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  • blood sausage 1

    Last year I fell in love with blood sausage.  Maybe that sounds strange.  So let me explain.

    In Estonia, around Christmastime, they begin to fill up the meat counters, black and smooth. Just piles of them.  When Christmas comes, everyone roasts pork and potatoes, makes sauerkraut, and serves them with blood sausages.  And it wasn't until I had them as apart of this ritual that I began to understand.

    Blood sausages are a celebration of the pig's life and the bounty it brings. When the animal's life is ended, nothing should be wasted. In Estonian, they are known as verivorstid, which literally means "blood sausages." (The Estonians are straightforward people: they're not like the English or French, who sidestep the issue by calling it "black pudding.") This year, I wanted to recreate them for Christmas at my wife's parent's house in Indiana.

    The making of blood sausage in her family is nothing new, and has a certain lore. Early on, I was regaled with a story of my father-in-law answering the doorbell in 1983 with blood up to his elbows--opening the door to a couple of surprised members of the International Police. With shocked faces, the Interpol agents were able to regain their composure long enough to state their business (following up on someone who had rented the house and evaded taxes on an RV). The measured response--"let me just get this blood off my hands"--was about the perfect, and only, way to respond.

    My problem was finding pig's blood. It's illegal to sell it these days, at least to the public. I called butchers all over Chicago and between here and Bloomington, Indiana, who all gave me the same answer. I even got close with a pig farmer in Southern Indiana who ended up backing out at the last moment for fear of retribution. What was I, buying illegal arms?

    blood sausage 2

    Have you ever read Stuart Dybek? He's a wonderful Chicago writer who writes magical stories about urban life. Looking for this blood, I thought back to his story called "Blood Soup" about a couple young kinds looking all over Chicago for duck's blood to make a traditional Polish soup for their dying grandmother, as she believes it will cure her. There's something very strange and dangerous about calling around asking for animal blood. There's an understanding between parties that something serious is at stake.

    I know you're expecting all the gory details, or for me to go on about the gross-out factor. But blood sausage is actually really natural and wonderful when you think about it. While I admit that the concept might be frightening, this is one of those foods that will really surprise you once you taste it. Meaty without the texture, not at all metallic like you might imagine if you've ever sucked on your cut finger, deep and rich. Similar preparations exist all over Europe--black pudding in England and Ireland, boudin noir in France, morcilla in Spain--each made of blood mixed with grain to hold the sausage together.

    Eventually, I had to settle for beef blood, which is legal to buy and sell. Why beef blood is okay but pork blood isn't, I couldn't say. But I was assured that it would behave just about the same way, and Paulina Meat Market, who sold me a gallon of the stuff, said it's what they use for their own blood sausages.

    I picked it up on the day we left town--it was frozen--along with a tub of hog casings for making the sausages themselves. The next day, armed with a funnel, we spent the day boiling barley, sauteing salt pork with onions, stuffing the casings, and poaching them in water. A couple days later, we crisped up the sausages in the rendered fat from a gorgeous leg roast until they were hot and steaming and crisp all over.

    This is the story of how we got there.

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  • jerk chicken 19

    My first bite of jerk chicken, fresh from two hours of mingling with smoke, was everything I wanted it to be.  The rub of allspice berries and black peppercorns mixed with fresh ginger and thyme and created this incredible aroma --one that I couldn't help but adore.  I was completely happy and content until quickly, and without much warning, the spice hit.  A double dose of habanero cut through all of that complexity, ringing my lips with intense heat that unleashed the first of many small tears to drip down my face.  I took a drink of wine, which only seemed to ignite the pain even more.  I reached for a glass milk to squelch what I could, but it only delayed the onslaught.  Against what should have been better judgment, I dug back in for another bite. 

    I had been interested in jerk chicken ever since watching Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations eat some out on the nighttime streets of Jamaica.  These roadside stands cooked them in enormous old oil-drums that had been retrofitted into smokers.  The chickens were rubbed with a jerk spice mixture of allspice berries and scotch bonnets (a relative of the habanero), among many other things, that turned the flesh a deep, dark brown, just one shade away from black.  But when Boudain bite in, the flesh shone white and juicy.  I wanted some.

    For help I used this New York Times article that explored the jerk chicken available around Brooklyn.  It was then that I found out what was in the spice rub.  The predominant ingredient was allspice, something I don't really use that much.  But it seemed to be absolutely crucial to the dish.  In fact, on the island of Jamaica they use the wood from the allspice tree to cook the meat.  Something, unfortunately, I wouldn't be able to use.  Oh well.  I used some nice and mild apple wood.   The rub also included black peppercorns, thyme, ginger, garlic, scallion, and brown sugar.  I could smell it already.

    I also found this recipe from eGullet, and I loved how they traded the dried and ground spices for fresh ones.  They toasted whole allspice berries with black peppercorns and then ground them fresh.  What it honestly reminded me of was the care and patience that goes into a good barbecue rub. 

    jerk chicken 02

    But its insane heat sets it apart.  Mixed in with all of these spices were two habaneros.  The spice of these is unlike that of, say, a whole bunch of blunt jalapenos.  Those are nothing.  One of these little orange guys can completely change the feeling of a dish, and two, well, is just crazy.  I thought about adding that third one, but I might not have lived through the experience had I gone through with it.  Surely, this is not a dish for those who don't really like spice, or who think jalapenos to be a tad risqué.  I shirk such thoughts.  Give me more.

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  • how to make paneer 1

    The concept of making cheese has always fascinated me, the idea that you can take milk and add a little acid (or rennet) to magically separate it into curds and whey. Milk seems like such a stable liquid, a wholesome elixir of childhood, but with a little citric acid, lemon juice, yogurt, or rennet it completely de-stabalizes into thin, watery whey and fat chunks of curd.

    What you do with the curd presents endless possibilities. In Montreal they stud it into gravy-covered fries to make Poutine, a glorious dish I had the pleasure to sample in a search through Montreal. But usually what the curds become is proper cheese, pressed into molds to age with various bacterial cultures, becoming anything from Cheddar to Parmesan.

    There are many cheeses, though, that require no aging or bacterial cultures: ricotta, for example, or Greek feta.

    Though Nick has explored making ricotta cheese using citric acid tablets, I was on the search for something made more easily with household ingredients. Ricotta is sometimes made with lemon juice, and I thought about exploring that--but I've recently become fascinated by paneer, which is an Indian cheese that's heavily pressed into cakes and fried.  While ricotta is meant to be fluffy and creamy, all the liquid is mercilesly pressed from paneer to make a dense, crumbly cake. Its taste is clean and milky, and I love how it can be caramelized in a pan -- the combination of savory and dairy is intriguing.

    how to make paneer 8

    A while back, a good friend of mine in New York from India had his parents in town visiting, and they cooked a lavish meal for a handful of friends. One of the dishes was Mattar Paneer, a simple curry with peas and  paneer (the literal translation is "Peas and Cheese"). His mother was kind enough to email me the recipe, both for homemade paneer and the curry.  The paneer recipe is the only one I've seen that uses yogurt instead of lemon juice or vinegar.

    What follows is a step-by-step, fully photographed overview of the process.  It's pretty foolproof, and a lot of fun.

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