Lettuce, yes.

Bagged salad greens are a go-to for our weekly salad needs: Green Gardens and Blue Dog are our usual Bank St. sources, each providing a mix of sweet, spicy, and bitter that prove that healthy is delicious. But this time of year, and this year in particular, with the relatively cool couple of weeks we’ve had, our salad bowls fill up with soft-leaved, vibrantly colored head lettuces. A purple beauty bought on Saturday from Chanterelle at Silverbeet Farm didn’t make it past noon, or last long enough to be photographed. I just cored and rinsed it, gave it a quick spin in the Oxo, and devoured it with only a little crunchy coarse-grained sea salt, good olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Heaven. Steve at The Four Acres had a buy-five-get-the-sixth-one-free deal, so we loaded up and have been happy as rabbits ever since, with two salad days still to come (see photo above). We’ll see if the promised heat holds off long enough to let the lettuces reign for another week. If not, well, we lived leafy while we could.

One for Alliums

The following appeared in this month’s Food Notes, the e-newsletter published by Edible Michiana. Check out the April issue for another piece by me, and subscribe to see some things I’ll be publishing there in the future, as well as other short stories and news items of regional interest (http://ediblemichiana.ediblecommunities.com/newsletter-archive).

Except for asparagus, the rare spring vegetable that takes to the heat of the pan and oven like a child to the beach, the Michiana markets right now give us their abundance in the form of the cool, the crisp, the pungent, and the bitter. Tables are piled high with leafy green lettuces, spinach, and kale, punctuated by the red and white globes of radish and turnip. Underlining all of this, though, are the alliums: ramps (wild leeks), their more civilized scallion and spring onion friends, the deceptively scallion-like green garlic, and, soon, the curly garlic scapes that come from the farmer’s need to thwart the flower and grow the bulb.

When my wife and I first began really trying to eat from our local markets, it was these alliums that posed the biggest culinary challenge. I had learned from my dad to swirl fat spring onions in lemon juice, salt and oil and eat them raw, and scallions, of course, can be chopped and sprinkled on all sorts of things. But how to really cook with all of these, when nearly every recipe calls for their bigger late-season cousins? It was this question that taught me the surprising importance of analogy in the kitchen: if you substitute like for like, the flavor may differ, but the result will usually be delicious.

So our rule became: in a recipe where onions are, there spring alliums shall be. Swap green garlic for the more familiar bulbed variety, the whites of scallions and ramps for onion. Your sauces, marinades, and sautés may taste a little unfamiliar, but they’ll still be delicious – most of the time. Analogies are, by definition, imperfect, so not everything always works. Spring is about willingness to try something new, though, so this weekend splurge on the scallions, rake up the ramps, and grab the green garlic. There’s still asparagus to soothe you if your experiments go awry.

London Calling

Sunshine and 60 degrees – not what you associate with London in March, right? It’s not what Londoners expect either, judging from the difficulty in finding sunglasses to replace those I’d deliberately left in my car before I left. But 60 and sunny it was, with a few exceptions, when I co-chaperoned a study abroad trip to the Old Blighty over spring break. My English professor friend (and fellow food-obsessive) Lee was teaching a class on 18th Century London and needed someone to come along with him to make sure none of the fifteen students he was taking tried to go native. Since I dabble in the philosophy of the period and was presumed to be sane and reasonably good company, I got to go along. The students we took were a delight, the weather, as noted, unusually cooperative, and the sights sightworthy (apart from the standard stuff, I particularly recommend the National Observatory in Greenwich and Sir John Soane’s house for anyone making the trip). Students had evenings and a couple of days off from class-related Londoning, and since our travel and lodging was covered, Lee and I decided that we could splurge a little, or, as it turned out, a lot. England used to have a reputation for bland and overcooked food (prepared, if you were rich enough, by your own French chef: vide the wrangling over Anatole in Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels). Now it is known as a hotbed of culinary innovation that seeks also to revive the forgotten meaty riches of British food traditions.

Continue reading “London Calling”

Next!

Rarely do I dine fine, but star Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next is currently doing a meal based entirely on the ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, and my classicist uxor would not miss it. So off we went for a night in the big city to meet two Next-veteran friends for a nice Italian dinner. But this was pre-Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus Italian, so nary a tomato or pasta noodle was anywhere to be found. In fact, after a modernist beverage that mimicked an ancient recipe for turning white wine red and red wine white, one of the first flavors to hit our tongues made us think that Next had gotten the wrong empire: garum, a fermented fish sauce, infused fresh bits of greenery and seafood and tasted of modern Southeast Asia, a land far from the reach of any Ceasar. There must be a story as to why this sauce, the ketchup of the ancient world, as my wife put it, faded from use, but in a land of abundant sun and seafood, it makes perfect culinary sense. In the context of the meal, it reminded us that whatever our expectations, the past is a foreign country. What followed was a meal of subtlety and extravagance, the cuisine of an empire. Some dishes were done so as to be as authentic as possible, some (like the red-white drink mentioned) in the inspired-by vein, but all aimed to provide a full sensory experience of the sort Achatz is famous for, and which the Romans themselves – well, the rich ones anyway – were accustomed to.

A sheaf of wheat was a serving vessel next to rose petals on the table that hid another offering; a small round of bread was cooked in a blazing hot, covered brazier right on the table, then portioned into four by drawing tight the strings that tied it as it cooked (see picture); prawn shells were covered in gold and served alongside meat that had been extracted from them and armored with rings of olives; the dishware hinted at the mosaic tiles the Romans loved; music from a plucked single-string instrument hovered in the background.

The menu was in Latin, with some ingredients listed in English, and with numbers for each recipe provided so we could consult the facing-page translation of the cookbook that each table came equipped with. We did this less and less as the meal progressed, in part, no doubt, because that meant movement other than towards the food in front of us. All in all it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime meal, sophisticated and delicious, executed by skilled cooks and delivered by completely unpretentious and friendly servers. Sadly, as with the Roman empire itself, the meal came to an end. Dessert symbolized this with meringue broken like slabs of ruined marble, resting on a collection of ingredients that dissolved on the tongue, leaving behind only traces of flavor to be unearthed and admired in memory.

When the Smoke Gets in Your Thighs

My dad grew up in Winchester, VA, in the northern bit of the state from whence hail a lot of good apples and Patsy Cline. (My dad’s dad was a food scientist at National Fruit; that meant we got to eat a lot of amazing peaches from dented cans.) Though pretty close to the Mason-Dixon line, and not far from the mid-Atlantic coast, it’s still definitely the South there, or at least was when he was growing up. Now I guess it’s as much a bedroom community for DC as it is a small Southern city. At any rate, hailing from Virginia meant my dad learned early about sugar-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. Occasionally as a kid we’d get country ham, and mostly what I remember is its overwhelming saltiness. I wasn’t a big ham fan then and not the salt fiend I am now, so it seemed pretty gross. I’ve had it once or twice in recent years, but always sliced from a package and never made from non-industrial hogs, so I’ve yet to be impressed by it, but my dad waxes nostalgic over it every time the topic of ham comes up (which is not infrequently in my family). Now that I’m doing a little ham-curing of my own, though, I’ve become intrigued by country ham. Turns out it’s basically cold-smoked prosciutto: it sits in salt in cool temps for a month or so and it gets hung to dry for many months. But between the hell of salt and the heaven of hanging, it wanders as much as an unattached thigh can in the purgatory of wood smoke, until it is finally deemed ready to ascend. Like any good Southern food, regional variants exist: what goes in the initial cure besides salt, the kind of wood for smoking, how long it gets smoked — all differ depending on who’s doing it and where. (A good story about a Kentucky version here.) It tends to be eaten cooked, unlike European dry-cured hams, and in thick-ish slices, which is why mostly what I remember about it is the salt. If you ate prosciutto sliced like ham at Sunday dinner, you’d be overwhelmed by its saltiness too. But most recipes call for cooking country ham it in a way that purges some of the salt content, and it seems that these days some more chef-y types are slicing it thin for charcuterie plates, which sounds pretty good to me. So, I’ve put in an order for another ham from Dave at Young Earth, and provided I can find someone to do the smoking (I don’t think my city neighbors would like hickory smoke belching from my backyard for a month), I hope to have a real country ham like my dad had growing up to give to him for his 80th birthday next winter.

Ketchup in the Buttery

Manet at the Carnegie was one day in PA, Heinz at the Heinz the next. The history museum in Pittsburgh is officially named for the former senator and is not funded by the corporation, but it features a display of the company’s history and products that is both engaging and advertisementy. Note the name of the restaurant in the picture. There must be a hatch somewhere back there.

And check out the products one used to be able to buy:

Have we really progressed as a society when oyster ketchup is no longer at our grocery?

(By the way, for the record I’m with those who believe that Heinz ketchup cannot be surpassed. Artisanal and homemade ketchups, however much the rage, and however much I applaud the artisanal and homemade in most aspects of life, are, at best, hot sauce with no heat, unmarried marinara, condiments to be condemned.)

What Philosophers Talk About When They Talk About Food

I can’t believe I didn’t know about…the Incompatible Food Triad. “Can you think of three foods where any two of those foods taste good together, but all three combined taste disgusting?”

Wilfrid Sellars, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh (hired, the story goes, because the dean was willing to give him his own office overlooking Forbes Field, where the Pirates then played), came up with the puzzle. I was a grad student at Pitt a decade and a half after Sellars retired (though I did take logic from Neul Belnap, mentioned in the article), but I never heard of it before now.

Now I have something to ponder during my frequent bouts of insomnia. And people wonder about the relevance of philosophy to life in the modern world…

Belated birthday post for the boy

My son’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and he wanted to do a blog post about the dinner.

Oven fries, ready for baking…

Burgers, his second-favorite food (pizza takes #1), ready for smashing on the griddle…

And at the end of the meal, the Roman-numeraled (because of the classicist mama) gingerbread cake…

Let’s hope this next year is as much fun as the last! Birthday IX will be here before we know it.