“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” – Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
This is great news for many of us when you give it some thought. It means that beef, pork, lamb and goat are vegetables. Of course you must consider that chickens are then insects. Don’t even ask what tilapia really are! We don’t live in a perfect world.
I love a clunky, disjointed segue from title to main body of an article, don’t you? It creates confusion, and fosters a befuddled anticipation.
I was working in my garden the other day, preparing for Winter, the greater share of what I was doing being lawn care. It is very important to get the dead leaves off of the lawn before the snow flies. I live on roughly two acres of lightly wooded land. It provides more leaves and grass clippings than I’ve ever had to deal with. For the first two years we lived here, I piled leaves and grass in the back yard, just above the river, which borders my property to the north. I assumed that it would compost. It didn’t. I think it was trying its best to compress into diamonds, but I would rather have good, rotted compost for my vegies! This year I made a greater effort to transform my diamond factory into a compost factory. The good news is that it has worked. I was outside a few days later and I reached into the center of one of my eight compost piles. This brings me to the bad news. Holy Mary, mother of God, it was hot! It was so hot that I burned my poor little, chubby digits. I took the pile’s temperature, and it registered 165 F on my handy thermometer.
Those of you who know me from the internet, and those who know me in person, realize that my mind doesn’t work like most minds. My first thoughts weren’t about the wonderful vegetables and fruits that would be made possible by the black gold that was in process. Nope. The first thing I thought of wasn’t even about whether or not I could sell the compost next year. That was my second thought. My first thought was, “How long would it take to hard cook eggs in there?” I posted photos of my compost pile on a FaceBook page I frequent, and joked about cooking some meat sous vide style in the compost. Apparently, mild insanity is the mother of invention, in my case.
The next day out came the Food Saver! I patted dry seven boneless pork ribs and put them in a Food Saver bag along with a couple of strips of bacon, salt, pepper, garlic powder and some rubbed sage. I vacuum sealed the bag, and at 6:30 PM, I went to bury my hopes and dreams. Oh no! The compost pile was only at 145 F! I turned the pile to help oxygen get deep within, and then placed the next night’s supper under 18 inches of steaming compost.
As I came through the back door, my wife looked at me with that look only a loving woman can give her man. “What did you just do?” she queried.
“I am cooking tomorrow night’s dinner out in the compost pile,” I stated.
I really don’t understand why she tends to shake her head almost imperceptibly every time she walks away from one of our brief exchanges. Come to think of it her shoulders droop and she also mutters significantly. This time I heard, “words words words words hope he doesn’t expect words words eat that (very descriptive words).”
I waited 16 hours to retrieve what I hoped would be treasure. This is essentially sous vide cooking. “Of course it’s going to work!” I encouraged myself. I even looked on the internet to see if it had been done before, and it had! I was not alone in my culinary rubber room! I did not do an exhaustive search, by any means, but my cursory investigation yielded no warnings or pitfalls. That’s ok! I am, after all, a college edumacated fellow. I could figure it all out. The problems that could occur are few, but critical.
First, the vacuum bag could get punctured resulting in spoiled meat. Next, the bag could melt if the compost self ignites. Spoiled meat at this point would be low on my list of problems. More likely, the temperature might not penetrate fast enough to prevent enterotoxin formation by various bacteria. Enterotoxins can cause a rather nasty form of food poisoning, and the toxin is not heat labile, which means heat doesn’t destroy the toxin (Further cooking won’t make it safe). Less likely would be that a critter could dig up my Seal-a-Meal and make a picnic of it, resulting in a really funny story to tell for generations to come. That’s not really the result I’m out for though. Next to last, the compost might not remain hot enough to cook my food which would result in another one of those looks from my wife, but not as loving.
I dug my experimental food out of the compost, burning my hands the entire time. The temperature had returned to 165 F overnight. The bag was so darned hot that I had a hard time holding it to bring it in the house. (Insert picture of crotchety old man juggling something hot in his hands and muttering curses.)
The contents of the bag looked just like cooked pork! The bag was filled with all of the cooking liquids that heating had produced. That’s a good sign! I washed off the bag under the faucet, and then gave it a dunk in some sanitizing liquid. I made sure to get all of the seams cleaned out well and inspected them for any possible leaks. Everything looked great so I tossed the bag in the refrigerator to keep cold until supper that night.
After about three hours, I opened the bag and and poured the contents into a different container. I just had to try some. Especially since I wanted to make darned well sure that there was no likelihood of food poisoning (Wife). I ate about two ounces of the meat, with the gorgeous gelatin from the slow cooking hanging on. It tasted good, but was my mind playing tricks? A faint taste like the odor of the compost was present in the finish. I think it was just in my mind. Then I thought about the process. I just “canned” meat without hitting the magic 256 F for x minutes. My lips began to tingle, and I started to feel a bit dizzy. Clostridium botulinum! Should I call an ambulance, or just die with dignity?
That’s when my college edjumacated brain told me that there wasn’t enough time for the spores to germinate, produce a high titre of bacteria and then produce toxin. I was saved! Thank you college! But I think that is the place where this process could go fatally wrong. I must remember that in the future, the contents should be exposed to oxygen as well as cooled fast, and then consumed within a few days. Fast consumption was no problem. I prepared a rather nice meal that evening.
I am not wildly competent at putting together meals that look good and make sense. This is a really good example of that. I seared the pork ribs in a pan and got a nice, brown color on them. Then I created a pan sauce from the drippings with about 4 ounces of Imperial Stout, bottled by Sam Adams, but from the recipe from a good friend of mine. This is one of the winners of the Long Shot Competition from a few years ago. I also added back the juices that had generated during the cooking process in the compost pile. The sauce was strained after being reduced.
Paired with the meat was a ravioli stuffed with carrot mash, ricotta cheese, and a blend of cheeses on hand. I browned sage and butter in a pan and added the ravioli for a few moments. These were outstanding! I also made a slaw from Brussels sprouts, carrots and beets, with a little red onion. The pickling liquid was white wine vinegar, sugar, salt, caraway seed, and honey. I need to work on that because it was very harsh.
It would be nice to close with a bit of wisdom, or maybe some folksy humor. I’ve got nothing. I cooked dinner in a compost heap. Isn’t that enough?