Sunday, February 28, 2010

Look Out Buffalo (s)!

We are slowly beginning to upgrade the food processing equipment at the farm so that we can expand our repertoire and process meat more quickly. The Buffalo Chopper that Trent picked up last week will allow us to make emulsified sausages like hot dogs and mortadella. We will still use the grinder to process ground meat and specific forms of salumi, but it has already proven to cut production time on fresh sausage foremeats by a factor of 10. For example, with the Buffalo chopper I can turn 10 pounds of meat into a finely "ground" forcemeat in less than 2 minutes whereas using the grinder the same task would take at least 20 minutes.

This thing is a beast that could churn its namesake city of Buffalo into butter and makes it easy to understand why it was an important tool in the hamburgerization of the American buffalo. (Actually, I have no idea why it is called a Buffalo Chopper.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hawaiin Foie Gras Ban Bill Defeated

I am proud to write that I played a small role in overturning a bill to ban the sale of foie gras in Hawaii by providing testimony regarding the farming practices of Hudson Valley Farms to a Hawaiian Senate Judiciary Committee. My position on this issue has always been that animal husbandry and slaughter at Hudson Valley Farms represent something that all farms that produce meat should aspire to and that singling them out for demonization is reprehensible. If anyone is upset by the way that meat is produced in the United States or anywhere, they should not attack those who do it best just because what they are producing is seen as an esoteric product for an allegedly effete consumer. Go after the thousands of businesses that fuel the engines of mass market meat eating. That's where the real problem is. Companies like Hudson Valley Farms who produce high quality meat that sells for a very high price have little incentive to abuse their livestock, the opposite is true of farms that produce meat that will become 99 cent hamburgers and 79 cent per pound chicken.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Happy 25th D'Artagnan!

Last night I attended the 25th Anniversary Party for D'Artagnan, one of the great purveyors of what everyone used to "gourmet" food products but now, thanks to the bastardization of the word by everyone from your high school cafeteria to General Foods and the relative ubiquity of many of the products introduced by its founder Ariane Daugin,  is only called "gourmet food" when no other moniker comes to mind. The party was held at Gustavino's on 59th Street in what was originally a market-space under Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge. I think it was the largest party I've ever been to (unless I count partying at rock festivals) and it was elbow to elbow with something like 1500 fellow gastro-freaks all night long. In fact, it was so crowded that at times is was difficult to see where I was going. Thank goodness there was plenty of great wine to keep me focused during my sojourn.

About everyone you would expect to be there was there, Bourdain, Ming Tsai, Gael Green, Daniel Boloud and lots of people who looked familiar but whose names did not present to my conscious mind. So it was great fun and I'm very thankful to D'Artagnan's publicist  Lily Hodge for inviting me and more than a little amazed how glamorous and strange food world has changed since I decided to chuck micropaleontology for gastronomy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

More Junk: The Pizza Cone

The Pizza Cone?
The name does not make literal sense (pizza means pie, cake or tart -none of which are conical) and it is probably horrible but I'll bet the pizza cone does well. It seems to have the  "make it familiar a little quirky"  prerequisite down and, since the bar of quality for pizza is already set very low (yes, even in NY), it should sell well.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Judging Fraud

You know who they are.

They are writers who wrote about other things until the subject of food and cooking blew up in the early nineties and they turned themselves into culinary experts without ever taking the time to actually learn how to cook. (No, not you Ruhlman.) They are the talking faces who were chosen by broadcast media to "teach" the masses how to enrich their lives by cooking their own food, not because they actually had anything of value to teach, but because they looked good on camera and were quirky in a way that made them interesting to watch. Then there are the professional cooks who either did or did not go to culinary school but whose claim to be able to cook is belied by the mediocrity of the $25 pile of organic material on your dinner plate.

Their means to the kitchen varies, but what they all have in common is that even though they lack basic cooking skills, they earn their livings cooking and telling other people how to do it. The broadcast and print media are loaded with them and they nest in commercial kitchens like roaches. But, unlike a roach that will reveal itself as soon as you leave the room or turn off the lights, one of the best ways to flush these poseurs out is to watch how they perform the cooking techniques basic to the culinary tradition they claim to be following. For example, saute is a technique that is an essential element in all of the major idioms and, one could argue, all of the places in the where people cook in metal pans over a lively flame.So an examination of how someone sautés should tell you whether or not they know how to cook and by extension, should be trusted to be a reliable teacher of cooking skills.

To know the meaning of sauté, which is French for sprung or jumped, helps a little bit in understanding how to do it, because when you sauté food you sometimes shake the pan so the food jumps up. However, it’s more accurate to think of the technique of sauté as a way of browning food in a small amount of liquid fat (Warning: Menus that contain the phrase “sautéed in wine” or another watery liquid may indicate that the chef is an idiot.) so quickly that it jumps in and out of the pan in a matter of seconds or minutes depending on the type of food being sautéed. Usually the food is not cooked through before it is removed from the pan and if it is, the heat is usually reduced and the process is no longer called sauté but rather “pan roasting,” or if there is liquid, “braising.”

Like most essential cooking techniques sauté is not mastered in a matter of months, but takes years of continuous practice to get to the point where you feel like you know how to do it. There are lots of variables to consider before you sauté something (e.g.the thickness, degree of tenderness, starting temperature, water and protein and sugar content of the exterior and interior of the food are all important) but the single most common mistake I see happens during the actual execution of the technique which can be generalized as follows.

The basic steps to sauté:
1) Put the sauté pan on the burner and heat it up
2) Add oil or butter
3) Lay the food in the pan, brown one side, then the other

Most novice cooks make the mistake of either overheating or under-heating the pan before they add in the food. If the pan is too hot the oil or butter can smoke or burst into flames or the food burns up. If the pan is too cool the food takes too long to heat and overcooks before it has a chance to brown. This is because in order for the food to brown the cells at the he surface have to dry out very quickly (to about 12-15% water content). If the food does not brown before water from the interior of the food starts to come to the surface it will not brown until most of the water has leaked out and evaporated from the pan.

There are some who would argue that browning is not always the goal of sauté and that it more accurate to allow its definition to include fast cooking without browning. I suppose its alright to think about it this way although I've always thought of this variation on the basic method as "sweat-sauté."

Now back to the poseurs. Once you realize that someone who claims to be a culinary expert is actually a novice whose real claim to fame is that they are "cooking entertainers" someone who really loves the craft and works hard at trying to perfect his or her skills has to wonder what sort of response, if any, is warranted. Many times I've heard and read the argument that the most well-known of these are doing readers and viewers a favor by making cooking look easy enough that the intimidated will give it a try and find it easy enough that they will go on to cook more often. This argument has merit and I've known dozens of people who based their decision to go to cooking school on their experience with food media celebrities whose cooking skills are not nearly as impressive as their acting skills. However, no matter how many people these folks induce to pick up a knife we still cannot ignore the possibility that by letting their inferior execution of technique go unremarked, we may be degrading our own efforts.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just being neurotic :-)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

No Reservations with Reservations

I would be remiss in my responsibility to honor my friendships and assuage my ego if I did not tell readers of A Hunger Artist that the episode of Tony Bourdain's No Reservations that was filmed, in part, at Mike Pardus' home and in which I appear briefly during a BBQ scene, is currently airing on The Travel Network at 10PM EST. (Check your local listing for show times.) As I told so many people today, I tried to watch it last night but fell asleep before the critical scene in which I move silently around Mike's backyard doing I don't know what.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Slow Sunday Dinner

I don't always feel like spending four hours making a simple dinner of pasta and sauteed vegetables but yesterday I did. I began at about ten in the morning by milling some coarse semolina durum wheat semolina (heron "semolina;" most semolina available in the US is made from durum wheat although semolina can be milled from rice and other grains.) into fine flour.

I'm not a big fan of pasta made with coarse semolina. It's very difficult to knead into smooth dough and usually ends up with a deeply puckered texture after it is cooked. A little puckering is good because the resulting coarse texture is interesting and helps the sauce to cling to the pasta. to to minimize pasta puckering I usually make it from Durum flour (which is the same thing as semolina, only finer) or just plain old AP flour. However, the flavor of pasta made from AP flour is not so great, so since I did not have any durum flour in the house but I did have semolina and I DO own a great grain mill I milled my own durum flour.

After I milled and mixed the flour with eggs and a little oil I let it sit for an hour before kneading to give the flour time to absorb all of the water from the eggs. I know an hour is a long time but since there was oil in recipe creating a barrier and slowing water absorption and since the flour is hard to begin with (durum does mean "hard" after all) an extended autolyse period was warranted. After an hour I put the dough in the stand mixer bowl and tried to knead it with the dough hook but it refused to come together. I'm not sure why it would not knit but I lost patience with this pretty quickly and decided to knead it by hand. After the dough was nice and smooth I stuck it a zip-lock bag and tossed it into the refrigerator to rest for a few hours.

Then I pulled out my grinder attachment ground some pork and beef, cut some mire poix and knocked together a reasonably authentic Bolognese style meat sauce. I'll let the photos run the rest of the narrative. I've already spent enough time on what is proving to be the slowest slow-food Sunday dinner I've made in a long time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Failure to Thrive

As a science geek I cannot avoid being fascinated by the principles and technological aspects of the crafting of food that is generally and meaninglessly referred to as "molecular gastronomy" and "molecular cuisine." Of course, all of the science and most of the materials and technological processes used to produce this form of haute cuisine existed before chefs like Ferran Adria, Hestor Blumenthal and Grant Achatz decided to use them to produce meals for the ultra-fine-dining crowd. But just because all of the ideas and most of the tools and chemicals were already on the table before the first chef (Feran Adria is generally understood to be the first chef to articulate a complete menu that was heavily informed by physics, chemistry and neuroscience.) decided to marry what was essentially junk food technology to classical cooking, it does not take away from the fact that they produced something that is pretty rare in the world of fine cooking: a fundamental and viable change in the way that food is produced.

The techniques, tools and ingredients used to produce three-star food don't change nearly as fast as the dishes that they are used to produce. Even now, after Adria et al introduced the culinary use of liquid nitrogen, immersion heaters and aerosol cans, most cooks almost exclusively use cooking techniques and tools that have been in use for centuries to produce a seemingly infinite number of dishes. Cooking methods like roasting, boiling and grilling were first used by monkeys are as old as the habit of cooking itself and are still used, and despite an insatiable need for novelty by fine dining customers, are in no danger of being displaced from the majority of artisan kitchens anytime soon. However, in the handful of kitchens that have borrowed heavily from the laboratory to push out the edge of the envelope of creativity (And reciprocally, commonly held beliefs about what cooking is; there are lots of chefs who will tell you that extruding a noodle from an aerosol can into a customer's plate is not cooking.) one has to be very patient and persistent in order to see any traditional tools of cooking among the anti-griddles and microtomes.

There is no doubt in my mind that what we see in the kitchens of the most well-known chefs who are producing food in a way that demands a firm understanding of physical science is different enough from what goes on in most fine dining restaurant kitchens to represent a fundamental change in the way haute cuisine is produced. I think it is even more distinct from the way food is usually conceived than the nouvelle cuisine was from its antecedent. However, even though it represents an even more radical change than nouvelle cuisine, it is not as revolutionary in the sense that it has not caused a fundamental change in the way that most chefs cook. Perhaps this is because of the high cost of the tools required to make this kind of food. Or maybe the failure for the idea to spread is a function of the fact that it is so difficult to explain what it is to a largely science illiterate public and, let's face it, professional cooking labor force. Then again, perhaps the reason why we don't see more of this kind of cooking is that the majority of the demographic that can afford to eat at this link in the food chain just doesn't like the idea of paying hundreds of dollars more than once or twice in a lifetime for food that requires a minor in chemistry to understand . I suspect that the answer is All of the above.

At the end of the day, I think that despite my appreciation for its unique and radical identity, and in disregard for my love of the science, and sticking a big middle finger at my admiration for the chefs who have employed it to such astonishing affect (I mean, look at those fennel flowers!), I have to agree with those who believe that the hi-tech haute cuisine movement has peaked and will now enter of period of decline. Restaurants will close, eBay will see a spike in auctions of immersion heaters and vacuum sealers, and bottles of gums and alginates will be shoved behind boxes of salt and become obscure and arcane in jackets of grease and dust.

Of course, some of the tools and sensory gimmicks will continue to be used and there will always be a place for science in the kitchen because (Shush!) there always was. But as this article from The Wall Street Journal suggests, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it baby is a failure to thrive.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Wine Trials 2010 and Me

I had to laugh when Alexis Herschkowitsch emailed me with an offer to send me a book to look over in the hope, I assume, that I'd review it here. I mean, bloggers like Michael Ruhlman gets books sent to them all the time by publishers and authors that hope he will write about them. But I don't consider myself to be someone like Ruhlman who is read and linked-to enough that my opinion about a book is going to have much affect.. However, I took her up on the offer for no other reason than that I figured if she thought enough of my work at AHA to take the plunge, then I should return the compliment by letting you all know what I think of her and co-author Robin Goldstein's book about good yet cheap wine.

Actually, The Wine Trials 2010, The World's bestselling guide to inexpensive wine, is only superficially about good wines that cost less than 15 dollars. The book is essentially a polemic against the idea that if a producer can convince the consumer that a product is superior, then it is not only right to charge more for it, but the consumer should be honored to pay more for it even though it functions no better than something that costs much less. That said, they could just as easily have chosen to pick from any product category to find examples of overpriced products that work no better than cheaper more generic brands.

When I was an undergrad I performed a chemistry lab where I was given 5 blind samples of chlorine bleach and told to determine the amount of sodium hypochlorite in each. When they all tested at between 5-5.25% the professor revealed their identities and the price per gallon of each. Even though they all had essentially the same amount of active ingredient, some of the brand name version were more than 50% more expensive than "cheaper" brands and generics.

Our glorious hyper-materialistic consumer culture is full of such examples of products whose intrinsic value is enhanced by a BS veil of efficacy, exclusivity, hipness created by brand engineers and marketers to sucker the credulous. And here in The Wine Trials Goldstein and Herschkowitsch more than convincingly make the case that many of the wines (e.g. Dom Perignon, $150/750ml) that we believe are worth paying many times the price of putatively plebeian plonk (e.g. Domaine Ste Michelle Brut, $12/750ml) don't do well in blind tastings against their cheaper cousins. They also suggest that people who overpay for wine that could be equaled in quality by much cheaper stuff are also buying entry into the kind of life and social class they want to inhabit. In other words, if one buys and drinks $1000 bottles of Chateau d' Yquem one joins ranks of the Donald Trumps and the Jay Zs and enters the class of people who can afford to blow a grand on a bottle of wine.

Really their pillorying of the notion that just because a product is wrapped in an aura of quality and exclusivity it is actually worth more money than something of equal quality that is wrapped in a newspaper plucked a resonant chord on my inner lute of truth and justice.

I've been on the hunt for things, services, concepts that do what I want them to do on the cheap since I was a kid and realized that I could find really cool stuff by ferreting through the garbage that my neighbors put out on trash day. (Actually, it's kind of part of my life's work.) So yeah, I loved this book.