Megnut

Next week I'll be doing a guest blogging stint over at the Epicurious Epi-Log. Editor Tanya Wenman Steel is going on vacation and has graciously asked me to fill in for her. Updates will continue here as usual but I'll also be doing something a little different over there for the week, so be sure and check it out.

US to reduce voluntary mad cow testing, few infections reported. This reads like an Onion headline but sadly it's not. Though the Times reports that this year the Agriculture Department’s inspector general found serious flaws in the testing process--it's voluntary and the sampling is not random--the US will reduce testing for mad cow by 90% because a very low incidence of BSE has been found.

The secret to a good old-fashioned pie crust? Lard. The pie shop where I worked for a summer used lard, and since one of my daily tasks was to make the crust, I worked extensively with a large 50 lb. tin of lard. It yielded a wonderful crust, so flaky and flavorful. Now I usually make a pâte brisée with butter for my pies and tarts but that's because I always have butter on hand.

More on supertasters

In addition to Meg's two posts, I'm adding this essay by a supertaster, David Leite, who runs the excellent website, Leite's Culinaria, which won the Beard award this year for best food site.

That famous chef's cookbook you love so much was probably not written by that famous chef. The FT looks at who really writes the cookbooks and tests all those recipes. [via TMN]

Wine critics now claiming to be supertasters. What's funny about that: at Taste 3 we saw a presentation about (duh) tasting and learned that supertasters love white zinfandel. They like sweet flavors and tend to prefer sweet wines. Does that mean we'll see a supertaster wine critic give a nice ol' jug of white zin a 98? [via The Food Section]

A British company introduced a line of stainless steel "anti-terror" cutlery for use on airlines. Maybe now it will be possible to stick your fork into the unripe cantelope without it breaking off a tine.

Fun with trout

Trout photo by Conor NolanLast weekend while in Napa we had a wonderful meal at Bouchon, Thomas Keller's French bistro in Yountville. I had the excellent truite a la grenobloise: trout with butter, capers and haricots verts. So yesterday when I saw Max Creek Hatchery at the Greenmarket, I went right up and bought a whole rainbow trout for dinner. Only when I got home and began to prepare it did I realize that it wasn't boned. After a bit of back and forth in the kitchen, it was decided the trout needed to be boned before we could proceed with dinner. I pulled out my trusty boning knife, looked inside the fish, and froze: how the heck do you bone a trout?

I never boned any fish when I worked at the restaurant. Never even got close to cutting them in any fashion. Only our chef handled the fish because it was so expensive. An idiot like me could easily cut off a portion or two just trying to remove a small fin. So I looked at my trout and knew what to do in theory: remove the spine and rib cage and the pin bones, but in practice it wasn't so simple.

First I consulted some trusty cookbooks. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything would be more appropriately titled "How to Cook Everything, as long as Everything does not include unboned fish". Ah, this book is too contemporary, I thought, no home cook bones fish anymore. I need something from the time when home cooking was more complicated. So I turned to Madame Saint-Ange.

La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange was written for French housewives back when French housewives brought home fish still wriggling and knocked them senseless with a spare bottle of wine. Surely it would hold my hand through this first delicate boning procedure. Mais no! Madame tells you how to select a fish, how to dress it, how to gut it, how to scale it, but not how to bone it. I guess in those days women must have been so worn out by this point from all the labor they just cooked the damn things.

Finally the web came to our rescue with How to De-bone a Raw Trout (I chose method A) and I carefully and slowly removed the bones. I only made one small hole in the fish, towards the tail, and even managed to leave some of the meat on the fish. Though I cursed a lot, it turned out OK for my first attempt.

The bummer about this is that the next time I do it, it will be equally as difficult. I enjoy the repetitive nature of restaurant work, at least as a beginner. You do something so many times each day that after a week, you're boning trouts like a pro. But unless we start eating a whole lot more trout (which may happen) it will be a long time before I get proficient at boning trout. That Bouchon trout recipe is delicious--if I actually followed it more closely and used the proper amount of butter, it's really delicious--so we will be having it again soon. Then I will wield my trusty boning knife and try again.

Continuing defense of the dog

and the so called additive sodium nitrite. Just came across this and this suggesting the salt might be an effective vasodilator and have a role in helping to palliate some diseases.

I'm sensitive to the nitrite issue, not only because it's emblematic of our incorrect or misinformed convictions regarding food, but also because I write about what hot dogs really are and what I believe to be the best hot dog in the United States in the August issue of Gourmet. Condé Nast does not put this online and has forbidden me to talk about it further to anyone who hasn't paid their $3.99.

He is driven to help people experience the world through fresh eyes, a fresh palate...to break through our cynicism, our safe, jaded existence and be in a moment, an Innocent. To experience something in a new way, even if it is a thing as familiar as a pea. Or why Ferrán Adrià is more than just a foamy Spanish gimmick.

Melon's Potential Realized, including some yummy recipes. I've been a fan of melon in savory cuisine since last summer's meal at Bradley Ogden in Las Vegas. He served watermelon in several ways that surprised and refreshed. It inspired me to work with melons at home, these recipes should help.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Honestly, I tried to like
Patrick GuilfoyleHeat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. I determined to keep an open mind while reading, despite the differences I find between rustic and fine dining. [As a disclaimer, I am unabashedly a card-carrying member of the W.W.T.D. (What Would Thomas--as in Keller--Do) in all things food.] But the moral and ethical lapses Buford recounted in Heat revealed a kitchen out of control and left me disappointed not only in Mario Batali but also his food.

I’ve worked in a couple of kitchens in my life. I was not trained as a chef at the C. I. A., but trained as a cook by Uncle Sam at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I know a little about heat myself. I know that working in a kitchen is arduous and I have the utmost respect for those who cook for my pleasure. But there is a choice people make when they decide to follow the kitchen path, and that choice is not an excuse for the dark, troubled, misogynistic brigade that I read about in the Babbo kitchen.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in TuscanyI found it difficult to resolve the perception I had from Mario Batali’s “Molto” television persona and the one painted by Buford’s book. That Batali’s a good time has historic precedent but that’s not where the books conundrum lies for me. The conundrum isn’t partying with Batali, it’s now eating Batali. And it’s Buford’s seemingly regrettable passive personal role in the face of these moral and ethical dilemmas that made me lose his voice early on in the telling. Was Buford a burgeoning Chef, who happened to be a journalist? Or was he a journalist that had the desire to learn how to cook? I’m sure that the answer lies in the book somewhere but I can only read so many pages of filler about the history of the first egg pasta before growing not to care.

In the book, Batali’s kitchen philosophy is clear: “We make money by buying food, fixing it up, and getting other people to pay for it.” Try as I might I wasn’t able to read a call for excellence into that philosophy. In fact Buford recounts several instances of Batali making what his staff considered “surprise visits” to dig through the garbage to ensure that nothing went to waste. That nothing goes to waste is certainly in line with the “whole hog-sustainable agriculture” concept, of which I’m a big fan. But garbage?

I’m one of those people who paid Batali for the food that they “fix up”, having eaten at both Babbo and Del Posto. My problem is that after Batali pulled out hundreds of celery tops (dripping in discarded grease) from the garbage, he then served them to the restaurant that night! In fact I’ve convinced myself that I was eating at Babbo the night they dug out those celery tops from a garbage bag. I've convinced myself they served them to me for my dinner.

The most disturbing aspect of reading about the workings of the Babbo kitchen was the unforgivably shameful treatment of women perpetuated by Batali. In an Oprah-like moment, you learn how much Batali reveres women chefs: he travels to Italy to stage early in his career with matriarchs of Italian cooking, he feels the best chef in his kitchen is his female prep-chef. A few paragraphs later however, Buford relates a story that pretty much sums up what appeared to be the more authentic Batali.

Babbo’s best chef comes to Batali and asks for his help in fixing a sexual harassment problem between her and someone referred to only as the Neanderthal. Batali tells her “that there was nothing that he could do about it, and for her to get over it.” Isolated case? Nope. Broccoli Rabe is referred to in the kitchen as “rape.” Serving sizes are argued over by bra size –- “cause all the guys know the size of a b-cup.”

A kitchen can be rough place to work. I know that. It is not for the faint of heart. I know that too. It’s that “kitchens are different from real life” crap that really gets to me, that attempts to justify Batali's statement that there was nothing he could do about sexual harassment in his kitchen. That’s wrong: kitchens aren’t different from real life - they are just real life in a kitchen. But Buford's book exposes deeper problems in that kitchen than just one’s rights in the work place. Buford tells us that Batali claims people’s emotions are reflected in the food they cook. It’s the one thing, maybe the only thing, which I heartily agreed with in the book. As I finished Heat, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s the taste of garbage mixed with a little fear.

Buon appetito!

Guest reviewer Patrick Guilfoyle is a maniacal Francophile, a husband, a friend, design junky, and kennel owner -- not necessarily in that order. He's his own food channel 24/7. He's got a bad magazine and cookbook addiction and an opinion about everything. He fancies himself a good cook, and will eat anything, except his own words.

The meaning of celebrity

So Bourdain is trapped in Lebanon. I learned about this via egullet which had this nypost page six item. I do regret he and his great zeropintzero crew are stranded and hope for their quick safe return (they all seemed to feel pretty safe—haven’t been able to reach Tony or Grillbitch by email or phone), but what stuck in my tooth a day after reading, was the “celebrity chef” tag. I’ve been thinking about this knee jerk response a lot recently. We’ve really got to get past this. It’s an embarrassment to the chefs and an unintentional embarrassment to anyone to whom it means something good.

What is a celebrity chef? They don’t cook anymore. They don’t expedite. They put on jackets for photo shoots. Their hands are soft and smooth, their wrists and forearms are unblemished. This is not a criticism (as for so many people it seems to be). Tony is the first to admit it. He worked hard in kitchens for half his life, managed also to write a really good book, and then he went on to a second career, lots more writing and good television shows.

Why do we have to use celebrity chef? We don’t call Wynton Marsalis the celebrity musician. We don’t refer to Annika Sorenstam as the celebrity golfer, we don’t say celebrity actor and we don’t say celebrity celebrity, though surely there are those, someone who’s famous only for being famous. As far as chefs go, are we calling them celebrity chefs to indicate they don’t cook anymore? We should consider this.

I write about chefs in the age of the “celebrity chef” in Reach of a Chef. And at the end of the book I sit down with Thomas Keller, a friend with whom I’ve collaborated on two cookbooks, and he said these surprising words: “I’m not a chef anymore, and it breaks my heart.”

This is one of America’s peculiar gifts: To embrace people so hard that they cease to be able to do the work that made them famous in the first place.

What exactly are the criteria for being a celebrity chef? Here’s the wikipedia definition (it’s heavily reliant on the work of Juliette Rossant, citing her--she even has her own wikipedia page; sadly I do not—as well as her book called Superchef and her blog of that name…interesting…I wonder why it doesn’t cite, say, the work of Page and Dornenberg who wrote Becoming a Chef, the first book that meaningfully addressed chefs as they moved into the realm of celebrity…hmmm, a bit of a marketing effort from the camp of Ms. Rossant?).

My favorite “celebrity chef” is Cat Cora who, when I was interviewing her for an article on chef branding told me point blank, and with refreshing candor, “It’s something I’ve wanted all my life. To have the fame. Without beating around the bush, that’s the bottom line.” And she’s succeeding—she’s never owned a restaurant or been its executive chef, I believe, though she did run a kitchen at one point and cooked in numerous high end places I’m sure (not a single restaurant is listed on her Wikipedia page)—but she’s famous, often on Regis, the only female iron chef, etc. Being a working chef was once a prerequisite for being a famous chef during the 1990s, but that’s changing. Now you don’t even need a restaurant. You need what they call in the branding biz “a platform.”

Of course, the most famous of the professional cooks got that way by being good on TV, which is the best kind of platform there is.

I think we, and especially the media, should make a clear distinction. A celebrity chef is a chef who no longer cooks (or maybe never did cook). If they’re still cooking, then their working title should be used. If they don’t cook anymore or are just famous for it, then they should be called a “celebrity chef”—that truly would mean something.

What's up with Gourmet's somber covers? Slate takes issue with the dark and moody covers of recent issues. I like them, they're so clean and simple. Sure, a little more color would be nice sometimes, but I like their air of sophisticated deliciousness.

The ham is coming! The ham is coming! Andrew Knowlton reports that Jamon Ibérico has received USDA approval and will be available for purchase in the US. Whole legs can't be had until summer 2008, so that should give you time to get a proper Spanish tapas bar established in your home, complete with a hook to hang the leg in front of your guests. Delicious...

The Complete Keller

The Complete Keller: The French Laundry Cookbook & BouchonThinking about picking up one of Thomas Keller's gorgeous cookbooks? You may want to hold off until September 30, 2006 when The Complete Keller: The French Laundry Cookbook & Bouchon will be released. 696 pages of "two of the most acclaimed, award-winning cookbooks ever published--now packaged together in a luxurious slipcased boxed set."

Wagyu beef is (often mistakenly called Kobe beef) is coming on strong in America. With marbling far superior to USDA Prime, Wagyu is finding fans among those content to spend $40+ a pound for their beef. But Wagyu is only partially grass-fed and not allowed to roam freely (lest it work off its lovely fat), so how will it play out in this strange new world of meat?

Jason Perlow's keeping up with Tony Bourdain, who's trapped in Lebanon. Useful compilation of various posts from around the web.

Are Supertasters Good Candidates for Being Humean Ideal Critics? A supertaster (also known as a hypertaster) is someone who has more taste buds than average. The five attributes of Hume's ideal critic: "strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice."

New York takes a look at 30 years of the Greenmarket. It includes profiles of some of the providers as well. Also there's a map of Union Square but it doesn't tell you which days farmers are in these locations.

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