Megnut

Pork Sauce

In response to a meme tag a few chainlinks away from the original, I began looking back to moments that were truly revelatory in my food consciousness. There aren’t many. How many can there be? There are many times when you learn something. I learned a lot hanging out in Keller’s kitchens. “Chef, why are you seaming out the tuna?” I asked. He stared at me, scraped up some connective tissues on his knife, the stuff he was removing from the tuna; it hung from his knife like saliva. “Eat this.” I chuckled. Ok, got your point. He said “Eat it.” He wasn’t kidding--he looked pissed. So I did. I learned a couple things there, but that’s not a revelation.

When Parker Bosley in Cleveland told me how to make duck confit--the notion that you could poach a really rich fatty piece of meat in more fat, that was a kind of revelation, and one that would, 14 years later result in a book called Charcuterie. It gave me a course, but I don’t think it changed me. A true food revelation, in keeping with its theological implications, changes who you are in some way.

This happened to me for the first time, at age 33 after about 25 years as an aggressive home cook, in Skills class at the CIA with chef Michael Pardus, about whom I’ve written plenty. We were making brown veal stock most days and had used the brown stock to make a brown sauce (brown stock thickened with roux and with more aromats). It all smelled brown to me. That was it. Admittedly, I had a bit of an attitude about anything thickened with roux--where I got that notion I have no idea (I really thought béchamel had about as much flavor and usefulness in food as drywall joint compound). Brown sauce was then combined with more brown stock and reduced to make a seriously, ain't kidding around brown, brown sauce, which Pardus said was a classical demi-glace.

One of the groups prepared Pardus’s derivative, or a la minute, sauce demo, one item of which was this mud-Jello he called demi. I’d tasted it. It tasted brown.

Then he did the Sauce Robert demo. Sauce Robert is one of the oldest extant sauces still pretty much in its original form, dating to Careme I believe. Pardus sautéed some minced onion, added white wine, reduce it a little, thwapped in the congealed demi, added some mustard and mounted it with butter. Then the whole class tasted (something you can’t do when your watching a demo on TV, which is why food TV will always be more about entertainment than about cooking), tasting spoons diving for the pan.

It didn’t taste brown anymore, it taste light and clean and delicious, smooth on the palate, bright from the wine and mustard, sweet from the mirepoix used along the way and now the minced onion. That something could go from drab brown to deeply delicious in a few moments was the first part of the revelation; the second was confronting the fact of my own deep ignorance. That was the moment I realized how little I knew about food and cooking and how vast this new country that I’d just set out to explore was going to be.

I remain devoted to Sauce Robert and to brown veal stock, which is probably the one preparation that, more than any other, can transform a home cook’s dishes from home-cook-like to that approaching high-end restaurant food. I’m serious--the stuff is magical.

So, herewith my recipe for really good veal stock, which I did years ago for Gourmet. The recipe says the tomato paste and pepper is optional--why the editors did that I don’t know. Always use tomato paste in your veal stock.

You can make a brown sauce by thickening it with a brown roux and more caramelized mirepoix, and skimming skimming skimming, then for a demi-glace adding more veal stock and cooking it down skimming skimming skimming. And this is a good lesson, but it’s a project. Veal stock, shallot, mustard, white wine, served with pan-roasted pork or some kind of pork, it’s traditional partner, is fantastic, a revelation.

Dear Taste 3 Audience

I will be posting my talk online shortly and it will include links to the sites I mentioned. Stay tuned and come back again soon!
-megnut

Update: Here's a 5.4 MB .pdf of the talk and it includes the URLs of the sites I mentioned at the end. FYI for those who didn't attend and are thinking of downloading the file, it's only screenshots of websites, no text.

Enjoying California

I'm in California for a few days, speaking at and attending the inaugural Taste 3 conference in Napa. I'm not sure I'll have much opportunity for site updates, so I'll let you catch up on some good stuff you might have missed from the past few weeks. Here are some of my favorites:

Why are modern restaurants so noisy?
Guest blogger Michael Ruhlman's great rant on the ethics of eating
And Tony Bourdain's comment in the thread (wow!)
My thoughts about Veganism, foie gras and personal choice
A great tale about how to cure pig's jowl in a small New York apartment
And finally, Strawberry Fields Forever, my ode to my grandparents' strawberry patch and probably my favorite thing I've written for this site.

Enjoy! I'll catch up with you next week upon my return.

The law on shells in food

I made my appointment today for my second and third visits to an oral surgeon to finish the $3000 repair of my jaw. There's now a gaping whole where tooth number 19 used to be. I'm not complaining or naming names here but you tell me what's fair.

My long-suffering wife and I were dining at one of the higher-end, cutting edge restaurants in this fair city. I was eager to eat here, the chef was enormously welcoming and sent out three interesting small dishes in addition to all we were ordering. It was a lovely evening, a lively room, the LSW had cast off the stresses of her week and the kids and looked longingly at me across the table, I returning her limpid gaze as we savored the fine fare. We were practically cooing.

The server set down the fried oysters, four, each in a separate square dish, with a piquant sauce and some chiffonaded greenery. They were crisp on the outside and hot and organy inside, perfectly cooked and delicious. I bit down on the second one and drove a piece of shell like a chisel into a back molar, splitting it in two.

After a moment of waiting for any spine searing pain, I found the offending weapon (a circular piece of shell about a centimeter in diameter). When I eat a restaurant and am well-cared for, I feel like a guest. So I didn't want to be rude, but eating was now an impossibility and we'd need to be leaving. I told the server and showed her the shell, she showed the chef, who was profusely apologetic. On the way home, I called my dentist at home and he said he'd see me the following morning (a Sunday).

The tooth was a goner, Dentist said grimacing, and I was looking at a $3-4000 tab between him (above the gum) and the surgeon (below the gum). He then removed the loose half of the tooth, did something unspeakably awful-sounding to make sure I didn't wake in the night howling in pain (I think he called it a pulpectomy, using his drill to scramble the nerve like eggs), and sent me home, the left side of my face dragging on the parking lot blacktop.

The oral surgeon was no less fun ("Betty, I'm gonna need more bone graft in here!")

So, I called the chef, told him my little company of one didn't carry dental, could he ask his insurance to look into it. No problem, he said. Two weeks later his insurance lady called me back ("I've got bad new for you and bad news").

I was going to have to eat this one.

According an Ohio ruling, Mitchell v. TGIF, seventh district court of appeals, the restaurant would only be liable if it had been foreign matter in my juicy fried oyster, or if it was unreasonable to expect the substance. Glass, for instance. Shell is natural and expected, say the courts. As the ruling puts it: "under either foreign-natural test or reasonable expectation test, neither restaurant nor supplier had duty to protect patron from her injury." In Mitchell's case it was clam.

This really pisses me off. Maybe at a crap restaurant like Friday's you'd best take your life in your hands at every step--that may be a "reasonable expectation." But at a fine dining restaurant? My attorney friend, big Stu, said, "The law is not good on shells." Surely, I reasoned, the fine jurists of the seventh district could be persuaded that a fried oyster, golden brown on the outside and swooningly molten on the inside, when served at a fine-dining restaurant, cannot be reasonably expected to contain the very part of the oyster that would destroy the dish. The only reasonable expectation can be that it does NOT contain shell, otherwise it ceases to be a fried oyster that can be sold for $15. It would ruin the dish, not to mention the tooth. The cases big Stu cited for me (and there are several) are simply more reasons to be disenchanted with this country.

I've eaten at Masa in New York. This, though, will be at least five times what Masa cost, and will count as the most expensive of meal of my life.

And you know what's really galling? The chef charged me for the meal. Yes, he did take off the oysters, and the fancy pizza my wife had to carry home in a box because I was being a spoilsport and insisted on leaving early, but really, had I been in the chef's position? I'd have sent the guest home in a manner becoming an Oriental potentate. Havent heard from the guy since.

Pictures of a hog slaughter at Iowa State University Meat Laboratories. If you click on the link, you will see blood and guts, so consider yourself warned. Though Chef Cosentino reports it was "done quickly and respectfully," seeing the picture of the floppy-eared pig walking into the stun pen saddened me more than I anticipated.

Gadget: Foil Cutter

Foil CutterA foil cutter, used to remove the wrapper around the cork on a bottle of wine, is one of those things I feel like I could live without. But why would I want to? It makes opening a bottle of wine that much easier and its presentation is more elegant. I used to always try to slice the foil with the dull little knife on the end of my corkscrew, but that never worked. Sometimes I'd even cut myself trying to tear off the sharp foil. But no more! Now I use this simple foil cutter and in two seconds I've got foil off, the cork out, and am onto the best part: drinking my wine.

Previous gadget: Tomato Corer

What's in a name? Plenty.

In today's LATimes article on boutique gins Charles Perry makes the interesting suggestion that America's martini fiasco -- namely that a martini made with vodka is still considered a martini -- began because of James Bond. I'm glad to see this issue raised. Martinis are made with gin, not vodka. If it's made with vodka it's not a martini. There's nothing wrong with vodka or the people who would order such a drink (nothing catastrophic anyway), but there is something wrong with the name. A Manhattan is made with bourbon; if you make it with scotch, it has a different name, a Rob Roy. The same distinction ought to hold for replacing gin with vodka in a martini preparation. Perhaps call it a James Bond. Or a Charles Perry. Even a VM. Or in keeping with a contemporary food issue, a Sea Bug. It makes me sad when I order a martini and the bartender asks "Gin or Vodka" as if all were right with the world. I would welcome suggestions for a proper name and if there is any clear consensus, I will do my part to spread the word.

Celery Juice?

I hope everyone saw Kim Severson's excellent article on organic hot dogs in last Wednesday's NYTimes. I'm all for anything that supports grass fed beef as these dogs do. And Ed Levine, one of the most knowledgeable writers on the food available in NYC, was moved to purchase and taste some of these dogs and reports the auspicious news.

I was especially interested by Severson's paragraph addressing an important change:

The key is that the curing code has recently been cracked. Instead of relying on sodium nitrates or the more common sodium nitrites for color, texture and shelf life, hot dog makers have found a magic solution of celery juice, lactic acid and sea salt that rescues the organic dog from its tough brown reputation and rockets it to pink juiciness. It also addresses the concern among some consumers and scientists that nitrites and nitrates might contribute to cancer.

Why would celery juice and lactic acid keep these dogs pink and juicy?

I don't know for sure but my guess is because the celery juice is loaded with nitrite. Nitrite is a chemical that is found in green leafy veg, such as spinach and celery. There's nothing wrong with celery juice in hot dogs--in fact it's probably important in addressing the botulism concern in any smoked sausage, the main reason for nitrites in hot dogs--but to claim that these hot dogs don't contain nitrites is likely misleading.

I am not an advocate for nitrites (or the different sodium nitrate which is used exclusively for long term dry-cured sausages), I don't think we should put it in our soups and stews and ice cream and coffee, but I am an advocate for accurate information. Information on nitrites and their effects on our health, how cancer-causing nitrosamines are formed in foods containing nitrites, and how dangerous they are is sketchy at best. I'd like to know more.

The food scientists I've spoken with say that companies promoting their food with "no nitrites" claims are doing so for one reason: marketing; once again, big business plays to an unwitting consumer.

In the meantime I will definitely be trying the organic dogs.

From a letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in response to an article about the increase of chain restaurants: I am sickened by the presence of these places...I especially hate the way they try and pretend to be authentic by slapping a bunch of junk to the walls. My feelings exactly.

Looking to add more variety meats to your culinary repertoire? Here's a list of books dedicated to offal. I was thinking about this the other day as I read a recipe for tripe that sounded good. But then I thought, Do I really want the first tripe I ever eat to be prepared by me? Seems like something I should leave to an experienced offal chef, so as to ensure a not awful experience.

Comments Needed on USDA's Grass Fed Meat Label. "The Center for Rural Affairs along with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other organizations are urging the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to approve the proposed rule requiring that animals certified as grass fed receive a minimum of 99% of their lifetime energy source from grass or forage." This is an increase to the current proposal of 80% energy from grass. [via Growers & Grocers]

Why are so many modern restaurants so noisy? The proximity of tables and the 'cocktail party effect'. And adding a lot of soft furnishings doesn't help to quiet things much.

A grill that combines the best of gas and charcoal. Seems ideal for those looking to balance the speed and ease of gas with the flavor of wood.

An LA chef is responding to the War on Food with an Outlaw Dinner. Diners will enjoy foie gras, absinthe, unpasteurized cheese, sous vide cooked items, and hemp seeds.

When the weather is hot, it's time to make a delicious Malted Milk Ball Sundae. This is about the best-sounding sundae I've ever seen. I think I'll make it for dinner, er, I mean dessert, tonight!

PETA's petty and false victories are on easy to target luxury items, and in no way change the supply or demand for the items, says Augieland in a post I missed from late June regarding Whole Food's decision to stop selling live lobster.

A Farmer's Perspective

Diane St. Clair left a career in the New York municipal health system for a farm in Vermont where she now raises cows to make and sell butter. Some folks think its among the best butter in the country. I've been corresponding by email with her for about a year now about food and writing matters. She's a good writer and a smart farmer. She came across my rant and wrote me the following email, which I'm reprinting in full, the perspective of someone who makes her living from and coexists with animals:

Michael

Saw your food rant today on the small farms blog, which I came upon by accident when googling 'critique of organic farming.' It was quite entertaining, along with Bourdain's counter-rave (talk about someone who needs to be on lithium...but that's part of the entertainment). I saw no farmer perspectives on this issue. I saw the NYTimes article, lobster in coffin, etc. My immediate response was, another Whole Foods consumer gimmick to make liberal foodies feel ok about their food choices, of course, seen within the context of having just finished Pollan's book and seeing Whole Foods in a completely jaded way.

Is there a difference between cats, cows, lobsters, geese? I think a lot has to do with culture--we don't eat horses, they are our pets. Is there any difference in terms of animal behavior between a horse and a cow or a pig--absolutely not. As a former horse owner and a current dairy farmer, I believe they are absolutely the same beast in terms of trainability, personality (cows are nicer), attachment to humans. It's just that culturally, we accept the ingestion of cows, not horses, and thus treat the former as food animals, with all the bad stuff that implies.

It is ironic to me that the animals we eat, we treat the worst--shouldn't we treat those animals with the utmost care--feeding them, as we do, to ourselves and our children? I love my baby calves--but if a bull is born, I raise him as humanely as I can--on green grass, in the sun, drinking lots of milk, I try to have him killed on farm (if I am eating him--if he is to be sold, he has to go to a slaughter house--makes no sense) and then I eat him for the next 6 months. The bottom line is that every species on the farm should have a chance to be what they are, do what they do--the cows to eat grass, the pigs to root around, the chickens to dig in the grass and run around, etc. Sure I'll milk the cows (PETA doesn't like this) and I'll eat the pigs and chickens. But they had a good life and did not suffer in the end. It's all any of us can ask for.

The foie gras thing--it's a tough one. Should crating veal be illegal? I think it should because you can raise veal that tastes better uncrated. How about chickens--shouldn't there be industry standards (laws?) about how many hens can be crammed in a cage? I think there should be because you can raise better chickens that way. You can't get foie gras any other way than it is currently done--that's the tough part. I guess the day that you eat foie gras you have to balance your karma out by sending a donation to Heifer International or something.

The good thing is that people are talking about food in a new way--thinking about where our food comes from; the fact that cheap food costs us down the line, in terms of the environment and our health; that just because something is labeled organic doesn't necessarily mean it's sustainably produced; and what do we do when our modern sense of ethics--all living things, including grass, have feelings--clashes with age old cultural traditions, ie. eating foie gras.

What did you have for dinner? I had a grass fed lamb chops, grilled, with a curry emulsion, over couscous and a salad from the garden. Couldn't be better--absolutely no guilt.

Diane

CBS News Sunday Morning will have an episode this Sunday about blogging, and I'm in it. I don't know how much, as I haven't seen it, but David Pogue interviewed me a while ago and now it's finally airing. You can check program times here. For those in NYC it's on at 9 AM. I guess I'll be sure to set my alarm.

Over at Augieland, a great set of tips to become a regular at a restaurant. Steven Shaw talks about this in Turning the Tables but it's something I've yet to successfully put into practice. Maybe with this list from Augie, I'll have better luck.

Yesterday I attended an Italian cooking demonstration by Arthur Schwartz. The demonstration was part of the three-day celebration of the cuisine of Campania, the region of Italy that includes Naples, Capri, and Mt. Vesuvius, among other things. I learned a ton and have lots of notes to write-up, but before I do I wanted to let you know it's still going on. It continues today and tomorrow, and more details on the Regione Campania Workshops are available here.

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