Monday, December 19, 2011

That's Just Offal

If pressured, I would admit that I don't really believe eating every part of the animal has anything to do with being moral. In fact, so long as the animal has had a good life, eating the parts which are most delicious to you seems like a fitting tribute. Animals, after all, are animals, whatever the quasi-religious left-wing animal rightists, or the even more quasi-religious right-wing hunters, may feel. But, as an eater, some of the best meals of my life have involved cuts decidedly not from the tenderloin/backstrap (in point of fact, tenderloin has never been very enjoyable or flavorful).

Some examples:

-Pho with soft tendon, a meltingly tender mouthful of beef essence
-My first menudo, a soup so perfect I keep chasing it to the bottom of skanky bowl after skanky bowl
-Foie gras, on the line at Au Pied de Cochon; never have the words, "ere, heat this" sounded so right
-Tongue tacos, everyday, anytime

As an anachronist and a minimalist, there is a strong drive to eat the whole animal because not wasting anything is the way it's always been done.

But, chiefly, as a cook, throwing a piece of prime strip on a hot grill with a bunch of salt is boring. What has been done, other than salting the meat and flipping it? There's no challenge, and for a while, my disillusionment with that ease allowed me no joy in cooking with meat of any kind.

One of my vividest memories of Montreal is peeling, with a vegetable peeler, braised venison tongues in the sweltering prep cellar. There was an element of medieval torture (deer are very similarly sized to humans, and the tongues I held were roughly the same shape as mine), but there was also a great deal of skill and knowledge involved. A tongue takes some care to make edible, but when done right, it is true bliss (and at Au Pied de Cochon, the tongues were most definitely destroyed by being soaked in vinegar).

Thursday: Tongue and Tail

Nose-to-tail eating can get only so much more literal than this.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is my favorite cookbook author, although his recipes aren't the most daring or technically precise or even authentic. Still, he embraces food as food should be embraced: honestly, for what it is, and for what it does to us. A pig, to him, is not a source of excessive culinary creation (like Martin Picard) or traditional nasty bits (such as Henderson), but a pig, as in that animal which lives outside his farmhouse, eating scraps from the garden, and in the fall eats fallen acorns in the oak stand along the hedgerow. A pig, quite simply, is more real to Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall than to any other author I've read. Only Rob Levitt, of Chicago's Butcher and Larder, approaches meat, with a similar mindset (and the mindset, by definition, extends beyond meat to all food, but that is outside the scope of this week's cooking).

This dish intrigued me. Tongue is one of my favorite cuts, and oxtail is a newly discovered delight. So what would they be like, jellied in a loaf with red wine?

Really, really good.

The chunks of meat were too large, and the loaf came apart when I sliced it. Such are the results of making an aspic loaf for the first time. It was also too rich to eat much of it in a sitting, but when it was hot and served over parsnips...

Absolutely soul-warming. Just what I needed when my family were out of town.

Friday: Tripe

Rarely do I find any food unappetizing. From youngest childhood to now, almost nothing served has made me gag. There have been two, maybe three, times in my life when I simply could not chew - an oyster when I was 4 (which I don't remember), a vegetable terrine in France. One of those times was this last Friday.

Entranced with the romantic portrait Henderson painted on page 88, I decided to make my second dish Tripe and Onions. The second chamber of the cow's stomach is no stranger, with menudo being a favorite meal of mine. Sure, there have been a bad experiences, but in general, the melting quality of the tripe and the spice of the broth combine to be the most perfect accompaniment to masa.

Still, there is an element of revulsion in those memories. The texture of tripe is off-putting to Americans, but the smell is what dominates. At one moment, it is the most homely, warming aroma I know, but there is a strong part of it which disgusts me. As much as I love menudo, the smell and texture have always left me wondering if this was the time I would lose my lunch while still eating.

In the end, it was not menudo, but a warm, comforting dish of English heritage which put me over the edge. Had this tripe been grass-fed, sourced by St. Johns, served in the white-tiled dining room, by respectable waiters, and simmered for hours by their knowledgeable cooks, it surely would have been divine.

But just look at that pile of squishy yellowish goo. I put it in my mouth and gagged. Gathering will power, I bit down and didn't gag. I bit down a second time, and gagged harder. I spit it out, and gagged. I made it to the sink, and while not gagging, I could feel muscles lower down contracting. This, I thought, was surely my stomach staging a protest. No stomach shall be digested by this stomach, it urged.

So, my second meal was a failure, but I am determined now. Between now and the next time my family leaves me alone to my own devices, I shall eat as much tripe as possible, so that the smell of it cooking does not induce panic at the thought of actually eating it.

Or maybe I'll just throw in the towel and stick to less emetic offal (like liver, and kidneys, and hearts (which really isn't offal at all)).
Saturday: Old stand-bys: roast chicken with golden beets and parsnips, and wine-braised sauerkraut. Recipes I know well, and that can be ready with minimal prep, which was good for having a couple guys over. I only mention it to explain why I didn't make anything spectacularly disgusting.
Sunday/Monday: Trotters

Le ragoût de pattes de cochon is a traditional Christmas dish in Quebec. (I'm assuming it was eaten more widely than the end of December, but the last 50 years have seen much of the poor rural element give way to a slightly wealthier eating style.) A confession: trotters are not what I would call "edible" or in any way pleasing. I am old enough, and I've eaten enough with a completely open mind, that I feel no embarrassment saying that gnawing through skin to get to cartilage which is surrounded by fat is not pleasant.

But, sometimes, you have got to do something because two days before, you made something even less enjoyable because of some romantic and foolish idea that tripe only needs respect to taste good.

Besides, I cooked at the current spiritual home of Quebec cuisine, and I was using that recipe. I had to do this.

This dish took three days to prepare. I roasted a chicken on Saturday to serve for dinner, then on Sunday used the carcass to make a simple chicken stock with carrots, while brining the pig's feet. The original recipe called for pork stock, but this is a dish from Quebec, and les habitants are nothing if not frugal, so I felt that the chicken stock was more fitting than buying more pork to make the stock with would be. Then, after the stock was made (around 2:00 pm), I put in the trotters to simmer for three hours.

This recipe also has one of the weirdest techniques I know, and it isn't just Martin Picard's insanity. The sauce is thickened with flour, but first the flour is roasted in a 400 degree oven until dark brown. There's no fat added to the flour, so it isn't a roux, nor is it mixed with anything else. It's just oven-roasted flour, which smells rather strange. My only hunch is that this is an ancient French technique which died out on the continent sometime between 1700 and 1900 with the universal adoption of the roux, but which persisted in the francophone enclave of North America.

So, that was all done on Sunday, and the stock with trotters was put in the fridge overnight.

Look at that gel! God, trotters are amazing.

As that heated up on the stove, I prepared the meatballs, which are seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and pepper, then browned them in a skillet with some of the schmaltz the great cooks at work gave me (they gave me a quart of schmaltz for no reason other than I asked). I reduced the broth while cooking the meatballs through in it, and then put in some fingerling Yukon Gold and boiler onions. Unsurprisingly, given the pork, cinnamon, and clove, it smelled a lot like pho until the potatoes took over.

Finally, I added the roasted flour to the broth, then reheated all of the ingredients in the sauce: the trotters, the meatballs, the potatoes, and the onions. I took them out, and then mounted it, because this is a good dish, a French dish, and what the hell else would you do after cooking pig's feet and meatballs browned in schmaltz in the gelatinous pork/chicken stock, other than melt butter into it?

Here it is:

I took a bite and... best thing I have eaten in months! I was reminded that when I first started at Au Pied de Cochon, I loved the trotters. It wasn't until I picked the bones out of 40 a night that my stomach started to turn. Trotters are a glutton's fantasy, and could only be improved by being stuffed with foie gras (incidentally, the signature dish at Au Pied de Cochon is just that). The stew was hearty, familiar, and yet exotic. It was rich and luxurious, yet plebeian. The roasted flour, by the way, gave it an intriguing, alluring depth.

So, to all of you, a very happy Christmas!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rice Cooking

My previous post (the one about oden, which was actually written and posted after the braised oxtail post, but Blogger strangely relegated it to January 31) was my foray into Japanese cooking, but it is a topic with which I have become quite familiar. As I learned more over the past few months, partly because of my cooking colleagues at the restaurant, and partly through obsessive reading of cookbooks and blogs, the simplicity of the cuisine has really stuck hard in my mind.

One thing which I've become very interested in is onigiri. They're basically rice balls, often formed into triangles or pyramids, filled with a savory bite, and then wrapped in nori. I've been cooking a lot of rice for these, and perfecting my rice cooking has become a bit of an obsession. My rice is better than at any time since living in the apartment in St. Peter, when I ate beans and rice twice a day for four months (those were the days!). The idea of waking up to a steaming pot of rice, too, has become very attractive, so I've been looking into programmable rice cookers.

I stumbled across Adventures in Bentomaking, a site run by a Hawaiian woman and mother, while researching rice cookers. Zojirushi is generally considered to be the best brand available in the US, and she was reviewing a new model they released which claims to enhance the umami characteristics through its cooking method. Amazingly, Zojirushi has offered to give one of her readers a rice cooker to test, too, and you can read about how to enter on her site. Needless to say, I have entered, and if I am selected, there will be many posts about onigiri, shari, and also experimentation of all sorts (I am, after all, a former professional cook at two very good and inventive restaurants; I think I can come up with some unique ways to use the rice cooker).

At any rate, a rice cooker is definitely in my future. Although Japanese white rice is a newly acquired taste at home, brown rice has consistently been one of my staples, served with a plethora of legumes. It's going to get a lot of use, now that my job will require something of a commute.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Red Wine Braised Oxtails

A friend of mine sent me a recipe around Thanksgiving for braised oxtails. Life got crazy, and before I knew it, my mom's family was visiting for Christmas. Aha! I thought to myself, now is the perfect time to try this recipe.

A time-intensive labor of love it was: first, I made a beef stock from scratch, which took a day and a half. I then had to braise the oxtails, which was another day, plus the two days it took me to source the oxtails themselves. (On a side note: I called the Northbrook Whole Foods to see if they had the oxtails and was told they did. I took an hour detour specifically to go by the store, and once inside, found out that they had no oxtails. WTF? One of the two people I spoke to had made a mistake, and it pissed me off so much that I will never return to that store for any reason. I ended up going to Little Mexico to track down the oxtails, and they were not free-range, grass-finished beef.)

So, more than 24 hours went into this dish, and it showed in the end result. Meltingly succulent oxtail was enveloped in a thick sauce made from reduced stock and red wine. I had plans to serve the oxtails with a beautifully smooth purée of root vegetables and a tart cranberry compote to cut the richness, but then reality struck: no one would eat oxtails.

Well, phooey! This was one of the richest, most decadent dishes I have made at home, a dish through which the beauty of peasant food (poor people making good food out of the scraps because they had to) shined in all its beauty. The dish was refined, yet also comforting, and represented what "cooking with heart" is all about.

So, I was forced to gnaw on the bones for a couple days. I'll leave you with this glory shot of the stock, one of many magnificent pieces of this dish that, unfortunately, no one else got to enjoy.

What Am I Doing?

Maybe it was the oxtail fiasco, which consumed 24 hours of my life and then no one wanted to eat it, or maybe it was the experience (yes, experience) of finally enjoying tonkatsu ramen. More likely, it was too many late nights watching Iron Chef reruns. I'm not totally sure, but I have recently lost my inhibition against making Asian food at home, or more specifically, I have become enamored with the idea of making homemade dashi.

What is dashi, you ask? I had no idea until the beginning of December. It's Japanese stock, is what it is, as foundational to Japanese cuisine as veal stock is to classical French cooking and water is to the Italians. I haven't been able to figure out when certain dashi are used over others, but the most commonly referenced one, the one I have become enamored with, is a simple stock made from simmering kombu (a type of seaweed) with bonito flakes (shavings from a piece of dried tuna). (For those sad, pathetic souls who are familiar with Iron Chef, Rokusaburo Michiba's "broth of vigor" is a very strong version of this.)

To that end, I swung by Mitsuwa today and picked up some ingredients to try my hand at a common wintertime dish utilizing dashi: oden. Oden [Wikipedia article here] is both familiar and exotic, an immediately recognizable melange of hot broth and root vegetables, but dosed with fish cakes and fried tofu fritters. This dish, I decided, was the one to cut my dashi teeth on.

Of course, all I knew of dashi making were a few 3-second clips of Michiba dumping bonito into a weird pot of boiling...water? So, the first thing I did was Google dashi, which led me to UmamiMART's page on the subject [link]. Using this and the TV show as a guide, I started.

Here's the kombu at first.

And after a twenty-minute soak.

The bonito flakes being added to steaming water. (I nibbled on the bonito a little. Let me just say, bonito flakes will probably be a pantry staple for me in the future.)

At this point, I let the water come to a boil, then turned off the heat and let everything steep together for about half an hour. Then I strained the dashi through a paper towel set in a fine mesh strainer, and I had about a quart of dashi. Super simple to make, much easier than a classical French stock. How did it taste? Um... Japanese? It was strong and simple, but the bonito is a very complex flavor. Definitely, this dashi could be worth the trouble (which was really minimal, about five minutes of actual work).

So, on to the oden; going into this, I decided that if the oden was terrible, or at the least not worth the effort of making it, I really didn't have any reason to try dashi again. Well, the oden was simple, at least. I peeled and cut up a couple smallish potatoes and a large daikon, some maitake mushrooms (not traditional), then added those together with some tofu fritters and hard-boiled eggs to the pot. I also took the kombu out, sliced it into ribbons, and tied it in a simple overhand knot, which I either made up or else is traditional. I had read that you're supposed to par-boil everything first, but this was the first time I made this dish, and I had never eaten it before, so I figured, what the heck? No time like a first try to mess up and not feel bad about it. I also added a tablespoon or so of soy sauce.

So, here it is with everything added to the pot. I added enough dashi to cover everything comfortably, with the idea that it would slowly simmer down to a more concentrated broth. (It did not, because I covered it.)

Here it is after an hour on the stove, when I served it. Over the course of simmering, the smell changed from one dominated by the bonito to one dominated by a combination of the seaweed and the radish.

How was it?

I liked it. A lot. As with all Asian food, the flavor profile was foreign but not bad, and the texture of the tofu fritter was surprisingly spongelike. All told, I would definitely make this again, although I might not have a chance for a couple winters. It was pretty cool, though, having my home smell like Sushi Kushi Toyo.

Monday, December 13, 2010

New Years' Eve

I'm finally doing it: shelling out for a prix-fixe dinner on December 31. I've never tried Avec, and after their run-in with bad luck, this year seemed like the perfect time to do it.

Good news: skatewing's on the menu.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Essay Contest

Anthony Bourdain's new book, Medium Raw, is being published in paperback, and he's decided to publish a short essay by an unpublished author in it, as a sort of way to pay forward the surprise success he enjoyed ten years ago.

My submission can be found here: The Deer and La Lengua. Read it, vote for it if so moved, and please above all leave an honest comment.


Friday, July 30, 2010

In Memory of an Artisan

I only met Daniel once, about six weeks ago. I had gone down to Prairie Fruits Farm for the weekend for reasons that now seem cloudy, although I think the idea had been to talk to Leslie and her husband Wes about getting involved with the Chicago farmer's markets. Almost as soon as I arrived, I was told of a new vendor next to them at the market, a young man who'd followed his passion for bean-to-bar chocolate to starting his own business - Flatlander Chocolate. They were, believe me, absolutely incredible.

He also made caramels, and I'd tried to buy a salted one from him when I was there. Unfortunately, I'd waited too long, and he'd sold out. "Next week," he assured me with a smile. Of course, I couldn't make it to the market the next week, but I'd hoped to go down to the farm again, sometime this summer, and get one then.

Daniel was 24, and had been a graduate student in computer science (or maybe it was mathematics) at UIUC when he'd started playing around in the kitchen with cocoa nibs. Eventually, the hobby became an all-consuming passion, and he left school to pursue his chocolate-making full-time. When I was a the market, his zeal bubbled out from under his awning. He was a very charismatic young man, tall and thin, with a hipster edge. I both related to him and admired him for taking the leap and pursuing his passion full-time.

Daniel died Tuesday morning, an apparent suicide. The news out of Urbana is sketchy at best, but I have to admit, I find it hard to understand how someone who took such glee in his work could also be desperate enough to kill himself. But, of course, I only met him once, briefly, and our conversation never turned to matters of the heart or mind.