Beef, It’s What For Dinner

Thursday night – weekend agenda time. The graphic above gives you a little clue what’s in store. But first things first, we are sleeping in both days. Never mind that sleeping in constitutes laying in bed half awake until 8:30 at the latest now. It’s still better than 6:50. And the alarm clock will never go off, which is like getting a small reprieve in and of itself.

The family has shuffled some vehicles around so that we can have one of the spare cars for the next three weeks while we are officially on baby watch. I guess this means my son has a near-zero chance of being born in the back of a taxi or on the el. Which for the record, sounds completely unappealing and horrifying to me, but would make a cool story later on. Having the car also makes it easier for me to get to my now weekly prenatal appointments while still in this blasted cast. And easier to run pre-baby errands, which is why I’m blathering on about the car in the first place. We’re going to attempt a little excursion out to suburbia on Saturday morning to collect the last baby odds and ends and food storage things for the great freezer fill-up. And if I get tired and sore hobbling about in my walking cast, maybe I can ride one of those carts with the shopping baskets. I’ve always wanted to try one, and now I have a legitimate double-whammy reason to – nine months pregnant and in a cast!

But I digress. While sleeping in and running errands is completely fun, the real agenda this weekend revolves around ground beef. Yes, you read that correctly. While the canner may be tucked back into the closet for the season, the stockpiling of food has not quite ended. I don’t want to get stuck eating take out four nights a week after we bring the baby home because we’re too tired to grocery shop and cook. And we couldn’t even afford it anyway. Comfort food is what I’m after, and I’d like a freezer full.

So to maximize my limited mobility, energy and time, this week’s star ingredient is ground beef. And ground pork, but I couldn’t think of catchy title that incorporated both. I’m doing four recipes for the freezer that use one pound each of ground pork and ground beef – bolognese sauce, meatloaf, sweet and sour meatballs and Norwegian meatballs.

The bolognese needs additional prepped veg and whatnot that gets cooked with the meat into the sauce, but I’ll put that one on first so it can perk away in the background. The other three dishes are just a combo of ground meat, bread crumbs, eggs and various seasonings. The meatloaf will probably get a little Milwaukee Iron for spice. The sweet and sour meatballs will actually get frozen plain, because the sweet and sour sauce takes all of two seconds to whip up and is better fresh anyway. So I can actually make one giant batch of meatballs, then divide them in two – one half plain and the other half with the spices that make them into Norwegian meatball goodness.

All of the dishes can provide 2-3 meals in of themselves since they’re generously proportioned. So that’s 8-10 dinners in the freezer for an hour or so of work! And they can all be reheated simply in the oven or on the stove top and served with quick and easy pasta or rice or potatoes. I love great things that come together easily. And it will be so good to sit down to home cooked family favorites, even if – well, especially since – we’ll be totally exhausted with out of whack schedules while we’re adjusting to our new family routine.

In other food related projects, I’ve also got to make pesto from our basil this weekend. I’ve got the pine nuts in the fridge, and I’m whipping out the never-used blender to make up a cheese-less version for the freezer. I wish I could do it up properly in a mortar and pestle, but the only one I have is about the size of a tablespoon. Need to put a larger version on my wishlist for sure. But I guess the blender will finally get a chance to earn it’s keep. And if I don’t do the basil this weekend, we’re going to lose it for the season – it’s been wanting to flower so badly, and we’ve had to go nuts to keep up with pinching back the blooms. If it flowers, it’ll get so bitter we won’t be able to eat it. It’s a touch bitter now, but not so much that it’s a write off. But it’s pesto now or never this weekend, since it got delayed last weekend after the hot pepper situation.

So that’s my Saturday plan. Suburban shopping in the morning and ground beef in the afternoon. And since I’m hoping those only take a few hours a piece, copious amounts of time sitting on the back deck with a good book and napping. And Sunday – nothing. I promised husband a zero-honey-do weekend and I intend to deliver (the suburban shopping excursion was his idea!).

Preservation Fever… AKA Nesting…

I’m in the process of getting fifty pounds of tomatoes as well as hopefully a flat of hot peppers and cucumbers lined up from the market on Sunday. I really hope Midnight Sun has a good haul to set aside for me, because I need desperately to have a pantry full of dry goods all of a sudden. Every late summer/early fall I get this way. The days are noticeably shorter – dusk arrives at around 8:15 now instead of 9:00, and the unbearable heat of early August seems to have moderated. The early morning even has just the slightest hint of cool on the breeze. It’s getting to be that time of the year.

This year, however, I’m at a fever pitch. Nine months pregnant and completely nesting. I swore up and down all summer I was only going to do tomatoes, especially with the broken ankle. But my husband seems to have been bitten by the canning bug (at least a little bit) because he asked me the other day what else we could put up with the water bath canner to fill in our pantry. So we pulled out the books and thought about what we’d get the most mileage out of over the winter. Pickled hot peppers immediately came to mind for use in chili, soups and sauces along with the tomatoes. And a couple of pints of kosher dill pickles. So it looks like we’re going to add those into the rotation as well. I’m hoping we can get 14 quarts of tomatoes done this Sunday with both of us working on it. And another 14 the weekend after. That would put our total at 33 jars. Do I dare try to fit in another 14 over Labor Day weekend, a week before the baby is due? That would put us 47 jars… pretty close to my original goal. But I think I might have to play that one by ear. Tomatoes will likely be winding down at that point anyway.

We’re also going to buy several quarts of berries at the market for freezing this weekend. Hopefully we can get a half flat of blueberries, since those are husband’s favorites. And maybe some sweet peppers for the freezer too, if we can get a good price.

In October, we’ll have two bushels of apples to stock pile – I plan to can one bushel so can we have apple pie filling, and then maybe do a little juice and applesauce with the other bushel. And of course we’ll have plenty for fresh eating for a little while out of that too. And in late September I’ve got to head up to the Evanston market to get a couple big containers of cranberries to can into whole berry sauce. One holiday dinner element in the bag! And we’ll buy up a pint or two of chestnuts for the freezer for holiday meals too. And that reminds me – we’ll need to buy a garlic braid, a half gallon of maple syrup and another two gallons of honey to see us through the winter too. Good god, that seems like a lot of money when I start to add it up – $100.00 for the garlic and honey alone! But food in the pantry is almost better than money in the bank to me. You can’t eat a credit card when times are lean.

And then there’s there freezer! After nearly five years of talking about it, we finally bit the bullet and spent the money on a small chest freezer. We opted for a 7.0 cubic square foot model, and it’s being delivered on Saturday. It can hold around 210 pounds of food! Just the right size for our needs. The primary catalyst for the purchase after all this time is, of course, the baby. Frankly, we need somewhere to store breast milk so we don’t have to buy formula for him in those times down the line when we’re not attached at the hip. The cost of the freezer will repay itself relatively quickly in what we’ll save on the cost of formula. And the added benefit is that we can now buy bulk meats and stock up on freezer things.

I’m already talking to a few farmers to get pricing on half hogs and quarter steers. The half hog will net us about 75 pounds of pork, and around $282.00 seems to be the going rate. The quarter steer gives around 126 pounds of beef, which is about twice as much as we have room for. So we’re hoping my husband’s parents will be interested in splitting a quarter with us (I think they will – they love bulk shopping). If so, we’ll get about 63 pounds of beef, and the going rate for that seems to be around $272.00. As we generally only eat a few pounds of meat per week, this will easily last us through a year. Just think – one outlay of cash, with a big part of your food supply stashed away. No worries about the price of beef or pork going up so much you can’t afford it, because it’s already paid for and sitting right in your freezer. I like that kind of security.

And now that the freezer will be here soon, I can start making double batches of whatever we’re having for dinner and freezer up the extra. Bolognese sauce, bacon and whiskey chili, and minestrone soup are all on my list. They’ll be great to have on hand for the first few weeks after the baby is born and we’re all still getting used to our new routine.

So am I sounding a little crazy? A little obsessed? Yeah, probably. Nesting on top of that fall instinct to squirrel away a little extra for winter is likely a bit much. But it will be great come January when we have a pantry and freezer full of good things to eat, without worrying about the budget and trudging out in the cold and snow to pick up something for dinner!

The Home Cure – Mission Pancetta

It’s about time for me to do another round of bacon again. I’ve got a third of the last five-pound slab in the freezer, that was done in a maple syrup and cracked pepper brine and apple smoked. We’ll likely use that up this month. I haven’t touched the skins from the last batch yet, which I use in the kitchen the same way a ham hock is used – to flavor soup. But January is my favorite month for soup, so that won’t last long either. I’ve got a 15 bean mix in the pantry that is just dying for some porky goodness.

The major question for me when doing bacon is whether I should try something new in the cure, or stick with my maple and pepper original. It’s just so good. But juniper sounds good too – I still haven’t used any of the berries I picked up at Spice House before Thanksgiving. A juniper brine, hickory smoked perhaps? I’m certainly thinking about it.

I’m also thinking about pancetta. I have a minor love affair with pork belly, and another minor love affair with Italian food. What combines these two wonderful things more readily than pancetta? My bolognese is the absolute favorite thing that I make at home – it’s my ultimate comfort food. If I’ve had a long day at work, I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and spend and hour and a half in the kitchen just cooking. Nothing soothes the soul better than prep – the methodical deconstruction of basic vegetables with a good, sharp knife. But I digress – it’s the pancetta, after all, that is the point here. The pancetta they sell in the market comes in little plastic packets from Italy (or, if I can find it and afford to pay more than what I’ll pay for even the imported stuff, La Quercia American-made pancetta from Norwalk, IA). Both options are very good pancetta, don’t get me wrong. But they’re very thinly sliced, as though they were slivers of proscuitto to be served with melon wedges. I like a little more heft in my bolognese, slices just a few shades thicker than paper-thin. I want the luscious, silky fat to ever-so-slightly render out with the mirepoix and garlic, so it perfumes the base of my sauce with porcine goodness.

Of course, I’ve convinced myself that the only way to achieve this dream-like state of affairs in my next bolognese is to make the pancetta myself. Doesn’t it always seem like I can convince myself of these dire necessities all too easily? But alas, a good bolognese cannot be burdened any longer by store-bought pancetta. I’m an old hand with bacon now – I’ll even be sharing my skills with the Food for Thought ladies as soon as we can arrange a suitable date. But pancetta is new territory for me.

To get inspired (as though the quest for still-better bolognese isn’t enough of a motivator) I decided to find out what my fellow culinarians were up to when it came to the magical transformation of raw pork belly into irresistable pancetta –

– I found a ridiculously gorgeous couple of photos in the LTH thread Cure Meat Everyday. It was produced from Polcyn’s and Ruhlman’s recipe in Charcuterie (which is the one I’ll likely use).

– I also stumbled across an old 2009 post about DIY pancetta at Cured Meats, as well as an even earlier post. They’re so enthusiastic and informative, I know I’m on the right track doing some of my own.

– Because it just popped into my head that pancetta-wrapped quail would also be a delicious use of home made pancetta, I searched out this recipe from La Cucina Italia.

So, February is to be the month of cured pork!