I have never been to a state fair. I’ve seen stuff about them on TV and the Internet, but to date, I have never attended one. Much like time-intensive weekend activities like camping or anything else requiring a drive out to the middle of nowhere, my parents weren’t really interested in taking us to state fairs when we were younger. We only went to the VP Fair (which is now Fair St. Louis but I’m old and still remember the commemorative VP Fair Vess soda cans, whaaaaaaat) a couple of times, probably because my parents found it too difficult to protect their kids from the shithammered drunks staggering around and picking fights with one another (oh, St. Louis).
Graham and I were going to go to a state fair a few years ago. We couldn’t afford a really big trip, so one night we decided to pick some tiny town within 5 driving hours of St. Louis and just hang out in their bars and maybe go to my first state fair while we were there. Then the restaurant he worked in suddenly closed, and the few days we were going to spend out of town were spent updating his resume and trying to find a job, instead.
There’s a state fair going on now in Washington, although I doubt I’ll go. Puyallup’s not that far away, but driving there from the center of Seattle is…challenging. I’ve already talked about the daily bloodsport that is my commute, I can’t even deal with going to the far suburbs and trying to navigate the crowds drawn to a state fair. Also, if I’m going to go to a state fair ever in my life, I’d like it to be a Midwestern one. Preferably Minnesota’s, which Abbi assures the Internet is the greatest state fair in the history of state fairs, and if you happen to find an online gallery of Minnesota State Fair foods, you’ll probably agree with her.
Not that the Washington State Fair won’t have good food. I’m sure it will. But food here isn’t the same as food in the Midwest, and for once I’m not at all ashamed by the Midwest’s reputation as fat flyover country. I just feel like state fairs are better as a Midwestern thing, and I want to know what 4H looks like, goddammit.
It already feels like fall – actual fall, not Indian summer fall – in Washington, and I’m not entirely sad about that. Seattle summer was super beautiful, but after a season without air-conditioning (which wasn’t at all unbearable, but I think it gave me a heightened awareness of this is summer), I want to make things like stew, roasts, and big fat sauces again (today is duck chili!). Courtney and I did family dinner with our double CSA pickup two weeks ago and I made my first 100%-from-scratch pasta sauce (or gravy, as some dirty Italian would say). I can’t decide if it was really fucking good or just a very decent version of Chef Boyardee, but I slow-roasted the tomatoes and preserved them in oil a few days before and then roasted the bones and the garlic myself, and the herbs came from my own plants and I have never been so happy to have my food processor working again.
Double CSA Pickup Shells and Sauce
3 lbs homegrown/heirloom tomatoes, sliced into quarters
1-2 lbs. bones (I used lamb neck bones because they were on sale at the rich white people store and rich white people don’t buy bones)
1 bulb garlic, top sliced off
½ white or yellow onion, peeled
Fresh herb sachet (mine contained basil, rosemary, thyme, fennel fronds and oregano)
2 tbs. butter (yes, butter)
Olive oil for drizzling
About 1-2 days before making the sauce in earnest, roast your tomatoes by preheating the oven to 300. Arrange the tomatoes on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil (about 3 tbs). Roast for 3-4 hours, until the flesh starts to gel and the skin gets puckery around the edges.
When tomatoes are semi-cooled, dump the contents of the baking sheet (tomatoes, juices, and oil) into a sealed container and store in the fridge.
On the day you want to make your sauce, preheat the oven to 425. On a baking sheet, arrange the bones and sprinkle with salt/drizzle with olive oil. Also, make a foil packet for the head of garlic and drizzle with olive oil. Place that on the baking sheet next to the bones and roast for 20-30 minutes (don’t let the garlic burn, if its innards get golden and sticky-soft, take it out and let the bones keep roasting for about 35-40 mins total.
While this stuff is roasting, take out your tomatoes and peel off the skins. This is as easy as gripping a corner and lightly tugging back. Discard the skins, then puree the tomatoes and the juice/oil from their container in a food processor, food mill, or blender. Remove the garlic cloves from their skins and pulse them with some tomato puree until smooth.
Take the bones out of the oven. In a stockpot, melt the butter and place the onion flat side-down in the bottom. Toss the herb sachet in and let it get coated in hot butter until aromatic. Now add the bones and cover with the tomato sauce. Simmer on medium-low/low, stirring occasionally, for about an hour. Remove the bones, onion, and herb sachet, and if you want, run the sauce through a sieve (sometimes there’s whole marrow or, um, other stuff in there, but I just get the stray bits out with a spoon). Keep it in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 days until you need it. This sauce will freeze well, too.
Shells and Stuffing
1 1-lb package jumbo pasta shells
½ white or yellow onion, diced
1 medium-sized bulb fennel, diced
1 Italian or hatch chili pepper, seeded and finely diced
2-3 cups other vegetables – Actually it was probably more, quantity-wise, and we used chopped radicchio, spinach, and chard because 2/3’s of that came in our CSA. We kept the spinach separate from the rest because it doesn’t take as long to cook.
1 cup basil (we used field basil from our CSA, it’s really aromatic and hearty), chopped
½ cup pancetta, diced, also I had like three strips of bacon in there because it was thick, nicely smoky, and I had to use it up somehow.
16 oz. ricotta cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2 cups meltable Italian cheese (I cheat and use a Kroger-brand blend, GET OVER IT)
¼ tbs. red chili flake
Olive oil for sautéing
Preheat oven to 400.
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add chopped pancetta and cook until just brown. Scoop pancetta out and place on paper towel to drain a bit.
Add the onion, fennel, diced pepper, and (in my case) radicchio and chard stems to the olive oil/pancetta fat and add salt, pepper, and chili flake. Stirring frequently, sauté until soft and then remove from heat.
Over medium heat, wilt the chopped spinach, chard, and basil with a little bit of water. You want to remove it when it’s soft-ish but still vibrant green.
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan, pancetta, sautéed vegetables and greens. If the mixture is too dry, drizzle it with a bit more olive oil. Once mixed, place the bowl in the fridge so it firms up for stuffing later.
Boil salted water and cook the shells for 8-9 minutes until al dente. Gently drain them; just dumping them into a colander like I did will break a lot of them up. I carelessly didn’t account for the steam and this was sloppy. Bad Erin. Bad.
When the shells are semi-cooled, arrange them in a sprayed baking dish and stuff them with the cheese-and-vegetable mixture. If you have any spare or broken shells, tear them up and scatter them in the dish. Pour sauce over to coat the shells but not make a weird pasta soup.
Place in oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the sauce sets a bit on the top and some of the shell tips get a little crispy. Top with cheese, cook for addition 5-8 minutes. If the cheese melts but isn’t browned after this time, turn on the broiler for like a minute.
When the cheese is melted and browed, remove the dish and allow it to sit for 5-10 minutes (closer to 10 is better) to allow it to set. Then serve. With lots of wine. And preferably a starter course of triple-cream cheese, prosciutto, and a big bowl of CSA nectarines that were fucking amazing. And your friends, of course.
I promise you the Minnesota State Fair is amazing. Illinois’s is okay, and Nebraska’s is all right, and Wyoming’s feels like the Cinderella (pre-makeover, pre-ball, pre-talking mice) of state fairs. One-quarter of the entire state population of Minnesota makes it to the fair every year. If Minnesotans are willing to make that kind of pilgrimage, you know it has to be worth it.
Some year I’m just going to charter a big bus to bring my St. Louis friends to the Minnesota State Fair, so we can all experience the food, the horses, and the dairy princesses together.