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Flash in the Pan

Fair-trade lamb tongue


Quinn brought five boxes of storage onions, fresh from the barn. Onion peels fluttered behind him like ticker tape. Matty had deer steak, elk stew and “Ari-style” pickled peppers. Carson had deer steak and cherry jam.  GO and Polly had sauerkraut made with apples and juniper berries, and frozen, pickled whitefish filets. I wanted a jar of them. Greg had carrots, dug that very day from under a heavy blanket of mulch, and I wanted some of them, too.

The “swap meat” began with a round of introductions where each swapper described the wares. The rest of us listened carefully, making notes about which products we hoped to trade for when the action started.

Adams introduced a pint of pickled beets that looked really good, a bag of dehydrated tomatoes that looked equally yummy, some homemade sausage, cucumber pickles, chokecherry syrup, honey, peaches, and grape juice.

Then he raised a pint jar filled with a green, amorphous material inside.

“These green tomato pickles are actually Lisa’s,” Adams said, “but they…”

“Oh no! Those are bad,” objected Polly, from across the room.

Murmurs swept through the swap meat circle.

 “No, these aren’t the bad ones,” protested Adams.

“Lisa put ginger in her pickles so they’d be good in martinis,” GO added, “But we tried them, and my god, they were eff-ed.”

“This is a different batch,” insisted Adams. But a cloud of suspicion had fallen upon that jar, and rightly so. The first rule of swap meats is you only trade your own goods, because then you know exactly what’s in them and how they were made.

A successful swap meat depends on standards of quality among tradable goods. Only approved people are invited, and frank discussion helps root out road kill, Lisa’s pickles, and the like.

A new guy, brought by a credible insider, had packages of moose meat, bags of dried morels, and two intriguing packages of homemade sausage, which he described as Swedish potato and bangers (kind of like bratwurst). He also had organ meat sausage, but I wasn’t in the mood for offal.

In fact, as part of a plan to downsize from two freezers to one, I’d brought about 10 pounds of organ meat myself: two elk hearts and a package of lamb tongues, given to me by Dan the lamb farmer. I like the concept of eating the whole animal, but when I’ve got steak I don’t seem to get around to the odds and ends.

I also had 10 pounds of frozen albacore tuna, caught off the Washington coast in August, 2007, by my buddy Mike. He gave me that fish when cleaning out his freezer after his August, ’08 fishing trip.

As Mike was at the swap meat peddling his ’08 tuna, I felt weird about competing against him with fish he’d given me, so I gave it all to Carson for a pint of cherry rhubarb jam.

The action got crazy in a hurry. While I was trading meat for carrots, the host got to Adams first and scored his dried tomatoes and pickled beets before I could make a move.

I had numerous jars of Ari-style pickles, mostly peppers and carrots, with which I secured pounds of Quinn’s onions, a package of the host’s legendary bratwurst, and jars of GO’s pickled whitefish and Mike’s canned tuna.

The new guy’s girlfriend perused my pickle jars, and asked what I wanted for some sweet pepper pickles.

“Sausage,” I said.

While poorly processed food can be awful, dangerous, or even deadly, carefully processed food can be a bottomless vessel of joy. And sausage, with its many steps and ingredients, can occupy either end of this spectrum, depending on the maker.

The new guy seemed like a straight shooter who could probably make a clean sausage. I was curious about Swedish potato and bangers, and it was worth some pickles to check them out.

(As soon as I got home that night, I had a taste. Thumbs up.)

The action was boiling hot for about 20 minutes, until most of the goods had traded hands. In the aftermath, amid the settling up and labeling things with Sharpies, the room filled with the chatter of farming stories, fishing stories, and winter gossip. The rug was littered with onion peels, like so many buy-and-sell orders on the New York Stock Exchange floor.

Adams had moved nearly all his product and lamented, “I wish I’d brought more to trade.”

The one item that remained on his table was Lisa’s disputed jar of pickled green tomatoes.

He opened the jar, tasted the contents, and didn’t die.

“Dude, these are good,” Adams said. “Here, try.”

He held out the jar for me.

I grabbed the edge of a green tomato and pulled. It was shriveled, dripping, and green. I took a very small bite.

The flavor wasn’t bad, like pickled anything. The texture was non-existent.  Just flavored slime held together by green tomato skins.

“Doesn’t taste bad,” I said.

“You want to trade for them?” Adams asked, with puppy-like hope.

I didn’t need the pickles, but I wanted the pint jar they were in.

“How about some lamb tongues?”

 “Deal,” he said. “I’ll put them in my next batch of sausage.”

Ask Ari: Suspect chile oil poses real danger

Q: Dear Flash,

My wife just returned from Brazil with a bottle of homemade Brazilian-style hot chile oil. It’s basically a bunch of small chile peppers in a glass bottle with olive oil. You find it on almost any restaurant table in Brazil, and when we’re down there we pour it on almost everything.

So I was psyched when the wife got home with this bottle of chile oil made fresh by her friend. But excitement turned to fear when we opened the bottle and the oil started bubbling.

Does this sound sketchy? If so, is there anything I can do to make my chile oil safe? Can I boil it or even pressure-cook it?

—Hot and Bubbled

A: Botulism is a concern here.  If a can of food has a bulge, or the lid of a jar is swelling upward, or if you open something and it starts bubbling, those are all indications of gas being produced. As botulism is odorless and tasteless, gas formation can be your only clue.

That said, I think what probably caused your oil to bubble was the trip home from Brazil, and the changes in pressure in the plane ride. Given that it was a fresh batch, as you say, there probably wasn’t time for botulism to grow in your jar.

But it could be growing there now. Storing food in oil is a time-honored practice, and usually turns out fine. But in recent years food safety experts have been warning people against doing so because of the risk of botulism. The oil creates an anaerobic environment where the botulism bacteria can thrive.

If botulism is present, boiling or pressure-cooking the jar won’t make it safe, because a toxin produced by the bacteria causes botulism, and this toxin will remain even if you kill the bacteria.

I think you should toss it.

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