Beans, Beef, Cheese, Grains, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

American Beauty.

I recently took some grief on Facebook for posting a photo of a sausage, potato, and cabbage supper – specifically, the bratwurst from a couple weeks ago. To quote my critic: “Funny … if I made medisterpølse with rødkål and brasekartofler, I probably wouldn’t post it,” followed by the smiley face icon that is universal internet shorthand for “I’m just sayin.” In other words, barely a step up from unwrapping and snapping a photo of Lunchables. I guess some Danes are all uppity about Noma and Geranium and Formel B these days, what with being the epicenter of modern microcuisine and all. That’s fine. It doesn’t change the basic fact that great house made sausage is one of the most delicious things you can eat.

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary,” preened Angela Hayes in American Beauty, without a clue what ordinariness means. There’s an idea among some food people that familiar foods are categorically ordinary – declassé, and “unhealthy.” It’s a little like people who move to Manhattan or Los Angeles and try to erase all vestiges of their midwestern upbringing in favor of a more sophisticated mien. A recent discussion of the merits/demerits of the KFC Double Down was a virtual clinic on the taxonomy of food snobs. In the “Fancier than Thou” category (and overlapping with “My Body Is a Temple”), were dramatic statements like “Buying food from chain restaurants is cultural destruction” and “We’re eating the values that go with the food.” From “Ill Informed Know-It-All” (overlapping with “Fancier Than Thou”), came declarations like “The Guardian [news] is in the vanguard of pimping ‘American Casual Dining’ to its sheep-like, trend-obsessed readers. … The middle classses are now gorging on the same food marketed as ‘hipster’ and ‘gourmet.'” Everyone has encountered “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” in at least one of its many guises, including “I don’t eat it if it’s not organic” and “I don’t have celiac disease but gluten is as evil as vaccination,” especially if said gluten takes the form of supermarket white bread or mass-produced pasta, not grains hand-threshed by seed-saving heirloom farmers with Master’s degrees in pre-revolutionary French history. I’m not defending the Double Down, you understand, but if I pound out two organic chicken breasts, bread them using fresh crumbs from homebaked bread, fry them in the rendered fat from ibérico bacon strips and bind the sandwich together with Fontina Val d’Aosta, is the result any less caloric? Comparatively speaking, is this sandwich or the Double Down more or less the supposed culinary equivalent of knocking over the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the name of religious fanaticism?

food snob taxonomy

Interestingly, you can get a pass from the food snobs if the foods of your childhood happen to be “ethnic” – and accordingly out of the ordinary – by American standards. Packaged ramen, for example, was basically the lowest form of college poverty shame food in the US until David Chang declared in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach that, as a kid, he totally would eat the uncooked brick of ramen for a snack, whereupon it became a cheeky sort of treat. (Full disclosure: Yours truly did this as well as a kid, and the desk drawers in my bedroom were always littered with broken ramen crumbs.) This kind of fetishism is its own kind of food snobbery, and one with a hideously ethnocentric and sometimes even racist component, but that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s deal with the idea that “traditional American” food, if that’s even a meaningful concept, can be extraordinary and is not something to run from in embarrassment.

Knackwurst and Cheddarwurst

Cheddarwurst is a Wisconsin thing. If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve had it, and if you haven’t had it, you probably aren’t from Wisconsin. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a smoked sausage with Cheddar cheese. Cheddarwurst horrifies food snobs because, despite combining two delicious foods in one compact, tubular package, its most readily available representation is from the likes of Hillshire Farms, a dreaded manufacturer of processed foods. And you won’t find cheddarwurst anywhere in Germany, so get out your Food Snob Taxonomy and shade in the intersection of “Fancier Than Thou” and “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” the bright annatto hue of melted American cheese. Crayola Yellow-Orange will do nicely. You can hand it over to the authenticity police when they come to haul you away.

As a Wisconsin girl, I found cheddarwurst a matter of great interest in my youth. I always assumed some sort of high-pressure cheese squirting device was involved in its manufacture. Now, as an experienced sausagemaker, I know the truth is probably far simpler – a stabilized cheese is mixed into the sausage meat before stuffing. Because cheddarwurst is an emulsified sausage – typically based on knackwurst – the melted cheese will not leach into the sausage and disappear, as it might with looser-structured sausages like the bratwurst. Instead, it merely resides, melted, in little pockets until someone bites or cuts through those pockets (or until the sausage cools and the cheese regains its integrity). The sausage meat should be deep pink from curing and smoking, and should virtually explode with juice as you bite through the skin. A little sausage erudition: the reason knackwurst, cheddarwurst, and similar emulsified sausages are snappy and juicy is the water within. When the sausages are heated, the water expands within the casing. The contents of the casing are literally under pressure. You’re welcome.

If you want knackwurst instead of cheddarwurst, just leave out the cheese. I recommend going half and half, making about 3 lbs each knackwurst and cheddarwurst. You must use some form of stabilized cheese to make this or risk greasy pools of orange cheese fat when you heat the sausages. I have provided a recipe for the stabilized cheese I used in this sausage.

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1150g beef chuck (with interior fat)
780g pork shoulder (with fat cap)
220g pork belly
40g salt
5g TCM
7g paprika
4g mace
2g ground coriander
13g black pepper
2g smoked garlic powder
large pinch cloves
120g nonfat dry milk
220g ice water
250g processed cheese (see Extra: Processed Cheese elsewhere on this site)
hog casings

Cube all the meats and fat and freeze until firm but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients. Set aside. Soak the hog casings in ice water for 30 minutes; rinse three times under running water. Hold in ice water until ready to use.

Toss the frozen meats with about half the dry seasonings. Grind through a medium die into a large metal mixer bowl. Immediately toss well with the remaining dry ingredients and incorporate thoroughly by hand. Then add the ice water and mix well to emulsify, increasing mixer speed from low to medium-high. Do not overmix to avoid breakage. The mixture must be ice cold when you add the water. It will become somewhat loose when you first pour in the water but will firm up somewhat as the water is incorporated. Cook a test quenelle and add more salt or other seasonings as necessary.

Before emulsifying.

Before emulsifying.

Once emulsified.

Once emulsified.

Dice the cheese about 1/4″. By hand, stir it into the emulsified sausage, distributing as evenly as possible.

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Fill a sausage stuffer and load on the soaked and rinsed hog casings. Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Place in a single layer on a sheet pan and dry in the refrigerator 12-24 hours. Turn over and dry the other side another 12-24 hours.

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Drape the links over a rotisserie skewer or similar and smoke over hardwood for about 2 hours at 88C/190F to an internal temperature of about 71C/160F. Try to avoid letting the individual links touch or you will have to reposition them to ensure even smoking.

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Depending on the size of your links, this may take somewhat longer. Do not allow the smoker to heat over 120C/250F and watch it carefully if it reaches temperatures over 100C/212F or your sausages may burst or leak during smoking.

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Brown in an oiled pan over low heat, or grill indirectly over coals, before serving.

Red beans and rice, auf Deutsch

Why auf Deutsch? Well, red beans and rice are traditionally made with tasso, andouille, or other Louisiana cured, pickled, or smoked pork products, and I’m using the knackwurst made above. I don’t want the authenticity police on my back, so let’s call it German-influenced Creole, or Creole-influenced German.

In keeping with the Creole aspect of the dish, I used a Louisiana popcorn rice, bred for its nutty, buttery flavor. After learning of Sean Brock’s method of preparing Carolina Gold, which he has served to great effect at Husk in a dish called Charleston Ice Cream, I tried it out with the Louisiana rice, aging the rice in sealed containers for a year with bay leaves from our garden, and parboiling the finished product before finishing in a low oven, with butter. The results are spectacular, even if you don’t age the rice first with bay. Try it on its own before adding the red beans and sausage.

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For the beans:

2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 whole head garlic
1/2 lb dried red kidney beans

For the broth:

3 stalks celery
1 medium yellow onion
2 serrano chiles or one very hot jalepeño, seeded and stemmed
1 cubanelle pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp rendered bacon fat
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 1/2 c smoked chicken stock or pork stock

For the rice:

1 1/2 c Louisiana popcorn rice
6 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 branches parsley
3 tbsp butter

To finish:

2 knackwurst, from above
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
Tabasco
pickled ramps
3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
chives, sliced thinly
assorted herbs and flowers: chive blossom, dianthus, oxalis, thyme, woodruff, sorrel, pea tendrils, anything growing at the moment that is edible and sounds good to you

Cover the kidney beans in water to cover plus three inches, with 1 tsp salt. Cover and stand 12 hours.

Combine the kidney beans with about 6 c water, bay leaves, halved garlic head, thyme, and 1 tsp salt, and cook for about 8 minutes at 15 psi in a pressure cooker (25 minutes if you do not soak). After releasing pressure, drain well and set aside in a colander.

Finely dice (1/4″) each of the celery, onion, and serrano chile. Thinly slice the garlic. Roast the cubanelle over an open flame and place in a sealed bag to steam off the skin. Dice finely, removing the seeds. Sweat the vegetables in bacon fat over low heat, seasoning with a little salt. Add the spices and dried thyme, and saute a minute to bring out the aromas. Add the bay leaves and thyme, and the stock. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the drained beans. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add white pepper, salt, and Tabasco to taste.

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Meanwhile, cook the rice. 200F oven. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and 1 tbsp salt. When it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir to prevent sticking. Maintain heat at a low boil for 15 minutes and drain, discarding the herbs. Spread on a sheet pan in a thin, even layer. [At this point, if you are preparing for later service, chill it down immediately in the freezer, cover with clingfilm once completely cold, and refrigerate until 30 minutes before service.] Stud with the butter and the remaining bay leaves. Bake another 18 minutes and stir.

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Cook the knackwurst over low heat until the sausage is taut and plump. Slice each into four pieces. Ladle the beans and broth in the bottom of a bowl, add a mound of rice, garnish with the sausage and the various herbs and flowers.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Baking, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Ein prosit der gemütlichkeit.

Those who did not have the good fortune to grow up in Wisconsin tend to play down its gastronomic charms as minimal, limited to cheap beer and government surplus cheese. That’s because they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re probably envious as well. You see, dining in Wisconsin isn’t just about the food; it’s also about a certain sense of comfort and happiness based in relaxing with, and feeling close to, your people – what we would call gemütlichkeit. You don’t have to be ethnically German to understand gemütlichkeit; just being from, or in, southeastern Wisconsin will get you there. Gemütlichkeit is the reason Summerfest happens in Milwaukee and not, say, Seattle, and why the University of Wisconsin has the greatest student union in America. It’s why no one minds waiting in line for sausages at Usinger’s, and random strangers will invite you to crash a party – and really mean it. It’s not really a Midwestern thing, either. Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is so much more gemütlich than other Midwestern locales that I found Minnesotans closed-off and positively chilly when I moved there.

Possibly the archetypical, most gemütlich, Wisconsin food is bratwurst, which translates in German either to “pan fried sausage” or “finely chopped meat sausage.” This description obviously doesn’t distinguish bratwurst from most other sausages, but if you’ve ever had a good brat, you know exactly what to expect – the snap of the casing, the cascade of juice, the aroma of mace and marjoram spicing up the pork and veal. It’s usually fairly coarse in texture, sometimes finer, but you always should be able to discern the texture of the meat; if it’s emulsified like a hot dog, it’s not a brat. And while we’re on the subject, it’s pronounced “braht,” like “father,” not “brat” like “apple,” or like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat.

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Brats are social food, the sort of thing you eat in the company of others, not like a sad box of Fruit Loops you eat by the handful in the car, alone. They can be pan-fried, of course, but the other standard Milwaukee preparation is to poach the sausages in beer enriched with onions and maybe butter until cooked through, and then grill over charcoal just long enough for the skins to brown, just shy of blistered. This ritual typically takes place in backyard Weber kettles, on the never-cleaned picnic area grills in the Milwaukee County Parks, or in the parking lot of County Stadium* both before and after the game. The centrality of bratwurst, and basically all sausages, to Milwaukee culture is reflected in the Sausage Race at the top of the sixth in every Brewers home game. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the Sausage Race pits people dressed as the culturally significant sausages of Milwaukee – a brat, a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, a hot dog, and a chorizo (the last two having joined the race in the last decade) – in a footrace around the stadium. The Sausage Race is highly gemütlich, providing Brewers fans a rallying point during games and uniting them around a common love of multiethnic tube meats, even while providing a source of friendly competition.**

Sausages on their marks.
***

I recently recounted to my husband a 2013 incident involving the heist of Guido, the Italian racing sausage. If you don’t recall Weenie Gate, you never heard the story in the first place, because it’s not the sort of thing one forgets. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, “The 7-foot-long weenie was lying unused in a backroom at the Milwaukee Curling Club. …[A] witness saw the sausage walk out of the south door about 7:45 p.m.” In the subsequent week, the giant foam sausage made its unauthorized rounds about Cedarburg, drinking PBRs, jamming at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, and signing autographs, before being returned by an unidentified hood-wearing man who entered TJ Ryan’s, deposited Guido on a barstool, said “You did not see anything” to the bartender, and strolled out. My husband, who has as keen an insight into Milwaukee’s essence as any non-native, immediately identified the parallels with another famous episode of gemütlichkeit gone bad: the ill-conceived “Martinifest” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In characteristic Milwaukee fashion, revelers drank so excessively that they soon engaged in such completely debauched group behavior as mounting and riding the Gaston Lachaise bronze of a standing woman. One might question why, especially in a city as soaked in alcohol and fun-loving criminality as Milwaukee, anyone thought unlimited martinis for $30 was a good idea. Perhaps the Texas-based corporate sponsor lacked the necessary cultural awareness.****

Bratwurst

The most famed bratwurst in Wisconsin come not from Milwaukee but from Sheboygan, about an hour north on Lake Michigan. The other thing that happens in Sheboygan is chartered fishing expeditions for brown trout and Chinook salmon, but that’s another story. It’s a cute town. One time, my parents went up on an impromptu day trip without telling me and, when I came home from university for the weekend, I had to break into my own house. It’s pretty uncool when the neighbors call the cops because they see someone’s legs hanging out your kitchen window and those legs happen to belong to you.

Sheboyganites get kind of tense if you talk of poaching their brats in beer before grilling, they way we do in Milwaukee. They consider it an amateur move. I don’t know about that, but beer-poaching tends to make for plumper sausages, and soften the skins a little so they burst less readily during grilling. Anyway, don’t overcomplicate your sausage-making – no need for special modernist twists, just straightforward grinding and stuffing. There is a time and place for esoteric ingredients and complex technique in cooking, but making bratwurst is not that time. Let it be about good quality meat with a decent amount of fat, and a liberal quantity of both sweet and hot spices. Making sausage with at least one other person – who can turn the crank on the stuffer or even just hang out and work the bottle opener – is more fun than doing it alone.

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950g veal shoulder
1350g pork shoulder (including a generous fat cap comprising about 1/4 the total weight of the meat)
30g salt
7g each black pepper and white pepper
5g crushed red pepper flakes
3 tbsp chopped marjoram
1 1/2 tsp smoked granulated garlic
1 1/4 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
natural casings

Dice the meats and spread on a sheet pan. Incidentally, meat proportions here are not really crucial (I set out a 3:2 ratio of fatty pork to veal, but if veal is too expensive or unavailable, you could decrease the amount of veal, or go with all pork, for example). If your pork shoulder is mostly lean, substitute some fresh belly or fatback. Freeze until firm, but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients.

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Toss with the frozen cubed meat and grind through a medium die. Add about 175g (2/3 c) ice water and mix lightly by hand just to distribute evenly. This is not an emulsified sausage so don’t beat in the water.

Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Cook within the next 3 days. If you don’t intend to use all your brats within that time, freeze on a silpat-lined sheet pan until solid and then vacuum pack in bags.

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Note: If you have access to really small-diameter natural casings (18-20 mm), such as one uses to make breakfast links, you can make something very similar to the famous Nuremberger Bratwurst (Nürnberger Bratwürste). Change the ratio of veal and pork to 1:2 (about 33% veal to 67% pork), and omit the black pepper, garlic, and red chile flake. Pinch off at 8 mm intervals and, after grilling, serve three to a roll.

For beer bratwurst:

Per 6 bratwurst:

2 bottles German-style pilsner or some similar beer
1 large onion, sliced thinly pole-to-pole
2 bay leaves
about a dozen black peppercorns and a few whole allspice
2-3 tbsp butter

Combine all the ingredients in a pan with a lid and add the bratwurst. Bring to just short of a simmer (about 82C/180F) and cover. Don’t let the liquid boil or even simmer visibly or the casings will burst. Turn over, using tongs or even just a spoon, after about 8 minutes. Cook another 8 minutes or so until completely cooked through. Handle carefully to avoid piercing or otherwise damaging the sausage casings.

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Remove to a plate and rest for about 5 minutes to dry out the casings. Finish over medium heat in an oiled pan, or on a well-oiled grill over indirect heat. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat or your brats will burst. They may take longer to cook than you like, but just have another beer and don’t worry about it.

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Serve in a split crusty roll brushed with melted butter, thinly sliced onion (rinsed in cold water and drained), and dill pickle slices, and lots of mustard, or with German fried potatoes (bratkartoffeln) and some kind of cabbage product. If you go the sandwich route, know that eating brats two aside in a roll is considered normal Wisconsin behavior and not degenerate or unduly gluttonous.

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Extra: Hard rolls

Wisconsinites are an easygoing people and not doctrinaire in most matters. Except when it comes to bratwurst. Opinions vary whether yellow mustard and ketchup are ever appropriate (certain hardass types say no, but reasonable people can disagree), and as noted above, there exists a beer/no beer parcooking divide. The one universal point of agreement is a categorical ban on the use of hot dog buns. You need a sturdy roll, crusty on the outside and airy within, to soak up the brat juices and still retain its integrity. If you do it wrong, you will be shunned.

Unless you live in Wisconsin, your supermarket bakery is unlikely to carry the right kind of roll. These hard rolls are a basic bread you can make at home in under three hours, most of which is rising time.

350g bread flour
6g barley malt powder
4g yeast
175g warm water
40g olive oil
4g salt

Combine all ingredients but the salt and knead (by hand or in stand mixer with dough hook) until smooth and not sticky to touch. Knead in the salt and place in a deep bowl or lidded container. Cover the bowl tightly and rise an hour or until doubled. Heat oven to 400F.

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Divide into 6 balls and form into ovals. Press to flatten slightly and mark vertically through the center with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place on a lined sheet pan sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and rise until puffy.

Spray with a fine water mist, place in the oven, and spray the walls of the oven with water. Bake for about 20-22 minutes until deep golden. About five minutes after putting in the rolls, mist the walls of the oven again.

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* I’m aware it’s supposedly called Miller Park now. I’m not used to that name, much like the city airport in Washington DC is and always will be National Airport.

** As the fame of the racing sausages spread, other major league ballparks adopted the use of comically oversized foam racing icons. The Pirates were first to emulate Milwaukee, with the racing pierogies, and the Nationals of course have the Presidents’ Race. This is not the first time Milwaukee set a trend rooted in gemütlichkeit. In the late Seventies, a local songwriter penned a promotional tune for Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate (WISN) extolling the virtues of the city, especially its “thousand yesterdays,” “magic ways,” and how “we’re all good neighbors passing by.” I remember all the words as every third grader in the WISN viewing area ultimately was forced to sing it at spring concerts for the next three years. In any case, the song, “Hello Milwaukee,” was co-opted by 167 cities around the United States and Canada in the ensuing years. I’m sure the residents of each of these cities thought the song was their own, but it isn’t. It’s ours. You’re welcome.

*** Published pursuant to Wikimedia Commons License.

**** In any case, Scientific American used Martinifest as a case study for how not to conduct a fundraiser in any proximity to valuable works of art. Milwaukee is pleased to contribute to these advances in scientific research.

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Breakfast, Cocktails, eggs, Latin, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts

Your medium western states.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee in the Seventies, my city was the epicenter of American prime time television culture, what with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and all. The interesting thing is it came by this fame not for displaying its contemporary charms, but by portraying a sort of idealized vision of a Fifties-era Milwaukee, evoking a sagging nation’s fondness for its own better days. If you doubt the prominence of Wisconsin in Seventies pop culture and its use as a nostalgic prop, I submit to you that, twenty years later, Fox set That Seventies Show not in New York or San Francisco or Southern California, but in my home state. As viewed through the lens of television, the whole idea of Wisconsin is like standing in one of those bathrooms with a mirrored shower door opposite a mirrored wall. You can stand there and watch yourself traveling backwards through time into infinity.

Fairly or not, in any case, the Midwest as a whole has come to represent the situs of not only American nostalgia but a sort of anti-progress, looking backward at our past as though into the endless regression of those reflected mirror images. Is it true – that we stand still while time eddies around us? Does it matter? Which brings me to South Dakota, where I recently spent a week driving around with a colleague, another transplanted Midwesterner now living on the east coast.

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Here’s the thing about living in the city: it can turn you into a glutton for novelty and status. You get to the point where you always order the one unfamiliar item on the menu, which you have scanned for words like tripe, foraged, and hay-smoked to ensure the chef, like you, has been doing his homework. Securing a cronut comes with bragging rights, until that sudden moment when they’re so over, as over as cupcakes and salted caramel, fodder for copycatting on mommy blogs and the Starbucks bakery case. You watch that Portlandia episode with an expanding sense of unease, like, are you this ridiculous? Maybe you are this ridiculous.

None of this is an issue in rural South Dakota. Your dining options are basically limited to truck stops and taverns, and you had better like beef, or you’re shit out of luck. One night during our visit, we ordered grilled ribeyes, which came with a trip to the salad bar. “You first,” I gestured to my colleague. He returned a few minutes later with a frosted glass plate of iceberg lettuce and what looked like macaroni salad. “Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned me in his low-key Michigander way, as I stood for my turn. Nestled beside the bowl of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce in the salad buffet was something I thought could be creamed mushrooms. For one demented moment, I even thought it might be edible soil folded into mayonnaise. I took a big spoonful. It turned out to be crushed Oreos folded into vanilla pudding, which, I learned the next day, is called “cookie salad” locally and may be varied by substituting other cookies or candy bars for the Oreos, and Cool Whip for the pudding. “That sounds great,” my husband said later that night, when I gave him the post-game over the phone. “Not as salad, though.”

This is the kind of food that makes sophisticates on the coasts cast knowing glances of pity and scorn on their Midwestern associates. And plant foods are not the strong point of rural South Dakota at end-of-winter, based on our visit. But the ribeyes were deeply marked from the grill, rimmed in charred fat, and mine was the perfect medium rare I’d requested. The macaroni salad turned out to be a very good potato salad, the potato grated into long shreds and bound lightly in mayonnaise. Beers were icy, served in frosted mugs. Cookie salad notwithstanding, our dinner was the kind of thing – like grilled cheese or meat lasagne – most of us love when we’re not trying to keep up appearances. Sometimes moving forward is less important than standing perfectly still.

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Breakfast Egg

A good breakfast is a lot like a good dinner in the rural Midwest. It’s inherently retrograde – probably taking you back a couple of decades at least – and delivers total familiarity, not intellectual demands first thing in the morning. Maybe you deploy a few tricks here and there – your eggs are cooked in a water bath, your sausage is house-made – but always in the service of improvement, not novelty. Like Steve Austin. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. But also like Steve Austin, the perfect modern breakfast still basically looks like the breakfast you remember.

When I was a kid, I figured out pretty early that I could do almost anything I wanted during weekend mornings if I was quiet enough not to wake my parents. This awareness inevitably led me down one of two paths: slice upon slice of white sandwich bread, toasted one at a time and immediately spread with thin curls of cold salted butter; or eggs, either scrambled with slices of American cheese (one per egg), or beaten and poured into a swirling vortex of chicken bouillon until just set, like a fluffy, poached, chicken-flavored omelet. Both were eaten watching Super Friends while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter; both were always followed, once my parents came down a couple hours later, by what I liked to call “second breakfast.”

What follows is a modern breakfast interpretation of one of my favorite second breakfasts, over easy eggs with maple-y sausage links and bacon, toast on the side. The yolk should run somewhat; you accomplish this by cooking the egg until only the white is set, chilling, and wrapping the chilled egg in sausage. If you let the egg come to room temperature before frying, you probably will end up with a set (if soft-ish) yolk.

Transglutaminase is not strictly necessary. It binds the protein in the pork to that in the egg white, but you can achieve a pretty ok effect by rolling the eggs in flour. The downside to flour is it can form an unappetizing pastelike substance when it combines with the moisture in the pork, so use only the merest coating. And if you don’t keep quarts of bacon fat around the house, pretty much any vegetable oil will do, though your eggs won’t taste all that bacon-y.

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For the eggs:

6 large eggs, at room temperature
Egg carton

Prepare an ice bath.

Bring 3000 ml (3 liters, about 3 qts) salted water to a boil. Carefully add the eggs. Cook just at the boil (not a rolling boil) for 4 1/2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and deposit in the ice bath. Once the eggs are just cool enough to handle, tap lightly all over to form shallow cracks, including at both ends. Allow the eggs to rest in the ice bath under refrigeration at least 3 hours. This allows the eggs to cool but also permits water to penetrate the cracks and loosen the shell.

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When ready to coat in sausage, remove the shell. Store the eggs upright in an empty egg carton lined with clingfilm.

For the sausage:

700g/1.5 lbs pork shoulder, quite fatty (2:1 ratio shoulder to belly if a fatty cut of shoulder is not available)
2 1/4 tsp smoked salt
2 tbsp maple sugar
1/8 tsp pimentón
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
leaves from 3 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled

Cube the pork shoulder and season with the salt, sugar, pepper, and pimentón. Freeze briefly and then add the thyme leaves and thinly sliced garlic. Grind through a small die. Cook a test quenelle and add seasoning if necessary.

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To fry:

2-4 slices bacon, depending on thickness
4 g transglutaminase (Activa RM)
4 c bacon fat
1 c flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp water
2 c panko

Set the bacon slices on a rack over a quarter sheet pan and bake at 150C/300F for 8-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until the bacon, including its fat, is just cooked but not browned. Reduce heat to 82C/180F and continue to dry the bacon until crisp, about 3 hours. Not browning the bacon is important, as browned bacon will burn once fried later. Drain well on paper towels, cool, and grind to a powder. Combine with the panko. Up to this point, you may store the panko blend tightly covered for several days in the refrigerator.

On a large square of clingfilm, spread about 75g (around 3 ounces) sausage in a thin (about 3 mm) layer large enough to cover the egg evenly once completely rolled. Note: You should do a test run to get a sense of the size of the sausage layer before proceeding to the next step as mistakes cannot be undone without an adverse impact on texture.

Sprinkle transglutaminase over the sausage surface in a thin layer (about 1% by weight, so just over .5g per egg). Place an egg in the center and gather the clingfilm upwards, covering the surface of the egg with sausage. Twist to enclose completely and form into an ovaline ball; repeat until all the sausage and eggs are gone. It is best to place these in a muffin/popover tin as you work so they remain round while they chill. Chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.

Set up a standard three part breading station and heat the bacon fat to 163C/325F. Unwrap the sausage-covered eggs as you are ready to fry. Ensure the sausage is well attached to the egg; dip in the flour, the egg wash, then the panko-bacon mixture. Fry on each side for about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with rye toast for dipping in the runny yolk.

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Bonus: Michelada

On the way home from South Dakota, I stopped at O’Hare. I never complain about laying over in O’Hare because I can stock up on Garrett’s cheese corn and have molletes at Tortas Frontera. This time, I added a cocktail to my routine. The bartender was kind enough to put it in a to go cup so I could use it to take the edge off my flight. Midwesterners are so thoughtful.

I’ve consumed many a michelada, but this was by far the best. I attribute it to the extra lime I requested. If you like drinking with breakfast at weekends, this is better than bloodies – more refreshing and far less drunk-making. I have no idea if this is how Frontera makes micheladas, but it tastes right.

Tajin* or Valentina fruit seasoning (Note: these are both dry seasonings of chile, lime, and salt and are pretty much the same. Excellent on melons, mango, and papaya. Substitute a chile salt)
One 12-ounce Negro Modelo or similar; Corona or PBR will do in a pinch
1 tsp or so Valentina hot sauce (specifically)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Maggi
Juice of two limes or one really juicy, large lime
Optional: between 1/2 and 1 shot tequila (NOT silver or blanco, and nothing really expensive)
Several ice cubes

Moisten the rim of a pint glass and dip in a plate with a shallow layer of Tajin.

In the glass, stir together the hot sauce, Worcestershire, Maggi, lime juice, and tequila if using. Add the ice cubes. Slowly pour in about 1/3 of the beer and stir gently just to combine. Add the rest of the beer. Drink with more lime.

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*Note: The Tajin bottle bears an interesting warning:

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Further note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Grains, Midwest-y, Random Thoughts, Science, Soup

Ten thousand lakes.

The year before I left Milwaukee, I worked occasional catering jobs for a woman in Shorewood who made things like cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles and buckeyes, and served Eighties-sophisticated dinner menus of roast Cornish game hen nestled alongside wild rice stuffing, and cream puffs piped into the form of swans atop pools of strawberry coulis. I loved those jobs because, in additional to being paid for plating and serving, I’d always go home with a few extra twenties from the host folded into my purse, which was the kind of tip money I normally made on a busy Saturday slinging plates at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop. And all while wearing street clothes, rather than a royal blue polyester smock and a “my name is WENDY” pin.

Because my own cooking repertoire had not advanced that far beyond pans of lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs, I considered wild rice the essence of class and fanciness and began serving it at my own dinner parties in Minnesota. A few months into law school, I borrowed a car from a friend for a shopping trip to Byerly’s market in the suburbs just south of Minneapolis, where the wild rice soup – creamy, spiked with sherry and studded with diced ham and carrots – struck me as even more elegant than wild rice stuffing, if that was possible. It quickly became part of my “for company” repertoire, much like virtually anything wrapped in puff pastry or simmered in cooking wine, and as such was similarly doomed to fall from favor once I actually learned to cook. Incidentally, if any of my old law school friends are reading this, I’m sorry I served you the same chicken breasts in white wine sauce with wild rice mushroom pilaf at practically every dinner party, and even more sorry about the omnipresent snow pea and red bell pepper sauté. I don’t even like red bell peppers.

I hadn’t eaten wild rice in perhaps fifteen years, but after a Minnesota friend visited a couple of summers ago, with a gift of maple syrup and wild rice, I decided to give the soup another shot. I gave my Byerly’s cookbook away over twenty years ago, but it wasn’t hard to recall the components and figure out the technique. Like most cream-style soups of midwestern origin, it’s built on a roux base with chicken stock, and finished with actual cream. Sometimes you find mirepoix throughout, but more often just carrots. Most versions include a generous handful of diced ham, and toasted almonds for texture. It’s the soup that eats like a meal, and once it starts to cool, the starch in the roux base gelatinizes, turning the soup into something closer to wallpaper paste.

So I took it in a different direction. I remembered reading once that, during his tenure at Porter and Frye in Minneapolis, Steven Brown updated wild rice soup to feature a delicate vegetable bisque in lieu of the roux-thickened soup, poured about a heap of sautéed brunoise and puffed wild rice. I’ve never eaten it, but I’ve long admired Chef Brown and his role in modernizing Midwestern cuisine, particularly at Levain. This is my homage.

Celery bisque, pork belly, puffed wild rice

“True” rice and wild rice represent different genera, but both are cereal grains from tall, water-dwelling grasses. Wild rice, common to the thousands of lakes dotting northern and central Minnesota, is sheathed in a nearly-black husk, far tougher than that of true rice, and never polished off. It is nuttier and more fragrant than true rice, and the husk provides an interesting texture. Most people boil the hell out of wild rice until the innards spill out and curl like the scrolls of an Ionic column. Once that has happened, the rice is overcooked and waterlogged. Stop cooking and drain the rice once the husk splits lengthwise and the interior is tender, not soggy.

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As with most starchy grains (think popcorn or puffed wheat cereal), wild rice can be puffed. For puffing to take place, a small quantity of residual water within a dry husk must come to a boil, generating steam that causes the husk to rupture. In addition, the starch must be gelatinized. This is why you can’t just toss a handful of dry raw rice into a pot of boiling oil; rather than puffing, it will simply fry to a pile of rock-hard nibs. To puff any grain successfully, you must first gelatinize the starch by cooking, and then dry the cooked grain until the outside is completely dry and only a small quantity (perhaps 5-8%) remains within. Drop the dried grains in hot oil and watch them bloom to the surface after a second or two. Note: you can accomplish this with true rice, rye, farro, wheat berries, and lots of other things. The process is a lot like making tapioca-based chips or chicharrón.

For four people.

For the smoked pork belly:

Between one and four days in advance, prepare the smoked pork belly described in this post, through the smoking step. You will need about 8 oz, plus an additional four for the brunoise below.

Coated in cure.

Coated in cure.

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You can substitute whole slab smoked bacon, which is after all what you are making.

Just before service, slice the bacon 1/4″ thick and pan-fry until crisp on the outside and warmed through on the inside.

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For the bisque:

3 bunches celery, sliced
1 celeriac root, diced
4 leeks, white and light green section only
1 qt chicken consommé (for consommé method, see here, but substitute a strong stock of roast chicken bones for the beef bones and use ground white meat chicken in the raft)
2 bay leaves
1 c heavy cream
2 leaves (silver) gelatin
1 tsp white wine vinegar
celery salt
celery leaves (from stalks)
parsley leaves
thyme sprigs

Juice the vegetables separately in a masticating juicer. Discard the fiber or reserve for a future use (note the celery fiber tends to be very stringy and may not be suited for later use unless dehydrated and crumbled).

Bring the bay leaf, the juices, and the consommé to a simmer for about 10 minutes; add the cream and simmer another 5. Do not allow the soup to boil or it will turn an unappetizing olive color as the chlorophyll degrades; your soup should rather be the shade of Crayola “spring green.” Soften the gelatin leaves in hot water and whisk in. Season with the vinegar (more or less than 1 tsp, to taste) and the celery salt. Set aside. You may reheat the soup by bringing back to a simmer for 5 minutes. Do not boil or the cream will break. This recipe makes far more soup than you need for four people; you can freeze the rest.

Note: if you don’t have a juicer, you can simmer the vegetables (starting with the celeriac, then adding the leek, then at last the celery) in the consommé with the bay until tender; remove the bay and then blend in a vitaprep until completely smooth. Strain through a chinois lined with muslin and then strain again. Omit the gelatin. Add the cream, vinegar, and salt as specified.

For the vegetable:

4 oz smoked pork belly or thick-cut bacon; diced 1/4″
2 carrots, peeled and brunoise
2 stalks celery, peeled and brunoise
small bunch chives
2-3 branches thyme
salt and white pepper

Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the diced smoked pork. Fry until crisp but not hard. Drain and set aside. Add the carrots to the fat and sauté until just becoming tender; add the celery and continue to cook until both are tender. Combine with the lardons and herbs; season to taste.

For the rice:

1 c wild rice
4 qt water
1 tbsp salt
2 c rice bran or grapeseed oil

Bring the salted water to a boil and add the wild rice. Cook until the grains are not yet split but tender enough to bite to the interior. The grain at the interior should not be hard or chalky but the husk should remain intact. Drain well.

Spread in a single layer on Silpat or parchment on a half sheet pan. Place in a 160F oven for about 45 minutes until the rice is dry to the touch and, when bitten, seems firm and dry but not rock-hard.

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Heat the oil in a deep pan allowing at least 4″ headspace (preferably 6″ or more). Once the oil reaches 370F, drop the rice in small batches (not more than 2 tbsp at a time). It will fall to the bottom of the pan and rise immediately, the oil boiling furiously. Skim immediately and drain on paper towels.

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To assemble the soup, place 2 portions of crisp pork belly in a shallow bowl with about 1/4 c vegetables and 1/4 c puffed wild rice. Garnish with celery leaves and parsley. Pour the bisque around and serve immediately.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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