Monday, July 04, 2005

Fourth of July Cookout: London Broil

This is a favorite of mine for large groups, and it's what I served at my July 4th cookout (which was actually last night on the 3rd, since I think a get-together is a lot more fun if you don't have to worry about going to work the next morning). The first time I ever tried cooking London Broil was at a gathering of old friends for a weekend outing in a cabin on the Chattahoochee River, and it was hit. When you slice the beef thinly and lay it out on a big platter, it creates a gorgeous mound of meat--perfect for a group of hungry carnivores.

Though you can find cuts of beef labeled "London Broil" at many supermarket meat counters, it's really a way of cooking meat and not a particular cut. A top round roast is what's generally used, though flank steak will do nicely, too. Since I like my beef rare, I look for a roast that's as thick as possible (at least 2 inches). I generally allow a pound for every three people, which usually guarantees at least a little bit left over for sandwiches the next day (which are delicious).

The first step is to marinate the beef. I'm not picky about the ingredients and use whatever's on hand---you really just need some sort of acid, a little oil, and spices. Yesterday morning, I put the meat in a flat plastic container and sprinkled it liberally with kosher salt, black pepper, and paprika; diced some garlic and shallots and tossed them on top; then, drizzled it all with some olive oil, red wine vinegar, and the juice from half a lemon. I put the container in the fridge and took it out every few hours to turn over the meat. If you can start the roast marinating the night before it's best, but even if you only have an hour or two the marinade will add good flavor.

I grilled my London Broil over hot charcoal, allowing about five to ten minutes per side. I never time these things, instead waiting until the color looks good and the meat is just starting to firm up when I press on it with my fingers. I've found touch testing the absolute best way to gauge when the meat is ready (here's a good description of how to do it)--it takes a little practice, but it's pretty easy to get the hang of.

For serving, I took the meat into the kitchen to my big cutting board and sliced it as thinly as I could across the grain, holding the knife at a forty-five degree angle. Since most roasts are a little thinner at each end than in the middle, you usually end up with a good range of doneness (from medium to rare in my case), and the juice from all the slices pools up nicely in the bottom of the serving platter--I like to put a spoon on the platter so people can ladle a little on their meat. I served it with my favorite roasted potatoes, sourdough bread, and a green salad. A great way to celebrate the Fourth.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

On water . . .

An interesting piece on the body's need for water (or the lack thereof) . . .

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Weird UglyRipe Tomato Controvery

Don't know how many people have noticed the story of the UglyRipe tomato, but it's something I've came across a while ago and find strangely compelling. I won't repeat the story (see links below for an overview), but here are a few of the elements I find particularly interesting:

  • Where knew there was such a thing as the Florida Tomato Committee?
  • It's curious that the dictates of the Florida Tomato Committee are not in force from June 15th through October 10th (when locally-grown ripe tomatoes are available throughout the country). Why is that? I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that grocery stores don't buy Florida tomatoes during the summer because they can get local ones, but I still don't get the logic.
  • The whole thing is typically positioned as a David-vs-Goliath story, but Procacci Brothers is one of the largest vegetable distributors in the country. So it's really more of a Goliath-vs-Goliath story. This doesn't necessarily affect who is right or wrong, but it's interesting to note.

I also find it curious that the debate is usually framed as a choice between whether consumers should be guaranteed tomatoes that look good (round, red, etc.) vs. whether they should be able to have good tasting tomatoes year round. An editorial from the crunchy Mother Earth News is particularly amusing, in that it assumes that tomato growers are so stupid as to not understand how the American vegetable market works and that the average consumer is powerless in the face of Big Food (yes, outraged columnist really do use that term):

Apparently, we need to let the [Florida Tomato] committee members (and the USDA and Congress) know that the tomatoes they send to our supermarkets are so bland and tasteless that many of us are no longer even tempted to buy them. If they want to “improve grower returns,” then they need to start selling better-tasting tomatoes.

At the end Mother Jones urges people to grow their own tomatoes or buy them locally, but they seem to tacitly accept the notion that we have the right to have good, fresh vegetables anytime we want them (seasons be damned) and that they should be easily available in supermarkets so we don't have to spend any energy growing them or at least actively looking for them.

I hold to the general principle that good taste should be the ultimate criteria for judging food, but it's the year-round thing that gets me. As annoying as it is that there is some quasi-governmental committee controlling what produce can and can't be shipped out of Florida, I just can't get too worked up over the fact that I can't get a good tomato in January. Of course you can't get a good tomato in January! They grow in the summer! Why not do what people have been doing since well before the rise of the railroads and the intercontinental produce trade: save your fresh tomato recipes until summer and use good canned tomatoes for sauces, etc. during the off season?

And, I can't get worked up over the fact that supermarket tomatoes are consistently awful. It's not like it's hard to find fresh locally grown tomatoes when they are in season--there are at least a dozen roadside stands and guys-on-the-side-of-the-road-in-pickups within a ten minutes drive of my house where I can find baskets of vine-ripened local tomatoes. I can only assume that the reason most supermarket tomatoes are so bad is that (contrary to the contention of Mother Jones) most shoppers really don't care, or at least don't care enough to make the effort to find better ones or, failing that, decide to eat something else.

There was a flurry of publicity about the UglyRipe tomato six months ago, which I can only assume meant the Procacci Brothers tried to open a serious PR front to the war. Things seem to have died down since, and it looks like the Procacci's have lost the battle (for now, at least).

Here are a few background links:

The latest press release from Procacci Brothers

A few outraged columninsts (about six months old, but they give a good sense of how the story was framed):

USA Today

Roasted Potatoes

This is a simple preparation I came up with after finding wonderful roasted potatoes in several Italian restaurants in London. This is by no means the recipe they use--the potato varieties are quite different--but it's become one of my favorites.

I've read a lot of recipes that call for parboiling potatoes before roasting and what not, but I don't find that necessary at all. The real key seems to be having good new potatoes. My favorite is a bag of mixed potatoes that I pick up at the Marion Square farmer's market (which is held every Saturday in downtown Charleston) from a stall run by a woman who grows them on a family farm out on Wardmalaw Island. For three bucks I can get a generous-sized bag of small round red, white, and purple new potatoes along with wonderful little yellow fingerlings. When I can't make it down to the market, new red potatoes from the supermarket work pretty well. The fresher the potatoes the better.

All I do is cut the potatoes into bite sized chunks (leaving them whole if they are really small potatoes, quartering medium-sized ones) and toss them in a baking dish--I usually use a ceramic au-gratin dish that I line with foil to make clean-up easier. Drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle salt, pepper, and paprika over the top, toss on a little minced parsely, then pop the pan into a 400 degree oven for about an hour. Every fifteen minutes or so I'll pull the dish out and toss the potatoes around so they'll cook evenly. I like to wait until they are crispy brown all over the edges before serving.

Simple as can be, but really good. I like to serve these with red-meat dishes like veal saltimbocca (another of my favorites picked up from Italian restaurants in London) and braised short ribs, which is what I'm having tonight.

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