Monday, January 22, 2007

Affordable Cuts of Meat Part 3: Braised Lamb Shanks with White Beans

This is one of my new favorites--a dish so good I dream about it. It's filling, warming, and very economical.

Braised Lamb Shanks with White Beans

2 lamb shanks
1 cup cannelini or other white beans
1 bay leaf
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup diced tomato
2 cups chicken stock
salt & pepper
olive oil
ground cloves, thyme, and rosemary

  1. Brown the shanks in olive oil over medium-high heat, remove and put aside
  2. Saute onion and garlic until translucent
  3. Add tomato and saute 2-3 minutes
  4. Add spices, chicken stock and brink to a boil
  5. Return lamb shanks to pot and reduce heat to a simmer
  6. Braise shanks 1 hour
  7. Add beans, simmer another 1/2 hour

When braised long and slow, the meat from the shanks is tender and rich, and with the white beans it forms a simple cassoulet--one of the most comforting meals I've made in a long, long time.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

How to Make a Barbecue Sandwich

I have spent the better part of my life in South Carolina, and I am a Carolinian through-and-through. I love mustard-yellow barbecue sauce and hash over rice. Hash over rice, in fact, may well be the best barbecue side dish ever concocted. But when it comes to barbecue sandwiches, I have to say that the state of Tennessee has us licked hands down.

This was driven home to me when I stopped off at an unassuming little barbecue place on the side of the highway in Sweetwater, Tennessee, on the drive back from my visit to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Bradley's Pit B-B-Q and Grill doesn't have much character, but the waitresses were very friendly and, man, did they ever serve a good barbecue sandwich.

As I was writing my recent re-evaluation of Charleston's Home Team BBQ, I kept thinking about the sandwich I'd had that afternoon from Bradley's, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that it was a near-perfect sandwich. And, when I dug through my digital camera and came up with the picture I had snapped, I knew that it was true.

The sandwich from Bradley's wasn't large--just a regular sized hamburger bun with a modest amount of meat. But, the bun was toasted with a good soaking of butter so the edges were crispy and brown. The meat was smoky and delicious, with lots of little crispy burnt-end bits to add texture, and it was chopped just right--not too fine so that it lost all its consistency (like Eastern North Carolina barbecue often does), but not as ropy and chewy as pulled pork, either. The coleslaw was just right, too, adding just enough crunch to round out the experience.

And, since it was small and compact, you could eat the sandwich one-handed while driving down a Tennessee mountain highway without totally staining your pants legs.

Like a great cheeseburger, a great barbecue sandwich is an exercise in balance, with just the right ratio of meat to sauce to bun. And the boys in Tennessee seem to have mastered the art.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Second-Quarter Comeback for the Hometeam

Please don't tell The Wife about this post. She won't understand.

Not long ago, spurred on by the pleadings of The Six Year Old, we made a return visit to Fiery Ron's Hometeam BBQ. Our first visit had left us a little disappointed, but I was determined to give them a chance because they seemed really close to pulling off a good thing and I really wanted them to succeed.

The Wife was unswayed, confirming the results of our first visit, and in rather grumpy tones that told me she wasn't up for debate on the issue. But, she's can be a bit, um, unwavering in her opinions, especially when it comes to food. Truth be told, I came away with a better impression, and I ordered almost the exact same thing as on my first visit. Looking over the second visit, I see three main factors in play that made it better than the first: 1. the lunch combo; 2. the steamed bread; and, 3. the sauce. Let's take each in turn

The Lunch Combo
One of our initial complaints was that with pork sandwiches at $5.95 and side dishes at $1.95 and a soft drinks at $1.75, you came out at just shy of ten bucks for a basic lunch. Such prices seem better suited for Daniel Island than West Ashley, even if there weren't any mosquitos to be seen. But, on our second visit I noticed the Home Team had added a combo deal where you could get a sandwich and one side for $6.95. Still not bargain basement, but at least they're trying.

The Steamed Bread
The top issue we had with the Home Team during our first visit was with the so-called "Texas Toast", which was really just thick-sliced white bread that hadn't come anywhere near a toaster but instead was flopped from the plastic bag to the plate and the barbecue spooned on top. This time, the woman at the counter did it a little differently. No, they hadn't added a sandwich press and a big vat of melted butter like they should have, but she did drop the bread in a steamer and give it a good dosing before making the sandwich. This puzzled me at first, since I don't recall ever seeing a barbecue joint steam its bread before, and I was ready to be disappointed again.

But, I have to admit, the steam seemed to have a transforming effect on the bread. Rather than dry and prone to crumbling, as it had been it its untoasted state during our first visit, the bread was now soft and pliable. After I picked up the sandwich and gave it a good squeeze, the bread molded around the softball-sized mound of pulled pork and made a sandwich that stood up to the mess of sauce and coleslaw and pickles it encased rather than collapsing in a soggy mess in the basket.

I do not waver from my conviction that BBQ buns are properly served toasted, but with a steamed bun the sandwhich was much, much better. And it was made all the better by element #3 . . .

The Sauce
I think I was so overwhelmed by the disappointment in the sides and collapsing bread during my first visit that I took no notice of the sauce. But, Fiery Ron's has a thin, orangish-red barbecue sauce that's reminiscent of the East Texas style sauces and is a great combination with the pulled pork.

One word of warning, though: the sauce comes in massive quart-sized squeeze bottles which look great sitting on the table but are virtually impossible to handle when you have your sandwich in one hand, the bottle in the other, and are trying to squirt on a small, supplemental dab of sauce. My first squirt shot out of the bottle like a roman candle, arced clear over the top of the bun, and landed in a long orange splash on the leg of my blue jeans. A few minutes later, lost in musings on how well the streamed bread was holding in the sandwich filling, I tried the same maneuver again and ended up with a second orange crescent on my jeans.

Here's a tip: put down the sandwich, hold the bottle in two hands, and squeeze a little sauce gently onto your plate. The stuff doesn't come out of denim even after several washings.

Ultimately, the barbecue itself--the meat that is--is pretty darn good. And now the execution is starting to come together. It's looking better for the Home Team.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Red Wine, Chocolate

I've always liked to think I'm one of those guys who's ahead of the trends, with my own set of critical faculties and the ability to judge things independently of what other people say about them and, especially, independently of what marketers and food section reporters would like us to think about them. And so it has always galled me when I would "discover" something new and exciting and, within a few months or so, find it had somehow gained broad popularity.

For example, I might stumble across a new band on the Internet and download a song or two and really get into it and buy the CD. Two months later I hear the song on the radio and think, "Hey, those guys are getting some airplay. Good for them." Three weeks later the song is being played on six stations simultaneously and it's being licensed for TV commercials and the band is on every talk show and I'm crabby because the masses have glommed onto my "discovery" and ruined it. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

At this point, it should be obligatory that I digress into a brief discussion of "the tipping point". But I won't, because I'm pissed off about the popularity of that phrase, too. (For anyone who may have been trapped under a large rock for the past five years, here's an explanation of the term.) I've long been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing in The New Yorker, and I read The Tipping Point not long after it first came out and just before it achieved best-seller status and started being quoted by every middle manager in America. It's a handy concept and I could apply it here but I won't because the tipping point has reached its own tipping point and become a dreadful cliche.

To egocentrical people like me, these sort of early discoveries are both a validation of our own sophistication and an extreme annoyance. For years, my sister-in-law would get irate if she saw someone at a party or nightclub wearing an outfit she already owned and insist that they were copying her look, even though those people had never seen her before in their lives. I can relate. If we decide something is cool before the mob does, it must mean our critical faculties are more subtle and finely tuned. And, of course, once the mob figures out that that particular thing is cool, it couldn't possibly be because they have good taste, too--they're just doing it because everyone else is.

But recently I've had a new and unsettling thought: what if I'm not actually discovering these new things before everybody else but at the same time as everybody else? Perhaps I'm not in the top 1% of cutting edge people but rather the top 65% or so, and once something has been so broadly exposed that I get wind of it it's already well on its way to fad status? Might it actually be that my tastes and opinions are not empirical and pure but can be molded and swayed by the exact same media and marketing messages as everyone else?

I was led to this realization by red wine and chocolate.

Have you noticed that in just the past few months red wine and chocolate--good dark chocolate, that is--has come out of nowhere and become trendy?

Of course I was out ahead of the curve. About six months ago I came across Chloe Doutre-Roussel's The Chocolate Connoisseur on the new books shelf at the public library, thought it looked interesting, and checked it out. Doutre-Roussel is the chocolate buyer for London's posh Fortnum & Mason department store, and in her book she takes it upon herself not only to educate her readers about the world of pure, top-quality chocolate but also provide a step-by-step instructions on how to develop their own "chocolate palates" and become connoisseurs every bit as discerning as those of wine, cheeses, and cigars. I found the how-to-be-a-connoisseur part a bit snooty, but the passion of the writing convinced me that I needed to seek out a better grade of chocolate.

And I did. Or at least I tried to. First, I took a peek at the candy aisle in the supermarket during a regular grocery trip. There wasn't much to choose from outside of Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate bars, which aren't really all that special. There were a few more upscale brands (like Dove and Lindt), but these were all filled chocolate candies, not pure bars of dark chocolate. Fortunately, Charleston has Lucas Belgian Chocolate down in the Market, and Lindt and Godiva have both opened outlets down on King Street, so you can have your fill of good chocolate if you willing to make a little effort. But, as of the summer of 2006, high-quality dark chocolate was a pretty rare thing, and I felt quite sophisticated breaking off a square or two from my secret trove for a small postprandial treat.
But that changed quickly. Starting this fall, the supply of good dark chocolate boomed. The same supermarket that only six months ago had nothing but nougat-filled Hershey and Mars milk chocolate now boasts several different large dark chocolate bars with 70% and even 85% cacao. The original "Special Dark" bar is milk chocolate, but Hershey's has released its own Extra Dark line that is classic dark chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, and vanilla) with nary a trace of milk.
Dark chocolate sales have been on the rise for the past several years, growing at 20% a year since 2001. That trend accelerated in 2006, with growth topping 40% and all the major chocolate manufacturers scrambling to introduce new products.
But it's not just the dark chocolate that's trendy. It's also the new hot accompaniment to that chocolate: a hearty glass of red wine.
Yes, red wine. I could swear that not two years ago everything I read declared that good red wine and good chocolate are like oil and water--they never, ever go together. Something to do with the tannins in the wine and phenols in the chocolate causing poison gas to form in your mouth or something like that. (See, for example, the Wine Doctor: "Some foods are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Chocolate is one good example, although why anyone would want to even try is beyond me. If you must serve a chocolate-based dessert, I'd concentrate on combining it with some coffee.")
Suddenly that has changed. "The natural affinity between dark chocolate and red wine is no secret," declares the Prosser Country Chamber of Commerce (Prosser County, Washington, is home to the Yakima Valley wine region.) Tastings and other themed events that pair red wine and chocolate are suddenly everywhere. Search for "red wine and chocolate" on the Internet and you'll turn up dozens of articles recommending you match Zinfandel with bittersweet chocolates and Pinot Noir with dark milk chocolate.
I knew the tipping poi . . . er, rubicon had been crossed when, over the Christmas holidays, on no fewer than three occassions was I offered little squares of dark chocolate to go along with the red wine we were drinking and was told by myt host/hostess that his/her newest passion was red wine and chocolate. "I just don't understand how I made it so far in life without discovering how wonderful these two things are together!" one hostess said to me.
Part of the explanation is that (as I predicted 10 years ago) the Baby Boomers are finally emerging from their family-raising cocoons and, as empty nesters, are determined to discover the finer things in life (this is a topic for elaboration in a whole other post). Unfortunately, the other part of the explanation--as with the explanation for so many other food fads--is that over the past few years reams of studies have been published claiming that, though the jury is still out and the initial findings could be completely wrong, there is something of a chance that dark chocolate just might possibly be good for you.
Tellingly, the marketing materials for the new lines of "premium dark chocolate" from the major candy companies mention little about the flavor of the chocolate, but they load up on the purpoted health benefits of "flavanol antioxidants". The wrapper for Hershey's Special Dark has been given a make-over, with a large logo touting that is is a "Natural Source of Flavanol Antioxidants." Large promo signs in the check out lanes declare that, like a glass of red wine, dark chocolate is good for you.
The thinking, I guess, is that if red wine has antioxidants and is good for you, and dark chocolate has antioxidants and is good for, then the two together must be fantastically good for you.
I personally think red wine and chocolate go fine together. I also think that a cold beer pairs very nicely with steak and eggs, especially around 3:00 am at the Capitol Restaurant in downtown Columbia, SC, with the beer served with a wink and a nudge in a styrofoam cup because it's after midnight and they don't have a Sunday beer license, so maybe I'm not the best one to judge.
Yes, it is disheartening to realize that I'm not nearly as far ahead of the curve as I like to think and that I probably rode the same wave as everyone else to my dark chocolate affectation. And, it's irritating to think that the primary motivator for many of the new red-wine-and-chocolate buffs is not that they enjoy tasting the stuff but rather that they hope it might make them live forever.
Dark chocolate and red wine may well turn out to be the next oat bran. (Does anyone eat oat bran anymore?) But for now, good chocolate is now readily available on almost every street corner, and the odds have gone up dramatically that at the next cocktail party, instead of a big bowl of Doodads, my host will offer me a couple of squares of delightfully dark chocolate and a big glass of Zinfandel.
We could do a lot worse than that.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Visit to Benton's

On a cold, sunny afternoon just after Christmas, I set off from my mother-in-law's house in Cleveland, Tennessee, in search of America's best bacon. And I found it, too.

It was about a half-hour drive up I-75 to the Highway 68 exit, where I turned east through a town called Sweetwater and passed not one, not two, but three barbecue joints. That was a good sign.

At Madisonville I headed north up US 411 and came across something straight out of the past: a fully-operational old-school A&W Root Beer drive-in. These days, with A&Ws sharing plastic-and-neon buildings with Long John Silver's, it's hard to remember that it was one of the country's pioneering drive-in chains. And there one was, in all its orange glory, car stalls and all. This was another very good sign.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams was about five miles further up the road, on the right hand side, in a very unassuming-looking cinder-block building. Its sides were painted green and tan with the motto 'We Cure 'em" painted on the side. The inside was equally unassuming, a plain front room with a Coke machine and an old glass-fronted deli case with an assortment of regular old processed meats and cheeses inside. It had all the hallmarks of a low-rent country convenience store except for one thing: the smell.

Or, maybe aroma is a better word. It was the richest, thickest, deepest hickory smoke scent I have ever smelled. I've eaten at quite a few barbecue joints in my time and smelled an awful lot of hickory smoke, but nothing could compare to this.

Through a doorway to the back I could see a large room filled with six-foot high wooden racks draped with hams and whole slabs of bacon, hanging right out in the room-temperature air. I waited for a few minutes while the counter man finished filling the order for the guy in front of me, a huge, round man in a grey work shirt with his name stiched over the pocket. He was picking up what looked to be several hams worth of meat, and Allan Benton was in the back slicing it all up with a large butcher's band saw.

Benton bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Rogers, a genial man with a pleasant smile and a gently-aged face who looks very much like the high school guidance counselor he was before he quit the education field in 1973 and took over the country ham business from Albert Hicks, who had founded it in 1947.

In what is clearly now a theme in my life, Benton was out of the product that interested me most, his American-made prosciutto. Conceived when, after eating some imported Italian prosciutto, Benton figured that his country hams sliced thin would be as good if not better, Benton's domestic prosciutto has gained rave reviews. When I asked how much it was, the older gentleman at the counter (not Mr. Benton) gave me one of those quick size-ups and said, "I think we're out." I can't guarantee it, but I think Allan Benton gave me a quick once-over, too, before he said, "That's right. We're all out."

So I had to settle for a couple of pound of bacon and some country ham.

And what bacon it was. Most commercial bacon is processed in a day or less--injected with brine, flash-smoked, and packed for shipping. Benton makes his bacon the way his grandfather did. He dry-rubs the pork bellies with a mixture of salt and brown sugar and lets them rest for almost 6 weeks, switching midway through from a 38-degree cooler to a 45-degree one and finally to an aging room. Then, they spend 48 hours in a smokehouse, with the smoke generated from an old wood-burning stove. The ham and proscuitto are cured even longer, the latter for more than a year.

One of the first chefs to discover Benton's hams and bacon was John Fleer at Blackberry Farm, a resort hotel in Walland, Tennessee, who not only used it in his celebrated "Foothills Cuisine" but also promoted it to other chefs. Benton's products have now conquered a host of New York City restaurants such as Craft, Salumeria Biellese, and Bobby Flay's Bar Americain, where it makes its way into haute cuisine dishes like roasted partridge with savoy cabbage and bacon and onto tasting platters of "artisanal hams". Sean Brock uses Benton's ham and bacon right here in Charleston at McCrady's.

Benton himself is more prosaic in how he recommends one cook his bacon and ham: just fry the bacon slowly in a pan. For the ham, pour half a cup of coffee into a frying pan, stir in a little brown sugar, then steam the slices in the liquid.

And that simple, old-school simplicity is how I wanted my first taste of Benton's bacon. So, I unwrapped the pound that I had had sliced there on the old bandsaw in Madisonville, stripped off a few slices, and cooked them in a cast iron skillet.

To the eye, the end product looked pretty much like any thick-sliced bacon. To the mouth, however, it was completely unlike any bacon I'd eaten before. Upon first bite there was a very strong salty hit, then I noticed notice the chewiness of the meat. Then a warm rush of hickory smokiness that lingered and lingered while I savored the whole bite.

This is bacon that you eat as slowly as you can, chewing each bite carefully while still managing to race through the entire plate you cooked up before your wife has time to get back from her early morning run to the store and try a piece.

Benton calls his operation a "hole-in-the-wall" business, but, believe it or not, they actually have a website, where you can order all his products online. And, judging by the hundreds (if not thousands) of hams I saw hanging on the curing racks in the back, they're doing a pretty bang up business, too. And, for the time being at least, it's cheap, cheap, cheap: bacon at $4.50 a pound! This may change as word gets out, but the web site should keep me stocked with a consistent stream of bacon once the supply I brought home from the holidays gives out.

And that shouldn't be too much longer.

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