November 4, 2009
I should be grading, or revising my teaching letter to send out for job applications, but the flu has laid me pretty low today. So I’ll make a quick post.
Thanks to those of you who are following along despite my unorthodox approach to the art of blogging. My posts may not be short, but they’re short for the format I’m accustomed to writing in, the academic article/paper. My thoughts were to experiment in writing series of short, off-the-cuff essays on topics that are important to me: namely, the natural world, my ambiguous professional status, writing as an art and discipline, secularism, and cooking. There are so many more I could add, but I thought these choices would give the blog consistency and coherence and still reflect the full presence of a mind.
I’m enjoying it immensely – I honestly do enjoy writing, and my life is too chaotic and fragmented right now for me to find the peace and concentration to write poetry, so the blog has become a welcome companion. I hope that I’m good at it: most of the posts are written in one or two brief sittings, and then edited for spelling and grammar live on the blog the day they’re posted. The one exception is a post on science and belief ideologies I’ve been working on, which, perhaps because it’s more like my academic work, has taken several sittings and may not ever make it up.
I’m constantly tempted to post shorter pieces on the attractive detritus that I find strewn about the Web, because there’s a lot of it and I have lots of interests, but I’m forcing myself to limit those “link” posts to material that fits into the predefined array of topics. Meaning that people encountering the blog are being expected to do a lot of heavy lifting, while I’m simply enjoying having a form to fill with my typically overwrought sentences.
Anyway: cooking meat. I was a strict vegetarian for well over a dozen years, and then when my body began displaying signs of “metabolic syndrome” (hypertension, pre-diabetes, high cholesterol) I added seafood to my diet, thinking that would be healthier for the heart than a strictly vegetarian. That may be controversial, but I’ll stand by that assessment. That lasted for five years or so, and now over the past year I’ve become a full-blown carnivore. Or at least in what I’ll eat out and about. At home, I’m still largely vegetarian in what I cook. Why? Well, partly it’s because that’s still clearly a healthier (and more satisfying) way to live, but also because I’ve got no idea how to go about cooking a piece of meat.
It seems a little silly, I know, because I’m well aware that meat is far easier and quicker to cook than a full vegetarian meal, but I learned to cook as a vegetarian. In fact, becoming vegetarian was for me very much about learning about food, and meat has become so alienated from our knowledge – the animals we eat are raised, killed, and butchered far from our eyes – that it’s difficult to see it as part of any conscious eating practice. We’ll get into my thinking about vegetarianism and thinking about the transition to omnivore, which is a profoundly ethically fraught transformation, some other time.
So I often find myself in the grocery store just standing in the meat section, staring off into space. I’ll look at the beef, look at the chicken and pork, and think, there’s no reason why I can’t buy some: I’d certainly enjoy it, and I know the wife would. But what would I do with it? In the warmer weather, it wasn’t much of a problem: buy some ground chuck or skirt steak, and throw it on the grill (marinade for the steak, Worcestershire and parsley [yes, parsley] for the burgers). But roasting, braising, or just frying it up? No idea.
The first step in the slippery slope was moving from vegetable-based soups to meat-based, as rendering a bit of pancetta in the pot before adding the onions, celery, etc. is just wonderful, which led to a variety of pasta dishes based on pancetta or other bacon-like forms. And cooking up a pound of bacon while camping just became part of the morning ritual. But that’s pretty much where it’s ended, and even there I find myself a little befuddled.
I bought a major slice, a full pound, of country-cured (salt-, or Virginia-cured) ham the other day for my split pea soup. When we were driving back from the Smokey Mountains, we stopped in a small Shenandoah Valley town for breakfast, and I had my eggs and biscuits with gravy and a slice of country-cured ham (with the bone in), and it was just heavenly. Just fried in the pan to heat it through and get the fat all juicy. So I was thinking about this, and I ended up putting a full half a pound of it in the soup because the little chopped cubes were so tasty. The soup (it also had wild mushrooms in it) was amazing. But way too salty.
I fried up the rest of that ham for breakfast the past weekend, cooked the eggs in its juices, and served it all with biscuits – no gravy yet, that’s still in the future. Still, tasty for a bite or two but far too salty to enjoy. Am I supposed to be rinsing the salt off before cooking, like with salt cod (another failed experiment, by the way)? I have no idea. But I’m not giving up.
I should go out and just get a cookbook, but I have too many other things on my plate to actually spend time acquainting myself with another cookbook, so it’s going to have to continue to be by the seat of the pants. I bought a couple thick-cut pork chops the other day to cook. The wife was thrilled, but then said, “Just don’t overcook them.” Great. Pressure. I have no idea how to check, really, other than to watch for the pink to turn to white. I think I did overcook them a tad because they took much longer than I thought, and I ended becoming worried I was undercooking them, but they were awesome. I fried them in olive oil, then deglazed the pan with cider, sherry vinegar, and cooked up onions and apple slices in the liquid for the sauce, and made a wild mushroom risotto on the side with the leftover mushrooms from the soup. Fairly simple, and just awesome.
So now I’ve got some Italian sausage in the fridge to experiment with Scotch eggs: hard-boiled eggs coated in sausage and then breaded and fried. U.K. picnic fare. I’ll let you know. Which brings up a question: why are so many post-modern, post-vegetarian foodies taken up with pork as a meat to celebrate and experiment with?