December 28, 2018Comments are off for this post.

DIY Lard and bacon

This year my goal has been to be as hands on as possible with my food. That's meant foraging, fishing, processing meat from sustainable sources, gardening, canning and so on. Recently more data has come to light about different fats and their benefits. For the longest time things like lard were presented as unhealthy sources of fat by people wanting to promote their new invention, Crisco, to the masses as a healthy alternative. The reality is that from a scientific perspective, the higher burn point of oils like lard make them less carcinogenic. Basically, if oil burns, you're going to have a bad time. Lard from free ranging animals is also more nutrient dense and specifically has vitamin D in it, something that we don't get enough of in the winter time so I thought it might be time to start adding a little more lard use in my cooking. I asked my local butcher for some pig fat for making lard and adding to meat for sausage making (that'll be in the next post) and he came through with 10 LBS of quality Berkshire bacon ends for me to use.

To start, when handling pork fat, there's a few rules. Keep it mostly frozen. The warmer it gets, the harder it is to handle. My friend let it thaw just slightly before getting it to me and I kept it outside when it was 32 degrees outside until processing because the box wouldn't fit in my fridge very easily. I took the cold fat and cut off a workable size that would fit on the cutting board and cubed it into approximately 1" cubes. I wish I'd made it smaller but more on that later. In the process of cutting up the bacon ends I realized there was actually a decent amount of meat still hanging out on the edges so that was all trimmed off for curing. I needed 6 Lbs of fat for making sausages, and after a 2 Lbs of belly was removed I was left with 2Lbs to make lard with. After cubing I tossed the fat into my trusty dutch oven, put it on a low heat and let it cook. I opened it up to stir occasionally because I'd basically filled the pot up and the bottom cooked faster than the top. It took a lot longer than the info I'd seen online about cooking down fat for lard.  Most articles and recipes stated you need 2 hours. I needed closer to 8 to extract all the goodness from the solids so I'm not sure where they're getting their numbers from. Also I think if I'd have made the chunks a bit smaller I'd have had an easier time. At about 4 hours in, I poured off most of the liquid and cooked the chunks even further and broke them up as much as I could to get the insides cooked further and ended up getting about another 3 quarts from that bit. I filled up 6 or 7 jars from the 2 LBS of fat which is a nice output.

Now, making your own lard isn't for the faint of heart mostly because your kitchen will smell like lard. I don't mind the smell of strong foods in my house or on my clothes but some of you might opt to just buy a jar from your local butcher. Personally the savings are enough to make it worth it, plus I can choose where the fat comes from and see how it's handled. That for me is worth all the effort in the world.

December 19, 2018Comments are off for this post.

Venison Barbecoa Tacos

In an effort to reduce the amount of factory farming in my life I've taken a step. I started hunting. A couple years ago my father asked if I could help butcher a couple of lambs for my mother and her friend and it seemed like something I should take on. I've had this growing sense that if I couldn't be a part of the process in my meat consumption I probably shouldn't partake at all. See, I have this set of ethics when it comes to food that is about honoring ingredients. All of them are a life force at varying levels and we as humans need the nutrients to survive so we harvest different things. For me, cooking those ingredients in a beautiful and delicious way is about honoring them. I've had some strong revelations this past year about mortality and life cycles after losing my mother and soothing that pain with lots of walking in the woods, fly fishing and observing the never-ending cycle that is the natural world.


You see fish eating other fish, deer grazing on grass, coyotes grazing on the leftovers from something that's passed away, eagles swooping down on trout. Now none of this is meant to sway someone into my perspective, more to explain my ethics as an omnivore. To me, to harvest an animal is a serious matter and one that begs for rituals of respect for their life that is feeding me and those I regularly cook for. Those rituals come in the form of tacos in this situation. The first step was to take a shank from a deer that I harvested this fall, cover it in the mushroom powder I created in the last blog post, add salt, smoked paprika, garlic and some adobo sauce I'd made.

My recipe for adobo was to take a handful of dried pasilla negra chiles my buddy brought back from the southwest along with some anchos (dried/smoked poblanos) and to boil them in a sauce pan until they were softened up. The peppers along with the little bit of liquid that was still left was added to my food processor with a touch of cumin, coriander and a few tablespoons of agave. The result was put in a crock pot with the venison shank and lastly I added in some beer and orange slices. Left to cook for about 6 hours this tough and stringy cut of meat that regularly gets tossed out turned into the most gorgeous soft barbecoa. Taking what would be a discarded cut and making it into something delicious is exactly what I was mentioning earlier about honoring an animal.

while all of that is cooking I informed my great friend and neighbor RJ what I was up to and he promptly brought over his tortilla press so we could make masa tortillas from scratch. My favorite recipe for them is to substitute coconut oil for lard in the recipe to get another flavor layer to work along side the taco seasonings.

Pressing them in an actual press gets a nice even final product and the key to nice edges is making them with a high enough hydration to squish properly. When they're dry they crumble on the edge and don't look as nice. You can also just use a couple cutting boards and press the ball down flat and finish rolling them thinner with a rolling pin (it's what I do normally) but a press is pretty cheap. At this point I rarely buy tortillas because I'm currently in Iowa and not spoiled like I was in Chicago. I lived in Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood with at least 3 tortilla factories in a small area so I could go to the grocery store and find stacks of tortillas still hot from the factory. In Iowa? not so much.

Anyway, I hope this post gives you something to think about in your food consumption habits, maybe shows you one reason that people like myself choose to hunt and how really this adventure in eating is finding a way to further ground myself and keep connected to the natural world. It's so easy to just exist on our phones, or surrounded by music and human created experiences but venturing out into the forest to forage mushrooms, to wade in a stream or to patiently wait in a tree for a deer to walk by day after day leaves you time to think, to feel and to be connected to the natural world and order. It's helped me recalibrate, fight depression and feel a sense of purpose.

December 1, 2018Comments are off for this post.

Foraged Mushroom Powder

Sometimes you come upon a new food item or ingredient that completely challenges you. While out hiking this last spring I thought I'd take a look for some of the fabled morel mushrooms everyone talks about in Iowa where I live. We're in a historic Czech district where the yearly carnival is even named after mushrooms, Houby Days. I had eaten them before, knew they were valuable and had done a little research about where to find them and how to pick them. A friend pointed me towards the woods I was walking and before I knew it I had stumbled upon a nice patch of them below a large oak tree on a really steep slope above a stream. I put them carefully in an old onion bag to allow the spores to be spread back out so they'd come back the next year and expand. That spot actually ended up producing a few rounds of mushrooms last fall. What I ended up seeing even more of which was apparently common across the midwest is oyster mushrooms. I texted a friend who forages with some images and he said they looked like oysters and to bring them by for an in person evaluation to double check. I gave him a nice bag full as it ended up being at least 50 lbs of mushrooms over a span of 3 afternoons.

The problem with picking that quantity of mushrooms is storage or so I thought. I frantically posted on Facebook to see who had a dehydrator to borrow and my sister lent me one but it was much too slow for the quantity of my harvest that was growing by the day. So I thought about how people used to dry fruits, meat or anything else that needed preserving and realized the roof outside my large kitchen window just might be the perfect place to dry out a large pile of mushrooms. Stacked up on baking sheets and parchment paper or wire racks, they were done after 2 days of 80 degree weather. I covered them with thin tea cloths at night to keep moisture off and also experimented with tossing a couple sheets in my oven. Now my oven only goes as low as 175 which is a touch high for dehydration. The result was a really nutty cartelized dried mushroom that became really brittle. My food research had suggested that making a powder out of dried mushrooms was a perfect way to add umami or fullness of flavor to all kinds of dishes from stocks and soups to ice cream even.

Figuring my food processor would be great for the job I tossed the mushrooms in and pulsed the button and voila all I had was slightly smaller dry chunks. I needed a finder grind to get to powder and did what any red blooded human would do- put them into a coffee grinder. I have a grinder dedicated to the task of taking hard chunks of dried hatch, guajillo, pasilla negra, fennel seed, any spice really and making them into a fine powder for cooking. I love making my own BBQ rubs from fresh ground ingredients and this tool ended up being the perfect hammer for the job.

In the end this beautiful flavor enhancer adds a real depth to my food and gets regularly used. I love that it's something I've harvested with my own hands or by my partner Rebecca who trudged through the woods with me many days. The search for mushrooms has given us a reason to get into the woods, take a walk, forget our worries. The feelings of self sufficiency and bonding with the natural ecosystem has done lots for the two of us. This year has been a struggle at times, from losing friends and parents to death to starting our new photo and video collaboration in a city in Iowa and nature has been at the core of our search for balance and peace. When life brings you stress, a walk can help you make sense of it all. We often come back from hikes with all kinds of ideas and a stronger bond between us.

The great thing though about the mushroom powder concept is that you can also just buy dried mushrooms if it's not the season to harvest or you don't have access to a great foraging location. At our local Asian market there are tons of bags of dried mushrooms of all types for under $5 for a decent sized bag. If you're making soup or braising a lamb shank it might be just the thing you need to take that dish to the next level. Lastly, if you do decide to start to forage your own mushrooms I highly recommend finding some experts to learn from. There are loads of Facebook groups, field guides and normally meet ups at nature centers to forage with some friends. To start out, the easiest to identify mushrooms in spring tend to be morels and oysters and in the fall giant puffballs, oysters, shaggy mane, chicken of the woods (pictured above) or hen of the woods.  My first rule with mushrooms is if I'm in doubt, I don't eat it. Most of the time mushrooms will at worst give you some gastrointestinal stress but at worst they can be deadly so it's important to learn to identify what's safe. - Caleb


November 20, 2018Comments are off for this post.

Our mission with the blog

In the age of social media, I went from desiring my own space to share content to being satisfied with lots of different ways to reach an audience of friends and collaborators. Recently, Rebecca (the other half of Pilsen Photo Coop) and I have been talking about adding a blog for sharing more photographs. Sometimes we have things that don't quite fit into a portfolio or might annoy people on facebook or just need a full story! Social media platforms aren't really set up to deal with a long format piece easily and it's not really why people tend to log on. It's about quick hits and we thought maybe a blog for some deep cuts might be fun and useful for our audience. So hopefully over the next few months we'll develop some interesting thoughts, chase down some great images, share some recipes, swoon over planning a trip to Paris or otherwise to draw you all into our world. Posts will be made by myself (Caleb) and also Rebecca and we'll make sure you know who's doing what. We have distinct voices in some ways so this will hopefully be a way for you to get to know us and our passions.

I've been shooting since about middle school, shot for the newspaper through college getting an art degree at Central College in Pella, Iowa and Rebecca Norden also started out shooting some black and white film in high school. I cut my teeth assisting commercial photographers in Chicago, eventually building my own brand and studio there as well as in Madrid for a couple years. Rebecca however did something a bit less conventional and got a gig as a flight attendant to satiate her need for new places and learned to take great travel images with her iPhone (something I'm not nearly as good at, tbh). I can't wait for her to make a post here detailing some of her hilarious run ins with the crazy that seems to follow her around wherever she goes.

Where we are currently living is this gorgeous little street in a midwestern working class city, full of nature and passionate entrepreneurs and artists working to make a city like Cedar Rapids, Iowa a bit more interesting. It seems like every week some new restaurant or shop is opening. It keeps us grounded to have a trail for running and biking right by the house or a river just down the block. When we need a dose of nature, a short drive from the apartment we have what feels like complete isolation in some woods and hills, even some hidden bluffs. We'll share lots of images from those adventures and even maybe some of us braving this cold front that just came in. Thanks for reading and we hope this is as fun for you as it is for us!  - Caleb Condit