger fish come in to eat smaller fish, small crabs and shellfish whose shells get broken in the surf.

Beyond that, I've just been using the right bait and tackle combinations - I've been fishing for 12 - 15 inch bluefish.  Bluefish like cut bait.  In this size category, they require small, strong hooks.  They have very sharp teeth and powerful jaws, but they will strip the bait off of larger hooks faster than than you can believe - by the time your rig hits the water, your bait is gone!  Cut bait, "threaded" onto a small, strong hook (so that the hook passes through it many times and no long bits are hanging off) works well, because the fish will grab the whole hook in one bite rather than tear bits off.

So, fish the tides, use the right bait and tackle combo and keep the line tight enough to feel the strikes and you'll catch some fish!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Surf Fishing Day 4: chopper blues and monsters in the surf

Day four at Holden Beach - my big, flat feet are sunburned, I'm tired but having a great time.  I've been fishing each high tide.  I go out about two hours before high tide and come in about two hours after.  The action has been moderate.  I've been landing small bluefish every day but yesterday.  The blues have been very fun to catch and to watch.  The come tearing along the shore, chasing finger mullet - toothy little torpedoes, jumping in the air, flipping and dancing on the waves.  All of them that I have caught have been in the 12 to 15 inch range - perfect for eating.  

Those who do not care for bluefish probably dislike it because it was handled improperly before they ate it.  Bluefish is no only an oily fish, but it spoils quickly after being caught.  All of this can be solved through proper handling and cooking.  Immediately after catching the fish, hold it firmly by the back, with a towel.  If it is a keeper, remove the hook (I use an old large pare of needle nose pliers), avoiding its sharp teeth.  As soon as the hook is removed, insert your bait knife through the gills and cut down and through the throat.  Hold the fish by the tail.  It will bleed out in under a minute.  Then, gut it, give the cavity a quick rinse and put it on ice.  All of this should be done in less than 5 minutes - this ensures that off flavors from the liver will not taint and soften the meat through the blood.  This gives you a nice, firm, fresh tasting, savory fish.  In cooking, you just need to counter the oiliness.  Frying just won't work with bluefish.  Grilling is best, but broiling works as well.  Just slice a lemon and put the slices in the cavity, with some black pepper and onions or herbs if you like.  I prefer just lemon and pepper, grilled whole.  Then serve with plenty of additional lemon, so that the lemon and natural oils in the fish make a nice sauce, flavored by the smoke from the grill, the brine of the ocean and the pepper - this turns the oiliness of the fish into an asset.  I like to serve the fish on a bed of bitter/peppery salad greens, like young mustard greens, because the bluefish/lemon combination makes a nice dressing for the greens, as well.

Yesterday, the blues seemed to be running from something rather than feeding.  I went out about 1 pm.  The guy who had been fishing for about an hour down the beach came over to tell me that something BIG hit his rig, but he lost it.  He said that it nearly jerked the rod out of his hands when it struck and broke his line.  Thinking that it might still be out there, I tied a wire leader the 50lb mono shock leader on my big rod - it is 13 feet, heavy and the reel holds nearly 400 yards of 30lb braid.  I put on a big hook, sharpened it and baited it with the head of a small bluefish.  I cast it out (yes, I finally learned to cast the behemoth) about 100 yards and stuck the butt into a surf spike.  The, I baited the double rig on my smaller rod with cut bait, cast it out about 50 yards and waited.  I re-baited and re-cast the smaller rod all day - something kept stealing my bait.  Instead of really striking, whatever it was felt more like repeated taps as it stripped the bait.  I tried smaller and smaller hooks and casting farther out, but nothing worked.  About 5pm, just as I was about to call it a day, something hit the big rig.  I jumped up and grabbed it, as the tip shook violently.  I ran into the water, battling hard against the fish.  The huge rod was bent nearly double!  I let up on the drag as the fish ran about 200 yards down the beach.  I reeled in as he ran back toward me.  Then, he turned and ran for open water... and was gone.  I never got a look at him, but whatever it was actually straightened my hook!

If you come to Holden Beach this week, bring two rigs - one with the heaviest tackle you own.  There is something out there.  I don't know what it is, but it is BIG and STRONG.  Some spanish mackerel have been spotted int he surf south of here.  The way it ran, that could be what it was, but if so, it was a MONSTER!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Day 2 - surf fishing at Holden Beach, NC

It is really too early in the season, by at least a month, but I did have a little luck yesterday.  I saw a lot of fish - spots, large blues and even a huge sailfish or marlin that jumped a couple of times about 200 yards out.  The pelicans and gulls were catching lots of fish. I spent two hours yesterday having my bait (shrimp) stolen by pinfish.  I finally caught one and cut it up for bait.  I caught two small blues on a double (spot) rig.

I'm trying to get used to two new rod and reel combinations, and am making an absolute fool of myself.   I mostly got the hang of the 9 foot surf rod yesterday - most casts 50-75 yards.  Starting out though, I was having trouble casting even 30 yards and had some major bird nests on the reel with the 30 lb braid  line I'm using.  It is a new rod, old reel and I'm far more used to mono filament line.  The braid feels very light.

Today, I'm going to try to use the 13 foot rod and big reel.  It is a ridiculously big, heavy, "Hatteras Heaver" that I bought "just in case" because it was on sale and too good a deal to pass up.  This will hopefully only be comical.  I tried casing it the other night, but my release was a little off.  A few inches of the shock leader fell off the spool before the line went out and wrapped around the bottom of the spool.  So, when I let go, only a couple of feet of line went off the reel, then it stopped sharply.  The weight of the rig and the huge rod, will all of the momentum of a cast, nearly threw me face down int he water and left me with a very sore shoulder!

With a view like this though, who could complain?