Wednesday, December 30, 2009
On Christmas morning, the dogs woke up excited about the possibilities of the day, but that is pretty much how they greet the start of every day. Nothing too special: I worked so others could enjoy the day, I came home, walked the dogs and I made a drink – here is where it gets a little special.
Santa was good to me, stuffing my stocking with care - he left a nice bottle of bourbon. Normally, I like to drink the good aged, whiskey neat, maybe with some crushed ice or a few drops of water – All the nuances that develop in the cask are pretty much wasted or at least covered over when you start adding sweeteners and bitters and fruit. I like sticking with rye when making a drink.
the Saucybar is our of rye and on a really busy day at work, where the tension of last-minute shoppers, who were shocked, shocked to find there were lines in the days leading up to Christmas - I found myself, through the power of transference, becoming a little tense and irritable too. Rather than giving in to the dark side, I started fixating on something serene: Not the unobtainable, cliché - calm, blue ocean but a whiskey drink - lovely, brown whiskey sitting in a glass - sweet and bitter and if that weren’t oppositional enough, a drink both cold from having been shaken over ice yet warming when sipped. I’ve mentioned before that making a drink – the slicing of fruit, juicing, packing a shaker with ice, the occasional muddling, these physical acts are so calming in themselves, that I think I could mix a drink and dump down the sink and walk away as relaxed as if I had leisurely sipped my cocktail.
In a rare case of actually planning ahead, I went to the store to get an orange and maraschino cherries on my lunch break. Since the store close to work is Whole Foods, I ended up with some strange maraschino cherries. Although not certified organic, they were free of corn syrup and shockingly bing-like in color rather than the familiar fluorescently-hued, they were remarkably cherry like in their appearance, nearly a Christmas miracle of sorts. Returning to work, I wanted to share my find with my coworkers. Rather than being astounded by natural looking maraschino cherries, they immediately accused me of indulging in chick drinks.
“No, no, no, no. I put the Man in Manhattans!” Which apparently, judging from their laughter, was an oxymoronic statement. That claim was countered with maybe, possibly, I put the old in an Old Fashioned but nothing coming out of a shaker was going to butch me up.
Which is fine. My small dog owning self isn’t to worried about John Wayne masculinity, and I know that cocktails, Old Fashioneds, even with the Mad Men renaissance, are still a bit of anachronism – Dating back to the Gilded Age, they aren’t exactly avant-garde in style nor progressive in politics. Neither is Santa and since he brought the bottle, I am going to enjoy it.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Yorkshire Pudding isn’t really a pudding in the sweet, thick crème brûlée type sense of the word, instead the popoverish side dish is made from a thin batter, similar to a pancake batter – all the usual suspects are there: milk, flour and eggs. Rather than the breakfasty additions of sugar and spice, the Yorkshire Pudding, which uses fat drippings from the roast, is baked until fluffy and light, the texture is somewhere between a soufflé and dinner roll.
In the days of hearth cooking, the pudding was made by placing a large pan underneath a piece of meat where the batter would catch the drippings from the roast. That and being closer to the heat source would produce a meaty flavored, caramelized treat that was usually served before the roast – both to curb appetites and fill people up with less expensive ingredients. And because of the heat, the pudding was done well before the roast was cooked. The current custom is to make the puddings muffin shaped and serve smaller portions on a plate, replacing the starch in dinner.
Before Yorkshire Puddings became popular Christmas fare, there was a Yorkshire Christmas Pie. An elaborate dish - an archived recipe of the dish from 18th century called for 4 lbs of butter to go in a thick pastry encrusting a boneless turkey, which had been stuffed with a goose, squab, hare and/or woodcock. I’m not saying the puddings became popular at Christmas because they were easier to make or because they contain the word ‘Yorkshire’ in the title, but those who study such things assert that many of the holiday food customs in the states are based on the traditions of the colonial settlers from Northern England and Scotland.
Or Yorkshire pudding could be popular holiday fare because they are very practical. The recipe of 6 ingredients can be prepared hours in advance. After the roast has been removed from the oven, it needs to rest before it is served. In those intervening minutes – the batter can go in the hot oven and be pudding before the carving. Leaving plenty of time to steam asparagus while enjoying a little nog, wassail or claret.
For a holiday that really isn’t a major deal, there is something about the 25th of the month that makes me get all English about things: I want Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding, Steamed Veg and Trifle for dessert on Christmas. I don’t quite understand the craving for, of all things, English food. Maybe the combination of Dickens along with the immutable Anglo food customs shape my hunger. More important than a cultural zeitgeist shaping my appetite, December is by most accounts, a bit hectic. A straightforward meal that doesn’t require thought but offers a satisfying rewards is about the best thing Santa can deliver.
Monday, December 21, 2009
I like to go to the grocery store, the cheese shop, the farmers market – a bag of uncooked food is a world of possibility and wonder. However, market research contradicts my worldview - most consumers see grocery shopping as a chore. Japanese research and development teams are going one better than giving the spouse a list, ordering online and home delivery – a grocery shopping robot.
According to the press release “Robovie can wirelessly receive a list of items selected beforehand by the customer, carry the shopping basket, and make recommendations about what to buy.”
Italians Seize Pasta Makers. Not a Slow Food movement encouraging peninsula residents to make their own nor an Anti-carb police action - Investigators seize records from the 5 leading pasta manufacturers to search for evidence of price fixing after the 50% rise in the price of the queneaentail Italian food. Industrial Union of Italian Pasta Makers (UNIPI), claim innocence, so innocent they are appealing an EU fine for doing (allegedly) doing the same thing from late 06 to the beginning of 08.
Whiskey or whisky drinkers fare worse than vodka drinkers, hangoverwise. In a study, volunteers were given bourbon whiskey and vodka and asked to report on the physical effects. Those who drank whiskey reported more of the traditional hangover symptoms the next day. Congeners, the chemicals that provide the taste, body and coloring for whiskey and whisky also contain the chemicals acetone and acetaldehyde, which can't be that good even in trace amounts. Read the report by following this link.
The Ivory Coast, a country that supplies 40% of the world’s cocoa expects an abundant crop this year. Even with that piece of good news not all is well in the Chocoverse – Hershey’s bid to buy Cadbury has upset at least one person at the NY Times. Arthur Lubow lays out his grievances at the proposed merger here. At issue is not collusion, market share or high-minded fair-trade practices (or lack of them) rather the way Hershey handled the takeover of his beloved Scharffen Berger. Anglophile perspective here.
Study finds dogs are always ready to go on a walk. Not really breaking news but the research, which did not study belly rubs and chewy treats, has been peer reviewed and published. In fairness the report is really about people and exercise. Fred and Lily, the Saucydogs, are great companions. And there willingness to walk, exercise - get me outside more than I would go myself, even so a dog walking robot would be more helpful than a grocerybot, especially in Oregon's damp, chilly December
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Let’s take a look at the produce in question - Asparagus season in Oregon is essentially May and a few short weeks on either side. Our neighbor to the south, California is the largest producer of stalks in the country. Their season runs longer, technically from February to June, even so most of the market for California’s asparagus is not fresh, rather processing and export account for most of the crop. The Luxenbelgduetchish love their canned asparagus.
The market for domestically grown, fresh asparagus is contracting - paradoxically as the popularity of the crop is growing. Peru, striving to become the world’s largest grower, has the luxury of 2 harvests per year. The Mexican crop, which is expanding annually, is ready for market even sooner than the Callie crop – This is troublesome because there is a reward for the first of any crop that wins the race to market. The next obstacle for Californian growers is the Japanese recession has decreased the demand for pristine, thin, air-freighted stalks: Analysts feel if and when the Japanese economy recovers enough to afford luxury items, US exporters will be priced out of that market by Thai and Chinese growers.
Good, right - We shouldn’t be flying a crop that can be grown locally all around the world? Yes, no, it’s complicated: In order to have farmers and growers willing to produce for local consumption, there has to be a payday at the end of the row. Take away steady Asian markets and subtract the premium for having the early crop. Calculate that the Mexican growing season largely overlaps with the Californian one. Add price competition from overseas, so great that it has essentially froze the price at $36 a crate, same as it was 10 years ago; along with the fact Peru can deliver stalks 9 months of the year. What do you do if you are a purchasing agent for a supermarket, the largest buyer and seller of produce in the US - your concern is price and year-around availability not locavorism?
While direct to consumer sales, what we call CSA and Farmers Markets are profitable outlets for locally grown asparagus, these retail sources account for 3% of total produce sales. So farmers planning their season, can calculate the only profit they’ll see on a crop will come from standing in a stall during an 80+ hour work-week and selling it themselves. This is not the greatest motivation to invest time, labor and capital in a crop.
As a result, the land dedicated to growing asparagus in California has dropped from 40,000 to 20,000 acres in the last decade, down from an estimated 75,000 acres a generation ago). Florida and growers in the Southeast have picked up some acreage, but the spiral is downward for US growers. Asparagus has lost not only acreage but also aligned support - the canneries, the freezers, the packers and the agricultural expertise in growing what is by all accounts a finicky crop. With each of these challenges, it becomes more difficult to even offer seasonal asparagus to willing consumers.
Does thinking, or arguably overthinking, the issue at hand change my answer from earlier in the week? No, but I am left with the enigma that it is better/less bad for the local economy to eat South American asparagus in the dead of winter than to eat cheaper, closer Mexican imports at the beginning of the season. Rather than solve the riddle that is sautéed in butter and wrapped in prosciutto, I am going to leave with the thought if you want the option of having locally, grown asparagus, don’t worry about it in December - just get your ass to your farmers market and buy early and often when it is available.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Food travels, on average, between 1300 to 1800 miles to reach an American’s table. This is in part because our prime agricultural areas/states of Florida and California are tucked away in the corners of the country. Even allowing for the size and scope of our country, there is the issue of terrior: Distinct climates and localized knowledge means that certain areas produce superior products French wines, Belgian ales, German lagers, Italian cheese, Spanish olive oil, Thai fish sauce, Japanese soy. Nationalistically, California citrus keeps me happy, healthy and well cocktailed through the winter months.
This centuries old action moving food from agricultural areas to populated centers/markets is compressing. What was once moving wheat across the Mediterranean in a sailing ship or carrying dried spices in a caravan is now more diverse, faster and commonplace. The speed and low cost of transportation coupled with a willing market who’ll pay for such goods means the winter months do not have to be defined by eating onions, potatoes and cabbage. What is exploitation of the world’s resources and flaunting of natural seasons to some is the miracle of modern transportation, worldwide investment, solvent currencies, trade and relatively peaceful borders.
As someone who grew up eating onions, potatoes and cabbage in the cold dark winter months - A diet supplemented with canned fruit and veg. The possibility of fresh produce in December makes me positively Ayn Rand about the power of commerce and trade. Besides it’s not like local foods advocate, Barbara Kingslover, author of Animal, Vegetable, STFU Already, will come to your house and beat you up* if you serve imported asparagus (*More accurately shame you into doing what she feels is important and can afford to do).
Just think about your all the Christmas cookies that have passed within your reach in the last few weeks…Has all the well traveled vanilla and chocolate affected your conscious in a similar manner? Fresh, local and seasonal may have morphed into a mantra, but it is truly an ideal – something to strive for not an act to handcuff yourself with.
If you are seeking permission, you have it. Food is to enjoy. It is called a treat because when it is once in a while indulgence, it is good to treat yourself. And if this really bothers you I’m sure you can buy a carbon offset for your asparagus or you can put Wendell Berry books under the tree. Or you can write back and I will share a recipe for a mélange of roasted wintered turnips, rutabagas and parsnips.
Friday, December 11, 2009
If Andy Warhol had been from the Mesabi Iron Range instead of Pittsburgh, Cream of Mushroom Soup would be the iconic can. AKA Lutheran binder, American Béchamel, Casserole Glue – Cream of Mushroom is better known for the company it keeps – more likely to be found in the vicinity of canned Green Beans, Tuna & Noodles and Ham & Potatoes, than in a bowl by itself.
The peculiar aspect of casseroles is how the bastardized versions of these dishes completely replaced their historical inspirations. Before there was Green Bean Casserole, Poor Man Stroganoff, Scalloped Potatoes there was Green Bean Allemande, Beef Stew and Gratin Dauphinois. Substituting for canned soup in recipes doesn’t require any reverse engineering; it is as easy as returning to the original preparation.
Béchamel is one of the mother sauces: A basic sauce that serves as a cornerstone for more complex preparations. Here, white roux and milk are cooked together to become the foundation for soups, soufflés and the base for more elaborate sauces like Mornay/cheese sauces and the casino buffet’s standard bearer: the Velouté /White Sauce. In the home kitchen, béchamel prevents cheese from separating into 2 distinct camps – lumps and oil as it melts – ditto if you want to get all retro-ee and whip up some fondue. In Italian cuisine, Salsa Balsamella, is found in lasagna or on top of manicotti where it browns up ever so nicely under the broiler.
Béchamel isn’t complicated; it just takes time to prepare. Be mindful béchamel is a white sauce - it is very important to keep the heat on low – I know your professional grade gas range is powerful enough to burn a hole in the ozone layer above your house, even so - low to medium-low heat for this recipe.
A Pint of Béchamel
2 Tablespoons Butter
2 T. Flour
2 cups milk
Seasonings* (Salt, pepper, cayenne, paprika and/or nutmeg)
Warm the milk in microwave or stove until simmering/160ºf. (Cold milk will make lumps – room temperature milk will make fewer and smaller lumps)
Make a roux by adding the butter and together in a saucepan over low heat. Mix regularly with a wooden spoon until the flour and butter merge into a blonde paste. Continue to cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
Add warm milk to the roux, ¼ cup at a time while whisking vigorously. When half the milk is added return the pan to low heat on the stove. Continue to mix in milk over heat until it is the consistency of heavy cream.
*Season with a light hand: Because béchamel is a base, you will be flavoring the rest of the dish as you build on the sauce. And if just a hint of nutmeg is good, a harmonious high note to the milk’s bass – keep in mind, twice as much nutmeg isn’t twice as good.
At this point you can add grated cheese – 2-3 oz per pint of béchamel. If you want to stay close to the canned inspiration, ignore the cheese and add 8 oz of chopped mushrooms as you are bringing the roux together. Adventurous - How about 2 Tablespoons of sherry, tomato sauce or 1 T. of chopped garlic? A tablespoon of mustard along with 4 oz of cheddar would make a good rarebit.
Back in the day, having a basic sauce in a restaurant kitchen that would get used in half dozen ways throughout the day made sense. For the home kitchen, it just seems like an extra step. Still, knowing a few classics will really help keep the canned foods out of your diet.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
An abundance of yolks? Usually I have the opposite problem – way too many whites. The freezer solves that problem, but all those eventually thawed whites just means I end up making more Angel Food cake than I desire. I don’t know why, there are tons of other things to do with egg whites – meringues, frostings and soufflés. I noticed that on the cover of Judith Jones’ new book the Pleasures of Cooking for One – there is a soufflé on the cover. The implication is that Ms. Jones recommends a soufflé for a solo dinner. I admire that ambition – I love to cook but I can’t even be persuaded to get a plate when I am eating a burrito by myself. A single soufflé, all I can say is wow.
Much like the whites, the freezer can postpone your yolk problem. High in fat, yolks freeze and thaw easily. And they are perfect for all your dessert needs – Puddings – both bread and lesser puddings, custards, pot de crèmes, flans and crème brûlée all taste better when yolks are used instead of whole eggs. Pies like pumpkin or pecan – along with their cousin the cheesecake improve when using yolks over whole eggs. 2 yolks = 1 egg.
Custard sauces like Zabaglione, Crème Angalise, Sabayon, pastry cream are always hungry for yolks. Yolks will make an ice cream all that much richer.
On the savory side of the meal, there is pasta. In addition to the obvious long form noodles, there are various ravioli, tortellini and lasagni/lasagnas. If the choice is handmade spaghetti – carbonara gets a little richer with egg yolks – not that pancetta, cheese and a whole egg is really an act of denial. Noodles don’t stop at the Alps – North of the boot, there is either spätzle or for those closer to the Danube, nokedli. Noodles with yolks develop a richer yellow color and are easier to work with (less brittle) compared to their whole egg brethren.
Also on the savory side are liaisons – More like Les Liaisons dangereuses - like the novel, liaisons are an old school French classic. In reality liaisons are only difficult to risky, not truly dangerous. 3 yolks are whisked into 1 cup of cream; then hot liquid is slowly added while whisking - This heats the eggs up without scrambling them. Wonderful in soups, stews or sauces, a liaison produces a velvety texture but they have fallen out of favor do to the labor and skill involved with the technique.
Straddling the sweet/savory divide are brioches and challahs whose rich yellow dough is a glowing testimony to the importance of yolks. For the non-baker, you can make a batch of French toast by subbing yolks in for eggs. If none of the above appeals to you, the saucydogs, Fred and Lily love eggs mixed in their kibble, I’m sure other dogs will enjoy it as well, as much as dogs savor their food anyway.
Friday, December 4, 2009
It is a curious fruit - globe-shaped, with a prominent stem, comically closer an Acme Bomb, that Wily E. Coyote somehow got delivered to the middle of the Southwest desert, than a tree fruit. Fittingly, the French name for the fruit is grenade but this has little to do with shape or explosive probability of the fruit – granum (seeds) is a short hop linguistically to grenade, or Español’s granada. For Sudeten Germans, it is granatapfel, it isn't quite as intimidating as other German words but still a far cry from the simple Roma, which is what the Brazilian’s call the fruit. Keeping with the geographical theme – Pomegranate’s Latin name, Punica, was the Roman name for Carthage, where the best fruits were said to originate from.
And maybe to the ancient Romans, the fruit did seem to be born in Carthage, but Persia – modern day Iran – seems to be a better bet for the pomegranate’s ancestral homeland. The tree, or actually a shrub - sometimes deciduous or in different climes, evergreen, gets around. The fruit and the tree have been know in North Africa since the dawning of civilization - Egyptians grew them in the time of the Pharaoh, Moses, who incidentally told Pharaoh to let his people go, then had to reassure his followers in the desert the fruit would be available in the promised land. Not to be forgotten, the Phoenicians painted pomegranates on their pottery and the fruit is referenced in the Babylonian Talmud. Indians – subcontinent have used the seeds for 1000s of years. The plant arrived in the Bahamas in 1621 and is grown in suitable climates throughout the Americas, including the States, arriving in what would become California in the 1780s and it has stayed ever since - a small crop, mostly the variety Wonderful (which accounts for 90% of the commercial juice production) is grown in the Valley.
In the States, pomegranates have never really been all that – the fruit is possibly better known as the flavoring for grenadine – the juice is and mixed with sugar syrup in order to flavor Shirley Temples and other, more potent cocktails. Around the world, both the seeds and juice are used for drinking and cooking. The bark and leaves of the tree/shrub, along with the fruit’s red peel - all very high in tannins, have been used to cure leather for centuries. The leaves have been used to make ink, the seeds as a preservative, the bark of the tree is ground and used as an organic pesticide.
The new millennium has brought about a new demand for the juice, which is touted more for its antioxidant Kung-Fu than its flavor. Galen would be proud to know it is being used as a medicine at this day in age. Considering I like western medicine, I rather have my pomegranate juice poured over club soda or added with fresh squeezed tangerine juice, bourbon and ice – shaken and served up in a martini glass. It may not boost my immune system, prevent cancer or slow down the aging process but it does take the edge off of a hard day.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
How does one, or more specifically: How do I get the juice out of a pomegranate? I know it is in there
Pomegranates have been cultivated since the time of the Pharaohs but extracting the fruit’s goodness has always been so labor intensive to the point of preventing the fruit from being as popular as it could or should be.
The thick, leathery skin of the pomegranate covers hundreds of ruby-shaped seeds. Further complicating the juicing process, these seeds are blanketed in a white, inedible membrane. The juice of the pomegranate resides in the pulp of these seeds. And as a final obstacle - a tiny, true seed – about the flavor and texture of a grape seed resides within the bigger red flesh. These true seeds are edible but they are astringent and crunchy; they either provide a nice counterbalance to the rich juice of the fruit or are horribly bitter and must be avoided at all costs.
Modern, industrial techniques have improved juicing to the point that the nothing-remotely-subliminal-about-the-lady-shaped bottle filled with dark red juice is now nearly ubiquitous. And by ubiquitous, I mean available at the grocery store within a mile of my mom’s house in the exurban Midwest. The juice’s rise in popularity is based not so much on its flavor rather because pomegranates are rich in antioxidants – which are currently being extolled as the greatest health booster ever, like Vitamin C and botox combined and doubled capable of reversing the aging process and preventing N1H1 or something like that. As the juice becomes more commonplace, the red fruit itself is an increasingly familiar sight in the market.
The Saucytorium had 5 books gave nearly identical directions on how to juice a pomegranate – I’m not sure this culinary zeitgeist is due to the superiority of this particular method or it is the result of tepid research that relies more on reading than doing – creating an echo chamber of well-footnoted but not practical information. The most cited method advises to quarter the fruit and then separate the seeds from the skin over a bowl of water – the seeds will sink and the pithy membrane will rise to the top. From there the seeds can be pureed and strained.
I prefer to either half the fruit through its equator and press it in my juicer. Better still, especially when there is company to impress, I roll the fruit gently back and forth across a flat surface, applying enough pressure to loosen the seeds from the membrane and release the juice but not enough force to break the skin of the fruit. No hurry in this, only a gentle consistent touch. Switch directions, make sure the pole ends of the fruit are rolled across the surface. Take your fingertips and with even less pressure than you are applying as you roll, touch the surface, pushing the skin ever so slightly towards the center - As the juice becomes liberated from the seeds the feel of the fruit will change from firm to soft and redolent. When the skin feels supple and the fruit feels heavy and soft, pierce the skin with tip of a paring knife.
At this point, either place your lips over the hole – removing the juice with a natural straw or if you want to share the pomegranate juice in a more PG-13 manner, you can squeeze the contents into the glass. Juicing in this manner is like foreplay – it should go slow, focused concentration used to extract the most out of the task at hand - impatience and desire should build - tempered by the knowledge of the eventual reward. It is easier to buy a bottle and chug – and there is a place for both. The bottle is around all year, the fruit is here for the weeks around Christmas, enjoy it while it lasts.
Next post will be all about pomegranate facts and lore.