Paul Ruffin's Blog

A SUMMER TREAT WORTH CONSIDERING

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: A SUMMER TREAT WORTH CONSIDERING

You know how it is when the Dawg Days of deep summer have set in and it’s hot as the hinges of hell, the birds don’t want to fly, and the dull-eyed squirrels are bushy-tailed in the literal sense only? Even though you’re starving, you don’t want to fire up the grill or heat up the kitchen, so you try to decide what might be nice for a summer lunch.
A tomato sandwich would suffice, but the bread left in the bag on top of the microwave has only the bookends in it, stiff as leather. No lettuce in the house for a regular salad or BLT, even if you had the bread. A tuna salad would work, but it’s too hot to fool with boiling eggs, and there’s no lettuce or bread, so you’d have to eat it straight. What to do, what to do?
You are about to find out what.
The idea for this light summer meal came from my days in the waters of the Gulf off Mississippi. I married into a fairly large fishing boat and got to do lots of fishing (and some shrimp trawling) with my father-in-law. For over thirty years my wife and I spent several weeks a year over there with the inlaws. (I divorced out of the boat a few years ago.)

When we fished the Gulf, it was typically an all-day affair, which meant that we had to carry sufficient provisions with us to sustain us until supper, which would not come until the fish were processed and the boat was clean. And what we carried to eat needed to be simple and quick to prepare and require little cleaning up afterwards. Spam, canned tuna and salmon, sardines, kipper snacks, sandwiches—these were the usual fare. And we almost always carried an onion for slicing and eating with crackers.

What I am proposing here is a modified Mississippi Gulf lunch, designed to be quick and tasty and filling and requiring little more in the way of cleaning up than stashing some sardine cans and bottles and paper plates. And you don’t have to worry about a fish making a reel scream just as you’re getting ready to take a bite.

The focal point of this surf-and-turf dish is a can of sardines, preferably two-layer brislings packed in olive oil. (These days I buy them by the case from Amazon.) If we didn’t catch a fish the entire day, we could always boast about having had them for lunch. They have a peel-tab top, easily opened, and the little flat can is fine to leave them lying in until you scoop them out to eat.

You must also have crackers (Club or saltines), some strips of Extra-Sharp Cheddar, strips of onion (red or white or yellow), and a container of mayonnaise (which needs, of course, to be kept in the fish box or refrigerator after opening). Beer is the final ingredient, any kind you like.

Here’s how you go about it:

You gotta be outside, and it needs to be hot enough that the beer becomes as important as the sardines. One reason you have to be outside is that your wife—and kids, if you still have any hanging around—are going to gripe about the smell of sardines. I know that there are women and kids out there somewhere in the vast dimensions of this country who like both the taste and smell of sardines, but the only place I’ve observed this phenomenon was in European countries bordering the North Atlantic or Mediterranean. Likewise, I’ve never met a cat who wouldn’t be willing to fight you to death over your sardines, and this is where the onions really come in: You can lay on a table or bench in the back yard an open can of sardines with a mine field of slices of onion around it, and no cat will go near it.

OK: You’re outside and it’s hot, and you have your ingredients together. Now cometh the glorious process of building your tasty little treats and scarfing them.

Take a cracker—Clubs are more suitably shaped for this enterprise—and smear it with a bit of mayonnaise mortar, lay on a strip of cheese and press it into the mayonnaise. Now extract from its olive oil bath a sardine and arrange it on top of the cheese, no matter which direction it’s pointing, since it’ll go down nicely in either direction.

Finally, take a slice of the onion and drape it over the whole shebang, look around you to make certain no one is watching, and then shove it into your mouth and let your molars do the rest. Chase each one with a minimum of two slugs of beer.

This recipe will take care of your hunger and cool you off, and your taste buds will be quarreling over which ingredient tastes the best. Finally, it is not likely that you’ll end up having to share this meal with anyone in the immediate household.

So there you have it: one of the cheapest and tastiest summer snacks you are ever likely to encounter.


STRETCHING OLD BERTHA OUT

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: STRETCHING OLD BERTHA OUT

All right, last week I told you how I roast our chickens to our level of perfection. You might find one that tastes better, but I doubt it. Not bragging here—it’s just that by this point in my life I know what a really good roasted chicken tastes like, and ours meet the measure.

After you have Bertha browned nicely, take her out of the foil she’s been roasting in and remove some of the drippings to make gravy to serve with rice and some of that fine breast and thigh meat. If you don’t know how to make chicken gravy, forgive me if I don’t take the time to tell you: I’m not responsible for all the things your momma never taught you about cooking.

Go ahead and use most of the breast meat, because what you’re about to make requires less of it than anything else on the bird. Make a little chicken salad if you’ve got enough left over. No, I’m not going to tell you how to do that either. I’m an English professor, not a chef on your payroll.

OK, let’s say that you get two good meals out of the main meat of the chicken, so she’s already paid for herself, but if you discard what’s left of her without going on through with my plan for Bertha’s remains, you might as well just give up on wringing all the juices out of living.

See, all that nice brown skin and all the little pieces of meat still clinging to the bones are the best part of the taste left in her. T russ me (joke there). You are going to need some supplemental chicken meat here, so be certain to have on hand four large thighs with skin and bones. You’ll understand this better by and by.

Put three quarts of water (seasoned with a good helping of Better Than Bullion, which I told you about last time) into a boiler, slide in the remains of Bertha: I mean everything left of the bird, including the neck that you saved from that cute little package the chicken folks hid in her for you. Bring her to a good hard boil and render her down for a couple of hours, then let’r simmer a bit and cook off some of the liquid.

Now, take those four large chicken thighs I mentioned earlier and put them in a couple of quarts of chicken broth made from Better Than Bouillon and boil them for hour or so and then let’m simmer a bit.

Once it’s clear that you’ve boiled all the taste out of the carcass that you’re likely to coax out, pour the whole mess through a fine strainer and set the juice aside. Go ahead and turn the heat off on the thighs and let them sit there in their savory juices.

The most tedious part of this process is separating the edible meat from the not-unless-you’re-at-the-road-kill-hungry-stage meat. It’s a really important step, though, unless you want to hear your mate griping about the little bones later on.
Once you have the meat separated, dump it into a large stock pot with the juice left over from the carcass rendering, and pour in the remaining juices from the foil you cooked ol’ Bertha in.

Now strain the thighs, add the juice to the main pot, then discard the bones and fat from the thighs and throw the good meat into the pot. The reason you use thighs with bone and skin is that you extract a whole lot of fine chicken juice, and the dark meat gives the dish a whole lot more flavor than more white meat will. There are those who will argue about this, and they’re not lying: They just don’t know any better.

Whooopie, now you have that fine pot of chicken juice and meat in the pot and ready to be fired up for the next ingredient: the dumplings.

Purists among y’all out there will argue that you don’t really have genuine chicken and dumplings unless you go through the long and painful process of making your own dumplings. Once upon a time it was the thing to do. Today you go to the store and buy packages of Mary B’s Open Kettle Frozen Dumplings, which are already in little floured strips that must be cut or snapped to size and introduced to that marvelous meaty broth you have going in the pot. These things can be a little messy to fool with, but they are worth the effort, and they taste just as good as yo’ grandmomma’s dumplings.

Take the whole 24-ounce package, cut or break the dumplings to size, and chunk’m in to cook at a low boil for a little less than an hour, and you are set for some fine eating. (If, by the way, you want to thicken them, add a little corn starch; if you want to thin them, add a little water.)

Folks, you’ll get another two or three days out of Bertha if you follow my instructions here, and you’ll love every molecule of her. Truss me. (Yeah, again.)


STRETCHING OLD BERTHA OUT

by pauldruffin

STRETCHING OLD BERTHA OUT

All right, last week I told you how I roast our chickens to our level of perfection. You might find one that tastes better, but I doubt it. Not bragging here—it’s just that by this point in my life I know what a really good roasted chicken tastes like, and ours meet the measure.

After you have Bertha browned nicely, take her out of the foil she’s been roasting in and remove some of the drippings to make gravy to serve with rice and some of that fine breast and thigh meat. If you don’t know how to make chicken gravy, forgive me if I don’t take the time to tell you: I’m not responsible for all the things your momma never taught you about cooking.

Go ahead and use most of the breast meat, because what you’re about to make requires less of it than anything else on the bird. Make a little chicken salad if you’ve got enough left over. No, I’m not going to tell you how to do that either. I’m an English professor, not a chef on your payroll.

OK, let’s say that you get two good meals out of the main meat of the chicken, so she’s already paid for herself, but if you discard what’s left of her without going on through with my plan for Bertha’s remains, you might as well just give up on wringing all the juices out of living.

See, all that nice brown skin and all the little pieces of meat still clinging to the bones are the best part of the taste left in her. Truss me (joke there).

You are going to need some supplemental chicken meat here, so be certain to have on hand four large thighs with skin and bones. You’ll understand this better by and by.

Put three quarts of water (seasoned with a good helping of Better Than Bullion, which I told you about last time) into a boiler, slide in the remains of Bertha: I mean everything left of the bird, including the neck that you saved from that cute little package the chicken folks hid in her for you. Bring her to a good hard boil and render her down for a couple of hours, then let’r simmer a bit and cook off some of the liquid.

Now, take those four large chicken thighs I mentioned earlier and put them in a couple of quarts of chicken broth made from Better Than Bouillon and boil them for hour or so and then let’m simmer a bit.
Once it’s clear that you’ve boiled all the taste out of the carcass that you’re likely to coax out, pour the whole mess through a fine strainer and set the juice aside. Go ahead and turn the heat off on the thighs and let them sit there in their savory juices.

This most tedious part of this process is separating the edible meat from the not-unless-you’re-at-the-road-kill-hungry-stage meat. It’s a really important step, though, unless you want to hear your mate griping about the little bones later on.
Once you have the meat separated, dump it into a large stock pot with the juice left over from the carcass rendering, and pour in the remaining juices from the foil you cooked ol’ Bertha in.

Now strain the thighs, add the juice to the main pot, then discard the bones and fat from the thighs and throw the good meat into the pot. The reason you use thighs with bone and skin is that you extract a whole lot of fine chicken juice, and the dark meat gives the dish a whole lot more flavor than more white meat will. There are those who will argue about this, and they’re not lying: They just don’t know any better.

Whooopie, now you have that fine pot of chicken juice and meat in the pot and ready to be fired up for the next ingredient: the dumplings.

Purists among y’all out there will argue that you don’t really have genuine chicken and dumplings unless you go through the long and painful process of making your own dumplings. Once upon a time it was the thing to do. Today you go to the store and buy packages of Mary B’s Open Kettle Frozen Dumplings, which are already in little floured strips that must be cut or snapped to size and introduced to that marvelous meaty broth you have going in the pot. These things can be a little messy to fool with, but they are worth the effort, and they taste just as good as yo’ grandmomma’s dumplings.

Take the whole 24-ounce package, cut or break the dumplings to size, and chunk’m in to cook at a low boil for a little less than an hour, and you are set for some fine eating. (If, by the way, you want to thicken them, add a little corn starch; if you want to thin them, add a little water.)

Folks, you’ll get another two or three days out of Bertha if you follow my instructions here, and you’ll love every molecule of her. Truss me. (Yeah, again.)


HOW TO GET THE MOST MILEAGE FROM YOUR CHICKEN

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: HOW TO GET THE MOST MILEAGE FROM YOUR CHICKEN

One of the positive aspects of growing up poor is that you learn how to utilize as fully as possible the elements of diet that are available to you, from vegetables to animals hunted down or raised for slaughter. These lessons typically stick with you long after you no longer have to worry about where your next meal is coming from.

Let us consider, for example, how much mileage one can get out of a chicken if managed properly.

Amber and I are not fanatics when it comes to the issue of the meat we buy, since we meet it only after it’s been sealed in plastic or dressed for presentation in a butcher’s case. We prefer free-range, organic chickens and grass-fed beef and avoid as much as possible anything treated with antibiotics and hormones, but we’re not going to decline meat that does not meet those criteria nor worry ourselves into a frenzy trying to determine the degree to which it does.

So we go with Kroger’s Simple Truth poultry, which may or may not—depending on whom you believe in their recent squabble with consumers over the truth about their chickens—be as pure a life form as advertised.

We’ll buy one of their five- to six-pound girls, wash her thoroughly, remove the little package from the body cavity (retaining the neck for further use), and then brine her. Brining is an essential step if you want to end up with a chicken that is tender, tasty, and juicy. If for some perverse reason you don’t, then forget about brining her and get on with the roasting.

Now, brining is marvelously simple, involving nothing more than putting a gallon or so of water in a large pot, dumping in a cup of coarse salt and a quarter cup of sugar, stirring until everything is dissolved, and then submerging the bird for six to eight hours. Rinse and dry her off when the brining process is finished and let her sit overnight in the refrigerator, covered only with a piece of paper towel. Though I understand the process by which brining works its miracle, it is a bit too complicated to try to explain here: The point is that it works.

After her overnight chill, lay the bird on a platter or tray and melt two or three tablespoons of butter, then brush her all over, top and bottom and ends and sides, with the butter, followed by a liberal application of Lowry’s Seasoned Salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper. (Throw on anything else you’ve a mind to want.)

Lay the old girl on a piece of aluminum foil large enough to wrap her totally when you’re ready to slide her into the oven and get together your ingredients for injection. That’s right, Bubba: You’re going to do this right and inject Bertha with what I tell you. Otherwise I’m wasting a whole lot of strokes here. Frankly, a well-brined chicken will be moist enough, but it’s not just moisture that we’re after here–it’s flavor too.

I use a heavy-duty stainless-steel injector that easily breaks down for cleaning in the dishwasher, and will hold around three ounces per charge.

The first step in preparing a good injection mixture is to melt three tablespoons of butter in six ounces of apple juice. Stir in a teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon chicken base, a dash of onion powder, and a dash of garlic powder. Blend it all really well in the microwave.

Inject the mixture in several areas of the breast, thigh, and drumstick, using as few injection points as posssible and moving the needle about beneath the skin so that you don’t have the injection liquid squirting out a dozen holes.

Once you’ve finished your injection, replace any of the surface prep that’s been rinsed off and cradle the chicken in two layers of foil and lay it in a large Dutch oven on a rack with at least three quarters of an inch of water in the bottom. Then add a pint or so of chicken stock made from Better Than Bouillon directly to the bottom of the foil the chicken is resting in.

Slide the bird uncovered into a 220-degree oven, insert a temperature probe with remote, and let her cook slowly until she reaches 180 degrees, basting the chicken every couple of hours. When the alarm goes off, remove the temperature probe, turn the oven on Broil, and add a little extra browning.
[Next week I’ll tell you how to stretch out your chicken to get the most mileage out of it.]

Paul Ruffin is a Texas State University System Regents Professor and Distinguished Professor of English at SHSU.


TALKING TO THE EGG MAN AT THE FEEDSTORE

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: TALKING TO THE EGG MAN AT THE FEEDSTORE

Y’all know that off and on over the years I’ve ventured off onto the subject of eggs and pretty much whipped the subject to a frenzy, inclined as I am not to let sleeping dogs or anything else lie around without giving it a little kick to see if can I rouse it.

Here I am back on eggs again, not because I particularly wanted to write about them this week, but I bumped into a guy at a local feedstore and fell into a conversation that I felt compared to share with you.

As you probably know, most of our feedstores carry fresh eggs brought in by customers who have found themselves with so many on hand that they can’t use them up or foist them off on family fast enough to keep them from going bad (eggs, not family, since you don’t have much control over family–they can go bad no matter what you do). Anyone who’s smelled one knows how far along in the odor spectrum the, uh, rotten egg falls.

Tinny rate, I was nosing around to see whether they had any seed potatoes left, not that I’m likely to be planting any SINCE I’M A CRIPPLE. (Did I mention that? If and when I get to the point that I can walk right again, I can’t use the word cripple to describe my condition, for a couple of reasons.) You never know about miracles these days . . . .

Well, I looked over to where the fresh eggs are kept (in an old refrigerator or two in most feedstores) and saw this overalled fellow bending over messing around with the egg cartons, only he appeared to be rearranging them instead of fetching out a couple, so I just rollated over and axed him how he was and how the egg situation looked. You know, just being friendly.

He said, “Fine and fine.”

“Checkin’ out them eggs?” See, I like the vernacular: It puts a guy in overalls at ease.

“Layin’ some,” he said.

“Sir?”

“Puttin’ in a few cartons.”

This is where the real conversation began. I just naturally enough asked whether the eggs were from free-range chickens.

He thought about his response a few seconds and then took an egg out of one of the cartons. It was large, brown, and speckled, like his hand.

“This here look like a store-bought egg to you?”

“Might. You can’t tell nothing about a egg from its cover.”

“My chickens is free-range, got secure, private roosts. Got their own pen to run around in during the daylight hours.”

“So they eat bugs and worms and grass . . .”

“Yep, everthang they sposter eat to be called free-range.”

“Are they certified free-range?”

“Certified by me.”

At that he stood up straight and squared his shoulders, fixed his eyes on me.

“But I rekkin that ain’t enough for you, is in? What you sposter be anyhow, scootin’ around with that fancy walker with wheels? You a egg inspector?”

I slammed the handles hard. “This here is a rollator, not a walker, which is why it has wheels. It rolls, it don’t walk.” Again, my grammar can drop three levels in a heartbeat. “And I ain’t no kind of inspector. I just want to know about eggs I buy before I go and buy’m.”

“At’s fair enough. You interested enough to drive out to my place and check out my chickens, bein’ as yer so interested in their eggs?”

I looked at my watch and made a decision.

“Yeah. Give me a chance to load the rollator in my truck, and I’ll be right behind you.”

“At’s fine. I’ll be in that big gray Dodge Ram diesel out there by the feed ramp. You’ll hear me before you before you see me.”

I nodded. “OK, It’ll take me a few minutes to get ready, but I’ll be right behind you.”

[Next week I visit the Chicken Ranch.]


THINKING ABOUT EXPIRATION DATES AGAIN

by pauldruffin

THINKING ABOUT EXPIRATION DATES AGAIN

I used to get so bloody sick of having my wife tell me when I started out for the store for her, “Be sure and check the date on the milk.” I’ve got to fondle a dozen jugs of milk in order the find the date farthest away, while behind me I can hear sighs of exasperation from impatient ladies who want to get their milk and be on to another aisle.

Or one of the kids would say, “Ooooh, we can’t touch this chocolate milk–it goes bad today.”

“Well, don’t throw it in the dumpster. It might leak out and kill everything downstream when it rains.”

You are not going to swallow milk that’s bad. This I can guarantee. Unless your head is so stopped up that you probably ought not be out of bed. You might get some past your nose and into your mouth, but it’s going back out the way it came in, and fast. Once it goes “blinky,” as my friend Don Stalling used to put it, you can’t swallow that stuff. Or if you can, it’s a miracle you’re alive anyway. And you won’t be long. Something’s gonna get you.

They’ve got to be conservative, don’t they?

I’ll guarantee you I’ve got cans of potted meat and baked beans left over from my early survivalist days–and I haven’t been a staunch survivalist since I wrote a story about it eight or ten years ago and made enough fun of myself that I got it out of my system–that you could eat right now and not experience a bit more gas than you’d have had if you ate them the day they were canned.

It’s like at a minute before midnight you can slug that stuff right down and be fine. A minute after and you’ll die from it. Why can’t they give you a range, a bracket–Expires somewhere between June 11 and 17, or maybe Expiration: circa June 15 2017. Or perhaps they could be more sensorially oriented: “Once this stuff turns dark, don’t eat it,” or “If this starts to stink, throw it out,” or “When you can no longer see a flashlight beam through the liquid, don’t drink it,” or “At the first sign of bubbles, discard,” or “If you detect movement in the jar, throw it away.” Maybe, “Throw away if you detect a bulge at the ends of the can.” These are precise directions that any fool can follow.

And by the way, I am convinced that you can safely eat anything from a can that isn’t bulging and be just fine. Might not taste as good as the day it was canned, but who would expect it to? I recall reading about some canned goods being found in the hold of a ship that sank well over a hundred years ago, and when researchers opened them, they were still edible.

And just who the hell needs an expiration date on a loaf of bread? If you pick it up and it doesn’t bend in the middle, sort of drape in your hand, it’s probably pretty old. If you wince and your veins stand out when you try to press your thumb and fingers together on it, or if it clangs on the shelf when you lay it back down, you know not even soup will soften it. If it has green splotches on it, hogs probably wouldn’t have it. Just move on to another loaf that feels and looks right.

Do you know that they even put expiration dates on bottles of water? Stamped right there on it. Presumably purified water in a sealed container, but you have to drink it by July 7, 2017, or throw it away. This is water that trickled and surged and oozed around under the ground for thousands of years, and it’s going to go bad in a few years just because somebody pumped it out and bottled it?

Did you ever stop to think that this is all a grand collusion to make you dump your stores and buy more?

I keep expecting to open a Crescent wrench from Amazon with a little line of print across the package: “Use by January 2018 or discard.” Or an anvil from Northern Tools: “Best if used by March of 2020.”


SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO WET-AGE A RIB-EYE

by pauldruffin

Those who slaughter and process beef have for centuries recognized what aging does to meat that is properly stored and managed.

Before the advent of modern plastics and vacuum sealing, dry aging was the only method used. During this carefully controlled aging process, moisture evaporates from portions of beef ranging in size from a complete carcass to a full loin, producing what is usually described as a “richer, beefier flavor.” At the same time, the natural enzymes in the aging meat tenderize it by breaking down fibrous connective tissue.

Dry aging is done in a refrigerated environment in which the humidity is kept consistently high to prevent total dehydration of the meat and the temperature ranges between freezing and thirty-five degrees. If the temp is too high, there is a risk of spoilage; if the meat freezes, the aging process stops.

Since dry aging requires special facilities and careful attention over several weeks (up to a month) during the process, most meat that you buy is not aged, simply because it is not cost effective. Indeed, only high-end restaurants are likely to offer fully aged beef.

The problem with dry aging for the individual beef consumer is that the loss of the inedible outer crust, which must be trimmed away before the meat is sliced for cooking, is simply too great for single steaks. By the time you slice off the crust around the edges and from the top and bottom, you’ve lost probably a quarter of the weight of the steak.

And this is where wet aging comes in . . . .

Thanks to the vacuum sealer, available at a reasonable price almost anywhere small kitchen appliances are purchased, anyone may wet-age individual steaks or roasts.

Purists will occasionally argue that dry aging imparts a richer flavor than wet aging, but I aver that that is not the case: Both enhance the favor and tenderness of beef, and the difference between the end products is not worth debating. Besides, even if dry aging resulted in a slightly beefier flavor, the difference is certainly not worth the expense and bother.

But back to wet aging . . . .

Now, I cannot think of a small kitchen appliance that surpasses the vacuum sealer in all-around usefulness. You can find a way to do with relative ease almost anything any other small SKA

will do, but there is no way under the sun that you can extricate from a plastic bag the volume of air that a VS can without sucking up the bag and everything in it. I’ll be singing the praises of the VS in a later column.

Here’s the way I wet-age a steak . . . .

I’ll just talk you through what I did this afternoon (Saturday). Nolan Ryan beef was on sale at the Willis Kroger this week, so I phoned the butcher and had him cut us a three-pound chuck roast and five rib-eyes, which Amber picked up on her weekly grocery run.

I took the meat out of their little packages and rinsed and dried them and laid them out on a tray while I made Food Saver bags with my vacuum sealer: This is a matter of estimating about how much space the meat in each bag will take up and then cutting them to length after allowing an extra couple of inches for sealing. My vacuum sealer has a built-in cavity for a full roll of plastic-bag material, and it has a little cutter blade that will zip through the material and make a very straight and precise cut.

I slid the roast and each of the rib-eyes into their own little bags and sealed them, then stashed them in the meat drawer of our laundry-room refrigerator. It’s always good to wet-age meat in a refrigerator that isn’t opened and closed several times a day, since maintaining a fairly constant temperature of around 34 degrees is critical.

Once these vacuum-sealed piece of meat are sealed and stashed, you should leave them alone for a minimum of 20 days, preferably a full month.

After they have served their sentence in the cold and dark, they are ready to freeze or eat. I generally take out the batch, grill one up for the two of us, and freeze the others. Once they’re aged, they freeze nicely and keep very well up to a year. Recall that they have been vacuum sealed, so no air can get to the meat to produce freezer burn.

Note this: A wet-aged steak or roast will have an unpleasant smell when you open it: not a truly offensive odor, like the smell of decay, but one that you will note. This is to be expected as part of the enzyme action of the aging process. You just rinse the meat off and pat it dry and get on with cooking it. (I don’t find it nearly as offensive as dealing with that moldy crust on a dry-aged chunk of meat.)

Well, there you are, folks. Give wet aging a shot and see for yourselves the difference it makes in taste and tenderness.


HOW TO MAKE A GREAT STEAK BETTER

by pauldruffin

HOW TO MAKE A GREAT STEAK BETTER

No matter how great a cut of meat might be, if it is not prepared properly, it cannot live up to its potential.

Take the rib-eye, to my way of thinking the finest steak there is, bar none: more tender than any cut but the tenderloin but far more flavorful than that expensive cut. Argue all you will about the supremacy of the T-bone or Nyawk Strip or Porterhouse, but you will never convince me: I am totally sold on the rib-eye.

Howsomever, there are things that you can do to a rib-eye to extricate it from mundane splendid and promote it into a far superior class. Oh, sure, seasonings might help, and cooking it just right will add some edge. But here’s what you really need to do . . . .
Before I get on with this, let me backtrack a few millennia.

OK, scene set: It’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere much at all, and Grog has just settled down for a nap after another unsuccessful hunt, his foraging having yielded nothing more palatable than a handful of roots, which Grogette has dutiful set to roasting over coals left from the sunup fire.

She has gone back into the cave to rummage about and try to find a bone with some kind of savor left in it, perhaps an unsmashed femur with its marrow intact, anything to avoid another tasteless bellyful of fibre.

The bellow from the cave shivers the very leaves above Grog’s head, setting his world spinning as he stirs for fight or flight.
“Whu—whussup, Baby?”

He stands warily watching as she storms out into the light, holding a dark crusty lump of something in her hand.

“I’ll tell you whussup, fool,” she says, shaking the dark thing at him, “you run off and lef’ a piece of meat hangin’ back there in that cave till it has rurnt. It ain’t fit to eat!”

She draws back her arm and throws the chunk of meat at Grog’s head, but he dodges and it bounces off a tree and ricochets across the clearing.
When the dust has settled and Grogette has gone back to her work at the mouth of the cave (knitting having finally come into fashion in the community), Grog walks over and fetches the lump of meat, wipes the grit off of it and sniffs it, gives it a poke or two.

“Seems like to me it ain’t totally gone bad, Baby. I spect we can salvage something from it.”

“Naw, we can’t, Grog. It ain’t nuthin but a scab is whut. Might as well just go on and thowe it to the dogs. I ain’t eatin’ nonna that.”
Grog winces and sits down on a log and starts carving on the chunk of meat, eventually whittling away the crust to reveal a deep-red, soft interior, which he skewers on a limb and holds over the coals.

After a little while, he lifts the piece of meat from the heat and takes a bite.

I do not know the sound a swooning caveman makes, but Grog makes it. He takes another bite and swoons.
Grogette walks over and leans down, looks him in the face.

“I tol’ you it was bad, fool. That meat done went bad is whut, and you done eat some of it. Gon’ thowe yer guts plumb out is whut.”
But Grog is not moaning from pain or a bad taste: Grog is moaning from pure pleasure.

See, what has happened is that for the first time in recorded history—only because Grogette had the common sense to knit into the blanket she was making a little symbolic tale of what Grog had done—a human being has aged a piece of meat and recognized what he has done.

As the camera (imaginary, of course) fades from the scene, we see the two of them hunkered over the remains of the chunk of meat, going at it with great fervor.

[Next week I’ll focus on modern techniques for aging beef and instruct you on how to age individual steaks to perfection.]


NO HAMBURGER, STEAK, SALAD, BBQ, OR PIZZA

by pauldruffin

NO HAMBURGER, STEAK, SALAD, BBQ, OR PIZZA

My kids always found it difficult to believe that I never tasted hamburger or steak or salad or barbecue or pizza until I was in high school.

Sooo, Ruffin, remind us again of the name of the planet you grew up on.

Sand Road, five miles or so from Columbus, Mississippi.

So what’s this binness about your not having tasted these American culinary mainstays before you were in high school, man? Surely there’s a hefty element of exaggeration floating around here.

Nope. It’s so.

See, my folks didn’t believe in restaurants/cafés. That’s where rich people ate. Ordinary people ate at home and raised most of what they ate. My brother and I would be treated to a “cone a’ cream” at the Dairy Dip on the way home from church some Sundays if we’d behaved ourselves sufficiently well during Sunday-morning service. I confess that I did not have ice cream very often.

The first restaurant I ever recall having eaten in was a Howard Johnson’s on the way to Washington on our senior trip. The busses stopped somewhere over in Alabama, and I had a ham sandwich that cost fifty cents. (Yeah, that was a long time ago.) I recall how rich I felt fishing from my pocket some of that hard-earned-and-squirreled-away money that Mother slipped me for the trip. I don’t remember any food the rest of the way, just that ham sandwich that cost so much. (If it had been up to Daddy, I would have eaten from a paper bag the whole time.)

None of the kids that I ran with owned a car or had spending money, and there were no fast-food places within an easy bike ride, so hamburgers and pizzas remained mysterious foods that the kids up town ate.

Once I entered high school, I quickly discovered across the street from campus the DSO (Dairy-Something-or-Other) that catered to students and teachers, and it was there that I had my first hamburger: a round of ground beef between the halves of a mayonnaised bun. Oh, my Lord, it was to live for! In a year or so I’d enter the perilous world of way-out cuisine and have cheese and tomato on mine.

Somewhere along toward my junior year I started riding my bike to a Dairy Dip over on Highway 82, a couple of miles from the house, and buy a hamburger or BBQ sandwich, which I readily enough fell in love with. I’ve save money from wherever I could get it, usually from selling Coca-Cola empties back to Dowdle’s Store (a general store that served the rural community) for a couple of cents each, and indulge myself when I had enough laid back. After Mother started working at a hardware store in Columbus, she’d slip me a little change from time to time, making it a bit easier for me to live that lavish lifestyle.

I met my first pizza one evening when a couple of friends and I rode our bikes over to a place called Pasquale’s and split one in the parking lot. On the way over, the boy who’d actually eaten a few slices of one kept calling it a pizza pie, which was strange to me, since it wasn’t sweet, the way pies were supposed to be. It was round, though, decidedly round, and powerfully good.

The first salad I partook of was in the school lunchroom. One day they served what they called a pear salad, which had a pear half with a cheese-sprinkled dollop of mayonnaise in the hollow. I didn’t touch the lettuce, which Daddy referred to as rabbit food. My folks raised just about every Southern vegetable in the book, but never lettuce, mainly because nobody in the family ate it. I don’t know when I came to like salads, but a number of decades flowed under the proverbial bridge before I crossed that particular one.

The first steak I ever had was in the Army when what landed on my stainless-steel tray was a slab of hamburger meat cooked gray and smothered with brown gravy. Wasn’t bad at all . . . .

I’ve been to eighteen foreign countries and most of our States, and I have enjoyed the food in all of them. To be sure, there are few dishes today that I have not tried and liked. I’d still take fairly fresh roadkill to liver and chitlins, but everything else is, uh, fair game . . . . I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do.

Next week I’m gonna tell y’all what to do to a rib-eye to make it about as savory and tender as you’re likely to find one.


RECALLING DOBBER’S LIGHTER, PART II

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: RECALLING DOBBER’S LIGHTER, PART II

It was a magic moment for me: the smell of that lighter, on the side of which a nearly naked woman stood, the jarring explosion that jiggled the ground, the bulge of water and puff of blue-white smoke that seemed to come from Hell itself, then fish floating up, stunned.

“How can them things burn under water,” the other boy asked him.

“They just can,” he said, and he lit another in his hand, held it for what seemed like a long time, and threw it high in the air, where it tumbled, fuse fizzing away, until just as it struck the water it exploded and flung a fine spray upon us. Another he held even longer and threw higher. It exploded way above us against that blue deep morning sky, ka-boom, and a big cloud of smoke drifted off down the creek.

“Where you get it at?” I asked Dobber as we walked up toward the pasture.

“My daddy brought’m from Jackson, but I ‘spect you can get’m uptown in Columbus.”

“I mean the lighter.”

“My uncle give it to me. He brought it back from France after the war.”

“What war?” the other boy asked. “You talking about the Silver War?”

“No, fool, not the Silver War! And it’s Civil War, not Silver War.”

“Mawmaw calls it the Silver War.”

“Then she’s calling it wrong is all.” Dobber gave him a look that should have shut him up.

But it didn’t: “What war then?”

“World War II, idiot child.”

“How many’s there been?” I mean, he just never knew when to shut up.

“Two, so far. Now shut up about it.”

I pointed to the lighter. “Can I see it?”

He looked at me. “It ain’t the lighter you want to see. It’s the woman, ain’t it?”

“Both,” I said.

Dobber looked wisely at me. “What’ll you give me?” He sniffed. “To see her, I mean.”

“Pretty much anything I’ve got, but I ain’t got much. I got some extra BBs, a box of .22 Shorts, and I can steal some of Daddy’s shotgun shells. What’ll it take?”

Dobber studied on it a few seconds—seemed like minutes to me. I knew I was about to get skinned, but I wanted to see that lighter. No, not the lighter. The woman on it.

“If you’ll run my Grit route Saturday, I’ll let you hold it for a full minute.”

In those days the Grit newspaper was sold in little Southern town and distributed in the rural areas largely by boys on bicycles.

“You’ll have to show me where everybody lives at that gets it, but it’s a deal.”

We shook on it and he handed me the silver lighter and I studied the woman with the red bathing suit on–two small red spots where her breasts should be, and something like a short skirt for the bottom part–turning her this way and that in the morning sun. I lifted the lid and watched her head and left hand pivot away from the rest of her, then come magically back together when I closed it.

“She didn’t have no clothes on at all, but my aunt painted that bathing suit on her, with fingernail polish.”

“You mean she was nekkid?” the other boy asked.

“As a jaybird,” Dobber said.

I rubbed my fingertips over the tiny body. “You seen her? Without the fingernail polish?”

“Just once, but it was a quick look my uncle give me before my aunt take’n it away from him and painted that bathing suit on. Or whatever it is. She said it was a bathing suit.”

I studied the woman. “Can we take it off?”

“I thought about that, but what if she come off with it? She’s painted on too, you know.”

“If we was real careful, we might could, with the tip of my pocketknife. I think we ought to try.”

“Not if there’s a chance she’d scrape off too. Might mess her up. We ain’t going to do it.”

“I mean just–”

“No. We ain’t going to do it. Give it back.”

I handed him the lighter, which seemed very warm in my hand, like it was alive.

I ran Dobber’s Grit route that Saturday morning, the way I promised. It was a long, hard ride over gravel, and two dogs almost nailed me, but I made it. For days I thought of fire burning under water, that muffled explosion deep in the creek, and nightly pondered the lady from France on the side of the silver lighter, long blond hair swirled about her lovely face, those long slender legs, wondered what she looked like before Dobber’s aunt took the polish to her.


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