Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lump v. Briquette

There's a nice little bit over at Serious Eats comparing lump charcoal with briquettes. I'm a big lump fan myself, but the exchange in the comments section is interesting.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Old South v. New South

Besha Rodell of Creative Loafing Atlanta takes a comparative look at the Atlanta and Charleston dining scenes. And Charleston comes off looking pretty good . . .

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Top 10 Tips

Writing about Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking got me thinking about my own favorite bits of advice for cooking.

So, I looked back over the past 18 years (jeez . . . has it really been that long?) since I first started cooking for myself as a college student. I had just moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with a real kitchen and somewhere along the line decided I needed to learn how to cook (the memories are a little fuzzy, but it's a good bet the reasons centered on trying to impress girls). One of my first specialties was "EZ Chicken and Rice", a recipe I got from my mother which involved primarily putting chicken parts in a baking pan, pouring over a can of cream of chicken soup, and baking for an hour. No longer in my repertoire today, but as I recall it beat the pants off of dining hall food.

I've come a long way since, and here is my Top 10 list of tips and techniques that made the most difference in improving the quality of food coming out of my kitchen:

1. Use butter, real butter. This has nothing to do with the health benefits of one over the other (and who can keep track of the latest scientific consensus, anyway). Butter has a creaminess and a texture and an enriching quality that you just can't get from margarine, which is essential salty vegetable oil, and it is indispensible for so many classic recipes. Unsalted butter is best--you can always add salt to a dish, but you can't take it away. If you splurge for the expensive, imported, high-butter fat stuff from Europe, all the better, but even the supermarket brand is miles better than Country Crock.

2. Use wine to deglaze pans. This is a simple step that adds so much. I keep a four-pack of those small bottles of white wine (the single-serving size) in my refrigerator for just this purpose.

3. Reduce sauces (and don't thicken with flour or constarch) Using a lot of flour to thicken sauces dates back to the days of Scientific Cookery in the late 19th Century, but it can be a crutch that ruins the texture of sauces. It's a snap to stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour to thicken something up; using cornstarch is even easier. But, they introduce an unpleasant gummy texture and, since they replace the long-simmering time required to make reduced sauces, result in a less-flavorful sauce. It's a shortcut that isn't worth it. Just turn up the heat and let the sauce bubble away until it is reduced down to the thickness you desire.

4. Make your own stock and use it liberally. Non-cooks seem to be overly impressed (or just puzzled) by people who make their own stock. I'm not sure why. It may take hours of cooking time, but the actual work involved is minimal--you just put a pot of water on to boil and toss in some meaty bones or chicken carcasses and some roughly chopped vegetables. Even if you roast your bones and vegetables first and skim the stock while it simmers, it's just not very labor intensive. And the payoff is huge. Using stock in dishes adds so much more flavor--and complexity of flavor--that once you start cooking with it, it's hard to imagine going back. It's an essential component of many classic sauces, and certainly a key for "high cuisine", but it also makes every day recipes--like chili and spagehetti sauce--richer and more flavorful as well. And, if you make a big pot you can freeze it in plastic containers and always have it on hand for cooking.

5. Control your own spices. The supermarket boasts dozens of pre-made spice mixes, like "chili seasoning" and "Italian Herbs", that are convenient but take all control of the flavoring away from you. Many contain non-spice additive like starch or MSG that, like using flour in sauces, is a shortcut way to get some thickness or body to cooking but, ultimately, result in an industrial aftertaste to food. It takes trial and error to learn what spices go well together and in what proportion, but over time you will achieve far, far better flavor than you would if you rely on a packaged mix to do it for you.

6. Get a good chef's knife and learn to chop and dice. I got a good chef's knife as a wedding present, and I'll never go back. There's no need to drop 75 bucks on a package that comes with 12 different knives (most of them serrated, which is the only way to make cheap metal able to cut) and a block to store them in. The same $75 will buy you a nice chef's knife, and that's really all you need--and I mean really. I have only two other knives that I use regularly (a thin boning knife and a bread knife), but in a pinch the chef's knife could substitute for either of them. Spend a little extra for a steel and keep the knife sharp.

Those chef-sized knives with a serrated edge are next to useless (q.v. bad kitchen equipment)--you can only use them for sawing, not chopping or slicing. With the cheapy knives (or a dull good knife), you'll never be able to chop or dice vegetables finely, which cuts out a whole spectrum of cooking. Once you have your good knife, it will be a prized tool for years to come.

7. Cook with Shallots and Fresh Parsely: For some reason, these two ingredients are not widely used in most home cooking, but both add deep, harmonious flavor to a wide range of dishes. One of my absolute favorite cooking smells is when I dash a handful of minced shallots and parsley into a hot frying pan along side an almost-done steak or pork chop. That's the scent of heaven. Buy some shallots the next time you are at the grocery--they are remarkably inexpensive--and give them a whirl.

8. No-Stick Pans Suck: Unless, that is, you like having little black flakes of indigestible coating in your food. You may not have the budget for a full set of top-of the line stainless steel pans, but don't get suckered by Teflon's false promise of convenience. Cast iron frying pans are cheap as can be and are easier to clean than no-stick, and you can get great milaged from plain old enameled stock pots.

9. Meat Needs Space: When you brown meat, particularly beef, don't crowd the pan. The meat will give up its liquid and you'll end up simmering rather than browning the meat, and that's not the objective. You are much better cooking the meat in batches, making sure there's a little space between the pieces, so that it will brown quicker. If you notice that liquid starting to pool up, take some more of the meat out and brown it in a later batch.

10. Seek Inspiration and Imitate Great Food: Most of my favorite dishes in my repertoire came not from reading a recipe in a book or magazine but rather from my trying to recreate a dish I ate out at a restaurant. Identify new recipes with your palate first, find the ones that really knock you out, then start looking up recipes to help you create them. And, don't be frustrated if the first attempt isn't as great as the original that inspired it. It often takes time to perfect the recipe.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Both Busch and Miller will be rolling out beer in new camoflage-patterned cans later this summer, an attempt to appeal to their core demographic of 45- to 65-year old blue-collar males, who tend to be big fans of hunting, fishing, and target shooting. And who will soon be losing an inordinate number of beer cans in the woods.

Hat tip to Kate at Accidental Hedonist for the link.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Beer Fraud Follow Up

Five months and a dozen house guests later, it's still there . Anybody want to drop by for a Memorial Day Cookout? Beer's on me . . .

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Gentleman in the Beret is Giving Me the Jeebies

Every night as I'm cooking dinner, I pick up my big blue box of kosher salt and am confronted with this image:

Who is it? Why, Joe Kruchinsky, of course. You know, the creator of Kruchinsky's Hot Potatoes.

No, I did not buy this box of salt in 1978.

Update: Just as I was about to submit this post, the Seven Year Old walked into the room and saw the picture of the gentleman above and said, "Who's THAT? He looks COOL!" Joe, if you're out there: you've got a fan.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Elements of Cooking

One of the books I got for Christmas was Michael Ruhlman's The Elements of Cooking, which I have been dipping into frequently over the past months.

The best part of the book can be found in the "Notes on Cooking" section that occupies the first fifty-pages. These are moderate-length instructional pieces on key kitchen concepts and techniques, such as "Stock", "The Egg", and "Tools". These are filled with eminently practical guidance, useful both for the novice cook as well as someone who has been cooking seriously for years.

One that struck me as particularly useful was this one in the "Salt" essay on how to salt water for cooking pasta:

Before culinary school, I'd salted pasta water by putting a pinch into a giant pot of water . . . My instructor explained that our pasta water should taste like properly seasoned soup. This would ensure perfectly seasoned pasta. Or rice, for that matter.

Elegant, to the point, and eminently useful. Maybe I just fell off the culinary turnip truck, but I never thought to use that simple test before. I now taste the water everytime I make pasta, and I have to say it's led to consistently tastier pasta for me.

Ruhlman has caught a lot of flak for his over-emphasis on French terms and techniques. The book, after all, is called "Elements of Cooking" and not "Elements of French Cooking", so he's been charged with Francophilia and not valuing other cultures. It doesn't bother me that much, though. All books have their particular slants and biases, and Ruhlman's reflects his training at the Culinary Institute of America and what he's learned working with chefs like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert. In other words, these are Ruhlman's tips for good cooking, not all the tips for good cooking to be found in the world.

My bigger beef with the book is what happens after your leave the first fifty pages and get into the "A to Z" section that constitutes the remaining 4/5ths of the text.

Ruhlman consciously modeled his book on Struck and White's The Elements of Style, the classic, brief (43-page) guide to English writing style that was first published in 1918. Ruhlman's concept is to provide a similar guide on the essentials of cooking. The first 50 pages do this admirably. Then it slips off the rails.

The original Elements of Style is organized as follows:

  • Elementary Rules of Usage

  • Elementary Principles of Composition

  • A Few Matters of Form

  • Words and Expressions Commonly Misused

  • Words Commonly Misspelled

The "Elementary Rules" and "Elementary Principles" are presented as crisp, imperitive statments: "Do not join independent clauses by a comma", "Omit needless words", "Use the active voice." Once you get to "Words and Expressions Commonly Misued", the organization shifts to an alphebetical list of terms with a brief discussion of each. Here, for example, is the first entry:

All right. Idiomatic in familiar speech as a detached phrase in the sense, "Agreed," or "Go ahead." In other uses better avoided. Always written as two words.

This entry does define what "all right" means, but more important is the injuction, "in other uses better avoided", as well as the fact that you should always write it as two words. Just a tiny bit of advice, but it's something the writer can take away and use to write just a little bit better. It makes for a book that's a good quick read for someone looking to reflect on their writing and also a nice reference volume that can be consulted again and again as you are in the middle of writing ("Should I use 'that' or 'which'? Let's see what Strunk and White say . . .").

Now what, on the other hand, would an aspiring home cook do with an entry like this from Ruhlman's book?

Reach-In: Reach-in is shorthand for reach-in cooler, to distinguish it from the walk-in cooler.

Or this one?

Flavor: arguably the most important element of a dish. All other elements of the craft of cooking, doneness, seasoning, texture, presentation, all are in support ultimately of flavor. Flavor is paramount.

Nice definition and sentiment, but how are these going to help someone cook better?

I greatly suspect that Ruhlman turned in a first draft of the book that came in around eighty pages and his publisher hit the roof and said, "No one will buy a book that small! Flesh it out!", so he went back to the well and started defining everything in sight. Which is a shame, for even the A to Z section has some gems of good advice hidden away among the dry-as-dust excyclopedia entries. Like these tips on shallots:

Their harsher effects can be eliminated by macerating them in vinegar; raw shallots are volatile, so they should be cut and incorporated into the food the day you're serving it (that is, don't add them to a vinaigrette that will sit for several days in the refrigerator.)

I guess Scribner was probably right: few customers would be likely to plunk down $24.00 for a volume less than 100 pages--and I wouldn't plunk down $24 for the full 245 pages, either. But it was a great gift, and a paperback version should be out soon, and the first fifty pages of Ruhlman alone is well worth a paperback cover price.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Can You Afford a Coke?

I will admit to having been more than a little skeptical lately about all the hysteria over the "soaring" cost of food. While there's no doubt that the prices of certain products such as milk and beef have gone up considerably in recent months, in general most food in the United States is up a only moderate amount (a few percentage points over last year). I am well aware that in underdeveloped countries food prices are indeed a big problem right now, but I've been fairly unconcerned about things here on the domestic front and quite unsympathetic to the moans and groans of aggreived middle class shoppers (so don't buy the Hot Pockets, already!)

But that complacency is starting to change.

For starters, I'm starting to come across more and more hard-hitting journalistic efforts like this one from WJRT in Flint, which must have the folks in central Michigan about to go out of their minds with fear. Ace investigative reporter Lori Dougovito has uncovered this shocking fact: your Memorial Day picnic this year is likely to cost--hold your breath--six percent more this year than last. That's right, SIX percent. Which means if you spent $80 last year on burgers and beer for you and your friends, this year you are going have to shell out $84.80.

Think about that. I mean, really, who can afford to even have a cookout this Memorial Day? (Darlene Martin, shopping with her $100 Bluetooth cellphone headset firmly in place, is having to "forego some of the conveniences this year", but she is bravely soldiering through. My favorite part of the whole segment, though, is Dougovito's live upclose interview with a rusty grill. I think she's got that Local News Emmy in the bag.)

The kicker came yesterday at work. I strolled past the Coke machine and noticed out of the corner of my eye . . . holy crikies! A twenty ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, which had been pegged firmly at $1.00 for years, is now . . . $1.10! I am a whiz at math, so I took out a pad and pen and in a few short minutes had calculted that this amounted to precisely a 10% increase.

But, really, it is much, much more than a 10% increase, both for the psychological and logistical barriers it makes to the sale. Ever since Coke machines started accepting dollar bills, there really wasn't a significant difference between a Coke that cost 85 cents or 95 cents or even a full dollar. You take the dollar out of your wallet, slide it in the dispenser, wrestle with it whizzing in and out about eight jillion times, fold it, unfold it, turn it around, smooth it out, reinsert it, then finally get your big 20 ounce bottle of cola. Maybe you got a dime or a nickel back or maybe you didn't, but who really cared. Want a Coke, you need a buck. Don't have a dollar? No problem. It's really easy to ask someone, "Hey can I borrow a buck so I can get a Coke?"

But now . . . if you are like me and don't carry change frequently, you now have to have two dollars in your wallet in order to acquire a Coke. And, even though you'll get ninety cents back after the purchase, psychologically it still feels an awful lot like you just spent two dollars for a Coke, and that's just not right. And good luck hitting up your buddy for a dollar and ten cents to get a Coke. He's not going to be carrying around a bunch of dimes either, so you are now basically asking to borrow two dollars.

So, this in my mind is something of a watershed event. The last time we saw such a barrier broken was back in the late 20th Century (seems so long ago, doesn't it?) when that magic fifty-cents-a-Coke barrier was broken. If you recall, Coke machine prices eased up gradually from twenty-five cents a nickle at a time until they hit fifty cents, then they stuck there for years, since two quarters was a nice psychological barrier. And do you remember what happened after the barrier was broken? 65 cents or 70 cents was an odd price to pay, so all of a sudden you saw Coke machines switch from 70 cents for a 12 ounce can to $1.00 for a 20 ounce bottle (a 66% increase in size, for those counting at home). The increased volume has caused some health advocates to accuse the soft drink companies of conspiring to make Americans fat (like we need any help!), but the truth of the matter is that is was all forced by the psychology of cost.

And so I predict that you will see another change coming very soon. The $1.10 Coke just doesn't seem to offer much value, and you're digging into your wallet for two bills already. Any day now we will see the advent of the liter-bottle Coke machine, where for two dollars even you get a big honkin' 33.8-ounce bottle of tasty Coca-Cola. Your waistline won't thank you, but your brain will think you're getting a screamer of a deal.

You heard it here first.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

EVO's Chocolatier

Today's Post & Courier has an interesting piece in its food section on John Eric Battles, the sous chef at EVO Pizzeria who moonlights as the restaurant's chocolatier, making custom-blended, hand-molded chocolates for the dessert menu.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tales From the Road: Sushi Overdose

I've been on the road the past two weeks--two back-to-back trips to San Francisco, including red-eyes back home and all that--so I'm just now coming up for air.

The coast-to-coast travel is a beast, but there's an upside: getting to eat out in San Francisco. There's so much good food out there, from locally-raised beef to great Chinese and that sourdough bread that just isn't quite as good anywhere else (some claim it's the water that does it). And, of course, there is unbelievable seafood everywhere you turn.

My coworkers are big sushi fans, so every time we've been out there we've been hitting various sushi joints. I have to admit, the sushi is remarkably good, both in its freshness and a variety. We did Sushi Ran in Sausalito the previous week and this past week hit Ozumo down near the Bay Bridge on Steuart St. We had Spider Rolls (with fried softshell crab), Spicy Scallops, and mackerel, and salmon, and hamachi with warm avocado and a ginger and jalapeno ponzu sauce that we all but lapped up directly from the plate. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

It was fresh and firm and had all the delightful fruity and silky notes that you want from good sushi. And at the end I realized something: sushi just isn't doing it for me any more.

I think it started a few months ago when I reviewed Sushi Haru for the Charleston City Paper and tried toro (tuna belly) for the first time. I had read about Jeffrey Steingarten's quest for toro in his collection It Must Have Been Something I Ate (read an except from the chapter here), and ever since had been itching to try it. So, when I saw toro on Sushi Haru's menu that night I knew I had to give it a shot.

It was good: don't get me wrong on that point. But it wasn't up to the hype. It was a lot paler and fattier than regular tuna, and you could really taste the richness of the fat on your tongue, almost butter like. I gave it good marks in the review, but ever since something about that toro has been nagging at me.

Maybe it was the "underwhelm" factor of it. Hyperbolic accounts like Steingarten's and others led me to expect a serendipidous moment ("where have you been all my life, toro!") and I ended up with a quick taste of tender fish that was gone in twenty seconds.

Or, maybe it was the whole sushi experience: taking just the tiniest, finest, best cuts of a fish and trying to fill yourself up on it, at the expense of vegetables and starches and all the normal staples of a meal. There's something exceptionally extravagant about the whole concept. And expensive, too. Has anyone ever walked out of a sushi restaurant with a bill any less than twice the amount they meant to spend when they walked in the front door?

Or, perhaps, it had something to do with the packing slips from the fish shipments that Sushi Haru posts on the wall--a clever little bit of showmanship that somehow magically suggests against all logic that this sushi must be really, really fresh. And when I examined it closer, it turns out the delivery was from New York Fish House up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And when I poked into it a little more, it turns out New York Fish House is part of True World Foods, LLC, a massive distributor of sushi products that moves $280 million worth of fish every year and seems to have some sort of ties with Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church.

The notion that my sushi dollar might be going to support the Moonies doesn't trouble me too much, but it just adds to the general aura of weirdness that now surrounds sushi for me. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is to sit and think about how long the supply chain is that brings that supposedly super-fresh fish from the ocean to the table of your local sushi joint. It can be caught anywhere in the world--in the Mediterranean, the North Pacific off the coast of Japan--and either put on ice or, more likely than not, flash frozen at -90 degrees. Then it's a long haul by boat to New Jersey, where it's processed and packaged and put on a refrigerated truck or a cargo plane and sent out somewhere in the U.S. Which, in my case, means Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where I eat it less than two miles from an Atlantic Ocean teaming with fresh fish and shrimp. There's just something more than a little bit nutty about it.

And it caught up with me in San Francisco, as I polished of the last of the mackarel and thought about whether I wanted to order anything else before we called it quits. I suddenly realized I didn't. I'd had enough tender, chewy, sweet raw fish. We'd been eating for a good half-hour, but I didn't feel full and I didn't feel sated. I had just had enough.

The next night, before we caught the redeye back, I bullied my friends into going to Schroeder's, an old fashioned German restaurant founded in 1893. We ate German cocktail sausages with sauerkraut and red cabbage, potato pancakes, and massive schnitzels along with big steins of beer. It was hearty, it was filling, it was delightful. I think I'm still full.

I don't think I'll be having sushi again for quite some time.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Resurrecting Hoppin' John, Part 1: Red Cowpeas

One of the classics of Lowcountry cooking is Hoppin' John. As much as I have heard people rave about it, I have to admit that for years I was utterly unimpressed. Most recipes these days say Hoppin' John is a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice. The versions I tried always seemed pretty bad--bland flavor, and a mushy texture. Even efforts to spruce it up a little with sausage or bacon or tomatoes didn't seem to help much. The end result was a gloppy gooey mess that left me wondering, "What were those old Lowcountry folks thinking?"

Now I'm starting to figure it out. It's a problem of ingredients. If you start with plain old white rice and a can of Bush's black-eyed peas, you will end up with Hoppin' Mush. To get the real deal, you need to use the right ingredients.

This entry is dedicated to the first of these ingredients: proper red cowpeas. Wikipedia may lump cowpeas and black-eyed peas in as the same thing, but they really are not. Carolina Plantation now grows classic cowpeas, and you can find them sold in white cotton bags at various grocery stores around town or pick them up online. They'll run you five or six bucks for a two pound bag, but it's worth shelling out for: these peas are nothing like blackeyes.

Red cowpeas are firmer than black-eyed peas and have a richer flavor--the only term I can come up with is "more meaty." Cook some up and you'll see what I mean. I've found there's a fine line when cooking with ordinary dried black-eyed peas: if you don't cook them long enough, they are still crunchy in the middle, which is awful. Cook them too long and they turn to mush. You don't have this problem with red cowpeas. Their texture holds up well, staying firm and chewy even with long, slow cooking.

Here's how I like to cook them:

1. Rinse 1 cup of cowpeas and soak in water for a few hours

2. Bring 3 cups of chicken stock to a boil

3. Add in the following:
  • half a cup of diced onion

  • 1 strip of good bacon, diced

  • the soaked peas

Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes or an hour, till the beans are tender and the pot liquor is thick and flavorful.

These peas are so delicious you may decide there's no need to ever mix them with anything else. But, stay tuned for part two . . .

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