The Perilous Pursuit of the Platonic Perogy

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Most people don’t know what a perogy should taste like. If you have eaten the store bought variety, then I am sad to say, you have been fooled. This is a perogy as imagined by a machine— one that has been shaped to the needs of industry at the cost of pleasure. Like so much of our food, something profound has been lost in the pursuit of profit. Like the industrial tomato, which bears no resemblance to the homegrown counterpart, the industrial perogy is the canary in the culinary coal mine.

In his excellent book, Embodied Food Politics, Michael Carolan talks about how our bodies become tuned to certain kinds of flavours. We aren’t born craving Big Macs and KD, but a lot of very clever people have found some ingenious ways to tweak our tastebuds and tune our bodies into craving these things. The industrial food system, weather that involves fast food, frozen TV dinners, or Mac and Cheese, has shaped our expectations of what food should taste like. Michael Moss and Michael Pollan have both written about the holy trinity of salt, fat, and sugar as the building blocks of mad food science, where engineers, rather than chefs, endlessly tweak products to achieve a “bliss point” capable of convincing us that one handful of chips isn’t enough. Why not finish that bag?

While some things may indeed simulate a state of junk food nirvana, like the tennis balls that pass for tomatoes these days, the perogy is an example of the world beyond the cave. Somethings are worth the effort, and the perogy, is most certainly one of those.

I was lucky and grew up in a Ukrainian household untarnished by the doughy abomination that passes for a perogy at the supermarket. I have vivid memories of my mother and grandmother spending the day making hundreds and hundreds of perogies for the holiday season. And this is truly the only way to do it. It is a labour intensive process and your first batch will most likely be terrible, although it will be infinitely better than what you would have bought otherwise. Every time I make them I learn a little more about the process. At the end of this article, I will  include a recipe, but I caution you to tread carefully. Making a perogy is a flirtation with disaster. The platonic perogy walks a fine line, and unless you are willing to risk disaster, you will never know what is possible. The industrial version is made by a machine and thus the product you receive must have a thick dough to be able to withstand the speed, efficiency, and brutality of mass production.

A perogy is very simple. A ball of cheesy potato and onions wrapped by a simple dough. There are only 4 ingredients: potato, flour, cheese and onion, and yet, making them will take years to master, for the perfect perogy must transition almost seamlessly between inside and out. What makes the industrial version unappetizing is the thickness of the dough. If you want the Platonic perogy, then you will have to approach your own bliss point. I make my dough with hot potato water and work it until my arms are soar because you need to roll it out to the point where it is just thick enough to hold everything together.

To me this is the true definition of artisinal. You don’t need fancy ingredients or complicated techniques— all you need is time and patience. Time to learn and patience to push past the point of failure and learn with your mind and body. I can’t tell you how thin to roll the dough. That depends on the gluten content of your flour, how long you kneaded it, and the humidity in the air. It probably also will change based on how dextrous your fingers are, how long you sautéed the onions for your potatoes, and how well you mashed them. You will learn by doing, by developing bodily memory, and by tuning yourself to the process. The first couple of dozen may be okay, but by the 60th you will be on a roll, and by 100, you will be approaching that perfect platonic perogy.

And there is value in this embodied knowledge that goes well beyond the meal you make. When you begin to know food with all your senses, you start to think about your relationship with the world differently. Your body becomes tuned to different rhythms, develops different expectations, and perhaps, that engineered bliss point no longer tastes so good. More than most things, what we eat is a matter of habit. This is why marketers work so hard to capture children at an early age. They understand the power of repetition and the memories that our bodies hold. Taking the time to cook can help break some of these habits and open the door to a more just, sustainable, and more humane food system designed for living beings and not machines.

Below you will find a recipe that will make 120 perogies. I know this sounds crazy, and it will take you most of the day, but most of them will make it to the freezer and you will have meal after meal that will more than make up the effort. The best way to do this is with friends and family. Throw a perogy party, make them together, and share in the bounty.

Perogies

Filling:

Approximately 7lbs of white potatoes (I use russet) , peeled.

Two big onions

pat of butter

Cheese to taste-- I use about 1.5 lbs of smoked cheddar to give it a bacony taste

Boil big pot of potatoes until soft. Reserve 3 cups of water.

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Fry onions with butter until soft. Mash potatoes until very smooth. Do not add milk. Mix in onions and cheese to taste. Salt and pepper to taste. Let in cool completely. I do this the night before.

Dough

2 cups hot water (can use water from boiled potatoes)

1 tablespoon of salt unless using potato water

6 cups flour

3 tablespoons oil

Place 4 cups flour in a bowl, make a well and start adding the water and mixing.

Place out on counter and knead. Add the rest of flour as needed, but be careful not to add too much. Dough should be sticky and silky smooth. During the last stage switch to rolling the dough instead of kneading. During this process you should only be dusting your hands in flour.

Roll out thin and dust lightly with flour.

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Cut into circles with a cup.

Ball up some potato mix and lightly flour. Do a whole tray of these so your hands don't stick to the dough.

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Place in center of dough and with two thumbs, press potatoes into flat circle, fold and pinch trying to avoid making large dough wings. Make sure that no potatoes get in between the dough you are pinching together. The dough should be sticky enough to cling. Dust your fingers in flour to help the pinching process.

Boil water with oil and salt. Stir ever so gently with a slotted spoon. Cook until floating and then gently use the slotted spoon to place them in a tray with melted butter.

Serve with sour cream.

Otherwise, freeze on a floured tray and then place in bag. Best to thaw perogies on a tray before cooking them from frozen. Leave out for half an hour.

Makes about 120 perogies.

 

Guanciale: The Lost Art of Face Bacon

It’s that time of year again when the garden is quiet and memories of summer whisper through the food and preserves we have put away in an attempt to extend the harvest as long as we can. It is also the time of the year that I call up Fred DeMartines and put in my annual order for half a pig. After a long summer of foraging wild foods, grazing pasture and putting on a nice thick layer of fat, the free-range, heritage pigs at Perth Pork Products are ready to make a permanent home in my freezer.

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Perhaps more than most things we eat, meat has become an absence in our food system. Wether you eat it in nugget form, pink slime, or even packaged in its styrofoam tomb, the meat you get at the grocery store comes plucked, shucked, boneless and processed to the point where the animal and the idea of the animal no longer align. And this is for good reason. The supermarket doesn’t want you to think too hard about where your meat came from. They rely on what Michael Pollan calls the “supermarket pastoral” to conceal the fact that meat production shares more in common with the assembly line that put your phone together than the pastoral image we have of the typical farm. Our insatiable desire for “cheap meat” has created an environmental nightmare. The livestock sector is now the top two or three of the most significant contributors to a whole host of environmental problems that include climate change, deforestation, and land and water pollution.

But this does not have to be this way. If you are worried about how we are going to feed the billions of people on this planet, than everyone has to eat less meat. The average American eats 125 kilograms of meat a year, and Canada doesn’t lag too far behind at just under 100 kg. From an environmental standpoint, eating less meat is one of the most effective things you can do to reduce your ecological footprint. It’s better than switching from a gas guzzler to a Prius, and has a lot of positive effects on your health and the wellbeing of the animals within an industrial system that treats living creatures as if they were machines. Before I became a locavore, I was a vegetarian for about a decade, and now I practice a weekday vegetarian diet, and the meat I do eat, comes from a handful of farms.

And this is what I want to talk about. I’m not going to try to convert you to veganism or shame you into abandoning the pleasures of meat. I actually want to encourage you to face your meat directly, to get to know it a little better, and hopefully in the process, to take responsibility for your impact on the world. There are many benefits to buying directly from a farmer. When I talk to Fred, we sometimes spend an hour on the phone discussing specific cuts, flavouring for the sausage, and what I want and don’t want to receive.

When you buy a half or whole animal, you have the option of getting everything. And I mean everything! At first, the thought of receiving pigs ears, trotters, and kidneys was a bit strange. As I said, I was a vegetarian for years, so the skinless, boneless package of pink flesh in the grocery store offers a sanitized, almost deathless experience to the consumer that is easier to deal with. If you like sausage, you are in actuality eating many of the offcuts anyway. They get mixed with preservatives, stabilizers, are often washed with ammonia, but as the cliche goes, snouts, tails, and sphincter all make it to the soup pot eventually.

Something amazing happens, however, when you have to deal with these things directly. You realize how much of the food we eat is culturally determined and how much possibility is wasted on the squeamish. Who decided that pork chop is superior to cheek meat? And what do you do with the face? Easy, you make face bacon, an absolute delicacy that most of you will never have the opportunity to try unless you delve into the lost art of guanciale. This is not a product carried by your typical, or even your high end butcher. This is something you will have to do yourself.

Face bacon ready to go

Face bacon ready to go

Guanciale is made from the jowl of the pig and is one of the simplest cures for an amateur to make at home. The jowl is relatively thin and thus you are more likely to cure it all the way through to the centre. Once you get over the initial shock, for you can indeed tell this is part of the face, it’s relatively easy. I have had pieces that still had bits of hair on the skin. Didn’t someone tell piggy its rude not to shave before you are the guest of honour at dinner?

Unlike bacon made from the belly, face bacon contains a high ratio of collagen to fat, and this is what makes it so unique. The flavour is incredible. You don’t smoke the bacon, so there is a very earthy porkiness to it. No, this isn’t the kind of bacon you fry up with your eggs. This is the dream bacon you need to make the most incredible Pasta Carbonera you have ever had, and I am not exaggerating. People have told me that I changed their lives after tasting it. My daughter begs me for bacon pasta almost every week, but I try to save it for special occasions, as you will see in the recipe below, this is a rich meal.

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

The translucent cubes are the result of the collagen melting

Because of the high collagen content of the jowl, guanciale looks very strange when you fry it. Low and slow is the name of the game and you cut it into cubes which slowly render down, releasing the precious collagen that will thicken the sauce, creating the most velvety, rich, and smooth Carbonera you have ever tried. Carbonera made with the traditional eggs, cream, bacon and parmesan is great, but the texture and flavour you get from guanciale is simply unparalleled.

There is a brutal and twisted efficiency to industrial meat. Every part is used in some way, even if that means MRM (Mechanically Reclaimed Meat). Now that I have tasted face bacon, however, I am saddened that the jowl is wasted as filler for some horrible, processed sausage, for this delicacy should be experienced by everyone. Ultimately, this is one of the best reasons to buy straight from a farmer. When you face your meat directly, you have to account for the entirety of the animal. Transforming those nasty bits into a delicacy is one of the most profound acts of translation that cooking allows us to engage in. From nature to culture, from decay to delicacy, when you cook from whole, you learn to think differently.

Like countless generations before us, respect and responsibility is made possible by treating every part of the animal as sacred. If you are a carnivore, then you owe it to yourself and to the animal that has given its life for your sustenance, to utilize every bit. I know that Fred treats his animals with respect. He raises them outdoors, slowly, and uses heritage breeds that are on the verge of extinction because they do not fit the industrial model well. These are animals that grow “too slowly” or react poorly to confinement. These are animals that have not been bred to conform to the horrors of the Intensive Livestock Operation. Ironically, the survival of these breeds depends on people eating them.

Much of the flavour of Fred’s pork comes form the respect he has for what it means to be a pig. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International, awarded Fred the status of Master of Pork, an honour reserved only for those who truly understand that raising an animal is an extension of your worldview. That respect manifests in the pork, and I try to do the same when that pig becomes a part of me.

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 Home Cured Guanciale

guanciale ready to hang

Adapted from  Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Charcuterie book

2lb/ 1kg pork jowl

70grams kosher salt (7% of meat weight)

70 grams sugar (7% of meat weight)

15 black peppercorns

1 large bunch of thyme

2 bay laurel leaves

4 juniper berries

Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discard the stalks, and finely chop. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.

Using a sharp boning knife or pairing knife remove any glads from the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under some fat.

In a large tupperware, or zip lock bag combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Rub the cure into the meat on all sides thoroughly. Seal the bag, or the tupperware and pop in the fridge for 7 days. On day 3 redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again.

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After 7 days the meat should feel firmer. Take it out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might well stick to the meat and fat, that is fine - just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.

Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F 75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two.

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guanciale skin side hanging

You will know when the jowl is cured because it should feel firm to the touch. The fat will feel softer than the meat, that is fine.

Once cured it should keep in the fridge easily for a few weeks, or frozen longer. You can keep it hanging at 55F and 75% humidity too if you wish - the meat might well harden more, but it will develop an even stronger flavor.

Pasta Carbonera

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Boil your favourite penne pasta, or better yet, make some fresh pasta.

Saute 50 grams bacon per person slowly until the collagen has rendered out and small crispy bits start to appear

Toss in zuchinni or asparagus or mushrooms and add a good grinding of fresh pepper, enough for heat.

Season with a small bunch of thyme or Italian herb mix.

Take off heat and let cool slightly.

Meanwhile, mix 1 egg yolk, 25 ml of cream, and small handful of parmesan per person. If you are using guanciale, you do not have to use as many egg yolks. For 4 people, I would use 2 egg yolks. If you use belly bacon, use 4 eggs.

Drain penne pasta and toss with the meat and vegetable mixture. Once the heat has subsided add the cream mixture and toss until silky. The key here is to mix the sauce while the pasta is off the heat. If everything is too hot, the eggs will scramble.

For more stories like this, consider buying my book.

The Map and the Territory: Learning to Gardening with Nature

When you are in the garden it is easy to believe you are in control. I choose the seeds, plan where everything goes, and designate weeds from plants with a god-like power. The sociologist Zygmunt Baumen goes as far as to suggest that gardeners are the archetypal utopian thinkers, for on some fundamental level, we believe our plans will manifest in the world. The order in our minds, in the blueprints we lay out for the perfect garden, will emerge with clarity, and we will cultivate and tend, bring to fruition until that map is inscribed on the land. When I started gardening, one of the most pleasurable aspects was this process of translation between mind-body-seed-soil-sun that seemed to suggest that anything was possible. For Bauman, the gardener— unlike the hunter, whose world is solitary, dangerous, and red in tooth and claw, or the gamekeeper, who believes that all is right when left alone— is a figure of hope. He or she believes that the world can be changed for the better.

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Any gardener, however, knows that their control is a mere illusion, sustained by a more fundamental process of transformation: labour. Our minds may lay out the plans, but it is our hands, our bodies and the tenuous partnership with nature that is the seat of hope. My labour in partnership with the labour of bees, fungus and worms. This was a difficult year at Common Ground Farm. We moved at the beginning of May during a cold and wet spring, and many things needed to be done. My mental map was only half there, since much of my time had been devoted to selling our old house and buying the new one. My mental plan was still for a backyard garden and not a farm. Utopia would have to emerge more organically— less a choreographed dance and more like the spontaneous gyrations of child who cannot help but move to the music.

The map became the territory and soon sprouts were pushing out of the moist ground and we were eating the first salad greens and herbs. The sun was bright, rain fell, and my utopia was going as planned. Or so I thought! The wet spring became a wet summer and I had already mulched everything with a thick layer of straw. Generally speaking, mulching is the backbone of organic agriculture. Not only does it suppress weeds, help conserve moisture and even out the temperature of the soil, when turned in, mulch is a crucial source of nutrients. It builds the soil.

mulch early summer

But during a wet year, straw mulch can harbour some unwanted guests. We finally got some heat and the plants started to look a bit stressed, dropping some of their lower leaves. This is normal and I wasn’t too worried. But the characteristic yellow, wilted look of heat stress quickly started to look like something else: fungus. It was spreading quickly, and now it wasn’t just the leaves. My beautiful Kabocha squash was hit particularly hard, and the young fruit were starting to rot on the vine.

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Yellow became mottled black and brown and what I thought was just a bit of water stress was starting to look like a full-blown fungal infection spreading through my neat and ordered rows. I began to madly flip through my various gardening books, took photos and sent them to farmer friends, and even showed up at William Dam Seeds with a bag of infected leaves to see if I could determine what, in the course of a couple of days, was threatening to turn my dreams into a nightmare.

It turns out it is very difficult to identify exactly what kind of fungus you have, as many of them present identical symptoms. At one point I was convinced I had Fusarium or Verticillium wilt, which essentially means you have to rip everything up and solarize the soil as the fungus can survive for up to a decade. I was beyond devastated.  Farming has always been a precarious profession— the triad of blight, pestilence, and locusts is even enshrined in the bible. I was amazed by how quickly the fungus was spreading and didn’t want to lose the entire garden. My ability to plan, to put into action, was being undone by a tiny organism I couldn’t even see. Any pretence of control I may have had was wilting away as quickly as my plants and I began to feel I was way over my head. Nothing of this sort had ever happened to me when I was a humble backyard gardener.

Most of the suggestions I read were already things I was doing. Build the soil, mulch, don’t overwater, and practice crop rotation. But these are long term cultural solutions and part of a broader organic approach to agriculture. What I wanted was a solution that would save my current crop; what I wanted was assurance.

This feeling of vulnerability can lead down two very different paths. In conventional agriculture, the approach is to sterilize and homogenize. Fungicides are some of the most toxic chemicals we apply to our plants, and many have been recently pulled from the Canadian market. Even if I wanted to apply them, as a small farmer without the proper equipment or papers, I did not have access to them. What is more disturbing, however, is the mindset that accompanies this approach.

For the World Expo in Milan (2015), New Holland will build the farm of the future, deploying “zero-emissions” tractors that will utilize complicated algorithms to “3-d print” fields.

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Like the vertical farm, lab-grown meat and GMOs, this is yet another example of what I call the techno-utopian approach to environmental problems. Rather than seeking ways of working with nature, this mindset attempts to replace the territory with the map. Rather than acknowledge that the laboratory is a simplification of a much more complicated and messy world, it tries to tidy up the world by removing “confounding factors” and variables.

My panic soon subsided as I decided the best strategy was to keep calm and trust in my overall approach. But to do this, I had to give up the fantasy of control. I had to realize that while I may do all I can to support a healthy ecosystem for my plants, some things must be accepted. To categorize everything as a confounding factor would mean transforming my farm into a laboratory, and I don’t want to do that. In fact, I want the opposite— where possible, I strive to reintroduce wildness into the cultivated, drawing on the strength of biodiversity, insect predators, and healthy soil to provide fertility.

In the end I did find a short-term solution. There is a new organic bio-fungicide available called Serenade, which utilizes a strain of Bacillus Subtilis to destroy a broad range of fungi. Opening the container, you are greeted with the smell of fresh bread. Unlike chemical agents, this product is highly safe and you can eat the crop the next day. After the first application at dusk, which I paid for with about a litre of blood taken one mosquito at a time, I noticed immediate improvements. Some plants were damaged and died, and many were stunted, but the garden went on. It was resilient enough to thrive.

In the end I learned some valuable lessons. Next year I will space my tomatoes and the row of corn, squash, and beans further apart to encourage better air circulation, which should help keep the fungus at bay. I will also make sure the garden is better drained and that the soil has more organic matter turned into it. But the most important lesson I learned was about myself. For a moment I was tempted by the allure of chemical farming and began to look up conventional fungicides. When your work, your vision and hope is catastrophically threatened, the promised certainty of science is tempting. But nature is not a “confounding factor.” It is not a variable to control. I want a farm and not a laboratory, and so I must be willing to accept that the territory will never be the map.

If you liked this, please consider buying The Politics of the Pantry.

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