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Posts Tagged ‘meat’

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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Christmas stollen.

On a bit of a Dickens kick right now, especially with that marginally famous Christmas book he wrote about the clashing of spirits and humans, light and dark, and plenty and impoverished.

To compare, I’m thinking of last Christmas, when Hurricane Sandy had just taken away possessions, houses, electric, gas, water and a sense of security and left behind a lot of numb. We learned what was a luxury and what wasn’t, and we learned it pretty quick. Since no gas stations had power either, all of us were worried about driving and running out of gas. Instead, those of us who still had homes stayed in them, froze, mourned, and climbed the walls a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it felt like to get gas, finally. I remember driving away feeling like someone had handed me a million dollars. For filling up my gas tank!

It’s not always the big, or cliche, or obvious things that foster a sense of abundance. Here are the Cadillacs in my own dreams.

1) Special foods. You knew I was going here, and I can’t think of a worthier co-pilot than Dickens. His descriptions of holiday foods in Stave Three, mugged up by the Ghost of Christmas Present, are nothing short of glorious. And poignant: his father was jailed for unpaid debts, and he himself was deep into debt, and hungry, when he wrote the book. Those who know hunger describe food in mesmerizing detail, and those who used to be hungry never forget what it feels like. This was Dickens; and here he chooses words that, when spoken aloud, give the reader’s mouth a workout and make it water.* Try it:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.

It’s also striking, and essential, to note that when Dickens later illustrates the Cratchits’ Christmas meal, he gives just as much heart to writing it as he does the above. They had very little—their pudding was the size of a musket ball and had to feed seven. Do they complain? No—they’re thrilled. And they feel genuinely full, and genuinely grateful, after the meal. His point: Appreciating abundance is about perspective.

Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done.

As for me, I have crystallized ginger standing by for gingerbread, Saigon cinnamon for my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, and nearly a dozen Meyer lemons in the fridge about to become lemon curd, a religious conversion if there ever was one. I also bought organic chicken legs for a song this week at Trader Joe’s. Americans have never gone for dark meat the way the rest of the world has, and I’m grateful to get the spoils.

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Meyers.

Since I’m on a happy roll, right now my freezer contains four kinds of flour, my own tomato sauce, my mom’s cranberry bread, my sister’s cuccidati, the remnants of my fruitcake, and three bottles of my homemade Limoncello. I am very wealthy squirrel.

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Cinnamon-chocolate sour cream cake.

2) Quiet. Today my fire alarm started chirping, loudly, indicating it had a low battery. Very no big deal, except for the fact that my ceilings are 9′ high, and even with my stepladder trying to reach it was a bad joke. No ladders in the basement. Plan B had me moving my mid-century dining room table into the hallway, stacking the Chicago Manual of Style, Home Comforts, and Little Women on it, and standing on them. I pulled it down, then became horrified when it kept chirping. Messages to my building manager came to nothing, and by afternoon I was wondering whether sleeping in the car would really be as uncomfortable as it sounded. Then it occurred to me that the chirping might be coming from my CO detector. It was. I yanked out the batteries and promptly took a nap. Wrapped myself in swaddling clothes—okay, a throw blanket from Target—and drank in the abundance of quiet like a hot buttered rum.

3) The beauty in everywhere. This Navajo blessing will sink in, whether you’re inhaling the salt air at the beach or if you’re alone in a park that’s all stark winter gorgeousness. But the crazy thing is it will sink in no matter where you are. It just takes a clear eye and an open heart.

Really—give it a whirl right now, no matter where you’re reading this. Take in the details, the stuff you didn’t notice before, and let yourself fill up.

With beauty before me I walk/With beauty behind me I walk/With beauty above me I walk/With beauty around me I walk.

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I took the below shot awhile back, in a nearby park. The air was very still and cold, and although I was in the middle of such vastness, it wasn’t intimidating; it was comfortable, and filling.

I love this ancient sycamore against the miles beyond it.

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And then there’s another kind of tree, and view. It’s a lot smaller, but it does the job of filling me up pretty well, too.

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*This is a literary device that has a name, and since I’m a couple of decades out of college I can’t remember what it’s called. Please tell me if you know. Yes, I tried Google. It can be overrated.

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I recently saw a meat thermometer that has Bluetooth technology and is iPhone, iPad and iPod compatible, leading me to consider whether we’ve all gone absolutely barking nuts.

Or have we? You know I’m old school when it comes to cooking. I’m not above corner-cutting from time to time, especially nostalgic corner-cutting (I grew up slurping on canned Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, and I still dig slicing it along the handy grooves courtesy of the aluminum). And I’m not above getting an education on what’s truly useful.*

But that’s the issue, really:

1) How much time and effort does all of the gadgetry really save, and

2) How much of our sensory and instinctual skills get surrendered to Calphalon?

We’ve discussed the second question, especially after I wrote this post last summer and this one a few weeks ago. And I alternate between ‘How did our great-grandmothers cook so well, with nine kids and without non-stick casseroles?’ and ‘But if they had Amazon Prime, wouldn’t they jump on it like Bond on a blonde?’ Still, it’s worth more discussion, especially this time of year.

I love my candy thermometer. I’m glad I don’t have to drop a little water into my syrup to see if it forms a ball. I’m further glad I don’t have to determine the temperature of my oven by sprinkling flour on the underside of a pie plate and watching it go from tan to brown, or doing the same with a sheet of paper, or—surely for the asbestos-skinned among women—plunging my hand into its depths and counting how many seconds I can stand it before having to pull my hand out.**

When it comes to Thanksgiving, a friend put it well when he asked why we should ‘spend a boatload of money when just a pan, a dollar store baster and a good recipe is all you need.’ For the most part, I’m inclined to agree. I like becoming pretty well engrossed in the experience. I need to get my hands dirty and create. But I’m curious about your standpoint.

Does it depend on the gadget, the skill or even the person in question? How far back do you scale when you cook a holiday meal? If you’re a gadgeteer, tell me truthfully whether you simply appreciate the newness and coolness of the state-of-the-art utensil (I understand), or if you find it significantly more helpful than the low-tech one.

And to me the bigger question is how much technology to accept, because it stands to reason that for each new gadget, a skill is often enough left behind. As I told my friend, spending money aside, I’m worried that buying devices we don’t necessarily need may be training us to trust them instead of our own five senses and instincts; and that it will be a dark day when we don’t know if something’s cooked (or raw, or burned) unless a device tells us so. That would be a millennia of human understanding in the toilet. The fact that GPSes sometimes tell people to drive into lakes and people bloody DO it tells me we’re on that road.

In my mind, we’re already detached from so much that is elemental. By buying and buying into everything new for the kitchen, do we risk losing part of the wisdom of our ancestors? Part of our humanity?

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*At a height of five foot three, I’m not above much.

**Seriously. These methods were as common as smallpox.

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Seaweed on coral, Tortola

The recent warm days are making me think of barbecue season and the best barbecue I ever ate. Is it treason against the U.S. if I said it was on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands?

Right, we’ll come back to that. First let’s establish setting.

Tortola and Peter Island are two of the delicious Caribbean islands which we visited in early 2008. I was coming out of the throes of a years-long illness which led, at different points, to assorted travel whims. At this point in my recovery, I needed a change of scenery, just for a long weekend. And if it included pale turquoise water sliced with royal blue and had a view of hazy green islands, the kind Peter Pan and Wendy flew across, all the better.

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Tortola isn’t really remote, but it feels as if it is. The customs office is the size of a two-car garage. Chickens run around like squirrels everywhere you go; one of our taxi drivers waited to let a mommy and her seven tawny-colored chicks cross the road.* And a rooster was our 5am wake-up call.**

Our hotel, Long Bay Beach, is the kind of place where the cooking staff picks guava off the tree growing outside your window, every suite has its own hammock, and dawn comes up pink over the water. One whole wall of our room, the one that faced the water, was a sliding screen door, some ten feet long. We left it open whenever we were in the room, loving the balmy wind so much that we even put shells and rocks on anything likely to blow away. One morning on our way to breakfast, a blue macaw flew right over our heads.

Dawn, Long Bay Beach, Tortola

Sand crab, Tortola

A very, very shy sand crab taken with a very, very good zoom.

Pelican, Tortola

A pelican we watched from our balcony as he dove up and down in the water, looking for fish.

Breakfast at the hotel was just my bag: fresh pineapple, banana, guava juice, cereal, yogurt and perfect homemade lemon poppy seed muffins.

First we took a day trip to Peter Island, population 1, because we planned to kayak from there to Dead Chest. This was the place where folklore says Blackbeard marooned 15 men–that’s a one-way island vacation in the middle of bloody nowhere—with just a bottle of rum between them. Everyone we spoke with on Peter Island told us it was nothing more than a giant rock, and dissuaded us from going.

Dead Chest Island, from Peter Island

There it is, across Deadman’s Bay–the appropriately dark island at left.

So we didn’t. Next time. But no worries; instead we hiked the island, which was all at once a glorious tropical Eden…

Peter Island, B.V.I.

Peter Island

and the American southwest, featuring spiky vegetation…

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…and spikier animals.

Sunning iguana, Peter Island

He didn’t budge in the 20 minutes we spent admiring him and his comrades on the rocks. Showboat.

The hills along the three-mile path we hiked were also home to mountain goats, skittish things that would tiptoe near you to get a better look, then would scamper away through the trees.

One more detail about the day trip to Peter Island is worth noting, and that’s the ferry ride. No sitting in the lower cabin and looking through the fogged-over windows for me. I only like ferries if they move at a really good clip and if I can stand right on the bow, letting the sea spray wash over my face and hair and dew-dropping the outermost layer of my clothes.*** This one did. And the view of the islands we passed was hypnotic.

On the way back from Peter Island to Tortola we shared the ferry with several locals returning home for the night. And we witnessed something so charming that it has stayed with me. Up on deck one of the gentlemen broke out some Dominoes and set them on a table. I deducted that this game was played on the ferry every night because other men fell in very smoothly, in a loose and easy choreography. Empty five-gallon buckets were upended for seats, and players joined and left from time to time, including a uniformed kid in charge of the ferry and a grizzled older sailor, an American ex-pat who now lived on Tortola. ‘I haven’t played in 25 years, but what the hell,’ he said, and stayed in for the rest of the ride back. What struck me most was how relaxed and comfortable everyone was with each other, and it was a reminder of how much joy is accessible in the simple. I could see why one would want to slide out of an old life, as if out of a jacket worn too thin at the elbows, and sink happily into a life like this.

Time to eat.

We asked our cabbie about the Bomba Shack, which Frommer’s listed as the ticket for barbecue in this part of the Caribbean. And apparently on Wednesdays and Sundays they offered all you can eat for $10/plate. Hello.

He stopped next to a set of shacks that looked as if they’d been decorated by a group of pre-teen surfers after a ten-box Mallomar binge.

Bomba Shack, Tortola

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How to explain this place? Here’s one way: The owners apparently have created a god of sorts called Bomba whose nature isn’t clear, and Google was no help. But you’re encouraged to offer sacrifices to it (note underwear, above).

Here’s another way: The Bomba Shack serves shroom-spiked tea when the moon is full.****And they give it to you for free because they aren’t allowed to sell it. The menu is scrawled onto plywood out front. Music—emanating from speakers taller than me—is cranked up to levels that could orbit Jupiter, and grill smoke and customers alike float between the shacks. We paid the cabbie right in the middle of the street and went looking for dinner.

The party is on one side of the street. There, to a very friendly American woman behind a counter, we shrieked that we wanted two plates’ worth; she grinned, took our money and gave us tickets. The cook (a single woman) and picnic tables are on the other side of the street.

You have a choice of barbecued chicken or ribs. Both come with corn on the cob and red beans with rice, and I’ll stop here to bring up a concern that I’m sure is swimming through your logic-loving minds: Exactly what kind of lunatics eat at an open-air shack on a dirt road, one whose owners hand out drugs and worship a deity with a preference for women’s panties?

I’m not saying you don’t have a point. But we did it. One bite of that meal and all sense floated out to sea with the grill smoke. The barbecue sauce had a no-BS kick, and the meat from the chicken and the ribs slid off the bone with no embarrassment whatsoever. It was delectable—one of the great meals of our lives. We shared a table with some amiable Australians, licked our fingers and grinned at each other. Lunacy loves company.

Then we crossed the street to watch the surfers cut through waves shimmering from the apricot-colored sunset, soaking even further into a place where the night wind smells like earth and salt water.

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*For the obvious reason.

**Click the rooster link. Long Bay Beach is yellow–but a muted yellow. Not a biggie.

***My first name comes from the Latin word for ‘sea’ (mars). The genitive is ‘maris’ (of the sea). Put an ‘a’ on the end and you make it feminine: Girl of the sea. Yes, I’m a mermaid. My parents didn’t do this intentionally, but there it is.

****No, we didn’t. The moon wasn’t full, anyway.

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Much can be said for everyday pantry and fridge staples, the Monday night spaghetti and meatballs, the Thursday night chicken tacos. Who hasn’t sunk gratefully—heart, soul and tummy—into a warm bowl of alphabet soup? Like old Nat King Cole standards, these mealtime standards soothe, comfort, and never let you down.

Which is great.

But there comes a time, I hope, when you’re ready to shake the dust off, to get out of the comfy chair and try something new. And by new I mean something off center. Way off center is even better.

To wit, the llama burger above.

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to the NOFA-NJ (Northeast Organic Farming Association of NJ) Winter Conference at Princeton University as a representative from Edible Jersey magazine. There I met some truly fascinating folks, including Linda Walker and her son, Brent. At their farm, WoodsEdge Wools Farm in Stockton, NJ, the pair raise llamas and alpacas for fiber and meat.

…Meat? That threw me. But when Brent grinned and his eyes lit up describing the flavor, I knew I wanted in. Two pounds of ground meat was snatched up on the spot, and the next night I was in my kitchen, a hefty patty sizzling in a hot skillet, an earthy, rich smell saturating my place. It was such a mild night that I opened my back door, sending the aroma wafting over Loch Arbour and tormenting the neighbors. (Sorry, folks. The website link’s at the bottom of the page here. Order away.)

As much of a treat as the smell was, the flavor and juiciness were astonishing. Imagine the best hamburger you’ve ever had. Got it? Now imagine it made with filet mignon. That’s the best descriptor I can come up with. Since it’s fat that makes meat tender, and Brent told me it’s much leaner than beef, I can’t explain why it’s the tenderest burger I’ve ever had.  But some things are just fine left as a mystery, and this is one of them.

From Stockton to Scotland, now, for the next food adventure. A breathtakingly beautiful country, it doesn’t typically come to mind when one thinks of wonderful food. But you can eat very well in Scotland (and most anywhere on the planet, I believe) as long as you do two things, and never waver from them:

1) Eat what the locals eat. You wouldn’t order pasta bolognese in Mexico, would you? Ask a country to do what it doesn’t do, and you’re asking for disappointment.

2) Be curious. Words to live by, but especially when you have the opportunity to try something new. Go ahead and have a bias or two (I will never eat a worm, delicacy though it may be on some remote rock in the Pacific) but try to keep that mind opened.

In Scotland, I ate what Scotland does best: heaps of pub food and seafood. Not surprisingly, they were consistently stellar. I’ve never much liked shellfish, but I wanted to learn to appreciate it; the country, a peninsula, knows it intimately. Tiny mussels harvested from the waters surrounding one of the nearby islands burst with briny flavor, and now I love mussels. Salmon has always been a favorite, but the poached local salmon I had in Scotland was unlike anything I have had before or since, so whisper-soft that it almost dissolved on my tongue. It was like eating an entirely new food.

One misty day, on the road to St. Andrew’s, I stopped in Anstruther (pronounced Enster) to try fish and chips, something I’d never had before. (Heck, no, I don’t count Arthur Treacher’s.) I’d read that the locals are the best source to go to when looking for the best food, and almost as if I had dreamed him up, a stout policeman with friendly blue eyes and chubby cheeks appeared as I rounded a corner.

He blushed and smiled, jotting down the name of a tiny shop at the water’s edge. All at once he became very serious, and leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t go to the place next door, the one with all of the signs saying it’s the best. Be sure to go to the place next to it.” The woman behind the counter handed me an order of cod, along with chips and malt vinegar. I found a bench next to the boats and tucked in. The enormous filets were delicately breaded and fried with no frills at all, and they didn’t need it. It’s full-circle beauty, sitting by the sea while tasting something from the sea.

Back to the country’s interior—Dunblane, for dinner.

Haggis (come on, you knew I was going to bring it up), a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal, onions and spices and cooked, is loathed and feared by many outside the UK. Many, I should clarify, who might never have tried it. It’s among the humblest of peasant foods, fitting in with pasta e fagioli or the aforementioned tacos. Because of my love of peasant food, and because haggis is so well-loved in its homeland, it deserved a try.

Although the pub I visited didn’t serve it the traditional way, stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and served with turnips, it was still wonderful—almost overwhelmingly rich, but full of heady, pungent flavor. Here I am, holding a nugget of haggis the size of a tater tot, fried and dipped into garlic cream sauce.

I’ve cooked for people who have looked warily down at their dishes and I say, “Try it. Try it and hate it, for all I care, but try it.” If you in fact hate it, you’re no worse off than you were before. If you love it, your world gets bigger.

http://www.alpacasllamaswoodsedge.com/

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