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.

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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.

They gave their all

The bones from the Thanksgiving turkey generated many a bowl of delicious stock. Here they make their final contribution, to a lunchtime soup, before being sent to rest in the rubbish. Nary a morsel of meat was left on them. As Julia Child would have said, they gave their all.

(The slight soft focus is from the steam rising from the bowl. O lunch, how I love thee.)

My Own Private Portlandia – Thanskgiving edition

Tuesday evening I picked up our pasture-raised, heritage (Bourbon Red) turkey from Blackberry Pines Farm, a lovely place run by Jim Ekhardt and Ron Thompson near Pullman, MI. Last time I was out here was a couple of years ago. On that visit, they gave me and my then six-year old son a tour, which included visits to varicolored chickens, turkeys that looked like feather puffballs gliding above their legs, and peacocks in exotic colors I’d never seen before (did you know they lose those long tail feathers all at once?). That time we left with several small chickens (just the right size for frying) and a whole lot of feathers for my son. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, but there weren’t a lot of feathers laying about this time, so the only thing I brought back was 13.04 pounds of turkey and the newfound friendship of four and a half cats. That same evening I spatchcocked the bird, sprinkled it liberally with a salt and baking powder mix (the b.p. helps crisp the skin), and let it sit until Thursday morning.

bird-for-roasting

I cut off the leg quarters so I could pull the breast out when it hit 150 deg. (checking with my new Thermapen mk 4!), put it all in the oven at a low 250, and by 3:45 had an  almost perfectly cooked bird. It came out to rest, then, at a little before six, once the sausage-cornbread-walnut dressing and roasted green beans were done, I gave it a few minutes at 500 to warm it and crisp the skin, and the result was the juiciest, most perfectly cooked bird I’ve yet done, dark and white meat alike. (The dark meat is a bit tougher with the pastured birds, but the flavor makes the jaw workout worth it.) Besides the dressing and beans, we had garlic mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with fennel brought by friends. While everything was cooking we laid out a spread of appetizers that included six cheeses chosen by my now almost 8-year old son (we’re raisin’ him right!), some home-cured prosciutto (old and new), an orange-walnut sausage leftover from last year that my friend Joan and I made (still good after 12 mos. in the freezer), tomato jam and various pickles my wife made, and more besides. Family and friends gathered and, with the help of more than a few bottles of wine, we worked things over pretty thoroughly, from all of the above to the pecan and apple pies my mother-in-law brought to bring closure to the meal. The only thing lacking in the evening was light from artisanal bulbs.