Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More about rabbit and our go-to butcher

Here’s an addendum to the rabbit post just below. Today, on the Toronto Star website, I found this clip:

The “story behind the story” is this: Gasparro’s is the butcher shop where we buy almost all of our meat, including the rabbit used in the recipe I shared with you. Nick is the “managing brother” and a delightful person – as is everyone who works there. And they know Italian food! They even make their own guanciale.

Too bad the interviewer is a bit of a ditz. She didn’t even bother to check how the family name is pronounced.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I know it’s still pretty close to Easter, but…

It’s no secret that we like food that’s a little out of the ordinary around here, and we’re also not scared to cook just about anything, but somehow when we talk about certain things certain times, friends and relatives sometimes look askance at us. Today’s recipe is one of those occasions.

Rabbit Stew with pappardelle and Brussels sprouts. Yum!
It’s part of my nature, I guess, to sometimes take the mickey with people, so I’m fond of suggesting that we have venison at Christmas or rabbit at Easter. I am slightly serious because we have some excellent recipes for cooking both. As a matter of fact, when our boys were younger we used to buy a half carcass of farmed red deer, and everyone enjoyed it mightily. There was many a Sunday dinner consisting of pan fried venison steaks (cut thin and cooked fast), mashed potatoes, hot veg, a jus made from the pan drippings and a bit of venison stock, as well as fried onions with paprika. We’d still purchase more, but our friends sold off their herd. I never did manage to talk anyone into venison at Christmas (turkey has been the main course every year for the past 44), but I don’t plan on giving up.

Then there’s the Easter bunny. I really like rabbit and will order it in a heartbeat if it’s on a restaurant menu. What’s odd here is that my family had a pet rabbit when I was younger, a huge white one named Mr. Hoppity. I don’t remember how he came to live with us, but he wasn’t a baby. I have this vague memory that he just hopped into the yard and stayed. Regardless, we had a big cage for him that would be moved around the lawn for our most efficient clipper. Along with some rabbit pellets, he also got damaged lettuce leaves from the garden, carrots and he loved apples (of which we had a lot because of two full-size apple trees on our side lawn). Problem was, he caused my mother to have rather severe asthma attacks. On the coldest days of winter he lived in the basement in a pen my dad built down there. One winter my mother had a severe attack – and that was it for Mr. Hoppity. He disappeared immediately, and I have no clear idea where he went off to. We lived in a very Italian neighborhood, so I have always harbored certain suspicions…

Marinating the rabbit
Anyway, people who don’t understand how we can eat cute little creatures like bunnies have obviously never had them around destroying their vegetable gardens. It’s amazing the amount of damage one or two rabbits can do in just a few days. Deer, too, for that matter. Vicki put in some beautiful hosta plants for her mother a few years back, nice big specimens, too. Next morning? Little green nubbins. Everything was gone. I couldn’t have done a better job with a sharp knife.

So there’s the background. I’m unrepentant about enjoying consuming Santa’s sled pullers, and those fuzzy creatures that deliver our children’s Easter eggs.

Since it’s just past Easter, I think it only appropriate to talk about a fantastic recipe we ran across for rabbit stew. If you like hoppers, then I guarantee you’ll love this recipe. If you can source wild rabbit or hare, all the better, but even farm-raised bunnies will fill the bill. If you give this a try, I know you won’t be disappointed. The source of the recipe is an old cookbook on stews written by James McNair, James McNair’s Stews & Casseroles. If you’re interested in purchasing this lovely small cookbook, click HERE.

So here’s our go-to recipe for rabbit stew. If you like rabbit or would like to try something a bit out-of-the-ordinary, I think this will fill the bill.

Rabbit Stew
Serves 4-6

½ cup dry red wine
2 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbs juniper berries, crushed
3 dried bay leaves, crumbled
1½ tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1½ tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
3½-4 lb rabbit
3 Tbs flour
4 oz double smoked bacon, diced
¼ cup shallots, chopped
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
1½ cup chicken stock
1 Tbs fresh thyme
2 tsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 bay leaves, fresh or dried
½ cup port
3 Tbs red currant jelly

  1. Have your butcher cut up the rabbit for stew, usually 6 pieces unless it’s a really large rabbit (lucky you!), in which case, it should be cut into 8 pieces.
  2. Combine the wine, olive oil, sliced onion, juniper berries, bay leaves, rosemary, ½ tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper in a large bowl. Wash the rabbit with cold water, pat dry and place it in the bowl. Coat the pieces well with the marinade, cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours or 12 hours in the refrigerator. Turn the pieces occasionally.
  3. Preheat the oven to 325°. Drain the rabbit, reserving the marinade, but discarding the onions and herbs. Pat the pieces dry and coat them with flour. I shake the pieces in a plastic bag, and often find that I need a bit more flour.
  4. In a heavy pot, cook the bacon – slowly to render out the fat – until crisp and brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the rabbit to the remaining fat and brown it evenly. Add more olive oil if necessary, but be careful! You don’t want a greasy sauce. Remove the browned rabbit to a plate or bowl.
  5. Pour off all but 2 Tbs of fat. Add the shallots, celery and carrots, and cook for 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Pour in the reserved marinade and stock, and bring a boil over high heat, scraping any brown bits on the pan’s bottom into the liquid. Add the thyme, parsley, bay leaves, 1 tsp salt and a few grindings of pepper. Return the rabbit and bacon to the pot.
  6. Cover tightly and bake for 40 minutes. Stir in the port and currant jelly, and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Correct the seasoning.
Ready for the oven
Notes: When our kids were little, we used to tell them that this dish was made with chicken. (I know, I know. We were terrible parents.) I have my doubts whether they believed us, but they ate it anyway.

We generally serve it with radiatore (“radiators”) or orecchiette (“little ears”) so that the sauce can cling to the pasta, and usually have a salad course before, rather than a hot vegetable. The easiest way to crush juniper berries is by using the bottom of a frying pan. We use a mortar and pestle, but not everybody has one of those.

Our favorite wine to serve with this is from Ontario’s Flat Rock Cellars, a truly lovely winery in Beamsville up on what’s known as the Beamville Bench) Their “Gravity” Pinot Noir is just the perfect match for the flavors in this dish.. Sadly, unless you’re in Ontario or visit the Niagara Wine Region, you won’t be able to get it, so use a medium-body Pinot Noir – but get a good one.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

How to clean an Avantco SL309 9" Manual Gravity Feed Slicer

In 2013, I reviewed the Avantco SL309 9" slicer I’d received as a Christmas gift (actually, I picked this unit out for the person who then gave it to my wife and me). This particular post has generated many views and also more comments than any other post on this blog. I was – and still am – very happy with this slicer.

One late commenter, though, spoke about how hard the unit is to clean compared to the higher level slicers made by companies such as Hobart and Berkel. He made a very good point: I hadn’t mentioned cleaning in my review. The reason why is that I’d only cleaned my slicer twice. Yes, it did take a long time, but I figured that was more due to my inexperience than any design difficulties.

Sharpener and meat carriage removed.
I’ve now cleaned my sliced at least two dozen times and I can see what Seymour (the commenter referred to above) is getting at. It is more difficult than it could have been with a bit more design thought.

Slicers are one of the first places health inspectors check when they come into a commercial kitchen. Why? Because poorly cleaned slicers can be a huge source of pathogens, and it’s a place where sloppy kitchen cleaning practices can have serious consequences.

If you have a home unit, the consequences of poor slicer cleaning can be just as serious. So even if you have a bottom of the line unit, you have to be thorough and use the same diligence as a commercial kitchen.

Okay, to address Seymour’s main issue with cleaning the Avantco slicer, I need to state this off the top: you get what you pay for. If I had my druthers (and the cash), I would love to own a Hobart slicer with a 12-inch blade. It’s a lot easier to justify spending under $300 for a slicer you might use a couple of dozen times a year, compared to spending a few thousand dollars. Will everything be the same as one of the big name/expensive machines? No. But you do get a number of things you need to have.

Pros (and I’m reiterating some from my earlier review here):
  • the base is cast aluminum so there are no crevices where bacteria and hide and multiply
  • the blade is very heavy
  • it comes with a sharpener so you don’t have to send the blade out for sharpening.
  • the motor has more than enough torque
  • it comes with a replacement belt for the motor (and a spare sharpening wheel)
  • robust construction means it’s built to last.
  • it’s not the easiest slicer to clean in some ways
  • the blade guard could have been designed better for more easy removal
  • you have to remove the blade to get it really clean and it doesn’t come with a blade guard (although I suppose someone clever could make their own)
  • the directions for cleaning are woefully lacking – probably because this is the one area where the Avantco design falls short.

So, here are my suggestions (and helpful photos) on how to clean any of the Avantco entry-level slicers based on my experience with owning the Avantco SL309.

First and foremost: slicers are dangerous machines. No. Make that very dangerous. You can easily slice off part of a finger with no effort whatsoever. You must always respect that. Don’t be stupid; don’t cut corners; take your time. And above all, any time you are around them, pay attention!

A few unbreakable ground rules:
  • like any power tool, always unplug your slicer before you start cleaning
  • have on a stable workspace in good light
  • make sure the gate (the flat piece lining up with the blade) is closed (thickness setting knob at zero)
  • did I make it clear that the slicer should be unplugged?

Completely disassembled. Notice all the remaining grease!
First, remove the sharpener from the top of the slicer. There’s a knob behind it that you just back off and it will slide up and out. Check to see if there are any bits of food that have collected inside it. This doesn’t happen too much to me, but I check every time anyway. At the very least, I wipe off the outside of the housing.

Looking at the slicer from the front (face on with the blade to the right), you’ll see a black knob underneath the meat carriage. Take that off and slide off the carriage. This part can be run through your dishwasher, but I like to get the job done more quickely, so I wash it in the sink with a lot of soapy water. It can get pretty greasy if you’re slicing things like bacon (which we do a lot). Set it aside to dry.

I usually take off the movable cutting gate, especially if it’s really greasy. The downside is that it exposes the edge of the cutting blade. Be careful if you remove this! Thoroughly wash it front and back and set it aside to dry.

Now we come to the potentially scary part: removing the blade. The reason it’s necessary is that it’s pretty nigh impossible to clean the blade guard that’s fastened to the body of the unit if you don’t (the one major shortcoming of this slicer’s design). It is also easier to make sure the entire blade is clean if you remove it. This is true even with big-name, expensive slicers. But they supply a blade guard that protects you from the blade when you’re removing it.

To get at the three Phillips head screws that fasten the blade to the machine, you have remove the center disk to the blade. There’s a knob on the back of the unit. Back it off a bit, then push forward on it. This pushes the guard out from the center of the blade, making it easy to grab. Finish backing off the knob and remove the guard. Clean this front and back.

Clean the front of the blade carefully. I also dry it off so that when I handle it, there’s less chance of it slipping.

I always use a thick towel when handling the blade. You could also get a knife-proof glove to further protect your hand. Loosen all three Phillips head screws, then unscrew each one the rest of the way. If they’re really snug, it might be a good idea to have the gate on. That way, if the screwdriver slips, you won’t cut yourself.

Once the three screws are out, wrap the towel around your left hand, grab the blade carefully, and lift it off the machine. To clean the back of the blade, I put it on a counter wide enough to hold it without exposing any edges, then carefully wash it. (You’ll wash the front when you put it on the slicer again.)

Next, throughly clean the blade guard housing that’s still on the machine. A lot of food particles and grease collects on this, so be through. I use an old toothbrush to get at it thoroughly. Clean up the motor housing at this time, too, as well as the little guard that keeps food from going behind the blade.

You’ll want to wipe down all parts with a cloth on which you’ve poured some bleach (or you can purchase a sanitizer expressly made for this purpose). This may seem like overkill, but it really is the wisest course. After doing this, I use a damp towel (water) to wipe off any bleach residue.

To reassemble the unit, put the blade back on. Make sure the three screws are tightened snugly, but not cranked down so hard you’ll have trouble getting them out next time. If the gate isn’t on the unit, you’ll need to carefully put it back on (with the thickness knob at zero). It is held on by two screws and nuts. You’ll need to make sure the blade is clearing it. That can be tricky the first few times. I always remount it, and turn the blade by hand (remember: you have it unplugged. You do, don’t you?) to make sure the blade isn’t scraping the guard.

All clean and ready to go.
The rest of the reassembly should go easily. Here’s a good tip, gleaned from losing parts countless times when disassembling anything: put small parts (screws, nuts, knobs, etc) in a dish. Trust me. It works.

I always give the blade a final turn by hand to make sure all is as it should be.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, but after a few times, it can be done pretty quickly. After at least a dozen cleanings, I can do it in around 20 minutes. But never rush. Go the speed you can go that day remembering to always respect the blade! It needs to be razor sharp so it cuts easily and well. It’s made of heavy stainless steel for this purpose. So far, I haven’t even nicked myself, but that’s because I take it slowly and easily. Oddly, I’ve found I enjoy doing it.

Okay, you can plug in the slicer now.