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.