Friday, May 29, 2009

Recipe Pro-Tool

Michael Ruhlman’s recent post about cookbooks that teach got me thinking about how much I used to love cookbooks. Back when I was a novice cook, books like “The Joy of Cooking,” “The Professional Chef” (the basis of The Culinary Institute of Americas' “The New Professional Chef”), Henri Pellaprat’s “Modern Culinary Art,” almost anything by Ada Boni and Julia Child and, of course, “Le Guide Culinaire” by Auguste Escoffier and La Scienza della Cucina by Pelligrino Artusi were an important part of my culinary education. Some were goldmines of information about technique (e.g. The Pro Chef, “La Methode” by Jacques Pepin) and recipes while the ones I liked best were backward looking works chosen more for what they could tell me about the history, culture and ideology of European culinary tradition.

Nowadays, I’ve little use for cookbooks. I have a few that I refer to when I need to be reminded of the the name of a dish or the ratio of it’s ingredients, but there aren’t too many things in the western culinary canon that I have to cook (or chose to cook) that I can’t make up on the fly without having to refer to somebody else’s recipe.

That’s about how it should be for a cook I suppose. I mean, is not a big part of the reason we decide to center our lives around cooking so that we can create recipes that reflect our values and tastes? There is certainly nothing wrong with working from recipes written by other people and trying to satisfy our creative drive by say, changing an ingredient or applying a different technique to one or more the steps. But I find building my own recipes more fulfilling.

I don’t usually write recipes unless I am creating them for work and I rarely include the instructions for method unless I’m working on something that is very new to me. Then, if the dish doesn't come out well and needs refinement I have a precise record of what I did to review.

I write my recipes for commercial production in a form that would probably madden cooks who like to measure liquids and semi-solids volumetrically.

  1. Every ingredient is weighed and each weight is expressed as a decimal.
  2. All weights are expressed in metric units (mostly grams)
  3. All ingredients are expressed as a percentage of the main ingredient to facilitate scaling up and down (called a baker or formula percentage)

Here is an example in the form of a recipe for Chicken Sausage with Ginger and Green Onions

Ingredient Weight Percentage
Chicken meat 8636g 1
Salt 121g 0.014
Pepper, black 34g 0.004
Ginger in syrup* 173g 0.020
Green Onions 224g 0.026
Mustard, dry 13g 0.0015
White wine 604 g (~604 ml) 0.070

* Whole unpeeled ginger cooked in simple syrup and ground through the fine on a meat grinder. The ginger has to be cooked if the sausage will sit uncooked for more than a few hours. Otherwise the proteolytic enzymes in the ginger will turn the meat to mush.

I initially made this recipe by weighing small amounts of each ingredient and recording the weights before adding them in. Each time I added something sniffed the mixture to determine if it was properly seasoned. I can usually nail the seasoning of a sausage recipe via an olfactory and visual check but on those occasions where I am unsure I’ll cook up a sample and taste it.

I always salt fresh sausage at a rate of either 14-15g salt per 1000 grams of meat (see note below) depending on the kind of meat being used and the taste characteristics of the other ingredients. The percentage of each ingredient is obtained by dividing the weight of each by the weight of the main ingredient.

The beauty of this kind of recipe is that it makes it very easy to increase or decrease the batch size while keeping the ratio of ingredients consistent and producing a consistent product no matter how much or how little you make.

Want to make more or less? Then enter the new weight of the meat and multiply it by the percent values of the subordinate ingredients and you are done.

The example I gave here is for sausage, but this format works for any kind of recipe. Just pick a main ingredient (It does not have to be the most abundant, it could, for example be the most expensive. Then divide the weight of each subsequent ingredient by the weight of the main ingredient to determine its percentage value.

Finally, one can purchase software that will scale recipes up and down for you automatically. Or you can write the formula recipe into a spread sheet, apply costs and so on. (I’ve done this.) But typing on a keyboard when your fingers are fouled with food is not such a good idea. So writing them out by hand is usually the best way to go.

Note: The previously given rate of 0.014-0.015g salt per 1000g meat was in error and has been corrected to read 14-15g salt per 1000g meat.

A gift of Globe

Jearl Pino, one of the guys who likes to come around to the farm and help with various projects, bought a Globe slicer from some guy who advertized it on Craigslist. I suppose the machine was too big to keep at Jearl's house because he asked if he could leave it at the farm. We are free to use it at will and I've already begun breaking it in. And check this out: he paid $75.00 for the thing! It's probably thirty years old but it's in perfect condition.

Today I used it to slice up a prosciutto made from Berkshire pork. I hung this about 12 months ago. It's cured only with salt (sodium chloride) nothing else, and tastes just like the real thing -I suppose because it is the real thing.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lettuce for Blues

I've been a pretty lousy blogger these last few months. There are several reasons for my negligence but the most significant have been a major bout of the blues following the death of a close friend and a serious effort to spend less time on the computer and more time doing hands-on constructive things like gardening. The garden, happily, is beginning to come in.

Here are some pictures.

Another tempest in a teapot

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Deep Thought: Best thing is no thing

I usually don’t pay much attention to bumper stickers. Most of them seem to express ideas I don’t want to care about: someone’s favorite band; the place or pet they “HEART;” the politician they think is going to make life demonstrably different and, increasingly, vulgar assertions that in more polite times were only found scrawled on the walls of restroom stalls and subway tunnels. But the other day as I was walking from the gym to my car, I saw a bumper sticker that stopped me dead in my tracks. It read

“The best things in life are not things.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with an iPhone application after I read that, and not because –as might be assumed- I’d never thought of it before. Rather, I simply never expected to see anything like that on the bumper of a late model car in the parking lot of an “upscale” gym in the hyper-materialistic United States of America of the 2000’s. But there it was: metaphysical truth on the bumper of a Toyota Camry.

The best things in life are not “things” (material objects), they are experiences like looking at your children and seeing that flame (or whatever the hell it is) burning behind their eyes. They are those moments that transcend mundane thinking and you see the world as it really is and become simultaneously aware of its beauty and propensity to mete out misery. (Of course, it is also true that many of the worst things in this life are not things either. But any discussion of this here is unwarranted by the feel-good nature of this blog ;-)

Food is great, we could not live without it, but far better than the food itself is the experience of eating something that has been so well-prepared and is so wonderful that it sends you elsewhere.

I not sure that I care
much about food beyond it's ability to provide my body with nutrition and myself with a way to earn a living. But what I care deeply about are it's collateral cognitive and emotional affect within the people I feed and, of course, myself.

How about you?


Sky Full of Bacon 10: Prosciutto di Iowa from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Egyptian Pig Slaughter

I'm putting a hyperlink to this unbelievably horrible video of the hog cull in Egypt instead of posting the video because it is just too disturbing to include in this blog. If there is anyone out there who can explain to me how what the Egyptian government is doing makes any sense at all, I'd like to hear about it.

Stuff like this renders almost trite all complaints about the way that animals are treated in American slaughterhouses as it magnifies the fact that there is no animal in this world that has the potential to be as wantonly and efficiently destructive of life as we humans.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

'Tis the season....

by Mike Pardus

All winter, I watch the weather for skiing, by the end of March most of the snow is gone and it's time to think about my favorite spring sport- Mushroom Hunting! I start to watch ground moisture and temperature, air temperature, and precipitation. When it's moist and the ground temp climbs above 55F degrees it's time to start looking for Morels. This spring has been good in the Hudson Valley and more than morels have been popping up in abundance. My first find happened as I got out of my car at work - in the grass at the edge of the parking lot were three large Meadow Mushrooms (portablello relatives). Sauteed with olive oil and garlic they topped off linguine well for that evening's dinner.

A few days later, cycling through the woods outside of New Paltz , I found a few shelves ( they grow on trees in layers, like shelves) of polyporus squamos growing on trail side trees- appropriately, they are also known as "bicycle seats" because of their shape and size. Although they become too tough to eat when large and mature, these were young, tender and buttery. Again, sauteed with oil and shallots, they made a fine addition to a warm salad tossed with bacon lardons and topped with a poached egg.

But it's Morel Season and, although I'd been hearing tales of successful forages by some of my students, I'd yet to find any of my own. On Tuesday I made a date with my GF to ditch out of work as early as possible and go wandering through the woods near the banks of the Hudson river - my perennial favorite and most fruitful source of morels each spring, this year did not disappoint.

It was a beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon and the forest was clean and relatively free of underbrush. We walked and chatted, keeping our eyes on the ground, but also watching the tree tops for dead elms (morels are reputed to favor growing under dead or dying elm trees). Just when it looked like we might have to be satisfied with a simple walk in the woods we went to check out an elm and found not morels, but several shelves of fresh, young, oyster mushrooms. Favored by beetles and slugs as well as humans, it's important to catch these soon after they emerge, we felt lucky to have beaten the bugs.

But it was morels we'd come for and after another hour of wandering we decided to give up the quest and be thankful for the half full sack of oysters. On the way back to the car, ambling up a hill, I glanced to my left and was astonished to see a doublet of morels - each the size of a pint beer bottle! Since morels most often grow "gregariously", where there's one there are usually many more, we forgot about the car and started scrutinizing the forest floor. Within 30 minutes we discovered three productive colonies, harvesting a total of 78 gems ranging in size from huge to tiny; our sack full and we fulfilled.

Returning home, we took turns prepping dinner and showering off the ticks. Soon we had dinner on the table - Roasted chicken and asparagus, large, crunchy croutons tossed in the rendered chicken fat, and sauteed mushrooms. With a bottle of cava, it was a rare and delicious meal.

So, now for the disclaimers:

Never - NEVER - eat wild mushrooms without first studying with a professional and having your harvest inspected for safety.

Join your local mycological society and go on organized forages to learn the basics (almost every county has one - google to find one near you)

Buy and use a good Mushroom field guide. My favorite is Mushrooms of North America by Roger Philips.

Never eat or serve anything you aren't absolutely sure of.

Remember the old adage:

" There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no OLD, BOLD mushroom hunters"

Don't be bold - or foolish - mushrooms are fun to hunt and wonderful to eat, but acute liver failure is a slow and painful way to die. You want to be an OLD mushroom hunter.

Happy hunting

Friday, May 15, 2009

This Morning

When I pulled in to the farm this morning, the air was thick with fog. The fog made everything look fuzzy. It was like I was looking through the lens of a camera that was covered by a shear nylon stocking.

Even though I was sure that I was not observing the world through a nylon stocking. I got so worked up that I became really hungry. So, I dragged out a prosciutto from the aging room and pulled off its cheesecloth clothing. Then I tidied it up by scrubbing off the mold from its skin and cutting off areas where the fat had turned rancid and made myself a proper breakfast.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Roast Beef Recipe Circa 1955

Here's a roast beef recipe that is sure to raise an eyebrow. It's from comedic genius Gracie Allen. I've included a YouTube video of the The George Burns and Allen Show that contains a reference to the recipe @ circa 25 minutes into the show.

FW: Gracies kitchen magic

Gracie Allen's Classic Recipe for Roast Beef

1 large Roast of beef
1 small Roast of beef

Take the two roasts and put them in the oven.

When the little one burns, the big one is done.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Pythia of Media Speaks:People go Hungry

Watch out world, Oprah Winfrey is on a diet again and things are getting crazy.

When most people go on a diet they just go out and buy a bunch of diet books and laxatives then sign up at gym where they can get healthy snacks like strawberry smoothies and maybe exercise a little bit. But when Oprah goes on a diet it's a much bigger deal because, of course, she is like The Delphic Oracle of millions of people who need her to tell them how to live .

Now I never knew the real Oracle of Delphi so I cannot say with any degree of certainty if she was any wiser than the current Miss Pythia of Media. But I wonder if Apollo would approve of Oprah's oracular performance when last week, in response to some inscrutable mutterings by their oracle, tens of thousands of people who thought she was telling them how to lose weight crashed her servers trying to download coupons for free food from Kentucky Fried Chicken. But wait, things get weirder.

Armed with these coupons, Oprah's acolytes rush into KFC stores all over the United States and wipe them out of grilled chicken. Store managers had to turn people away. Now many are upset because they could not get their coupons or free chicken so they can lose weight like Oprah.

It's all so confusing. This might clear things up.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ratio, A Brief Exegesis

In Ratio, Michael Ruhlman’s latest book and in many of his promotional posts and media appearances he makes an assertion that has raised a lot of objections among reviewers of the book and, to a lesser degree, the cooking public. What he says, in essence, is that if one understands that most fundamental preparations of western cookery can be reduced to simple expressions of the relative weight of two to four primary ingredients (ratios), over time one should be able to move away from dependence upon recipes.

If I am paraphrasing him correctly, I think that it’s a bit optimistic to assume that anyone who is used to working with recipes is going to abandon the practice in favor of a reductive approach that involves weighing a set of principal ingredients and then seasoning them with a little of this and a dash of that.

As a matter of fact and practice it’d be really stupid for professional cooks -especially those involved in producing large quantities of food- to abandon the use of recipes. The need to produce the same product in a consistent manner at a known cost demands it.

But as I found while I was helping him work through some of the material for the book, there is tremendous value in at least thinking about the foods we construct in the very simple terms of proportions of one ingredient to another. For one thing, it compels you to think about what is actually essential to a recipe and what can be substituted with another ingredient or eliminated entirely. And for me, at least, a logical consequence of spending so much time breaking down recipes into simple expressions of a few principle ingredients, was a renewed appreciation for the tremendous redundancy seen in the world of cookbook publishing.

Another benefit of reducing recipes to ratios of principal ingredients is that it causes you to focus so intently on a few key ingredients, that you cannot help but begin to ask lots of questions about what those ingredients are and how they behave when they cook. In other words, reducing recipes to ratios can be heuristic if you let your mind go that way.

So while Ratio might not cause you to throw all of your cookbooks and recipe cards into the nearest dumpster, its central proposition, that every recipe contains ingredients that are essential to its nature (as well as those that are not) and that these ingredients can be thought of as simple proportions might renew your appreciation for the power of reductive logic.

Frankly, I think the book is pretty radical for a “cookbook.” I can’t imagine there are too many authors who can pull off something like this and get paid for it.

Chicken Salad

Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 1, 2009

This is almost too stupid to print

So far the H1N1 influenza virus has not been found in pigs. But that is not stopping the Egyptian government from slaughtering all of the pigs in Egypt. Their bodies will be burned or buried and the largely poor and Christian population that depends on them for food will have to find something else to eat. Of course, that won't be too difficult because a large number of the poor who raise pigs are garbage collectors.

OIE: Don't Kill Pigs!

...unless you plan to eat them.

The following came into my mailbox this morning
via It seems
that no one has been able to find evidence of H1N1influenza virus in pigs -BdG

The OIE [World organization for Animal Health] strongly counsels
against the culling of pigs in the current situation with A/H1N1 influenza
that started in North America.

Scientific information currently available to the OIE and partner
organisations indicates that this novel A/H1N1 influenza virus is
being transmitted amongst humans; there is no evidence of infection
in pigs, nor of humans acquiring infection directly from pigs.

Moreover, and despite the fact that the currently circulating A/H1N1
influenza virus is not simply a swine influenza virus (it has
reassortant genetic material of human, avian and swine origin), it is
important to note that swine influenza has not been shown to be
transmissible to people through eating pig meat or other products
derived from pigs.

Motorized liberation

I may say I'm into slow food, but I have my limits. I've been wanting to get a grain mill for a long time, but never saw the wisdom in paying three to four hundred bucks for a motorized mill when I'd knew I never use it more than once or twice a week. And after milling a couple of pounds of grain with the admittedly very nicely built hand mill at the farm (below, left), neither was I interested in doing the work that previous generations of millers had found so loathsome that they foisted it off on slaves and oxen.

Man, talk about boring work. Look, the only reason I'm smiling in the photo is that I realize that if I'm going to do the work of an idiot, I should look like one.

So imagine my delight when I found this nicely made mill from Messerschmidt, the same company that helped to make World War II such a memorable experience for Allied air forces. My new grain mill attaches to my KitchenAid mixer and frees me up to do more intellectually stimulating things like daydream, for example. It also comes with a base and hand crank for when my backup generator runs out of propane and I need to make flour for the bread I can't bake in my electric oven , or for when I feel like reliving the good old days when millers would have killed to have a motor to relieve them of the burden of having to pull a millstone or worse, having to beat someone else into submission to make them pull it for them.