Monthly Archive for January, 2011

What Would You Like to Learn?

I’ve been invited to teach a three-part course at the Brooklyn Brainery, an amazing non-profit that offers classes for cheap.  They’ve had educational sessions on everything from beekeeping to kimchi making to whiskey tasting to knife skills.

So I’d like to put the question to you: If I were to teach a course based on the contents of this blog, what would you be curious to learn more about?

The History Dish: Birthday Cakes

It’s my birthday today!  So naturally, I got curious about the history of birthday cakes.  This is the earliest b-day recipe on the books, from Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, published 1870:

The “cakes” are actually cookies; but the most interesting part of this recipe is the directions to “sprinkle colored caraway seeds on top.”  Colored could perhaps mean “toasted.”  It could mean dyed with natural dyes. It could mean candied.

But does it mean that “colored caraway seeds” are proto-sprinkles?  Jimmies?  Hundreds and Thousands?

Thoughts?

At any rate, I decided not to make these cakes for my birthday: I anticipate them to be floury, dry, and full of currants.  Very 19th century and not my favorite style of cookie.  Instead, I’m baking an apple up-side-down cake and a plum cake, and my friend Jeffrey is arriving with a vegan delight.  The more cakes, the better, I say.

Video: Let’s Eat! On New York 1

I was on Edible Magazine’s “Let’s Eat” segment for New York 1 today! It plays again on Sunday if you want to catch it on the air; or, you can check it out on NY1’s website at the link below.

Edible: Historical Gastronomist Takes On Classic Recipes In Her Long Island City Kitchen.

I’ll post the recipe for the chestnut ice cream I make early next week; it was incredibly delicious.

Beaver Bonanza Part III: Beaver Three Ways

Carving the beaver tenderloin roast.

One of the requirements of my Alaskan Culinary Challenge is to serve the beaver meat to at least one other person.  So I put out an APB on Facebook to see who might be interested in trying some beaver; I ended up with a party of eight willing participants at my house.

I decided to test three different recipes for beaver.

Beaver Tenderloin Roast

I wanted to cook one portion of beaver with very little seasoning, so we could really taste the beaver flavor.  I had one packet of meat labeled “beaver tenderloin,” so I decided this most tender cut of meat would get the simplest treatment.  The tenderloin was cut into several smaller slices, so I decided to tie them into a little 1-pound roast with a bit of kitchen twine.  Thomas De Voe did say beaver was best roasted.

I seasoned the roast with some fresh ground pepper and kosher salt.  I heated a cast iron skillet with some clarified butter until the surface was smoking.  Then I placed the roast in the skillet and slid the whole thing into a preheated, 500 degree oven.  I let it roast 8 minutes, then pulled it out and let the meat rest 10 minutes, covered with tented aluminum foil.  Then I carved it into tasting portions and delivered it to my eagerly awaiting guests.

There was a tentative moment of silence as my guests each had a slice of beaver perched on their forks, ready to thrust it into their mouths.  We took a deep breath, then took the plunge: It was delicious!  The meat was quickly devoured.  It was not as gamey as anticipated, but definitely had a tang to it.  We were not horrified by our first taste of beaver.  But it wasn’t nearly as delicious as…

Searing the soy & garlic beaver.

Beaver in a Soy and Garlic Marinade

I adapted this recipe from an MFK Fisher recipe for steak; I think she would appreciate my resourcefulness.  It is the best marinade for beef I had ever tasted, so I decided to try it on beaver.

To make the marinade:

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic

Rinse the meat and pat it dry, then put it in a Ziploc bag with the marinade. I let it sit six hours, turning the bag over every hour or so.  I heated a cast iron skillet with clarified butter until smoking, then added the meat to the sizzling skillet.  I browned the beaver two minutes on each side, then put the skillet into a preheated, 500 degree oven.  I gave it five minutes in the oven, then pulled it out and let it rest for ten minutes.  This gave me meat the was well done on the edges, and medium to medium-rare in the middle.

I had been worried that the soy and garlic would overpower the natural beaver flavor. If I’m going to eat an exotic meat, I don’t want to disguise the taste.  But in reality, it complimented the taste of the beaver and teased out its gaminess.  I think it’s a preparation worth trying on most wild meats, and some declared this recipe their favorite of the evening.  But it wasn’t as popular as…

Beaver, cooked slow.

Slow-Cooked Pulled Beaver

When the French Culinary Institute prepared their beaver meat, they sous vide it: a process by which you vacuum seal food in a plastic bag, then cook it at a very low temperature for a very long time–sometimes over the course of several days.  This technique not only produces tender meat, but is prized for creating perfectly creamy soft-cooked eggs.  But I don’t have a sous vide.  I have the everyday kitchen equivalent: a crock-pot slow-cooker.

FCI also got good results by brining their meat first.  So I created a brine for my beaver.

For the brine:

1 cup white vinegar
2 heaping tablespoons kosher salt

Put this in a Ziploc bag with the beaver meat and let brine for at least two hours, and up to six, turning every 30 minutes.  Remove the meat, rinse it, and pat it dry with paper towels.  The exterior will have turned a grayish color.

Then, to a slow cooker, add:

1 large can crushed, diced, or whole tomatoes in their juice (I used a bag of flash frozen plum tomatoes from my local CSA)
2 cups stock (beef, chicken, homemade–it doesn’t matter)
Seasoning.  I seasoned conservatively at first, not wanting to mar the beaver flavor.  But beaver seems to be one of those meats that can stand up to a lot of heavy seasoning.  I used about a teaspoon of “Pasta Sprinkle,” a spice mix from Penzey’s that contains basil, oregano, thyme and garlic; and a couple hearty shakes of Red Pepper Flakes.

I cooked the meat on high for 4 1/2 hours; but if you have the time, cook it on the low setting for 8 hours.  When it was done, it was tender enough to pull apart with a fork; I mixed it with the sauce and served a few tender morsels to my friends.

It. Was. Amazing.  Still gamey, and sooo tender.  My guests immediately grabbed slices of buttered potato bread and made little pulled beaver sandwiches.  The sweetness of the bread mixed with the richness of the meat was the perfect combination.  The brine had made the meat incredibly tender, while the acid of the tomatoes broke down the meat’s wild flavor just enough.

This recipe gets four stars from me.  It’s impossible to mess up and it delivers perfect, delicious meat.

***

So what does beaver taste like? Beef, but more flavorful.  Robust, but less gamey than venison.  More mild than a dark-meated poultry.  A red meat with a perfect tanginess and richness.  And you don’t have to take it from me: everyone who came to my beaver party left satisfied, not horrified, and would willingly eat beaver again any day.

Beaver Bonanza Part II: A Brief History of Beaver

Bloody beaver.

My first challenge after my beaver meat arrived was to put it in some historical context and to see if there was a precedent for beaver eating.  I turned to Thomas De Voe, the man in charge of New York City’s food markets in the middle of the 19th century, who also wrote The Market Assistant: Containing a brief description of every article of human food sold in the public markets of the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn; including the various domestic and wild animals, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, fruits &c., &c. with many curious incidents and anecdotes. Did he know how indispensable his book would be to future historians?

I checked out his passage on beaver and came to an amazing realization: Victorians weren’t eating beaver, because by the middle of the 19th century, they had hunted it to near extinction.  Beaver pelts were too valuable for their fashion cred, in terms of muffs, coats, and hats.  Here’s what De Voe says:

This animal was once a native here, but civilization and the beaver’s valued skin have almost exterminated the family, although now and then a specimen is taken in our State. It is said the ‘flesh of this animal is greatly prized by hunters and voyageurs, especially when roasted in the skin after the fur is singed off. ‘  This of course is an expensive luxury and is frowned upon by the fur traders.  ‘Care must be taken, however, to examine the herbage on which the animals feed, or mischief may follow an unwary repast.  Mr. Ross’s party were once poisoned by feasting heartily on beaver and some of them had a very narrow escape.  The Indians eat this kind of beaver but they roast it; boiled, they say, it is pernicious.’

Professor Kalm, in his ‘Travels in America,’ in 1748, says ‘Beaver flesh is eaten, not only by the Indians, but likewise by the Europeans, and especially by the French on their fasting days; for his Holiness, in his system, has ranged the beaver among the fish. The flesh is reckoned best if the beaver has lived upon vegetables. The tail is likewise eaten after it has been well boiled and roasted afterwards.

So, according to what De Voe has heard: 1. Beaver is good roasted. 2. Beaver can be poisonous.  (Perhaps not poison, but I suspect, that like bear, the beaver’s diet varies by season from one based heavily on plants and berries, to one based on fish.  The latter can give the meat an unpleasant, fishy taste. ) 3.  A beaver is a fish, therefore it can be eaten on Fridays.  (Good news for you Catholics out there.) 4. Beaver tail is damn tasty.

I know number three to be true, thanks to a great post at the French Culinary Institutes’s blog, Cooking Issues.  Not too long ago, they ordered up some exotic meats from Crizmer’s outside of Chicago, including both beaver tail and beaver flapper, which are two different things.  Of the beaver tail, they said “Beaver tail is straight up fantastic.  It has a woody-musky aroma and flavor that is unique among all meats I have tried…Man, was it good.”  This statement gave me hope, as I prepped my beaver meat for consumption.

Tomorrow: recipes and the big beaver tasting.

Beaver Bonanza Part One: The Arrival

This is going to be a meat adventure.

On Friday, the buzzer rang.  A Fed-Ex man tromped up four flights of stairs and handed me a large package.  Inside, I found the following missive:

Alaskan Culinary Challenge January 2011
Beaver Bonanza!

Welcome to your first Alaskan culinary challenge!

The object of this challenge is to research, prepare and serve…Much like Iron Chef, view this as the “secret ingredient.”   Test your culinary skills and have fun!

Rules:
1. Shipped item must be consumed withing 2-3 days.
2. Prepared meal MUST be served to at least one person besides yourself.

Using the ingredients in a historical fashion (four pounds flour worthy) is encouraged.

Documentation and feedback/report is favorable.  Future culinary challenges are more likely if previous challenge was given proper attention.

Recipe sharing is also favorable.

Failure to complete this challenge will result in mockery of the highest caliber.

Love,
Your partners in crime in the 49th.

Inside the box, five neatly wrapped portions of meat, all labeled “Beaver.”

Stay tuned.

Menus: A Cratchit Christmas

The holidays have come and gone, but file this away for next year: a Christmas dinner based off of Dickens’s classic, a Christmas Carol.  The following menu has been pulled from the description of Bob Crachit’s feast on Christmas Eve — not a sad, meager meal, as it is often portrayed in film interpretations of the story.  But rather a proud day, when the family pooled their modest resources to create a filling feast and a happy occasion.  Read the excerpt from the original story here.

The menu items are linked to the historic or contemporary recipes.

Roast Goose with Sage and Onions
Gravy
Mashed Potatoes
Apple Sauce
Christmas Plum Pudding in Blazing Brandy

Cock-tail; Gin Sling; Hot Spiced Rum; Charles Dickens Punch

This was the first time I had ever roasted a goose and I was a little disappointed.  Water birds have immense chest cavities, so what appears to be a large bird actually does not has a lot of meat.  A ten pound goose produced a tiny pile of meat; although what few bites I had tasted good.  Knowing that, it’s not a surprise that Scrooge buys the family a big, meaty turkey at the end of the book.

I wasn’t sure how the plum pudding was going to light on fire, but after some discussion, we doused the hot dessert in warm brandy and held a lighter to it, and it was soon engulfed in flame.  It was a very impressive end to the meal.

We also played a rousing game of Snapdragon, which involves plucking raisins out of a pan of burning brandy.  It’s a lot less dangerous that it sounds.