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.
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.
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.