Apolitical Herrings / Apocalyptic Herring Recipes for a week

It is only fair to warn you that if you're from Northern California, you probably won't like these recipes. Californians tend to divide all food into two categories: that which is "fancy" and "stylish" and that which is "plain" and this is neither. It's a combination of basic Northern European peasant and Midwestern home cooking, which is to say something quite outside what seems to be the culinary base of San Francisco: a mixture of (mostly Northern) Italian, (mostly Nouvelle) French and (mostly Cantonese) Chinese cooking. It is relatively mildly flavored, relatively heavy cold weather food.

Such food can easily prove ill suited for the Playa, given the frequently high midday and even late night temperatures. The way I'd suggest dealing with that problem is by serving the main meal in the morning, which is not unheard-of in some places north of the Alps, anyway. We're going to be using salted herrings which have to be soaked overnight, a procedure best finished in a cold environment (which the very late night chill can help provide) because as the fish loses salt, it loses its resistance to decay. Morning dining, then, is practical, and as kippers for breakfast are practically a cliche, herrings at dawn shouldn't come as too great of a shock, especially given how surprisingly hungry one can be on a surprisingly cold desert morning. What one is going to end up with is probably going to be a little saltier than what one would get back in somebody's home, since the shortage of water will force the cook to skimp a little on soaking water, so limiting portions is probably a good idea. Ignore the posturing on ePlaya from "those in the know" about the need to eat "lots of salty foods" while on the Playa. Keep in mind the fact we're mostly hearing from San Franciscans whose idea of what "salty" is comes from their experiences with the mildly cured foods of France, Italy and China, and American derivatives of these. They think olives are salty. A literal red herring takes us to a whole new level in this area, one with which our insistant givers of ill-considered advice are usually quite unfamiliar, much to the unpleasant surprise of those who let themselves be steamrollered by these very loud and frequently ill-informed individuals.

The reality is that you are losing water on the Playa, not just to sweat (which does take away salt), but to exhalation (which does not), and one hardly is ever getting as much water as one really should, under the circumstances. If you start replacing more salt than you're losing, an easy proposition if you're subsisting on a diet of bloaters, kippers, red herring, bacon and good, dry, hard, Virginia ham, and you're not replacing water as quickly, the salt level in your bloodstream will tend to rise, which is very bad for you. This is not like taking a swig of gatorade. Some of these foods are deliberately drenched in so much salt that bacteria can't survive in anything other than a dormant state within them - that's how they are preserved. Your body will try to undo the damage you're doing to yourself (if you follow this dangerously bad advice) by eliminating excess salt, but water has to come with, resulting in even more dehydration. Push too far in that direction and you'll end up in the med tent, a harsh price for you to pay just to go along to get along with a group of total, anonymous strangers, don't you think? Let's try something different.

What, then, to make up the difference with? A lot of bean and pea soups and grains, what else? Together, these provide a complete protein, allowing us to get away with treating our signiature meat as a novelty instead of as being something to fill up on. But enough talk, let's get cooking.

Day One: Creamed Herring

After a fashion. This will be the one of the few times we will see fresh herrings this week, as we don't wish to chance the freshness of seafood that has been sitting on ice much longer than necessary. It gets worse. We're going to use canned chicken broth (or better, packaged if you can get it). Our fuel is limited, and we just can't afford the luxury of doing a long simmer over propane. We take 1 large onion, mince it finely, and cook it slowly in 8 tablespoons of butter until it is golden brown. We put 8 tbsp. of flour in with the butter (yes, half of a cup), and saute slowly, stirring constantly until the flour has turned the deep tan color of hot chocolate. Watch it! and don't be afraid to be rude if somebody tries to distract you. The roux we're making can go from being underdone to being burnt in a few seconds, if we aren't careful. Tell your excessively sociable campmate to go away and leave you be until you're done. He'll live.

We take the flour-butter-onion mixture from the fire and let it cool. It should get completely cold, which is a very good reason to do this in the morning. After maybe about ten minutes of cooling, we start to bring 4 cups of chicken broth to a boil. When it is finally at a rolling boil, we put it to one side and put the roux back over the heat, adding the broth to it a ladleful at a time, whisking the broth into the roux and letting it thicken before adding more broth. We continue in this manner until all of the broth has been added, leaving us with a moderately thick gravy. The broth will have to be added boiling hot to cool roux, otherwise the gravy will break. Don't rush and put all of the broth in at once, or you'll tend to get a thin gravy and a broken roux, neither easily fixed by reduction.

We cover the pot tightly and put it into a wooden box lined with straw. A little bizarre, but it keeps the pot warm without the use of large amounts of that scarce propane. Patting the herrings dry (we're using 8 roughly one pound herrings), we pat them dry and roll them in oatmeal which we ground finely at home in our blender, savages that we are. We slowly fry our little friends (probably the last friends we have in camp after telling everybody to GO AWAY) in bacon fat until they turn a light golden brown, remove them to a plate with all due reverence. We add four tablespoons of hard (alcoholic) cider (or apple wine), two tablespoons of cream and two tablespoons of sharp mustard (Dijon or Dusseldorf, not French's) to our sauce which we then reheat as quickly as we can, stirring quickly to avoid lumping. Toward the end, we add two tablespoons of sour cream, and remove the sauce from the heat. We dress our herrings with this sauce and serve them to our hungry and disgruntled campmates, whose partially appeased appetites may now incline them toward reasonability and forgiveness, especially since they know that where there is bacon fat, there must surely be bacon (which will find its way into this barley soup, or stew or gruel - I'll leave the semantics up to you):

Barley Soup : Two pounds of pork stew meat are browned in a soup kettle in four tablespoons of rendered bacon fat, with half of a pound of dry cured ham. (One that isn't very sweet). Toward the end of browning, two large carrots (diced), two stalks of celery (also diced), 1 parsnip, 1 parsley root and one small celery root (peeled and cleaned), also all diced, are added to the cooking fat and cooked long enough to slightly color. Two quarts of chicken broth and 1/2 cup of barley grits are added to the pot which is then tightly covered and put to the simmer for two hours. Quite obviously, given the large amount of propane that would consume were we to do this over an open flame, we will be leaving the pot in a hot box (an insulated container) or, perhaps, a solar cooker if we do this later in the day when the sun is up. A half hour before cooking is done, a cup of mushrooms (the bland white amanitas like the ones that Campbell's sells) thinly sliced and briefly cooked in a little bacon fat is added to the pot along with eight crumbled strips of some of the same well browned bacon that provided that fat we've been using so extravagantly. Then, while nobody is looking, we slip in six soaked, dried porcini mushrooms, even if they aren't particularly German or English, to perk up the flavor of the Amanitas.

"Where did the rest of the bacon go", some will ask. Where else we ask, with a faint and evil smile, but into

Another soup : There shall, indeed, be no escape from Campbell's this morning. We put four cups of fresh navy beans (or canned navy beans, if necessary) which we're going to cook in eight cups (two quarts) of packaged or canned beef broth along with one medium onion (sliced) for a half hour. We'll then fry three tablespoons of flour in three tablespoons of butter until lightly toasted (you can let Chatty Cathy back into the kitchen for this, as little attention is required), adding 2 cups of chopped tomatoes (probably canned, I'm afraid) seasoned with 1/2 tablespoon of caraway seeds and two hot dried red peppers (yes, really) which we then will cook until the tomatos are soft, stirring frequently. Ten minutes before the end of cooking, we'll put in 3 tablespoons of molasses (or, probably more prudently if not as good, brown sugar) along with eight crumbled strips of that bacon, cruel mockery to those who thought that they were getting scrambled eggs and toast on the side. No such luck for them, sad to say, but to show that we do care, we can offer them

Yet another soup : And it won't even involve the use of anything out of a can! Of course, it also won't provide them with much in the way of protein, so as always, the hope of culinary escape is fleeting.

What we're going to make is a buttermilk and blueberry soup. Or raspberry or blackberry, if you prefer, but whatever you choose, you DO want to make this in the morning, for reasons that should soon become obvious. We're going to beat four eggs (which will end up being eaten raw, so make sure they're fresh) with one cup of sugar and the juice and grated rind of three limes. We're going to whip the buttermilk until it is foamy, and then slowly stir it into the egg mixture. We're going to then set it out in the morning chill to set for a few hours, which is why you really don't want to do this at midday, unless warm, salmonella bearing buttermilk is your idea of fine dining. Just before serving, we stir in a pound of fresh berries, and no sooner, otherwise the water released from the berries will thin the soup.

Day Two: Soused Herrings

The poor little things aren't dying happily, I'm afraid - everywhere else in the world, when the name of a dish refers to inebriation (eg. Salsa Borracha - Drunkard's Sauce), some sort of liquor is involved. In England, they seem to expect the fish to drown their sorrows in vinegar before facing their inescapable end on the dinner plate. It just doesn't seem right, somehow, but no matter. We'll soldier on.

Eight fresh herring - probably the last we'll see this week - are beheaded and boned, with the roes saved for another dish if you're lucky enough to have access to them. Probably you should just enjoy them as a treat as a reward for your work, because in the heat of the day, they'll tend to spoil. Normally, these would be baked, but we are unlikely to have an oven in the desert, so what do we do? We improvise. Something like baking can be achieved by taking a pair of well seasoned cast iron skillets, and placing one atop the other over medium low heat, maybe tying the handles together by twisting a little wire around them to keep the upper pan from falling, because cast iron is very brittle. Or one could, perhaps, follow the above link to the aforementioned solar cookery site and build a solar oven, heat some bricks or rocks, enough to build a good sized pile over a box, bank dust or dirt over the rock for insulation, and then come back the next morning to see if one still has baking temperatures available, but that sounds like a lot of work. Let's stick with the skillets.

We're going to take our herring and roll them up and skewer them with toothpicks, putting them in the lower skillet (or in a dish) with enough malt vinegar and water (half and half) to just barely cover the fish, 1 medium onion (sliced), 1 small hot pepper, 4 bay leaves, 1 tsp. whole cloves, 1 tsp. crushed whole coriander seeds, and 1 tsp. of thyme, and "baked" all of this on the stove between the two skillets for about 45 minutes. (If you do have an oven, you can do this better in a covered ceramic baking dish at 325 degrees Farenheit), testing for doneness toward the end (a fork should be able to enter the fish without resistance; if it can't, keep cooking). We remove the rolls to a dish. At this point, one has a few choices, each producing a very different dish:

  1. If you have the roe (female herrings) or the milt (male herrings) and are willing to share, you can puree this by rubbing it through a strainer, and adding enough of the cooking liquid to produce a thin sauce - making sure to let the cooking liquid cool off the heat before doing this, because you don't want to cook the roe (or milt). If your herrings were cleaned before you got them, which they probably were, you can probably purchase some sort of inexpensive fish roe in your market. (American lumpfish "caviar" is widely available). The sauce is placed over the fish, which is kept warm, right before serving. The fish should be sauced sparingly, and not just because roe is either scarce or expensive, but because a hot, vinegar based sauce will tend to be overpowering if more than a few tablespoons per serving are offered.

  2. One can let the herring cool, unskewer it, chop it coarsely and serve it on buttered pumpernickel bread, topped with rings of raw onion, dill and capers, immediately before the smørrebrød gets soggy. (That's basically what you're eating, even if one has replaced a Danish pickled herring with a cold English soused one, and please do not put another slice of bread on top of the filling, it just isn't done. This sandwich you eat on a plate, with a knife and fork. Really).

  3. One can dispense with the cooking liquor altogether, and serve the fish in a milder sauce made as follows: a few hours before serving, one combines sour cream, along with 2 tbsp. of fresh dill leaves and maybe 1 tbsp. of lemon juice per cup of sour cream, leaving this to sit for two hours in that lovely refrigerator nature has you living in, in the early morning hours in the desert. How much sour cream? How much do you like sauce? This will be a mild one, so for myself I'd like two cups of sauce, the excess to be used up on a potato dish served on the side. Again, the fish is sauced just before it is served.

More to come later : But for now, you might as well just return to the main page for my site.

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