ON BACON // elspeth

I have been doing a lot of reading. Nursing a newborn is good for that—with Sally I alternated between Barbara Delinsky romance novels and baby advice books—and this time I've been making my way through the public library's "Notable Books of 2013" shelf. I started with Five Days At Memorial (incredibly eye opening, and also a gripper), then Men We Reaped (so sad, but also fiercely lovely), and I'm now—and I realize I'm late to the party—almost through Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

I like it. I started reading it on the same day I rediscovered a blog I love that changed web addresses two years ago, a blog written by a homeschooling mother of four girls. The philosophies behind the two pieces of work couldn't be more different, but both resonate in their own ways. Lean In carries some of my truths—that I am happier, that our home is happier—when I am working outside of it in some capacity, and when I feel valued and respected for that contribution. That things go better when I let go of what scientists apparently term "maternal gatekeeping" and let Alex do his share, his way. But Mead & Daughters speaks to another, competing truth—that I want to be at home at least part time, to allow the girls time for unstructured play, for being outside, for teaching them what my parents taught me—that there can be joy and creativity in the everyday, the mundane. 

There have been several pieces recently questioning the merit of cooking (To Cook or Not to Cook? What if You Just Hate Making Dinner?), and I found some bits more compelling than others. But mostly, I think the crux of the issue is that cooking is only enjoyable when you have the time and energy for it. I don't picture Sheryl Sandberg coming home from a long day at Facebook excited about making dinner, but I also don't know her, and hell, maybe she's as into Dinner: A Love Story as Virginia Heffernan is against it.

Which is all to say: I cook because I like cooking. I think it can be incredibly satisfying and creative work. But it can also be stressful and mundane, and I like take-out and restaurant meals as much as the next person. And like Molly, I don't make more than a few "real" recipes a week. (You know, the ones that look like a proper meal and involve more than about fifteen minutes of effort.) The rest of the time, I'm simply throwing things together on a whim, like pasta and salad, or we're eating leftovers, or we're snacking on beer and what I call "The Charcuterie Plate," which is much less elegant than it sounds and consists mainly of cheese, carrot sticks, olives, and liverwurst. I think it's important to be honest about these kinds of things, because viewing things through a few words and photographs every now and then, it's easy not to get the full picture. We all have enough on our plates without trying to imitate a fictional version of perfect.

And that is where bacon comes in. There are very few dinner dilemmas a package of bacon can't solve. Bacon crumbled on salad, with toast fried in bacon fat. Bacon and beans and greens, with toast fried in bacon fat. Eggs and bacon, with toast fried in bacon fat. You see where I'm going with this. My mom and dad bring us the good stuff from a farm near them in Maine, and I almost always buy a package when I see it at the farmers' market. But I also buy it at the grocery store. If I can find it, I like the applewood smoked cuts from Niman Ranch. We had some for dinner last night, with Swiss chard and onions cooked down in the fat, and thick pieces of swordfish pan-seared in some more of the fat. There was nothing fancy or time-consuming about it. But it tasted good, and it made us happy. And that, I think, is what's important.

KEFIR // the local food report

I'm going to keep this short. You're reading this in late October, but I'm writing to you in early September, trying to finish things up before the baby comes. Which is hopefully not before I get it all done! So without further ado, I'd like to introduce kefir. 

The other day I visited with my neighbor, Helen Miranda Wilson, who happens to be quite the fermenter, and while we were there to talk sauerkraut, I ended up learning about kefir too. It's a fermented dairy product, and like homemade yogurt, it's tangy, tart, and delicious. But it's actually made fairly differently—with kefir grains, which are living organisms, a community of over 30 different types of microbes. 

Yogurt is made by bacteria, too, but unlike with yogurt making bacteria, kefir grains are essentially born—formed from spontaneous symbiosis in the right conditions. They're gelatinous and translucent, and they turn whole milk into a thick, delightful substance excellent for topping with fruit and yogurt. The finished product is amazingly good for you, and the fermentation process is pretty neat.

From here, I'm going to let Helen take the wheel. This is, in her words, with her photos, how to make kefir, once you get your hands on some kefir grains.

From Helen Miranda Wilson, kefir maker, of Wellfleet: 

"When I run out of kefir, I take out the bowl of kefir grains and fermented milk which I have been holding on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

I then strain this mixture through a container, using a stainless steel sieve with a handle. Nonreactive vessels and utensils—stainless steel, glass, plastic or non-lead glazed ceramic—must be used. To push the kefir though the mesh, I stir the kefir and culture grains gently with a hard plastic spatula and also tap the sieve, hard, over the container I'm transferring it to.

Once it's empty, I wash and dry the nonreactive bowl I use to incubate and hold the fermenting mixture in. I add as much whole, organic, cold milk as I want in proportion to how much culture I have. You don't have to scald the milk, etc. as you do with with yogurt: it's so much easier! These scobies are amazingly robust and they don't peter out.

Unfortunately, raw milk and fat free or 2% milk don't make as good a result. Not enough for the culture to eat? Sandor Katz might know why!

I then dump the grains into the milk bowl, give them a good stir, cover them with aluminum foil and put the bowl in a warm place for about 24 hours. I use our gas stove oven which has a pilot light that's always lit and a constant temperature of 85 degrees F.

If you leave the fermenting mixture out in a warm spot, keep checking it after a day: it will still work but may take a bit longer. When the fermentation is complete, it should look more or less like the photo below. The whey will have separated out and it will seem to have curdled a bit. It can look slightly yellow, a bit nasty, but it's not!

The mixture will all be smoothly recombined once it's been strained and stirred. It will then have a thick and creamy consistency and a clean, tangy, wholesome taste that's better than any store-bought kefir I've ever tried.

When it's reached this final stage, I simply store the covered bowl in the fridge. It can sit there for weeks. When the strained batch I'm eating has run out I repeat as above.

You can also eat the delightfully chewy grains. As time passes, the colony grows. For optimal fermentation, you don't want to have more than you can feed in the milk.

Once, I forgot the grains-milk bowl for almost a week in the oven and it seemed too far gone. It smelled off and had some green mold on the top. Some of the grains looked brownish. I picked those out, rinsed the others off with tepid water in a sieve, under the tap, and started over—no problem. Worked fine."


GRATEFULLY // elspeth

A friend told me that when she and her husband were expecting their second child, they asked a nice couple they met at the playground with two kids how much harder it really was. "It can't get much harder, right?" the couple laughed. She moved forward confidently. Then the baby came. The word she now uses to describe how much harder two is than one to friends who ask her is "exponentially." I'm not sure I quite feel this way—going from no baby to rearranging our whole lives around a tiny person's needs and schedules was fairly jarring—but I will say that two is a whole new ball game. I have not accomplished much of anything around here in the past few weeks beyond basic daily necessities: attempt to sleep, attempt to get Sally and Nora to sleep, eat and provide meals, wash the diapers, try to keep Sally from jealousy. Most days we do ok. Other days, mainly the days following nights with both girls waking, are challenging. I am learning to ask for help, to accept it gratefully. It is humbling.

But it's also incredibly nice. I feel lucky to be able to be home for a few months, to be fully present in our daily household rhythms after a summer of chaos and babysitters and longer hours working. I am in the kitchen more than I have been in months; we aren't going out much, and no one's at the restaurants at night anymore working. I am able to focus on what we need—for my reserves, for Nora's milk, for a tired husband, a growing Sally. We are eating well, but simply.

Last night I made a chickpea and chorizo soup inspired by one my mother's friend Julie made us once in Spain. Sally and I roasted a batch of applesauce together (without Nora please Mama, said Sally) with Spartans and Honeycrisps my mother brought down the other afternoon. I soaked the two livers from a chicken my dad cooked while he was here this weekend in milk and breaded and fried them and ate them for lunch yesterday. And for some reason, I can't stop buying and cooking eggplant—mostly roasted, sometimes pan-fried, but always with a generous glug of olive oil and rubbed down with garlic and sea salt. 

The recipe I like best comes from Nigel Slater—from his book The Kitchen Diaries, where he records his daily meals for a year. It's more prose than instruction, and it assumes that the reader knows their way around good ingredients and a kitchen. 

"I slice a couple of eggplant thickly," he writes. "Brush them with olive oil and season their cut sides with black pepper, crushed garlic and crumbled dried oregano, then I bake them on a flat baking sheet in a hot oven till tender and soft. A matter of twenty minutes or so. Whilst the eggplant are still warm, I scatter them with crumbled feta from the Turkish shop down the road, toasted pine nuts and some small, fresh mint leaves from the garden, the pointed variety with no hairs. Then I drizzle the result with more olive oil. Juicy, silky, nutty and warm, it is good, and enough for supper." 

He's making this August 2nd; I've made it at least a dozen times since then. I realize I might be sharing this too late—there were eggplants at the farmers' market last week, but every week I stock up, because I'm not sure when the last morning is they'll appear. I hope they haven't already disappeared.


GARUM // the local food report

What do you do with the skeletons of your small, oily fish? If you're like most people, you probably throw them in the compost. But if you're like Michael Ceraldi (of Ceraldi in Wellfleet), you put them in a bucket, layer them with salt, and leave them in the fridge to ferment. 

What you're looking to make is garum. If this sounds like a stinky process, well, it is. But it used to be even stinkier. Garum is a fermented fish sauce that was wildly popular in Roman times, when it was made in factories by the sea. These factories produced it by leaving fish and salt in vats in the hot sun, leaving them to ferment. First the salt pulled the liquid out of the fish, then the liquid slowly settled into layers and was graded just like olive oil. Rich people bought the expensive top-notch stuff to marinate meats and serve with nice cheeses, and peasants bought the cheap stuff to flavor their porridges. Each port had its own recipe, and there were factories everywhere. They stank, so they were usually outside city walls. 

(Fun garum trivia fact: In 2008, archaeologists found garum residue in Pompeii and used it to confirm the date of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The fish used were bogues, which come in the summer, so they were able to confirm that the volcano blew in August. Cool, huh?)

At any rate, for a while there, garum was as popular as ketchup is today. It was mixed with wine or vinegar, diluted with water and given to soldiers thanks to high protein and B vitamin counts, or mixed with honey to make a sweet condiment. Michael says he likes it best as a marinade for steak, or mixed with honey, thyme, mustard seed, and olive oil to make a sauce for fried chicken or pecorino cheese. It's different than most fish sauces I've had in that it's thin and oily—not thick and syrupy. The smell is similar, though—that intense fishiness that is somehow both terrible and wonderful, but mostly wonderful. A little goes a long way.

It's not a project for everyone, but it's a cool thing to know about. As Michael told me, he likes to know how to make everything from scratch. Because you never know when you might need to churn your own butter, or make your own bread, or bring back garum to the masses. Right?


NORA BRADFORD // elspeth

Hi. As I'm sure you've guessed from the silence, big things have been happening around here. Big things named Nora! I'll be back soon with more, but in the meantime, here she is, stats, frog legs, and all. 

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!


SAUERKRAUT // the local food report

It's pretty, isn't it? You can make it with regular old green cabbage, savoy cabbage, red cabbage. It's about as old as food gets—they say the Tartars took it in their saddlebags to Europe. It started as a way to preserve cabbage—to keep it well past its winter sell-by date—but then people got a taste for it. Today, on top of that, we know how good it is health-wise.

The versions you see up there were made by my neighbor, Helen Miranda Wilson. She started playing around with fermented cabbage about a year ago, and she's hooked. She makes a batch every 2-3 weeks and eats it as a condiment—a little dollop alongside lunch or dinner, nearly every day. As she puts it, "It's good for you, and it's tasty, but it's salty. A little goes a long way."

I've been wanting to learn ever since I got a copy of The Art of Fermentation two Christmases ago. Helen also learned from the book, and under her guidance, I've finally started my first batch. Have you ever tried your hand at sauerkraut? Any tips? Let's share!


This recipe is adapted from this site and Helen's advice. I highly recommend reading through the advice on the webpage before getting started.

one roughly 3 pound cabbage 
1 and 1/2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1/2 to 1 cup water

Remove the heart and finely chop or grate the cabbage. Place in a large bowl. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage (this pulls out water and creates the brine, and also keeps the cabbage crunchy) and add the caraway. Mix well and cover the cabbage with a lid or plate weighted down so that it's tight fitting on top of the cabbage mixture—Helen says a gallon of water in a jug works well. You want the cabbage tightly packed; the weighted cover will help force the water out. Cover with cheesecloth to keep out flies and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Check the mixture. If you don't see any brine, or if there's only a little, add enough water to bring the liquid up to the plate. Recover and weight and leave to ferment for several days, tasting periodically. The kraut is ready when you like the flavor—it should be tangy and the texture of the cabbage should be fairly limp. When it's where you want it, move it to a cool part of your basement or the fridge. 


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.