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Yo! Nick! – A Cook’s Christmas List


Polls are indicating that people are eating out less, and when they do it tends to be at fast food joints. For example, Applebees sales are reportedly down about 15 percent while McDonalds are up by eight. But people are also doing more of their own cooking in order to economize. So this Christmas, I thought I might offer some suggestions for practical gifts to make home cooking more economical, easier, or both.

Few of the items mentioned below are actually inexpensive, but they cover a gamut of prices points and degrees of economy and I’ve either used or own most of them. So I know where-of I speak.

CrockpotFirst on my list is to reduce costs by eating less meat and eating tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat. A great tool for this approach is a slow cooker. Toss a chuck roast, some red wine, and a few vegetables and herbs in a Crockpot in the morning, set it on low, and come home to the most marvelous pot roast you can imagine. Or mix some dried beans, canned tomatoes, a smoked ham hock, and a few herbs and vegetables in a slow cooker and again, you come home to a meal packed with flavor. The trick here is the slow cooking, a technique that gently teases the flavors out and melds them. You can do the same thing using a Dutch oven (which is what I use).

Gelpro matNext on my list is a Gelpro kitchen mat. I spend way too much time standing on a tiled kitchen floor and not only do my feet get sore, but at the end of a full day of cooking everything is sore and stiff. I’d settle for one, but a couple of these would make my life far less painful – and I think making my life less painful is a good idea. At $125 for a small mat or $150 for a large one, they’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than the commercial mats. And if a mat like this makes you more inclined to cook then it’s a good idea.

Food LoopsFood Loops are a home cook’s substitute for kitchen twine. They’re made of silicon and are used to tie up rolled roasts. I’ve used them and they don’t hold as tightly as properly tied twine, but they’re a good substitute for someone who doesn’t know how to tie a roast and they make a nice stocking stuffer.

Vacuum SealerWhen the vacuum food sealers first came out the reports on them indicated they were expensive and not particularly effective. But since then the prices have dropped and the reliability improved. I just threw away a couple of pork chops that had migrated to the back of my freezer and avoided my notice for six months. Despite double-wrapping in plastic and storage in a zippered freezer bag, they were badly freezer-burned. A vacuum sealer solves this problem by eliminating air from around the food. Less wasted food means lower food costs.

Stock PotThere is no one more cognizant of food costs than a chef. Chefs waste nothing if they can avoid it because food costs are the bane of a chef’s existence – well, one of them. A great way to use up things like carrot peels, leafy celery tops, onion skins, bones, shrimp shells, and so on – stuff that most of us would think of as garbage – is to make this detritus into stock. Homemade stock is not only cheaper than anything you can buy, it’s usually far better-tasting as well. So I think a good, big stock pot is a great investment in better and cheaper meals.

Elements of CookingI spent last week answering questions by panicked home cooks about their Thanksiving meal. In many cases I had answers from my own experience on tap such as “How do I cook a beef tenderloin?” But in other cases they were facing difficulties I hadn’t personally encountered like, “I burned Food Lovers Companionthe turkey gumbo, how do I fix it?” In these cases I fell back on both personal experiences and a general knowledge (book-learning) of food and cooking. Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking is a great source of information on fundamental cooking techniques and processes, if all you own are cookbooks, you need this book. I also highly recommend Food Lovers Companion, an essential reference I can’t imagine living without – my copy is almost worn out.

So far I’ve remained practical in these recommendations, but I have a contrarian nature and when I know I should economize my inclination is to splurge (on the other hand, when I know I can splurge my inclination is to splurge), so I have a couple of suggestions along those lines. After all, Christmas is a celebration and some festivity is called for. How better to celebrate than enjoying a special treat?

TrufflesThe first treat is domestic truffles. These come from Tennessee and are the famed Perigord black truffles of France. They are reportedly an excellent alternative to European imports at a fraction of the cost. The second splurge is domestic caviar. I recently tried this product and wrote a review.Caviar

I’ll be reviewing both of these foods before Christmas so if you want to hold off on ordering I’ll be providing more information to go on, but for the right person caviar from the Great Lakes, country ham from Tennessee, or truffles from Oregon are a wonderful gift.

If you’re short on cash this Christmas, you’re short on cash and there’s probably little you can do about the fact. So I’ll be cooking up gifts again such as my grandmother’s Bourbon Cake and the pancetta I sent out last year. But if you have a little flexibility in your budget some of these gifts can go a long way toward making economizing a pleasure, not a curse.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Science and Fries


I’ve been reading Hervé This’ book, Molecular Gastronomy. If you’re not familiar with the term “molecular gastronomy,” it refers to the application of science to cooking and is typified by the creations of Ferran Adrià at elBulli and Grant Achatz at Alinea. These chefs apply cutting edge, often high-tech techniques (many of which they invent themselves) to food.

So you might find yourself consuming wine encapsulated in tiny gel bubbles or smoke trapped in a cube of fish. If you’ve watched Top Chef you might have noticed the use of foams and sous vide cooking cooking by some chefs, both of which arose from this technological approach to cooking.

Click to view larger versionMany of these recipes use techniques or ingredients that the food processing industry has been using for years. Sous vide, for instance, may look just like the plastic sealant surrounding some Oscar Meyer bacon. And This, a French food scientist, is one of the people responsible for the techniques’ move from factory to restaurant. His book has been on my list for some time so I was pleased to get it for Christmas.

Perhaps inevitably, there is a chapter on French fries. I say this because the humble French fry is an outstanding example of the point where science and craft meet. I make French fries about once a year. A well-made frite is almost impossible to beat, but made properly it’s more complicated than simply dumping some potatoes in oil. There’s some fairly sophisticated physics involved in achieving a perfect fry.

You need to begin with high-starch potatoes — russets are the most common choice. The starch granules explode during the initial cooking phase producing a light, fluffy interior. That’s something a low-starch waxy potato can’t accomplish. The fries need to be the correct dimensions (about 1/2 inch square) in order to cook at the right rate and they need to be washed in cold water to remove excess starch from the surface. Then they’re cooked in oil at 325F for about 7 minutes. This step cooks them through and the oil seals the outside of the fry reducing the amount of oil absorbed, but produces a pale limp result. So the fries are drained and cooled, the oil is heated to 375F, and the fries are cooked again until brown and crisp.

Cooking fries just once at one temperature produces limp, raw-tasting fries. A great fry requires getting the science right and it’s the point where Hervè This meets, of all people, Michael Pollan.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan rails against the industrialization of our food supply. And with good cause: We’ve created an unsustainable system of food production. Reportedly, in his latest book In Defense of Food, he carries the rant on to nutritionists and food scientists and our short-term focus on the latest findings about anti-oxidants, saturated fats, and diets. Which would lead you to think he’s opposed to some of the techniques and approaches to cooking embraced by This.

But food isn’t simple, nor is the cultural environment that we buy, cook, and eat food in.

Now, I suspect Pollan would have no qualms about my yearly French fry splurge, particularly if I used locally grown potatoes. But the attitude that could become implicit by those who aren’t careful – that science has no place in food preparation – is one to guard against.

The science of food really matters. A lot. For instance, I know that most bacteriological contaminants (microbes) are killed at temperatures between 135F and 155F so I know that if meat is heated to at least that temperature it’s safe to eat. I also know that beef and pork almost never harbor bacteria in the meat itself, just on the surface. This tells me that if I sear the exterior of a rib roast to 375F I’ve killed everything on the surface and it’s then safe to cook it at a temperature as low as 135F to produce a perfect, medium-rare roast.

I’ll give you a run-down on Pollan’s In Defense of Food as soon as I get my copy, but in the meantime, although people like Pollan and This appear to represent opposing camps in a battle for our bellies – one all science, the other “all food” – a perfect French fry requires both camps.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Overbooked Cook


At last count I had about 125 cookbooks and another 25 or 30 other books related to cooking. I think the first cookbook in my collection was a Christmas gift, The Meats Cookbook from Southern Living magazine. If my memory is correct my mother gave it to me when I was 13 or 14 years old. According to it, rare beef is cooked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I would call that medium and if you let the meat rest (and you should) it’s going to hit medium-well – 145-plus degrees – before it’s finished cooking. I seldom use that particular book these days.
Click to view larger versionI think the first cookbook I ever bought was Cast Iron Cookbook from Nitty Gritty Productions when I was 18 and moved out of my parents’ house. It calls for frying chicken in lard, which is still a good idea although somewhat cholesterol-laden.
My dirty little secret is that I seldom use cookbooks anymore and the last time I bought one was over a year ago. I call this a “dirty little secret” because I love books. My dining room contains all my cooking books. The living room has my Tolkien and Kipling collections as well as the usual assortment of cocktail-table books on (in my case) either food, science fiction, or architecture. My guest bedroom has three large bookcases filled with technical/non-fiction works, and my bedroom hosts my fiction and travel collections. Movers hate me. But although I’d never give up a cookbook I also almost never use one anymore. Collections of recipes are an atavism.
My most recent cookbook is named 2500 Recipes: Everyday to Extraordinary, which a publicity house sent me hoping I’d review it. I flipped through the tome and simply wasn’t interested because it is, in fact, 2500 recipes, no more, no less. Claiming to offer 2500 recipes sounds impressive. For example, the back cover asserts the book contains 50 recipes for marinades. But a quick Google search for “marinade recipe” turns up over two million hits. Even better, the recipes are ranked (roughly) according to popularity. Why should I turn to a book for a marinade recipe?
I seldom follow recipes exactly anyway, what I really want when I look at recipes are ideas on how to cook things I like. I might do a search on “lamb shank” to see what turns up and then assemble a number of ideas to create a dish that appeals to me. Pre-Internet I would have pulled a bunch of cookbooks from my shelves, gathered together all my past issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit and spent a couple of hours scanning through them. I might have ended up with, at most, half a dozen recipes to cull ideas from. Today I do a search and get over 300,000 hits, including my own recipe for braised lamb shanks sitting in the number three spot. It’s one I developed after just such a search. This is the sort of thing the Internet is perfect for and it makes cookbooks as collections of recipes seem almost useless.
Nevertheless, there are, in fact reasons for using a book. About a year ago I bought a now-out-of-print book on Spanish cuisine named, not so cleverly, Spanish. The author, Pepita Aris, is the Marcella Hazan of Spanish cookery. When I find a particular cuisine interesting and want to know more about it I buy three or four books by the most famous writers on the subject and then spend a couple of weeks studying each book. I do this because I’m trusting the author, who’s been vetted by having acquired a known name, to provide insights into the nature of the cuisine.
Around the same time I bought two books on charcuterie (techniques for preserving meat). It’s a topic that’s long interested me and that I’d finally decided to address. I purchased Bruce Aidells’ Complete Sausage Book and Charcuterie: The Craft of Smoking, Salting, and Curing by Ruhlman and Polcyn. There’s another book I need, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson that I haven’t bought yet.
I read each book cover to cover and, as expected, gained far more than recipes and far more than I could have gotten from the Internet with it’s scattering of a little information here and a little information there. But once I’ve read the Grigson book I don’t anticipate buying another on the subject. I’ll know enough about curing meats to fall back on the Internet for ideas when I want something new.
If I had an ounce of mercy in my heart I’d get rid of 80 percent of my cookbooks the next time I move. But even though I seldom use them, I love having my cookbooks. So the poor guys who get the chore of handling my next move are just going to have to buck up. Maybe I’ll offer them some homemade sausage and biscuits before they start.
You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Southern Belly


John T. Edge is a member of the food writing culinoscenti, although he would blush to read that assessment — perhaps not least because of the awkward neologism. But how else should I describe someone who combines a knowledge of food and culture with insight into the combination and an ability to articulate that knowledge and insight? He, along with Calvin Trillan, Russ Parsons, Michael Ruhlman, and a few others, is one of the best food writers in the business and his latest book, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lovers Guide to the South, reflects that skill.
Click to view larger versionEdge focuses on American food and past books include Donuts: An American Passion and Hamburgers & Fries: An American Story. But he’s also a Southerner, born and bred in Clinton, Georgia, just south of Atlanta. He’s currently the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a non-profit organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that, “celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South.” Besides his books, Edge writes for the Atlanta Constitution, Gourmet, the New York Times and other publications.
In his introduction to Southern Belly Edge writes: “This is a very subjective work… In defining what constitutes the South, I ignored matters of Confederate or Union affiliation during the Civil War or mapping based on where the kudzu grows…” The author’s South is studded with buildings like Chuck’s Bar-B-Que where, “salvation and sin coexist in a cinder-block building,” and populated by people like Dana Berlin Strange who keeps a jar of pickled okra around “for educational purposes,” and who opened a café named Jestine’s Kitchen after the black woman who was her family’s housekeeper and who, in a throwback to the Old South, raised her.
Southern Belly is an odd book. Organized by state, it presents a huge collection of one- to two-page essays on places to eat from Virginia in the Southern north to East Texas in the Southern southwest. These are not so much reviews as vignettes of an eating experience, providing insight into the particular establishment’s history, cuisine, and the people who eat and work there. For instance, according to Maurice Bessinger who runs the Piggie Park barbeque joint, God was the first pitmaster: “All the Old Testament sacrifices were cooked with wood, and that was ordained by God.”
Edge tells me he got into writing because he had an opinion and fell in love with his own byline and that he started writing about food as a backdoor approach to bigger topics like race and class and, clearly, culture. His passion is apparent and he makes no claims of objectivity about the content. And yet, he brings a clear eye for the telling detail, an ability to illustrate deftly with a turn of phrase, and a way of offering conclusions and asking questions between the lines of text that infuse Southern Belly with more content than you at first expect. In fact, after reading the first half of the first chapter (Alabama) I skipped ahead to Tennessee. Completing it, though, I’d found the rhythm in the stories, which rock like an old blues singer, and returned to the beginning to read the entire book at a rate of eight or nine barbeque pits, fried chicken stands, and meat-n-threes each evening before turning off the light and going to sleep, my mind filled with imagined odors and the sound of screen doors slamming shut behind me.
Southern Belly is food writing at its best because it’s not so much about food as about a culture: where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going. When we take our kids to McDonald’s or Krystal or Litton’s, we’re teaching them about our culture and our values in the grand sense and the personal sense. Follow Edge’s lead and you may find that Litton’s, or even Glo’s place, “a roadside trailer with three folding tables,” is a lesson not just about Southern food, but about the values you want to pass on.
You can leave comments, questions, and remarks here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

You Say Tomato


Last week I mentioned that my first BLT of the year is what I regard as the true arrival of summer. At this time of year I eat at least one, and sometimes two or three tomatoes a day. I make a variation of the Italian insalata caprese using feta instead of mozzarella. This Greek take on the Italian specialty is my most-common lunch during the summer. Then there’s that wonderful Southern treat, fried green tomatoes.
Click to view larger versionI dip slices of green tomato in buttermilk, dredge them in seasoned cornmeal, and pan-fry to a golden brown. They’re crisp on the outside, and silky on the inside. You may know that tomatoes are botanically a fruit, not a vegetable, but the flavor of fried green tomatoes makes it obvious that tomotoes are a fruit. The nature of their sweetness and acidity is closer to a green apple than a green bean. Gazpacho, the tomato-based cold soup, is another must-make summer dish. I also like to broil tomatoes topped with shredded Parmigiano Reggiano — a supremely easy and mouth-watering preparation.
One reason these tomatoes are so mouth-watering is the presence of monosodium glutamate. Yes, that roundly derided Chinese-restaurant additive known as MSG occurs naturally in both tomatoes and parmesan cheese (as well as beef, oysters and a lot of other foods), so parmesan-broiled tomatoes pack a double wallop.
From the 19th century we knew our tongues had receptors (taste buds) particularly sensitive to sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These are the basic tastes. But research begun by a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, found we have a fifth set of taste buds. These receptors detect something Ikeda named umami — think of it as “savory.” The interesting thing is that we’ve evolved taste buds for only five types of chemicals and glutamate is one of them. It must be important.

“How to Pick
a Peach”

Traditionally, the pulp and seeds are removed from tomatoes when cooking with them; the conventional wisdom was that this part of the fruit was tasteless. But Heston Blumenthal, a noted London chef, noticed that this pulp was far from tasteless and, because he has long been involved in exploring the chemistry behind food, he asked Donald Mottram of the University of Reading to run some tests. It turns out that the seeds contain as much as eight times more umami than the flesh. It also turns out that vine-ripened tomatoes have more MSG than force-ripened tomatoes — no wonder local tomatoes are so much better tasting.
In other tomato research, a ten-year study conducted by Dr Alyson Mitchell at the University of California, Davis, has found that organically-grown tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids than conventionally grown tomatoes. Flavanoids are anti-oxidants that are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Although the evidence appears clear that organic tomatoes do contain greater amounts of flavonoids, it’s still unclear that flavonoids (also found in chocolate and wine, by the way) actually do reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. In fact, it’s still unclear that organic vegetables offer any health benefits, although eating them certainly can’t hurt.
Irrespective of any health claims, even the proven ones, about tomatoes, they are one of the great flavors. Were there a pantheon of flavors, just-picked tomatoes would enjoy godhead. Me? I’m just enjoying what Russ Parsons, author of How to Pick a Peach, calls a “delicate and temperamental” fruit at the only time of the year that fruit can be truly enjoyed. And if I’m healthier as a result, I’m willing to pay that price.
You can leave thoughts, comments, and observations here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Going for Silver


A few days before Mother’s Day in 1981, Workman Publishing released a cookbook by two women who had a deli (for lack of a better word) in Manhattan. The book was named after their shop: The Silver Palate, which they’d opened in 1977. The Silver Palate Cookbook, featuring recipes for the food they sold in the store, was a huge success and had a great impact on home cooks throughout the country — including me. The publisher has just released a 25th anniversary edition celebrating the founding of The Silver Palate 25 years ago by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.
Click to view larger versionMy mother gave me a copy of the first edition for Christmas the year it came out and it quickly became my go-to book for recipe ideas, as it did for many other cooks. A couple of years later The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook was published, followed in turn by The New Basics Cookbook. By this time my siblings also had copies and we took to calling them the White Book (because of its white spine), the Red Book (because of its red spine), and the Big Book (because it was big).
Aside from my mother, no one has had more influence on my style of cooking than Rosso and Lukins. Their recipes are usually straightforward to prepare with straightforward flavors. The food has clear Mediterranean influences and yet is undeniably American in attitude.
Not everyone liked the books as much as I did. A friend of mine points out that some of their recipes are missing instructions, an example being the lamb bones one carefully browns when making cassoulet and then apparently simply throws away. I concur that missing instructions is a serious error, but it’s not one I had particularly noticed during the years I was using the books (I haven’t referred to them in some time, now).
I suspect this reflects a difference in the way I approach recipes. I look to them for ideas, but not instructions. Give me a list of ingredients and a cooking method and I’m usually in good shape. In fact, I almost never follow a recipe exactly, except when baking. For this reason the format of Joy of Cooking drives me bats. You have to read the entire recipe carefully to be sure you haven’t missed something. In fact, you have to read the recipe just to figure out if it’s something you want to make as opposed to a quick scan of the ingredients.
But it wasn’t simply The Silver Palate recipe ideas that I liked. The books were filled with quotes about food, sidebars on ingredients, menu ideas, stories and a collection of funky line-drawings by Lukins. Whether I found something I wanted to make or not, the books were just plain fun to browse. So was I looking forward to the new revision to see how things had changed in the past 20-plus years? The answer: Not much.
The recipes were retested (now you know what to do with those lamb bones after roasting them). The overall editing tightened up and some new stories and sidebars were added, along with 15 or so new recipes. They added a page on various sausages to the charcuterie section. But the main change is the inclusion of color photographs, the use of a cleaner font and printing on heavier paper (required for the photos). In short, it’s essentially the book I already had.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good book and if you don’t have a copy I recommend it without qualm. But if you have the original you don’t need this one — especially if, like me, you have notes on the dog-eared pages reminding you how the recipes should be done.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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