The Hermetic science par excellence is alchemy; the famous Emerald Table, the bible of the alchemists, is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and gives in a mysteriously compact form the philosophy of the All and the One.
That which is above is like that which is below . . . . And as all things have been derived from one . . . so all things are born from this thing . . . . (Yates 150)
The unity of all, base matter to gold, the elixir of life–alchemy holds a promise of perceiving the ascending and descending universe, of creating the world through transformation. In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee offers a 17th century woodcut linking the bee and the scholar, the gathering of honey and knowledge.
Whenever we cook, McGee writes, we become practical chemists, drawing on the accumulated knowledge of generations, and transforming what the Earth offers us into more concentrated forms of pleasure and nourishment (xii).
When I’m in the kitchen pancetta, duck fat, onion, celery, garlic, tomatoes begin a gavotte welcoming kale, summer squash, green pepper or any number of flora and fauna into my pan; however, always in a pot in the back bubbles the stock–true alchemical exercise in the search for the one in all, perfection of taste. On my black-granite counter stands The Professional Chef from the Culinary Institute of America. Chapter 12 has become my “Emerald Tablet.”
Stocks are among the most basic preparations found in any professional kitchen. In fact, they are referred to in French as fonds de cuisine, the “foundations of cooking.” A stock is a flavorful liquid prepared by simmering meaty bones from meat or poultry, seafood, and /or vegetables in water with aromatics until their flavor, aroma, color, body, and nutritive value are extracted. (253)
The vocabulary of stock entices: meat or poultry stock, fish stock, fish fumet, vegetable stock, mirepoix, sachet, bouquet garni, remouillage, glade, court bouillon. What magic will happen today?
I start with a smoked hock and trotter from Revival Farms in Yoakum, Texas.
They raise Mangalista pigs and Red Wattle hogs. Mangalista like the Iberian Black descend to us from crossbreeding between Hungarian pigs and wild boars. This lard-worthy pig grows a hairy fleece like sheep. Revival Farms uses movable fences so the pigs work pastures and the pastures work through them. East Texas serves as the breeding home for Red Wattles. Slow Food USA lists the Red Wattle in their Ark of Taste, which catalogues endangered heritage foods that are culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice. Both pigs forage and offer lean meat. Time for Gulf Coast Shrimp.
Seafood Watch lists US shrimp populations as healthy, except for Louisiana which does not enforce federal regulations protecting sea turtles. As Seafood Watch states, Bycatch is the biggest problem in the Southeast shrimp fisheries, where bycatch is triple the size of the shrimp landings. Since Louisiana shrimp are “red-listed” they should be avoided. I bought these shrimp at Revival as well, and are harvested by Texas shrimpers. Let’s start cooking. I melt jealously-guarded bacon fat in my trusty copper pan and then pop in diced red onion.
I slowly heat the onion until it turns translucent, loses a bit of it’s purple color, and browns the slightest suggestion of caramelization, and then add diced celery leaves and stalks. I wait for the celery to wilt then add garlic and fresh tomatoes.
But what’s going on with the back burner will become the story of this meal. What’s in the stock?
Smoked hock and trotter, shrimp shells, fresh oregano and savory from our herb garden, dill stalks, celery root, garlic cloves, kombu and bonito flakes. The Emerald Cove Silver Grade Pacific Kombu I bought is gathered off the shore of Shandong Peninsula in China. I breathe a leaf and smell sweet, deep sea, herbaceous and briny. The bonito flakes are dried, smoked skipjack tuna. Shaved “katsuobushi” offers “kokumi” or mouthwatering, heartiness. Here’s an interesting Smithsonian article on “The Kokumi Sensation.” offering more information about the amazing tongue!
By combining kombu and bonito flakes I’ve made “dashi,” which means umami and a perfect complement and extension of smoked pig and shrimp shells. Meanwhile, I’ve brought out the Laphroaig! My all-time favorite single malt scotch hails from the southeast shore of Islay (along with Ardbeg and Lagavulin) where the peaty loch or stream water meets whipping Atlantic seaspray. Replacing wine or beer with Laphroaig carries smoky, seaweed notes and for this meal, I want as much “heartiness” as possible. [In fact, as I write these sentences I’m drinking Laphraoig 10 year old in a nosing glass while watching Netherlands vs. Costa Rica.] I drench the veg in a healthy pour of Laphroaig and then add parboiled Purple Viking potatoes.
Now comes the moment of truth. I strain the stock and then pour about half into the pan, stir, and then set on low-heat and let the liquid do it’s business of mixing and deepening flavors. Stock, the sofrito and Laphroaig conspire toward something earthy, oceany–at least, that’s the hope.
After an hour, I plop in the shrimp, turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the heat cook the shrimp in the rich broth. Now it’s time to serve.
Gabriela believes it’s cool enough outside, so we bring straw table mats, cutlery and napkins out to the back porch. Rain, birds, and the occasional pass of a car. I pile stew into bowls and place on the table. Demian takes a full spoonful into his mouth, meditates, swallows, pauses, then looks at me and says, “Dad, it tastes like blood.” I take a taste. And yes, my boy, yes it does taste like blood. We smile. Red and white blood cells made in bone marrow, plasma (pale yellow sticky liquid) made of glucose, mineral, vitamins and so on, sugar, hormones, clotting agents, and waste stew in blood. What does it taste like? Rust, sweat and a deep, dark cabernet with a dry finish. There are the usual ways of finding this wonderful palette or you can use my stock, sofrito and shrimp with Laphroaig recipe and treat yourself without cutting!