Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A couple of Kitchen Views

Some people have asked me about our kitchen here at home. I don't have very good photos just yet as we're not 100% done with the project, but here are a few to provide some idea of what we're up to...

Early on in our renovation - hood and appliances for new hot line are in, but finishes not so much...
Me and Mom:

Much later in the project - Primo gets ready for Prom Night. Note the stone is now up on the hot-line backsplash:

Sink wall run. Hard to see the wood-character in these photos at the size shown, but the cabinets combine walnut and curly maple. Counter-tops and full-height backsplash of mascarello granite. Also note the drop-in induction range on island (under tea kettle). Induction is worth it -:

Primary Hot Line (pay no attention to the wierd photo artifact whereby the island top appears to be the floor. Better photos coming soon). Range, char-broiler, and convection oven. The Moffat E-32 convection oven is by far the best part of this line-up:

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Corned beef hash and the closely related hash-browned potatoes are two of the most maligned great traditional foods in the land. These popular items can be seen on menus all over the country. Hash-browns are so ubiquitous as to be included even at the likes of McDonald's. At least nominally. Corned beef hash is sold in cans in most every supermarket. And served from cans in most every diner. There are exceptions of course - but they are just that. Exceptions.

I can think of some places I've had actual hash. Some more traditional than others.

Many years ago, one could get a terrific hash - either corned beef or (get this) roast beef - at the dining room of the Ritz Carlton in Boston. You'd have to wear a tie to breakfast to partake. But it was worth it. Every morning, they'd use up the corned beef and roast beef they had left from the previous evening's dinner service to perpare quite good hash. And they would poach your egg properly. Needless to say, being the Ritz, and being in Boston, they didn't have proper rye bread for toast - but that's just quibbling. The meat was fresh, and the food was prepared with earnest respect for a deservedly great tradition.

Today, at the Carnegie Deil in Manhattan, you can get corned beef or pastrami hash of a sort. I regard their offering as a food of interest, but do not find it satisfying of my expectations of a proper hash. I could go into what's amiss there, but I'd rather first recognize them for trying. It's an honest product - and if you like it, you'll be delighted with the portion. As with the fabled sandwiches there - it is huge.

About a year back, I had a really good, albeit non-traditional, corned beef hash at The Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington. The Davenport is a remarkable place for many reasons. Actually it's a sufficient reason to visit Spokane all on its own. The hash is a bonus.

Probably there are dozens of places doing creditable work in the hash department across the country. But how do we account for the tens of thousands of other places serving something barely distinguishable from canned dog-food as hash? How do we account for the continuing popularity of hash despite the abuse heaped upon this once great food and its fans.

And as for "hash-browns" - although the standard expected quality of product offered in this category is not so patently offensive as with the meat-containing ersatz hash preparations above -- Still, have people lost their minds?
How does a deep fried, processed, formed potato-food thing get to be "hash-browns"?
Perhaps this is modern day hash-brown haiku. It's the irreducible essence -
"There's potato and there's crunch. (sneeringly) What more do you want, Mr. Noshstalgia?"

Somebody has to set the record straight. And as it will soon be Sunday morning in America, the proper time and place for hash-browns and perhaps even hash - Here are the facts:

  • Hash was (as at the Ritz) originally a means to use up first-rate dinner service leftovers.

  • * So if you don't have first rate meat to work with, have something else for breakfast. A nice omelet maybe.

  • The potatoes also are best if left over. You can of course start from scratch, but it's a long, slow process.

  • * Boiled potatoes are used most frequently, but I love to use up baked potatoes in this way. Personal preference. The important point is that they have been cooked before and allowed to cool so the starch has rectified. You don't want to start in trying to work with still-hot just cooked potatoes.

  • Potatoes for hash-browns should be cut into large enough pieces to retain a distinct potato presence in the final dish.

  • * No riced potatoes here. No mashed potatoes here. You want distinct pieces of potato with planar sufaces and angular edges. When you're done making your hash-browns they should exhibit a broad variation of texture - from crunch, through integral but fluffy interiors to the soft, rich, griddle-grease infused mash that binds it all together.

  • There should (make that must) be onions in the mix.

  • * The onions should acually be the first thing onto the griddle. There's a lot of latitude about how these are to be cut, but one thing is essential. Whether in whole or in part, there must be fines - that is there must be at least some onions that are small enough to take on a deeply cooked, carmelized color and flavor and a properly softened consistency. This is essential. In the creative realm certainly one could pursue substitutions - but classically, it's onions.

    * Additional vegetables are welcome - especially peppers. These don't have to be pre-cooked, although if you have left-overs - hey, it's hash. I like them best if they're not overcooked in the final product. Best if they're well carmelized around the edges though.

  • Salt, pepper, paprika - and optionally herbs such as parsley, thyme or others are included

  • * Can't stress the paprika strongly enough here - it will both accelerate and materially contribute to quality results.

  • You need proper equipment. A griddle or heavy cast iron pan is best. NO NON-STICK!

  • * We're shooting for hash-browns. That means you need a cooking vessel that's good at browning things.
    * And actually, for those of you who don't already know this, a well-seasoned cast iron pan is a great non-stick a surface.

    Now if you adhere to those principles, you're in for some fine hash-browns. You can either go on to final prep (as discussed below) and serve, or reserve your hash-browns for later use. For example, it's great if you can mix the meat in and hold in refrigeration overnight for use in the morning. The flavors will only develop further if given such resting time.

    Now about the meat - Couldn't be simpler. Recalling that we're using up leftovers here, the meat is already cooked. All we're really trying to do at this point is to chop it up, heat it through and incorporate the meat with the potatoes and blend the flavors.

  • Do not grind the meat. Chop it by hand.

  • * As with the potatoes, a broad variation in texture assuring preservation of discernable meat-structure is what you're shooting for. The precise treatment appropriate to a given piece of meat will depend upon its texture, degree of doneness, intensity of spice, and so on. You'll have to feel your way here. All I can tell you is that you should be able to tell what you're eating.
    * If you make the right choices here, you will express the best this meat has to offer. If you're fortunate enough to have a really good piece of corned-beef, roast beef, or pastrami to work with, this hash can be among the world's great pleasures. I promise I'll get back to the topic of really good corned beef and other deli meats in subsequent posts.

  • Once you've prepared the meat for incorporation, fold it into the potato & onion mixture on the grill.

  • * Add oil or butter if necessary, heat, press into a patty and crisp as desired. I make the patty thick enough to go really crisp but retain softer textures in the interior.

    Food like this will not be found in most breakfast joints. The ingredients and time involved are prohibitively expensive for the average greasy spoon. Mostly, you'll have to make it yourself. No better fate for your left-over roast-beef and baked potatoes.

    On the other hand - schmaltz

    Not much one can say to argue the health benefits here. Chicken fat - even Kosher chicken fat - just isn't good for you. Unless of course pleasure is itself good for us. There's simply nothing else like it - properly prepared schmaltz is sublime. My modern, medically informed culinary super-ego doesn't permit me to make much use of it - but it is good.

    For some reason now, I'm reminded of that night at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on Chrystie St. - Glaciers of frozen vodka, schmaltz on the table top, veal chops that - while very good - crowd the limits of geometric plausibility for veal (to say nothing of the plate). My brother's last meal before a long and debilitating bout of hepatitis. Clearly, he was going down regardless, but imagine the insult to the liver.

    Stream of conciousness-wise, this brings me to the observation that Russians (and to judge from Sammy's, Roumanians) understand vodka. Best consumed immoderately and frozen. I'm not sure as I write/read that if what's to be frozen is the vodka or the drinker. Let's be safe and say both. Yes, that's the ticket, be in (or from) a cold climate and drink frozen vodka in prodigious quantities. Garnish with a glass if you must. Salty, fatty foods are good at this point too.

    Irresponsible advice you say? Well, this post is "On the other hand..." We're not here to promote healthful practices. This piece is about things we know are bad for us - but for which there is no substitute. Schmaltz. Frozen vodka by the litre. Summer blockbusters.

    Seem to have jumped the groove again. OK - why not. I've actually been to two first run movies in the past week. A genuine rarity. But there it is. I was dragged (under heavy protest) to see Transformers. Come to think of it, it was a Russian neighbor's recommendation that drove us there. He had seen it and insisted we had to. Wretched. The worst. Truly. Others have covered this ground so I'll desist. But I can't help wondering now if vodka figured somehow into the genesis of the recommendation. Moving on - Last night we saw Hairspray. Great fun. If somebody tells you they don't make them like they used to - send them to see Hairspray. Highly recommended. Now here's the curious part. What does it say about blockbusters generally, and Transformers in particular, to observe that between the two, Hairspray was the wholesome choice? I mean (even as a third generation remake) we're talking about John Waters material here. Divine - a three-hundred pound transvestite - played the mother in the original movie. Now it's Travolta in drag-cum-fat suit. And it's the wholesome offering today. Not a close call. Which brings me back to schmaltz.
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    Friday, July 27, 2007

    Can food be old fashioned and healthy too?

    I've been corresponding with Erin over at www.athleticmindedtraveller.com and it got me thinking about how to reconcile my love of heirloom foods with eating healthfully. Seems like so many of the great old food treats just aren't good for us. Well there's at least a couple of things worth thinking about there.

    First, if we're talking about treats, we should remember that they're supposed to be just that - treats, not staples. The occasional pastrami - and if you hold out for truly great pastrami and don't live near Carnegie, Katz's or Langer's or some such* it will be very occasional - isn't going to define your diet.

    Second, if we're really talking about heirloom foods then there may be substantive health benefits to the old-time genuine article. Take a look at American Grass Fed Beef for a quick overview of the dramatic nutritional comparison between grass finished beef vs. commercial feed-lot beef. I also recommend you take a look at the folks at Heritage Foods USA for a variety of traditionally produced beef, pork, lamb and poultry products.

    *Following up now on that asterisk - If you know of someplace other than Carnegie, Katz's (NY) and Langer's (LA), and of course I should also mention the Niman Ranch product available by mail or at Zingermans (who helped develop it), that offers especially good pastrami, please let me know the particulars, who, where, what's special about their meat or other notable aspects of the experience. Ah - I've just been pointed at a piece talking about (of all things) noshstalgia in the SF Bay area that mentions some apparently good deli's out that way. A great read. Check it out at: http://www.themonthly.com/food-02-07.html

    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    And bialys aren't yellow

    Unlike the bagel - which most everybody at least thinks they've seen lately - the bialy is pratically unheard of outside greater NYC. But even within the city, I haven't actually seen a convincing bialy in recent memory. This is a complete mystery to me. What has happened? Before I get into that, though - perhaps a brief explanation in case there's anyone who wants to know what I'm talking about.

    From Mirriam Webster:
    bialy, (n): Yiddish, short for bialystoker, from bialystoker of Bialystok, city in Poland
    : a flat breakfast roll that has a depressed center and is usually covered with onion flakes
    This is a thoroughly inadequate definition, but it's a place to start.

    I take no exception with the suggested derivation, nor with the morphology, usual meal of consumption or vegetable garnish. Hmm - that doesn't leave much to quibble with then does it? ON THE CONTRARY! That word 'roll' - it suggests all that is wrong with most present day pretenders to bialydom. I admit, the word roll covers a lot of ground and I suppose one could rationalize its use - but it leads us down the wrong path and is best avoided. For example, a roll might contain egg in the batter and thus be somewhat yellow. Bialys are not yellow. Put another way - if that thing you're looking at or holding is yellow - it is not a bialy no matter what the store or manufacturer may claim. Take it from me - I'm obsessed...I am noshstalgic. Well then, what better word? (I'd be grateful for suggestions).

    A bialy is dry. Really dry. They are generally dusted with flour that remains beyond baking, and assures, should there be an errant molecule of would-be moisture nearby, complete dryness. Bialys, when sliced and toasted, have irregular holes and fissures in their structure. The dough surrounding some such bubbles can be very thin. When toasted, these create edges that can lacerate the unwary. A bialy is not dense throughout, nor even primarily (which observation gives rise to one of my numerous objections to the product from Kossar's (who seem to be nice people and emphatically claim to make them as they used to since 1936)). I have no idea if the Kossar's Biali of 1936 resembled the 6 in a bag I got at Zabar's two weeks ago, but if it did, then I would not have been buying them from Kossar's back when. But I digress...

    A bialy is oniony - but not throughout. The onion is confined to the dimple (thumb depression) in the middle - and somehow its influence is (while present) very attenuated beyond the immediate center. It's a subtle onion effect. Perhaps the dryness contributes to the extreme inertness of the onion flavor?

    Now this next observation (as distinct from my usual) is a matter of opinion, but: As I remember them from my youth, the bialy seemed custom made for sable. Not lox, not sturgeon, - sable.

    Now in recent attempts to enjoy a bialy, I have purchased product from various bagel makers (at one time a reasonable strategy as the bagel people were also often capable bialy people), I have tried the Kossar's product, and I bought some larger, fancier product from Zabar's. Some of these offerings have been pleasant flat breakfast rolls with depressed centers and covered with onion flakes (and occasionally things like poppy seeds) to paraphrase Mirriam Webster - but sadly, none has been a bialy. Which do you suppose came first? The non-bialy bialy, or the non-definition definition?

    Does anyone know where I can find a real bialy like they used to be? I'll bring the sable.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2007

    Bagels don't have blueberries

    My jaw muscles (probably my best toned body part) are completely exhausted. I've just eaten a toasted H&H poppy seed bagel. Given a genuine bagel, this is an anaerobic activity. You will "feel the burn" if you work your way through a proper bagel without a resting period. Bagels aren't easy.

    I hear a voice somewhere saying "I've never had that problem with a Duncan Donuts bagel."

    And cinnamon and raisins - like blueberries - are not properly to be found in bagels. Bagels don't have blueberries.

    OK - I know, they do. Even at places that should (and probably do) know better, like H&H. But despite the ready availability, I maintain that bagels don't have blueberries. The blueberry bagel demonstates the danger of popularity, of assimilation. Doubtless, many people reading this would already be lost - What's so wrong about blueberry? So pernicious?

    "I like blueberry bagels. What's your problem? You're a bagel snob!" Dare I say it (that is, imagine them saying it) - "A bagel nazi!".

    I admit I'm intolerant - but I feel I have just cause. It has come to this - I can get a thing called a blueberry bagel just about anywhere. (It might not actually contain real fruit, but that's a topic for another piece.) This product, this blueberry bagel, will have blue spots in it. It will have an aroma that its makers expect to be evocative of blueberries. It will be sweet.

    But whether blueberry flavor or not - I cannot buy an actual bagel, something I regard as a proper bagel, almost anywhere. With rare exception, the bagel as I knew it has become unobtainable. The market is flooded with bagel shaped bread-units sold as (gasp) bagels.

    The essence of bagel is not shape. The bagel contract is not fulfilled by virtue of shape alone. Proper bagels (though having a very slight sweetness on the outside) are savory, not sweet. While not a difinitive test, consider the phrase:
    "What would lox do?"

    Bagels, in addition to not being sweet through-and-through, are also not soft. They are not readily compressable. They can not be crushed to make a pasty substance suitable for sculpting - as can be done with white bread.

    But this isn't just about bagels - the point here is that the bagel is like so many ethnic or regional specialties. It has crossed over and become a popular, broadly distributed product. And the product that so many Americans enjoy today is not true to the original product - and I miss the real thing. I am Noshstalgic.

    Tuesday, July 24, 2007

    Kathy's back dinner

    Whole family home again. Cooked a quick chicken kofta masala:
    Made this up as went along. Couple of mishaps - discovered I was out of garam masala; didn't have the specific curry I'd have normally reached for; on the other hand - had some miscellaneous spices left over from a recent vaguely Mexican dinner (smoked paprika and ancho chile) that I decided to throw in. The substitutions worked out fine.
    I used 2.5 lbs of skinless/boneless chicken thighs, stripped off the obvious excess fat, ground once with grinder attachment to KitchenAid using fine blade.
    Grated fresh breadcrumbs with stale leftover sesame seed ficelle - about 1/2 loaf. Processed breadcrumbs with 1 large clove fresh garlic and a goodly quantity of fresh-grated ginger. Not sure how much - the piece cost me 40 cents before peeling and grating. Mixed in about the leftover mexican dinner spices - 2 teaspoons of smoked spanish paprika, and 1 teaspoon of freshly ground dried ancho chile. Added about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground pepper and a rounded teaspoon of Balti seasoning mix (Penzey's).
    Incorporated the breadcrumb mixture with the ground chicken and added about ~3 tablespoons heavy cream and two (jumbo) eggs. Corrected moisture level with besan flour to proper kofta consistency (?3-4 tablespoons?).
    Formed koftas and fried over medium heat in a heavy cast iron pan moistened with olive oil (could have used any decent oil or ghee instead).
    Meanwhile made a creamy tomato sauce:
    Butter (or ghee), 2 large onions diced, 2 large yellow peppers, sliced and slices halved.
    1 large can Muir Glen Diced Fire Roasted Tomatoes, a large splash (1/4 jar) of whatever fairly neutral brand of spaghetti sauce is kicking around open (in this case it was Newman's Marinara). Balti seasoning mix, salt, and sour cream to taste.

    Saute onions in butter (ghee) until they start to become translucent. Spread onions to outside of pan, exposing center. Add Balti mix to pan and toast until it starts to darken a bit then incorporate with sauteed onions and redistribute throughout pan. Add peppers and saute until they just start to soften. Add Muir Glen and other tomato product. Mix, correct seasoning, mix in sour cream, and cook down to desired consistency. Add koftas for last minute or two - do not mix to incorporate - it's better if the koftas are not sauced all over. If you've fried them properly, they will have dark crunchy surfaces that you don't want to soften with the sauce. The interior texture should be soft and light - much as you'd expect from a good veg kofta.
    Serve over rice. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander (cilantro).

    Accompanied by: Willm Pinot Gris - off dry. I'd rather have served an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, but this wine worked well.

    Children, by the way, will eat this if you avoid making it too hot. Secondo is a picky eater and he cleaned his plate.

    The essence of things

    Well, perhaps I've been clearing my throat for long enough. Time for some thoughts about Noshstalgia per se.

    Most familiar foods have deep roots. But, at least here in the US - and to a lesser degree in the developed world generally - with each successive generation, food has less context, people know less about the things they eat. Less history, less culture, less procedural knowledge. To some degree, the current popularity of all things foodie has slowed the loss of cultural memory. But the prevailing trend, even among self-identified foodies, is to less knowledge and wisdom even in the context of more data. (put that way, one could make the same observation in most any domain). In fairness, we're all busy people, and there's more than ever to know about so many things. How and why should people make time to acquire context, wisdom, etc. where food is concerned? Won't whatever is on my plate taste the same whether I understand ancient history or not? Well...

    I concede, at the highest level it is purely a matter of choice. Some people regard food only as sustenance, as a conveyance for nutrition. They are perfectly happy if their need to eat takes as little time as possible and avoids distracting them from their more important pursuits. I don't embrace this point of view, but neither do I condemn it.

    Others - My readers (if I have any today) and potential readers - We choose to pay attention to what we eat, and perhaps even to exert ourselves in the procurement or preparation of superior foods. For us, taking steps beyond attentive consumption leads us to context. Preserves, confits, sausages, corned beef, bacon, maple syrup, indian pudding, woks, kebabs, spices, etc. - Why?

    An understanding of the origins of things leads to an improved understanding of their essence. Understanding the essence of such things - the original design objectives, the practical problems that drove their creation and refinement - guides us in appreciating real quality. What's the point in preserves made with non-seasonal or improperly ripened fruit? Can they possibly preserve the character and singular pleasure of a perfectly ripened peach? What's the point in a wok of heavy gauge metal, or one set over a weak or diffuse heat source? Can it possibly deliver either the fuel economy or the cooking result for which the wok was developed?

    For me, Noshstalgia is not simply an exercise in revisiting old recipes - it is a commitment to deeper understanding. It is a perspective that helps me focus my attention and efforts. Many fine authors have expounded on aspects of this consciousness - how to shop, seasonal menus, slow cooking etc. And implicitly, good food writing tends to include culture and history. But I am working on this blog because as I survey the web - as I look at so many food-blogs and cooking sites - it seems like people are mostly focused concrete details du jour - how to cook this, where to find that. Great information, no doubt but I hope I can lend a voice, and find a readership for digging deeper.

    Sunday, July 22, 2007


    Had dinner out with Secondo on Wednesday. We waited a long time to be seated. Secondo is only 6, so that's not easy, but the time went by quite pleasantly. The restaurant was a very small, storefront neighborhood place not too far off. Family operation. Two sisters were working the front of the house, their parents in the kitchen.

    From our vantage point near the entry, we could see most of the dining room, the service area where drinks, desserts, coffee, bread and so on were prepped, the register, and right down the axis of the galley kitchen area. Flourescent lighting on the left side of the room illuminated the entry and service areas. On the right, down-lighting served the dining area - but as there is no real separation, the entire space was bright and unromatic. The decor verged on non-existent. We perused a menu as we waited. It was a short list of absolutely standard, old-fashioned italian (calabrian) offerings. Mostly pasta. A few protein items. Secondo loves pasta.

    The sisters were very busy. Upon our arrival, we were the fourth party waiting for a table. The entire restaurant consisted of perhaps a dozen tables. The timing of our arrival was such that it took quite a long time for even the first of the 4 waiting parties to be seated. During this long interval, and at each subsequent seating prior to ours, we observed that one, and sometimes two tables were vacant. A party would clear their bill and head out. Their table would sit, waiting to be cleared and readied for the next party. And people were waiting. And I was waiting with a 6 year old. And we didn't mind; because something magical was happening.

    The sisters were very busy. There was no discernable division of labor between them. There was a lot to do back there. When they were in the service area, they flew. Most of their activities were those you'd expect - prepping desserts, totaling checks, making espresso and so on. One thing was a bit less typical. Every time a party was seated, one of the sisters would start a batch of toast on a panini grill. When they removed the toast from the grill, they'd brush it with a mixture of oil, garlic and herbs. No big deal, but it was a labor intensive way to provide bread to the table, it seemed to be the rule, and the care and precision with which they made that garlic bread seemed special.

    More remarkable was the transformation the sisters went through each and every time they crossed the threshold between the service area and the dining area. Recall that there was no wall between - just a counter. Still, as they moved from one area to the other, everything changed. In the service area, they were charged and taut, moving as fast as possible. They were perfectly accurate and wasted no motion. But they were clearly exerting themselves to get things done. As they crossed into the dining room, you could see them relax. It was deliberate and unmistakable. It didn't take long - just a couple of seconds. But as they entered the dining room, the tension left them and they moved through the tables with easy grace as if they had all the time in the world. When they approached a table and took an order, or when delivering food, they were relaxed. They exuded hospitality. They might as well have been hostesses, relaxing at a catered affair under the watchful eye of a trusted manager. It was as if they had nothing to worry about, nothing to do, but be with their guest. No other guest either - just the one they were with.

    Those tables that sat empty between parties? I was quickly convinced this was a deliberate, and absolutely correct decision. They were regulating the flow of seatings and orders to maintain perfect service in the front of the house and perfect timing in the kitchen. I was waiting with a 6 year old, in an environment that provided no activities to keep him busy for close to an hour - and I appreciated their discipline in turning those tables so slowly.

    When our turn came, just as I suspected, we too felt the ease and luxury of gracious service and seemingly undivided attention. And the food was delicious.

    Saturday, July 21, 2007

    Dinner with the boys

    Kathy's still away, so just the three of us this evening.
    Char-broiled flank steak - rub: EVOO, kosher salt, crushed garlic, pepper melange (black pepper, allspice, ceylon clove, nutmeg, ancho chile), smoked spanish paprika, thyme
    Duxelle of leeks and portobello mushrooms - porcini powder cream, dry vermouth and demi-glace
    Pan carmelized local farm yellow zucchini
    remainder of ficelle from lunch.
    2003 Chateau Campuget, Nimes (S, G, M) - Great value there

    A quick summer lunch with the boys

    Properly ripened cranshaw melon with shinkenspeck and lime. Sesame seeded ficelle with brebiou (a mild sheep's milk brie).
    The little one passed on the above, but went crazy for the black-forest salami and a new designer fruit I picked up - something they're calling a mango nectarine. Have to admit, it was very good. Also notable, it was absolutely ready to eat upon purchase - perfectly ripe. A real rarity in most retail settings today.

    Even though I've titled this blog Noshstalgia, I love running into worthwhile new products - by which I mean products that introduce delicious new flavors, textures, nutritive profiles, etc. Some of the new designer fruits are excellent. The people at Baldor have introduced quite a few. Not sure if this is one of theirs.

    Cheese Shop

    My local Stop and Shop has a big sign on its facade that says "Cheese Shop". Inside the store, there's an area near the deli with some open refrigerator cabinets containing wrapped pieces of cheese. Nothing exotic, but still some variety. These products are, for me, not actually food. Initial quality aside, they are not cared for properly. In a pinch one could source a piece of something relatively indestructable such as utility-grade parmesan or cheese for tacos, perhaps. But mostly, this is not actual cheese as I know it - and I categorically dispute their claim to being a cheese shop.

    But ok - there are stores that actually are cheese shops. They're few and far between, but they do exist. Even within the ranks of this small group, there is astonishing variation in quality. Let me propose to you what I have been surprised to discover is the acid test. I never thought this would be a hard question, but it turns out that it is. Next time you are served at the cheese shop (remember this has to first be a bona fide cheese shop) - I suggest you begin by asking your server:
    "What's great today?". By far the most frequent response (I've conducted a poll over a large sample) is: "Everything!" Often this is followed by "What do you like?" or some such. If your cheese monger (sic) has actually said "Everything!" - this is not a cheese shop (or at least this server is not a cheese monger). This phase of the test is pass/fail - and they have failed.

    There are places where this simple question will reliably elicit an intelligent answer. At Wasik's in Wellesley, MA for example. The kind of response you're looking for is of the form: "I'm really liking the (cheeseThat'sActuallyInGreatFormToday) today." Cheese lives, breathes, grows, shrinks, stinks, dies. Cheese has seasons. Cheese has good days and not so good days. Cheese sometimes needs to be thrown away. Cheese mongers select their products deliberately. They age their products. They cut them when they're ready. They don't wrap them indiscriminately. They taste their products. They know what's good. And if you work with them, they will come to know what you like and will steer you what's best and occasionally to wonderful new experiences. Great people.

    Some supermarkets have begun the practice of stocking a much improved variety of cheese. Whole Foods, for example has made a big commitment to the category. But the kind of service they can offer, the care they can (actually can't) provide for the product, do not and can not provide a substitute for a well run proper cheese shop. Find a good one, taste the products attentively. I don't mean buy them and see - I mean taste in the store. Do the same at WF. If you ask, they will cut you a taste. Ask for help, assess the thoughfulness of the answers, taste the products.

    You'll make the time to take the extra stop.

    Osso Bucco

    Takes long cooking. About 1/2 bone. Used to be cheap meat. Not any more. Whole Foods price today? My local store has it at: $ - well actually they didn't have any today, but they tell me it would have been $12.99/lb. Arguably Whole Foods might run a bit higher than some other market - but the fact is that this, once lowly, cut has become expensive. Once you take the bone into consideration, the meat alone will run you around $10 per portion.

    Why was it cheap before? Why isn't it so any more?

    After all, the more desireable cuts of veal have always been (comparatively) expensive. Once upon a time, veal cutlet (tops - prepped) would have run you $12/lb when osso bucco was around $3. Now the tops run $18 and the OB is $13. What accounts for the price compression?

    Has the ratio of OB to cutlet, ribs, loin, etc. on veal changed? Perhaps genetic engineering has been applied to alter the design of the animal to this effect? Since modern veal production doesn't involve the animal actually going anywhere, perhaps they've reduced the number of legs on the calf to optimize these proportions?

    No - that's probably wrong.

    Hey, what about Flank Steak, Skirt Steak, or (if you can even find one) Hanger Steak.
    Same story. Used to be comparatively cheap - but the price spread between these "value" cuts and the famously most desireable cuts have been dramatically reduced in recent years.

    I'll skip the speculation.

    Meat is no longer cut locally. That is, there is no real meat breakdown at the retail level. Meat is broken down to retail cuts (sometimes even retail portions) before it reaches the store. Since the product is shipped in cut-wise distinct packages at cut-wise distinct prices, there's no longer any inadvertant buying. Used to be that for your butcher to sell you veal chops, he would purchase whole carcasses, or sides. The chops came along with the shins (osso bucco) Beef - by the side or quarter. Want loin? Comes with flank. Now it's all in boxes, cut by cut. This distribution technology permits the "optimization" of the market. Supply and demand can be managed cut by cut.

    Now I'm not opposed to the natural forces that operate in markets generally. But when such "optimization" distorts the fabric of cuisine? This is a serious problem.


    Good Morning. Friends and family have been after me to start blogging for some time now and since Spencer's still sleeping - a remarkable event at 9am - I'm going to at least make a start. People have been after me to blog because I'm usually on a soap box where nobody but friends and family can hear me - and either they figure the world might want to hear what I'm on about, or maybe its as simple as "misery loves company". You'll have to decide. I can't tell anymore.

    Why Noshstalgia? Noshstalgia reflects my interest in preserving great, endangered, food traditions and sharing them with others. I'll elaborate on this later - but first a few words to better set the stage...

    I recognize the danger of nostalgia generally. As we grow older, we're prone to looking back and romanticizing our earlier life experiences. It's a cliche that things used to be better. And if we fixate there then we may miss the present altogether. Very dangerous stuff.

    There are plenty of worthy developments in the world of food today, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise. I have great interest in and admiration for many contemporary growers, producers, distributors, chefs, restaurateurs, etc. But this blog is not about the new - it's about our culinary roots.

    It's obvious that food has become fashionable. As I look at the success of popular food-focused media outlets, the proliferation of specialty foods, the growth of Whole Foods, food celebrities, and now even Hollywood movies set in the context of the food business I can't help feeling that we may be approaching the zenith of the fad.

    But most people don't actually cook. Time is precious and people can't spend hours as they used to. And there are many more impediments to real cooking at home - reasons that I hope to discuss later. For now, just consider the ratio between the number of primary ingredients required to produce food, and the number of products selling in the market. At the Fancy Food Show in New York two weeks ago, there were well in excess of 100,000 products on display. Modern supermarkets carry tens of thousands of distinct items on its shelves. The proliferation of items on offer reflects first and foremost on people's need for convenience. One way or another, many of these products are substites for the time, effort, and know-how otherwise required to produce meals from primary ingredients.

    And most of those who do cook are in a hurry. Time is precious, even for self-identified foodies. The focus of many recent cookbooks and tv shows is on producing meals quickly. So - am I all about "slow food"? No - but it's certainly a part of the picture for me.

    So back to this - Food is fashionable. I appreciate the attention that good food and its contemporary heroes are receiving. But, it seems to me that many of the most important aspects of our food culture - past and present - have yet to penetrate for many people. The foodie trend has reached a point that suggests it may soon be "over". It feels to me like we're at about (Warhol) minute 14. Popular culture is very harsh with fads that have passed. And too often, good, important ideas are lost because of their nominal association with a defunct trend.

    My job here is to share what strikes me as important and hope to build impact beyond the fad. I hope that you'll find some value in my jottings.