Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A terrible thing to waste.

Thanks to my pal, Nick, for capturing the bird-brained side of me...

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009. Pan-seared pig's brain with potato pancake, scallion salad and mustard hollandaise.

My visits to the accommodating--if often crowded, Strip District Meats on Penn Ave. are invariably marked with a child's wonder reading the chalkboard beyond the meat counter listing their speciality items: varieties of wild game, offal extremes, bison gonads, rattlesnake egos, cutlets of muscly witchcraft, etc..

As adventurous a spirit as I feel I have I have to admit my adventures have been few--I have lived mostly aloof, and as often dishonestly.

I know, shocking...

Pig's brains at Strip District Meats sell at $1.99/lb--as opposed to the prized veal brains at $13.99/lb. I'm no vegetarian, but I do draw my line at eating the young. It just seems unnecessary and commensurate with the snuffing of young life, simply not fulfilling as an eating experience. That and, c'mon, pig's brains are two bucks a pound. I grabbed a pound.

My schooling on the subject came by familiar way of Simon Hopkinson and his essential food narrative/cookbook, Roast Chicken and Other Stories. His cervelles--he pussyfoots with the more euphonious--and frankly misleading, French name for the dish, but manages, in spite of this affectation, to produce a handful of appetizing recipes. More importantly he makes the process of brain preparation easy and coherent. The brain dish I produced is my own concoction but the fundamentals of the cooking are his.

Because the preparation requires two phases--an initial poaching, followed by a pan sear, there was a convenient pause in the process where I could taste the firmed up brain matter and get a basic idea of the texture and flavor. Of the former, brain has been accurately compared to scrambled eggs in the French style--which is to say custardy and not fully set; my pal, Wendy, still does them the best, having spent her schooling years at Tulane where such extracurricular lessons would've availed themselves.

Enthusiasts of Korean food who--like me, thrill over the silken tofu in soon dubu soup, will find similarities there as well.

It is, to be sure, a little jostling on first taste.

However comfortable one is with his omnivorism the ultimate sensation is one that prickles with philosophical misgivings. We are what we are, we eat what we chose, and if we are to taste some it we must certainly accept the lot it. Of course all of this is provided you've come this far...

Now of the latter, the taste itself, there is not a lot to say. Like tofu it is bland as can be. You will find Hopkinson really gets to show off his saucier skills in this portion of his book. So the exercise comes to concern window-dressing. These recipes are kindled ventures in pageantry.

Far be it for a short order cook of my station to match maneuvers with Simon--I chose a different tack.

Given that uncanny similarity to scrambled eggs I went with my gut and humble heritage. The most common response I got was that this was Eggs Benedict. Well, Brains Benedict. And rather than relying on an english muffin I opted to up the flavor and texture with a potato pancake redolent of onions, finely-shredded celery and plenty of roasted garlic. The scallion salad lent acidity and some much needed structure to the dish, and the hollandaise framed the breakfast impostor studiously.

There are fundamental divergences I made from Hopkinson's instruction, but in the end I suspect they were only minimally influential to the eating experience of a pig's brain.

First I opted for an initial poach in seasoned milk rather than the court bullion. For one thing I hadn't satisfactory spices to fabricate one, and as well, my utilitarian instincts require I soak all non-muscle tissue in milk to leach out the cadaverous elements--its what makes liver such a (less minerally) smash when done correctly.

Also, since I used a larger organ than the one Hopkinson prescribed--he chose a calf's to my pig's, I sliced it down to cutlet serving size prior to poaching. It is essential to the undertaking of this step to know the delicacy of this organ--as food stuff, that is. If you have a fish spatula I recommend using it to transfer the brain segments to and from the poach and skillet as nearly any aggressive jostling will break up the tissue.

Finally, taste it out of the poaching milk. Get to know it for yourself. I found my recipe to be fairly intuitive. Like filet mignon it's a vessel, a near blank slate upon which, not unlike the imagination, you are required to show some initiative.

You need to pile up the flavor on a pig's poor brain.

The ingredients and preparation.

Feeds 2.

1 1 lb. pig's brain
3 c. whole milk
1 bay leaf; cumin; salt and pepper (to taste)

1 medium white potato
2 medium red potatoes
1 small red onion, grated
1 stalk celery, grated
3 cloves of roasted garlic (with one healthy tablespoon of reserved oil)
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 egg yolk, whitened with beating
1 tbsp. heavy cream

1 qt. cup heavy cream
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp. coarse mustard
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
a handful of finely chopped parsley..

A handful of scallions, chopped lengthwise and then into matchstick size
lemon juice
salt and pepper

The idea is to get everything hot and ready at once. So timing is very much a factor. Because a hollandaise--what I call hollandaise at any rate, is so temperamental you should save it for the final step--like any sauce it requires the most ingenuity of your labor, so on that premise too you should save the imaginative for the culmination.

Begin by soaking the brain, sliced into half inch cuts in whole milk, seasoned liberally with salt, pepper, and bay. Let it sit for an afternoon, no less than a few hours, refrigerated.

Prepare the potato pancakes. Boil three medium potatoes in heavily salted water--I find a mixture of white and red increases the textural bristle. Using a block grater grate the celery and onion, adding it, with juices, to a bowl. Add the roasted garlic and oil--mash the cloves first. Once the potatoes have boiled to doneness you want to incorporate the grated vegetables with them, adding beaten yolk and cream as you go. Form patties and reserve til you're ready to griddle-cook them. In a white hot skillet fry the pancakes.

At this point you'll want to either attend to some measly vegetable sidecar--I roasted carrots, or get on with the brains...

The brain filets should be dusted in flour, salted and peppered--like any oddity the guilty secret is that pig's brain has no genuine flavor of its own so here's where you begin to make it up.

Sear and cook them through--touch the filets in the process for doneness. Like anything you'll feel a decreasing give as they go--cook to your liking.

In the meantime get on with your salad and hollandaise. The scallions need merely be trimmed into matchsticks and dressed with lemon juice, salt and pepper--I did dash a teaspoonful of ghee into the dressing as well.

The hollandaise begins like a conventional salad dressing: Convene with vinegar, mustard, egg yolk and seasoning. Whisk to a loose slurry consistency. Then add oil as with a mayonnaise--whisking vigorously. Once the body of the mayonnaise has formed begin adding the cream. You will want a heavy surface--but not something oppressive. Bear in mind you're dressing a brain, it needs a voluptuous speech, but it also needs--and this is admittedly tricky, a finer word--something to allow for contemplation. You want a taste of buttermilk dressing with the warm unctuousness of turkey gravy. Add plenty of chopped fresh parsley. It will take on the characteristics of thin white gravy.

As the hollandaise firms up brown the pancakes in a free skillet. Warm, too, the segmented brains as well--if needed. Upon mutual heating stack the elements in napoleon-form. Beg for Christ's sweet forgiveness and--panting subsided, consume to a nice Hank Snow record. Maybe Wham!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fool's gold.

Sunday, December 13, 2009, 8:45 AM. First things first, I don't recommend you do as I have done. In fact let that stand as caveat emptor for not only this chronicle but for all expressions issuant. That said I spent the last 36 hours of my life wrassling with the vilest variety of a cold and flu combo yet encountered in my adult years.

I awoke this morning thinking about fire. I thought, more specifically about fighting fire with fire. Anything, my inclination went, a virus can do to me I can do better. I can out-destroy me. And so I did.

Gentle reader, I might have held my punches til everything was back to normal, sparing you the underbelly, but fair's fair: we eat beef Wellington together we eat, well, this shit together as well. You and me, we might as well be married. Seen here is one half a salami and provolone panini with about half a dozen pierogies from our beloved Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks. This lethal combination was complemented by a mixture of El Yucateco habanero sauce, Sriracha, chili flakes and cracked black pepper. Washed it down with New Castle's own Pasture Maid Creamery raw milk.

And yes, now that you mention it it is a bit odd that in a sickness delirium I not only unwittingly eat great local food but finally showcase it.

That established I must now chase the aforementioned Faustian heap with an Emergen-C drink and a melatonin tablet, ideally cleansing me of memories both ill and restoratively misguided. Tell you what, give me a gun loaded with blanks and I'll find a way to shoot myself in the foot. I think I'm gonna throw up (again).


More flattering recipes to come using Pasture Maid's incomparable milk. And do grab a bag of pierogies from Pierogies Plus before the gals hightail it back to Poland for the holidays...

Monday, December 7, 2009


"The a meta-archipelago...It has the virtue of having neither a boundary nor a center. Thus the Caribbean flows outward past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance and its ultima Thule may be found on the outskirts of Bombay, near the low and murmuring shores of Gambia, in a Cantonese tavern of circa 1850, at a Balinese temple, in an old Bristol pub, in a commercial warehouse in Bourdeaux at the time of Colbert, in a windmill beside the Zuider Zee, at a cafe in a barrio of Manhattan, in the existential saudade of an old Portuguese lyric. "
-Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island, 1996.

The author quoted above was drawing a broader observation on the manifold Caribbean identity, yet I in my natural bent could think of little but food. I could see in it-- for the purposes of this dish--one that not unlike chili, goulash, curry or gumbo is stupefying in its myriad origins and permutations, how Benitez-Rojo happened upon an essential puzzle piece of the contemporary food movement: the inclusion of the global in the local. As much as we regionalists, patriots, specialists and niche fetishists would like to think otherwise all cooking is fusion cooking.

As is so often the case one of the inaugural bonechill nights of winter last evening proved the ideal opportunity. Pepperpot is too common sense at its core, too irresistible to not be the subject of numerous national and ethnic claims. It has been prepared in so many variations that the very integrity of the dish's name is stressed to near meaninglessness. The consensus is that, by whatever route of emigration and trade, the Guyanese just north of Brazil lay the truest claim; being that their independent nationality is younger than my favorite Bob Dylan record its only fair they have something so hotly contested as their own. The culinary equivalent to a first round draft pick.

The irony of a global marketplace is that by laying so much extra-European bounty at our doorstep we are in a profound way removing ourselves from a long tradition of geographic and cultural dictates. And when tackling something so far removed from those dictates we become, in practice and expectation, a little lost. Truthfully, I didn't know what pepperpot was before last night. I made a grand old pot of some stuff and only then, after the fact--my septum scorched from blackened chilies and my senses ringing with a dozen toasted spices, did I break down and run a Wikipedia search. I made pepperpot.

Having spent the next morning searching out as many recipes as I could I found that the fundamentals are simple. First things first: pepperpot is a stew. Duh. And with the exception of a handful of American church bazaar-syle recipes nearly each involved a flavorant called cassareep, a cassava-derived syrup used to impart bittersweetness to the broth. Also, the meat aspect of the dish could be divided into two functional categories, the first a stew meat: this in my reading ran the gamut: pork, chicken, beef, goat--any and everything really. The second incorporation was of a collagen-rich meat: tripe, pig's foot, oxtail, soup bones, etc.. And finally, some vegetables--very few authors agreed on the combination, roasted with an earthy herb and chili mixture. From those general beginnings each took its own shape.

This vision of pepperpot was a wild success, and may even become an annual dish for the onset of true winter. Eat to the sounds of howling ice winds and Joy Division.


1/4 roasted garlic cloves--roasting oil included
6 large sage leaves
1 sliced yellow onion
2 skinned and chopped med. carrots
1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise then cut crosswise into 1/4" half moons
3/4 frozen spring peas
10-12 baby yukon gold potatoes

2 lbs. fatty country style pork ribs (basically chops cut across the bone)

1 light dash of all purpose flour
1/3 c. sweet vermouth

1 tbsp. smoked paprika
1 1/2 tbsp. brown sugar
dried chilies, toasted til nearly black--how many and what variety is up to you.
1/2 lemon

4-5 cups of stock--I used turkey, but basically anything to keep you from running tap water into your pot.

This preparation requires stages of cooking--just consider that each vegetable cooks at a different rate and work accordingly. Begin with the basic aromatics: onion, sage leaves and roasted garlic, adding with a good measure of olive oil to a medium hot soup pot with a heavy-base. Brown and remove to a bowl. Raise heat to high, add zucchini. Caramelize both sides and remove to same bowl. Repeat with potatoes, cooking them to the point where the skins show charred spots by they're internally still mostly uncooked--letting them stew with the pork, along with the fat and bone collagen will thicken the pepperpot in lieu of that second meat--save you the cost of a pig's foot. All $.79 of it.

Since the potatoes will join the stew before the others remove them to a separate bowl. Allow the pot a return to a high, near-smoking heat. Season the pork and add. As an aside I must mention my latest fetish object in the kitchen: butcher's pepper. It's a specific grind--a crack really, of basic black pepper. Since the birth of time--well, the nineties at any rate, I've searched for that specific size of crushed black pepper commonly used in steak au poivre. Most consumer brand coarse grinds aren't coarse enough, and the grist on my pepper mill will only do so much. Oh yeah, if you're over that's sea salt in the pepper mill from now on. So I finally found what I was looking for at The Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the strip. They also call it coarse ground, but its size is bigger and adds an almost textural dimension. It's like caviar, it pops. Look for it.

Brown the pork ribs well--I think I gave them a little more than four minutes on each side. Remove to potato bowl. Darken the dried chilies--if you're using them, in the remaining fat of the pot. Occasionally remove one; when its ready you should first of all be well aware of it by aroma alone, but as well it should crumble into flakes easily. If you prefer to flake the chilies--I did, I think it intensifies their presence, do so, then add back to the pot. Add the flour, paprika til the aroma converges then deglaze the pot with vermouth. Add in the brown sugar and squeeze in lemon. At this phase of preparation I hesitated, thinking of the confusion of flavors I was dealing with: the vermouth, the chilies, the smoked paprika. In fact it is a broad order. Just keep tasting for the right chemistry, and of course sub out what you don't like for what you do--pay no mind to your Guyanese neighbor rolling her eyes.

Return the pork and potatoes to the pot and cover with with stock. Simmer for an hour. The pork should pull easily from the bone but not fall too easily apart, and the potatoes should be, depending on size, alternately fork tender and disolving into the broth. Add the browned vegetables, and finally the peas. Season once more to taste and serve with minced white onions and scallions in vinegar.

If you can stand it let it sit overnight in the fridge. A good night of sleep helps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The aftermath.

The smoke is clearing and the Gettysburg soil is drenched in blood. I paid my neighbors in yard work, shoveled sidewalks and some unspeakable favors of the bedroom to do my dishes as they were as revolting a heap as the food was revelatory. The truth of it is this thing, the aftermath, is far from over. We've begun a season so debauched and indulgent that once it's over it's common--hell, it's expected, that we make resolutions not to behave like this anymore. We do this every year. I couldn't tell you the number of stoic January 1st plates of hash browns I've stared into with all the gazing desperation of Narcissus and vowed, never again.

John and I planned what Avocado affectionately refers to as an orphan's holiday--no blood relatives, just a few stragglers from work and around the way. Ours began in the magic hour--if you don't count the daylong binge on deviled eggs so formidable that Cool Hand Luke himself would've genuflected.

You'll have to forgive my amateur excuse for photography. I'd blame the camera but truth be told I'm no better with a digital camera than I am with a 9 iron, which is to say poor and bordering on self-destructive. It was a beautiful light that seemed generously premature for the afternoon, one that carried on well past the expectation of dusk.

Four of us tackled approximately twelve dishes, not including the shrink-wrapped pumpkin pie John couldn't resist grabbing, on a last minute run to Shur Save for eggs. It remains shrink-wrapped on my kitchen table.

There was turkey: cajun deep-fried drumsticks; an olive oil and sage-rubbed breast; and my pal, Rick, from Right By Nature, prepared a stuffed bird that changed my mind for all times on the naysayer's resistance to stuffing before the roast. It was grand through and through. Not sure I'm ready to take that kind of chance myself, but Rick's butchering skills proved expert in cleaving enough of the bird to each side, open book-style that neither the bird nor the conservative lode of stuffing--itself a rather tasty side, stood a chance of compromised chemistry. They were good pals.

We had an orange-accented cranberry sauce that John seemed to simmer straight from the top of his head; the out-of-the-past deviled eggs--new foodyism seems to disparage what we truly love in favor of something we deign to call cosmopolitan; I tell you what, them eggs was penthouse and lighting Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills as sure s if they were caviar and foie gras on the lawn. And as I already noted we ate a lifetime's supply before the table was even set. John made chipotle mashed sweet potato, and brilliantly roasted brussel sprouts with baby carrots.

For my part I made an andouille and croissant dressing. The pan yielded a fond we deglazed with some basic turkey stock from some hot browns John made a few weeks back. Good gravy.

I had, in my sleepwalking way, concocted an untouched casserole several days earlier of baked rigatoni with broccoli and a vodka Camembert sauce. Just prior to baking I finished it with a fresh sage oil. The recipe will follow.

I suppose the litany could go through the night, like the list of ships in The Iliad, like the genealogies of the Old Testament, but you get the picture.

Besides, like I said, this isn't over yet.

Baked Rigatoni with Vodka Camembert Sauce.

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 large stalk celery, finely chopped
1 small Serrano chili, seeded, finely chopped
5 small oil-cured anchovies
4 roasted garlic cloves
1 lb. dry rigatoni
1 lg. can pelati (roasted roma tomatoes, ideally San Marzano)
1/4 c. heavy cream
6 0z. Camembert, torn in bits with the rind left on
1/4 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 c. vodka
1 med. head of broccoli, cut into florets and blanched.
6 leaves of fresh sage browned in 3 tbsp. olive oil

Begin by sauteing the chopped vegetables in a mixture of olive oil and butter over medium heat. Once vaguely softened remove to a bowl. In the skillet brown five small anchovy fillets and four cloves of roasted garlic. As they brown in the remaining oil mash them with the back of a fork. As soon as the aromatics ripen in the skillet add a large can of whole pelati tomatoes with juice.

Allow this to simmer, mashing the tomtoes as you go, reintroducing the sauteed vegetables a moment prior to satisfactory reduction--it should look like jarred spaghetti sauce. It'll taste better, but the consistency will prove similar.

Cook off one pound of rigatoni. Not al dente, a little short of it. It'll need to bake.

Add to the sauce, in slow feeds, the cream, Camembert, vodka and Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir til a orange sunset color is reached. Add the rigatoni and broccoli, turning over to coat. Add the mixture to a large buttered casserole. Bake at 350 degrees, brushing the surfac occasionally with sage oil. Upon the final brushing add the crisped sage leaves to the surface. Once suitably browned remove from the oven and after an impatient rest serve.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Yams in the abyss.

Could I possibly be alone in the desperation to hide my greed in the cloak of magnanimity? Do only I say Thanksgiving--with its generosity, and not Christmas--with its gimme, is my favorite holiday?


But I do enjoy once a year feeling as though my peritoneum needs sutures to hold in the grist of overeating; once a year seeing the family hazed in an aerosol of unctuous abandon--too eager before the fact to dwell long in the formality of that prayer, too corked-up during and after the fact to speak a word of wingnut horseshit.

Of course we get the whole grand sleepy feast again at Christmas, but for my liking once is sufficient.

I am disinclined to contribute to the clamor of helpful holiday tips. And I know no foolproof recipes involving cranberries. No witless tutorials--mine anyway concern Nabokov, and are conducted in private, with one eye half open, when my own aroma belongs nowhere near a gas stove. No, I am preoccupied with the distracting and distracted, something my family might look at as it steams on the table, and wonder, when did he lose his soul--for if not in these little ventures, when?

The ensuing recipes--I'm offering them in a ribbon-cutting gesture for the inaugural holiday season of FOOD & WhIskEy, involve some of the marquee cliches of holiday cooking. Some of them are merely sentiments familiar to the season, others incorporate seasonal ingredients. Ideally each will prevail upon you without my getting too explicit.

Sunday November, 22nd 2009 Sage Rubbed Venison Strip Steak with Butter and Browned Roquefort Polenta.

I would rather not begin with the finale--and in truth it cannot get more climactic, but sometimes circumstance prevails and adherence compels.

Last week, with a compound bow in his hand and his young son at his side Quint Weaver, hunting for the first time in his life, bagged himself a nine-point 24-inch antler span buck. First shot. I cannot in good faith to either Quint or the animal let the ruby tri-tips he gave me sit another day. All as well, the first tenet of Thanksgiving ought not rest on a single ingredient so much as a sentiment: simplicity.

Venison, like all game, disagrees with some palates because of its earthiness. The primary asset of any game animal for that matter is that the terroir has not been farmed out of the muscle and blood. You can taste grass, wood and minerals. So it must go with the preparation of venison that its complements show similar earthy--if somewhat decadent, minimalism.

This preparation will feed two.

If you want a fresh stock for the polenta start that now. For me I find two chopped onions (skins included), roasted garlic and a few shots of soy sauce make for an apt base--you're not making a soup, so the musky singularity of these few things will more than suffice as both a base and a complement to the bleu cheese you'll admit in short turn . Cover with about five cups of cold water and bring to a simmer, reducing by nearly half.

The polenta starts with a coarsely ground corn meal. Toast in a dry saute pan til lightly browned--the fact is cereals are kindred to spices in that their essences don't truly emerge til dry heat is applied. Or if you can find it, try Brinser's Best Yellow Cornmeal, a nutty, readymade tan cornmeal that requires no additional toasting. Salt and pepper immediately. Add simmering stock to the browned cornmeal, stirring as you do to incorporate. Once you have achieved a consistency you like--actually, stop short, it'll firm up once the heat is off, add a 1/4 stick of unsalted butter and crumble in bleu cheese til the polenta is well-colored with the penicilium marble--in this instance I chose the Fourme D'Ambert, which lends the prevailing richness.

The rest is monastically basic" salt and pepper the venison, browning in searing hot skillet til to your liking. I suspect with the slightly smaller tips I went about two minutes per side.

Deglaze the pan while the meat rests; I used the leftover stock, a splash of calvados and a tablespoon of butter. Get it to demiglace consistency--think honey.

I served it with grilled romaine lettuce in olive oil and a little lemon juice. The venison got a rolld coin of butter--again, unsalted. Let thems speak for themselves.

Thanks Quint, and good show.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tuna and beans. An egg. Quinoa.

It could be that our DNA is only so old. Look at the dew on our architecture, the styles of America. The movies. We have on certain levels yet to outgrow the pioneer's gaze on things. We eat like we face an 18 hour workday, in a field. For a living I alternate between wrapping cheese in plastic for an "organic" grocery store and flip burgers for a dive on Polish Hill. I write, but as yet the pen has issued no checks so for now I'm constrained to call it an enthusiasm. But again, I eat like a bent-backed sharecropper. My metabolism probably needs about a quarter of everything I consume.

As for you and I, we eat to feel better: Verdi fed his beloved opera company; Christ demonstrated miracles to feed his flock; Stalin auditioned his own meals with his poison-tasters; Proust, benevolently, indulged himself. Neither we nor our culture on a greater scale eat to survive, per se.

Are we so young all in our shallow pool of a nation's time? Will we ever get the practice of eating, of enjoying food, of shopping, or growing down right?

I mention this, and forgive me, I seem to have woken up on the wrong side of my soap box this morning, because of a series of small epiphanies, all circling the same ethical dilemma: How do I feed myself in a way that is both true to myself, and reverent to the broader human experience? It could be said, and in fact, in refutation of these misgivings often is, that something so fundamental as eating--itself a block in the foundation of survival, need not suffer the scrutiny that could in any way delay it. It needs no bureaucracy above and beyond the bureaucracy of foraging.

But this is not true. We must ask ourselves if it benefits the creatures of nature: are we honoring our place in the food chain? No, mere appetite does not dictate that. Are we honoring ourselves? Are our bodies, our skin, our demeanors reflective of the good things we give ourselves, or are we nagging reminders that we must change, improve, and in different way than before, satisfy?

Certainly its a personal matter, but the discourse is valuable. To publicize the struggle for improvement is itself a fundamental improvement. In the meantime we--those of us who have lived as we have, search for small fortunes on the road. Once a day I try to cook and eat sensibly. It turns out I can produce the caloric equivalent of a man-size cheesecake with relative ease, but more realistic grub, that gives me problems. Here is one I felt captured the newly found duty to self and surroundings with a fitting air of simplicity. Not one you'll likely try out on a dinner date, but it hit the spot for a Wednesday morning.

Start with steamed quinoa, add peas and chopped green onions. Season with salt and pepper. Add white cannellini beans and some oil-cured tuna--I used the Flott canned brand, but if I had my way I'd be back in Philadelphia, being (gladly) gouged for their jarred "filet" variety which is in my estimation superior to even the fresh fish.

Mix all these ingredients with chili flakes and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Top with a fried egg. Go forth.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sense, memory--version two..

Once upon some blue days--many in defiling tight sequence, and defilingly often in fact, I warmed to relish drawn blinds, Duke Ellington's 1948 Cornell University performance (it did, as did so many, begin with the strident and almost forgivably patriotic sound of the "Star Spangled Banner"), and drinking Johnny Walker Red Label from the plastic Cheryl Tiegs mug in a dearth of peeking daylight--what light defining a door's crack knows auspice?--to the unprofitable commotion of the Currans'--my landlords in those days, interminable knocks at the door. They wanted something and must've thought I or my wallet had it.

But do not be distracted by my debaucheries, as with growth comes a somber concession to the old ideals--I mean older than ourselves, to something as abruptly inevitable as it is despairing: Sanity. Our courses will deem their ways, but--and perhaps this lies at the root of our affinity for food culture, they will all, however disparate or meanderingly dissimilar, return to the food we once ate, the people who once fed us, the hunger that once protracted the hours.

So it should come as no surprise that we are destined to, if only mildly, regret our sanity. Children are wild, they love wild things. They eat things that would fatten us instantly, implode our pulmonary cores, send us into convulsive insulin shock; they eat these things and go crazy as--for no other reason, they can.

Lately I've gravitated to wandering into the kitchen, not necessarily hungry on every occasion, and in a zombie reverie, turning out cinnamon toast, or macaroni and cheese, creamed beef, peanut butter and bananas...

I don't recall ever eating the complementary grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup combo as a child, though coming up through various kitchens across the Commonwealth I discovered a phantom sense memory for it. For all the industrial era fondness I hold for the Campbell's Tomato Soup can--more a fondness for Warhol's imagery than the soup itself, I find and always have the soup to be synthetic tasting, of an unnatural consistency, and in hindsight a really fuck you to the developing palate. Might not be a bad idea to thank my folks right about now for not forcing it on me. No, as I encountered each chef after chef, each drunk on the generational ambition of exalting "comfort food" and teasing out the warmth of Americanness one tricked-out casserole at a time, a steady feed emerged of variations, technical differences and conceptual inconsistencies. And yes, we're still talking about a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup.

Sufficed to say a kind of second childhood opened up and ran parallel to the actual in me; as an adult I grew quite fond of this kid fare. Below you'll find scant details, and for the sandwich no recipe at all--I'm not so condescending. Rather I selected a few crucial techniques and--regarding the grilled cheese sandwich, a few current favorite cheeses to layer in and gussy up the ooze. If nothing else comes away from this, in both soup and sandwich, trust your instincts, as they are rooted in a child's wise sensibility--be it yours particularly or one more collective and inextricably sound.

THE SOUP should be--as should all, begun by pot roasting the vegetables and herbs of choice, starting with the firmest, and gradually working down to the delicate herbs. Start this process in plenty of hot oil and refrain from salting til the additives brown, lest they won't brown at all due to the leeching out of moisture. Once a satisfactory color appears go ahead and season the pot with salt and pepper. I get a mild outbreak of hives at the canned sound of Emeril Lagasse's showman schtick, but one tip he's hellbent on sending those tongue-wagging rubes in his audience home with after tapings is that seasoning is a gradual process, one monitored closely and adjusted with each new introduction to the pot. I do wish he'd stop with that smell-o-vision horseshit, but I'll let it lie.

While the stock vegetables are coming to color oven roast your tomatoes.

Cut x's in the bottoms as these will allow you to strip away the unpalatable skins after roasting. Halfway through the roast sprinkle the tops of your tomatoes with salt pepper and a bit of sugar.
Once complete, peel and add to the pot whole. Allow this new acquaintanceship to simmer, meanwhile prepare the broth. Start by submerging the browning pot of vegetables in several inches of water. Season, taste. Add a small can of tomato juice. Season, taste. Add a mixture of whole milk and heavy cream. Season, taste. Let simmer further til the colors unify. Think of it like a cup of coffee, the cream isn't added to taste but to color. Trust your eyes. The season and taste.

Once you feel the contents are as integrated as can be puree the soup--an immersion blender works best though whatever the means at your disposal they will indubitably suffice. Season, taste. I often find the missing factor at this point to be a heavy tablespoon of honey to encourage the sugars brought out in the roasted tomatoes. If you like stir honey in and follow it with a heavy hand of chopped parsley. Basil is most commonly suggested, and is a natural mate for tomatoes' sweetness, however I find the verdant crispness of parsley draws out the earthiness from not just the tomatoes but the vegetable bouquet on the whole. It evokes the richness of the garden, chlorophyll. It is, to my liking, indispensable.

THE SANDWICH is where I leave you to your own devices. Several cheese shopping tips couldn't hurt the rugged individualism with which you grill the damned thing though, right? For the butter it is a little pricey, and I don't recommend you spread it on just any old Get Go morning bagel, but Delitia Parmigiano Reggiano Butter is precisely what it sounds like, the churned byproduct of cheese production centuries in the refinement. I will take any old table butter and am not ashamed to admit I love margarine, but when, as an adult and with an adult's palate you finally do return to the kitchen of your childhood, you want the prismatic possibilities of the dairy to be pronounced. The lushness and mild sweetness of this butter is key. Do not, if availability and funds permit, pass it by.

As for cheeses you know what you like. I prefer a hard, a semi-soft and a soft, emphasizing the semi-soft as it usually melts best and produces that lustful stringy pull when you chomp down. In order, I chose splintered bits of Beemster Classic gouda, with the pushy character of a Parmigiano Reggiano and just a bit more melting give. Along with its sunset rust color it improves the final product in nearly endless ways. Cave-aged Gruyere might technically be a hard cheese by classification, though when it melts the transformation is awesome. Its chemistry, second only to its prickling flavor, is fundamental. For a soft I add a smattering of soft but not-yet-melted brie--the Paul-Renard family's musty Supreme is my running favorite, willful enough to not be mistaken for mere butter, yet compliant and smooth as a great butter is. Alchemy, that stuff.

Of course you'll need bread too--good bread, some respectable wine, and in the vestiges of not quite your childhood, but, as it turns out not yet your adulthood, Duke Ellington.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sense, memory--version one.

I have said my peace on the subject of our Americanness--both here and elsewhere. I find our urgent bumper sticker variety patriotism at odds with our suspicions over what is authentically American. It's such a fussy research.

The best of our homegrown crafts are vital, and we need to know it--we love America yet distrust the things we as Americans have produced--for one another, out of our forage and land and love heritage; I sense in full belief what we do here to be uniquely magical and necessary to the contemporary livelihood. To hear Waylon Jennings in that pearlene Nashville careen, to see John Ford's movies, their forged silver, to love Gary Cooper, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald who ought just as well be a secular saint, to have a crush on the assistant d.a. on Law and Order--take your pick, none of this threatens to exceed the hybrid magic of, say, meatloaf.

No, no shit.

No Gershwin tune, no Blue Note record overascends my mother's chili-inflected macaroni & cheese.

I had been talking to Timmy at Gooski's a few weeks ago, I heard him describe the tomato soup and black-edge grilled cheese sandwiches he made to push himself over a seasonal bout with a chest cold. It was then that I realized, having eaten those Gooski's guys' food in front of countless Steelers games; Stanley Cup playoffs with no fingernails left to chew off; or reheated, drunk as all hell at the late edge of a night shift to some old Gene Kelly musical on Turner, their beef stews; or alternately, early, at 4PM at the cusp of an evening of work as the sun fell in a brilliant hillside creamery haze between the mint patina Polish tower caps of the Immaculate Heart of Mary: a shepherds pie expeditious enough in character to qualify as a down winter coat; a leftover enchilada with vermilion shredded chicken and adobo running from the seams; Italian bef redolent of garlic and demiglace-thick jus, sturdy enough to stop the Hessians--should they return; buttery packet-size squirrel pies from the degenerate Nazi who, despite outward indications, knows his way around the kitchen. The world of eating is also the world of delivery. We eat and--whatever it is we eat, whatever we find and savor there, we tool and discern a way back home.

My soup and sandwich tandem is, I think, quite forthright, and as satisfying as any you'll find in a nice old diner.

The Sandwich:

Heat and season a large cast-iron skillet. Keep hot. Wrap one clean masonry brick in foil--one for each sandwich.

Melt a 1/2 stick of butter with some fresh chopped parsley, chives, several tablespoons of good Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and pepper, and a splash of olive oil.

Brush two roughly sliced pieces of batard with the melted herb and butter solution. Lay face down in th hot skillet. Layer on slices of cheese--it's up to you which to choose. I opted for the relatively flavor-neutral mild provolone as it's cheap and melts like its pricier Alpine cousins, along with a nice, aggressive smoked gouda. Between the layers of cheese I added a mixture of a fork-mashed heaping tablespoon of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a slight dash of brown mustard, and a tablespoon of heavy cream, salt and pepper, dried chilli flakes if you like. Once incorporated, and layered amid the cheese slices add the top slice of bread,completing the sandwich(es), brushing with the melted herb and butter solution. Weigh on each sandwich a foil-wrapped brick--be vigilant, there is enough fat at the periphery to burn it all in an instant. Watch your flame and flip each when you get the char you like. Bast in the remaining butter and herb solution between flips, replenishing the solution with olive oil, butter, what have you...

The Soup:

For such a cold-weather reliable this seems logistically better suited to the warm garden months' making, but it is actually quite the preserver's dream. Thanks to canned pomodori pelati and some natural sugars the soup elegantly raises flavors out of browning vegetable sweetness that seem to the palate absolutely fresh, direct and uncoaxed.

Meanwhile cut x-marks into the bottoms of, then roast, 2 large (4 Roma) tomatoes in olive oil, salt and pepper. Let them cook til the skins pull cleanly away--you'll want to discard those shed skins as they border the inedible. Look for a brown caramel liquor to release from the hearts of the tomatoes. Coarsely chop. Collect the spilled juices, recombine with the solids, set aside. That reunion for all intents and purposes is the soul of your soup. Short of rescuing it you might as well eat from a can or mix boiling water with tomato paste. Don't be foolish.

Take the heels from a batard of good bread, dice them and toast with a stir of olive oil in the fashion of croutons. Once dehydrated and well-browned remove from heat, pulverize. Set aside.

Saute 1/2 large yellow onion, 1/2 half large fennel bulb--the white root, and a smattering of roasted garlic. Add oil to lubricate as you go. Let this simmer, browning the bulbs, breaking them down to their softest. Once you're satisfied--taste them for the release of their respective sugars, add 1 small can of tomato juice, I large can of pelati--a brand you trust (I recommend a San Marzano variety). Fill out the soup with water--I find I used about 1 cup and 3/4, which rest assured, reduces out of dilution's risk.

Add the roasted tomatoes with juices, dried bread, 1 heaping tablespoon of honey, 1/2 pint of whole milk--heated through, 1 half stick of unsalted butter, and a heaping tablespoon of sour cream. Simmer and stir til a thick, coating orange red body is identified. At the instant it is achieved cut the flame. Puree your soup--sticklers will advise you to strain the results with a sieve, but this would only compromise the rugged texture you've just created.

It's up to you.

Add chopped herbs and greens: I used pastel green celery leaves, parsley and some scallions. Stir in, pair with the grilled cheese sandwiches, serve.

This reliquary of our making adjusts to what we do, day-to-day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Polish in Pittsburgh.

I lack the precision to be--unlike my wise and measured neighbor, Jenny Jo, a great baker. However, when it comes to mere 'cooking', replete with variables, elbow room, leniency, I somewhat excel. What I also find is that, thanks to Anna Fevola at La Cucina Flegrea, I have learned to construct a decent pot of soup. Her cardinal rule--ironically transgressed with today's recipe, was that one should not use meat in the abridgment of soup.

In my defense I looked to make a more adherent concoction, something equally befitting the third course as the first. Anna simply grabbed the timeliest elements from her cooler, diced them and admitted them to a formulating broth, In the end diners were encouraged to add chilies and grated parmesan to taste. You could sense the garden--well, Claire Engels' fabulous produce grocery, below those faint condiments, who in sum had no better influence on that given ravishing soup than does the swimmer to the toil of the sea. The underscoring effect was always sublime and simple: raddichio, lettuce, squash, cucumber, white beans. It tasted of what it most primitively was.

If I didn't hate her guts so much I'd surely go back to visit, and see her world much as I left it: transcendent.

This brine today qualifies as soup in terms of liquidity alone. Remove the egg noodles and pile on some day-old mashed potatoes and you'd have a quite serviceable Carpathian spin on shepherd's pie. Push the paprika, add beets, and its nearly a goulash. In truth this this has a most unwarranted but unshakable identity crisis to deal with.

I started off with a searing pot, wetted with garlic infused olive oil. Added two diced carrots, one red onion, and about one pound of decent regional kielbasa. In the meantime I deep fried one large potato, sliced in fat steak slabs. Once crisped and cooked through I removed it from the bacon grease and diced. Into the mix. Because I had already condescended to employ meat it seemed pointless not to enrich the base with some beef stock. Don't stab me, I used store bought. The stock lifted the encrusted font from the bottom of the pot, and I added a tablespoon of horseradish, two of brown mustard and about 3/4 cup of prepared sauerkraut. This was summarily topped with enough water to submerge and allowed to simmer at length. While this all happened I boiled off some kluski egg noodles in heavily salted water--they can be added at the moment of completion so as not to derive a gummy starch pool. So too at the last minute did I wilt a head of chopped escarole and some choice herbes fines in the broth.

Once the carrots became fork-tender and the broth firmed to a stewy thickness I stopped the heat. Four hours later it had matured to the photogenic state seen above. Quite good.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fried chicken cooling on the City Paper...

"That ain't Southern fried chicken"
-Marcus Visco

I was born around 6:30 PM, in Sharon General Hospital, on the amnesty side of a rain-swept window, the first day of October, 1975. I spent hardly enough time in western Pennsylvania--too young to form concrete movie-style memories, but took away the image of the house on the hill up to which, to my parents' white fright, my younger brother, little past infancy himself, left his bed and impressively sleepwalked; and another of a small dog named either Roger or Carter. Given the era, and my father's political alignment I assume the former, but I can't say for sure.

Without dwelling in autobiography--nor the risk of losing you, I'll simply paraphrase the rest. I traveled from Sharon--well, Volant specifically, to Bedford, briefly, on to Carlisle where the most of my young life was passed. After a mostly gray era just short of a decade in Indiana (PA), alternately attending classes and learning the nuances of mostly hobo-quality bourbons, I entered the present--and possibly life-fulfilling volley between the two great cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Onward, I picture--with the same bad eyes with which I look back to that sleepwalker's hill and that dog in Volant, I ascertain my final days living out a trout fishing senility in Bedford County. As my parents' hearts, and therefore my heart, were augured there, I presume and predict mine will eventually go there, also Pennsylvania, to get some Rest.

So it is a reasonable, and not at all offensive, observation for one to make that the fried chicken I make fails, and likely always will fail--to earn the modifer: Southern. Truthfully, when adjectives supercede debt in my sleepless nights I'll find--even prematurely if fortune should shine, that final Hill in Bedford County and find my grave happily early.


I start by breaking down a 3 lb chicken, placing it in a large bowl. Cover with a mixture of buttermilk, Sriracha chili sauce, salt and pepper. Leave it covered in the fridge for 4 or 5 hours.

I've grown comfortable with the large cast-iron Lodge skillet my great pal, Kate, bought me several years ago. When I can afford it, I fill it with savory peanut oil. These lean days (pardon the dietary irony) I use canola oil infused with a few heaping tablespoons of bacon fat. Raise the skillet to high heat--not quite smoking. 330 degrees if you have a fryer thermometer.

In the final moments of marinading prepare a flour pan for the crust.

At this point I feel compelled to raise an issue of some private controversy: the incorporation of prefab ingredients. Throughout my burn-barrel and asshole years I eschewed them; why should the Kraft Foods corporation get even a fraction of the credit for my labors?! If I needed ketchup for the top of a meatloaf I'd make it. If I needed a salad dressing I'd gladly throw rocks through every last window of quaint little Hidden Valley than stoop to pollute my vegetables with their goop. These days, well, I still adhere to it as a principle, but occasionally do bend the rule to comfort's advantage. It is, after all a sin tantamount to pollution, to neglect terrestrial forms of pleasure. I grew up on this innovative and transformative style of home-cooking, and would be a fool to resist it when it appeals as it does to both palate and palate's memory.

The flour pan consists of thirds: one of flour, one of homemade (lightly-toasted) breadcrumbs, and the final, a pulverized bag of plain, Herr's salted potato chips. Scatter in a handful of dried parsley and finely grated parmesan cheese. Stir through with a fork.

Before frying I remove an oven rack, laying it over last week's outspread City Paper, on the kitchen table--works just as well as a conventional cooling rack.

The marinaded chicken parts go from the marinade--shaking excess off, to the crust mixture, pressing it in firmly to ensure adherence, and into the hot oil. The best advice for arranging the frying parts I can impart came to me from the fantastic Alton Brown, advising to place the thighs in the center of the skillet where the heat is strongest. It seems rather counter-intuitive seeing as, compared to, say, the lording breasts, they're fairly puny, but the fact is the deep location of the transecting bone makes for a tricky fry. This also means fantastic revenge on the bratty little guys as they make ideal candidates for checking doneness.

A few words on the frying itself. The tv will tell you to get a fryer thermometer. When my ship comes in I plan on it; they're exceedingly helpful for a number of reasons. The first is that the base temperature of the oil (325-330F) will insure neither--thanks to too low a temperature, grease-saturated chicken; nor--to too high a temperature, carbonized--and likely internally raw, chicken. The second reason the thermometer is helpful is that by merely adding the pieces to the frying oil the temperature changes significantly. When cooking in batches large enough to warrant multiple fryings this is all the more important. Consider the chicken parts as ice cubes to the frying oil's tea. Their proportions and therefore the effect are similar.

I find 10 minutes per side is usually enough--it isn't a precise science: Just get the parts to show an internal temperature of 160 on a meat thermometer (by the way: this device is way too dirt cheap and constitutionally essential to not have and use at each turn in which meat safety is of issue). Again, try it out on the thighs, as they'll be the ones most likely to deceive with the premature appearance of doneness.

So too is it important to watch in the initial moments of frying for premature browning on the parts. They must brown, but browning should occur in perfect sync with the internal cooking. The crust and skin, you're right, are the best parts of the experience, but what lies inside ought to be palatable as well.

Onto the oven rack to cool and shed any carried-over fryer oil.

I serve with a mustardy, crunchy lima bean and carrot salad; that recipe to follow.

On a note of commencement on the subject I do defer, when in imitation of the Southern original article, to Alton Brown's recipe from which every variation I have produced relies for the fundamentals. It is reliable, tasty, and yes, authentically regional to Mr. Brown's Georgia heritage.

As is, regionally, mine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cupcakes for choice.

For Sue Steele, who rows, and fights the good fight.

I've been germanely cautioned against politicizing food.

Avocado--and forgive my mislaying your eloquence, said something to the effect of it must benefit you constitutionally before it benefits the others. And for the most part--hell, in no part, have I grown from this virtue.

Give a moment's amnesty to me.

Sue put me on some riling notion about pro-lifers having a National Cupcake Day and I couldn't wash away the picture of all those dutifully born babies galavanting around this world with no parents and no food to which they must filially attend, but hey life is so crucial and fundamentally special and the needs of a woman whose burden it is well...

I made cupcakes for choice. Our partiality belongs to us like a flaw.

Actually the crux of this derivation comes not from me but from the wildly sensuous Nigella Lawson and her essential baking guide, How to Be a Domestic Goddess. It's a pretty basic concoction. I did sub blackberry jam for the cherry she likes, but you'll find in the end its a palate issue and it won't, whatever you choose, reflect adversely on the conclusion. Once completed I opted for a chocolate and cream cheese icing, blanketing it over a quenellette of warm jam. The protruding effect was quite intentionally that of the abdomen of a pregnant woman.

Once finished I let them cool, served to some drunk people, and made a quiche. More on that later.

With due apologies for not producing a recipe--it's elementary anyhow, here is a depiction of, to the left provolone quiche in brik and, to the right, a blackening bun I used to fortify my rouille.

There is sufficed to say a tandem excitement to butter-singed parsley and oozy mild provolone. I don't know if eggs give out Nobel prizes but if so the candidacy should be quite apparent. But like I said more on that--and the accompanying rouille, in short turn.

p.s. There might even be a few remaining cupcakes at Gooski's. I work the door tonight so short of us ending up in a fistfight--don't rule it out!, I'll pass one along. You know, for choice.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Curried miso soup.

Were I to travel and find this inscribed on a chalkboard I'd ask for it.

Lately I've warmed up to the perfectly obvious (to everyone but me!?) affinity shared by miso and curry. They were born to be together. I got to the point in my personal life where so few things sat on the cupboard shelf or in the fridge that I began mixing mere colorants with water and digesting them for their vacant appeals of flavor and nothing else. Miso was, of course, a natural first round draft.

Miso with celery leaves, miso with cilantro and Sriracha, miso with honey and pungent green onions listening to Your Arsenal. If a day devised hunger my rejoinder invariably included a mild red miso paste.

And I had some turmeric, some cumin and bay leaves. But as yet they had not formally met miso. So I decided to match them up. I tell you, the Lingua Franca ain't the only thing wayfaring boats ever gave us.

Start with one coarsely chopped onion--the variety is up to you. Lamenting spring in autumn is for assholes, but I gotta say, hacking into a cream-colored Vidalia and not producing tears is a disappointment. Anyway I used a Vidalia. Add as much chopped celery and a jalapeno--be steadfast, remove the white innards if cowardice becomes you. Saute in peanut oil til nearly see-through. Add 1 teaspoon of tomato paste, beefy dashes of turmeric, cumin madras curry and bay--oh and a heaping tablespoon of red miso.

Let the pan dehydrate above medium heat. Wait for the aroma as--like unmarried uncles and proper cheeses, it will in short turn smell like what it is. Watch as the additives change colors. Once they have, and once the elements have unified in an aromatic roux-like huddle add a pint of liquid--I used an arbitrary combination of mild beer, water, coconut milk and peach nectar. Salt pepper.

Add a package of glass noodles.

Once an orange broth has been cultivated, and just before the noodles are ready, remove from the heat source. Add chopped green onions, sliced cucumbers, basil, and radishes. Add if you like, as I did, a hefty handful of shelled and de-veined shrimp--be prepared to eat them in a virtually raw state which, as the customs of nature dictate, is correct.

You might also like a bit of lime. This neighbors' miscegenation entreats it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Meat loaf and other things.

For the witty, wise and genuinely fucking good Scooter Clowney.

Advent brings renewal which, family reunions and funerals have taught me, brings insight. I apologize that I haven't a picture of the meatloaf I made, though truthfully, it wasn't much to look at--just an aberration of sausage and pecorino romano. But I'll come to that.

I tend to shy away from novelty, though what I've discovered is that in novelty and against veritable odds, we discover our crucial strangeness. In it we are who we are.

I love the homeward novelty of meatloaf--I know, we Americans didn't technically invent it, but then again we didn't invent fire, and yet we know our fires. I made a mess in the kitchen last night at Gooski's, and fed em all--more a credit to decently ground sweet sausage than to my hands, but oh well, I fit the yoke despite another's craftsmanship.

I love how meatloaf and General Tso's and bacon cheeseburgers and chili con queso with Velveetashit iconograph our Americanness. And it disappoints me that in this identification those recipes are somehow deemed bastard. What isn't!? I love Tex-Mex, Cantonese-American, cheese curds in the Mall of America. I love the uncool fusion WAY more than I could ever even tolerate the cool. The starred chefs are ratshit. I love meatloaf.

On a hectic night at Gooski's this decidedly Mediterranean slant on meatloaf was born, breathed and died in the mouths of good people:

I slow-sauteed some finely chopped onion, white mushrooms, celery, and roasted garlic. Get the chop to a virtual sludge state before introducing it to the fire so it bleeds all of its liquor into the meatloaf. Added cumin, paprika and a faint tablespoon of tomato paste. Once the final agent had rusted I dampened it with some dry white wine--I won't pester you with what lousy shit I used, sufficed to say I work in a dive bar--I let it cool.

The difference--to which I added the former, involved a pound of sweet Italian sausage--Donatelli's in my neighborhood makes a reliable one that through either formality or laziness they leave uncased, a self-measuring supply of bread crumbs--I do make my own, pecorino, almond butter whisked into one egg plus one egg yolk, a spoonful of Worcestershire sauce (wouldn't English pharmacists love to believe they invented fish sauce!) and some janky ass habanero hot sauce--Tabasco is for losers!-- we get from Restaurant Depot.

Once incorporated I formed--small in diameter, the thing, and baked in a 350 degree oven for about half an hour. Fair warning, it'll be a moist but brittle projectile. I recommend not only letting it rest before serving, but serving with a fish spatula. Its rewards will come back to you.

But if you're self conscious do this: In a medium hot skillet saute roasted garlic, capers, balsamic vinegar, as much white wine, a shake of salt, of pepper and of sugar, then some tomato paste. heat it through til is forms a ketchupy consistency and taste for garlic, salt and sugary depth--it must reflect the three equally. Smother the plated meatloaf.

As a side I refer you to the above-pictured pastry

It was a one-off kind of dish and it makes a liar of me to even attempt to reconstitute it in writing. Anyhow it went like this: Heavily buttered phyllo dough in a large round stainless steel bowl--about six sheets, none of which ought to point in the same direction.

Once a buttered dough-lined foundation has been established add mixture of the following: 3 roasted then pieced red potatoes, 1 small roasted sliced onion, 1 small head of pieced and parcooked broccoli, and 1 large egg beaten into one heaping tablespoon of sour cream, half a stick of chunked-up unsalted butter, along with a brimming handful of feta--I chose the herbacious Yarra Valley farmed feta from Australia--and not to sound picky but if you can't find it just use a chevre--common feta would only disrupt your accomplishment.

So stir this into a heedless slop and fill the prepared dough bowl. Fold the overstemming ends of the phyllo on top of the filling mixture to encapsulate. Bake in the same 350 degree oven for about half an hour. Drink rye whiskey. Use caution when seeing to the pie, it must brown on all levels. In fact, I removed it from the bowl, flipping it into a saute pan for an additional bake at 400 for another fifteen minutes--both bakes will rely on the stamina of your oven--some burn hotter than others. Just look for doneness: the phyllo should be wholly browned--charred at the peripheries is best, and the contents should have assembled in the fashion of French scrambled eggs, oozy, floppy, you'll want to scoop it hot with your bare hands. Your overuse of butter should result in a golden lava running on the plate. You've done it right.

I made a mustardy roast vegetable soup too, pureed, with a little more of that white wine. But I'll spare you that loveliness.


Cliff Notes version: save the broccoli blanching water from above's pie--three separate diners referred to it as pasty, quiche and that--roast then simmer vegetation of your liking; I prefer carrots, celery, Vidalia onions, red potatoes and boatloads of fresh herbs and roasted garlic. Once the simmer has peaked taste for salt and pepper, add brown mustard and white wine to taste--you want a vinegary flavor--imagine being hungover and drinking pickle juice from the jar. Not quite that overwhelming but at least a hint of that. And of course puree it. Add red peppers flakes if you like...

Have with a fair relatively dry white. Fairer than the one I had, ideally.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Chocolate cake.

I have certain pet peeves: people who look down their noses at ketchup on hot dogs, at parmesan cheese on seafood, beans in chili. I dislike eating contests, vegetarian-haters and meat that has lost its pulpy red vitality. Especially pork, you blubbering baby boomers! I dislike Anthony Bourdain, as well as people who dislike Anthony Bourdain. I have no time for whose city's pizza is the real pizza, whose state's barbecue is the real barbecue. I don't care who invented the cheese steak, the Tom Collins, the Cobb salad, the egg cream.

I hate authenticity.

I spent enough time--as well as unrepaid PHEA dough, reading and misunderstanding post-structuralist literary theory to know authenticity is at best a faith-based tradition. You say the Crimean War did happen, I say, well, maybe. You say I can't blindly improvise chocolate cake because of the unyielding chemistry of baking I say gimme an afternoon reading Amanda Hesser's fabulous Chocolate Dump-It Cake recipe and ogling Google'ed pictures of the very much married Amanda Hesser--throw in a few rye whiskeys and I will transgress yet another dipshit supposition.

Sort of.

I think my variations honor the original copy--adventurous though they are.

I followed her procedures with the following exceptions. I subbed out the unsweetened chocolate for a 58% bittersweet. Naturally I reduced the amount of sugar. It was questionable, I guess, but I did so by half. So I've found in any dessert, really, one can embellish after the fact with honey, confectioner's sugar or dulce de leche--by merely dousing it over top, but the core of the thing ought to remain chastly undersweetened. Pineapple upside-down cake is my blueprint for all things sweet. Consistent with that I upped the butter and salt by about a quarter.

As for the eggs I opted to separate them, adding three--not the two Ms. Hesser suggests, beaten yolks to the milk and vinegar mixture, while reserving the whites--again three, for a final folding in, whipped to semi-stiff peaks.

Because of the aerated character fostered by the beaten whites I divided my butter between two 9" pans, rather than one. She's gonna be a big girl. The baking time--at 375 deg., ran about five minutes past the advised half an hour, though realistically I attribute it to an idiosyncratic oven rather than the needs of my variation.

The cakes emerged and, upon cooling, I poked the tops full of holes with a kebab skewer, dampening them with amaretto, and I iced them.

The recipe outlined a sour cream mixture with chocolate chips. I went with what I had: sour cream, cream cheese, Nutella--nearly a jar of the stuff, and a little confectioner's sugar.

The iced double layer cake looked a little lopsided, but appealing nevertheless. I finished it with a few ounces of chocolate tablets, almonds and coffee beans finely ground in a spice mill. A patted puff of confectioner's sugar, a hiccup of rye in the air. Done.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Like any instance of racism the vilification of celery occurs at the exterior. It is, unequivocally, one of the great vegetables of the table; and it's shit rep is wholly undeserved.

Having hashed out barshit at Gooski's for a worn adulthood I can attest to both the quality of improvisation, and the sublime maneuverability of celery. And few things lend themselves to improvisation like celery does. For anyone who has made peace with a dessert filled with rhubarb, this organism is something to venerate.

The application is another cake walk, but its extravagance is so rewarding. Best made the day after you serve a risotto.

Start by running a vegetable peeler across the backs of the celery ribs--these fibers are part and parcel to the epidemic hatred of it. Proceed by chopping the stalks down into two-inch matchsticks. This size is ideal as it permits the rendering of a broth while maintaining the structural integrity of the celery; let the continentals keep their overblown fennel bulbs!

Braise the celery at 375 degrees in a mixture of olive oil and red bell peppers--these peppers should be roasted to near pulp ahead of time. The celery braise should last about half an hour, or til the broth has amassed and the celery stalks still have a bit of give in them.

Salt, pepper.

While this magic occurs fetch your bowl of cold risotto from the fridge, parcel, compact into diskettes--they should, each, fit flush on the palm of your hand. Fry them in searing olive oil til very nearly blackened on each side. Remove the braising celery from the oven, smother the cakes. If you did it right they'll hiss at you.

I found a little feta, a shot of lemon juice and chopped parsley complement the plate. And reverence is established.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gnoccetti in tomatoes and vermouth.

I swear they won't always be no-brainers like this one, but it worked too well to not make a record of it.

Crank the gas below a cast iron skillet. Wait til you see smoke. Add a finely sliced yellow onion and char til the edges blacken--picture a stir fry. Once you've achieved the black periphery add a pound or so of hot Italian sausage and herbs--I used garden sage and thyme. Get a marked char on the sausage and introduce the herbs--a subtle broth will already be forming from the onions. Add split Roma tomatoes--enough to cover the floor of the skillet more or less. Turn as they sear, pulling away skins as they separate. They're biodegradable, the skins, but awful nonetheless.

Once the tomatoes have flowered you'll know.

Oh, add a cup of cooked white kidney beans.

Then a deep splash of sweet vermouth. Keep dampening the sauce, seasoning as you go. Everything is reducing. Bring the heat down to a modest simmer.

Next you pull the gnoccetti. I think the better approximation is spaetzle, but my affinity lies with the Italian for once, as the variations of this dumpling really seem to find their prismatic brilliance in Mediterranean hands.

Flour, eggs and a little water will make it work--customarily a cup of flour to a single egg, with icy water to shore up the consistency. I like to add herbs, though between you me and this bottle of Augustus Bulleit I think it may be largely cosmetic. Once you have a reliable pasta dough you'll want to let it rest, packed in wax paper for at least a half an hour. Time to boil water--salt it too!

Back to the skillet. It's getting sloppy. I added about 4 cloves of roasted garlic and grated in probably about a quarter cup of Pecorino Pepato here--it's a peppercorned sheepsmilk cheese and though mostly unremarkable in the raw it builds wild dimension in cooked form. As this formula reduces you'll want to taste itinerantly. Salt, pepper, and such. Don't be afraid to add a shake of sugar if you feel its lacking.

After a rest in the fridge pull the pasta dough, flour liberally (flour your hands too). Work it in a rolling motion til slightly thicker in diameter than a pencil. Using an oiled, floured butter knife cut penny-sized pieces: with each, roll the shape in flour. I prefer a glutenous dough, permitting a shredded feather shape to the pasta. It's messy producing it but will prove worth your trouble. Upon completion turn it into the water you brought to a boil--and salted.

As the dumplings rise in the boiling water retrieve them. Serve with red ragout deepened by a healthy chunk of butter--I get a nice one from an Amish farm north of here. Oh yeah, and a boatload of finely chopped parsley.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The death of summer.

Preheat to 375.

Yesterday I saw something in The Times that made me think of autumn--I forgot it was upon us. At a brilliant but struggling natural foods grocery store I've been manning the cheese counter while the resident monger is recovering from a bang up.

The great thrill comes from finding cheeses that fall through the cracks of classification; they're not cheddars, not gruyeres, not bries...they're puzzling. One, a Piedmontese amalgam called La Tur, has proven enduringly curious. This one is the concoction of three dairies: cow, sheep and goat; it's flavor and texture are a separate matter. There is certainly a goaty cakeiness to it, but the lasting effect is pillowy and exceedingly milky. It's dingy, which offers up the cheese's defining feature.

I've never been a baker, I'm way too scattershot. But the notion has always been an alluring one; I saw Taxi Driver in high school, and marveled at the diner selection of Travis Bickle, the apple pie and cheddar. It managed to embody his contradictions. It was romantic and insane. Having grown up in houses blooming with those aromas it felt like an inborn challenge to replicate those complements. A few weeks ago I sneaked a sauteed Gala apple into a skillet of macaroni & cheese, but in the end it got lost. I suspect it pushed the sweetness of the onions slightly, but had I not known it was in there I'd have never identified it.

So apple pie proved the ideal situation for switching places, going savory in a sweet preparation. I'd been tinkering with pie crusts after a week of debaucheries involving, among other things, quiches. The addition of parmigiano-reggiano lent a bolting hue of sharpness, and seemed to singularly carry the weight of herbs I figured would have otherwise just made a nice coloring.

In this instance--and with my eye on that fabulous La Tur, I stuck to my quiche crust recipe, which is to say I mashed some icy butter with sifted flour and a little cold water til it came together. Threw in some parmesan, fresh thyme and parsley.

The construction of the pie--I parbaked the crust for about ten minutes, was as you might expect.

For the body: Begin by melting 1/2 stick of butter with 1/2 cup of sugar. Once a deep-hued caramel has formed drizzle in 1/4 cup of cream or half and half (I used a mixture of both). Once the caramel has substantiated add the fruit. I used sliced Honeycrisp apples and Starkrimson pears with a scattering of halved red grapes. Let it tighten up as the sliced fruit macerates--add a tablespoon of cold water with corn starch if it looks too soupy.

Oil, flour and dust in ground almonds the parbaked pie crust pan, Line the rim with oiled wax paper.

Once the junk comes together add it to the waiting crust. Just before baking blanket with crushed marcona almonds and the La Tur--break it into large chunks and scatter on the face of the pie.

Bake at 375 for a little more than half an hour

Let cool, scoop out like cobbler, or invert on a plate for presentation. Relax.