This is the transitional month for the garden, and for culinary opportunities as well. I have transplants ready for the ground, but in my mind it is still too cold for most of them. Lately we have had gusting winds of 50+ mph, and always a chance of a frost, so I would rather wait until I have something a bit more certain before Rich Lawson will get his Celebrity, and Bonnie, her Cherokee Purples…
But, it is still the first week of April for goodness sakes, and this unseasonably warm spring is calling me like the Sirens of the Odyssey – calling me to crash my garden on the rocks as I work so hard toward “nostos”, or that homeward journey – that is, the perfect early tomato… But, I will resist, tied to the mast… it is still too early for me to be planting. The transplants will just have to remain patient in their pots.
Yes, there are lettuces and cilantro coming up, but the unseasonably warm weather has not seemed to fool the asparagus. The apricots, cherries, pears and peaches all made their spring flower debut, and made it all the way through pollination without a freeze. The forecast still shows no sign of frost for the next two weeks, so hopefully they will make it to fruition.
There is time to fill. I could be getting the land ready, setting out the irrigation. Maybe its age, or just a hangover from the inertia of apathy for winter that prevents me from starting a 2-cycle engine. Regardless, I am fighting the impulse to free the eggplants that are filling their pots, or the roots of the peppers searching for soil through the bottom of their plastic prisons.
Marv’s Lamb Auction
I feel that I have been neglecting Marv over the past few weeks, but the lambs are now weaned, and his upcoming sale has him pretty focused; getting everything in order- the lambs sheared, and sprucing up at the barn for his first annual lamb auction. For those interested, and please pass on the word, Marv, along with his son-in-law and daughter, Terry and Lori Bauer, will be having their auction on Sunday, April 24th.
It will be held where he keeps his flock – at the west end of 8th Street, here in Davenport. There will be a “Sneak Peek” at 1:30, with the full-fledged auction beginning at 3:00. I think I will be in charge of the cooking and serving-up lamb-brat samples, to be offered to the bidders (while they last.) This will be a kid-friendly event, with most of the lambs sold to finish out for 4H and FFA competitions in the surrounding county fairs this summer.
Two Ends of the Culinary Spectrum
One late winter project I can always count on is a bit of butchery with Allen Voss. This spring Barbara and I decided that we would like half of a hog for the freezer this year. Allen and Janet took the other half, and their son Ben, and his wife Wendy decided on a whole hog for themselves. This was the first time I have ever purchased that much meat, but it seems like a good investment for the year.
Six-thirty in the morning still comes pretty early, and the blistering cold wind out of the north does not make me jump for joy at the prospects. But, with 3 of us working, with sharp knives, Allen’s electric bone saw, and a little experience, it didn’t take that long from being pigs on Mosier Farms to hanging halves of meat in the Allen’s walk-in cooler.
Finished before lunch, I returned home feeling the muscles I hadn’t been using all winter – and there’s a call on the phone… It was Allen. A friend called to tell him that a heifer was down (alive but with a possible broken back), and was wondering if he wanted it. Still in my bloody clothes, I really didn’t have any plans – so off Allen, Ben and I went – an hours’ drive down to Belleville, Kansas to a lot with no electricity. Had she been down too long, or had the adrenaline been pumping to hard, or she had been given any kinds of shots, the meat would have been inedible.
Sure enough, she was down, and struggling a bit to stand, and this was a generous way of dispatching a suffering animal. She seemed docile enough, so Allen chose to dispatch her, and because the was no electricity the carcass was taken to the grassy banks of a creek for field dressing. In this process we skin the animal out, roll it onto the loose skin on one side, cut out the hind leg to the ball joint, and the foreleg behind the shoulder blade and the brisket.
We then roll the carcass over and repeat the process, finishing by removing the loins and tenderloins. It’s a relatively clean and quick process, and there is very little waste – mostly just the meat that would be later boned-out for hamburger. Any muscle I did not use working with the hogs that morning were screaming, as the sun settled that evening.
For beef, the meat is generally hung in the cooler for about 3 weeks. Over this time the enzymes break down the tougher connective tissues, and moisture is evaporated, concentrating the beef flavor. Aging pork, however, does not have the same positive effects. So, by 7:30 on Sunday morning I was back over at Allen’s to help butcher the hogs. Allen cut a few steaks from one of the loins of the beef and threw them on the fire to test its quality before going to trouble of dry aging it. If it had an off-taste, or was too tough, the would thing it would be boned out as hamburger.
I’ve had plenty of pork roasts in my life. So, when it came to what I wanted to do with my half, I chose to break it down to the ham, bone out half of the loin with the other half going for Windsor chops. I wanted the slab of belly for bacon, and the rest of it was boned out for sausage. I don’t think I could ever get tired of sausage… Everyone else favored other cuts, or ground pork, but no one else seemed to want the shanks, so I got 8 great cuts for making pork Osso Buco. Allen asked if I wanted to render the fat into lard… We saved it all back – but that will be for a different story.
Allen pulled the beef off the grill – and everyone agreed… it was tough… so, we decided to bone-out and grind the whole thing into burger… except for the shanks – all of which will give us culinary deliciousness for some time to come…
The final step in this meat procurement process is to cure and smoke the hams and bacon, and Windsor chops and ready them for the freezer. I took the meat up to Blue River Meats in Crete, where he will pepper half of my bacon, and will smoke it all in hickory of 18 hours (liquid smoke is a dirty word to him), and process it it all up in one-pound vacuum sealed packages. In a couple of weeks, we will get the result.
Supper in New Orleans
On the opposite end of the culinary spectrum was a recent trip to New Orleans that I danced around on Facebook. The unraveling of winter brought with it a very unexpected and much appreciated gift. A phone call from a friend, and an invitation to an unforgettable weekend. Friends in Houston (Jim and Andrea) called and asked if we wanted to go to supper with them in a couple of weeks. “Wow”, I asked, “Are y’all going to be in Lincoln or Omaha?” “No, it will be in New Orleans.” Anyone who knows us well knows that we love New Orleans – the food, the architecture, the culture, and Bourbon Street… ehhhh, not so much…
It was a temptation, but difficult for us to realize. “The John Besh Foundation is having a “Fetes Des Chefs” benefit and we have two extra tickets.” (John Besh is the premier chef in New Orleans now, and his foundation supports culinary and cultural innovation and tradition in southern Louisiana.) Very enticing… seeing old friends, all that I love in a city, magnificent culinary creations…, but still – hard to justify… “and, it will be held in the home of James Carville and Mary Matalin!” The hook was set, the airline and hotel were booked – and the event was only 2 weeks away.
For those apolitical folks in our midst (are there any anymore?) James Carville was the baldheaded Ragin’Cajun who guided Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency, and Mary Matalin was an assistant to George W Bush and a counselor to Dick Cheney. Both remain active political analysits in the media. Apart they are more than outspoken – and together they complement each other politically like the poles of the earth. It is well worth reading of their book – Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, and Two Daughters. How could we pass this up?
Jim and Andrea are special friends, and such an invitation to a weekend in the Big Easy was everything we could have hoped it would be – our love of seafood and spending time with people you love will more than satisfy us… for a while, and for that I express my deepest gratitude to them.
Whether you believe that we were placed on this good earth by the hand of God, or as a random result of universal physics, there is one thing (of many) for which we can all be grateful. That is – We are here.
If the percentage of the accumulated elements that comprise the earth were any different, if it were larger or smaller, if the earth’s orbit around the sun were any closer or further, if the wobbly, tilt of the earth’s rotation were more, or less – or nonexistent, if the proportion of land to sea were different, along with an unfathomable number of other parameters – the world as we know it would not exist – and neither would we. In my mind, if it were all left to cosmic chance – even if a sun and planets existed in this place in the universe at all – this orb is more likely to resemble Mars or Mercury, or the Moon – with no real prospects for sentient life as we know it. (Of course the Horta on Janus VI would disagree, but – that’s Star Trek… I digress)
For the culmination of all of these things, we can, collectively, be grateful.
Here we are. Regardless of our challenges, our worries, or the persecutions we suffer – we breath in and out, we consume, and we create. We experience the cycles of each orbit of the moon in the synodic month, and each trip we make around the sun returning us to this point marking of our calendar year, to this beginning of the spring season.
We are blessed, to have been chosen, or to have the luck, or to have randomly evolved to be able to experience this place, in this time, on this good earth.
You can pick any season as that beginning, I suppose. But, the symbolism of the resurrection of life from the death of winter is powerful to me, not only for the promise and anticipation of the first flowering fruit. It is deeply rooted in our blood – when we could free ourselves from our dwindling stores of food gathered, preserved and put away to survive the season of scarcity. It is the anticipation of abundance, the promise of a seed sprouting in warm soil to deliver hope; and freedom from fear that the season is a threat to life itself.
Have a Great Spring!