Paul Ruffin's Blog

WORKSHOPPING A COWBOY POEM, PART II

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: WORKSHOPPING A COWBOY POEM, PART II

[If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll recall that I was out in Midland a few years ago to speak at a poetry event, and a couple of lawmen knocked on the door of my hotel room. After they had come in and sat down on the edge of my bed, I asked them what it was all about.]

“Tell you what it’s about,” the short one said. He glanced at the door, then continued. “We heard the clerk mention that you had something to do with poetry. . . .”

I was surprised at how quick my draw was. “Naw, he said poultry. As in chickens. I’m in the chicken binness. We got a chicken convention going on here too, you know. ”

“Hell’s bells,” the tall one said. “A chicken man. We mighta knowed it, Darrell. ”

The short one stood up. “Yeah, well, we sorry to trouble you. We was hopin’ we could talk to you about poetry, but we don’t care nothing about chickens, except when they’re fried. Come on, Redus.”

At that I waved him back onto the bed. “So what exactly did you want to talk to me about in reference to poetry?”

The one named Redus lifted his hat and scratched his head, put his hat back on. “We write poetry, me’n Darrell here, and we was hopin’ we could talk to you about it. But a chicken man don’t–”

“Hey, I was joking about the chickens. You just have to be careful when people find out you’re into poetry. ”

“Tell us about it,” Darrell said.

The upshot is that they were a couple of deputy sheriffs from Laredo who were also cowboy poets, which you hear a lot about these days, and they were eager to share their art with anyone who would listen. They thought maybe I was some kind of big-caliber poetry authority, so they were especially interested in hearing my response to their work. I told them that no, I just published a little poetry along and edited a journal and press.

They said that was enough authority for them, more than they were accustomed to, and asked whether I’d listen to their poems. It was early and I didn’t have anywhere to be, so I said sure, why not? This is almost always a mistake, you see, but these guys did have badges, and they were big–the guys, not the badges, which were pretty much regular size.

Here’s the poem the one named Darrell started off with–he passed me a handwritten copy of it:

I got this cow named Molly,
Who most of the time is jolly,
But she hung a tit on a bob-wire fence
And now is melancholy
And won’t give no more milk.

With the two of them sitting on my bed, I relaxed in the only chair in the room and read the poem over, twice, then said, “Would ‘teat’ be better than ‘tit’ maybe?” You have to start somewhere, you know, and that seemed like as good a place as any.

“Teat?” Darrell said.

“Yeah. That’s the, uh, the more formal term for one.”

“Don’t nobody say ‘teat’ for ‘tit’ out here. Where you from?”

I cleared my throat. “Huntsville. Mississippi before that. But that’s neither here nor there.”

“It might be. I can’t bleeve anybody from Mississippi would call a tit a teat.”

“Let’s just drop the teat–or tit–for now.” I shifted gears. “For a poem about a cow it’s nice enough, I guess, but a little sad, and–”

“It ain’t about no cow,” Darrell said. “I mean, yeah, it’s about a cow on the surface, but it’s deeper than that, the way poetry’s s’posed to be, you know. There’s a cow in it, sure, she’s there, but there’s a, there’s a–hep me out, Redus.”

“It’s gettin’ deep in here alright. Hell, I don’t know what yer trying to say. I thought it was about a cow too.”

[Next week we talk more about the cowboy poem.]


WORKSHOPPING A COWBOY POEM, PART I

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: WORKSHOPPING A COWBOY POEM, PART I

The knock was loud and authoritative and persistent, so, still fully dressed from the trip up, I slid off the bed and parted the curtain and beheld before my motel door, brethren and sistren, two massive men clad in western wear, from black pointed-toe boots to white cowboy hats, and they were wearing badges. One was a shade taller than the other, and both of them were glancing left and right.

Knowing little else to do, I eased the door open the space the security chain would allow and said nicely, “Howdy, how y’all. What can I do for you?”

I forewent the line that we have all learned from television–“Have you got a warrant?”–because the only questionable thing I had with me was a flask of peppermint schnapps to sooth a sore throat.

Even before I finished, one of the burlies up and said, “Can we come in? We want to talk to you.”

But let me get some background in here.

I had to fly out to Midland that weekend to present a program to the Permian Basin Poetry Group for their World Poetry Day Conference. They paid me well and covered all my expenses, so I was glad to go. Besides, these things can be fun–you meet lots of new people, sell and sign a few books. And when you get home, you take the family out to a restaurant and have a big, fine meal, then announce just before you rise to leave the table: “Children, poetry paid for this meal and will cover half the insurance bill due State Farm on November 1st.”

When I got to the Holiday Inn there in Midland and started to check in, the clerk couldn’t find my reservation. While he was working at it, I stood there studying all these big cowboy types around me, most of them in jeans and western shirts, cowboy boots and white hats, like they were all on the same team, and some of them had badges. Looked like they had just tied up their horses out front. Only they must have left them out back, because I came through the front and would have noticed horses tied to the shrubbery.

“Who’re these guys?” I whispered to the clerk.

“Oh, it’s a shurfs’ convention we got going on here. Shurfs and debidies from all over.”

He stepped back from the computer and yelled to a heavy woman in the back, “I been through it twice and I can’t find Mr. Ruffin’s reservation. ”

After a few seconds of silence a voice came back, “Ruffin?” A long pause, then, “Oh, Larry, I know now. Look under Poetry. The Poetry Society. They brought him in.” She made it sound like they had trapped and caged me in some foreign country and had me shipped in.

Well, ol’ Larry gave me this look and went back to his keyboard and I felt the eyes of all those big men leveled at me like forty-fours.

Larry handed me a key-card and let me study the layout of the motel so that I would know where my room was, then turned to a big guy with boots and white hat and asked him his name. Sure enough, Larry couldn’t find him in the computer either. So I just said, for the sake of a little humor, “Try looking under poetry.”

The Hulk was not amused. The look he gave me said simply, “How’d you like me to kick your butt all the way back to Huntsville?” I knew that I had misread part of the look, because he couldn’t possibly know I was from Huntsville, but I was pretty certain of the other part.

I made it to the room all right, weaving through what must have been half the sheriffs and deputies in the state, with their wives and children, and after plopping down my bags settled onto the end of the bed to watch the weather channel for news of the cold front due in that evening.

Now back to the main story. I studied the face through the cracked door and said, “I reckon so. You sure you got the right room?” I undid the safety chain and swung the door open.

The tall one stepped in, then the other. “Yep,” the tall one said.

“So what’s this about?”

The two of them just made themselves at home–lumbered over and sat down on the edge of the bed–and I took the only chair in the room. There was a single light above me, with a simple shade, and I’ve got to tell you that my heart was into a sort of loping rhythm. They didn’t even remove their hats.

[Next week I learn why they are there.]

Paul Ruffin, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and poet, teaches at SHSU.


BAKED BEANS TO ACCOMPANY THE BOSTON BUTT

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN-IT: BAKED BEANS TO ACCOMPANY THE BOSTON BUTT

OK, last week I gave you my recipe for the best Boston Butt I’ve ever tasted, so here’s a nice side dish to have with them. Potato salad is a given, but anybody with half a dozen Southern blood cells can make passable potato salad. Baked beans, though, is another issue.

First of all, forget that notion that you have to start from scratch to make baked beans. No, no, no. Let other folks do the scratching, and you take advantage of the basic recipe they’ve come up with and improve on it. I let Momma Bush and her family do all that initial work of picking and washing the beans and mixing in the fundamental spices and doing the canning the for me. My time is worth a lot more than just over a buck a can. You can eat their Country Style Baked Beans right out of the can and enjoy them, but you will enjoy them a lot more if you’ll follow my instructions here.

After you have your Boston Butt situated in the smoker and start bringing things up to temp out there, take one of their 28-ounce cans of CCBB and dump them into a large cast-iron skillet and heat them up. Saute a medium-size onion, finely chopped, in a quarter-cup of Better Than Bullion Chicken stock and add them to the beans, along with two heaping tablespoons of brown sugar. Stir everything in well.

Now then, take about four extra-thick slices of Nueske’s applewood-smoked bacon (they sell these in twelve-ounce packages) and dice them on a cutting board, making little quarter-inch cubes of unforgettable flavor, and brown them in a skillet and add them, along with tablespoon of the bacon grease, to the beans. Stir all this in too.

See, you already have a vastly-improved version of Bush’s baked beans, almost good enough to fight the family over, but Honey Chile, the best is on the way.

Grab you an oven mitt and snatch that cast-iron skillet of beans up and lug them out to the smoker and set them on the rack below that Boston Butt, which is just beginning to feel the heat. The beans are now above the water bowl in the smoker and directly below the BB, so you can imagine what’s about to happen.

As the BB begins to heat up and ooze its goodness at every pore, those juices drip right down into that skillet of beans beneath. I don’t have to tell you what that adds to the taste of them.

After three or four hours of sitting in that 220-degree smoker, enjoying a constant drip-drip-drip of goodness from that Boston Butt, with an occasional stir to mix things up, those beans are ready for the table, but you can leave them out there for five or six hours, and it won’t hurt a thing.

Now, I can’t fault you for going to the trouble of making your own baked beans from scratch. You may have the time and inclination to devote to a dish that I can just about guarantee you won’t rise to the level of taste of this one. You don’t want a Throw-Down over this recipe, I promise.


SMOKING A BOSTON BUTT

by pauldruffin

RUFFIN IT: SMOKING A BOSTON BUTT

OK, flip through any recipe book on cooking outdoors these days, and you’re going to find instructions on how to fix the best pulled pork this side of Paradise, and almost every one of them will yield a palatable dish: It’s hard to fix pulled pork without a fair measure of success. I cannot claim that this recipe is vastly superior to all others, but it’s the best I’ve come up with, and I’ve tried plenty.

As you might imagine, the first step is choosing the meat, and it’s also the easiest. Catch Boston Butts on sale, six- to eight-pound range, bone-in, and buy one. While you’re at it, buy a large can of Bush’s Country-Style Baked Beans. If you don’t have a good marinade and/or don’t know how to prepare one, put that in the basket too. I use Claude’s BBQ Brisket Marinade, which I order by the six-pack from Amazon. You’ll need a small bottle or can of apple juice, too, and some honey mustard dressing. If you don’t already have onion and garlic powder, Lowry’s Seasoned Salt, and a few jars of Better Than Bouillon (chicken and beef) at home, you don’t need to be cooking meat anyhow, but go on and buy some if you are ready to get serious about this dish.

I can assume that if you are intending to smoke a butt, you have a smoker, but I don’t have the right to assume that you have a meat injector and remote thermometer at the house, though you should. This recipe requires both.

OK, now to get down to the serious issue of preparing the butt for smoking. Make certain that you have a metal grate to put the meat on, because you are going to lay it directly on the grate so that it can take full advantage of the smoke boiling up from beneath. You also want a large bowl of water at the bottom of the smoker to provide adequate moisture with the smoke.

A bit on smokers here: I have the best-for-the-price smoker that I know anything about: a New Braunfels Bandera (bought from Academy for less than $200), which has a vertical smoke chamber with the firebox off to the side. That sucker will hold a ton of food on three or four racks, and it even has mountable rib racks. There’s a place at the very bottom of the chamber for a large porcelain water bowl, provided with the unit. Heat control is easily maintained by manipulating the vents on the firebox and the little flapper valve at the top of the smoke chamber. (Most units are equipped with a thermometer, which screws into a socket in the main door of the smoker.) You can even grill directly over the firebox if you like, since it too has a grate.

The Bandera is hard to find these days, since they aren’t made anymore, but occasionally you can pick up a used one on Craig’s List. These smokers are heavy-gauge steel, so a used one is likely to have a lot of life left in it, regardless of visible rust.

You can smoke meat in almost any kind of cooker, but those with a vertical smoke chamber and side-mounted firebox seem to me to be the most serviceable for most homeowners’ needs.

But let’s get back to the Butt . . . .

Remove that big old chunk of pork roast from its package, rinse and dry it off, and then put it in a two-gallon Ziplock bag and dump in a bottle of Claude’s Marinade. Roll it around a bit, then lay it in the refrigerator and periodically turn it to redistribute the marinade. I don’t mean that you have to get up in the middle of the night to turn the meat—just flip it several times during the day and just before you go to bed, then roll it over again when you get up the next morning. It’ll be fine.

Alrighty, now. Cometh the morning, sun or not, take the BB out of the refrigerator and drain off all that marinade, pat the meat dry, then lay it on a tray for the final prep. This, folks, is an important step.
Melt three tablespoons of butter in a measuring cup, add four ounces or so of apple juice and two ounces of Better Than Bouillon stock, sprinkle in some onion and garlic powder, warm everything up in the microwave, mix well, and then inject the butt on both sides, using maybe two full charges of this magic liquid. Again, the meat will turn out just fine without injection, but it you’ll appreciate the added flavor dimension.
Next, wipe the butt dry and lay it on a clean tray and liberally smear it all over (and I do mean all over) with a good brand of honey mustard dressing. This helps add a little extra taste to the bark, but more importantly, it provides a coating that your dry rub will stick to. In a big bowl mix your dry-rub, and this can a grand combination of ingredients of your choosing (recipes all over the Internet) or a good commercial concoction like John Henry’s Texas Brisket Rub. Now pat this mix on heavily and press it into the honey mustard coating. You’re going to have a Boston Butt in a cocoon of rich spices just waiting for the smoker.

Get your smoker up to 220 degrees—I prefer hickory to maintain that temperature—and leave the butt on the top rack, uncovered and lying directly on the rack, using the middle rack for your beans, which I’ll describe next time. Be certain that you have at least half a pan of water in the bottom of the smoke chamber. Spritz the BB with apple juice/chicken stock every hour or so and let it smoke at that steady temperature of 220 for a minimum of five hours, during which that roast is going to absorb all the smoke taste it needs.

After the requisite smoke exposure, take the butt out, seal it in aluminum foil (leaving the remote thermometer intact), put it in a Dutch oven with half an inch of water in the bottom, and slide it into a 190-degree range oven, and let it lie there in its own sweet, gentle simmer for ten to twelve hours. I like to put mine in the oven when we go to bed and wake up to that marvelous aroma the next morning. If the internal temp has not reached 190 degrees after that length of time, jack the temp up a bit and give it a little while: I promise you that it will reach the magic 190-degree mark in short order. 190 is the point of perfection: no more, no less.

When it reaches 190, take it out, spread open the foil, let it sit a few minutes, yank out the bone and discard it, then let the pulling begin, mixing the meat with all those juices that have accumulated in the bottom of the foil. When you’ve finished with your Mississippi Bone Picker job, dump the meat into a container for refrigerating. Eat what you can for a few days and freeze the rest.


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.”


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