The Meat Situation
The meat situation is this – we’ve got a good part of a cow in the freezer, a couple of lambs coming along, and lots of birds that need processing. For the vegetarians out there, I offer you potato gnocci later on for dinner (without the beef ragu of course) and cumquat marmalade on sourdough toast for morning tea. For now though, let me indulge the more carnivorous of you with….
The Cook’s Breakfast
It happens every time we kill a bird. I do the gutting and my fair share of the plucking. And as a reward for this foulish act, I allow myself the customary breakfast fry up of goose or chicken offal on toast.
Now, I don’t think about the bird’s death when I’m eating it. I don’t think about the stench of its guts or the sight of a blade cutting through its throat, severing the spinal cord. I don’t think about the sure hand pushing on the bird’s breast, pumping on the heart, getting the blood out… the final croak and spasms of the body shutting down. I don’t think about these things when I’m eating the animal in question.
I think about how next time I’ll marinate the liver overnight in vinegar with garlic and cumquat peel. Maybe some cloves. I think about skewered and grilled chicken hearts. Chinchulines and chorizo with chimichuri and crusty bread. I think (and drool) about brain and bone marrow ravioli. Duck sausage wrapped in vine leaves. Delicately poached tongue, sliced thinly and served with an egg and olive salata. These things give me great pleasure and I offer no apology.
This is not to say I don’t think about the life of the animals I eat, especially when I’m eating them. I like knowing that they lived a good life and were killed quickly and efficiently, with honour and some measure of respect and analysis.
I watch the chickens all the time (they’re right by the kitchen, next to the geese and the kitchen garden) and I reckon that these birds live a good life. They’ve got a whole food forest to scratch around through, lots of nesting areas, a continual supply of good feed and tasty kitchen scraps to feast upon, a clean dry place to roost every evening and protection from foxes by our ever-faithful night dog – Bluey.
I love seeing a chicken catch a good-sized lizard and make a dash for it, hiding well away from the flock to secretly feast upon its victim. I think this is the natural order of things. Lizard eats insect. Chicken eats lizard. I eat chicken. But I cook it first. And as a cooker and watcher of chickens and geese, I notice that these birds, these wonderful Permaculture birds, sure do run around a lot. Their freedom and health make them lean, muscular, strong. It’s like you’re eating game. They can be a bit tough. I recommend long slow cooking. Stocks, soups, braises… shredding of the meat, savouring of the juices.
However, there’s a pretty useful bloke on the farm named Dave Spicer, who can tell you how to catch a wild duck with nothing but a shovel and he can tell you how a fox gets rid of its fleas, and he’ll tell you that we can solve the problem of tough bird meat by caging the birds for a couple of weeks and feeding them choice scraps from the kitchen. I like the idea very much. Restrict their movement and fatten them up. It makes sense. Especially, if like Dave and myself, you’d appreciate a more tender chicken thigh or a fattier goose breast. Mmmm… goose fat pancakes with smoked eel…. But I’ll leave that for another breakfast. Have to catch an eel out of the dam first…. Dave!?
Cumquat marmalade on toasted sourdough. Yes, we made our own marmalade with our own cumquats. And yes, it is da bomb.
Harvest your cumquats after the rain so you don’t have to wash them. Cut them up any which way you want. Halves. Quarters. Sliced. But if you don’t want to be picking pips out of your toast later on, you better pick them out now and make a teabag with them. You can use a piece of cheese cloth and some string. It’s important to add the pips because this is where the pectin is. Without the pectin-containing pips, your marmalade won’t set. So put your chopped cumquat plus your little teabag of cumquat pips into a pot and fill it up with water till it just covers your wonderfully fragrant concoction of cumquat goodness. Leave overnight.
The next morning, you measure out how many cups of water and cumquat you have all up. Add the same amount of sugar then place on the stove to gently simmer itself to setting point. Just keep testing it by dipping a spoon into it from time to time and dropping a little onto a plate. Blow on it. Cool it down. Move the plate around. Does it look, feel and taste like marmalade yet? Should you add a little orange blossom water at the end for that extra highlight of flavour? I highly recommend it. And you’ll know when it sets – we’ve got marmalade in our bones.
And we’ve got sourdough bread in our bones too. Bless those people of old who worked out how to capture wild yeast from the air, using it to raise bread into lovely loaves and buns and sticks of staple goodness.
You take a cup or so of flour (unbleached organic) and a cup or so of water – the cleaner and fresher, the better. A few sultanas or some yoghurt to help get things kicking. Place into a large glass jar and mix it into a goopy mess. Cover with cheese cloth and leave in a warm place. The next day take out half the goop and replace this same amount with an even mix of fresh flour and water. What you’re doing is feeding the yeast. Keep feeding it this way every day for a week or so until it starts to bubble and grow, becoming your active raising agent. Bakers call it the starter. In bakeries, where there’s lots of flour and yeast and sugar all over the place, starters usually become active a lot sooner than if you were doing it in a regular kitchen. Unless you’re in a permakitchen, that is, where our starter flowed out of the jar, onto the bench and all over the floor, after only four days of feeding. This place truly is ripe with life.
So get your starter alive and kicking, get yourself a big sack of good flour, add a little technique and some practice, and you should be getting nice bread coming out of the oven in no time. I won’t go into anymore about sourdough baking or we’ll never get to dinner. If you want to know more, get yourself a good book on the subject. “The handmade loaf,” by Dan Lepard is great.
I stuffed mine with quinoa, nuts, dried fruit, fried onion, lemon rind, herbs. Work your fingers between the breasts and the skin. Fill these breast pockets with butter and minced nuts. Braise slowly in some kind of liquid. You can use apple juice spiked with a little pomegranate molasses like I did, or you can use chicken stock or wine, it’s up to you. The important thing, especially if you have a tough permachicken on your hands, is to cover the baking pan and braise it slowly. Don’t do what I did and cook the tough girls as quickly as you can in a hot oven, or you’ll be in for some chewing.
P.S. Apologies to my lunchtime diners that day, but sometimes there’s only so much plucking, gutting, stuffing and cooking a man can do before noon.
Gnocci with beef ragu and goats cheese:
Forget about the beef and cheese. I’ll leave these for another blog. If I start on cows and goats now, I won’t have time to talk to you about potatoes. Yes, potatoes again…. But in the form of gnocci so who can complain?
I love gnocci more than anything. I call it my execution meal. If I had to be executed and were granted a last meal – gnocci would be it. And this is how I would like them prepared.
You can boil or bake your unpeeled potatoes whole if they’re all roughly the same size or you can split them into two pots. One for big potatoes, one for small. The reason for this is that with gnocci you don’t want to overcook your potatoes and get them all waterlogged and flavourless. You’ll end up having to put more flour in and that’s not gnocci.
Gnocci are supposed to be light and fluffy. So get your potatoes just-cooked, then peel them while they’re still hot and mash them up… careful not to over mash or you’ll end up with glue. Remember – light and fluffy. A potato ricer or mouli work best but aren’t necessary. Just mash them up carefully and if you end up with a few lumpy bits in your light and fluffy gnocci then so be it.
Ok, potatoes… mashed… lightly… for every kilo of potato you add one lightly beaten egg, 200 grams of flour and 30 grams or so of salt. You can put in a little grated parmesan or a trickle of burnt butter but you don’t have to. I like grating in lots of nutmeg and a hint of white pepper. It’s what my grandmother did and it’s the way I like it. You do what you want. Just make sure your gnocci are light and fluffy. Fold everything together into a soft dough… lightly… delicately.
A good gnocci maker will do all this so quickly that their dough will still be hot by the time they’re working small lumps of it into long sausages on a lightly floured bench. You cut the sausages into little dumplings, shape them with a fork (if you want, you don’t have to) and let them rest while you boil up a big pot of water with plenty of salt in it. Drop in your gnocci and scoop them out once they all come floating up to the bubbling surface.
There are lots of ways you can serve gnocci but if you had to kill me… give them to me prepared like this, tossed in burnt butter, with parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil on top. I wouldn’t die happy, but at least I’d die well fed.