Category Archive 'Cuisine'
09 Jun 2018

François Mitterrand’s Last Meal

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François Mitterrand, 1916-1996

One of the items I was reading yesterday in connection with the death of Anthony Bourdain referenced this must-read Esquire article on the last meal of French President François Mitterrand, dying of cancer in 1996. They were right: this is a great read.

He planned his annual pilgrimage to Egypt—with his mistress and their daughter—to see the Pyramids, the monumental tombs of the pharaohs, and the eroded Sphinx. Thats what his countrymen called him, the Sphinx, for no one really knew for sure who he was—aesthete or whoremonger, Catholic or athiest, fascist or socialist, anti-Semite or humanist, likable or despicable. And then there was his aloof imperial power. Later, his supporters simply called him Dieu—God.

He had come here for this final dialogue with the pharaohs—to mingle with their ghosts and look one last time upon their tombs. The cancer was moving to his head now, and each day that passed brought him closer to his own vanishing, a crystal point of pain that would subsume all the other pains. It would be so much easier … but then no. He made a phone call back to France. He asked that the rest of his family and friends be summoned to Latche and that a meal be prepared for New Year’s Eve. He gave a precise account of what would be eaten at the table, a feast for thirty people, for he had decided that afterward, he would not eat again.

“I am fed up with myself,” he told a friend.

And so we’ve come to a table set with a white cloth. An armada of floating wine goblets, the blinding weaponry of knives and forks and spoons. Two windows, shaded purple, stung by bullets of cold rain, lashed by the hurricane winds of an ocean storm.

The chef is a dark-haired man, fiftyish, with a bowling-ball belly. He stands in front of orange flames in his great stone chimney hung with stewpots, finely orchestrating each octave of taste, occasionally sipping his broths and various chorded concoctions with a miffed expression. In breaking the law to serve us ortolan, he gruffly claims that it is his duty, as a Frenchman, to serve the food of his region. He thinks the law against serving ortolan is stupid. And yet he had to call forty of his friends in search of the bird, for there were none to be found and almost everyone feared getting caught, risking fines and possible imprisonment.

But then another man, his forty-first friend, arrived an hour ago with three live ortolans in a small pouch—worth up to a hundred dollars each and each no bigger than a thumb. They’re brown-backed, with pinkish bellies, part of the yellowhammer family, and when they fly, they tend to keep low to the ground and, when the wind is high, swoop crazily for lack of weight. In all the world, they’re really caught only in the pine forests of the southwestern Landes region of France, by about twenty families who lay in wait for the birds each fall as they fly from Europe to Africa. Once caught—they’re literally snatched out of the air in traps called matoles—they;re locked away in a dark room and fattened on millet; to achieve the same effect, French kings and Roman emperors once blinded the bird with a knife so, lost in the darkness, it would eat twenty-four hours a day.

And so, a short time ago, these three ortolans—our three ortolans—were dunked and drowned in a glass of Armagnac and then plucked of their feathers. Now they lie delicately on their backs in three cassoulets, wings and legs tucked to their tiny, bloated bodies, skin the color of pale autumn corn, their eyes small, purple bruises and—here’s the thing—wide open.

When we’re invited back to the kitchen, that’s what I notice, the open eyes on these already-peppered, palsied birds and the gold glow of their skin. The kitchen staff crowds around, craning to see, and when we ask one of the dishwashers if he’s ever tried ortolan, he looks scandalized, then looks back at the birds. “I’m too young, and now it’s against the law,” he says longingly. “But someday, when I can afford one . . .” Meanwhile, Sara has gone silent, looks pale looking at the birds.

Back at the chimney, the chef reiterates the menu for Mitterrand’s last meal, including the last course, as he puts it, “the birdies.” Perhaps he reads our uncertainty, a simultaneous flicker of doubt that passes over our respective faces. “It takes a culture of very good to appreciate the very good,” the chef says, nosing the clear juices of the capon rotating in the fire. “And ortolan is beyond even the very good.”

RTWT


Ortolans do look tasty.

08 Jun 2018

Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

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Best-selling Chef Anthony Bourdain apparently killed himself last Friday in Paris. Here are some dining tips he published in the New Yorker back in 1999.

The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Here’s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. He’s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and he’d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors don’t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplier’s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday night’s market.

Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday: the seafood is fresh, the supply of prepared food is new, and the chef, presumably, is relaxed after his day off. (Most chefs don’t work on Monday.) Chefs prefer to cook for weekday customers rather than for weekenders, and they like to start the new week with their most creative dishes. In New York, locals dine during the week. Weekends are considered amateur nights—for tourists, rubes, and the well-done-ordering pretheatre hordes. The fish may be just as fresh on Friday, but it’s on Tuesday that you’ve got the good will of the kitchen on your side.

People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service for those of us in the business who are cost-conscious: they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage. In many kitchens, there’s a time-honored practice called “save for well-done.” When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steak—tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age—he’ll dangle it in the air and say, “Hey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?” Now, the chef has three options. He can tell the cook to throw the offending item into the trash, but that means a total loss, and in the restaurant business every item of cut, fabricated, or prepared food should earn at least three times the amount it originally cost if the chef is to make his correct food-cost percentage. Or he can decide to serve that steak to “the family”—that is, the floor staff—though that, economically, is the same as throwing it out. But no. What he’s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: “Save for well-done.” The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.

Then there are the People Who Brunch. The “B” word is dreaded by all dedicated cooks. We hate the smell and spatter of omelettes. We despise hollandaise, home fries, those pathetic fruit garnishes, and all the other cliché accompaniments designed to induce a credulous public into paying $12.95 for two eggs. Nothing demoralizes an aspiring Escoffier faster than requiring him to cook egg-white omelettes or eggs over easy with bacon. You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it’s still breakfast.

Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.

Like most other chefs I know, I’m amused when I hear people object to pork on nonreligious grounds. “Swine are filthy animals,” they say. These people have obviously never visited a poultry farm. Chicken—America’s favorite food—goes bad quickly; handled carelessly, it infects other foods with salmonella; and it bores the hell out of chefs. It occupies its ubiquitous place on menus as an option for customers who can’t decide what they want to eat. Most chefs believe that supermarket chickens in this country are slimy and tasteless compared with European varieties. Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare you’re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis. Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken.

01 May 2018

Hiding From God While Eating Ortolan

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In this week’s episode of “Billions,” Axe has a Last Supper, prior to facing prison, described by Sean T. Collins, at the New York Times:

Axe and Wags, sitting at a table with cloth napkins draped over their heads, faces obscured, “for two reasons,” as Wags puts it: “to keep the aromas from escaping, and to hide this shameful and depraved act from God.”

Like the dying Mitterand, they are eating ortalans.

Cooking with Little Buddy explains the French custom of ortolan eating.

Anthony Bourdain, in his book, Medium Raw, describes a life-altering meal he was lucky enough to be invited to. Many great chefs were invited to a top flight restaurant for a late night dinner. No names are mentioned as they are about to taste forbidden fruits. I will not discuss the preliminary food other than to say that the dishes were old French standards, largely out of favor in today’s “hip” culinary environment.

But, the main course, the reason they were invited in the first place, was something called Ortolan. Francis Mitterrand ate Ortolan for his last meal as he was dying. It is illegal in the US and illegal to sell even in France, although you can make it and eat it. The only reason it is illegal is that the bird is a threatened species. The ortolan for this New York dinner was smuggled in, according to Bourdain.

So, what is this life altering meal? It is Ortolan, a small bird in the bunting family. It is a traditional French delicacy going back to Roman times. The birds are caught in nets and placed in cages covered to make the bird think it is night all the time. They are fed millet, oats and figs and gorge themselves as they feed at night. When they are two to three times their normal size, they are killed, plucked and roasted.

Bourdain describes this orgasmic meal as follows:

    The flames in the cocottes burn down, and the Ortolans are distributed, one to each guest. Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet-first into our mouths – only their heads and beaks protruding.
    In the darkness under my shroud, I realize that in my eagerness to fully enjoy the experience, I’ve closed my eyes. First comes the skin and the fat. It’s hot. So hot that I’m drawing short, panicky, circular breaths in and out – like a high-speed trumpet player, breathing around the ortolan, shifting it gingerly around my mouth with my tongue so I don’t burn myself. I listen for the sounds of jaws against bone around me but hear only others breathing, the muffled hiss od rapidly moving air through teeth under a dozen linen napkins. There’s a vestigal flavor of Armagnac, low-hanging fumes of airborne fat particles, an intoxicating dekicious miasma. Time goes by. Seconds? Moments? I don’t know. I hear the first snap of tiny bones from somewhere near and decide to brave it. I bring my molars down and through my bird’s rib cage with a wet crunch and am rewarded with a scalding hot rush of burning fat and guts down my throat. Rarely have pain and delight combined so well. I’m giddily uncomfortable, breathing in short, controlled gasps as I continue slowly – ever so slowly – to chew. With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin, and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wonderous ancient flavors: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones. As I swallow, I draw in the head and beak, which, until now, have been hanging from my lips, and blithely crush the skull.

RTWT

04 Apr 2018

Making Lunch in Belgium

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It’s not easy finding the chanterelles (girolles), even if all you need is a handful (une poignée).

15 Feb 2018

Queimada: Drink of Blue Fire From Galicia

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The Spruce:

There are many myths and mysteries surrounding the ritual of making queimada, the “fire drink” of Galicia, which is thought to have originated in ancient times when Celts established villages and settled in the region of Galicia. … This is the perfect specialty drink for an outdoor Halloween or winter party.

For the preparation of this drink, you will need a large fireproof clay pot or bowl, sealed or glazed on the interior and a very long-handled wooden spoon to stir the queimada. Sets of clay pots and glasses made specifically for this purpose are available through grocery stores and websites specializing in Spanish food.

What You’ll Need:

1 liter orujo (substitute Italian grappa if orujo not available)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Rind of one lemon cut into strips
Scant 1/4 cup whole coffee beans

How to Make It:

Place the clay pot or bowl on a fireproof table of atop a cold BBQ grill. Be sure to have a large lid handy to put out the flames.

Pour approximately 4 tablespoons orujo and 1 tablespoon sugar into a small glass and stir to dissolve sugar, then set aside.

Pour the rest of the orujo and remaining sugar into the clay bowl and stir. Add the lemon peel and coffee beans and stir again.

Pour the orujo and sugar mixture from the glass into a ladle and light it on fire. Carefully move the ladle very close to the clay pot until the orujo mixture in the pot catches fire. Stir frequently until the flames turn blue. Slide the lid over the pot to put out the flames. Serve hot.

BBC Gallery

08 Feb 2018

Cursed Instapot FAQ

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McSweeney’s:

Congratulations on the purchase of your new cursed Instant Pot multi-use programmable Pressure Cooker. Instant Pot is the #1 selling 7-in-1 multi-cooker that reduces cooking times up to 70% by summoning the horrible black magical powers of Baphomet, the Sabbatic Goat God. Your cursed Instant Pot will change the way you cook kitchen staples like soups, stews, meats, rice, potatoes, hard boiled eggs and so much more!

Before you get started here are some Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the Instant Pot?
The Instant Pot is a smart Electric Pressure Cooker that lets you spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your family.

It functions as a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker, sauté/searing pan, steamer and warming pot all in one convenient appliance!

How does my cursed Instant Pot cook food so quickly?
The cursed Instant Pot uses a high-pressure cooking chamber, advanced microprocessor technology and the black magic of an ancient pagan deity, Baphomet, our unholy dark lord and savior, to reduce cooking times and energy usage by up to 70%.

Developed by top food scientists, engineers, and necromancers, the Instant Pot uses cutting-edge, lab-tested algorithms to control cooking pressure and temperature while keeping the revolting powers of an atavistic goat-god safely trapped within a shard of shimmering jet black obsidian.

What can I make with my cursed Instant Pot?
Your cursed Instant Pot is perfect for slow-braised meats and stews, cooking rice, steaming vegetables and even making yogurt!

Does my cursed Instant Pot mock God?
Yes. Summoning the powers of a profane occultist nightmare to save time in the kitchen is an abomination and an affront to God.

If this concerns you, please consider one of the many non-cursed Instant Pots available on our website.

I added ingredients to my cursed Instant Pot and they disappeared forever into a cold and infinite swirling abyss. Is this normal?
Make sure the stainless steel Inner Pot is set firmly inside the Cooker Base and making contact with the heating element. When positioned properly the Inner Pot should prevent ingredients from falling into an endless expanse of pain and suffering.

When I open my cursed Instant Pot I hear a chorus of distant screams.
Due to our unique manufacturing process and uneasy accord with a heathen idol, you may occasionally hear the tortured and infinite wails of the damned emanating from within your cursed Instant Pot. If the screams become too frequent or anguished, try recalibrating by holding down the KEEP WARM and TIMER buttons for 5 seconds.

RTWT

01 Feb 2018

Lost Crops of Amerindian North America

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Lost Indian crops of North America: a) goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri); b) sumpweed/mars helder (Iva annua); c) little barley (Hordeum pusillum); d) erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum); e) maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana).

We Europeans got potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, and tobacco from the Indians, but they apparently also cultivated a wide repertoire of crops which nobody adopted and which have been entirely forgotten.

Ars technica:

Adventurers and archaeologists have spent centuries searching for lost cities in the Americas. But over the past decade, they’ve started finding something else: lost farms.

Over 2,000 years ago in North America, indigenous people domesticated plants that are now part of our everyday diets, such as squashes and sunflowers. But they also bred crops that have since returned to the wild. These include erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed), goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, and maygrass. We haven’t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.

By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming.

Natalie Mueller is an archaeobotanist at Cornell University who has spent years hunting for erect knotweed across the southern US and up into Ohio and Illinois. She calls her quest the “Survey for Lost Crops,” and admits cheerfully that its members consist of her and “whoever I can drag along.” She’s published papers about her work in Nature, but also she spins yarns about her hot, bug-infested summer expeditions for lost farms on her blog. There, photographs of the rare wild plants are interspersed with humorous musings on contemporary local food delicacies like pickle pops.

Indigenous to the Americas, erect knotweed grows in the moist flood zones near rivers. It’s a stalky plant with spoon-shaped leaves, and it produces achenes, or fruit with very hard shells to protect its rich, starchy seeds. Though rare today, the plant was common enough 2,000 years ago that paleo-Americans collected it from the shores of rivers and brought it with them to the uplands for cultivation. Archaeologists have found caches of knotweed seeds buried in caves, clearly stored for a later use that never came. And, in the remains of ancient fires, they’ve found burned erect knotweed fruits, popped like corn.

Mueller told Ars Technica that erect knotweed was likely domesticated on tiny farms on the western front of the Appalachians. There are clear differences between it and its feral cousins. After years of comparing the ancient seeds with wild types, Mueller has found two unmistakable signs of domestication: larger fruits and thinner fruit skins. We see a similar pattern in other domesticated plants like corn, whose wild version with tiny seeds is almost unrecognizable to people chomping on the juicy, large kernels of the domesticated plant.

Obviously, bigger seeds would make the erect knotweed a better food source, so farmers selected for that. And the thinner skin means the plants can germinate more quickly. Their wild cousins evolved to produce fruits tough enough to endure river floods and inhospitable conditions for over a year before sprouting. But farm life is cushy for plants, so these defenses weren’t necessary for their survival under human care.

Still, even the domesticated fruits of the erect knotweed have skins so tough that Mueller has not been able to crack them using the stone tools typical of the Woodland era. Working with a team at Cornell, she’s been trying to reverse engineer how they could have been eaten.

“The fruit coat is really hard, and it would have been necessary to break through it,” she mused. “It’s like buckwheat—the sprouts are nutritious. So maybe they ate the sprouted version.”

As for whether early Americans ate popped knotweed like popcorn, she was less certain. “The only way to preserve it is to burn it, so [the remains we find] could have been accidents while cooking. It might have been for drying.” But yes, people from long ago might have munched on popweed.

Another possibility is that the seeds were soaked in lime before being turned into a hominy-style porridge. Ancient Americans used lime—the chemical, not the fruit—to soften the hulls of maize before cooking it, in a technique called nixtamalization. It’s very likely the Woodland peoples used this prehistoric form of culinary science on other plants, too. So people 2,000 years ago may have been eating a rich, knotweed mush.

Mueller is currently cultivating her own erect knotweed to test various forms of preparation, but she’s not quite ready to go into the kitchen yet. “I’m trying to be a good farmer and put my seeds back first,” she said. “In five years of looking, I’ve only found seven populations of this plant. I want to conserve the seeds as much I can.” She’s going to accumulate a sizable cache of seeds before wasting them on dinner.

RTWT

13 Sep 2017

Silphium, the Lost Roman Herb

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Coin from Cyrene bearing the image of Silphium.

The BBC reported recently on the greatest botanical mystery of Antiquity: what was Silphium exactly, and what happened to it?

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).

Finally, silphium was required in the bedroom, where its juice was drunk as an aphrodisiac or applied “to purge the uterus”. It may have been the first genuinely effective birth control; its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day.

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.

With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

RTWT

12 Jul 2017

Course Catalog: David Brooks’ Elite Sandwich College

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High Culture, according to David Brooks

“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodor’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”

— David Brooks, “How We Are Ruining America,” New York Times, 7/11/17

McSweeney’s has published the Course Catalog for David Brooks’ Elite Sandwich College:

Classic Italian Meats 205
Prerequisite: Basic Deli Meats 101

In this class we will go beyond the American deli meats like ham, turkey, and chicken breast and learn more in-depth about the classic Italian cured meats: Pancetta, Prosciutto, Capicola, and more. Students will learn about origin, curing techniques, and appropriate stacking method. Two lectures and two studio hours each week.

Fancy Condiments and Toppings 305
Prerequisite: Mayonnaise and Mustard Only 101

Students will learn the basics of topping a sandwich beyond just meat and vegetables. Techniques include the seasoned olive oil drizzle and distribution of aioli. If time in semester permits, students will dabble in use of cornichons and castelvetranos. Three lectures and one lab weekly.

Wrapping 101

A perfect sandwich wrap takes skills. This likely wasn’t covered in your basic high school sandwich courses. Wrapping techniques discussed include old style deli-fold, long breads, and double layer. Lab only.

Talking to Your Friends About Italian Delis 426

In this soft-skills class, students will learn how to help friends who have never visited a deli choose items on the menu. Students will learn how to gently correct friends when they pronounce “mozzarella” with the “a” sound at the end, when the right time is to explain that tomatoes were actually not native to Europe so marinara sauce is actually not traditionally Italian, and the right way to introduce that pizza is actually very different in Italy. Three lectures weekly. Includes unannounced quizzes/sandwich runs.

14 Apr 2017

Gordon Ramsay Critiques Fan’s Food on Twitter

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20 Mar 2017

The Renaissance’s Leading Chef

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Edward White, in Paris Review,

Bartolomeo Scappi, [as] head chef for popes and cardinals throughout the middle decades of the sixteenth century, … prepared unashamedly decadent banquets for the most powerful men on earth. For thirty years, his art embodied the thrilling, brief moment when the papal court was one of the world’s leading patrons of artistic expression and intellectual enquiry. But no sooner had he hit his peak than he was forced to lay down his ladle: reform had gripped the Vatican.

Realizing that his life’s work would soon be only a memory lingering on the taste buds of a chosen few, in the last years of his life he recorded his genius in Opera dell’arte del cucinare. Published in 1570, the year of Scappi’s seventieth birthday, it was the world’s first illustrated cookbook, a colossal nine-hundred-page tome that includes a thousand recipes and serves as a treatise on cooking as an art form, a courtly pursuit, and a domestic science. …

Scappi was born to modest circumstances around the turn of the sixteenth century, probably in Dumenza, a tiny town about forty miles north of Milan. At the time, medieval tastes still dominated elite dinner tables. In the Ancient world, the cuisine of the Mediterranean, based on bread, oil, and wine, was held up as a marker of its innate superiority over the Germanic peoples, with their supposedly barbaric fare of meat, milk, and beer. After the fall of Rome, the two traditions slowly merged until, in the late Middle Ages, the food served on the tables of the mighty across Europe was broadly similar: heavily spiced sweet-and-sour combinations, given layers of earthy complexity with great heaps of garden herbs. Many of the dishes Scappi chose to record in his magnum opus retain that sensibility, such as his recipe for an omelette made with pig’s blood goat cheese, spring onion, cinnamon, clover, nutmeg, marjoram, and mint—the kind of concoction that would nowadays be considered inedible just about anywhere on earth. Yet, among these forbidding relics of the medieval world, the Opera abounds with innovation that put cooking—perhaps for the first time—on a plinth next to the other creative arts. …

The Opera overflows with references to a Bolognese sauce for this, a Genoese garnish for that, or a delicious dessert known and loved by the people of Padua but virtually secret from anyone else. It suggests he traveled a lot with the express intention of trawling markets, speaking to traders, and experimenting with every new ingredient that came his way. Though he hardly ever refers to something as “Italian,” in a rudimentary way Scappi’s recipes inadvertently assemble the nation that had yet to be made, sitting side by side dishes from the Veneto to the Kingdom of Naples in a single, sumptuous meal. This roving palate also encompassed the New World, the flavors of which are on every page of the Opera—especially sugar, which features in something like 90 percent of its recipes, including as a pizza topping, along with pine nuts and rosewater.

It was never enough for Scappi to please diners: he set out to amuse, astonish, and confuse them with vast menus of pungent flavors and retina-searing colors, presented in displays more akin to a performance art piece than a dinner party. His banquets were the talk of royal and ecclesiastical courts throughout Christendom; one of them comprised hundreds of dishes, including seventy-seven different desserts and edible statues of weird beasts from the Orient, Greek gods, and cavorting nymphs. Once their bellies had been filled, guests were presented with posies of silk flowers attached to stems of pure gold. Scappi specialized in elaborate visual jokes, such as salmon sculpted into the form of a glazed ham or a goat’s head, and everything was served on highly polished tableware of silver, gold, and exquisite Maiolica. Decorous restraint was not to be found in his kitchen.

Whole thing.

28 Feb 2017

“Authentic Food”

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Megan McArdle heartlessly debunks the haute bourgeois obsession with food traditions.

Americans of a certain social class love nothing more than an “authentic” food experience. It is the highest praise that they can heap on a restaurant. The ideal food is one that was perfected by honest local peasants in some picturesque locale, then served the same way for centuries, the traditions passed down from mother to daughter (less occasionally, from father to son), with stern admonitions not to dishonor their ancestry by making it wrong.

These American diners are constantly in a quest for their own lost heritage, along with the traditions of other peoples they don’t know very well. We live, the lore says, in a fallen state, victims of Big Agriculture and a food industry that has rendered everything bland, fatty and sweet. By tapping the traditions of centuries past — or other, poorer places — we can regain the paradise that our grandparents unaccountably abandoned. …

[M]uch of what we eat now as “authentic” is mostly some combination of peasant special-occasion dishes and the rich-people food of yesteryear, fused with modern technology and a global food-supply chain to become something quite different from what our ancestors ate, or the ancestors of people half a world away ate. And that’s OK. The baguette is delicious, and so is that pricey “peasant” loaf. But they are no better for having been invented decades ago than something that was invented last week, nor would they be better still if Caesar’s legions had been carrying them across Europe.

Read the whole thing.

29 Aug 2016

Restaurant Damon Baehrel

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BaehrelMeal
A Baehrel tasting menu.

One of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, perhaps the most difficult venue to obtain a reservation for in America, is apparently operated by one man out of a basement in a village (Earlton, New York) half an hour south of Albany. Servings are reputedly fully booked up through 2020, or possibly 2025.

Nick Paumgarten, in the New Yorker, reports:

[T]he place was now simply called Damon Baehrel, after its presiding wizard and host, who served as forager, farmer, butcher, chef, sous-chef, sommelier, waiter, busboy, dishwasher, and mopper. Baehrel derived his ingredients, except meat, fish, and dairy, from his twelve acres of yard, garden, forest, and swamp. He made his oils and flours from acorns, dandelions, and pine; incorporated barks, saps, stems, and lichen, while eschewing sugar, butter, and cream; cured his meats in pine needles; made dozens of cheeses (without rennet); and cooked on wooden planks, soil, and stone. He had christened his approach Native Harvest. The diners who got into the restaurant raved about it online. But at the time it was booked through 2020. …

The dining room was snug, seating no more than sixteen guests, with a table set up in the middle as though for a single party of six. It was tidy, not really rustic, more varnished than one might expect. The walls were painted a brushed ochre. A stained-glass panel in the wall read “Good Food” backward. Baehrel had installed it that way so you could read it in a nearby mirror. Along the back wall, a broad table was arrayed with bowls of seeds, nuts, leaves, roots, berries, and mushrooms; Mason jars of sap and flour; and vials of oil, all marked with painter’s tape describing the contents and the vintage—“Acorn oil 8/15,” “Golden Rod flour ’14.” The Native Harvest tag had been his wife’s suggestion. “I was inspired by Native Americans,” he said. “I wanted it to be based on the people who were here in this country before we were.” Supposition was his guide: he said that he had never actually read anything about Native American cuisine.

He worked through the items on display. Lily tuber, cattail stems, milkweed, bull thistle. By watching deer in the woods, he had discovered that the inner barks of certain trees have a salty taste. While chopping wood, he found that a particular lichen takes on an oniony flavor for three weeks a year. He made a cooked powder from it. “You’re gonna love it!” Baehrel relies heavily on starch and stock made from rutabagas. He uses wild-violet stems as a thickener. He inoculates fallen logs with mushroom spores. He’ll spend seven hours gathering three-quarters of a pound of clover—enough to fill a steamer trunk. “I do it at night, with a headlamp,” he said.

He had me sit at a table in the corner, a two-top, from which I couldn’t see the door to the kitchen. He wanted me to have the dining experience. He said, “Don’t worry, I’m a professional. I’m not going to kill you.” He filled my glass from a pitcher. “It’s sap. Sycamore sap.” It tasted like water, with a hint of something. A few minutes later, he came out with another pitcher. “This is sparkling maple sap, with dried lemon verbena. I have lemon trees in containers, but I don’t get many lemons. Just the leaves.” He said he harvests about a dozen saps: maple, birch, sycamore, hickory, walnut, butternut, beech, hardwood cherry. “Sycamore sap, when concentrated, is a little salty. You can brine things in it. Hickory sap is very briny and salty. Good for long cooking. I’ll brine a pork shoulder in hickory sap and pine needles for nineteen days. Cherry sap is salty and sweet, bitter, with herb hints like marjoram and lavender.

“My biggest challenge is creating enough flour,” he went on. “I make it from cattails, pine—the inner bark—dandelions, clover, goldenrod, beechnut, hickory nuts, acorns. A huge part of my life is making flour. It takes one to one and a half years to make acorn flour. Acorns from the red oak have bitter tannins. White oak is more like a nut. In fall, I gather the acorns up in burlap sacks. Around New Year’s, I put the sacks in the stream, tied up. I leave them there all winter, under the ice. By spring, the tannic bitterness is gone.”

I asked him how he’d figured this out.

“Soaking didn’t work. I tried a circulation tank, and that didn’t work, either. I press them by hand, in a vise, or with stones. No machines.”

The first course was served on a slab of sawed wood. It was a small rectangle of what looked like salami atop a curled cracker. He said, “It takes me sixteen to eighteen months to make cedar flour. I use a pull knife, a two-handled grater, to shave off some cedar under the bark. The shavings are bitter, tannic—inedible. I soak them in water. Every four to six weeks, I soak them. After a year or a year and a half, I can grind it into cedar flour. So the crisp is made from cedar flour, with a little hickory-nut oil, duck-egg-white powder, water, sea salt, which I sometimes render.” He produced a jar of sea salt from the sample table. “I made the batter and baked the crisp today.” The rectangle of meat, he said, was blue-foot chicken cured in pine-needle juice, pulp, and powder for eighteen months.

The morsel was delicious, though it was difficult—and would continue to be, during the next four hours—for an amateur and glutton like me (in fact, for anyone who is being honest with himself) to tell whether my appreciation, fervent as it often became, had been enhanced by the description of the work and the ingredients that had gone into it. The tongue is suggestible. New words register as new flavors. As numerous blind wine tastings over the years have demonstrated, you taste what you want to taste.

He cleared the slab and arrived with a plate with a spoon on it, and in the spoon a piece of fish with a chip on top.

“I wanted to show you the power of the sycamore sap,” he said. It was Scottish salmon, which had been brined for thirty-nine days. The chip was a slice of black burdock root. “I peel off the fibrous outside of the root, slice the inside, and bake it.” A drizzle of sauce bisected the plate and spoon. It consisted, he said, of pickerel-weed seeds and unripened green strawberries stored in homemade vinegar of a low acidity, then blanched in water in a stone bowl. “With another stone, I mashed them into a paste. Added homemade green-strawberry vinegar and wild-sorrel vinegar and grapeseed oil. That’s the paste. The copper-colored powder is the ground leaves of wild marsh marigold.” Of course. Every milligram seemed hard won. …

Over the next several hours, as he brought in course after course, he appeared and disappeared (“I’ll get you some more sap!”) like a character in a resort-hotel farce. But the dishes were a dizzying array of tastes and textures. Oyster mushrooms, palate-cleansing ices (one was made of wild carrot juice, stevia tea syrup, pickled baby maple-leaf powder, violet leaves, and lichen powder), cured turkey leg, mahogany clams, lobster, prawns, swordfish ham, brined pork with goat sausage—all of it subjected to a jumble of verbs and nouns, many of them new to me. Bull-thistle stem, chopped barberry root, ostrich fern. I deployed an index finger to dab up every woodland fleck. The platings were whimsical and inspired. The sprigs and needles that adorned the mid-meal platter of cheese and cured meat brought to mind Saul Steinberg or Paul Klee.

The fifteenth, and final, course was something he called Earlton Chocolate. It consisted of the fermented leftovers of his “coffee,” which he makes in the autumn from hickory nuts and acorns. (He does not serve actual coffee.) The nut dregs become a kind of paste. “It gets gloppy after three months, then it relaxes.”

Read the whole thing.

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Black Book was pretty enthusiastic.

Chef Baehrel’s autumnal “Native Harvest” menu was heavenly. His lifelong obsession with food and nature pours out of every dish. The plates he served were developed, well-composed, and thought-provoking. The meal consisted of about 14 courses plus several extras, some of which Baehrel had been perfecting for decades and some of which were invented that day. In fact, many of the ingredients were seasonal and picked from his gardens that very morning, while a variety of ingredients had been preserved for years, waiting to be utilized at just the perfect time in their aging process.

One of Baehrel’s new concoctions on the day we visited was a bowl of clams, warm pressed with wild hickory nut oil infused with spruce needles and “cooked” in a sauce made from ostrich ferns and topped with burdock root chips. Later, we sampled a dish that Baehrel has been continually refining: chicken thigh brined in staghorn sumac powder, then cooked in a blend of concentrated sycamore sap and Baehrel’s fresh grapeseed oil, surrounded by a sauce of rutabaga cooked in the soil it was grown in.

Baehrel does not use butter in his dishes, nor does he use flour in his sauces. Instead, his sauces are often thickened with rutabaga. The buttery quality of a mouthwatering lobster dish served was deceivingly cooked instead in white oak acorn oil that was roasted with fresh white oak acorn, giving it a rich flavor.

Inevitably, the process of creating each dish is the daily manifestation of a lifetime dedicated to food, nature, and self-sustainability. Damon Baehrel remains open even through the cold New York winter months, and Chef Baehrel manages to source most ingredients from his own property. To accomplish this, five to seven foot deep cold frames are dug around his property and filled with compost that ferments during the winter, helping to prevent the cold frames from freezing. In the extreme cold, Baehrel utilizes a form of radiant heat from a 10-watt solar panel connected to heating rods in water containers about 4-5 feet underground. Baehrel actually claims that with the sunshine, fermentation, and radiant heat that warms up the cold frames, “winter in Earlton, New York is the best time of year for root vegetables.”

Each and every dish we ate that evening told a story.

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Restaurant homepage

29 Jun 2016

Civil War Hardtack

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Steve1989 makes YouTube videos in which he tries eating military rations from by-gone days. This time he tries a 153-year-old hardtack cracker made for the Union troops during the Civil War.

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