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Austerity Measures

I missed my self imposed deadline earlier today.

A home renovation crew I sometimes work for asked if I could help them out this week. They needed help and I needed the extra income. We all do what we have to do. Especially these days when groceries are getting more expensive.

I've been rereading lately one of my favorite authors. M.F.K. Fisher was a food writer from the 40s and 50s. She was a contemporary of James Beard and Julia Child, often hanging out and dining with them. Don't let this photo fool you. She's a no non-sense badass. Here's a footnote that ends a chapter on eggs from one of my favorites of her works. It's in reference to an egg dish called an Oyster.

[The combination of one fresh raw unbeaten egg, one douse of Worcestershire sauce, one souse of whiskey or brandy, and one optional dibble of Tabasco-or-Evageline-or-salsa-piquante (in that order of hell-fire progression); it represents to many a jaded rounder the next morning's Last Resort. Not so to me. I often make one before doing something I dislike: go to the dentist say. . . . I have been madly in love with mine, in a mild way, since I was nineteen, but I still need a Prairie Oyster to be able to stand going into his office.]

She was part of that early movement that revolutionized our American understanding of food and who made it possible for people like Anthony Bourdain to exist. In 1954 she published an anthology, The Art of Eating, which contains of five of her best known works. I have the 50th Anniversary edition published in 2004.

My favorite work is How to Cook a Wolf. I've been re-reading it because it seems so timely. It was first published during the height of World War II when "austerity measures" really meant something. The phrase "austerity measures" is something Sam and I refer to when ever money starts getting tight. As two self employed 50 year olds we're used to the ebb an flow of our businesses. Clients come and go, often in waves. So when they go, we feel the need to tighten up our budget and eliminate frivolous expenditures. Which basically means we don't go out to eat.

How to Keep Alive is Ms. Fisher's chapter on austerity measures. Here's how it opens.

There are times when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish because the gas has been turned off permanently...And you don't care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box because you don't have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut...

...In other words, the wolf has one paw wedged firmly into what looks like a widening crack in the door. Let us take it for granted that the situation, while uncomfortable, is definitely impermanent, and can be coped with.

The first thing to do, if you absolutely have no money, is to borrow some. Fifty cents will be enough...

She goes on to detail how with a dime you can get a pound of wheat meal. Then suggests you buys as many fresh vegetables as the remaining forty cents will allow. With these ingredients you can create a kind of pureed gruel that can sustain you for the better part of a week.

Austerity measures? What do I know of austerity measures? I've got chuck roast in the freezer and heavy cream in the fridge. I consider it tightening my belt because I'm skipping this week's t-bone? Times have clearly changed. We are the inheritor's of a bounty our grandparents dreamed of, but are we better for it? I'm not so sure.

I want to make something good of this gift.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are my light days for clients. Recently I've apprenticed myself to a local gardener, Lois Chapman. I didn't know this before I approached her but she's an accomplished writer herself. She's got a couple degrees, both in horticulture and entomology and written extensively for gardening magazines and trade publications. She's retired now but ended her career as a marketer for one of the nation's largest seed houses.

When I'm not freelancing as a painter or carpenter's assistant I try and spend my Thursday mornings helping her out in her garden. I suppose that sounds altruistic but it's not. I'm a cold mercenary gleaning skills and knowledge I can apply to my own garden. But that doesn't mean we can't have pleasant conversations while we work. Truth be told I can't seem to shut up.

Last week we were talking about our grandparents and what life was like for them. We both agreed that there's a lot to be gained from their experiences and lifestyles, but we also agreed that neither one of us want to go back and live that way. There has to be a happy middle. Yes, our modern era has ushered excesses our species has never experienced before. By and large we suffer diseases of too much, not of want. Sure my grandfather was much more active and lived a long, healthy life, but he also, as a matter of course, was hitching his own mule and plowing fields by himself at eight years old. That prospect intimidates me now.

It's my hope that Alabama Sasquatch and all it's various permutations, garden, kitchen, gym, becomes an exercise in finding that balance, an exploration of what it means to live the good life. A life that takes advantage of the pleasures life offers, without degrading into excess. A life that values hard work not only for the fruits that come from that labor but because the labor itself is also enjoyable.

There's a balance to be found here and to be honest I'm still seeking it.

Chicken Curry

Last Friday was Sam's birthday. As part of our celebration I made this chicken curry. It's a basically the braise I've already shared but I wanted to include it so that you could see what kind of variations were possible and because it took advantage of how I'm maximizing whole chickens to get multiple meals.

First, get your mise en place together. I broke down a couple of chickens earlier in the week, by removing the breasts from the bone and separating the leg quarters and wings. The breasts and tenders I served earlier in the week as pan fried cutlets over a salad. The carcass I roasted in the oven for about half an hour and used to make a stock. The leg quarters and wings had been languishing in the refrigerator awaiting this very meal. To get them ready I salted and set them aside as I completed my prep.

I diced two onions, four or five celery stalks, and a couple of large carrots. I sliced three or four garlic cloves and minced a big fat knob of ginger. In the mortar and pestle I ground my customary blend of cardamon, cumin, coriander, and chili.

Because it's larger I opted for the enameled Dutch oven, put it on the stove and got it hot. I then added a couple tablespoons of olive oil. In this oil I fried the chicken until it had developed a nice brown crust and a layer of fond had developed on the bottom of the pan. Once done with the chicken I set it aside and added the carrots, onion, and celery (mire poix).

You really want to cook those aromatics to develop their flavor. A good 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat should be enough to caramelize their sugars and build a good base. To this add the ginger and garlic. Stir and saute until you can begin to smell the garlic. Add the ground spices and a good tablespoon or two of curry powder. Stir that in real good and let cook for a minute or two. To this I add a few ladle-fulls of chicken stock. Just enough so that the liquid fills to the level of the vegetables. Nestle the chicken into this mixture and then pour over a can of coconut milk. You want the liquid to come just to the top of the chicken, but not completely cover it.

Put the lid on and place in a 300 degree over for about two hours.

Next make your rice. Curries and Indian food demand Basmati rice. I like to make mine with a little bit of stock in addition to the water. I also like to add a few cardamon pods and some cumin and coriander seeds. For simplicity's sake I usually cook my rice in the Instapot, but you could just as easily do this on the stove. Once the rice is cooked I add some fresh chopped cilantro and stir it in. If you can find them pull the cardamon pods, they're just not pleasant to bite into.

To serve spoon the rice into a bowl and cover with a chicken leg quarter and a healthy serving of the vegetables and sauce. I generally like some kind of pickle with curry, a spicy mango pickle goes well. Chutneys also make a good accompaniment, but for our case we used a peach pepper jelly that was absolutely perfect.

This is a relatively simple yet amazing dish. The chicken comes out fall off the bone tender and there's a spicy complexity to the sauce and vegetables that just kept me coming back for more.

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