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...