Thursday, December 10, 2009

012.Bonne Maman Chestnut Spread


Produced in Biars-sur-Cere, France
Distributed by American Marketing Team, Bloomfield, New Jersey
Claim: none
Ingredients: sugar, chestnut puree, cane sugar, vanilla.
$2.41 ("clearance" price) for 13 ounces

Biars is a village in the Lot region of southwest France. It's apparently something of a ville de confitures - a jam town. Bonne Maman, in spite of its rustic packaging, is an internationally famous preserve. American Marketing Team is the same group who bring us the Jules Destrooper biscuits.

I can't remember where I got my first taste of creme de maron. Some patisserie somewhere, lathered onto a croissant or something. I do recall our first encounter with chestnuts: Toulouse, New Year's Eve, in the place du Capitole, watching dark, handsome gents - their black curls drifting out from under their black, Gascon berets - roast whole chestnuts over steel barrels banked with hot coals. The smell was caustic, invigorating, of an ancient regime.

Chestnut spread is not jam. More like apple butter, a bit grainy and not too terribly sweet. It has a nuttiness that's invaded by some other nuance - something perfumed, maybe. It's hard to peg. But it tastes wonderful on toast.

011.Verde Valle Frijo Mayocoba Peruano

Claim: “Mexico’s #1 Brand of Beans”

Ingredients: mayocoba beans

99 cents for 1 pound


I stopped by Las Americas last Friday after work to pick up some carnitas to go. The thick chunks of pork shoulder, poached gently in a vat of their own fat, remind me of the duck confit of southwest France. It is a flavor I crave, often with a vengeance.


While there, I did a little shopping. (Las Americas is also a grocer.) It's enormous fun for me, strolling the aisles in search of nothing, led by a curiosity and a vague sense of recognition. I bought some McCormick strawberry ("Fresa") jam, some Guerrero tostadas - fried, whole tortillas, stacked in cellophane - a jug of Jumex mango nectar for the lads and a one-pound bag of green beans.


Not those green beans - whole, dried shell beans, similar in shape to pintos but clearly green-yellow in color, even through the murky package under dim light. This is the kind of stuff that drives the Aisles Project. What could these oddly-colored beans be? Aren't beans reddish brown, black or white?


I took them home and got them soaking, then went online and found a story that told not only of the bean's South American ancestry, but also of a tidy little turf war being waged in the name of the mayocoba. Here 'tis.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

010.Pride of Szeged Rib Rub


Produced (most likely) in Szeged, Hungary
Distributed by Spiceo, Avenel, New Jersey
Claim: “The World’s Best Seasoning” and "Always Fresh"
Ingredients: salt, paprika, garlic, mustard, sugar and spices.
$3.47 for 5 ounces

I seized on this one in a hurry, it being something of a rogue on the spice shelves, where most rubs hail from Texas or, oddly, New Jersey. (Distribution-wise, anyway. Jersey seems a popular point of embarkation for non-perishable anything.)

Szeged is the fourth-largest city in Hungary. There are names for Szeged in at least 10 other languages: Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Turkish. The Hungarian coat of arms adorns the tin. Above the logo is an illustration of a very brow-furrowed, spotted pig.

Most of what I know about Hungary I learned from Eva Gabor playing Lisa Douglas. So, next to nothing. I don't really think of Hungary when I think of ribs — hungry, maybe — and I'm thinking that the raison d'etre for this rub is the paprika. Paprika being the house spice — and something for which Hungary is quite renowned — they just added some salt, sugar and stuff and labeled it rub for the Yanks.

Don't know if anybody's buying it. The bottom of my tin has rust bits around the edge. The way it's labeled, you get the feeling just saying "Pride of Szeged" is enough to convince folks, though I wonder how many souls roaming the aisles half-mindedly at Reasor's on a given Sunday know, off the tops of their rib-starved heads, the name of the fourth-largest city in Hungary. I mean, to the point of the label not at least saying Hungary. Ballsy.

As to the packaging — because I haven't taken Szeged out for a spin yet, ribs-wise, I got little else to talk about — the plastic lid is like an iron curtain, with a T-shaped seal that I had to dig out with my teeth in order to get a taste. Pride of Szeged tastes, well, salty.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

009.Cafe Du Monde Beignet Mix French Doughnuts


Produced in New Orleans
Claim: "Original French Market Coffee Stand"
Ingredients: Enriched wheat flour, enriched barley flour, milk, buttermilk, salt, sugar, leavening (baking powder, baking soda, and/or yeast), natural and artificial flavoring.
$2.99 for 28 ounces

Found this mix on the top shelf on the baking aisle, above the other flours. (Top shelf in a grocery store and top shelf at a well-stocked bar, of course, reflect quite different strategies.) I bought it because of the line drawing of Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square that towers in the background. It and other memories of the Big N.O. the box evoked.

Beignets, tradition goes, are an Acadian creation. Proper beignets, according to the box, are fried in cottonseed oil, flavored with powdered sugar and served alongside a cafe au lait. They are nothing more than a doughnut and must be prepared as deftly.

Hubert Fernandez bought the Cafe Du Monde from Fred Koeniger in 1942. Since, the Fernandez family has franchised more than 50 cafe locations, all of them in Japan. (Another handful of cafes are scattered about the New Orlean's metro area.)

The franchising page of the Web site carries on almost apologetic, we-told-you-so tone about it, meant to warn people off the apparently dodgy idea of bringing another Du Monde into the world. Invariably, the warning goes, such bright ideas are usually borne after a morning's coffee and beignets among hordes of tourists dropping dollars on doughnuts.

"Each Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand," it goes, "has required a substantial capital outlay that the Fernandez family has been able to shoulder because of its business diversification over the years. Part of the Fernandez family's reluctance to franchise is that an individual would be ill prepared to shoulder the financial risk of opening an unsuccessful Cafe Du Monde. We do not wish to place another family in this position."

I brightened the boys' Cheerio morning by telling them beignets were on the rise. They dug them whole-heartedly, each wolfing four apiece. (They'd eat each other, I believe, if dredged extravagantly enough in powdered sugar.) The box instructs the cook to roll out the dough to one-eighth inch. My first go with beignets proved that more like a sixteenth is required to get the dough to puff. Most of my beignets fell rather flat.

And so, hence, my attempt to cook up a lost memory.

Friday, November 27, 2009

008.Colman's Double Superfine Mustard Powder


Produced by Colman's of Norwich
Distributed by Van den Bergh Foods, location mysterious
Claim: "Original English."
$3.29 for 2 ounces
Ingredients: mustard flour.

"By appointment to Her Majesty The Queen," the famous yellow tin leads from the top, just under the royal logo, "Van den Bergh Foods Ltd. Suppliers of Margarines, Low Fat Spreads, Mustards and Sauces."

Van den Bergh is a massive American food conglomerate launched in Lisle, Illinois, then gobbled up by Unilever. Van den Bergh has a plant, if not a headquarters, in Atlanta. It marries with the "appointment" text like tea and Boston Harbor water.

I am a sucker for old English foodstuffs that travel well — treacle, pickled walnuts, bitter ale, spicy gin, Worcestershire sauce, Twinings, etc. It's part of the colonial need for food preservation, which has a very bombastic aspect to it, historically, but in posterity seems nearly quaint. Plus, I love the tins.

Colman's was established in 1814 by Jeremiah Colman at Stoke Holy Cross. It's a blend of two mustard seeds, Brassica juncea (brown) and Sinapis alba (white), ground to form a pale yellow powder. Blended with water, its powers are released.

I buy Colman's because the odd brandade or braise will occasionally call for it. It's never occurred to me to actually prepare my own mustard from powder. Colman's is said to have a fairly fiery tone about it. But, then, I eat Dijon forte off my fingers, so hot may be relative.

007.Congelli Caramel Custard


Product of Mexico
Distributed by Vilore Foods Co., Laredo, Texas
Ingredients: sugar, corn starch, carrageenan, corn syrup, inverted sugar, water, iodized salt, caramel coloring, artificial flavoring, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40 Lake (preservatives: sodium benzoate, sodium propionate).
$0.99 for 6 ounces

When I told the lads we had Congelli for dessert, they said, "Yeah! … What is it!"

It's flan. Of course, I didn't tell them that. "It's Congelli!" I shouted in kind, and showed them the box. I told them it was like pudding.

Boxes of Congelli sit on the Mexican food shelf next to the Virgin Mary candles and corn starches. If Bill Cosby were Guillermo Cozbi, he'd have pushed Congelli. Maybe.

Congelli — congealed is a good name for this stuff - is a faster-than-lightning flan you cook stovetop with some milk. (Congelli is packaged in powdered form.) You top it with a caramel sauce that comes in a little pouch. It's got some funky ingredients, to be sure, among them carrageenan, though it's got more bark than bit. (Cooks have been using carrageenan, a natural seaweed thickener, for years.)

Jonas didn't like the the mouthfeel of Congelli; Lucas changed his mind and never even tried it. Me, I don't trust products that can't get the logo type in register during printing. For those reasons and more, Congelli may be custard's last stand.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

006.Jules Destrooper Virtuoso Belgian Chocolate Covered Cinnamon Biscuits

Produced in Lo, Belgium

Distributed by American Marketing Team, Bloomfield, New Jersey

Claim: “Purveyor to the Belgian Royal Household”

Ingredients: chocolate (60%) (sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, cocoa mass, dextrose, emulsifier: lecithin), wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, eggs, sugar syrup, leavening: sodium bicarbonate, salt, cinnamon.

$2.95 for a 3.52-ounce box


"Reminds me of a Heath bar," chimed my missus, noting the shape and snap of the chocolate-coated ("enrobed," the Web site terms it) Virtuoso. But in lieu of a thin, crunchy toffee within it's a thinner, crispy cinnamon cookie.

The box contains 12 cookies. Nowhere is this on the box. Is that typical? I don't buy many cookies. At 24.5 cents per, I doubt I'll be buying many more of these.


In fact, it isn't the price that spooks me – and I adore the elegantly designed box, which stands as an invitation to a place of cobblestones and gnomes but, I'm sure, is a street (Gravestraat 5, to be precise) paved with more industrial passions – it's the chocolate.


Jules Destrooper began selling a crispy almond thin in 1886. It's hard to expect companies with such history to turn the boat around, given the inertia of success, but I should think this product could benefit from a less indifferent chocolate. It's 60-percent cacao, so says the box, but tastes as milk-chocolate as any candy bar I can imagine. It's not bad – it's just that I don't look to Belgium for not bad when it comes to chocolate (though I am learning).

What they do have is a bevy of enticing desserts that employ Destrooper's range of biscuits along the edges, like garnish.

005.Oregon Fruit Products Gooseberries in Light Syrup


Distributed in Salem, Oregon

Claim: “Packed at Its Peak”

Ingredients: gooseberries, water and sugar

$2.35 for a 15-ounce can


After an extremely sappy poem, of all things, that begs for a gooseberry pie recipe (she’s 88 and used to get it off the label), the copy on the can reads, “Not to worry Mrs. B., we are glad to help you dazzle your friends and family with the best-darn pie in Tulsa.”


It directs said B to the inside label where, sure enough, a pie how-to is printed. As impressed as I am by two-sided printing, I am even moreso by the guerilla marketing employed by Oregon Fruit canners. There can't be many Tulsa bakers are zeroing in on the darnedest gooseberry pie ever, but Oregon don't care.


Less impressed am I by the flavor. A gooseberry – a relative of the currant, somehow – is one of those fruits that require some assistance to be palatable. If you add sugar to strawberries, prepare to overwhelm your gooseberries, 'cause you'll have to sugar them like you salt a slug in order to get a reaction. They are some tart little monsters.


Gooseberries have this little seed at the end that needs either to be chomped or spit. The can smells of pickling. The berries are mushy and somewhat sad. I don't know if this is the berry or the canning. I suspect the latter but the former can't be far behind.


The gooseberry's claim to fame is an English dessert called fool. Anybody can make a fool – you just fold cooked, strained fruit into whipped cream – and, anymore, any fruit can be fooled. But, thank Devon, it's the gooseberry what started it all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

004.Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce


Made by Lea & Perrins, Inc., Fair Lawn, New Jersey
Claim: "Same premium quality since 1835"
$2.87 for a 10-ounce bottle
Ingredients: distilled white vinegar, tomato puree (tomato paste, water), Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce concentrate (distilled white vinegar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, tamarind concentrate, water, cloves, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), high fructose corn syrup, molasses, modified corn starch, roasted onion puree (onions, high maltose corn syrup, salt), roasted garlic puree (garlic, high maltose corn syrup), xanthum gum.
Best by: 03/28/2011.

The Aisles Project does not shy from the classics. Sometimes, in spite of their often centuries of doing business, some products fall out of the buyer's periphery. We look at them, then through them, thinking we know all there is to know.

You may or may not know that it was aging – then in glass jars, on a neglected shelf of failed efforts; now in wooden casks, like a single malt Scotch or a vinaigre de Jerez – that gives the sauce of John Lea and William Perrins, Broad Street, Worcester, England, it's complexity and savor. The secret to the success is no secret. It is a marriage of good things over time.

"Contains Anchovies," reads a piece of bold type under Lea & Perrins Thick ingredients list, for some kind of emphasis, in the way typical of a disclaimer. To me, it reads like a sales pitch. Anchovies aging in a wooden barrel recalls the Roman garum, the earliest fish sauce, used to season just about everything the Romans could sink their teeth into. Anchovies, vinegar, molasses, tomato puree, roasted garlic … Worcestershire is nothing more than one big umami bomb.

The distilled white vinegar and the corn syrup are American intrusions. (The English version subs malt vinegar and sugar.) This thick version came out in late summer. It's hotter than I recall the thin version to be, which could be a nod toward edgier palates numbed somewhat over the last half-century by salsas and, in England's case, decades of fiery curries. (Dart-throwing, lager-tipping Keith Talent, of Martin Amis' London Fields being by far the most insatiable of that staple.)

Taste for the tamarind. It's palpable. It's that super tangy-sweet explosion at the end.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

003.Choc 'Last Laugh' American White Ale


Choc Beer Company
Produced in Krebs, Oklahoma
Claim: "The Tradition Continues"
$7.99, before taxes, for six 12-ounces bottles
5% alcohol by volume (4.9 b
Ingredients: malted barley, malted and unmalted red wheat, American Cascade and Centennial hops, Indian coriander.

And water, presumably.

"Malt beverage brewed with coriander seed," reads the fine print. The style of American White is a curious one. It's essentially an Americanized version of the classic Belgian white style, of which Hoegaarden and, later, Austin-based Celis White are two hallmarks (both, by the way, the product of Pierre Celis; Celis White is now part of the Michigan Brewing Company arsenal).

I don't normally buy beer at Reasor's but steak would soon get cooking, as would the Yanks and Phils, and the cupboard was bare.

Note the 5 percent alcohol by volume. That's above the legal limit (3.2) that Oklahoma grocers are allowed to sell. I can't imagine that Choc is brewing both a liquor shop and grocery version of its ales. But I'll check.

"Last Laugh" is a somewhat pale version of the style. Admittedly, the bar was set high by Hoegaarden. The Choc beer has little of the bouquet of its model, and only a hint of the intense flavor. An unfiltered wheat beer, Belgian white has a somewhat tart acidity mellowed by fruity esters. It's head tends toward pure white and the body is an opaque yellow. Choc's forms little head and remains, for the most part, clear.

As for the alcohol, I drank about two and half bottles and was well enough within my capacities to realize that the Yankees had an answer for just about everything the Phillies threw at them. Namely Johnny Damon.

The "tradition continues" line is a storyline developed by Choc to sell its rather interesting back story. Pietro Piegari – later to become Pete Prichard – went to jail twice in the 1930s for selling ale out of his Krebs restaurant, Pete's Place. While the food has edged toward pedestrian over the years, the brewery at Krebs – in the hands of brewmaster Michael Lalli – has grown in stature and recognition. It's Signature Dubbel, a Belgian Abbey ale, won gold at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

002.Roland Tiny Capers in Salt

Produced in Morocco
Distributed in New York, New York, USA
$2.97, before taxes, for 2.65 ounces
Ingredients: capers, salt

The caper is a bush, the flowers of which we consume as capers, the berries of which were once fashionable as cocktail garnishes. I used to drink them with Ketel One vodka, to which they were wed in some marketing ploy.

Capers typically come in small, cylindrical jars, soaked in brine. I've had other capers preserved in salt, but the only brand I've found at Reasor's is Roland. I don't swear to them being better than other capers - I don't know if a one caper can trump another, say, the way an olive oil can, or a vinegar - but I do swear by capers preserved in salt versus brine.

I learned to like them, if I recall, from one of my pals at Mecca Coffee Company. (I'd provide a link but, thankfully, a visit to Mecca requires other transport.) I learned to employ them by reading Fergus Henderson's "The Whole Beast."

The "Beast" doesn't specify capers in salt versus brine, it just celebrates capers as something other than artsy garnish for veal piccata, and so I've come to know them for what they are, which are wee nibs of salty wonder, considering they are nothing more than tiny, tight flower buds.

Capers lead the charge in Henderson's green sauce, an English staple that accompanies roast meat, hot or cold. From a recipe called "Green Sauce and Its Possibilities":

"You have five wonderful things:

Capers
Anchovies
Extra-virgin olive oil
Garlic
Parsley

"There is no end to the possibilities ..."

Capers also flavor Fergus' Lamb's Brains, Endive and Shallots; his Sorrel, Chicory, and Crispy Ear Salad; his Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad.

Talk about your possibilities.

001.Hero Orange Bitter Swiss Marmalade


Produced in Lenzburg, Switzerland
Distributed in Canajoharie, New York, USA

Claim: “Switzerland’s Best”

$2.21, before taxes, for 12 ounces

Ingredients: oranges, sugar, wheat syrup, pectin, citric acid.


Hero comes from the first two letters in each of principals Gustav Henckell and Carl Roth’s last names. (It's a Swiss firm, obviously; the "ch" in the domain name, perhaps not so obviously, stands for
Confoederatio Helvetica, the International Organization for Standardization's tag for Switzerland. So, "CH" on one of those oval, black-and-white window stickers means there's likely a Swiss, or partly Swiss, baby on board.)

In addition to a variety of conserves, salad dressings and baby food (Adapta brand), Hero makes heat-and-eat treats. It’s very proud of its ravioli. “For about 60 years Ravioli have been, and remain, an important and popular food which is appreciated not only by children; it provides a valuable service to households and caterers as it is soon ready for the table with little effort.”


My favorite Hero item is a cereal bar called Corny that comes in five different flavors. Corny contains five grains — barley, oats, spelt, rye and wheat — none of them corn. Favorite, I mean, for the name. I’ve never seen or eaten a Corny.


I bought the marmalade because it was on sale, and because it sort of jumped out on an aisle of Smuckers and such. Plus, it looked like a good product. It isn’t artificially preserved, colored or flavored. There’s a stamp on the lid that could be the expiration date. It reads “E: 11. 20 11”.


Looks are one thing. I was also curious about
how bitter. From Larousse Gastronomique: “The crusaders brought bitter oranges from Palestine into Italy. The Arabs introduced it into Spain and the south of France, as well as into East Africa. Nice has been trading in bitter oranges since 1332.”

I just wish the ingredients said bitter oranges, but the tongue does not lie. What an odd taste, bitter, especially when it comes on the end of a run of sugary fruit. As with a Campari cocktail, the bitter does wonders to prevent the fruit from cloying. Bitter is the check and balance to sweet. Or, as Hero proclaims it:


“What your favourite conserve says about you …

“Whether raspberry, bitter orange or preferably black cherry – what you put on your bread in the morning, at tea time or in the evening says more about you than you think!

“Read about the typical character trains [traits?] of the lovers of different conserves and perhaps you will soon understand more about one or the other moods to which your partner is subject …”


Either way, it made a tasty peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though I suspect it would marry even better with the double-cream d’Affinois sitting in the fridge.

The Aisles Project


Yours truly does the majority of the grocery shopping at our house. This was easier when it was we two. With two lads added to the mixing bowl, things got more intense. I try to make them eat what we eat, but they have palates, minds and 'tudes of their own. Curry does not curry favor with my two sons. Spinach must be ground with chicken and cheese and hidden in the grilled folds of a quesadilla in order not to raise hackles. And so on.

The Aisles Project came to me one Saturday as I made my way up and down the aisles of Reasor's, my local food choice. (No one shop can do it for me, though. Reasor's, while carrying the load, cannot deliver on cheese, salad greens, spices and certain pork products. My shopping days tend to be hours, stretched across days. Yours might be, too, if you added it. Maybe not.) It occurred to me - somewhere near the many mustards - that so much shelf space was taken up by things I not only didn't cook with but also never knew existed.

Behind each label is somebody's proprietary effort. Barbecue sauces and pickled meats. Salad dressings and packaged rice dinners. Soda pops and cereals, and so forth. Much of it is junk, mired in salt or slurried in corn syrup. But not all of it. The point is, I've lost touch, let alone track. I know what I'm after, generally, and routinely pick my spots among the shelves of competition, often leaving entire aisles alone, certainly entire pockets of cans, bags and Pure Paks.

The Aisles Project is my effort to take stock and inventory of the food that fights for space among the shelves of my local grocer. I begin with a jar of Swiss jam.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea for Thomas

My main man in Chicago, Thomas Conner, aka TC, aka Tea See, has begun blogging about one of his passions — of which he has many — tea. He blogs at Tea Squared, which means (maybe) that however much you love tea, you'll now love it twice as much, knowing Thomas is in the teahouse.

One of his ideas, in pursuit of said passion, is to open up a teashop in a remote (not really) corner of Europe that loves its tea but doesn't seem to show it in a retail fashion. (No, it isn't Byzantium. I mean, Constantinople. I mean, Istanbul.) I hope he gets his wish. Not anytime soon, 'cause that'd mean the Sun-Times did, in fact, fold and thus set its people out into the world of the un-Sunned.

But ... maybe that's not such a terrible idea. Let's steep on it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ketching up

In some ways, our kids have begun to finally eat in earnest, for they have found ketchup.

So far, we've restricted it mostly to potato things — Crispy Crowns and such. But tonight I noticed they dunked their chicken into it, so I think we're probably off and running.

Realizing this, I decided to find a recipe of my own, and I did rather quickly in Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's License to Grill. I've been grilling out of this baby for years. In fact, I think I've made this ketchup before, you know, as a kind of curiosity. But, now, I'm doing it with feeling.

Here are the ingredients and what they mean to me:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil — I use olive whenever and wherever I can, settling my young stallions off on the road to Mediterranean goodness. For this recipe, omit your best extra-virgins.
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced small — Onions are a trick, in anything, but ketchup is the one place they won't know what hit ’em.
2 tablespoons minced garlic — Ditto.
2 medium tomatoes, cored and diced medium — Fresh in summer, canned in winter. A good time to try all the new San Marzano brands hitting the market shelves.
1 cup tomato puree — Umami for flavor, vitamin C for health.
1 cup white vinegar — After tasting, I was sure this would create revolt. But no. They ate it up, with relish. I might sub next time with cider vinegar. And, for the adult version, a decent balsamic. Maybe half that, half white.
1/2 cup water — To thin.
1/3 cup raisins — Our lads have been eating dried grapes since first breath. If they start balking, I'm going to drop the raisin card on them. "Raisins? In here?" "Dang straight, smallman!"
1/2 cup molasses — If I introduce it now, however subtly, maybe it'll stick. Molasses is a tough-to-come-by flavor for a kid. And we all have a bit of kid in us.
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar — How sweet it is, but not as much as storebought. Use Sucanat here, if you have it.
14 to 16 dashes Worcestershire sauce — 15. Aim for the middle. What's a dash, more or less, anyway? I can't even explain the quantified measurements to them.
Pinch of ground cloves or mace — Mace always sounds to me like a weapon. I keep it around about like I do handguns. Cloves, in a pinch.
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste – Their taste for pepper is slight. Salt, I went easy, about a tablespoon. It could tweak up a bit, methinks.

You saute the onions in the oil until transparent, then toss in the garlic and push around until fragrant. Then you pour in the rest and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour and blend. I'll let you know how it freezes. (Any canners out there?) It tastes gorgeous, and barely kid-friendly.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Like butter

"Apple butter?" Winston said, picking over the assorted vials of jams. "Where's strawberry?"

Apple butter has, of course, no butter. It's buttery, though, from the smoothness achieved from a slow reduction of the pulp and juices, the way a caramel is smooth (though not that smooth).

Apple butter will last on a shelf longer than applesauce. The former also packs more flavor than the latter. Apple butter is kind of like apple roux.

Apple butter tastes good, on toast, with butter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Etouffee day

Made a dish tonight that I hadn't made in five years, easy: chicken etouffee, a la Paul Prudhomme.

Actually, not so a la. I learned long ago to knock the butter back by about 60 percent, a fact Chef Paul himself figured out in part back in the mid-90s. My favorite sort of novelty part of making etouffee was throwing in the two sticks of butter, watching one of them float to a Valdez slick on the surface, then reading the instructions: "Skim surface of excess fat." It was Dadaist.

Nothing soils a kitchen like etouffee. You don't need a kitchen — you need a bonfire, a cauldron, and a witch doctor. Drinking wine while eating etouffee is like administering an IV. Without the tannic red to scour me insides, I'd probably be prone right now, versus posting.

I made it because, why, I don't know. I missed it. This will either make sense, or it won't.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hands down

I like my hands in the kitchen. I like tongs, a lot, but my hands — short of handling heat — make a good set. I seed tomatoes with them, and pit cherries. Dare I say, there's nay a better cherry pitter than two hands. They're good for mixing up Tuscan bread salad, and for screening the white of an egg from the yolk. It slips mysteriously, magically through my fingers, leaving a globe of gold. I grip hard the pestle as I grind salt and garlic in the bowl of a mortar. I hope that's as close to war as I ever get. I like to dig my hand in a bag of basmati. What a feeling. I enjoy running my fingers tightly up a stem of thyme to free the leaves. Dry fingers, here, work better than wet. I like to pinch salt. I like to punch dough. Pasta is on, off I go.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tomato alley


Tomatoes, of course, are reddening the Cherry Street Farmers Market these weekends. Especially the cherries. (The golden "cherry" tomatoes of the Three Spring Farm kids a glorious exception.)

The squashes and zucchinis are lining up in firm regiments, and the basil is thick as thieves. Meaning, ratatouille time.

At 15th and Peoria, Everybody has a home-groan tomato to sell. Even Paul Halvaci, whom you might recognize if you ate coneys downtown regularly (or with cheese) between, like, 1960 and 2000 or so. Anyway, Paul, God bless his Greek-fed soul, was displaying a very pittance of a garden variety collection Saturday - a few cucumbers and zukes, some herbs, some chiles, not much else. But I bought some of his tomatoes because, well, I bought some of his coneys. And because.

"Here," Paul said, tossing a fourth tomato into my basket, "four, four. Two dollars." That way, at 50 cents a tomato, he wouldn't have to find change.

The farmers turn their tomatoes stem-down on their tables, to hide the cracks. But they needn't. Summer cracks - the result of rain and heat - are signs of life and flavor untapped. Slice away the gray zones, if you must. Or buy the perfect tomatoes sitting pretty on the store shelves, with their Martha Stewart color and their museum-like stems. Yummy.

Yes, ratatouille is a movie. And a concoction: an answer to a burden of bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and zucchinis that blossom in the heat of Provence. We should come up with a name of our own, so ripe are we Green Countrians with said ingredients.

Summer stew? Nah, let's work on it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Basil aplenty

If you're growning basil, it's probably starting to do its thing. In our feeble garden, it's the only thing that is. We didn't plant the tomatoes deep enough, don't have the thumb for sage, needed a new rosemary bush when ours withered. We grew radishes and got six. Wee, slender things, more like suggestions of radishes. The carrots, well, the carrots ...

Coupla things for basil: In pasta, we love a sauce made from fresh lemon juice (and some of the zest), olive oil and a generous heap of Parmesan. The cheese tends to melt into the vinaigrette, with the acid licking away at the lactate. Tear some basil leaves and throw it into that.

Another pasta, I got out of Jamie Oliver's Italian book. It's from the area of Trapani, out on the western tip of Sicily. The sauce relies on tomatoes, basil - 4 handfuls - and almonds. Cheese, of course.

If you have a good source for lamb chops, marinate them in a vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard and basil leaves. Season with salt and pepper before grilling. Lush.

Monday, July 6, 2009

How old are you really?

OK, it happened this time: I post a blog, short and sweet (sour, really) about, well, not posting much lately because of the heat. Something about that, maybe, caused Google to insert an ad that presumably wants to measure my life expectancy, gauging by the headline.

Gauging by the image, well, you decide: It was an animated girl in a ponytail eating a green apple, to match her green summer dress.

I don't like green apples.

Too hot

I apologize mightily for the dearth of entries lately.

Something about 100 degrees Fahrenheit makes my blood boil — just not the fatted calf's.

More soon, promise.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sorry

OK, it didn't work.

I was trying to replicate the event of my posting prior to "This," because in that posting an add for some sort of Tyson product popped up. I looked at it but didn't read it and, now, I'm wondering how smart it was — one of those ads that reads what I'm writing and offers something akin, or just a sloppily placed ploy.

Let's try again …

This

Is a test. It is only a test. Like sticking a fork into an inch-thick porterhouse.

Seared

Lordy, it's hot, and has been for a week now. The sides of my martini glass sweat profusely. (A 3-to-1 Nick & Nora with Beefeater 24, for the record.) The west side of the house takes the sun head on, like a steak cooked halfway through and awaiting a turn. That said, I was going to grill a skirt steak tonight, and I still may, but I'm looking forward to it like I am the heaven-hell fork in the road itself. When it's this hot, the sweet corn is sticky, the new potatoes old, the basil basted and near-death, the oven a thing I avoid as if it spewed plague.

I watched some of the Cubs-White Sox action on Fox today, live from the south side, where the weather was said to be "perfect." I hope, where you are, it is nearer to that than this.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mussel bound


My brother, the food salesman, brought us some fish the other night, packed in Cryovac and ready to cook. Portico Seafood. He brought Louisiana drum (redfish) fillets, clams and mussels.

My missus can't eat mussels. Swells her tummy. After tonight, I might join her. We shall sea.

I ate enough mussels in Bastogne, Belgium, one night to create my own battle of the bulge. But, even with the plethora of ales, it never came. I have a tank to fill when it comes to moules. "Some mussels and french fries, a couple of Belgian ales, and I'm in heaven," said Pete Nicholls one night somewhere. That Bastogne night must have put me in the league of angels.

With mademoiselle out shooting a wedding, I made this, inspired by Jamie Oliver's Italian book:

Fry some garlic in olive oil and, before it browns, add a pinch of capers, six cherry tomatoes, a dried ancho chili (I used two chiles en adobo — some like it hot), and some parsley if you have it. Then boil some pasta and remove with tongs or one of those pasta spoons, to leave the water going, then chunk in one bag of Portico mussels. It holds, like, a thousand. Toss the lot of it back into the boiling pot and splash once again with your best olive oil.

Holy sea-change, what a dish. And get this: It went better with the house red (for now, Bota Box Old Vine Zin, a fat, juicy red) than it did a Red Guitar rose.

This from Sysco: "Across all three of these lines, Sysco's industry leading Quality Assurance (QA) program ensures that the Portico seafood you serve was not only properly harvested, but also inspected, processed and transported with all of the care your customers deserve. With Portico seafood on your menu, your customers can order with total confidence — and with bon appétit!"

Blue bayou


Down in the wooded flats of the South Canadian River, we were directed to the blueberry farm of a friend of my aunt Mary's. This is near Scipio, Pyle Mountain, Wild Horse Creek and Tannehill Road — oaken, rich land that steams in summer and whistles in winter, with the smell of wood burning a kind of Pittsburg (Co.) perfume.

The farm of Bruce and Debbie, former Angelinos, was idyllic — a pristine spot cut out of the oak trees where Debbie makes soap (she sells most of it online, in New York and California) and not far from Bruce's post at the local ammunition plant. Bruce is in ordnance. Debbie's in berries.

He came down to pick "a quart and a half" and stayed for much more than that. "Debbie's going to make jam." We filled a couple of gallon pails, paying in sweat equity and some futures on my aunt's vegetable garden.

You can't tell from the image, but we picked berries as big as cherries at Bruce and Debbie's. The Kerr Center wants to pay her to grow blackberries and grape but Debbie can't decide. She once sold cut-your-own Christmas trees, too. She raises cattle.

"When I got here," she said, "I didn't know the girls from the boys. Not until calves started falling out of them."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bang the drum

The Red Guitar rose, we learned tonight, is not nearly as drinkable as the Red Guitar tempranillo blend. Oh well. The fish was good — two fillets of Louisiana red fish (often labeled drum) — that we seasoned with Hawaiian sea salt, lemon, capers, mustard, butter and garlic. Fish, Owasso new potatoes, peas and radish greens from the garden, the latter two delicious but nouvelle in portion, due to something agrinomic beyond our control.

My brother, who sells food for Sysco, brought us the fish. There are clams and mussels in the freezer. That's brotherly love.

Stephen Pingry, a Tulsa World photographer and our brother in arms, brought back the mustard from Paris: a cognac-laced Maille. Bloody brilliant.

Forget the Red Guitar rose. Do the tempranillo. Even with fish.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Now we're cookin'

Update to the previous post, where I was detailing my big Sunday grill fest.

I went to the counter, near the window, to grab the shrimp skewers and heard a crackling noise, a loud enough one for me to think the grill had run amok.

I went out and found a fire, all right, but not on the H-B. The deck was aflame! I'd tossed a piece of smoldering cherry wood (it flavored the chorizo link oh so well …) onto the ground, up against the lattice work. Wind and heat did the rest. A tidy little fire of, oh, four feet was beginning to take wings.

Sometimes irony is a beauty. This one was: Kelly walking across the lawn, oblivious, with a 5-gallon bucket of water in her hand. The kids were likewise unawares.

And this, I'm thinking, this is how insurance claims begin.

Alors, bon appetit.

Mizuna


Went ballistic tonight on the Hasty-Bake — ribs and chorizo, smoked, first round; shrimp and bratwurst skewers on second firing — but it's the salad that I'm stoked about. A bunch of mizuna (a Japanese mustard green) that I got from the Three Springs Farms kids at the Cherry Street market. I garnished it with bacon bits (me own) and made a vinaigrette of the fat and some red wine vinegar. Oh, and radishes for color and health.

Only on a Sunday …

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rabbit thyme

Five baby bunnies have taken haven beneath our bed of thyme. The mother stands across the yard, cleaning her face in the haunch-high grass, as if to say, "Bunnies? What bunnies? I don't see any bunnies." I went to the closet in search of the Red Ryder BB Gun, knowing the neighbor's cat might be on the prowl. No bunnies will go the way of the cat under my watch. But I can't but think the thyme is subtly flavoring their gentle flesh, pink-white as a tonsil, fresh and new as spring rain.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pernod


Finally got around to the new Pernod absinthe. At $70 a bottle I don't expect to be drinking much of it — mine was, in fact, a PR sample — which is rather sad. I always figured that, once absinthe became widely available, I'd pour me one or two on hot summer days and let warm breezes bake me into a fit worthy of Wilde.

Of course, it'd take a bottle or so to get that elevated, not a likely proposition at that price. And then who's got time to lie around plugged into an absinthe drip taking in green fairies?

Poets.

A tale of absinthe …

Tony, brother to our next door neighbor in Saint-Chinian, came over one night when we threw a party just before our exodus. Tony liked to smoke. His tan, shaven skin was cologned but the smell of cigarettes was not so easily masked. His white shirt was very starched. A night on the town in Beziers seemed certain. I did not inquire, though, of his plans.

While the rest of the crowd fell into groups — later, we would learn, aligned along old patterns established after years of feudal back and forth — and drank glasses of co-op wine, Tony and I stood over the counter where what little liquor in the house resided. A bottle of Pastis, traces of an Armagnac, a chestnut liqueur, and a half-full bottle of Francois Guy Absinthe. The Pastis was nearly full.

Until Tony got through with it. He kept pouring himself glass after watered glass. (But not before holding the bottle up for me to approve another round. Mannered gent, Tony.) I watched the bottle disappear and decided that Tony would go dry before long.

"Tony," I said, "would you like an absinthe?" I said it in French, of course, having practiced the line for some time on Kelly.

"Absinthe?" Tony replied with a robust shake of the head I almost read as a reprimand. "No, no, pas absinthe."

He said something else about it being pure poison or something. So I poured him his — and my — last Pastis and let him add the water.

"Mark," Tony said, winking at me, "I'm glad I met you."

I don't remember the sentiment in French.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

'Belly' up

Mark Kurlansky had much cool to say about Paris food markets, taste, agri-industry and, of course, Zola. He's apparently been in love with the novel for ages, which is what it took — ages — to get "Belly of Paris" into print. Five years, precisely: way longer than any of his many book projects.

We talked a bit about Zola the writer, Paris the city of misunderstood eaters, and another of his recent projects, this one on WPA food writing. You can read about it next Wednesday in the Scene section of the Tulsa World. But I might go get my copy now of "Belly."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

He is 'Cod'

Oi, I get to interview Mark Kurlansky tomorrow, author of "Cod," "Salt," "The Big Oyster" and "The Basque History of the World," among others.

Anything you want me to ask him?

The Panama and the pea

"OKIES DON'T QUIT," screamed a red T-shirt on a man at the cafe. He was wrestling a kid who wanted a cinnamon roll he wasn't going to get, not today.

"Hartmann Honey," of course, I said to Isaiah behind the bar. No dad in tow, I could treat myself accordingly.

The Hartmann is a treat, I think. Isaiah does not think so much.

It might not be the best coffee to ever be roasted at DoubleShot, but it's pretty typical - handled with care from lot to pot, a flavor profile unlike any other.

I drank down two cups, then took home a pound of Tanzania Songea Peaberry. Take that.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gin men

I finally got around to trying Broker's Gin. Very classic stuff. London Dry style through and through, distilled near Birmingham.

But I'm actually more enamored with Martin and Andy Dawson than I am their gin. I'm inspired, and now considering who among my fabled crew would be loony enough to toss it all aside and start distilling gin with me?

I like the Broker's site, too — it doesn't look like the lads have any friends who own design firms. It isn't polished one bit, and it has a goofy jokes section, for good measure:

A kangaroo goes into a bar and orders a gin and tonic.
Bartender: "It's 15 quid ... I must say, we don't see many kangaroos in here."
Kangaroo: "I'm not surprised. Fifteen quid for a gin and tonic!"

Have to love that.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kids

Lucas won't eat "wet" meat. He also won't eat pizza that is too "sweet" from what he takes to be an overabundance of salt but which is really ripe tomato. He grazes on Blue Bell frozen fudge bars with a measured licking and lapping, an act of gourmandise that, on Jonas' face, appears as a brown smudge.

When Kelly is away shooting on the weekends, they are in the hands of dad, who does not always take age into consideration when feeding young lads. I lavish them with tater tots, but might, in the same meal, frustrate them with curried chicken, the spiciness of which sours faces. But, I threaten them with a withdrawal of Blue Bell and they usually struggle on.

I admit it's kind of sick. But, as I said, I am alone in this wilderness and easily misguided.

A few weeks ago Lucas confessed that he favored American singles over Parma grana and I tasted the fruit of rebuke. I am prepared to dine on it for decades.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Nick & Nora

I could talk long and glowingly — and, trust me, I will — about Gabriel Szaszko, the Cocktail Nerd. For now, I will thank him for bringing me back to balance.

The Cocktail Nerd (he's about as nerdie, by the way, as Daniel Craig doing Bond with a babe between his legs) made for me a Martini-like drink called the Nick & Nora, named for Hammett's lovely "Thin Man" better halves, Nick and Nora Charles.

In a sweet, little session we'll call for now The Martini Progression, Gabriel stirred me a Martinez, a Turf, and a Nick & Nora. The latter is the closest to a dry, gin Martini of the three. Its glory relies on a 3-to-1 ratio of gin to vermouth. I think Gabriel made mine with Beefeater 24 and a French vermouth the name of which I forget. I possibly even have the gin wrong. I'll right the ship later.

For now, know that his N & N lets the vermouth take flight without grounding the gin in any way whatsoever. Never again will I shake my inconsiderate 8, 10 and 12 to 1s!

Gabriel is online right now, guarantee, so go thank him.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Just an idea


"Hey, Mommy?"

"Yes, Jonas?"

"What's that big idea?"

At a little after 7 a.m., who could say. Jonas' probing, though, is not bound by anything as silly as the hour.

Jonas has a sense of things, of big picture things, but even of things edible. Things he can eat, and those he cannot. If I am cracking peanuts for a Martini snack, and kiss him, he will note them on my breath and ask for them but not in earnest. The other day, I'd squeezed a lemon over a roast chicken just before going in to kiss him good night. "Lime and lemons," he said, angling for deep covers. Kelly cannot sneak a midday chocolate chip without that sweet, ancient dark secret invading his sniff and setting the mouth — "I want choc-LIT!" — in motion.

Jonas will mimic cartoon characters, but in things edible he is his own man trusting his own sense. A gourmand in the making? I think. For this quality (if it is that) is born. An appreciation for food and drink can be honed through appetite and lust, but not without what the gourmand brings to the table, which is at least a perception of the edible world going on about him.

In the morning, we leave the comfort zone to the sound of hinges squeaking and cupboards slamming. Jonas and Lucas are on the prowl, breakfast the prey.

Jonas attacks breakfast as if it were alive. He eats bananas like a chimp and pokes at Cheerios as if toying with them, knowing better gruel lies beyond the horizon of youth.

I think that's the big idea.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pancakes

Weekends we make pancakes. Two things I've learned in five years of making pancakes routinely: one, to employ two skillets at a time, in lieu of a proper griddle, and to not overstir. Leaving the mix a bit chunky ensures fluff. Oh, third thing: forget making pancakes without buttermilk. Fourth thing: buttermilk is low-fat. Look it up.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

El Guapo

We sent off a colleague, Barbara Allen, last night at El Guapo, one of Elliott Nelson's thriving joints. The place was packed. Getting a drink was like hailing a cab, never an easy thing to do in T-Town, even downtown. As I waited between rounds, I chewed on chips and salsa, tasting the comfortable corn and the zippy tomato dip. "Chips and salsa is in our blood," we will quote a local restaurateur next week in the Spot. Indeed, it is in all of ours. So many baskets of chips, cups of salsa, pints of lager and ale. Doses of salt and crunch and spice and malt. Stuff that fills the hungry haps in our hurry-up-and-wait lives.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chicken

One is roasting as I write. What else smells so rich and rewarding as a chicken roasting? Crisp of skin, moist of meat, both white and dark, the seasoning pulling the bird to the fore, the gelatinous sinews that hold together bone and juice and gristle. Even the gristle! I, tonight, sing a psalm to gristle:

Here it cooking
a slow whistle
a smell of golden fat fading over threaded flesh
so white and in need
Open the oven cave and out comes
a rush of August wind and a
gnarl on each blackened end
of gristle.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wine and food

I spoke Friday in Stillwater at the inaugural Oklahoma Wine Forum - about the one thing I actually have something informative to share, that being a year of living in a French wine village - and I happened to catch a lecture by Tim Hanni of Napa Seasoning. Hanni's worked in wine and food for 35 years and it's come to this: He believes that you can drink any wine you want provided that you cook accordingly, i.e., incorporate into your food the four innate senses of sour, sweet, salt and umami (he omits bitter, explaining that it's the one sense that tends to age along with the taster and, I guess, less predictable as an element of taste).

Yes, he has an agenda in that his Napa Seasoning (available in Tulsa at Akin's) is an effort to, essentially, render cooked food more wine-friendly. But his attack on the idea of food and wine pairing - and the often laughable vocabulary employed in order to make wine critics sound as learned and timely as possible - is worth noting, and his take on wine traditions as largely the masterminding of marketers and salesmen is a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mojo

I had an avocado going south on me, and then I remembered Teresa Barrenechea's splendid treatise on Spanish regional cooking. Sometimes, cooking comes down to channeling, which recipes from which books, which flavors embedded in which crevices.

Mojo is Canarian, the Canary Islands part of Spain but southwest of the Moroccan coast. Fish and meat are the traditional protein for the mojo accompiment, they and the wrinkled, roast, salted potatoes famed of the isles.

Mojo verde, which I made, relies on avocado for silkiness, but it's largely a garlic, oil and sherry vinegar sauce, spiced with cumin and dried chile, and freshened with cilantro (or parsley).

I am about to slather it beneath - and perhaps even atop! - a Spanish tortilla, a dish whose praises I have sung before.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ouch


The bresaola was, well, disastrous. My results do not indicate the art of the cure on any level. Not a big deal, but so much time, down the drain. Alas.

Bresaola is an Italian (Lombardy) wine-and-salt cured preparation. After a couple of months in its bath and subsequent air drying, the beef - sometimes a fillet, if one is luxurious, but more often top round - emerges supple, ruby red, and ready for a loaf of bread, olive oil and lemon drizzle.

Mine turned out all salt. I followed the recipe strictly, figuring I had enough unpredictable elements to deal with already in curing my own raw beef. What resulted was not soft and succulent; rather, lunar in its appearance, rock-like to the touch, and salty enough to survive a century. I'm considering powdering it and adding pepper, for my own beefy seasoning mix. There's enough salt here to melt the polar caps.

Basically, I have about two pounds of jerky on my hands.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tomato sauce


We eat pasta about once every six days in our house. About half that time, it takes the form of tomato sauce. I always start with a foundation of olive oil, onion and garlic and build from there - fresh herbs, some cured pork product, maybe some breadcrumbs (as shown) but more often grated cheese (Parma, Romano, or another of the fine granas that are out there, or sometimes a goat or a sheep's milk blue. Take your pick.)

As for the tomatoes, here's what I've learned over the years: Screw fresh. A fresh tomato is like mana. The day they start falling from heaven, have at it. Otherwise, don't expect a miracle.

Even in season, they're insulting. Yes, you can grow them yourself, or find a friend, or visit a farmer's market. And this will last about a month, two if it doesn't rain at the wrong time. But in the supermarket stalls, where beauty is only skin deep, leave the tomatoes where they lay and head for the canned aisles.

The other day, I saw that my usual brand, Cento, now came in a San Marzano selection. These are the famed, elongated fruits that grow beneath Vesuvius in southern Italia, in the province of Naples (home of pizza) and in the shadow of Pompeii. Tomatoes ooze here like hot lava.

The flavor of San Marzano: richer, tangier, meatier more intense. At least the can of them I bought at Judy Allen's Brookside shop.

But even Hunt's kicks king hell out of the so-called fresh tomatoes. To my taste, anyway.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Attic door



The bresaola is a week out. Due to a sudden surge in temperature, I had to remove it to the garage closet that leads to the attic. That's the attic door above. So far, nothing has come from within those dark rafters to invade my stash, but we've still days to go. The smell has dissipated, the acidic, salty, meaty aroma. Let's hope it didn't take the flavor with it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ginger

Whenever I get sick — Thursday, with a sinus infection that had me shaking beneath covers — my wife feeds me ginger. That night, she brewed up a delicious carrot puree soup studded with ginger, bacon and cilantro. When a sinus attack hit me in France, she made me slice up some garlic (the hard, juicy rose du Tarn garlic) and ginger, bring the batch to simmer in a sauce pan, and stick my face over it to suck up the fumes.

There’s something soothing in ginger, despite the odd knob look of it. Garlic, too. When I’m sick, I like getting back to my roots.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Onion soup

I don’t have a picture of it: It’s in my head.

There are a couple of secrets to onion soup that I think are worth hammering home. You can fudge your way through it otherwise, but there a two things you can’t skimp on. Wine and cheese.

When you buy your onions, buy the sweetest there are. Not purple. Slice them thinly and caramelize in butter, but don’t sear the edges. Oh, maybe a little. When they’re good and jellified, deglaze with a quarter-cupful of very drinkable white wine. (For a twist, you might even deglaze with an ale, but make it a good one, too.) Stir up the sticky bits and wait for the liquid to all but evaporate.

You don’t have to use home-made stock for a foundation, but if you don’t, mind the salt. Stir the onions into a batch of stock, enough to keep them floating. Cook it for a bit to let it mingle and share skin. Now’s a good time to toss in some thyme — only fresh leaves — if you have them growing out back, or chilling in the fridge.

Assuming you’ve made your crouton (from a baguette, oven-crisped and salt-and-peppered, now lying wait in the bottom of a soup bowl), grate your cheese. I recommend the following: a cave-aged Gruyere. One, it’s available, and not terribly precious. Two, it’s glorious, rich and fruity, a perfect balance to the sweet onion. (Number two choice: an aged Gouda. And I mean aged, hard to the touch, not doughy.)

Some like to stir a bit of flour into the onions as they near the end of cooking, before the wine. That’s old school. Let the crouton manage this end. There is a risk you’ll add too much flour and get a pasty taste. Awful.

To the crouton in the bowl, add enough onion to nearly fill, then wet with enough stock to make the onions swim, then grate onto them a liberal batch of cheese. When you broil, look for coloring, but only slightly. Unless you like a well-burnt cheese, which is no horrible thing. I’d pull it either way, though, if it starts to bubble and squeak.

To drink: More of the white, if you have ample. In fact, make sure you do. A good red is in order, but something about the white — a dry one — makes this soup come to life.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pint

About this time every year I pine for a Guinness. Anybody know where I can get a good one?

Cellar temp, inch of cream, proud of the rim, in an actual pint glass?

Anybody?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Suits me fine

I’ve decided to begin wearing a suit of clothes a least once a week, having bought one for the first time in a decade, the previous 10 years being not suited to suits, a la mode.

Alongside it, I’m thinking I’ll shake martinis twice — probably Tuesday and Friday, like my man Denny Byrne, but I’m not going to hold myself to it. The two days, yes, the Tuesday and Friday, not so sure. I like a bit of spontaneity, still. And then there’s Thursday, when Lou and the crew do Zig Zag in Seattle, where Murray Stenson pulls magic from bottles. So, Thursday and ... Sunday.

One thing I need, though, is shoes. I have to get a new pair of shoes. I did it with my olives — settling once and for all, for now, on Santa Barbara — and now I shall turn my attention to shoes. I like the pair Matthew Goode wore to the London premiere of “Watchmen.” Them are shoes, I’m tellin’ ye.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Something in the air

Last night, I ate a plateful of kung pao chicken and drank two glasses of V8 Splash, tasting neither, and promptly fell asleep on the sofa, freezing beneath a knit, wool blanket. I so seldom lack for appetite that I don't quite know how to handle it, this void in meaning. A nostalgia envelops me, along with the bug, and my mind grows wistful, pining for the savories and sweet of less peaked days. And so I swallow pills and suck on lozenges and wait for me to return. I think I shall sleep the whole madness off, right now.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hail to the chief


Guest poster: Jeff Kauffman

In the pre-kid days, kitchen time was leisure time, a way to escape the exhausting pixel mines. Today, I’m a short order cook that should have left 10 minutes ago for the PTA meeting. Today kitchen time has been replaced by the cocktail hour and, by and large, it's a fair trade. Thanks to Brownie, I’ve adopted the Martini as the Cadillac of pick-me-ups, but I’ve recently been inspired to give something else a shake for a change.

I picked up Dale DeGroff's “The Essential Cocktail” at the library. I think it takes some pretty big cubes to title your book “essential” anything, but DeGroff has the goods. As the barman at the (sadly soon to be closed) Rainbow Room, he helped usher in the new cocktail movement. The book celebrates the old-school drinks without snobbishness and recognizes that new ingredients and new thinking create innovative drinks.

Seeking something adventurous yet also drinkable for the Mrs., I settled on the El Presidente. An orange slice, lime splash, white rum, vermouth, Curacao and a finish of grenadine, shaken with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. As you’d expect it’s pretty fruity, but it doesn’t hide the alcohol either. It’s a peachy color, much like the fabled Sedaris so I can’t fathom what Latin dictator would attach his name to it. It’s more Emelda Marcos than Manuel Noriega. But I’ll make it again when the days are longer and I can sit outside swatting mosquitoes in the heat like a proper Presidente.

Jeff Kauffman writes copy and flies the globe doing it when he's not, um, shakin'.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the picture

By the way, that scary looking device atop my blog page is galangal. I bought that particular beast on New Year's Eve, to make my missus her favorite tom kha gai coconut soup. I have really very little idea what galangal even is. I'm more interested in the notion that I'm able to actually procure it within 15 minutes drive of my house than I am of its origins. Funky-looking, ain't she? If you'd like to know more, click here and then click somewhere else. Even Wiki seems at a loss about this little monster. Photo, as always, by Kelly Kurt - she of the thom kha.

Bresaola

The 'vacancy' sign has been shut off on the brine bucket yet again. This time, it's beef. Specifically, eye of round, as carefully trimmed of excess fat as I - a butcher of no expertise - could manage. Into the brine it went: for four pounds of beef, I mixed 2.5 cups of kosher salt, about a bottle of wine (some merlot and some sauvignon blanc), 6 dried chiles de arbol, 6 bay leaves, 3 strips of orange peel, a dozen cloves, three crushed garlic cloves, 20 peppercorns, I think that's it. It'll sit there for two weeks, then go into the cheesecloth and, yes, into the garage for another two weeks, hung out to dry. Several cultures, practically all, do some form of marinated, air-dried beef. Bresaola just happens to be the one I found in John Torode's new book, 'Beef.' Torode, like your man Fergus Henderson, runs a restaurant in Smithfield, London's ancient acre of butchery. If it doesn't spoil, we should have a tasty, versatile chunk of beef on our hands. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sweet spot

Vermont, sure. California, of course. But cheese, good cheese, from Georgia?

Sweet Grass Dairy of Thomasville (just over the border from Tallahassee) is a family of cheesemakers doing something - maybe many things - right.

The Wehner family makes a Camembert-style cow's cheese called Green Hill that has the affinage and flavor of the real deal - a slight whiff of ammonia, a milky ooze of hay yellow, and a salty-sweet flavor that lingers.

They take care of their cows (the Wehners proclaim their small-farm strategy up front) and the rewards are tangible. I found my round at Judy Allen's shop on Brookside. It was delicious with a wine Kelly bought for our Valentine's moment: Hegarty, a Minervois blend of syrah, carignan and mourvedre. Something about the lactic acids tends to sour me on most wine-and-cheese pairings, but this was spot on.

The Wehners say that the Green Hill goes quite well with Belgian trippel ales. Can't wait.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ox tongue salad


If you're not used to eating tongue, you don't taste the first couple of bites for all the jokes cluttering the air.

"Hey, look …"
"What?"
"I'm tongue-tied!"

"Ouch!"
"What …"
"I bit my tongue."

"Man …"
"What's the matter?"
"The cat got my tongue."

But pretty soon that gets old and you eat. Tongue's weird. It's like meat loaf without the ketchup. You want it to be better but it just isn't. Ultimately, you have to live with the idea that you're eating it versus throwing it out, which would be not good. A not-good worse than the taste of tongue, but barely.

I slightly exaggerate. Tongue's not horrible, it's just not very delicious, and you sort of expect it to be given the effort you're making to consume it. Not that effort ever justified success. Nobody promised that tongue was the cat's meow. Somebody just decided not to toss it.

The meat is leanish at the tip and gradually grows fattier the further into the mouth you go. By the time you've arrived at the back of the tongue, it's about half-fat, half-muscle. These slices are a bit tastier, which might have helped inspire St. John's Fergus Henderson to speak of them as "little angels wings," for, anatomically, they look only vaguely angelic or winged. At least on my cow. But, toward the back, they are more tantalizing. I suspect these are the ends that make the best sandwich slices. That's the bell they rung for me, anyway.

It's odd tasting a thing designed to taste. I guess cows taste. I know they like to lick salt because I remember the yellow cubes my uncle used to stick at the end of the hay trough for all the cows to lick whenever they felt compelled enought come up from the pasture.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Venture on

Day 7: basic risotto

We made it. Seven days of satisfaction and sometimes even succulence. I call it Adventurist not because the dishes themselves are challenging, but because the task of sticking to the menu requires a bit of planning and can-do attitude that's difficult to muster when you'd rather be drinking a beer and watching 'Survivor.'

If you've been playing at home, your working grocery list should look something like this:

Basics (with their costs)

1 big chicken (I buy Smart.), $8
Large head of romaine (Or lettuce of your choice; if I'm at Whole Foods, I choose arugula.), 2
Bag of Yukon golds (or other potatoes), 4
Pound of split peas, 2
4 yellow onions, 4
Carrots, 2
Celery, 2
Parsley, 1
Pound of red beans, 1
Basmati rice (see below)
Shortgrain rice (see below)
Green pepper, 1
Sausages (a good pork one, seasoned to your taste), 4
Pound of bacon, 3
Dozen eggs, 2
Pasta (We move between spaghetti and linguini, to vary the toothiness.), 2
Grana cheese (Parma, Romano, or a good knockoff. Not Wisconsin.), 6
Spices (See below.)

Touches
Masala mix – Several bags of spices will last you half a year and cost you about $25. Blend them at home to make your own curry mix.
Rice in bulk – It really makes sense. I buy short-grain (sushi) rice at Nam-Hai and basmati at Laxmi. They lost many, many meals.
Ham or bacon – You have a lot of wiggle room here. Buy a smoked hock for the beans, some peppery bacon for the carbonara, some of my Arkansas bacon (Reasor's, and I've only found it on 41st Street) for the potage. Mix and match.
Sausage – Endless options, all reasonable and most quite tasty.
Dried chiles – In bulk, they're pennies. We toss them into the Spanish tortilla, sometimes the carbonara, always the potage. And curries!

Minus the rices and spices, we're around $50 for the week. Not bad for seven days of lean, mean dining pleasure. Perhaps you would argue, and your argument would be surely sound. But I like mine, too. I like the variety, the ethnicity, the relative spontaneity, given that we've hamstrung ourselves with a budget. Admittedly, this menu has no shrimp or fish, no beef, no vegetables but the most basic, no polenta. It has no mushrooms.

But it could. The whole menu could be tweaked to taste without pushing the $50 boundary too far. Chicken and its ensuing stock are the basis of the Seven-Day Adventurist plan, but that's by choice. My beef menu might go like this:

Tom Colicchio's hanger steak (It's on the Esquire site.)
Pho
Beef tacos
Potato stew
Pasta l'amatriciana (Look it up. It's gorgeous.)
Chicken livers (Breaded and fried until crispy in olive oil, served with a squeeze lemon on a bed of spinach atop a mound of polenta.)
Roasted root vegetables (Also on polenta. Or rice.)
The leftover hanger – you can also do this with tri-tip, or flat-iron steak – can be torn for tacos, or sliced into the pho. Buy a little large for this reason.

Oh, about the risotto: risotto is a creamy, soft thing and it needs a bit of crunch to give it interest. Out of the Adventurist shopping cart, I like a few crumbles of crisped bacon; a few crunchy greens, like chard or kale; some sliced bell pepper; perhaps the liver and gizzard from your chicken (Pull them from the chicken cavity, sauté them in butter and cut them up; they'll store for a few days.)

Basic risotto requires only stock, rice, onion and cheese.

Saffron will take your risotto to new heights, but it'll cost you.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Before it becomes bacon

I'm long overdue on the belly update, so sorry. We ate it a fortnight ago, anyway. Wish you could have been there. We had enough left over to eat it twice.

Here's how it ate: a bit on the salty side, but not terribly so. Underneath, a sweetness redolent of the cure (half salt, half sugar). The fat - and there was a goodly bit of it - did not melt into the plate as it did at the cute little Japanese restaurant in New York where I learned the high art of pork belly. OK, it did a little.

There's nothing to doing a belly. Few days in the brine, couple hours in the oven, done. Employing Fergus Henderson's trick of lining the bottom of the dish with onions, I sliced a fairly small one, chunked it into the pan, laid the belly on top. I should have done two onions. They were the cream of the dish, turning to caramel in the soak of cured fat that dripped from the would-be bacon.

We ate it in slices with green lentils. It was a meaty slab, moreso than I anticipated. You can't really tell until you cut into it. The meaty streaks tuck themselves into the white fat and don't come out until cooked. When cooked, what emerges is a softness that still has enough tooth to require knife and fork. (That Japanese belly went down with a spoon.) The meat is gorgeously tender and ferociously flavored. Once you get past the fact that you're eating the cut of gut, that you're tucking into chunks (versus slices) of bacon, you're stunned by how delicious it is. Belly relishes a deep glass of cabernet, by the way.

Of course, you shouldn't be. It's bacon, for goodness sake!

As I've said, I think, belly is pretty tame fare for Fergus. Next up - meaning, now occupying a spot in my brine buckets: ox tongue and pig's head. For the latter, it'll be a table of one, I fear.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'People' person

Judy Allen, of Tulsa People magazine, has found me. tulsapeople.

The easiest of tapas

Day 6: tortilla espagnola

When tapas became the new big thing - here, that is; in Spain, they'd been around since before the Moors, anyway - one of the easiest to learn and do was tortilla espagnola. It's an intriguing dish from the name on. I saw "tortilla," I thought burrito. Now, I have to think twice when I see the word.

Any proud kitchen will naturally stock the basis of Spanish tortilla: potato, egg and onion. In my early efforts, eggs played more of a role, probably because I was using the dish as dinner and felt inclined to up the ante on protein. But, in a well-prepared tortilla, eggs merely bind. The dish is largely a platform for thinly sliced potatoes and chopped onions.

And olive oil. The amount of oil that goes into a tortilla pan is beyond liberal. When you see it splashing up the sides of the pan, you're about right. I try to shoot for an amount that will be fully incorporated into the dish without rendering it completely slick, for the method of the tortilla requires the pan be upturned. Meaning, any oil residing will have to be collected - or lost, either in the kitchen sink (that's where I recommend doing your flipping) or all over the range.

I'm a cheater, at heart. I did it in school work and I do it with tortilla espagnola. Instead of inverting the half-cooked dish onto a plate and re-introducing it into saute pan to finish the other side, I toss it under the broiler until the cheese (again, cheating) begins to sizzle. It's just easier, and the fact that it ends up more like an Italian frittatta will be lost on everybody who isn't Iberian.

Cheese - good cheese, anyway - flaunts the purpose of the Seven-Day Adventurist plan, which is to save money without sacrificing taste in times of fiscal restraint. That said, go easy on the cheese, which you should anyway. And use the grana that you employed in the carbonara. The same grana that will appear in the next and last leg of the diet:

Day 7: risotto di giorno

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boar's head


I've now two brine buckets going - one in the fridge handling a cow's tongue, one in the garage managing a pig's head. The pig's head is the more daunting of the two, largely for its girth. I don't even know if it'll fit in the pot.

Johnny Phillips - Mr. Chalkboard, for those who may recall - brought the head over from a respectable butcher in Fayetteville. I plan to do them both honor with a salad, of sorts, that'll make use of the cheek, tongue and ear meat.

Stay tuned.

(I owed you one on the pork belly that sat for a week inbrined. Slow-roasted on a bed of onions with a mere splash of olive oil, I must say it was quite transcendental. And cheap. Feel free to substitute it in your own version of the Seven-Day Adventurist diet. Another episode of that coming soon …)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ghee whiz

Often I pull off the kitchen shelf a book of curries and more called
Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal, more for inspiration than for directions. I almost never have all of the goods to bring a Kerala dish into being, and so I fake it. Things I most often do without: curry leaves (nothing to do with the spice mix we call curry), ghee (essentially clarified butter) and coconut milk. There really is no substitute for the last, so my dish is less an improvisation than it is a wild departure.

For a Kaimal recipe I cooked last week, I needed three essential things: shrimp, curry leaves and coconut oil. The shrimp get a quick saute in the oil and then a toss with the leaves and a generous portion of salt and pepper. I like the pepper mixes of Mecca, on Brookside, and for the salt I used a pink Himalayan that Kelly bought me at Judy Allen's shop, also on Brookside, in the same block as Biga.

The salt was a birthday present. Allen stocks a salt bar with about a dozen kinds. The flavor differences are subtle. Most of the salts are gathered from the sea, the Himalayan from a salt deposit left over from an inland sea long since vanished.

But ... the oil.

Coconut oil - at least Laxmi's coconut oil - solidifies in cool air, turning a waxy white. I heated the bottle in a pan to bring it back to liquid.

"Do you have coconut oil?" I asked my man there.

"Yes. For cooking?"

What else?

He led me down a row of oddities I'd until now skipped over. It led with jars and jugs of yellow, fatty ghee, the foundation of any delicious Indian gravy. In jars, it looked pale and a bit clinical. Lots of oddball spices, jarred fruits, syrups and pastes of brilliant colors and mysterious uses. About halfway down, the oils began: avocado, mustard, peanut, sesame and so on. Then, with no warning, 'Hair Oil," popping off the shelf like a stepchild, an odd sort.

"Coconut oil," he said, grabbing a bottle. "See ... For cooking."

Indeed, "Ideal for Cooking," claimed the label. As if to suggest it would be less ideal but still suitable for some other use. I looked back at the hair oils, studied the labels, attempting to glean some measure of separation.

I sauteed the shrimp that night in about 3 tablespoons of the stuff. It gave the curry leaves a deeper sheen of green.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Swad is best brand

Day 5: Chicken curry

Day 5, and I'm trusting you still have a bit of chicken left in the fridge. If not, we'll go another route.

My man in India - actually, at a place called Laxmi: Spices of India, in a strip mall off of 41st Street - took an interest in my cooking a few years ago. On my first trip to Laxmi, I loaded up: basmati, bay leaf, chilies, beans, and about six pounds of spices.

"Cooking is good hobby," my man said. "The best hobby."

A curry is a hobby, since it's almost a sport. Or, at least a game. Each ingredient in the dish must go in at the right time, like substituting a power forward for a shooter. The foundation of vegetables - onions, garlic, sometimes ginger - must be well cooked before the masala (your spice mix) goes on. I'd say it's all in the timing, but that makes it sound like science, which it is and isn't. Curry is science with gray edges, let's say.

Use some leftover stock to form your sauce, which you can thicken with butter, yogurt or coconut milk. Add salt at the end, to be safe. Since your chicken is cooked, incorporate it in the last few minutes, merely to heat it through.

Coconut milk will take your curry to the sweet side. Tomatoes to the acidic. Cream to the velvety. Choose your strategy and implement your weaponry - paprika, chili powder, coriander, clove, turmeric, cumin - with restraint. Taste for balance. Stock up on containers before you go to Laxmi, otherwise you'll end up with opened bags all over the kitchen, leaking sensory goodness but otherwise dusting up the place. The man sells spices in bags, not little jars, but the value is unbeatable. I use old peanut and jam jars.

Oh, if you are indeed out of chicken, buy some chickpeas and go vegeterian. Chickpeas or eggplant. Or okra. Or whatever.

Day 6 ... Spanish tortilla.