Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Roasted Chicken, Biscuits and Gravy

Four small cottonwood trees, cut and stacked, seasoning for future use.

The log cabin is a bastion of warmth along 
the cold waters of Clear Creek.

     It is cold.  It was 2°F outside this morning when I awoke.  Ruby and I are impatiently awaiting an upcoming move to southern Oregon for a wider range of employment opportunities and higher quality, local foods.  Also, I must admit there is reason enough to migrate from this cold weather.  An inch or two of very fine powder fell in overnight but the magnificent crystalline formations found along the creek made an early rise worth the effort.  Minus 30°F is the lowest I have seen the thermometer read here, although it is said to have gotten even colder than that.  It hurts to breathe when it's that cold.  Winter has arrived and I am thankful for the abundance of firewood that I cut, split, and stacked on this side of the creek.  The new temporary bridge I built in October has been helpful as well, especially for transporting the wood via wheelbarrow.  
      A hydrologist and equipment operators have been working tirelessly on the new, permanent bridge's abutments and on stabilizing the banks of the creek by redirecting the inertia created during the high-water runoff, which could erode the foundation of the house.  (The footbridge we use to access the house was washed away in June.)  Four small cottonwoods were, unfortunately, rooted where the new bridge is to be placed.  That meant that I needed to fell, buck, and stack the rounds to season the wood for next year.  Cottonwoods burn well but are very fibrous and, therefore, difficult to split unless thoroughly dried.  The log cabin, which we have called home for the last year, is heated primarily by a large Rumford fireplace (which Ruby helped build) and a Glenwood cookstove.  The crackling fire centered in the home satisfies the soul throughout the bitter, lonely winters.  It's a good thing we have so much wood too, did I mention it's cold?

     Family has begun to arrive for the holiday and a surprise visit from a friend has also helped to warm the house.  Michelle Jorgensen went to high school with me in Martinez, California.  We did not know each other well back then, but worthy relationships certainly don't always develop in such a simple manner.  When Ruby and I lived here a few years ago (before moving back to California, only to return last fall) we left a few pictures of my family and us on the refrigerator.  A family friend whom was staying at the house for a few nights had invited some co-workers over to hang out.  At the time he was working at a local dude ranch with many other young adults from around the country.  Michelle was also, at the time, working at the ranch after spontaneously deciding to relocate to the rural wilds of Wyoming.  When she recognized me in the photos and, then later my father (who was her P.E. teacher in elementary school), she must have felt some sense of cosmic warmth in knowing just how small this world can be.
     Since then, Ruby and I moved back to Buffalo last fall to work at that same ranch. Michelle and I have gotten to know each other a little and mutually appreciate each others' blogs.  She writes a travel blog showcasing her adventures here and around the country with her stunning photography and intriguing stories of a life seldom experienced.  The blog is called travel 'til my home is found.  She sent me a message the other day, which informed me that she would be in the area with her friend Andrea, and asked if I would be interested in getting together for a Blog Party, of sorts.  Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, making friendships hard to come by.  I was thrilled, not only to have a friend visit, but also to have an excuse to make delicious happen, yet again.
     I decided, considering the weather, that we deserved some good ol' fashioned comfort food.  Ruby and I have, over the years, developed a self-induced infatuation for oven-roasted chicken with biscuits and gravy.  I am comfortable stating that I don't think there is any room for improvements on this recipe; I'm pretty sure it's perfect.  Rendering the fat from the skin in a hot oven first, then slow roasting the chicken (while basting it in its own fat every 12 minutes) produces a moist, golden bird.  Saturating the bird in its own flavorful juices produces a tender meat, eager to fall off the bone.  Gravy that is chunky with gizzards, heart, liver, and neck meat provides an appropriate vehicle to truly enjoy the simplicity of a perfect biscuit.  A healthy melange of fresh vegetables to accompany everything makes this simple meal an elegantly heart-warming reach into American memory.  The meal evokes a certain magical nourishment, the value of which is often over-looked in today's fast-paced hustle and bustle.  I love gravy, so much.

     Good chicken stock is crucial in making any sauce or gravy.  It should only be made from  vegetarian, all-natural, organic (if possible) chickens free from antibiotics.  A roux, which is equal parts (by weight) of fat and flour stirred over low heat until light blonde colored, and slightly nutty to the smell, thickens the stock to a saucy consistency while the offal contributes to the gravy's savory richness.   Pan drippings from the roasting pan are a welcome addition to this wholesome sauce which is brightened by subtle flavors of thyme and garlic.  Ideally, the gravy can be made while the chicken is roasting and finished with the pan drippings.  Use this recipe interchangeably with turkey, duck or even breakfast sausage by simply replacing the meats and, if possible, the stock.
     The chicken is seasoned with salt, black pepper and a blend of ground spices including cumin, paprika, coriander, red chili pepper, onion, garlic, and dried cilantro.  The Spice Hunter makes a wonderful salt-free spice blend called Mexican Seasoningthat works perfectly in a pinch.  If utilizing the convenience of this pre-made blend I will still add some paprika for coloring and flavoring.  High quality spanish paprika lends warmth to the overall profile of this hearty dinner with a mild, spicy heat.  The biscuit recipe that I use can be found in The New Best Recipe, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated.  Unfortunately, I am not permitted to post the recipe without their permission, but if you email me, I can share our adapted version.  We have found that replacing the dairy with rice milk and all-natural butter substitute can create a wonderful vegan product.  (Soy-Free Earth Balance is probably the healthiest spread on the market.)  This book can answer many technical questions as their wealth of knowledge, obtained within a test-kitchen, comes from multiple variations of the same recipe (something far out of reach for most cooks.)

Seasoned, oiled, ready to roast.

Roasted Chicken

4-5 lb fryer chicken, rinsed and dried
Spice rub with paprika, garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, red chili pepper, and dried cilantro
Salt and black pepper
olive oil

  • Preheat oven to 425°F
  • Roast chicken on top rack for 25 minutes.
  • Drop temperature to 325°F and baste exterior of bird with fat from the pan.
  • Baste every 12-14 minutes, roast for 1 1/2 - 2 hours basting one final time 15 minutes before pulling from the oven to maintain crispy skin.
  • Rest on cutting board for at least 20 minutes before carving.

Finished chicken, ready to carve.

Country-Style Chicken Gravy

2 Tbs vegetable oil
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups water
1 Tbs dried thyme
2 cloves garlic (minced or grated)
1 Tbs paprika
114 g AP flour
114 g butter
1 chicken neck, gizzard, liver and heart
1/2 cup roasted chicken drippings
salt and black pepper

  • Braise seasoned gizzard, heart and neck in oil and 2 cups water.
  • Combine flour and melted butter in sauce pan.  Stir constantly over low heat until blonde in color and slightly nutty smelling.  Let 'roux' cool to room temp.
  • Saute seasoned liver in oil. 
  • Remove neck meat from the bones and chop with gizzards, heart, and liver.
  • Bring stock to a boil, whisk in cooled roux and simmer an additional few minutes to thicken, stirring occasionally.
  • Add meat, thyme, paprika, and garlic.  Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  • Add chicken drippings, once finished basting, stir to blend.
  • Season to taste.

I apologize for the blurry photos.  'Delicious' was more important.


Braised Kale with Bacon

1/4 lb bacon cut into small 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 lb kale (tuscan black kale, cavolo nero, lacinato kale) washed and rib removed
1 clove garlic minced
2 Tbs Cholula hot sauce, or medium-high mexican chili hot sauce
1/4 cup water
Pinch salt

  • Render the bacon by first placing it in a cold pan, then slowly cooking the fat away from the bacon, 'till crispy.  Then blast the heat.
  • Add garlic and kale.
  • Toss a few times until the kale is wilted. 
  • Then add water and hot sauce.  
  • Toss again, then cut the heat.  Toss again.

Sometimes dinner needs to be convenient for a group, so I utilize residual heat by stacking precariously.
Sometimes I spill delicious food everywhere, beware.

     Silence, broken only by scratching fork and knife, satisfactory grins after a swirled sip, clean plates and a request for more: success.  Thanks Michelle, Andrea, Renee, Jimmy, Carmen, Joe, and Ruby for such a wonderful excuse to have some fun and eat well.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Venison Pastrami Reuben

Large group of grazing mule deer in the distance.

     Venison is readily available in Wyoming this time of the year.  There are so many deer that the cops are allowed to kill more than 75 deer within residential city limits.  "Put an orange collar on Fido, the 'Good Ol' Boys' are hunting with handguns!"  Unfortunately, the deer are more comfortable in town than they are in the wilderness because of the pressure the annual hordes of hunters place upon the animals.  Also, they have more food later in the year which can be found in residential gardens and manicured lawns.  
     A friend provided a nice-sized hind leg of local whitetail deer for our enjoyment and I have decided to produce some pastrami with a portion of it.  The rest of the leg was cut into steaks and ground into a HUGE meatloaf with bison and pork for Ruby, Renee, Jimmy and me to enjoy.  They are currently working relentlessly on their mobile trailer, which endured some nasty road damage during their last leg from the east coast.  Holiday season brings distant family together and soon we will have 11-12 guests for Thanksgiving this year; a real treat for Ruby and I who rarely enjoy a holiday with family due to the demands of professional cooking schedules.

Front yard feeding is a safe choice for this whitetail fawn.

Stay alert little one.


     I have recently made a bunch of corned venison with cabbage, carrots and potatoes from the doe that was donated to us last year.  However, I have not made pastrami before, and I have yet to 'go for the gusto' and make a venison reuben sandwich from scratch (except for the swiss cheese).  Rye bread, saurkraut, pastrami, swiss cheese and Russian (thousand island) dressing are the traditional components of a reuben, which is warmed on a griddle and served hot.  The reuben sandwich is a quintessential 'melt' of heaping flavor that tastes, in my opinion, like deli.  The pickled cabbage, peppery, smoked meat and sour rye combine to create a ubiquitous flavor one can only associate with American delicatessens.
     Pastrami is corned beef brisket which is coated in cracked black pepper and coriander, smoked to an internal temp of 150°F, then steamed for 2-3 hours.  However, I will be using the eye of round cut from the hind leg of the deer.  Brisket is from the chest of the animal, which is not very large on deer.  The pastrami is brined for 7 days in sodium nitrite, kosher salt, spices and water.  Sodium nitrite tenderizes and maintains a red-colored flesh while preventing the possibility of lethal botulism bacterial growth.  Increase the value, depth, and reach of the pepper and coriander by lightly toasting the spices before grinding to release the essential oils.  I decided, for this pastrami, to add some minced garlic to the exterior rub for a little extra zip.  Since oak trees don't grow out here in the northern midwest I used applewood with some alderwood mixed in to create a gracefully sweet smokiness.  I baked a rye bread recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg, M.D..  This is one of those few, revolutionary books you must have if you like to eat fresh bread but don't have a lot of extra time to make it.
     A few weeks ago I made a fresh batch of saurkraut which has fermented for both one and two weeks (for those who like it more strongly flavored).  Saurkraut is cabbage that has been pickled in its own juices with some salt to control the bacteria at a safe level.  This method, which uses minimal salt, relies on crushing the trapped water from the cellular structure of the leaves, which then creates a high-salinity juice for everything to pickle within.  It is important to weigh down the saurkraut with a water-filled plastic bag or ceramic dish during the fermenting to prevent spoilage.  Three tablespoons of sea salt is all that is needed for five pounds of chopped cabbage.  Sea salt is optimal for pickling vegetables because of its mineral content which keeps the product crisp and brightly colored.  The process of bashing the cabbage to obliteration is time consuming but produces an authentic, high-quality condiment.  We used to make giant batches of this stuff at work for a menu item, which I must say, is both fun and painstakingly arduous.  
     I made a stop-motion film with photographs to document the process.  This short film depicts an hour-long process of cabbage bashing followed by weights, filled with water, placed on top to keep the product submerged.  It just so happened that a dear old friend, and fermented cabbage aficionado, Mortimer Bickle stopped by during a business trip while I was putting together the video and offered to provide a voice-over for informational enrichment.   

                                         Soundtrack by Garage a Trois


And now I feel the need to apologize for that.  I know, It was pretty bad . . . Sorry.

Finished saurkraut (weighted down and covered loosely with plastic wrap) ready to ferment.

Deli Style Rye
from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg, M.D.*

3 cups lukewarm water
1 1/2 Tbs granulated [active-dry] yeast (2 packets)
1 1/2 Tbs kosher salt
1 1/2 Tbs caraway seeds, plus more for sprinkling on top
1 cup rye flour
5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Cornmeal for pizza peel [or thin board]
Cornstarch wash [1/2 tsp cornstarch mixed with small amount of water added to 1/2 cup water.  Bring to boil or microwave for 30-60 seconds on high until mixture appears glassy.]

  • Mix the yeast, salt and caraway seed with the water in a 5 qt bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container.
  • Mix in remaining dry ingredients without kneading, using a spoon ... or heavy duty stand mixer (with dough hook)...
  • Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.
  • Refrigerate ... for two more hours and use for up to 14 days.
  • Preheat oven to 450°F, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack.  Place an empty broiler tray on any other [rack] that won't interfere with the rising bread.
  • Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and cut off a 1 pound (grapefruit sized) piece.  Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go.  Elongate the ball into an oval-shaped loaf.  Allow to rest and rise on a cornmeal-crusted pizza peel [thin board] for 40 minutes.
  • Using a pastry brush, paint the top crust with cornstarch wash and then sprinkle with additional caraway seeds.  Slash with deep parallel cuts across the loaf, using a serrated bread knife.
  • Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone.  Pour one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray, and quickly close the oven door.  Bake for about 30 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm.
  • Allow to cool before slicing...

Venison Pastrami

Corning Brine
     *This brine recipe is the same I use to make corned venison, just simmer it in a covered pot with water and aromatics for 5 hours.

3-4 lb venison round or loin (with excess fat and silver-skin removed)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 oz sodium nitrite (Instacure #1)
5 dried bay leaves
4 Tbs black pepper
3 Tbs coriander seed
1 tsp whole mustard seed
1/2 gallon water

Smoking Rub

2 Tbs coriander seed, freshly ground
5 Tbs black pepper, freshly ground
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced

  • Combine all brine ingredients and bring up to simmer, stir to disolve salts.
  • Cool to room temperature in plastic food-safe container large enough to accommodate the roast and brine.
  • Place meat in brine so that it is completely submerged, use a stone or weight to hold it down if necessary.
  • Brine for 7 days in refrigerator.
  • Remove from brine, rinse and dry.
  • Coat in mixture of garlic and lightly toasted, ground black pepper and coriander. 
  • Smoke at 225-255°F over oak, apple, plum, cherry, alder or hickory wood until an internal temperature of 150°F is reached.  
  • Remove from smoke and place on rack above steam tray and cover. Place in 275°F oven or on low heat on the stovetop .
  • Lightly steam for 2-3 hours.
  • Slice very thin, serve warm or cold.

Russian Dressing (Thousand Island)

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup tomato ketchup
1/4 cup sweet relish


3 Tbs sea salt
5 lbs thinly chopped cabbage
1 tsp caraway seed

Deer Reuben Sandwich,

     You taste good.  
Well, actually you taste great!  Thanks for being delicious.  

Your friend,  



*Francois, Zoe , and Jeff Hertzberg. Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day:The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.