Monday, November 26, 2007

Hash... and eggs

I almost never post photos here, but I came across these in the course of emptying out the camera. So here's what breakfast tends to look like when you're in end-stage cured meat obsession.

A hash in the pan.

Flanken and musings on exercise, values, and food prices

With all the attention I've been giving to brisket, corned beef, pastrami, and now flanken it would be understandable if readers supposed we eat nothing but the heaviest of meats around here. Not so, we actually include lots of lighter fare in the mix - but these items have been the topic of study around here for the past few months. And I admit it's a lot of heavy meat.

So that got me thinking about a piece I saw on tv a while back - I think it was on PBS. They were profiling a guy who had set up his office so he could do all his work while walking on a treadmill. He had no desk or chair. His phone and workstation were mounted for use while walking on the treadmill. Throughout the day, as he did his work, he was walking continuously. He seemed happy. And healthy. I bet he could eat whatever he wanted with impunity.

So now I'm wondering (if only half seriously) how I could install a section of moving sidewalk in my kitchen work area. A challenge to be sure. The way my kitchen is set up, I have a number of workstations. While working at any one of these, the treadmill set-up could work. It's the moving from one to the other that's going to be hard. Hmmm.

Well anyway, until such time as I figure that out, let's talk flanken. Now flanken is a great cut of meat for braising.

But wait - first, stream of impending unconsciousness-wise - I've got to tell you, I just stepped over to my (still stationary) kitchen and sampled some experimental corned beef that's been steaming most of the afternoon. This steaming was actually the second phase of a multi-step cooking process that began early this morning. Wow! This is the tenderest piece of corned beef I think I've ever had. Not falling apart. Not dried out. But buttery soft. And I have to tell you there were times earlier in the day when I was sure this piece of meat would never be any good. Long, complicated procedure but a startlingly good result. Have to try this again tomorrow and see if it comes out the same. And then of course there's the question of economics. Will anyone be willing to pay a fair price for all the time, handling, and energy necessary to this process?

Ok, back to flanken. Talk about stick to your ribs. So I'm working with this stuff because I recently showed a customer a braised kobe brisket product that they went crazy over - except for the price. So now I'm trying to come up with something more affordable for them and that brings us back to flanken. This is a value cut with which you can obtain luxury results. I've prepared it many ways over the years, and it's pretty hard to go wrong as long as you go low and slow. Braised with some wine and aromatics, deviled, tagine with prunes or olives, whatever. Great stuff. I recommend you play with some this winter. There's plenty of good recipes available online.

So before I go, let me pose this question. Where chief-value meat ingredients and prepared foods are concerned, why is the variation in pricing allocable to quality (worst to best) so comparatively small? Certainly where some other kinds of products are concerned the spread is wide. Consider cheese. I can easily find domestic cheese offerings ranging from $2.00 to $32.00 per pound (16X). How about domestic wine? $2 to $200 per bottle is not a stretch (100X). In neither case are these fashion items or branded goods with large marketing budgets. They're just products that vary in quality and price where connoisseurs are willing to pay for what they like.

What about meat (or fish)? If you've been shopping in mainstream supermarkets lately, you must have noticed that run-of-the-mill steaks might cost you around $7 a pound. And, in many stores are likely to be graded "select" (feh). Not a high-quality piece of meat there. In a specialty butcher shop carrying high-quality commercial beef, and perhaps even dry-aging it, you might expect to pay 4 or perhaps 5 times that. Never mind the mail-order guys asking still more - that's a topic for another day. But the bricks-and-mortar retail spread from low to high for a given nominally identical cut of beef spans perhaps a multiple of 5 times. Why not more? I'm not arguing that we should all happily pay more - I'm just wondering why we do it for cheese and wine, but not for meat.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

11/17 Tonight's Dinner with friends from the neighborood

Mediterranean Meze featuring:

Crudités, Marinated Olives, Baba Ganoush, Assorted Dolmas, Eggplant and Pepper Salad, Muhammara, Tomato & Pickled Pepper Salad, Feta & Pepper Crème, Patacabra cheese, Three breads,
And Libations from the Martini Bar

Kofta & Shish Kebabs of Icelandic Lamb
with Basmati Rice
Cotes du Rhone, Cairanne

A highly distinguished Dessert TBD
Domaine Castera, Cuvee Privilege, (Moelleux) Jurançon

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thanksgiving Variations

The Boston Globe food section a few days back did a story on chef's improvisations on Thanksgiving themes. Here, some further, Noshstalgic thoughts on this topic -

For many families, Thanksgiving dinner is a more than a Noshstalgic tradition - it has become a ritual or even a fetish. No variation is permitted. The list of compulsory elements turkey, stuffing, potatoes (often more than one kind), cranberry sauce, a family heirloom recipe or two that makes their Thanksgiving theirs alone, etc. can be long. And, sometimes - at least for the cook - the joy of the holiday and gathering can become mired in the inevitability of the proceedings.

At Chez Noshstalgia - here in the home of someone who's seriously dedicated to preserving culinary tradition - we try hard to approach Thanksgiving as a fresh opportunity for invention every time. We have tended to view the rigorous form of holidays like Thanksgiving as a platform for a special kind of variation. The trick is to somehow hit the compulsories with just the right degree of imagination and flair to satisfy traditional expectations and excite people with something new, delicious, broadening, and (though novel) profoundly comfortable all the same time.

The other thing about Thanksgiving here, is that while we always have family about, we often include others as well. And even within the family, our ethnic diversity gives rise to a big range of traditions and tastes. There may be no other occasion where thoughtful consideration of ones guests is more important in composing a menu.

On a number of occasions over the past few years, our guests at Thanksgiving have presented a challenging array of allergies or other dietary restrictions. Celiac - no wheat, no gluten from any source. Eggs - allergic. Nuts and nut oils of any kind - lethally allergic. Chestnuts - not sure they say, but the word nut sounds possibly lethal, so no thanks.

Here's where the turkey ended up on a couple of such occasions:

Tuscan Roast Turkey with Polenta, Sausage, and Mushroom Stuffing
Roast Turkey with Cornbread, Butifarras and PX Sherry Macerated Figs Stuffing

I confess, those butifarras with figs went on to become something of a fetish around here. Making those sausages and soaking those figs really gets me going.
Same thing has happened with a mango/cranberry chutney side that started out as a response to some menu exigence or other. Funny how invention is the mother of tradition.

What to do this year? Feeding about 20 this year - and about the most traditional 20 I know. Hmmm -

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Follow up on Andy and Vicki Dinner

So, how'd things work out?
A minor disaster along the way notwithstanding, quite well.

Appetizer - Pumkin Ravs, buerre blanc, fried sage + 2000 Boglietti Buio
Everybody loved this course. Even Secondo went for seconds. He never made it to the main course. Disaster disclosure - a momentary lapse of attention cost me an extra bottle of white en route to the buerre blanc. Set the schedule back of course too as I had to reduce another. But this is a mere trifle. The results - even though later and more expensive than planned were stellar. And that Nebbiolo - WOW! Hadn't tried this wine for a while and it has grown into its very considerable self in the interim. Highly recommended.

Main - Venison Roast, Guanciale, PX Cippolini and Peppers, Roast Potatoes + Carlo & Julian Pinot
Mixed results here. Venison was very good, but along the way I found that I had underestimated the intensity of the guanciale and so had to adjust from the intended "robe" to a mere few jullienned strips draped criss-cross over the loins. A minor matter that resulted in no disappointment for anyone other than myself who had entertained a different image. No matter - the roast was very nice. The venison was decidedly not gamy and everyone managed to enjoy it despite some in the group having fond feelings toward Bambi and friends. The cippolini were terrific. The potatoes alas, were the real casualty of the first course buerre blanc delay. Not my best potatoes. Nobody really cared. A good thing, I guess. But it does make you wonder if any of the trouble is worth it. I mean honestly, if people aren't going to complain about defects - how much pleasure can we take in their praise of the good bits?

And then there was the Pinot Noir. I had selected it because I wanted some funk - but this was too much . Actually quite skunky - or maybe I should say rubbery - on opening. Resolved a bit over time - but not an attractive start. Slightest spritz too. Clearly something amiss. I have had this wine before - in a restaurant - and enjoyed it thoroughly (hence the case now on hand). Hope the rest of the case is ok. I'll report back.
And then people refused to go for a walk - and demanded dessert instead! None planned, we fell back on the fortuitous presence of ripe bananas, ginger root, Goslings, molasses, sugar, some good vanilla powder, fire and rich vanilla ice cream. Festive, fun, exothermic, and delicious.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Uncle Andy and Aunt Vicki visit - Menu for tonight

Pumpkin Ravioli (roast chicken demi glace-beurre blanc and fried sage)
2000 Enzo Boglietti Buio, Langhe

Roast Loin of New Zealand Venison with Guanciale robe
PX Sherry glazed roast cippolini & red peppers, crispy savory roast potatoes
2005 Carlo & Julian Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette

Simple green salad

Take a walk.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pastrami, Corned Beef, Noshstalgia and more ...

To any readers who may have noticed my relative silence over the past several weeks - I apologize. I've been busy, and I'm about to tell you why.

If you've been reading Noshstalgia for a while, you know that I'm more than a little obsessed with pastrami. Corned beef too. I've tried most every reputable brand, deli or restaurant offering here in Boston, down in New York and anywhere else my travels take me. Certainly there are places offering enjoyable products - some of them truly great - but still, I've never been entirely satisfied.

And so, I set out to see if I could produce something myself - something that did it. Yes, it's magic meat we're after. Time travel inducing sandwiches. One bite and you're back. Back where it all began - where indelible sense memories were planted.

Well, as other intrepid neophytes to making pastrami have oft reported - getting this stuff right takes some work. But after many months of effort, I'm pleased to report that I've got a repeatable, reliable, artisan quality - but commercial scale - process for what I believe is the best there is. More recently, I went to work on corned beef too, and now I think we're almost there with that also. I've served many people at this point - and they have been unanimous - There's magic in that meat.

Amongst other things, what I've discovered in this exploration of deli meat production is that while tradition and deep memories are essential to informing the process, selective use of more innovative, modern methods can yield great - perhaps greater than ever before - results.

Emboldened (maybe even intoxicated) by the the aromas, flavors, textures, and rave reviews from hundreds of consumer taste tests, I began working on a business plan to try and bring these products to market. I'm pleased to report that - although it's nearly impossible to make money on really high-quality meat - I think I've found a way to at least get started and share the deli high.

Once having tasted the pastrami, there was no stopping my pursuit of other "great lost tastes" - so now there are several other Noshstalgia-inspired products also in the works that I'm not yet prepared to discuss publicly. Honestly I haven't even determined yet what to call my fledgling venture (royalty-free suggestions welcome) - nor have I resolved how, if at all, this blog relates to it. But I felt I owed any readers who might have been wondering what happened to me an explanation. I will try to make time, once again, to post more regularly, and I will try and keep readers up to date with developments on this new business venture.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ethnic Foods Dining Out Meetup at Taiwan Cafe

Had dinner tonight with 7 strangers at the Taiwan Cafe on Chinatown's Oxford Street. This place has been praised by many on line reviewers. Some people who say they know claim it to be authentic Taiwanese food. I don't know Taiwanese food, so I can't say one way or the other.

The good news - A nice group of people arranged through There were 18 RSVPs for the event, but only 8 of us showed. No matter, a perfect number for one large round table and a good size for conversation. I enjoyed meeting these folks. And I learned things. More diversity of age than I had anticipated.

Now as to the food - I was disappointed.

We had two dumplings - one pan fried and one steamed. The dipping sauce supplied carried more vinegar and malt and less spice than I would have preferred. Not bad, but not balanced and not exciting. The dumplings - both types - also failed to deliver any real excitement. Copious filling, but not much flavor.

We ordered 7 assorted entrees - Pork with Yellow Chives, Eggplant with Basil, Braised Spareribs in BBQ sauce, Squid and something, Jumbo Shrimp in Chili Sauce, String Beans with Dried Shrimp, and Spicy Salt and Pepper Chicken. Every item with the possible exception of the string beans was either way salty, way sweet or both. None exhibited any real clarity of flavor. The great thing about good chinese food is the way it allows the flavors of ingredients to really pop. None of that here. Frankly, the particulars don't even merit detailed analysis. I will however call out the string beans - which may not have been too salty (who can even tell at a certain sodium saturated point?) for some special attention. They had a generally dimpled appearance I associate with less than fresh vegetables and a musty character that I found unattractive. I've had the dried shrimp treatment before and don't recall feeling similarly, so I'm not sure what accounts for the mustiness.

Overall, well - nice people. Meetup Group seems like a good thing.
Taiwan Cafe - well...I'll try somewhere else next time.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Slow Foods Pot Luck

We hosted a Slow Foods Pot Luck dinner last night at chez Noshstalgia. Being rather far out in the 'burbs, we attracted a small group - just four guests in addition to ourselves. Interestingly each attendee reported this to be their first Slow Foods pot luck and all but one reported this to be their first Slow Foods event of any kind. Lack of experience notwithstanding, everyone brought something delicious.
On offer:
  • Amuse: Polenta Toasts with Local Baby Lamb Bruschetta

  • Soup1: Acorn Squash and Fresh Picked Apple

  • Savory1: Leek, Goat Cheese and Walnut Tart

  • Savory2: Curry-Butter Roasted Cauliflower Crowns

  • Soup 2: Puree of root vegetables

  • Entree1: New Mexico Chile of Pork and Poblano Peppers with home-made tortillas

  • Entree2: Grilled Rib Chops of Local Baby Lamb

  • Dessert: White Chocolate, Challah Bread Pudding with Raspberry Sauce

  • Wine1: La Sauvageonne 2002 Pica Broca, Languedoc

  • Wine2: Willm 2006 Gewurztraminer, Alsace

  • Because we were a small group, we were able to sit down to a regular meal rather than milling and grazing as would have been required were there many more of us. A nice gathering and I encourage any readers to host or attend one of these soon. And if the group is smallish - so much the better.

    Monday, September 24, 2007

    Baby Lamb Two Ways

    I sometimes get baby lamb at the Halal butcher nearby. Since they like to sell it by the quarter, this most often this means dealing with a variety of cuts. On this occasion, I had a front quarter to work with so I had riblets (full length rib, minus rib-eye) , rib chops (rib eye with short-cut rib section), shoulder, and fore-shank. I had Robert cut the riblets into finger-food length sections two ribs wide and cut the rest up as for stew.

    The riblets were destined for the grill after a light rubbing with a simple savory rub of EVOO, kosher salt, fresh garlic, pepper, oregano, and a drop of lemon oil.
    Served the grilled riblets over a bed of convection roasted swiss chard drizzled with a bit of balsamic muscat glaze. In the oven, the chard stalks get cooked through and the leafy parts range from luxuriously moist where piled together to bone dry where more exposed to the oven's hot wind.
    Wine: 1996 Hacienda Monasterio, Ribera del Duero

    The stew meat was used for a long-and-slow cooked sweet tagine featuring preserved figs and yellow dates.
    Served with 2000 Mas Igneus "FA112", Priorat

    No time right now to document the recipe and procedure on the tagine but I do want to capture at least a note on the yellow dates and on the wine and how it paired with this dish.

    Yellow dates: I have never used these before. I saw them at a small ethic produce place and picked them up on spec. I learned from a quick web search that there are 4 phases to date development. Green (not useful for food). Yellow - edible but not yet fully mature. Ripe. And finally dried. I was dealing with the yellow phase. I gather most people either eat them raw or just hold onto them and wait for them to ripen. I tried them raw, and found them quite good. Not as sweet as a fully ripened date, but definitely with the distinctive flavor or date plus a slight astringency. Very nice. In this dish, I cooked them in the stew. Worked very well. Retained good flavor and mouth feel. And presented a nice complement to the soft, sweet lushness of the preserved figs and the earthy nuttiness of the muhammara I snuck in.

    Mas Igneus - A wonderful bottle of wine. But more importantly, the pairing worked out extremely well. The tagine was earthy, and sweetly fruity - with a sort of deep bass note sweetness with lots of overtones of distinct individual flavors riding through. Very satisfying, but much like a men's choir. Lots of good voices in harmony - but all bottom. The Priorat had the clarity of a bell - blueberry fundamentals unmistakable. The blueberry driven palate provided the upper register that completed the dish - now fully symphonic. Sometimes these things just work out.

    Thursday, September 20, 2007

    Open letter to Ron Tanner, Editor of Specialty Food Magazine

    Well, folks, I sent along a draft of this piece to Ron Tanner of Specialty Food Magazine for comment several days back, but have not heard from him or anyone else there. Either my email was snagged in their spam filter or they didn't feel any need to comment. Not sure which.
    Here then the item:

    The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) is a fine organization. Among their many worthy activities, they recognize especially meritorious products each year with awards - now called sofi(TM) awards. I'll spare you the translation of that acronym so I can avoid going off on a ranting tangent about silly phrases chosen for their capacity to be reduced to catchy acronyms.

    But back to cases - they are good people, and they recognize excellence in their field with these sofis. Now the main point here today is to list the 30 categories in which products are judged and awards are given. I want to take the time to do this, and encourage you to read through the list because, all by itself, the category list tells us some important things about the Specialty Food business.

    Here then, the list:
    1. outstanding new product (this year's winner, a new artisan potato chip)
    2. outstanding product line
    3. outstanding appetizer, antipasto, salsa or dip
    4. outstanding condiment
    5. outstanding cooking sauce or flavor enhancer
    6. outstanding USDA approved organic product
    7. outstanding baked good, baking ingredient or cereal
    8. outstanding chocolate
    9. outstanding confection
    10. outstanding dessert or dessert topping
    11. outstanding cookie
    12. outstanding cheese or dairy product
    13. outstanding cold beverage
    14. outstanding diet and lifestyle product
    15. outstanding foodservice product
    16. outstanding food gift
    17. outstanding jam, preserve, honey or nut butter
    18. outstanding innovation in packaging design or function
    19. outstanding oil
    20. outstanding cracker
    21. outstanding snack food
    22. outstanding salad dressing
    23. outstanding frozen savory
    24. outstanding hot beverage
    25. outstanding meat, pate or seafood
    26. outstanding pasta sauce
    27. outstanding pasta, rice or grain
    28. outstanding vinegar
    29. outstanding soup, stew, bean or chili
    30. outstanding non-food specialty item
    For the purposes of this discussion, we are not interested in the award categories that are not food categories per se . Outstanding new, or outstanding line, for example could be any sort of offering. A quick review of the nature and distribution of the remaining categories should provide a decent approximation to categories and proportions of products found in self-identified Specialty Food stores.

    Picking products at random off specialty food store shelves, it seems you are (roughly) as likely to find a cracker as a pasta sauce, a chocolate as a salsa, or a cookie as some sort of meat, pate or seafood item (where all three proteins are taken as a single combined category). The picture we get with this quick methodology seems consistent with what I've seen in stores. Lots of shelf-stable food accessories. Not many frozen or perishable foods. Not surprising.

    But this product mix is a danger to the specialty food trade as we've known it. With people under ever more time stress, the market for meals ready to eat is growing fast. And most specialty food stores are not in that business. Moreover, people don't want to make extra stops, and upscale supermarkets are carrying more of the specialty items that were once the exclusive province of the specialty stores. Even those whose business includes the likes of fine wine or cheese are under attack from the upscale supermarkets. These two trends, growing sales of quality prepared foods and supermarket/specialty product-mix overlap are bad news if you're an independent, small-format specialty retailer.

    Now consider the market from the producer side. If independent retailers represent a decreasing share of the market and a comparatively small number of supermarket chains are growing dominant - what does this imply for creativity, and small-scale new product introductions? Can real specialty foods thrive in a consolidated market?

    I believe the time has come for the NASFT to actively promote an increased role for high-quality prepared foods and perishables in specialty retail. Who can doubt that independent specialty stores and the thousands of creative and talented small producers they can call upon have natural advantages over large corporations when it comes to creating and presenting real foods of quality - including center of plate? One easy way to start would be to revisit the structure of the sofi award categories. Another would be to foster retailer education that recognizes the strategic situation and encourages retailers to branch out. Neither man nor store lives by cracker, cookie, and condiment alone.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    If you're from New York...

    ...and you're not in New York. What NY foods do you miss most? I'm taking a poll. Please let me know.

    Oh yes, and if you're from New York, and you are in New York - are there still NY foods you miss because they seem to have disappeared - and if so, what are they, please?

    I am noshstalgic. Are you?

    Sunday, September 16, 2007

    Kathy's Pan-Latin Dinner - results note

    Some quick notes on the actual dinner first discussed here. First thing - too many items to pull together at once - especially after having spent the afternoon at a soccer game. We managed to get to some version of everything planned except the salad, but it was a bit rushed. Otherwise, quite good.
    Some specifics on what we actually ended up serving:

    Arepas - Not assorted, but one variety. Made with chicken stock, stuffed with Lomo and Comte, grilled on the char-broiler. Served with Hogao.

    Carnitas - Soccer game considered, no time to do proper carnitas, but instead made "instant carnitas":
    Marinate cubed picnic shoulder in Fresh orange juice, garlic, ground ancho, pepper melange, cumin seed, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt. Spread chunks out on baking pans so they have some air around them and roast in a 375 degree convection oven until done and nicely caramelized. Doesn't take long in there. For the record, please note again that this is not a proper carnitas, but it works well enough with all the fixins provided in this menu. And you can do it fast.

    Grilled shrimp - simply prepared. On skewers, on char-broiler. Brushed with melted butter containing a crushed garlic clove and some Bay Seasoning.

    Mexican Rice - As I said, things became a bit compressed in this plan, so just sautéed a couple of onions and a diced red pepper in olive oil, added (goya) medium grain rice to pan and tossed to coat. Cooked for a couple of minutes until some translucency apparent. Added salt and some of the Hogao prepared to accompany the arepas. And cooked in the open pan, in the manner of risotto, with chicken stock. Ended up whacking it with Hogao again along the way. Pretty tasty.

    Salsas - did both. I'll put up a separate post on salsas later.
    Guac - did more or less as described here recently. This version included roasted poblanos.

    Habichuelas Negras - Again, time compression pushed this to the "instant" version. Goya black beans from can into a pan containing a copious quantity of EVOO in which a crushed garlic clove has been slightly cooked. Add Hogao (the all purpose short-cut this evening), salt to taste, smoked spanish paprika. Practically painless to produce (if you have the Hogao and paprika on hand) and very good.

    I guess I'll owe you a post on Hogao down the line too.

    Grilled the scallions on the char-broiler and then seasoned with EVOO, Maldon Salt, and an aged balsamic-style moscat glaze.

    Drinks were as planned. Didn't have any suitably priced Rioja Tempranillo for the Sangria, so used Gotim Bru (tempranillo, merlot, cabernet). Also, added some cubed fuji apple along with the citrus. OK, this is embarrassing, but I threw in a splash of ginger ale too (maybe 4 oz to a bottle of wine). Not my usual procedure, but it needed something - and it worked.

    The cake was very good. Even after Secondo dropped it on the way into the dining room. Even with the white rug. Even with the candles burning. No tears were shed. Rug's fine; most of the cake, and even some of the candles survived.

    Friday, September 14, 2007

    Brisket tonight - new variation

    With the holidays upon us, brisket seems inevitable. Got into a discussion about a brisket dinner my Mom attended two nights back. Seems her host made a sweet version. Our family's traditional brisket has always been strictly savory - but I've often heard of sweet versions. Tonight, I decided to create a hybrid.

    Best available 3 lb first cut brisket
    Rub: Kosher salt and pepper melange du jour (previously discussed here (toward end of post)) + a tablespoon or so of paprika ( I used mostly sweet Hungarian + a little Smoked Spanish)
    3 lbs yellow onions, sliced thinly
    4 medium cloves garlic
    5 medium carrots, cut into 1" pieces
    6 ounces (ok, a cup wouldn't hurt) of Off-Dry (not sweet, not bone-dry) Alsatian Riesling
    A cup of pitted prunes
    A tablespoon or so of concentrated veal or beef demi-glace if you have it.

    Heat oven to 325 (convection) or 350 conventional.
    Rub brisket and then sear on both sides with a little oil in heavy enameled dutch oven (top off, on the stovetop). Reserve meat.
    Add sliced onions and whole garlic cloves, agitate to deglaze. Season with salt and pepper melange.
    When onions get going, add meat back in, arranging the onion mixture so it surrounds and covers the meat.
    Add carrots, prunes, and wine.
    Cover and place in the oven for about an hour.
    At one hour, turn the meat, and rearrange vegetables to cover. Continue braising another 90 minutes.
    At 2 1/2 hours total time, remove meat and reserve.
    Add demi-glace if available and stir to incorporate.
    Puree the vegetables, fruit, and liquid right in the pan with an immersion blender.
    If you didn't use the demi-glace, you may need to correct the color. You can do this with something like gravy master or more paprika or achiote or whatever makes sense. Of course, with the carrots and prunes in this, you might be fine with no help.
    Reintroduce the meat, cover all sides with your wonderfully thickened gravy, put the top back on and return to oven for another 20 minutes.

    Finally, slice across the grain and serve well sauced. Accompany with something that likes gravy like white rice.

    This gravy is still mostly about onions and the liberal use of the pepper melange makes it slightly spicy. But the fruity wine, carrots and prunes pull it toward, but not all the way to, sweet. If you come from the really sweet brisket tradition (I understand, for example, quite a few people use Coke in theirs) you certainly won't think this is sweet. It ends up being not overtly sweet, but very rich. We served a Montes Apalta Cabernet Carmenere. This picked up the both black fruit and the onion driven edge in the sauce nicely.


    Guacamole for 4 (I don't claim this to be an authoritative or ethnically correct recipe - but it is very good.)

    2 large ripe Hass avocados (ripe means yielding to gentle pressure - not rock hard, not caving in)
    1 juicy Lime
    1 1/2 thick slice of red onion, chopped (not too fine - pieces about 3/8" on average)
    Optionally: diced jalepeno or diced roasted poblano pepper to taste.
    Dijon mustard
    Worcestershire Sauce
    Hot sauce (The default choice for most audiences if Frank's Red Hot. If your tastes run to more heat, try a Habanero based sauce like Melinda's XXXHot instead. The important thing though is to avoid sauces that are absurdly hot and without redeeming flavor profile. There are many on the market that are more about macho than food. I recommend you avoid these.)
    Kosher Salt

    A note on proportions: I've deliberately left quantities off the condiment ingredients because the quantities there will vary both with your taste and with the ripeness and quality of your avocados. In the procedure below, I'll provide approximate typical values - but your mileage may vary.

    In a broad, shallow bowel (like for cereal), combine chopped onion, diced peppers (if used), 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, and one (or 2) shake(s) of Worcestershire.

    Halve and seed your avocados and scoop the avocado meat from the shells into the bowel with a tablespoon. Remove any blackened or otherwise spoiled portions.

    Using the tablespoon, chop and mash the avocado meat and incorporate the onion and condiments mixture. Process only long enough to mix well - do not completely break down the avocado.

    Now sprinkle Kosher salt to taste over the top, add three or so good shakes of the hot sauce of your choice and the juice from 1/2 of the lime. Mix to combine and taste. Correct seasoning with additional salt, lime juice, or hot sauce as indicated.

    Bear in mind that these three seasonings act not only to accentuate their respective flavors, but also to diminish the impact of the others. This is especially true of the salt and the lime. So you can effectively adjust things both up and down. If you really go overboard and feel you can't recover - don't despair - just add another avocado (and more onion (peppers) if desired) to cut things back and readjust. Oh yes, and invite two more guests.

    Good with chips as an appetizer. Or as a garnish with main courses. If using chips, try to stay away from excessively salty chips. Or correct salt balance in your mouth with Margaritas. Ole!

    Kathy's Pan-Latin Birthday Dinner

    Kathy's requested Mexican. Meanwhile, in correspondence with the estimable Nika of Nika's Culinaria, (an excellent food blog with among other things amazing photography), I've been discussing Columbian arepas - and since they're another favorite of Kathy's the menu has expanded to become rather more pan-Latin. The plan as it stands (pre-shopping and thus not yet validated):

    Assorted Mini-Arepas with Hogao
    Freshly Squeezed Herradura+Cointreau Margaritas

    Field Greens & Native Tomatoes

    Carnitas & Grilled Shrimp
    Mexican Rice
    Fresh Red & Green Salsas
    Habichuelas Negras
    Grilled Scallions
    Corn Tortillas

    Ponque Leche y Miel

    When time permits I'll get back to you (assuming you exist) with recipe details.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2007

    The essence of tradition?

    Earlier today, I came across Feed Me Bubbe, a collection of podcasts on Jewish cooking. I enjoyed watching their stuff, and I'm absolutely certain that all concerned with the production mean to faithfully represent their culinary tradition. Further, when Bubbe enthuses about the flavor of her preparation, I know that she and her brood have taken great enjoyment from her cooking. I feel I've found a kindred spirit when I hear Bubbe talk about the joy of passing along her traditions, of seeing her way of life enjoyed, learned and appreciated by young people and their even younger children.

    So far so good. But then I run into this - the food I saw Bubbe prepare did not seem traditional to me. Am I right? Does this make her wrong? What do these questions even mean?

    What is the essential meaning of traditional cooking?

    If one of your elders does things a certain way, if your family has done it thus for many years - how can this not be tradition? To you of course it is. And for Bubbe's family, I am certain the question of authenticity has not been an issue.

    But still, it might be the case that some such family tradition is demonstrably not representative of the broader cultural heritage from which it nominally springs. With a bit of culinary archeology, it might be possible to definitively pin down where things diverged and so on.

    Is the distinction between a family tradition and the essential underlying tradition that forms the shared basis for myriad family variations important? To me it is. Does this mean that Bubbe should be enjoined from passing her traditions along? Certainly not - the more the merrier. But still - I'm troubled.

    I admit, I'm grasping for the right formulation here. How about this - there's fundamentally two kinds of information available on food traditions - Anecdotal info such as Bubbe's (or anyone else's recipe); and Researched info (for lack of a better term) which codifies that which one must know to properly understand the entire spectrum of individual variations. Hmm - getting pretty thick.

    How 'bout an example - Feed a food-savvy man a Peking Duck and he's had a good meal. Take that same man on a walk through China Town (for a month or so) where he can see, smell and taste 100 different Peking Ducks side by side - and you might end up with an expert on Peking Duck. The important part of the difference for this discussion is not expertise - it's the capacity to understand the relative importance of the many individual pieces of information contained in a recipe.

    And so, perhaps finally that's what I think distinguishes tradition from practice - it is that essence of what people do - The part which is important.

    In Big Night, I think Primo says the tympano has "all the most important things in the world inside".

    Saturday, September 8, 2007

    Is your market alive? Is your kitchen a temple...

    A temple? An operating room? A laboratory? A factory? A work space? A play space? A party space? A cafe? A vestige? An ornament?

    Does the restaurant restore you? The deli delight? The bakery raise your spirits?

    Is your food store a market? A store? A bazaar? A gulag? Ever wandered the aisles in search of food, only to leave empty handed? Or perhaps you filled your basket as you usually do - but left empty hearted? Is the give and take there confined to the cash registers?

    I try to find and frequent places where I can fill both my basket and my spirit. And this isn't just about the food. Great food is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to achieve that special energy - that feeling I so love. The really alive places are sometimes hard to find, but it's worth it.

    A couple of favorites:
    Arak's Market on Mount Auburn Street in Watertown, MA - a family run store offering produce, prepared Armenian specialties, olives, pickled vegetables, desserts, breads, cheese and grocery specialties of interest to the Armenian community, hookahs, and an inimitable atmosphere.
    Wasik's Cheese Shop in Wellesley, MA - a family run store offering the best cheese in the best condition, with the best service, a warm and personal greeting and a smile.
    One Stop International Market in Lowell, MA - a family run store offering freshly butchered Halal baby goat and lamb and some other groceries of interest to their local Muslim and North African customers.
    Harkey's Wines in Millis, MA - a family run store offering a personally selected assortment of fine wines along with truly personal service and great advice.

    Say, I'm noticing a pattern here - these are family run businesses. Is this essential to the experience? Have we found the 'je ne sais quois'? Can I cite a counter-example?


    Wednesday, September 5, 2007

    Fight back Somehow - I wish I could tell you how

    New York City's Health Department is at it again. This time they closed down an important, high-quality, Kosher deli on points - for the likes of (gasp)
  • Hanging Salami

  • Not washing the slicer between meats (where the two meats were both destined for a single combo-sandwich

  • Please see the post at Save the Deli which includes the story as originally reported in the paper.

    Why don't they pick on somebody dangerous?

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007

    You say tomato

    At lunch today, I had a quite good salad. Except the tomatoes were not what I'd imagined they would be. You see, I was in a place where things are good. And it's tomato season so I just assumed that they'd use some ripe, flavorful, locally grown tomatoes. After all, they're only around for a short while - why wouldn't you? Naturally, I realized, they cost quite a bit more; and it was a simple as that.

    Or was it?

    I was thinking about the modern commercial history of the tomato. At one time, when they were in season, they were plentiful and inexpensive. At other times of year, it was understood that there essentially were no tomatoes. One could, if they insisted, purchase some relatively expensive, flavorless, cell0-packed product in the off season. But it was understood that this was a tomato in name only. Most of the time you'd simply do without. In those days, local, seasonal, flavorful tomatoes were understood to be TOMATOES. The other kind were understood to be tomato substitutes.

    But with the passage of time, something pernicious has happened. It's not just that we've become accustomed to inferior products - it's that we've come to regard such product as TOMATOES. Worse, we've come to regard the local, seasonal, vine-ripened tomato as an exotic foodstuff. It's not just a tomato any more - it's something more. It's vine-ripened, or it's an Heirloom, or it's whatever it is. But it is not just a tomato any more. Our language has changed. Our mental model of tomatoes has changed. We have been reprogrammed.

    And now, even at the height of the season when they're plentiful, these exotic fruits sell for high prices and the flavorless alternative (once only sold in the off-season) remains the default expected tomato - and for all but the well-off it is the only economically feasible possibility.

    Who stole our language? Why did we let them?
    I am noshstalgic.

    Sunday, September 2, 2007

    Moussaka Meltdown

    My wife and friend Andy tell me I need sensitivity training. Not sure if they're right (of course) but hey - the guy asked. There he was - in chef's whites, asking if everything was to our liking. Now Andy asserts that he didn't really want my opinion - he was just being polite. He's probably right, but insensitive bastard that I am - I told him.

    We were a party of seven - four adults and three kids. We'd just climbed a mountain. We were hungry, there was a chill in the air, the restaurant represented itself to be "Greek-American" and, of course, they offered moussaka. Three of the four adults were drawn to it - but before going ahead with this plan, I expressly informed the server that I regarded moussaka as a serious matter and needed to know ... She assured me I would not be disappointed.

    Why did I listen? I had a pretty clear impression that it was a mistake even as I placed the order. For one thing, the dish appeared under the beef section of the menu. This alone should have been a sufficient clue of what I was dealing with - but in this area, beef is often substituted for lamb and I was not put off. I guess this proves I am an optimist. Well...To the heart of the matter.

    Never mind - the details don't matter. Bad restaurant, botched moussaka - life goes on.

    But the incident did raise a number of perhaps important points.
    1) Should they ask, and should you tell?
    2) Is there a point along the authenticity and quality continuum at which a dish simply ceases to qualify as whatever they've had the temerity to call it?
    3) Who first put potatoes in moussaka?
    4) And assuming that you're prepared to accept their presence, are there limits as to their proportion in the dish?
    5) Is some sort of béchamel derived sauce or custard topping essential to moussakanesshood?
    6) Why are chefs not subject to corporal punishment during the dinner service?
    7) OK, I guess that's a tad harsh - but how about immediate dismissal and forfeiture of all public cooking privileges for some interval (like life)?
    8) OK, perhaps still harsh - but how about at least... You know, it's just occurred to me that not everybody takes food - and especially the responsibility one takes on as chef to the public as seriously as I do. So how about this question - Am I simply a lunatic? Or do I have a right to expect at least a certain degree of care and respect in the conduct of the trade?

    I'm asking, and I really want to know.

    Saturday, September 1, 2007

    Cooler mornings are coming - Kippers can't be far behind

    I was reminded today of a (very occasional) Sunday Brunch favorite from my youth - Kippers, eggs and onions. This was a particularly festive Sunday morning ritual because it required the use of the outdoor barbecue. My mother would not consider having kippers prepared in the house - and who can blame her. They reek - in a nice way of course. But if you were ever to try broiling them in the house - especially years ago when nobody had decent ventilation - you'd have to replace all the drapes, upholstery, carpets, clothing, and pets.

    But what's a minor annoyance like clingy reek when there's kippers to be enjoyed?

    So anyway, the way I remember this is we'd grill the fish out on the barbecue and serve them with scrambled eggs and lots of sauteed onions. And since you were working outdoors anyway, why not peel and slice all those onions out there too? If it's nice enough out, maybe best to eat the whole mess out there too. What a delight! After a breakfast like that, you're ready to set out to sea and bring in the next load of herring destined for kippering in the smokehouse. Arrgh...

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007

    Deb's Herbs inspired dinner

    Our friend Deborah sent over some chives and rosemary. There was half a bottle of White Loire kicking around from Sunday's festivities. Kathy brought home some chicken breast fillets. I decided to poach the chicken as follows:

    Prep breast fillets. (I trim and butterfly to achieve a consistent thickness.) Rub very sparingly with kosher salt, just a bit of pepper melange du jour (tonight's - white pepper, coriander seed, allspice, nutmeg, clove), and a tablespoon or so of EVOO that's had a clove of garlic bruised in it - but not chopped up. No more than a pinch of rub is used for each side of a piece of chicken. The garlic should be well back in this preparation - not too much. Set fillets aside, loosely covered, on a counter away from heat - no refrigeration is needed providing that you'll be cooking them soon enough. In fact, given the way we're going to cook these it's very helpful to allow them to come up toward room temp (again, providing they don't spend much time like that.)

    While the chicken is tempering toward room temp, place about 1 teaspoon kosher salt, the leaves from a 3" sprig of rosemary, finely chopped, 3 TBS chopped fresh chives and a teaspoon or so of dried fines herbs (or substitute fresh if available) in an oven-proof casserole. Use one large enough to accommodate all your fillets lying flat directly on the bottom, without overlapping. (But - lest there should be any confusion on this point - do not add the chicken yet.) Add a stick of butter (or less if you can't stand the idea of so much) and place the casserole into a hot oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring about 10 ounces of the wine to simmering temp and add a little pepper melange.

    When butter has cooked off most of its moisture, remove casserole from oven, arrange the the chicken fillets on the bottom and turn over to coat both sides. Pour the simmering wine in and agitate the fillets just to incorporate the wine with the butter and spice mixture. Cover and let sit (off heat). Providing that you've used a heavy enough casserole, the residual heat in the casserole and wine are sufficient to poach the chicken. If not, place the casserole back into a low oven. The best result, though, is obtained with the passive - i.e. residual heat method. As the chicken cooks, the pan and liquid lose temperature to the meat and the entire thing comes to equilibrium at the perfect temperature for the chicken - resulting in a velvety smooth texture that can not be obtained with higher temperature cooking techniques.

    Serve the chicken with some simple rice and spoon some of the cooking liquid over the top. More wine along the lines of that used in the cooking works very well as you might imagine.

    Tuesday, August 28, 2007

    Prepared Foods - Any Good?

    It's no secret that people are buying ever more ready-to-eat foods. They come in many forms - prepared ready-to-eat meals from take-out restaurants or supermarket catering departments, store-bought heat-n-eat, frozen, boil-in-bag, refrigerated, shelf-stable and more.

    Because restaurants today are also buying more items prepared elsewhere, I choose to divide the market not between restaurant (or specialty store) and major store - but rather between items produced locally and at small scale and those which are commercial products in mass-manufacture and wide distribution. And the question I want to pose today pertains to mass-produced and widely distributed products.

    I confess I have sometimes enjoyed commercial prepared food items. When I was a kid, I recall enjoying the occasional meal at my next-door-neighbor's house because I could indulge in what was - even then at 10 - the guilty contraband pleasure of Campbell's soup or Chef Boyardi ravioli. What salty or mushy bliss respectively. But I digress.

    So yes, then and since there have been commercial products I've enjoyed. But I don't recall any that were really very good. When I've enjoyed these things, there's always been an element of the perverse about the experience - even at 10. Have I missed something really great? Is my recall faulty and perhaps I've had, but forgotten something important? Can you point me at any mass-produced ready-to-eat main-dish products that are better than OK? Products you seek not because of their convenience, but because of their quality?

    I'm asking for two reasons. First, it's just part of my charter here to record great tastes and keep the memory alive. And second because I want to know if it's possible, and how. This is an important question because I'm interested in the envelope of possibility for prepared food products. If a producer has something really great at small scale - is it possible to scale up and reach a large audience while retaining quality? Are there practical limits that always get in the way? What are they? And so on. If there are examples of true greatness at large commercial scale, I want to understand how they've done it and whether their success has broader implications for other producers.

    Please call out deserving products in comments.

    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    The Endangered Specialty Food Retailer

    Supermarkets are selling more specialty foods than ever before. Supermarkets - especially up-market stores - are encroaching on the traditional turf of the small, independent specialty foods retailer.

    Of course there are flourishing specialty retailers, but the general trend for the industry is to sell more through supermarkets over time. Even in perishables like fine cheese - up-market supermarkets are coming on strong. Coffees, teas, spices, preserves, pasta, cheeses - you name it. Connoisseurs may be less than completely satisfied when shopping there - but still, more of our specialty food dollars are siphoned off in the supermarket over time. You're there, you need it, you buy it.

    Convenience is extremely important to shoppers today, so specialty retailers must offer something compelling to draw customers. They are under great and constant pressure to stock unique offerings people want to maintain their differentiation. But inevitably if people want these products they will find their way into the supermarket sooner or later. And increasingly it's sooner.

    Certainly the supermarket cannot compete where personal touch and "neighborhood feel" are concerned, but will that be enough? Ask the butcher, the baker, the produce man and fruiterer. Where have they gone? Outside the city - they have mostly gone the way of the dodo. And this, despite the fact that where meat, baked goods, produce and fruit are concerned - the categories involved were daily necessities and the quality and variety advantages of specialists were dramatic.

    So, what's to become of specialty retail outside of urban centers? If it's true that their appeal requires an ongoing supply of distinctive (and non-trivial) products - how are they to sustain that advantage? After all, if you were a manufacturer of some wonderful new product, while you would no doubt be delighted to sell to specialty retailers, I doubt you'd be inclined to turn down a deal to sell, for example, to Whole Foods. That one deal with Whole Foods could (likely would) mean more business to you than any specialty store you serve - and perhaps more than all your other customers put together. It would be unnatural to pass on the supermarket deal.

    So, there goes one more product the specialty store can't call unique in his trading zone. And so it goes. Breaking into Whole Foods - or into brokers who merchandise specialty departments in many supermarkets - has practically become synonymous with success for new specialty product companies.

    Now, to be fair, the market on the whole may, in some important respects, be better served as more diverse and interesting products gain improved distribution and exposure to wider audiences through supermarkets. The old pattern in which supermarkets didn't have any of these products, and specialty retailers enjoyed a relatively safe niche, was by no means ideal. The world is better now that buying a piece of Parmesan to grate over your pasta doesn't absolutely require a special trip. And not every specialty retailer should survive. I have no problem waving goodbye to poseurs who have never provided great service to their customers or great leadership by seeking out and evangelizing wonderful new products.

    But what of the good-guys (and gals) - People who really contribute to the market, their communities, and to our quality of life. How can they survive? What can we do to preserve them? I so miss the butcher, the baker, the fruit man. I am noshstalgic.

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    Danish, Thy name is Danish Pastry House

    This is important -
    At 330 Boston Avenue, in Medford, MA - just a short walk from Tufts University they make real Danish pastry. That's all. Go there, get some.

    Oh yes, I'm told they have a location over in Watertown too. And I note also that they serve other things besides Danish - but honestly, if you're still reading this instead of traveling to 330 Boston Avenue then I guess I didn't properly convey the importance of the first suggestion above. It's a real Danish. You must go and get some. It is real Danish pastry. You must go and get some. There's some sitting in my kitchen as I write this. I brought some home. It is real Danish pastry too. I must go

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Pastrami again - Niman's Ranch this time

    We've been enjoying the much-lauded Niman Ranch navel pastrami at Chez Noshstalgia this week. My cousin Jon ordered it for us from Niman's web store. I have to say, as others have, that Niman's meat is of notably high-quality vs. most other pastrami. They supplied two navel plates in the order - both packed in a single vacuum sealed wrap.

    They provided no cooking or heating directions in the package, but their website suggests steaming for "up to two hours". I steamed a whole plate for about 100 minutes, flipping the piece once around 20 minutes before the end. Then, of course, I hand slice. I do it on a steaming rack in a thermostatically controlled electric skillet that does a good job of providing gentle steam. Mine has a glass lid, so you can - if you wish - stand mesmerized by the sight of fat running out of the meat in many places as it cooks. I am reminded now of the fascination one experiences on visiting a geologically active area with steam vents, geysers, and the occasional volcanic event - except the pastrami smells much better than that. And even at $60 with shipping, the Niman's pastrami purchase was comparatively economical.

    So, is it any good? You betcha. Not a classic New York flavor and aroma profile. Certainly not Romanian-style. But very good. Very aromatic, strongly peppered, tender, gently processed texture, and a prime-like (and perhaps actually prime) degree of marbling contributes to a very satisfying mouth-feel. I liked the product, although while I found the spice profile distinctive and appealing - it is very present and struck me as a bit monolithic - very over-all, very homogenized. A deli expert I consulted (from whom I've not yet obtained permission for direct attribution on this - but I will seek it and amend the post when obtained) said he thought the product had seen too much bay leaf. I confess, I couldn't pin it down to that myself - but he's a real expert so perhaps that was it. But whether classic NY-style or not, it was very enjoyable. Thank you, Jon.

    One more note on this over-all-ness, this homogeneity. Is this a bad thing? Generally? Maybe not - certainly where commercial pastrami is concerned I can't point to any counter examples. So why even mention it? Maybe this observation comes to me because I'm thinking of - yearning for - a more Artisanal product - one that's got more edges and spikes - flavor and aroma variation throughout and around the product. By way of analogy, consider the difference between Artisanal and industrial cheeses. The best of the farm-house products present at least a chamber work and sometimes even a symphony of related but distinct bodies, textures, aromas, and flavors. And the industrial products? Well, you know...

    Monday, August 20, 2007

    Errata in re: pig,pig,pig,pig, not pig

    I wanted to correct two errors in my prior post on the recent Beauty of the Beast Dinner at Southborough's Tomasso Trattoria.

    Error of omission: I neglected to mention Chef Tony Bettencourt's salami - a late addition to the first course. The salami was amazing - melt in your mouth, fabulous flavor - really terrific. I gather he's been working on perfecting this salami for about a year now and if he's not done perfecting it, I don't know why not. This was the crack of salami - instantly addictive. I asked him to pack a pound of it to go, but this proved not possible. Maybe he was trying to protect me from overdose? I have to have more. He says there's no supply at the moment. He's going to make more. I hope the process used for that batch proves to be repeatable because honestly folks, it was great. I mean, if he can't do it again, what's the point in going on?

    Error of commission: I am informed - by Tomasso himself (Proprietor Tom Prince) that the substitution of guanciale for trotters was a late breaking development but was duly documented in the menu presented to diners at the event. I was consulting the online menu when I wrote my previous posting and so was in error to call out any discrepancy between menu and actual dish. I plead salami intoxication and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    Breadcrumbs with Secondo

    We had been staring at a rather impressive loaf of stale crusty bread for a few days when some eggplant found its way here from the farmer's market. Temperatures had fallen into the 60's this evening, so using the oven seemed within reason. And then Secondo came into the kitchen and wanted to cook with me. This doesn't happen every day, so when he asks, I try to make it work.

    Time to make some bread-crumbs. He wanted to wield the knife in cutting up the stale bread, but I couldn't go along with that request. Instead, I got Secondo seated on the island and instructed him in how to "drive" the Cuisinart's pulse switch. I've already posted on making fresh breadcrumbs here so I won't go into the procedure again. I just wanted to say that Secondo loved making them. And they were great - redolent of garlic, herbs, and freshly grated Parmesan. He has been eating breadcrumbs raw - right out of a bowel - ever since. And taking samples to other family members all over the house. He's evangelizing breadcrumbs. Just like dad.

    Saturday, August 18, 2007

    Definitely not Kosher - but Pig, Pig, Pig, Pig, not-Pig

    Had a wonderful time and great eats last night in Southborough, at Tomasso Trattoria's Beauty of the Beast dinner , a 5 course meal built (almost) entirely around a single Six-Spotted Berkshire pig sourced from Heritage Foods USA GOOD PIGGY! Patrick Martins and Sarah Obraitis of Heritage Foods were in attendance.

    The menu and wine pairings may be seen here. Chef Tony Bettencourt, (brief bio here), and Sommelier Lorenzo Savona, (brief bio here), did that pig proud.

    I had such a good time that I'm going to defer any nit-picking and instead mention only the things that were most outstanding.

    Second course pasta dish with house cured pancetta, mushrooms an sage was a knock-out dish. Absolutely nothing unexpected in its composition - but the ingredients and execution were superior - so much so that dish rose to very rarefied heights. A profound mouthful. Wow!
    Salad dish with crispy trotters (said the menu, but it seemed to me, maybe guanciale?). - good piggy strikes again.
    Bettencourt's Porchetta with lemon-zest and fennel pollen was beautiful - presented skin-on and with all the fat-back our late six-spotter had until so recently carried around. Thank you, Tony and Ferdinand.
    Wines throughout were delightful with a couple of especially good pairings to call out -
    The Bio-Dynamic Chianti Classico (not as listed) with the salad; the aglianico driven Molise with the porchetta; and the (believe it or not) Soave recioto with dessert were terrific. In terms of take-home wine buying thoughts - for me, the Molise and the Recioto were finds.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    Seamed good to me

    Yes, I know that seems to be misspelled - but I meant it.
    I had an excellent Restaurant Week meal last night at Pigalle (Charles Street South in Boston). The entree was described on the menu as follows:
    Olive Crusted Leg of Lamb with Braising Mint Jus, Cucumber Salad, and Moussaka
    But what I wanted to particularly bring to your attention was the way the meat had been cut and prepped before cooking. I didn't speak with the chef, but what I saw on my plate looked like they had employed a procedure I often use and which I regard as highly commendable.

    They seemed to have seamed the lamb. This means that they dissected the meat from the leg of lamb to break it down into individual muscle bundles and removed from each any fat, connective tissue, and silverskin.

    It is a labor intensive operation. But when you prep the meat in this way, each and every bite will be the tenderest and tastiest it can be. What's more, it will take the flavor of your spices more quickly and more deeply; and ultimately it will exhibit a greater clarity of focus than otherwise possible. Time/cost aside, the trade-off is that it will present much less of lamb's characteristic gaminess - a trade off that I find vary favorable. If you're one of those that particularly crave a gamy, sheep-y taste - don't bother.

    If you have a real butcher, you can certainly ask them to prep your lamb in this way - and they'll probably accommodate you. But they will not do as complete or clean a job as I require. Nor will they get the yield that I go for. It's simply too painstaking and laborious a process to go through for any reasonable price. So if you're handy with a knife and have the time, I encourage you to try this yourself. The results can be startling.

    And at Pigalle, last night - that entree was really very good. Not to quibble, but perhaps a bit saltier than necessary - but the lamb, and the eggplant were fantastic.

    The other item I particularly enjoyed there last night was a dessert. A chocolate/coconut cream in a crispy shell affair. The depth, length, and extremely gradual unfolding of the chocolate and coconut flavors in succession were enchanting. Really good effect.

    Bravo Pigalle

    Caveat: Order a good bottle of wine. The Bordeaux we opted for - by the glass - was not what it should have been.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Peanut butter, rye bread, deli, and two blogs

    If you've been following my rantings, you know I've been thinking about pastrami. So naturally, New York, Jewish rye bread can't be far from my thoughts. I don't know where to find the real thing around here. I've tried making my own - so far without great success.

    So there I was chasing down leads in the web when I came across a 6 year old story from Buffalo about the demise of a once great rye. I started corresponding with the author and found my way to this story about peanut butter at his blog. He got me thinking again about Planter's Peanut Butter - once truly great and sadly long off the market. I was originally introduced to this amazing product by my boyhood friend (now Rabbi) Steve Vale. Does anybody else remember this stuff? Planter's Peanut was so good, it was best enjoyed with a spoon. Forget the bread, eschew the jam...I'm noshstalgic.

    And then there was this morning's startling discovery of the truly impressive body of work at Save the Deli. I can't believe the work this guy, David Sax, has done. Since the start of 2007, he's ventured forth from his home base in Toronto to sample and document the wares of delis all over North America and even into Europe. What a Herculean effort and (of course) what a worthy - make that vital - cause.

    Words from his opening post last January -
    "...Save the Deli, a space dedicated to the preservation of the finest salted, cured, fatty Jewish treats to grace the world’s tongues.

    I write with an urgency in my first post, because we are living in desperate times. The Jewish delicatessen, that treasured temple of scuffed formica, sawdust floors, and nose ticking garlic aroma, is dying. Where once Jewish delis numbered in the thousands, today there are scarcely a hundred scattered around the Diaspora. Just look to New York, the once teeming capital of deli. Barely a dozen remain in Manhattan. A handful in Brooklyn. A mere pair in the Bronx.

    From Paris to Montreal, Chicago to Antwerp, London to Miami…the deli is dying. Recent casualties have included Ben’s in Montreal, the 2nd Ave Deli in New York’s East Village, and soon Rascal House in Miami Beach. Restaurants which were anchors of stability in cities have been uprooted and expelled, paved over by the bulldozer of history. They have been felled by increased rent, slim margins, a health conscious (and slightly maniacal) eating culture, and assimilation. Delis now serve sushi and spring rolls, while items like rolled beef, braised ribs, and schmaltz herring have fled from menus.

    At the current rate, the Jewish deli as an institution is facing the very real possibility of extinction. In ten, twenty, or fifty years, how many delis will your city have? Where do you think you’ll go for a pastrami sandwich, a bowl of matzo ball soup, and a few full sour kosher dills? Friday’s? Sizzler? Wal-Mart? Forget it.

    And so, the arduous march begins…a grassroots campaign of love and preservation with the aim of saving the Jewish delicatessen from extinction."

    That young man, David Sax, is my hero.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    I wish there were a diner

    Growing up in New York, we would occasionally visit a diner. There were several within striking distance of home and innumerable others by the road if you traveled farther afield. Many of these still exist today - in New York.

    I confess I haven't been lately, but back in the day these were simply remarkable places. They somehow managed to bake (at least many of) their own pastries, cookies, and pies - generally at a high level of quality. These baked goods were real treats. I knew people who would travel to their favorite diner just for a cookie and a cup of coffee. And, believe me, it wasn't the coffee they were drawn to.

    These diners tended to have remarkably, improbably, outlandishly broad menus and yet somehow, against all odds - the quality was generally good. And they did breakfast food worth paying for. French toast - thick eggy challah triangles. Hash - once upon a time even this was real. Pancakes with homemade and sometimes even interestingly distinctive batters. The people who owned and operated these temples of simple food done right were people of integrity and spirit. They delivered miracles at all hours for a few bucks.

    As I said earlier, I haven't been back lately - and maybe things are as they were - albeit certainly more expensive. But who cares - if they're still turning out the real thing I salute them.

    But outside New York - at least here in Massachusetts - I've never seen anything even approximately like the diners I remember. There are places that make a point of styling themselves as New York Diners, but - in my reliably traumatic experience - where food is concerned they have always failed in every respect.

    I am noshstalgic - I wish there were a diner.

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Pastrami again - Sam La Grassa this time

    The folks over at Chowhound (and elsewhere) have discussed the relative merits of various Boston area pastrami offerings. Here, for instance is one thread on "romanian pastrami" in and around Boston:
    That discussion and other references left me curious about Sam LaGrassa's pastrami, so when a friend told me she wanted to take me to SLG for a pastrami I jumped at the opportunity. There were three of us in the party so we tried three different pastrami sandwich offerings and shared them around - A basic hot pastrami on (light) rye with mustard, a pastrami ruben, and another grilled sandwich they call a Traveler.
    I may have missed something , but it seemed that at SLG, pastrami is exclusively "romanian". In my previous Brookline pastrami post I spoke to what makes pastrami "Romanian" at least here in Boston. The short version is that Romanian around here is distinguished by the addition of a heavy sugar rub in the final cooking. Other spices may be involved - as with the cinnamon used on the "Romanian" at Rubin's in Brookline. The pastrami at SLG is decidedly sweet. The meat in all three of our sandwiches was sweet. It was also tender, lean, and mildly spiced.
    Now of course there's an element of the subjective about such matters - but for me, and for both of my companions today, the sweetness was off-putting. Insipid, actually. And the relative lack of spice didn't help there either. If you like sweet pastrami, then I suppose the basic sandwich could be to your liking. But in the two other cases, even if your preference runs to the sweet, the combinations did not benefit from this treatment. For example, the combination of sweet meat, Dijon mustard, and tomato - panini grilled on dark rye in the Traveler - not good. The sweet meat on the Rubin likewise. Of course in fairness to SLG, their Rubin standardly includes the canonical corned beef and not pastrami so one can not hold them responsible for the recipe there. We requested the offending sandwich specifically.

    Other notes - the pastrami seemed to have been thoroughly cooked, but on the sandwich line it was not held in a steam cabinet. Of course, they're going through the stuff pretty fast in there, so maybe it doesn't spend long out of the steam before it's used up. They're slicing the meat to order on a rotary slicer - very thin. It was quite lean. I regret to say that I'm not sure whether they were slicing brisket or plate - but if pressed to guess without a return visit, I'd say brisket.
    We also got a side of potato salad. It was a bit sweet too.
    I came away from the visit feeling that SLG may be a better than average sandwich shop, but it is neither a pastrami destination of importance nor even a proper deli. Sweetness aside, the composition of their signature sandwich - the Traveler - for me constituted irrefutable evidence that they simply don't understand the ingredients they are working with.

    Alas, I'm still noshstalgic. Next outing, I have to make my way over to Michael's in Brookline - I've heard good things about the place and I'm looking forward to it. I sincerely hope it will be great. To this point, the best publicly available pastrami experience I've had in Boston has been the regular (not Romanian) at Rubin's - if requested hand sliced, not lean. And they're very nice people over there.

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    Breakfast - too good, so simple

    I've got to get going so can't do this justice right now but I wanted to at least begin because
    it was that great

    Such a simple thing. No explaining how good it was - ok - what's all the fuss about?
    A simple omelet.
    Thinly slice one medium yellow onion. Saute in a heavy-bottom pan with fresh unsalted butter and little olive oil, some fresh ground pepper and fine herbs. Saute to a golden brown. This takes some time and attention - don't let them burn, and don't stop til they're really "there". When done, remove onions from pan and reserve.
    If you're going to use the same pan for the omelet, it will have to be cleaned thoroughly at this point - or just start with another if you prefer. I used the same one for both phases - a 10" calphalon hard anodized - NOT NON-STICK. That's important - no non-stick. If that's all you've got - go out for breakfast then buy some real cookware. Cast iron, allclad, hard-anodized, but nothing non-stick. OK, rant over...
    Meanwhile, gently beat 3 jumbo or 4 large eggs with a couple of tablespoons heavy cream, salt and pepper to taste.
    Heat pan with fresh unsalted butter and a little olive oil until foam subsides and add scrambled egg mixture. The pan should be quite hot and you should be seeing bubbling around the edges throughout - don't let the pan fall off this level of heat.
    When things have begun to set on the bottom, but with considerable liquid still on top, work your way around the 4 corners of the pan, pushing the set egg toward the middle to expose hot pan area and tip the pan to flow egg onto the hot surface.
    If you've done this properly, after the 4 corners you should have very little depth of unset egg on the top.
    When the top surface is still moist, distribute the onion mixture over one half of the omelet and fold the other half over to cover. Turn off heat. Let set for about 1/2 minute and then slide out of pan onto heated plate.
    If you started with a clean pan and used proper temperatures throughout there will never be a problem with sticking. The bottom (now outer) surface of your omelet should be beautifully browned and with deep wrinkles and furrows from your 4 corners operation.
    No reason this should hit so hard - omelets everywhere and all the time should be as good. Every diner and greasy spoon should be able to turn this sort of thing out. But they don't. And you can. And it will save the world - at least a little bit.

    Saturday, August 11, 2007


    The breadcrumb business fascinates me. People buy these round cartons of plain and seasoned breadcrumbs in supermarkets. You know - not Whole Foods - regular supermarkets. Price points run a couple of dollars or more. Depends on location and brand. At Whole Foods, they buy plastic clamshell containers of bread crumbs - various textures like Panko or plain. Prices here probably vary too, but it's in the $5 ballpark. For a pretty small quantity, mind you - probably one or two uses. Panko aside, I'm tempted to suppose that the breadcrumbs must come from processing leftover breads in the bakery department. I don't know this - but it's tempting to think so. Actually let me confess that I haven't even tried the products in question so I can't even offer an educated guess. But, if they were using up their unsold bakery breads, this would be a good thing, not a bad one.

    But back to the main point. People pay money for these breadcrumb offerings in supermarkets. This is a powerful demonstration of the state we've come to. Who needs breadcrumbs? People who cook. If you're not cooking - what possible use for breadcrumbs? You must be frying fish or making meatloaf or something. You're cooking. You're in the select minority - people who still cook.

    And you're eating food that includes breadcrumbs. You aren't gluten averse. You eat wheat based bread products. So (I've got them on the run here....) AHA! You must buy bread from time to time. Do you always eat it all up before it goes stale? That would be a remarkable feat. In the alternative, are you always throwing out any bread that isn't perfectly fresh any more? Why not make breadcrumbs with these bits of leftover bread?

    Fresh breadcrumbs, made at home, as needed. So easy. And the difference in quality is remarkable. You can save money, waste less food, and have a better outcome so easily.

    Here's a quick Italian style mix we make up:

    Grate leftover bread into crumbs. (I sometimes use a grater disk in my Cuisinart food processor).
    Grate Parmesan cheese (or substitute hard cheese of your choice) and mix in with bread crumbs.
    Add grated bread and cheese to food processor bowl fitted with regular blade.
    Add a clove of garlic, some flat parsley. These fresh items should be used no matter what you do in the optional herb category below. I also regard the addition of some fresh ground pepper as essential here.
    Add any other fresh or dried herbs you like. If you want an easy dried mix that works well for Italian, try Penzey's "Pasta Sprinkle".
    Pulse in the processor to get the garlic broken down and then process to the not quite the desired consistency. NOW TASTE AND CORRECT SEASONING. BE CAREFUL WITH SALT - THE CHEESE IS ALREADY CONTRIBUTING THERE. Finally, depending upon the use for which the crumbs are intended, you may want to moisten the mixture with a little good EVOO in the last moments of processing.

    This whole project takes about 2 minutes and will yield a life altering improvement over anything you can buy at the supermarket. Life Altering.
    I don't care if it's fried fish, meatloaf or whatever. You will be amazed at the difference.

    2 minutes - using up leftovers. Saving non-trivial money. Profoundly improved results.

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    Death by soap

    //rant on
    Please explain this to me - How does a steak house, a restaurant that's practically all about high-ticket wine sales, put that soap in the men's room? And, I assume, the lady's as well? If you wash your hands in there, all you can smell for the rest of the night is the soap. Sometimes it's almond, or floral. But often, it's a kind of antiseptic smell. Maybe the same scent they use in toilet bowel cleaner. And you cant' get away from it. If you raise a glass - it's not your wine you smell - it's the soap.

    Have they lost their minds?

    And what of the customers? Why am I having to rant about this on a blog that almost nobody's discovered yet? Why do their customers not complain? Why do they keep coming back?
    //end rant

    What's for dinner (part 3)

    So how did it go? And a bit more on exactly how things were prepared:

    Melon and Shinkenspeck (squeeze of lime)- what's not to like? A minor variation on the old classic Proscuitto and melon. The fruit was exquisite and the smoky speck (just one slice per portion) worked great. I draped the speck over one side of the melon slice and onto but not covering the top. Pretty contrast between the meat and fruit and also easier to slice since you could get the knife started in the fruit before negotiating the ham. Primo was very excited about this item.

    Shaved fennel in EVOO, sea salt, fresh lemon juice, and my pepper melange du jour.
    Field greens - organic mesclun and frisee dressed simply in EVOO, sea salt, pepper melange, and Balsamic.

    Roast Cod: Cut into (6 oz) portions and marinated in EVOO, with one crushed but not chopped clove garlic, sea salt, pepper melange, two drops pure lemon oil, two dashes orange bitters (couldn't find the orange oil - but it's pretty much the same thing), a pinch of saffron threads, and a tablespoon or so of the brine from the Sicilian Olives (wierd, huh?) Then dredged - one side only, in flour with a little salt, pepper melange, and sugar. Then seared in very hot cast iron pan, then finished in 400 degree convection oven (still in cast iron pan) for about 5 minutes.

    Fresh Tomato Coulis:
    Peel, seed, and chop fresh tomtoes coarsely. I made about 3 pounds. Add a couple of tablespoons EVOO, six Sicilian Olives pitted and chopped, and salt and pepper melange to taste. Let it sit at room temp. In my case yesterday it sat for about 4 hours before use. I corrected the seasoning along the way. Ended up adding a little bit of the olive brine along the way instead of punching up the salt.

    Balsamic Glazed Sicilian Eggplant:
    The Sicilian Eggplants are genuinely different from other types, sweeter and creamier, so use them if you can. I cut 1/2 inch round slices across the axis of the fruit. Oiled a sheet pan with olive oil and sprinkled the pan with kosher salt. Set the slices on the pan, sprinkled the tops with kosher salt and sugar and then put about a teaspoon + of balsamic vinegar on top of each. (I had run out of good aged balsamic and so cheated by using the cheap supermarket stuff with the added sugar). Put them in to a 375 degree convection oven until the tops were glazed and the fruit was soft. Took quite a while. Take out of oven and reserve - still on sheet. The whole thing goes back into the oven in the last couple of minutes of cooking the fish later. Of course you could do the whole thing last minute but it's hard to predict the timing of the eggplant and you might prefer to be socializing with your guests. The eggplant does not suffer for being prepared ahead. Primo, once again, very excited with this item - and I have to say I agreed. The textures - crispy top-glaze and skin, creamy soft interior, and the complex flavors were very rewarding. This was easy cooking with a dramatic result. (Be careful when removing these from the sheet for service - They will be a bit stuck to the sheet especially if the balsamic has spilled or otherwise migrated underneath during cooking. Use quick movements with a sharp square edged spatula to cut them off the sheet intact.) And the big rounds looked wonderful on the plat too. Sorry I didn't take pictures last night.

    Rice - Nothing special to say.

    Wine: Not too cold for this wine. Never had it before, and I was surprised when I first tasted it. I knew it was from Sicily - and thus southern - but it was much more tropical than I anticipated. Lots of glycerine mouth feel, rich - but not in the usual Chard malolactic overtly buttery way - apricots, pineapple (further back), a little sicilian garrigue-like herbal finish. I thought the product was good, but before dinner I also thought I was not thrilled to be into the bottle for $50. BUT - I have to say that when you put it together with the glazed eggplant and also when paired with the fish and coulis, the pairings were magical. Either I got lucky with my pairings or this is just a much better food wine than it is on its own.

    The cake sucked. I bought it and I'm taking what's left back. And ...oh never mind.
    The Double Rainbow ice creams (available at Trader Joes) were fabulous. Don't eat their ice cream if you don't tolerate milk-fat well, and stay away from their coffee and chocolate flavors if you're sensitive to caffeine at night. They will keep you up. And don't eat the blueberry if you don't want to feel like you've been to Maine. Really good store-bought ice cream.

    Oh yeah - the pepper melange for this dinner: (proportions approximate)
    In a spice- (or coffee-) grinder, process 4 parts whole black peppercorns, 1 part white peppercorns, 1 part allspice, a little fresh nutmeg (I cut a 1/4" slice off a nutmeg and use about 1/2 of that slice), a couple of cloves (if they're fresh - more if older)
    OK - so my procedure is generally to make up a pepper melange for the meal and to use it throughout wherever I'd otherwise be using straight pepper. Of course there are exceptions - but I find that mostly I get away with this. The idea is you develop a spice signature that's subtly different from basic pepper (and hopefully appropriate to whatever you're doing that night), and then by using it throughout in place of regular pepper you connect the dishes in a manner that's impactful but not obvious.

    Thursday, August 9, 2007

    What's for dinner (part 2)

    Fish store had some very nice fresh local cod loin.
    Produce store came up with (of all things) farm fresh Sicilian eggplant, nice fennel, salad greens, and a two kinds of tomatoes in the "seconds" category and thus reasonably priced for what I had in mind. I have a real problem paying 4, 5, 6 dollars a pound for tomatoes under any circumstances, but as I was planning to use them for sauce, I was particularly price sensitive. So I was in luck buying "seconds" at .99/lb.
    I also lucked out with a melon you could smell at 5 paces - ready to go!
    Cheese store came through with Sicilian Olives and Pepato cheese (not my first choice but ok)
    Here then the menu:

    Melon and Italian Speck

    Shaved Fennel and Field Greens

    Roasted Cod Loin
    Fresh Tomato Coulis with Sicilian Olives
    Balsamic Glazed Sicilian Eggplant
    Rice with dusting of grated Pepato

    Wine: (as originally contemplated) 2004 Planeta Chardonnay IGT Sicily

    Black & White Mouse Cake
    Choice of Vanilla, Chocolate, & Blueberry Ice Cream

    Comments on how things worked out tomorrow. Gotta go walk the dog.

    What's for dinner?

    We're expecting guests to join us for dinner tonight. What shall we serve? Who's dining? Kathy, Primo, and I will enjoy anything good. Secondo, our six year old is more selective. Our guests include Kathy's aunt, a senior, Boston-area, Irish Catholic who will try most anything I serve, but will more readily enjoy simple mainstream selections. (Kathy reminds me that I've served goat rogan josh to her aunt - but it seems to me that perhaps that occasion was not her favorite visit here.) And finally we have Kathy's cousin - a resident of New York City and instructor (professor?) at FIT. I don't really know this fellow, but as he has been a New Yorker for some time, and is in the fashion business I expect he'll have more sophisticated tastes. And finally, finally, there's the fact that I'd like to enjoy some nice, seasonally appropriate wine tonight.

    To review the forces in play then:
  • Six year old - keep it simple, not too spicy, clean (unsauced) protein or pasta is best

  • Aunt - keep it simple, not too spicy, avoid unfamiliar protein items

  • NYC Cousin - ?Since I'm supposed to be some kind of cook, and in any case I'll grasp at any straw of justification for doing something other than the usual, Secondo preferred, lowest common denominator, maybe something sophisticated?

  • Try a good bottle of wine (or two)

  • And as we've been drinking Alsatian Pinot Gris and Riesling, and Loire whites throughout the summer, it's bound to be something other - perhaps even a chard for the first time in who remembers how long. Yes - why not. There's a reputedly good Planeta Chardonnay down in the cellar that I've been meaning to try.

  • Who's afraid of a little cliche? OK - I'll say it. It looks like it's fish tonight. Have to see what's available at the fish market (and green market) before nailing this down - but given Aunt and Secondo - it's probably some sort of white fish preparation where it's good without the sauce for Secondo and where the sauce and sides make sense given the wine and the season.

    I'll post the market findings, the further decision process, and the resulting menu later.

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    In Iceland summers, the lambs roam free

    When in Iceland with Primo several years ago we saw sheep and lambs everywhere. The way it was explained to us, since the growing season in Iceland is short and winter is long, farmers must make hay while the sun shines. To get their flocks through the winter, the farmers have to save everything they can grow in the summer for winter use. So, as soon as the growing season starts, they chase all the sheep off the farms. In summer, the sheep can go anywhere they like - as long as it's not a farm.

    Now in Iceland, the prevailing wild forage is a unique mix of lichen, moss, scub, wild-flowers and so on. Iceland is volcanic and the earth there is very young. Between the soil conditions and the latitude (although moderated strongly by warm ocean currents) they don't have lush pasture to graze. And the land offers some dramatic topology - it's not unusual to see steep hills rising out of otherwise flat land - and to see sheep all over the slopes (and roads, and...)

    Come fall, people all over Iceland round up all the roaming sheep into long-used round-up pens surrounded by rocks as I recall. Then they sort them out and get them sent back to wherever they belong by examining ear-marks. It's not unusual for sheep to be found a hundred miles or more from home. The young lambs are numerous at this point and some go home with their mothers - but many do not. The herd is culled and the cull is sold for meat. Really good meat. Icelandic lamb is, in my opinion, a terrific product. Leaner than other lamb on the market and with a unique flavor because of their peculiar diet. And while it's not provably organic since nobody's certifying the entire island where they roam, it is a free-range product and as good as organic as far as I'm concerned. To top it off, it is generally sold at very reasonable prices - or at least it was.

    In the couple of years after that trip, I would look forward to fall when the Icelandic lamb would, for a brief season, become available here in the US. At that time, it sold for reasonable prices even here at my local Whole Foods. Now I don't know this next bit for sure, but it seems to me that Whole Foods may have an exclusive on this product in the US market now. But whether that's true or not, one thing is for sure - Somewhere along the way, Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods got much more expensive. The price last year was well more than double where it started - and maybe as much as triple. Not sure if this reflects Iceland having established higher prices, Whole Foods taking advantage, or both. But one thing's clear - while still a wonderful product - Iceland lamb sure isn't free around here.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    It will be cold again someday - so Brisket

    Hard to believe at this time of year - but I'm thinking about brisket. This is one of those comfort foods for which many families have their own cherished heirloom recipe. The basic technique is usually similar, but the sauces and flavors vary broadly. Sadly, this once regular feature of home cooking has become a special occasion item in many families and virtually disappeared for many others. It's too good and too easy to let it slip away. And the leftovers make amazing sandwiches. Here's one version based on my Mom's instructions:

    Brisket, onions, salt, pepper, garlic, paprika (and many optional additions)

    Buy a good "first cut" brisket she says.
    Make a rub of kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, minced fresh garlic, and paprika and rub the brisket all over. (a little oil in the rub makes this easier. And many other spices or herbs can be included if desired.)

    Slice a lot of yellow onions fairly thin. How much is a lot? More than you think - enough to completely surround and heavily cover the entire piece of meat once you get things going. Generally this puts your weight of onions on the way to that of the meat.

    Find a heavy bottomed pan (one for which you have a tight-fitting lid) big enough to lay the brisket down in with some room around the edges, put in a little oil, and set over a medium-high burner.

    Once the pan is up to temp, brown the meat well on all sides. (some would argue that this procedure can be improved by omitting the garlic from the rub so as to avoid any burned garlic. This is a reasonable point although it varies from Mom's approach. Come to think of it, in the good old days, she was probably using garlic powder rather than fresh so maybe that's why she put the garlic on early. Anyway, if you omit the garlic at this point, add crushed cloves to taste in with the onions later.)

    Once browned, add the whole pile of onions to the pot. Surround and cover the meat completely with onions. Cover the pot and reduce heat to simmer.

    The time required will vary with the size of your brisket and so on - but in any case it will take quite a while to cook - certainly 90 minutes and likely more. I suggest carefully flipping the brisket after about an hour. As the brisket and onions cook, the onions will create moisture and your brisket will braise. Eventually the onions will become very soft. Eventually your brisket will be done. There's a fairly broad window between done enough and really too far gone. Better to give it a bit more time if you're not sure. If you pull it too soon, it won't be tender.

    That's about all there is to it if you want to leave things basic. Taste and correct seasoning in gravy along the way and again close to the end. When done and briefly rested, slice thin to medium across the grain and serve with gravy (and something to soak up gravy like rice or good bread).

    Add some diced carrots along with onions - or later on if you prefer them to retain their identity.

    Additional spices or aromatics in rub or later - use your imagination.

    Wine in the pot at any time after browning - a good dry, but not too dry, white with some "bottom" to it. What's bottom? The point here is you don't want something too squeaky clean, steely, edgy, showing fruit only. You want some wood, or some malolactic, or some lees or something.

    Puree the onion gravy just prior to the end. If necessary, correct color (as the resulting slurry can be unappealing in tone) with e.g. some added paprika.

    Braise in the oven instead of on the stove-top.

    Mushrooms? Sweet peppers? Shallots? Hots? Sour cream? You name it. Brisket is a great platform for playing around - brown, braise, and binge.

    Sunday, August 5, 2007

    bialy report and I am given a clue by Rick

    So as to the Brookline bialy (sic) - need I say more? A good piece of bread with onions. Not a bialy. Still searching. Please - send leads. Truly noshstalgic.

    Speaking of which - my friend Rick, when trying to find this site, used what seemed to him the obvious spelling and found his way not here - but to another blog - Their blog has been going for years, and there's lots of great content there. I honestly never thought to spell it that way and so this came as a welcome surprise to me. The sentiments they cite in their introductory comments are very close to my own. I'm excited to find others working this beat. Their editorial emphasis is very different from my own and I hope that they'll find my jottings as interesting as I've found theirs.

    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    cruisin' Pastrami - in Brookline

    It's 94 degrees out, so of course today was the day to head for Harvard St. in Brookline and sample 3 different pastrami sandwiches for lunch. In case my doctor is reading this, I want to make clear that I didn't actually eat 3 sandwiches - I "sampled". OK - disclaimer firmly in place here's what I found:
    Rubin's Deli, barely into Brookline from Allston offers by far the best I saw today. They offer two varieties - one called simply pastrami and the other they call Roumanian.

    I've seen posts on other blogs and boards trying to clarify what's meant by Roumanian pastrami in the Brookline micro-culture - but both taste and the help at Rubin's made it clear enough today. In their case at least, both products start out the same. They buy their pastrami from a source in New York.

    The regular pastrami is received from NY, steamed, sliced, and served. It seems their general approach is to put the product on the slicer, and slice it thin, but they will happily hand carve it at proper thickness upon request. The machine cut sample they first offered me, by the way, was quite lean. When I asked if they could cut by hand and find some with some fat on it they were pleased to comply - and the result was very good. Their regular pastrami product, like all they sell at Rubin's is Kosher, seems relatively minimally processed and mildly spiced. Not too aggressive a cure, not too much smoke, spice, or salt. The texture - at least in the fattier product they supplied upon request - was very good. The bread was indifferent plastic bag rye. Never mind the bread, though - the meat was good.

    The Roumanian pastrami at Rubin's, as I said above, comes to them as the same product discussed above. The only difference is that before they steam it, they rub it with brown sugar and ground cinnamon. The effect is not subtle. Either you'll like it or not. Personally - Next time I'm at Rubin's, I'll order the regular pastrami. But that's just one man's reaction.

    While on the topic of Rubin's let me say that the service was gracious. The waitress was friendly. The counter man who offered me a slice was happy to do so. The other counter man came out to see how I liked it and engaged me in discussion. When we got to talking about pastrami manufacture, preparation, their process for "Roumanian-izing" and so forth, he volunteered to bring me a 1/2 sandwich of the Roumanian - and followed up afterward to see what I thought. The manager at the register was proud of his people. In every way, a delightful experience. And Doctor, I left with what amounted to a whole sandwich wrapped and packed on ice.

    Now down the way toward Beacon St. I stopped in at Zaftig's Delicatessen (sic). It was busy. This proves the importance of location. Rubin's was not busy when I was there. Zaftig's was busy.

    How 'bout the pastrami? Since nobody at Zaftig's was interested in talking about it, I don't know for sure where they're buying their product. But if pressed to guess, I'd say probably Pearl. Not a bad product for supermarket pastrami - but not in a league with what Rubin's had to work with. And handled the way they did it today at Zaftig's - well read on. As at Rubin's, I asked if they'd be willing to hand cut. Answer - NO (and seeming annoyance). OK, I asked if the product was steamed. Yes, they said (and definitely annoyance). And they went on to inform me that "We sell a ton of it" (which seemed to come with some derision in addition to the aforementioned annoyance). OK says I - bring it on. I was seated at the counter and so watched as their sandwich guy took an absolutely lean piece of meat out of a warm, moist holding cabinet - not to say a really steamy one - and put it on the slicer. He cut very thin slices of product that appeared to be pastrami single brisket, not double, not plate. He cut until his scale demonstrated that he'd cut whatever their portion control called for. Not a small quantity - not Carnegie or Katz's - but a good count for a sandwich in Boston. Then he put the meat on a plate and covered it over with plastic wrap. Then he popped the plate of meat into a microwave and nuked it. When the bell went off, he slid the meat onto the waiting (plastic bag) rye and sent it my way. Disgraceful. No pride. No knowledge. No hospitality. No pastrami deserving of the title. No deli. And the fries were lousy too. I am embarrassed by their mere presence in our fair city. And the many patrons they somehow attract and seemingly satisfy.

    But I'm still noshstalgic. I'll get back to you all later on the bialys I picked up down the street. Although if you've seen my previous post on that topic, you know I'm not optimistic.
    Later -