Archive for the ‘Cooking w/ Fire’ Category

Fire, Brick, Water, and Wheat


I couldn’t not take photos of these breads yesterday. It being a busy fall with harvesting, butchering, etc, I haven’t fired up the wood oven nearly often enough. There’s something meditative about watching a fire that’s akin to getting lost in music. Add to that the satisfaction of baking up lovely loaves of tasty bread while tending the oven, and it’s the kind of activity that can make your day.

This bread is the same pain a l’ancienne approach as I wrote about here. Having taken a quick look at that post I noticed that I’ve modified the loaf shape due to the design of my wood oven and how I’m baking them off. With hot coals still in the oven during baking there’s uneven heat making a baguette style loaf shape impractical – one end being done far before the other. So instead I’m free-styling them into whatever shape comes from cutting the dough into a few manageable pieces that can be turned easily in the oven if need be without removing them. It produces a puffed up mini-loaf that cut in half is fantastic for sandwiches. Kinda like pita meets pizza crust meets ciabatta bun. First course for dinner last night was herbed fried ruffed grouse breast, mayo, and carrot & pickled onion slaw stuffed into a half of one of these loaves. Tasty.

Smoking Heart and Bacon


I had been thinking of cold smoking my piece of curing elk heart, and then ‘Meat Smoking and Smokehouse Design‘ arrived from the library. Inspiring book. No question I was going to give it a go after reading all kinds of cool ideas on how to cold smoke. It’d only been curing a couple days, but I had some bacon that was ready to get smoked, and I figured  I’d take care of them both at the same time. I wasn’t looking for a heavy smoke on the heart – just enough of a touch that when it’s shaved thin, you can detect traces of smoke. We’ll see if I got it right in a few weeks post hanging.

So I improvised a setup – one of the things I love about cooking with fire: it’s adaptable and conducive to use of ingenuity. It’s -2C outside, and the books I’ve been reading say cold smoke’s upper limit is 32C, with a desirable range of 12-22C. I figured that so long as I could get the piece in the smoke well above the fire, I’d be good. So I grabbed an old rack from my formerly employed bbq, plopped it atop my fire’s brick wall, and weighted it down with a couple bricks. Surprisingly solid. So the bacon would get a warm-ish smoke, and the heart a cold smoke. I ended up placing my bbq lid atop the bacon to contain more heat and smoke, and it still leaked plenty of smoke onto the heart piece. After an hour or two, the elk heart was still cool to touch.

You’ll see in the photos below that my setup allows for a separate fire/heat source to the right. This allows me to generate embers to keep apple branches smoking away. I found today that the best results came from simply pulling the sticks from under the bacon, placing them atop the fire for a minute until re-lit, then shaking/blowing the flame out and throwing them back under the bacon to smoke away again. Success. Heart goes back into the fridge for the smoke to even out and cure for a couple more days, and the bacon will meet its usual fate.

Farm-to-Table w/ RGE RD & Riverbend Gardens


The last farm-to-table dinner I attended was a resounding success, and I’m not surprised Blair and his crew have done a few of these since then. By happenstance we ran into each other at the farmers’ market a couple weeks ago and I ended up involved with his upcoming dinner at Riverbend Gardens. He ended up buying the last half of the 3 pigs we cut on Pig Day for the event, came over to butcher it, and also wanted to include some rescued fruit in his dessert so I ended up supplying some urban-fruit-rescued apples and evans cherries harvested by myself and Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton volunteers. I offered to give Blair a hand, shoot some video and such, cause, well, it’s just a lovely kind of thing to be involved with, really.

It was a 6 course wine-paired menu based on winter-veg from Riverbend Gardens, and pork and beef from Nature’s Green Acres. Plus 3 hors d’oeurvres. Pretty impressive menu, really, and glad it was he and not I in charge of making it happen for the 25 or so guests. It was a well-conceived and well-executed festival of winter squashes, pork, local cheese, kales, cabbages, brussel sprouts, cauliflowers, beef, potatoes, urban fruit, live music, and local and Okanagan wines. I was lucky enough to be offered a spare seat at the huge table, and between shooting video of the courses as they were plated, got to eat the food and be a guest. Thanks to Blair and the RGE RD crew for that, and for becoming such fantastic advocates and supporters of our local food producers, and for cooking with fire. It matters. Enjoy the video.

Smoke-Day and My Current Smoking Setup


I’ve mentioned that on Pig Day I was slipping ham cuts and hocks into a big stock pot of prepped brine. Turns out that was a good idea. Just finished smoking those items, and they turned out really, really well. Heavily smoky, nice and salty with the classic pink-salt flavor and high-quality pork. Pretty much can’t go wrong there.

Turns out 27 hours for the sirloin tip wasn’t long enough – still some un-pink in the center. Also, 3 days for the hocks yielded the same issue. But I think I figured out my solution, and it’s not longer brine time. If I did that the extremities might get too salty – they were already borderline. I think the solution is injecting the meats with the brine. Need to buy me a new food toy. One that will scare many a guest away, perhaps.

I figured some info on my smoking setup would be useful for a variety of reasons. First, I’ve written about my old setup many times [a propane bbq put out of gas service and onto wood-fire], and I’ve been using something different for nearly a year already. Secondly, I’m addicted to accessibility when it comes to good food, and my current setup is built with reclaimed, largely free masonry and bits and pieces of my old propane bbq. This piecemeal freebie model is extremely effective, and addresses a key issue I had before with lack of secondary heat source – I mention it in the video below.

Pig Day, 2011


Pig Day‘ as it’s known around here is the big day we cut pigs to supply us for the year. We buy no other pork. If we run out, we wait for the next pig day. And we pretty much had run out, so I was particularly excited to get my hands on a whole hog again. And it was a big hog this time – 250 lbs. The fantastic farmers had agreed to keep the pigs a good month and a half past the kill date of all their pig-buddies to accommodate our butchering the pigs at home. There’s only one requirement for butchering at home: cold. Which itself dictates date. Late August and even September are chancy – can’t have a pig in the garage when it’s 30C like it was in September. By the latter half of October and into early November, it’s dipping into freezing at night at least, with day-time highs in the high single digits. My garage becomes a big walk-in cooler. Wait too long and you’re working in a walk-in blast freezer, also a problem.

Pig Day‘ starts with us heading out to a meat processor about an hour out of the city to pick up the pigs. They kill them, gut them, split them, de-hair them, have them inspected, load them into the vehicle, and hand you a baggie of offal if you want it all for the low price of $55/head or so. They kill on a Tuesday, and we pick up when they open Friday morning, so the carcasses have a good chance to chill hard in their coolers. We start cutting shortly after 9am, go all day with a break for a wood-fire grilled steak of whatever looks nice off the table, and go until dinner – which is always roast pig head. That dinner is always one of the best, if not the best of the year for me. Lots of fresh air, camaraderie, fresh pork and garden vegetables, washed down with a variety of apple cider, apple wines, brandies, etc. This year we even had a blind wine tasting with 9 folks to sweeten the day even more. It’s a special day.

So what to do. So many options. In my opinion, there is no wrong way to cut a pig, just a million choices, that’s all. I went into this one with probably the best game-plan I’ve had to date. I had thought through all the primals and listed what I wanted to make from them, which guided what and how to cut each. Here were my choices this year:

Shoulder. Shoulder makes my favorite slow-cook roast and confit cut – needed a few convenient roasts for that. Wanted a serious amount allocated to sausage. The hocks went into a brine pot I’d prepped the day before, to be smoked in a few days. If only the whole pig were made of shoulder…

Loin. One side was simply cut into 5 bone-in, fat & skin-on, 4-5 rib loin roasts. They have about 2-3 inches of rib on them, and are a sexy roast presentation wise. The other side was taken off the spine, and split in two. Half was cut into 10 thick fat-on chops, the other half was kept whole boneless and skinless for brine-curing and smoking – its back fat reserved for dry curing.

Ham. Hocks brined in pot. Deboned, isolated inside round and outside round essentially. I wanted to dry cure a piece, so the inside of one was cleaned up for that, the outside designated for roast, with lots of trim for sausage/ground. I’ve found that if I don’t make a conscious effort to allocate to trim, there is none. The other ham was separated the same way, but both inside and outside rounds going into the brine pot. My kids dig cured, smoked meat and ham, so ham I shall make.

Belly. Ribs off and lean to leave it for the bacon – I try to save them for the following summer. The photo just above shows the remaining belly slab’s copious fat. They were trimmed up, cut into 4-6 slabs per side, and reserved for curing and smoking. My kids love bacon. Ok, everybody loves bacon.

Other. This is a pretty long list, and significant contributor to weight. We roast one head, but because a friend I cut with doesn’t want his, the other gets trimmed out for sausage, the side of the face removed [cheek, jowl, etc] for dry curing. There’s a lot of meat out of a roast head – 5-7 lbs. Then there’s the lard bags – one of leaf lard [hugest I've seen to date], and one of trimmed back and belly fats. They’ll be rendered for pastry dough. Trim – I took about 20 lbs for ground & a fresh sausage batch I’ll make tomorrow morning. Then there’s the offal bags with tongues, livers, hearts, kidneys. Tenderloins. Oh yeah, those.

Once we got through my pig, we did 2 more, with others choosing how they wanted to use the lovely stuff. What I’m now left with is a pile of choice in the freezer still, and cuts that suit my family both in size and intended preparation. Back fat, inside round, jowl for dry curing right away. A pot full of curing hocks and a couple ham roasts needing smoking in a few days. 2 big bags of lard needing rendering. A few slabs of belly curing for bacon. A big tray full of trim that I ground the day after, with a batch of fresh sausage to tackle. And a pot full of pulled head meat. And full bellies.

This was a particularly memorable ‘Pig Day‘. Which was followed by a particularly memorable follow-up day that I will now likely call ‘Charcuterie Day‘. I’ve never done so many different charcuterie preparations in one day, not even close. Next post, ‘Charcuterie Day’ thoughts and details.

Farm to Table w/ RGE RD & Nature’s Green Acres


Farm-to-table dining, while commonplace elsewhere, is still an extremely progressive concept in our restaurant scene. When one of the most well-respected chefs in the city, Blair Lebsack, mentioned he was going to tackle serving a multi-course dinner to 30-40 guests out in the cow pasture at Nature’s Green Acres, I wanted to be there.

I find in the food service industry, ‘Local‘ normally equates to an element, maybe two on the plate being local, and it’s usually a protein. ‘Seasonal‘ often really means, ‘seasonal somewhere’. Not here. The beef, pork, and chicken was from the farm, yes, but when the farm didn’t have enough garden to supply the dinner, Blair and Caitlin got out there and built and planted garden months in advance. They foraged nettle for one of the iced teas and the ice cream, and nicked edible flowers from farm yard to include in the menu. They made butter for bread and for the pastries in the desert course. Blair chased the pig into the trailer to haul off to the abattoir, and butchered it himself. They butchered chickens, made stock for the soup, and used the livers in a terrine. He even helped the farmer rip the ancient, neglected, wood burning stove out of one of the farm’s outbuildings so he could cook on it – the entire service being done over wood fire. Essentially, if it wasn’t from the farm or a neighbour, it wasn’t on the menu.

It was an epic evening for everyone involved, I think – certainly the kind of event you don’t soon forget, if ever. Keep an eye out for more from Blair and RGE RD [the name of his new venture], as this wasn’t a one-off. Perhaps farm-to-table has finally truly arrived.

Grilling Game Over Wood Fire


I’m starting to figure out that grilling season is most enjoyable in the shoulder seasons. It’s cooler, there are fewer bugs, and the fire is a welcome heat. Grilling over fire in the heat of July is cool if you feel like melting your face off to get dinner going. Especially if you need to be standing in the sun to get the job done. So a-grilling-I-have-gone this spring. Can I still call it spring? I think so, if folks in the province are still getting frost.

Top seasonal grilling item? Last year’s chickens are long gone and this year’s are but wee chicks. The braising roasts, confit cuts, and bacon sides have been pillaged through the winter in some form of comfort food or another. What’s left are largely lean cuts for steaks – beef rib steaks from my front quarter, pork chops, and all kinds of game cuts fit for the grill. Aw, darn.

As I’ve been doing a lot of it lately, some thoughts on how to grill game successfully: First, try to let it not be super-cold inside before it meets fire. Let your meat warm up at room temp for a while [without throwing food safety out the window]. Instead of oiling the grill – a nasty and never effective job, especially ineffective when the grill is over wood fire – I like to lightly oil the cut with a neutral oil. My neutral oil of choice right now is canola, as the fields around here get yellow with it in a couple months, so I figure it just makes good sense. Season well with salt and pepper. Now meat, meet fire. A hot part of the grill is good – sear is good, as you’re not looking for a slow cook here. The next bit always requires judgement on the part of they who are manning the meat: don’t overcook it. Babysit it. Press it gently to determine doneness as you go – one of the experience-required-skills of cookery. Try to get it off the grill just pre-the doneness you’d want, and let it rest for quite a few minutes. Optimally, slice and season to taste with salt. Not complicated, but omit any of those parts and you may end up with sub-optimal results.

Give wood fire grilling a shot. You may not go back. I haven’t.

muscox smoking gently under a cast iron pan that it was started in – note to self, muscox’s texture is deceiving when trying to determine doneness and therefore easy to overcook]

The Last [Root Cellar] Supper


I’m out. April 16th will mark the 2011 date that I ran out of 2010 garden veg in the root cellar. Turns out in one meal, I ran out of potatoes, carrots, and beets – all at the same time.

Things may have been able to hold out longer, but quality was definitely starting to suffer. In best shape were the carrots – still crisp and earthy. The beets had held on incredibly, but recently hit a wall and cratered in quality quickly. Perhaps the recent milder 6C did them in. One rotted. That’s it though. The potatoes were still in okay shape, the biggest problem being size – only the smallest were left, and small doesn’t store well.

That’s one lesson from my first year of root cellaring: size matters. The biggest of the veg fared the best in storage. Anything small was first to go soft. Another important lesson was that the cellar can handle a mild freeze. The first couple nights my cellar temp was near 0C, I was freaking out, putting hot stock pots of water in there to bring the temp up. I learned from experience that -2C was nothing to worry about. My dad says he’s had his dip to -7 without major damage. A last biggy would be my experience with washed carrots trumping unwashed. I’ll be washing my carrots this fall, no question.

Our celebratory last root veg supper included carrot sprouts/shoots – surprisingly pleasant atop a carrot slaw – to mark the season, along with a couple different cuts of pronghorn. The shot below is briefly marinated skewer or pronghorn heart grilled over a wood fire. I had no idea root cellaring would yield such successes in a first attempt. This growing season, the objective will simply be to grow and stow more.

Celebrating Spring Thyme


Irvings Farm Fresh Berk Loin Chop, Garden Thyme, Garlic + Lola Canola Honey mustard

GEH Potatoes, Onions, Mo-Na Mushroms, Garden Thyme

Bacon Deserves Some Respect


I know, I write about bacon a lot. And I know, bacon’s so last year, right? Wrong. Putting bacon in all kinds of stupid stuff – that’s so last year. But top-shelf bacon is, and will be so long as man and pork collide, a force of awesomeness to be reckoned with.

For those of you who have been paying attention, this is indeed the bacon cured by my 3-year-old. A week in the fridge, and a couple hours over some wood fire smoke – daddy did that part [see bottom photo]. So simple. So tasty.

For some reason though, this bacon is among the best I’ve ever produced – and I’ve made a lot of bacon. We are literally swooning over it, and it’s not for lack of cured pork in our diet. I’m going to give the credit to Nature’s Green Acres for raising some high-maintenance but ridiculously beautiful pork belly. You can see me butchering this very slab of pig’s belly here.

This beautiful piece of pork has fired me up to asking we quit wearing bacon, crafting with bacon, putting it in desserts, and any other bacon-nonsense – and give it back some of its well deserved respect and dignity. Really.