The Countdown to Meatless March 2012 or How I Can Happily Eat Both Seeds AND Livers Cooked in Duck Fat on the Same Day

Earlier this week, it occurred to me that March was almost upon us. And with this thought I had a brief moment of fear as I wondered if I’d give up meat again for the month. It might be that the moment was fast approaching or that life is too busy to not be able to just throw a rib eye on the grill, wash some lettuce and call it dinner. But I was feeling mildly alarmed by this private pondering of abstinence. So what did I do? I announced on Facebook that I would be participating once again in Meatless March.

Just as the mardi gras celebrations allow folks to cram in some real celebrating before Lent, I too feel the need to eat my share of meat before the month begins. Just thinking about it last night put me in a near panic causing my body to convince me I was already becoming anemic. All this worry despite the fact that I knew last year was not really that hard. In fact, between the first few days of apprehension and the last few days of being just plain tired of having to think so hard, I really enjoyed the experience. But once the notion of iron-deficiency entered my brain, I was done for. I already knew I’d be making my dad’s famous chicken liver paté, or Gehachte, the next day. And, possibly, before the 1st arrived I would also have to maybe make some sausage, smoke some meat or fry some chicken. Or perhaps I should try to focus on my intention and plan of attack which is maybe why I started my day with what could only be described as a bowl of flavorful, crunchy slime with fruit on top.

The chia seed, known to me only once previously in the form of a terracotta ram growing sprouts that my mom let me bring to montessori before some kid smashed it on the floor, seems to be everywhere these days. I first re-encountered it in a new flavor of kombucha. Similar to a crazy basil seed drink I once bought a friend from the asian market (along with something called Pork Floss and some jar of potentially rotting fish) the kombucha was filled with a jelly-like suspension of tiny seeds. Imagine drinking something liquid, yet thick and bubbly, each mouthful a repelling, yet fun and almost childish crunchy-jello-caviar. I could not stop drinking it. I also could stop thinking how totally weird it was that I could not stop drinking it.

And then, somewhat surprisingly, I see a recipe for chia seed pudding in Food & Wine and decided to try it. It could not be easier. You simply shake 1/2 cup of seeds in 2 1/2 cups almond milk with some agave nectar and lemon zest and then put it in the fridge. Ideally you can shake it every once in a while and it will be that magic consistency in about 4 hours. I just stuck some in the fridge overnight and it needed some serious stirring in the morning, but really came together in true pudding fashion. Topped with toasted almonds, fresh mango and strawberries and it was delightful in that same disturbing way. And I stayed full for about 4 hours to boot. The seeds are a true powerhouse of good things and I think might be a staple in the month to come.

And now on to the liver and fat.

My dad spent a good amount of time writing his memoirs during his last couple years and I was lucky enough to find not only his gehachte recipe, but page after page of the origins of his Blairish cravings. Many of these stories were very familiar to me: the cake he tried to make his mom when he was nine that required a wood saw to cut through! the actual recipe for the drink made with Detso powder! Other passages shed luminous light on why I am the cook and eater that I am.  “During those childhood years Cookie [his sister] and I were given dinner (called supper) apart from the grown-ups. It consisted invariably of either cold cereal, milk and sugar plus cream cheese or tomato on toast or alternately veal scaloppini containing a marrow bone.”

And certainly chicken livers in either their pureed state, or tossed in some heart stopping pasta with mushrooms, cream and peas, were a constant in my life. He was always making a batch for his friends with various hand-written (God help the recipient that had to read that writing) or typed labels such as “Grueseless Excroosh.” I have never actually made a complete batch myself though I did often help in the preparations and I have never had a bona fide craving for the paté until now. But I made it, with a couple modifications, and it was just what I was after. Comfort in a vat of liver and fat and the first in just a few more meaty meals before I give up cold turkey.

I was tempted to keep the recipe secret since it seems my dad did, but I have a sneaking feeling that all the folks he was bestowing it upon year after year were maybe a little tired of tub after tub of world-famous! award-winning! gehachte. I also think that while it has a special place in my heart, I won’t have to kill anyone to keep this stuff from being mass-produced.

1 tub chicken livers

a cup or so of milk

1 medium, yellow onion

4 eggs

some fat (I used duck fat because I could but my dad always used chicken fat)

cognac (entirely my addition)

parsley (likewise)

Rinse livers, trim the sinewy bits, then soak in milk in the fridge for a couple hours. Rinse, pat dry. Season with salt and pepper, then brown in a pan until barely pink inside.

Add about 1/4 cup cognac to pan and simmer until evaporated. Cool.

Bring eggs to a boil, turn off heat, cover and let sit 6 minutes. Rinse under cold water, peel, set aside.

Finely chop onions and slooowwwwwllllly brown onions in butter (or schmaltz) with a pinch of salt until very, very brown. Almost black, they are so slowly and perfectly browned.

My dad would now just put the livers and eggs through a meat grinder and stir in the fat and onions, season and be done. For me, the grainy texture was never appealing, so I put the livers, onions, 2 eggs, s&p into the cuisenart and blended until smooth adding about 4 tablespoons of fat a pinch at a time until it was incorporated and velvety. I also stirred in some chopped parsley.

Finally, I separated the whites and yolks of the remaining eggs and pushed them through a sieve decorating the top of the paté like an egg. How cute!

Serve with grilled bread or crackers or just eat it from a spoon.


    An Offal Blair Tribute

    It all started with a nubbly, gnarly looking celery root in my fridge. As I stood there staring at it, I could only think back to the heavenly artichoke puree a couple nights ago and knew I’d have to cook it in milk and blend it up with some butter. I then was thinking about what sorts of things I’d put on top and instantly thought of something like fried chicken. I didn’t really want fried chicken but something smaller, more delicate, but equally crispy. I thought of small birds like quail and then I thought of sweetbreads and then, it seems, it was all over. This would be no simple meal. It would be no cheap meal. And thanks to forces outside my control there was no backing out.

    So after picking up my daughter, we went to Marczyk’s in search of the great protein and things to go with it. I usually don’t go to Maczyk’s because it is appallingly pricey for most things, but for something like trusty good offal needed RIGHT NOW I didn’t really bother to think of alternatives. They have tiny little shopping carts, so of course that is what we had to choose and I have to say Audra did impressively well. I’m going to say that all the people walking by as she deftly maneuvered her cart, stopping to pick up bags of cookies, stating “Need. This.” and plopping them in the cart and keeping going as I plucked them back out and onto the shelves, were all beaming and congratulating me on my beautiful kid and fine parenting skills. I’m aware I am looking through a fuzzy colored filter, but that’s what it felt like, so I’m rolling with it.

    So on to the frozen meat section where there were both sweetbreads and quail. I grab them both, I think hard. I love the idea of a tiny, whole, fried “chicken” sitting on a puddle of creamy celery root puree, but something draws me to the sweetbreads even as the price is repelling me. I know this force. It’s my dad. I suddenly recognize this weakness and know that my whole purpose now is to accept this extravagance, this pain in the ass preparation, and satisfy the craving so I can move on.

    With my dad it was not just sweetbreads, but any sudden need or inkling and it could happen anywhere, any time. Most often it was 2 in the morning and he was sitting at his desk reading either a book that described masterfully a bowl of the most perfect noodles. Or, more often, it was one of 8,000 catalogs that arrived peddling caviar, smoked fish or meats, thick slabs of steak shipped on dry ice or maybe a sampler we could all gather for and judge for ourselves. His cravings were either subdued by filling out an order form right then and there and heading downstairs to put it directly into the mail slot, or heading to the kitchen to see what he could whip up to come even close to latest culinary urges. If you didn’t know my dad, you could read my sister’s account of the fateful night of caramel, or perhaps this halucination of an article he wrote for my blog 9 years ago….

    It should be known these cravings were not always culinary, but in fact often revolved around electronics or powerful machinery. So let it be known we (yes my husband caught the bug living with Blair for only 3 short years) have succumbed to purchases like a power washer on father’s day (in tribute of course), a giant HDTV, and a magical coffee maker (which was actually influenced by my dad not long before he died).

    I also need to explain a little more about my dad’s love of sweetbreads though. This one small idea of mine truly dug up all sorts of stories past…

    I remember several occasions where I went to a nice dinner with my dad by myself. I don’t remember why, necessarily, just that it started early, he wore one of his million year old, but still in good shape, custom tweed blazers and crocodile cowboy boots and we went somewhere fancy. And he ordered sweetbreads and I wrinkled up my nose and wouldn’t even try them. More likely I was working hard at consuming an entire fillet mignon only to make him mad that there was none left for him. But he would look up at the ceiling, memories flowing, telling me about how wonderful and tender and sweet the sweetbreads were before we ordered. And then he’d make me argue with him about something ridiculous “as practice.” I know my sisters had much more involved and complicated games involving selling him something impossible, but me? I just was supposed to argue until I pouted and refused to play anymore and the game switched to “A Thousand Tiny Terns” where you were given a couple random objects like rye bread, some dental floss and a thousand tiny terns and were placed in a situation like the bottom of the Grand Canyon and you had to get out.

    The truly funny thing, to me anyway, is that it was not until going on a date with my later-to-be husband in San Francisco that I finally tried sweetbreads. I was hooked. They were sweet and tender and fabulous. And I’m not the only one subjected to this passion of my dad’s and cannot tell you how grateful I am that my husband got to experience this Blair craziness too.

    On two occasions that I was out of town or away from the house for dinner, Ryan made the mistake of asking, “what do you want for dinner Blair?” And I can picture this well. My dad would look down, thinking, probably giggling inside like a kid about to make a wish on a geni. And it’s not that Ryan waved a wand saying, “BLAIR, I WILL GRANT YOU THE MEAL OF YOUR DREAMS” No. He was just casually offering to prepare some eats. Nonetheless. My dad would ponder, then look up, the anticipation not quite containing itself and he’s say, “I dunno, sweetbreads?” And he’d raise his eyebrows to further convince and who could turn that down? The worldly and seemingly simple pleasures of an old man.  I don’t know if you’ve ever made sweetbreads, but I assure you Ryan’s heart sank at this having prepared them over and over again at Postrio in SF. But he ponied up and did it for my pop.

    The second (and completely unrelated to this story) dinner Ryan offered up resulting in my dad requesting “I dunno. Tempura shrimp?” Well it is well known (around here anyway) that my dad thought that everyone’s attempt, including a Japanese musician staying at his house while playing for the symphony, had FAILED at making good tempura shrimp. You know, the flaky, web-like fried fingers of goodness. I know he tried himself, probably at midnight. And I think he even had my mom take a class just so she could come home and fail at it too. So this is what Ryan faced as my dad answered the innocent question about dinner. But Ryan took on the challenge, and I am proud to say passed with flying colors. So much so that my dad told people the “story” randomly. The dialysis nurses, people in the waiting rooms of various other doctor appointments, other family members who had their own failures under their belts. (Ahem, me included leading to my refusal STILL to cook brisket).

    And so. This so far is the sweetbread history I build on. That and the fact that I will be preparing and cooking the suckers that my husband made time and again…and he will inevitably come by and say, “hey, do you know what your’re doing?” And I now know better to just ignore that comment, but I will still be knowing that he’ll be watching. And yet, I dig in.

    Being a member of the offal family, sweetbreads require some soaking, some peeling and trimming of you-don’t-wanna-know bits and, it seems, more work than you want to invest. Until you’ve eaten it. So I start in the early morning by soaking the sweetbreads in cold water in the fridge and changing the water every hour or so until late afternoon. I then prepare a pot of water, carrot, onion, white wine and celery and poached them for about 15 minutes until they were just firm. They then got shocked in ice water and pressed flat between two cookie sheets with a weight on top. I then sliced them in half crosswise (per Ryan’s suggestion) and the peeled the outer membrane, gnarly bits and tried to get them into similar sizes. They were then marinated in buttermilk, a dash of cholula and pepper for a couple hours.

    All day I had been thinking about what else to do with this dish and decided I would toast and grind up some hazelnuts to add to the dredging flour and use some toasted hazelnut pieces in a raw zucchini salad. I had browsed several sweetbread recipes in our old Art Culinaires and was intrigued by an Aigre-Doux (sweet and sour) sauce made with blood oranges, honey, cinnamon, cardamom and coriander. I decided to try it and also got some kumquats that I tempered in some simple syrup to add to the salad thinking they would play off the sour orange sauce. Finally, I chose a big, fat turnip to make chips with for some good crunch.

    The zucchini was cut into strips and salted and left to wilt a bit while I made the orange sauce and sliced the turnips. I can say right now that the turnips should have been deep fried as they had curled into these really pretty blossom shapes. Normally I make really thin peels using a peeler and just toss with oil and bake, but these were thicker and really uneven from soaking in some cold water. We had NO oil other than some small bottles of good olive oil so we tried baking them. FAIL. Didn’t really work at all. We got maybe a small handful of usable chips and that is a generous word.

    The sweetbreads were dredged in the nut flour mix and fried. We tossed half in the orange sauce along with some fresh thyme and butter. The zucchini was rinsed, patted dry and tossed with the kumquats, garlic chives and toasted nuts. We plated it all and garnished with some celery leaves which is weird of me considering I almost died of an anaphylactic reaction to celery once…but I guess I’ve gotten over it.

    It didn’t look so very white and washed out in real life, but I imagine you’re all used to my terrible camera phone photography by now.
    I think that aside from my birth right of solving great cravings with great spending, great effort and an appallingly messy kitchen, I was also hoping to appease my dad as we plan to fill in the (his) swimming pool in the yard. We can use all the luck and cloudly watching-over we can get. So how was it after all that anticipation?

    The sweetbreads could have been a bit crispier, the nuts in the salad smaller and obviously the turnip chips could have turned out like actual chips…but that seems to be the only real criticism we could come up with. It felt decadent, it was worth it and not only did I have a good meal, but about a day and a half of great memories flooding in to remind me why I do this.