11/10/2004

roots, rabbit, and the rise. oh, and a recap. looks like i'm not the only one who's just come across topinamburs. (that's topinambour in francese.) and speaking of roots, there's a new guy at the market who has beautiful, beautiful goods: tied bunches of puntarelle, chives for replanting, and small, tender, creamy white heads of cauliflower. he always has the most gorgeous young carrots (about four inches long, so not quite baby. adolescent, maybe.), and get this, new yorkers -- i bought a bunch (about a pound) for €1! but can someone explain to me why real estate is so ridiculously expensive here? in my semi-delirious state, i am apt to do all kinds of unexpected things. this is my brain on auto-pilot. so last night, with every intention of picking up some chicken thighs from my butcher for stock-making and roasting, my eyes instead happened to alight on the rabbits stretched out in the glass case. and that someone had already gone and done me the favor of purchasing half of one of these guys, well, that was even more of an impetus to go with the coniglio. i did a quick braise with the little guy (i had the entire left side, which i cut up into six pieces) in some dolcetto with some, yes, root vegetables ('tis the season). [skip to next paragraph if reading fairly graphic descriptions of animal dismemberment disturbs you greatly. there, you've been warned.] i even threw in the head for extra flavor. i have to say, though, removing the little guy's eyeball was no easy task. i will never doubt again (if ever i did) that my eyes are held securely in place by really, really tough muscles. i was somewhat worried that i'd made a hash of the whole thing and had overcooked it -- so easy to do (and we can use just about every rabbit i've ever eaten in a restaurant as a testament to this) -- but it was actually not too shabby. it's kind of fun to eat much more of the animal than just that trendy saddle cut. the tiny little heart is delicious, as well as the brains. but i have to say, this is one critter whose cheeks are not worth eating, given the unfavorable splintery-bone-to-flesh ratio. there are those who cook to satisfy cravings, and those that cook to satisfy curiosity. i would have to say that i'm more the latter. and actually when i have cravings, i count on others to do the cooking for me. the rabbit is an example: i've no real craving for rabbit, per se. in fact, i'd probably pick chicken over it any day, since it's much more forgiving to the cook and cooking process, but i'd never cooked it before. and also, i've been rooting around in richard olney's simple french food, and his whole description of rabbit butchery and cookery is really, really interesting. next, i will tackle gibelotte! or maybe i will just continue saying gibelotte aloud many, many times, since it's such a cool word. and along the same satisfying curiosity lines: in working my way through the dough section of mcgee (see previous post), the whole discourse on gluten development made me want to see the process for myself. so i figured, hell, as long as i'm waiting on this rabbit, maybe i should try my hand at making bread. i've been trying to work up the courage to bake my own bread for years now -- i'm really, really intimidated by dough -- and know what? it's not really that hard. i have to say, though, this whole making-a-well thing may work well in theory, but i found myself with a big ol' yeasty puddle on the floor. (guess what? flour does not an impenetrable fortification make.) i incorporated water, yeast, and salt into my flour, kneaded for a good ten minutes, keeping it fairly sticky (bittman says that a really smooth, unsticky dough means you've used too much flour), and then let it prove for a half hour until it doubled in size. i punched it down (undoubtedly my favorite part, next to kneading) and shaped it into a boule. i sort of messed with the dough too much though, and it got too sticky. it's apparently nearly impossible to overwork dough by hand, but i feel like i almost did. after the second proof (another half hour), my boule had become a bit too relaxed, so i reshaped it, let it sit for a few minutes and then popped it into the oven. and after a half of hour or so, voilà! we have bread! and it doesn't suck! but it ain't the greatest either. could definitely use more salt, maybe five more minutes in the oven. but the coarse-textured crumb is tender, with a lovely gluten network, and the crust shows much promise. the next loaf will be infinitely better. funnily enough, baking bread imparts the same sort of feelings in me as knitting. no, not geriatric feelings. but genuine awe that, at some point in time, long, long ago, someone put two and two and then another two together, realizing somehow that after you grind up the wheat, add some water and manipulate the resulting paste a bit and let it interact -- just so -- with ambient microflora and then stick it near your recently-discovered fire, you can produce something tasty and sustaining. it boggles the mind. and to compensate for the lackluster nytimes article that just barely scratched the surface, an account of terra madre from vivien straus, a delegate from the northern california straus family creamery: "Departing from our usual bit of information about farm life, we want to tell you about an extraordinarily amazing event we attended in October in Turin, Italy. Albert, Michael and Vivien Straus were invited to attend an event called Terra Madre. 5,000 small-scale farmers, nomads, cheesemakers and fishermen from 128 countries were invited by Slow Food International, an organization that is working to build, support and maintain alternatives to large-scale industrial food production. "Farmers from countries we’d embarrassingly never heard of came in native costume bringing their crops and sharing their stories. There were men from Kyrgyzstan in tall white felt hats sampling out Yak “vodka”, milk and butter, a woman from Burkina Faso in West Africa sharing her dried caterpillars, and more vegetables, grains and animals shown in reality or in pictures than we ever knew existed. "There is a diversity of food products out there that will stun and amaze you. It makes you realize how limited our vision of food is. "For 4 days workshops were held where farmers told the outlay of their farm, their history, their challenges and their passions. We were given headphones. Translators worked around the clock in 7 different languages. We milled around between workshops, introduced ourselves and tried to communicate and connect. "Besides the farmers, one very interesting aspect of the event was to see the support of the Italian government. The government sponsored the trips of many of the farmers from less-developed nations. The government put up much of the financial support for this event including flying and housing and feeding many of the participants. Participants stayed in the homes of local farmers in and around the town. "The Minister of Forestry and Agriculture for Italy spoke to all of us without a written speech, speaking from his heart, damning GMOs and gave passionate and soaring support for small farmers. It was something we rarely experience in the U.S.,where policy and business work together to promote and support large-scale farming. "The final speaker of the four days was Prince Charles, an organic farmer himself, who spoke of the need to bring both the organic farmers and the small-scale farmers together. "As we stood in awe of where we were and the once-in-a-lifetime connection we as farmers were making (like the U.N. of food with REAL farmers), we wondered what lessons we should be taking home with us. "I came away with a few thoughts. One is how wonderful it is to have farmers talk to each other. It’s a rare thing. Farmers are usually loners and keep their practices and problems to themselves. "I thought again how important it is to protect the diversity of the land and our crops. We must work with nature. Farmers and food producers have thousands of years of experience in working with nature and not against it. We must take advantage of that. We should have farmers set policies and not politicians and economists. Scientific research must work with farmers. We should listen to the skills and knowledge that farmers protect and pass on. "And finally, I’ll share one conversation that I had. I was standing next to a farmer from Zimbabwe and I introduced myself. He was a tea and jam producer. He said to me, “We have never seen people like you before. White people.” That in itself, stunned me. Then he continued, “We have always been seen as ‘Poor African Farmers’. Now, here we are, getting respect.” I suddenly realized that there was a reason to be here. That we are here to support and encourage each other; to realize we are all in the same boat with our own unique struggles. I replied to this man, “Well, we don’t have water on our place. We need to drill for it.” I meant to show him how we are more alike than different. His eyes lit up. “Oh! You don’t have electricity either?” Okay. So, maybe we’re not completely alike. But one thing is for sure. We all love and respect the land."

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