Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Minimalist - Hair Raisingly Bad Technique

Mark Bittman is exasperating. Sure, as his bestselling cookbook implies, he knows how to cook everything, but he often cooks like a novice.

Here he demonstrates once again that his minimalist approach is grounded in inferior cooking technique.

He makes chicken liver pate and en route tries to saute onions in a cold pan, then adds the livers to, he alleges, "cook them quickly."

There are so many things wrong here I don't know where to start. Okay I'll start with the pan: it should be hot before, not after, adding the fat (in this case butter). The livers should be sauteed before the onions to assure even browning -which is not achievable with water (from the onions) in the pan. After the livers are browned, the pan should be deglazed with wine or cognac and the "fond" poured over the livers.

Next the pan is returned to the fire, more fat is added, the onions sauteed then combined with the livers. Of course, if there is any glace (glaze) aka fond in the pan from cooking the onions it should be deglazed and added to the liver and onion mix.

I don't know, I'm sure he's a nice guy and I don't want to be in the business of running a total stranger's reputation into the mud. But when I seen  see someone this technically challenged passing themselves off as an "expert," it makes my hair stand up. I assume that his self-satirizing approach (as evidenced by Zen of cooking disciple introit) is meant to soften criticism of his mostly careless approach to execution of technique, but I'm not so sure that the bulk of his audience is aware of just how careless he can be.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rational Pastry Cream

I've been using some of Michael Ruhlmans' rational (as "in the form of ratios" but meant as a double entendre) recipes to prepare a few of the basic (as in foundational) things that I've been cooking. Last night I made Pastry Cream or as they call it in Hati, Montreal and even in France, "Crème pâtissière."

While some folks might be inclined to shove their faces into the pot and siphon this sweet densely textured, highly aromatic of super premium conflict-free Indonesian artisan-grown vanilla bean (I'm kidding, I've no idea where the beans came from.), I plan to use it to fill profiteroles once it has been loosened up with whipped cream.

Here is Ruhlman's recipe. It is essentially the same recipe for pastry cream that appears in Ratio except that I included the weight of the cornstarch (he gave volume measure : 6TBS) and the technique used to combine it with the other ingredients (He suggests making a slurry, I beat it into the egg and sugar mixture dry).

All ingredients are weighed except the vanilla bean.

milk 8 z
heavy cream 8z
vanilla bean, split* 1 each

Sugar 4z
Egg yolk 4z
Cornstarch 1.75 z
Butter 2z

1) combine milk, cream and vanilla bean in sauce pan and heat to approx. 190 degrees F

2) beat/ whisk sugar, then cornstarch into egg yolk

3) beat/whisk approx 6 fl oz hot milk into yolk mixture

4) combine remaining milk with egg, return to pot, put on low-medium fire and stir with wooden spoon/paddle until thick

5) whisk in butter

6) store in container with plastic film or parchment applied directly to surface to prevent skin from forming

*split along the long axis/lengthwise so the seeds will spill into the mixture

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wooly Pigs Bacon

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Last week Heath Putnam, the only breeder of Mangalitsa pigs on my side of the prime meridian, sent me three samples of smoked bacon to evaluate. I think he was also testing the ordering and delivery protocol for Foods in Season, a new eCommerce site that is set up to sell Mangalitsa pork and other products.

Before I weigh in on what I thought of these wonderful smoked bacon variants, I must tell you that my experience with Mangalitsa pork is so new that if I had my druthers I would only eat it minimally seasoned until I felt I truly understood what it is. I love smoked foods as much as anyone, but smoke -even as lightly applied as it was on this bacon- is a blanket that dampens subtler elements of taste and aroma that I want to know all about when I am learning the organoleptic qualities of a new food. (Wow! Does that ever sound effete! :-) So, since my previous experience of Mangalitsa pork was limited to a jowl I bought from Mosefund farm and turned into guanciale, I don't exactly bring a comprehensive understanding of this rare specimen of porcine pulchritudinousness to the tasting table.

That said, all three samples were delicious. The fat was exceptionally good. I've never tasted pork fat from any other pig that was anything like the fat I've had from Mangalitsa hogs.

I'm sure that much of the difference in taste and texture has to do with the way Heath feeds his stock, but I also think that breed has something to do with it. Most modern hogs have been bred to produce lots of muscle and relatively little extra and intramuscular fat (marbling). But Mangalitsa hogs are lard not meat hogs and loaded with fat or, put another way, the ratio of fat to muscle and connective tissue is very high. The lopsided fat to connective tissue ratio is apparent in the extramuscular fat that lays on top of, for example, the loin.

No matter what kind of hog is invoked, there is very little connective tissue running through the fat that sits on top of the loin. So fatback, as this fat is called, is always relatively tender. However, the fatback on the Mangalitsa loin meat that Heath used for this loin bacon has so much fat relative to connective tissue that raw, it is so tender that it is "buttery" and in most was similar to the texture of foie gras. In fact it is so luxurious, that I'm thinking about trimming off the fat from what's left of the loin bacon, whipping it up and serving it raw at a dinner party that I am hosting latter this week.

Cooked, the loin bacon is great, but eats more like conventional bacon from other breeds. Of course, if I sound slightly less than ecstatic, keep in mind that my criteria for judgment is pretty idiosyncratic and that when I cooked up this bacon for my friends at the farm they went gaga over the flavor of the fat. (Hmm. Gaga over loin fat? Is that a metaphor?)

As you can see from the above photo, the jowl bacon is curling up quite a bit as it cooks indicating the presence of a good deal more connective tissue. Same goes for the belly bacon, slightly more connective tissue (although not as much as the jowl) more curling as the fat liquefies and the connective tissue contracts.

At about $0.90 an ounce, this bacon is not going to be showing up next to a deuce over easy with whole wheat at the Mikonos Ultra- Aegean Diner any time soon. However, this bacon will sell very well to those who don't mind spending a few bucks to be intrigued by something from the outer edges of the gastrovelope.

Alright, then. Enough blogging for now. I'm going back to the kitchen to roast a couple of beef tenderloins for a holiday dinner. Ciao!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Big Red Bull Roast

Here are some shots of the creation of a standing rib roast from a 2000 pound Big Red Angus bull. I made this 22 pound of grass fed bull behemoth last week.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

The big beef

OTTAWA — Mark Tijssen and his church friends worry about the quality of animals that end up in the commercial food chain.

The Ottawa area group, which jokingly calls itself the Christian Meat Cutters Association, refuses to have anything to do with what they say is Canada’s listeriosis-plagued meat processing industry, so each November they pool their funds and personally select a few locally-grown, healthy beef cattle at a livestock auction in Greely. Their only concession to the beef industry is to allow a trusted and licensed slaughterhouse owner to kill and butcher the animals, leaving them with legally-inspected quarters of meat to share.

The big beef

Friday, December 11, 2009

Big Angus Bull

This is one of the hind legs of a reddish Black Angus bull that was slaughtered last Thursday. He was a big guy -about 1200 pounds hanging (dressed) weight; one ton live weight- who'd been living on the farm for a little over a year. I never thought much of him until this week when I had to cut his carcass up.

Previously, I'd just thought of him as a big, virile but not very handsome bull. But now I think about him a lot. I'm amazed by the size, color and aroma of his muscles and what that all says about how powerful he must have been. Look at the size if those shanks. They are not the biggest I've seen, but they are prodigious.

I am astounded by how much like "roast" beef this smells. That might sound odd but in my experience raw beef  (or any meat for that matter) rarely smells anything like it does when it is cooked. This stuff smells so much like cooked meat that I found myself getting hungry while I was working on it yesterday. I cannot remember ever having my appetite piqued by the smell of meat while I was butchering. It's actually a little disconcerting. I hope I'm not turning into a werewolf or some other type of feral carnivorous beast.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mise-en-scène: Dinner

Nothing obviously profound, just some shots I took at my house while making dinner last Saturday.

Deep Thought

I have been completely organic, local and sustainable every day of my life and so have you. Let's pat ourselves on the back.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are a great example of how changes inspired by professional chefs can alter our understanding of acceptable ways to cook and eat.  In traditional Anglo-American cooking mashed potatoes were primarily used as an adjunct to add cheap calories and to visually complete a dish. They also served as a gustatory “foil” for other, more robust elements like roasts, braises and stews.  They were prepared simply with butter, milk, salt and pepper in order that they would not compete too much with the main ingredient for attention.

Following what some food historians refer to as the Nouvelle Cuisine Revolution of the 1970’s and 80’s and the explosion of restaurants and chefs who began the to question and revise traditional dishes, it became acceptable to gussie-up mashed potatoes with everything from garlic to caviar, so that nowadays, many people –chefs included- can’t recall their traditional role in the meal.

Suffice it to say that I'm at a stage in the ontogeny of my gastronomic aesthetic where I'm reexamining the syntax of dish and menu construction. We'll see how long it I  keep it up. (Can Viagra help with this?)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meat for Vegans?

I doubt that a convicted vegetarian will spring for a hot dog made from cultivated meat, but we moved one step closer to meat that does not require animal death with the apparently successful growth of pork muscle tissue from porcine myoblasts.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Here we go again

After the City of Chicago overturned its ill-conceived and executed ban on the sale of foie gras in 2008,  I thought that the battle to maintain the tiny American foie gras industry had taken a turn in our favor.

Apparently not.

The principal and most formidable institutional opponent of the industry, the Humane Society of the United States - also known by the asthma inducing acronym HSUS- merely changed its tactics by under emphasizing guerrilla actions and protests that only made their members and proxies look silly (at best) and like terrorists (in some instances they were). Instead, HSUS has been concentrating on legal challenges, not to the perfectly legal and humane animal husbandry practices that I witnessed at Hudson Valley Farms , but to tangential things like waste treatment operations.

HSUS even tried (and failed) to get Hudson Valley foie gras banned as unsafe in New York by claiming that it was an "adulterated" food.

Anyway, it turns out that even if HSUS with its annual budget of well over $100 million fails to win a single case against Hudson Valley the cumulative effect of having to spend and estimated $50,000 per month defending itself might put them out of business.

Look, if I never eat foie gras again,  I wouldn't care. I like the stuff but I could easily live without it. And I know that there are duck farms where animals have been routinely mistreated. But it makes me mad when a farm that takes the kind of care that I saw being delivered at Hudson Valley ends up having to pay for the abuses meted out by other farmers.

Here is a great, if depressing, piece by Thomas Rogers at Salon.com  on the troubles at Hudson Valley.

Last gasp for American foie gras? - Salon.com