Monday, August 28, 2006

The Real Chef

After reading so much about how top chefs must expand and move out of the kitchen in order to make money, it was a relief to see that there are still purists out there.

Masa has what sounds like the supreme Japanese restaurant in America. Reading about his food put me in mind of going with Rose to Fujiyama for her East Asian research; it was the most pure sushi place we'd ever been. Filled with Japanese customers, beautiful and simple design, with the most delicious raw fish you can imagine, prepared by an aged master behind the sushi counter. It was an experience that stretched the envelope for all of us.
Masa, I realized, was something unique in this age of the chef-CEO; he was unique perhaps to any age of the chef. He had created the most extraordinary restaurant experience in New York. "Here is my money," he'd said, holding up his hands. "Here is my money," he'd said, touching his chest. He'd realized this as a young man, and he would do something none of the greats had done, not Keller or Soltner or Ducasse -- none of them. He'd created a single restaurant that was wholly dependent on his presence. A restaurant that without him couldn't even open. "When I catch cold, I close the restaurant." The goal of most chefs was to train their staffs so well that they, the chefs, didn't have to be there -- when the staff could replicate a chef's goals without his being there, that was an extraordinary achievement. The chef's goals was to make themselves completely dispensable -- they considered that their ultimate success.

Masa had done the opposite. In an age of the branded chef and TV chefs and Vegas outposts and Olive Gardens and P.F. Chang's, Masa had created a restaurant so personal, do dependent on his skills and spirit and personality, that it had no meaning when he was not inside it. Masa was the artist.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pork Chops with White Wine

A more accurate name for this would be "My Mom's Pork Chops." This was a favorite when I was growing up and remains so with my family.

Over time, as the poor pig has had all natural fat bred out of it, I've had to adapt which chops are used so that they don't wind up tough and dry after the simmering, which is necessary to get the onions soooo delicious that Tom and I fight over who gets the last bits from the platter.

Step 1:

4 large pork chops, I use shoulder or blade chops
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil

Season chops with spices. Brown quickly.

Step 2:
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, sliced
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup white wine

Remove chops and add butter; sauté onion until soft, but not brown.

Blend in tomato paste. Add wine; return chops to pan. Cover and simmer until tender, about 30-40 minutes.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Culinary Mythology: Lobsters Scream with Pain When Boiled

It's commendable that people do not want to inflict pain on animals, but this one is false on two accounts. First of all, pain doesn't just happen automatically - it is the result of specific receptors, nerve pathways, and brain regions all cooperating to convert certain physical stimuli into the perception of pain. This has all been thoroughly worked out in humans and other vertebrates. But guess what - lobsters and other crustaceans are not vertebrates and simply do not have these nerve pathways and brain regions (they don't have a real brain at all, for that matter). In other words, no brain, no pain (sorry, I couldn't resist that one!).

What about the "scream" that lobsters sometime emit when dropped in the boiling water? There's the problem that lobsters have no throat, no vocal cords, no lungs, so how could they scream at all? The fact is that the noise is caused by air trapped in the shell. When heated it expands and forces itself out through small gaps, causing the sound.
I always have a tendency to want the real scoop but reading The Daughter of Time just brings that tendency to the fore. Here is a series of excerpts I ran from The Oxford Companion to Food debunking:

Thursday, August 10, 2006

"I get no kick from champagne" ... but champagne grapes on the other hand ...

... the name comes from their sweet, winelike flavor, or the fact that they look like champagne bubbles, depending on whom you quote. And they are no relation to the grapes that produce Champagne. To eat them, don't bother picking off the individual berries. Just place a cluster between your lips and pull the stem so the grapes come off gently in your mouth.

Anyone else have these in their store? They are favorites of ours and only show up for a short time. I love to give them to small children but the big kids around our house devour them also.

Now Serving Hot Links

A good, fairly comprehensive list over at Slashfood.

I really loved Garlic and Sapphires, found Heat fascinating, and enjoyed My LIfe in France (briefly reviewed earlier this week) so much that I bought it for my mother as a birthday gift. The Nasty Bits ... well, a bit of Tony Bourdain goes a long way. His book Kitchen Confidential is a masterpiece of putting you right in the restaurant kitchen (sans celebrity chef) and I highly recommend it but that's enough Bourdain for me. Gael's Greene's autobiography ... hmmm ... well, the excerpts I've read make it sound as if it's more about bedhopping than food and I just don't care. Two for the Road and The Omnivore's Dilemma are both requested from the library so we will see how they turn out when I eventually reach my turn.

As for On Food and Cooking, I bow to no man in my admiration for the author's achievement but the old and new volumes are very different propositions in some ways as I mentioned in this review.

Steven Riddle asks:

(1) What is the oddest food you've ever deliberately eaten? (We're not counting swallowed flies or accientally ingested spiders here--this is food that you chose to eat.)

(2) What food do you really, really like to eat but many people around you find utterly revolting?

I answered over there. Go see.

Doesn't everyone usually gather in the kitchen? That's how it works at our house. Sarah has a wonderfully evocative piece extolling the homey comforts of the kitchen table.

Food Bound reviews the first of Brite's mysteries featuring kitchen cooks and eventually restaurant owners. I have read the first two and they were pretty good. I especially liked the way she took us into the kitchen life. Note: her protagonists are a gay couple although there is very little elaboration on that point generally which I appreciated.

Mmmmm ... chicken and wine. Dom and Bella are cookin' and it looks good.

Fugger Nutter is beginning a series which I think is going to be really interesting as it will roll gardening, hunting, cooking and more all into one. Read all about it at his place, but here is the essential focus.
  • The importance of having a family meal.
  • The amount of work and energy that is behind a meal that we tend to forget about in modern Society.
  • The incredible disconnect that many people have between the fact that the meat on your plate was once a living breathing animal that you may have found “cute”.
  • How thankful we are to the Lord for giving us such a beautiful bounty in such troubled times that we may celebrate with these great meals.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Quick Book Review

88. My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme
This book is the charming and fascinatingly told story of Julia Child and her husband living in France. What elevates this beyond the usual food/life memoir is Child's telling of the whole picture, not just the food oriented moments. Yes, the food is there. After all, we are in France, n'est-ce pas? And this is Julia Child's story. However, just as in life, the food memories wind their way through the rest of her stories which make us understand just why she adores France. A snippet to whet your appetite.
... I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.

August in Paris was known as la morte-saison, "the dead season," because everybody who could possibly vacate did so as quickly as possible. A great emptying out of the city took place, as hordes migrated toward the mountains and coasts, with attendant traffic jams and accidents. Our favorite restaurants, the creamery, the meat man, the flower lady, the newspaper lady, and the cleaners all disappeared for three weeks. One afternoon I went into Nicolas, the wine shop, to buy some wine and discovered that everyone but the deliveryman had left town. He was minding the store, and in the meantime was studying voice in the hope of landing a role at the opera. Sitting next to him was an old concierge who, twenty-five years earlier, had been a seamstress for one of the great couturiers on la Place Vendome. She and the deliveryman reminisced about the golden days of Racine and Moliere and the Opera Comique. I was delighted to stumble in on these two. It seemed that in Paris you could discuss classic literature or architecture or great music with everyone from the garbage collector to the mayor.
More quick reviews can be found here and for the complete list of books read so far this year, go here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Good Reason for the Celebrity Chef, Part III

Continued from part II.
Chefs, thanks to their celebrity, now have the clout and the passion, as well as the knowledge, to point us back to the things that matter -- to sustainable farming, to raising animals naturally in fresh air, rather than inside cement barracks pumped full of antibiotics. We're slowly, too slowly, recognizing the scary results of chemical-laced livestock in overcrowded spaces -- not merely inferior beef and tasteless chicken, or unpleasant bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria, but also the evolution of truly deadly bacteria such as E. Coli O157:H7.

Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, began working with farmers thirty years ago and asked us all to understand better where our food comes from because it matters. This former schoolteacher had the authority to do this because she ran a popular restaurant. A generation later, chefs are a powerful force in the way we raise hogs, cattle, and chicken because Americans are spending their dollars at these chefs' restaurants and buying their cookbooks -- capitalism at its best -- and reading about their beliefs and philosophies, in addition to trying to actually cook their food, and believing what these chefs believe...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Now Serving Hot LInks

Two Beers a Day Can Prevent Alzheimer's ... good to know that you can self-medicate for this. I'll get right on that.

Indian Tiffin Deliveries Are Going High Tech ... websites for lunchbox delivery in India.

A good and easy substitute for mole? ... no, think again.

Kellogs Planning to Raise Cereal Prices ... I already don't buy name brand cereal. Who can afford it? For heavens sakes, chips are often cheaper on a per-ounce basis.

New Joy of Cooking in October ... I never cared for that classic cookbook but for those who do this will be good news.

Looking for Those Chocolate Chip Cookies?

For those Beyond Cana retreat group folks who wanted to be able to make these themselves, here you go.

For anyone else who hasn't tried them ... what are you waiting for? It doesn't get any easier or tastier than these cookies.

A Good Reason for the Celebrity Chef, Part II

Continued from part I.
But in addition to our inept thinking about the egg, we've also managed to debase our eggs on a massive scale, to contaminate them so that they may actually make you sick if you don't cook them till they're hard, and downright dangerous for the very young and the very old. We've done the same to our animals, too, by pumping them full of chemicals and feeding them crap they wouldn't naturally choose in generations of evolution. Our major commercial hog producers are breeding the fat out of hogs to try to please the knuckleheaded consumer, who doesn't know anymore what's good for him or not -- how could he? he's been taught to fear the egg! -- degrading a once-fine animal beyond recognition, and yet we think nothing of supersizing our french fries and burgers and Cokes. We're breeding chickens without feathers. Most people scarcely know anymore what their food looks like when it's alive. They get grossed out at a proper pig roast. They wouldn't know what to do if they saw an asparagus growing wild -- you can't eat that, it's gotta come in a bundle with a rubber band around it. If food doesn't come in a a package or a box or wrapped in plastic, we aren't comfortable with it, don't trust it. It might hurt us. Gotta be processed. Gotta have an expiration date. It's sometimes hard to remember that what comes out of our boxes and packages first comes out of the earth.
And, finishing this thought up, Part III.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Good Reason for the Celebrity Chef, Part I

Perhaps, on the other hand, our chef-mania, our grossly out-of-touch understanding of the work, is a good thing, a way for America to at last get a grip on its own relationship with food. Since the end of World War II, this country has been our of synch with the natural order of sustenance and nourishment, embracing processed foods, revering canned goods, "instant" breakfasts, and frozen dinners, then elevating fast food to a way of life with such force that its impact has become global, then simultaneously abhorring animal fat for health and dietary reasons, while still becoming the fattest community on earth, then turning around to proselytize on diets composed entirely of salt-rich protein and animal fat, and banishing bread of all things -- the staff of life was now the evildoer, and just when bakers in this country had figured out how to make it well. We completely upended the food pyramid we'd always accepted as undeniable and good common sense. Ours is a country that for years held out a silver cross at eggs. Eggs are bad for you. Eggs! The most natural food on earth, a symbol of life and fertility, a compact package of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates whose versatility in the kitchen, pleasure at the table, and economy at the store is unmatched by any other food. We learned to hate the egg! Do you need any further proof that something is seriously wrong with this country that teaches people to avoid eggs? Only when they became a good strategy for slimming down did we reverse ourselves on the egg quandary.

More to follow in Part II

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sound Familiar?

In our first mail delivery in Marseille came a letter from Avis De Voto. In responding to some photos we'd sent of ourselves, she wrote: "I am very pleased with your looks, so warm and vigorous and handsome. I am rather astonished that you are such a big girl. Six feet, whoops. I adore height in women ... I think you both look absolutely wonderful.

Then she addressed our sauce chapter: "I have not got beurre blanc licked to a frazzle and I am getting bilious. Also have put on 5 lb. which on a figure like mine ain't good. It looks all right, but I like to be able to wiggle freely in my clothes instead of bursting out the seams. Also I have made yr top secret mayonnaise with great success in spite of the fact that both my electric beaters broke down and I had to shift to the whisk. It's delicious and lovely and I am pleased. But I do so hate to diet. Blast you."

We had grown really fond of Avis. Odd, to feel as though you knew someone quite well whom you had never met.
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme
This goes back to my argument, as well as that of such practical souls as Mama T, that blogging is not that different in essence than letter writing in the old days. Julia Child's comment about knowing Avis so well, as well as Avis' familiar tone, sound very like that which comes about between kindred bloggers and email correspondents. Only the technology is different.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chicken Stir-Fried with Fresh Ginger

Never did a cookbook live up to its name more than Quick & Easy Vietnamese: 75 Everyday Recipes does with this recipe. Simple, quick, and delicious, it was enjoyed by every member of the family and that ain't easy!

The 15-20 minutes marinating time was more than enough to permeate the chicken, especially since it is cooked with the marinade. The longer time mentioned below is not necessary.

Also, the chicken is never really going to be "golden brown" as the marinade takes care of coloring everything a uniform brown already.

I served this over steamed rice. There is not much sauce, but the chicken is so highly flavored that a lot of something fairly neutral is necessary to keep from the taste being overpowering.

2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 pound boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into long, thin strips
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion

In a medium bowl, combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, honey or brown sugar, salt, and pepper, and stir to mix everything well. Add the chicken, and toss to coat wit the seasonings. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.

heat the oil in a medium skillet over high heat until a bit of ginger sizzles at once. Add chicken and marinade and cook until chicken is golden brown on one side, 1-2 minutes. Toss well, add the ginger, and toss again. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the chicken is nicely browned and cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with green onions and serve hot or warm.