Spain III: A Meal of Appetizers. Pintxos by Gerald Hirigoyen

I love tapas. They’re like appetizers for a meal that never comes. – Marge Simpson

Spain left me aching to recreate Basque and Catalan dishes at home, but tapas were far from my mind. I don’t think we had any tapas in Spain, and if we did, they were probably just called “snacks”.  In Spain, tapas are for the most part, bar food, sometimes served free with drinks.  They aren’t really the stuff of meals.  According to at least one history, “La Tapa so as to be meaningful has to be eaten between main meals as food that allows the body to survive until lunch or dinnertime.”   While there are plenty of tapas cookbooks, most of them seemed to rely heavily on imported ingredients like Ventresca tuna rather than on preparation.  That to me seems more like creative shopping than cooking. Tapas are also social food.  They involve multiple dishes served to guests simultaneously.  I don’t have milling guests.  I have Ann and two cats.  And it’s hard to get the energy to make several complicated little dishes just for second breakfasts, elevenses, or a pre-dinner snack.

After the doctors told me that I needed to focus on smaller and more frequent meals, however, I started giving Tapas serious consideration.  I also tried to revive the Anglo-Australian tradition of Afternoon Tea, but I was afraid people might think I was starting a political movement and camp out on our lawn.  So Tapas it was.  Turns out, tapas may well have started as a curative in its own right.  As one history suggests:

Some authors assert that the tapa was born when, due to an illness, the Spanish king Alfonso the 10th, the Wise, had to take small bites of food with some wine between meals. Once recovered from the disease, the wise king decreed that no wine was to be served in any of the inns in the land of Castile, unless accompanied by something to eat. This was a wise precaution to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on those people who, through lack of money to buy a nourishing meal, drank alcohol on an empty stomach.

True, other accounts suggest that Alphonse El Sabio was just looking to keep sand or flies out of his drink, including Gerald Hirigoyen’s: “Tapa means ‘lid’ and is derived from the word tapar, ‘to cover,’ so the commonsense theory is that tavern owners would drape a slice of ham or cheese or place a small plate of olives or almonds on top of a glass to create a barrier against bugs.” But I prefer the first story, because in addition to being a good buffer against alcohol, it turns out that smaller more frequent meals makes good dietary sense.  So I gave tapas a second look.

The book I was first attracted to was Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos (The first 40 pages are available on google books).   Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas.  Tapas have always seemed a bit too trendy to me.  The romance has been thoroughly washed away by the fern and wine-bar set. But calling these little dishes “pintxos” returns some of the mystery, if only because they’re harder to pronounce.  It has to be spelled pintxos rather than pinchos, too.  All the duende is in the X.  Perhaps though, we should all resign ourselves to the fact that tapas in the U.S. have pretty much become what they are in Spain.  Snacks served with wine.  Not an expression of emotion and authenticity.  Not a romantic evening full of flamenco and tener duende.  Bar food.

Although Hirigoyen lives in California, runs two restaurants in San Francisco, and has written his cookbook for American audiences, he uses more uniquely Spanish ingredients in his 168 recipes than in all of Simon and Inez Ortega’s 1080 Recipes combined. I haven’t managed to find a Spanish specialty store in Philadelphia that makes one stop shopping for Spain possible.  Even the new Jose Garces Trading Co. mostly focuses on cheese, charcuterie and wine—not raw ingredients for cooking.  But I have managed to cobble together some ingredients from different locations.

Trader Joe’s: Piquillo Peppers, Guindilla Peppers, and Saffron.  Not great quality, but about a third or even a quarter of the price of ingredients at La Tienda.com.  Harvested from the stigma of crocus flowers, Saffron is the most expensive spice by weight available on the market–so any little bit helps.  Tapas are casual food, so they shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Delis: Spanish cheeses, olives and Boquerones.  Boquerones are white anchovies, usually available in a tub. True, anchovies remind me of the days I spent working at Round Table Pizza.  They were oily, sticky things that people only ordered on the side so that they could take them into the parking lot and throw at cars. But Ann is crazy for anchovies, and these critters are far more palatable. Our farmer’s market deli also has a discount on Manchego when bought by the pound, and it has become a regular fridge staple.  Makes great grilled cheese sandwiches.

H-mart:  Really? Yes, H-mart is a Korean chain that carries all things Chinese, Japanese, South-East Asian, but they also carry Hispanic produce and ingredients, too. Someone will have to tell me how H-Mart managed to corner this market.

Web-sites: If you absolutely must, you can resort to La Tienda.com or The Spanish Table.  I’ve only seen choricero peppers and ventresca tuna there, but the cost soon undermines the possibility of making tapas regular, casual fare.

Pintxos means “spike,” but Hirigoyen only offers a handful of recipes with toothpicks or skewers.  The rest are fairly elaborate tapas, or even raciones–larger dishes that you actually can serve as a meal for two.  Like Jose Garces, Hirigoyen seems to approach cooking with the attitude that Spanish food is about colonial conquest. Unsurprisingly, his time living abroad has informed his dishes.  His training in France is evident in “Duck Breast with Oranges and Green Olives” and his work in the U.S. shows up bluntly in “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calarmari”.  The former is pretty much just duck l’orange with a few sliced olives thrown in.  I used Catalan, jalapeno-marinated olives to spice things up a little, but it still tasted far more of France than Spain.  The black-eyed peas were a more welcome inspiration, and Hirigoyen’s thirty second boil and ice cooking method does a remarkably good job of keeping the calamari rings from turning into plumber’s gaskets. It should be clear though that this book is even less “authentic” than the Ortegas’ 1080 Recipes reviewed in my last post. But unless you consider serving a bowl of olives “cooking,” you’re probably better off with a cookbook that emphasizes modern tapas in their all their cultural promiscuity.  I just recommend drawing the line at “Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho“.  I had never worked with fresh lychees before, which are colorful and fun to shuck, but about as appropriate in a gazpacho as orange marmalade.

My favorite section of the Pintxos book specializes on beans, and the ingredients there tend to be cheaper and more readily available.  I do recommend cooking dried beans rather than using canned, but some recipes lend themselves to shortcuts.  “White Bean Salad with Manchego, Avacado, Apple and Meyer Lemon”  involves no cooking other than the beans.  It’s just beans, avocado and a granny smith apple reduced to corner inch dice, so throw in a can of beans and make a lemon vinaigrette and you’re good to go.  It’s definitely worth going the extra mile though on the “Lentil Gratin with Braised Serrano Ham” though and using lentils du puy.  They don’t take much time to cook.  Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to use a whole half pound of serrano ham in a lentils dish, so I used a little ham from our local farm.

These were simple dishes, but they were good enough to make me try most of the rest of the section. Pipérade Braised Beans with Baked Eggs. gave me the chance to finally break in those single-serving cast iron skillets that Ann’s sister and brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Along with the “Black-eyed Pea Salad with Calamari,” Hirigoyen throws in a little southern flavor with his beans and eggs dish.  Or maybe it was just the skillets that gives it the tex-mex/campfire feel.  The “Gigante Beans with Boquerones” may be offputting for some.  But as long as you can get good boquerones (see above), Trader Joe’s actually sells precooked  gigante beans with a light tomato sauce and pequillo peppers.  So that’s another salad that can be thrown together without actual any prep work.

If you’re too squeamish for calamari or anchovies, you can get over it with  “Monkfish in Olive Oil, Tomato, and Saffron”.  Monkfish is quite possibly the ugliest fish available. It’s called “poor man’s lobster,” probably because of its texture and the lumpy, tail-like shape of its filets. But that’s where the similarities end. If you look at the Morimoto video below, you’ll see how monkfish earned its reputation as a junk fish. Who wouldn’t want to throw that thing back? And the ugly isn’t just skin deep, it goes all the way through.  The white filets in the store look ordinary enough, but when cooked, the flesh tends to develop purple veins.  Now that people have discovered that looks aren’t everything, the price of monkfish has gone up.  It’s a good deal cheaper than sea bass or halibut, but if you want to find a good under-priced oddity, I recommend looking for skate.

I’ve tried recipes from most other sections in the book except for the chapter on organs.  The “Watermelon and Tomato Salad” is now part of my usual rotation (I often forgo the tomato and the vinaigrette and just serve watermelon with a little feta as a side salad for sandwiches).  The “Griddled Ham and Cheese Bocadillos,” are really just ham and cheese sandwiches with a little tomato thrown in–but they taste better because they’re called “bocadillos”.  I’m not that fond of tomato on ham and cheese, but I do like the idea of adding something a little sweet into the mix like spiced pears (ala ‘Wichcraft) or fig jam (ala Tria). The seared tuna with onion marmalade, chicken thighs with Spicy basque “ketchup,” and chicken skewers with yoghurt dipping sauce were all good if not particularly Spanish.   In the end though, whatever small reservations I may have had about the book, I have to recommend it–particularly those who are looking to make a diet of small meals.  The fact that I keep inviting Hirigoyen back to my kitchen for one dish after another, speaks well of the book, its inventiveness and its flavors.

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Spain II: Cooking in Translation. Simon and Inez Oretga’s 1080 Recipes.

In 2006, Ann and I signed up for a ‘pilgrimage’ through Spain and Italy sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University. The school encouraged faculty to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius, learning as they went about the Ignatian ideals of Catholic education.  While Ann went and learned about cura personalis, or care of the whole person, I snuck along to study cura porcinalis, the curing of the whole pig.  Secretly, stealthily, the only feet I wanted to follow were the little trotters of the famed Iberian black pig.

Much to my surprise, a pilgrimage turns out to be a great way to see a country.  Turns out, most people go to Spain to see churches and drink wine anyway.  So going with Jesuits is like getting back stage passes to the show.  You get to see the big churches like the Gaudi, and you also get to see the little dark places with their bone-filled ossuaries. You get to cut through lines, and if you stay in Montserrat, you get to stay at the monastery that is usually off limits to tourists at night.

Monserrat is a surreal “serrated” geological formation.  Driving from the countryside, you really understand why it had spiritual significance for so many people.  You drive for hours by bus across the flatlands, hot and hung over from last night’s wine. You can only imagine what it might have been like to cross by horse or foot.  Then, all of the sudden, this knife of otherworldly pink conglomerate juts up, precisely where a mountain range shouldn’t be. So naturally, ones first impulse is to build a church on it, or a monastery, or a chapel, or a shack to meditate in. And while the first monks to climb that slope must have been armed with pitons and crampons, the whole surreal image is now made complete with a funicular railway sliding up and down the middle of it.  It’s like some sort of Disneyland theme park for Benedictines.

Yet while most of the tourists had to slink back to Barcelona for the night, we got to spend the night in Santa Maria de Montserrat, one of the trips more memorable moments. Ann and I bought cheese off the back of a cart to share with our fellow travelers.  Some other composition specialists were on the trip—including Patricia Bizzell and Cinthia Gannett—but I was an adjunct at the time, and a bit tentative about starting up conversation, particularly with Pat since she was on my graduate exams reading list.  But that night, Pat asked me, “And Ted . . . What do you do?”  I thought for what must have seen an unreasonably long time, and said, “I roast chickens.”  The whole table suddenly became engaged in a discussion of brines, high-roasting, and trussing, and I suddenly felt comfortably at home. After dinner, we took wine out to the courtyard of the giant church, home of the Black Madonna and drank beneath the stars while giant, feral pigs roamed quietly back and forth. That’s right, black, bristly, boars just routing around for God knows what in the shrubberies. After that evening, Spain made a lot more sense to me. So did Spanish wine. So did Salvador Dali.

What did I learn about Saint Ignatius? Born of a wealthy family, he was injured as a soldier and retired to a cave in order to contemplate his rapidly growing beard and fingernails.  Deciding that this life was a kind of vanity in its own right, he returned to the world and committed himself to the fight for social justice. We were all asked what the saint’s retreat from the world meant to us.  Catholics said catholic things. Non-Catholics said Non-catholic things.  Others related the experience to Jungian archetypes. All I could think of was that Saint Ignatius had a lot in common with Batman.

What did I learn about food? More, at least more that stayed with me and has sparked further spiritual inquiry.  Most of St. Ignatius’s travels seemed to go from Bilbao to Bacelona, Basque country and Catalonia, so the food we ate was French influenced but quite distinct in its own right.  I gather there’s a certain amount of struggle for Basque and Catalan cuisines to keep their identity unique.  Look at on-line at reviews for Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos for example, and you’ll see users savagely criticize him for being too French, going to French culinary school, or only representing the more Northern Basque traditions, an argument which seems to resolve almost entirely around his use of butter—The horror!  Butter or not, the Basque and Catalan food was a revelation, and I have been trying to recreate it at home ever since. This has become a trend for all of Ann and my trips, but I’ve become a better note taker over time.  Every year we go somewhere–Spain, Italy, China, or Sweden—we immerse ourselves in books before and after. Ann will immerse herself in six months worth of books set in or about the country, while I make the same journey through cookbooks, shoring up my memories with the tastes, textures, and aromas of the country.

A lot gets lost in translation however.  So I can only speak guardedly and at times despairingly, about my efforts.  There are three reasons for this, though it’ll take me two posts to explain them fully.  First, there seems to be a paucity of really good cookbooks.  Second, in spite of Spain’s copious export industry, some ingredients are still hard to find without a website.  Last but not least, the fun stuff like tapas and pintxos aren’t really the kind of thing that’s easy to make for two.

The Cookbook Problem

I only own six Spanish cookbooks, but ironically, when it comes to recipes for Romesco or other Spanish classics, I might as well go to my old standbys like Judy Rogers’s The Zuni Café Cookbook. People don’t even really think of them as being Spanish dishes.  Doesn’t Romesco come from Rome?  Well, there you go.  Like many French and Italian dishes it’s all been absorbed by the mainstream, and there are a lot more good mainstream cookbooks out there than there are good Spanish cookbooks. But what I wanted after coming home from Spain, was something thoroughly Spanish, something like Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or Marcella Hazan’s’s, well . . . pretty much anything written by Marcella Hazan.  I wanted a book that sought to explain authentic Spanish cooking to outsiders.

I thought I’d found this with Simone and Ortega Inez’s 1080 Recipes.  This is one of those fat Phaidon books, which have been showing up lately.  Phaidon, best known for its books on art and architecture, ironically seems to be trying to corner the market on dated, rustic cookbooks with mostly hand-drawn illustrations.  These are not overly dressy, coffee-table books.  They’re repackaged popular cookbooks from different countries, some 30-50 years old, but never before published in English. All of them claim to be the “bible” of something. Look at the Phaidon website. The Silver Spoon is “the Bible of traditional Italian cooking”.  I Know How to Cook is “the Bible of traditional French home cooking”. Vefa’s Kitchen is “the Bible of Traditional Greek Cooking”.  And 1080 Recipes is “The Bible of Authentic Spanish Cookery.”

This sounds promising, but there are many ways to define “authentic.”  In this case, the book is authentic in that it was written thirty years ago and was popular in Spain. But it’s a general cookbook, and really makes no claim to reveal regional secrets.  It’s more like The Joy of Cooking for Spanish audiences. There’s no pretense here of explaining mysteries to outsiders.  The recipes are simple, appropriate for a family meal, and many of them aren’t Spanish.  Curiously too, there are very few recipes calling for uniquely Spanish ingredients beyond saffron.  For all its 1080 recipes, there are fewer calls for Guindilla, Padron, Choricero, or Piquillo peppers than there are in much shorter American cookbooks by Hirigoyen, Barrenchea or Garces.

Phaidon books are also spare on instruction. A recipe for suckling pig, for example, basically just says to cut the pig in half and roast it.  It hails back to an era where a relatively high level of competency or familiarity with cooking seems to be assumed.  And while there may be some interesting subtleties or nuances to Spanish cooking, it doesn’t make it onto the page.

Consider the onion.  Most cuisines have some combination of aromatics that they cook in fat or oil at the start of a dish. People like to buy fancy bottles of oil with all manner of herbs and peppers in them because this is what fat is good at: it holds aromas.  But it doesn’t really matter if those peppers have been swimming in oil for six months, or whether you’re cooking in the pan for six minutes at the beginning of a meal.  It has the same effect.  By cooking aromatics first, you can cook them just right to activate the aromas, and let the flavors permeate all the other ingredients as you go. But it seems to me that every cuisine has its own unique combination of aromatics, as well as their own very particular ways of cooking them. The French have mirepoix. The Italians have Soffritto that usually includes garlic. India has its own concoctions of onion, garlic and dried chile. Onion is common in all, but it seems that French books usually insist on sweating onions, cooking them slowly so that they turn soft and translucent, but never brown. Indian food in contrast, seems to find it desirable to brown onions over relatively high heat. Marcella Hazan’s books, however, always use the term arrosolate, as if there were some sort of rosy in-between state of cooking onions.  It’s a fiction, of course.  There is no rose colored onion. But it’s a workable fiction. I keep looking for that arrosolate state and while I’m never sure if I’ve got it right, it makes a relatively mundane part of cooking seem new again.

I’m assuming these preferences are not simply an arbitrary decision born out of prejudice.  Presumably, the stronger, slightly singed flavors of onions better match spicy foods.  The fats and even cooking fuels may play a role here as well. Whatever the reasons for these changing conventions, however, I want to know them. I want a cookbook that can explain something like inspiratore and arrosolate, and the Phaidon books don’t do that. Whether you’re in France, Italy, or Spain, they all pretty much just say, “cook onions”.

There’s also something ironic about the Phaidon artwork.  After decades of producing art and architecture porn for your coffee table, Phaidon is now turning to cookbooks that are subdued enough to border on the plain. This is probably deliberate, and in some cases there’s a nice contrast between the modern design of the books and the simple, hand-drawn images, such as in Pork & Sons by Stephane Reynaud.   Pork & Sons has decidedly unglossy photographs matched with charming sketches of pigs in various compromising positions and S&M outfits.  In 1080, the hand-drawn artwork is appropriately rustic, but the photos are universally taken from above, without regard for depth of focus or field or even really color.  It’s a lot of brown food all photographed on a brown table.

Perhaps this is out of deference for the original, but I haven’t been able to find a copy as a source of comparison.  So out of spite, I’ve included a close-up here, of my own effort to make the Ortegas’ chicken with lemons look tasty.

And it was tasty.

When all is said and done, the book has the advantage that it actually works.  Like most old cookbooks, you have to fill in a lot, but so far the recipes have served me well.  I say, guardedly, that it is the best Spanish cookbook that I have yet to find. The chicken with lemons was delicious, if not uniquely Spanish, and I’ve liked other recipes well enough to pre-order Simone and Ortega Inez’s The Book of Tapas. But I’m still searching for the book that will bring back my memories of Spain. Perhaps all I really need is an explanation for why the Café con leche and churros in Spain seemed so much better than in the U.S.  Is that really so much to ask?

Spain I: Jose Garces and Latin Evolution

(Skip to March 31, 2011 post for a possible free copy of Latin Evolution)

The people have spoken, and the people say Spain. No surprise there. In Philadelphia, Jose Garces has given Spain and its colonial stepchildren much deserved praise through his ever-expanding fleet of restaurants.  I ate at Amada, with Ann and friends a few years back.  It was the first time I ever shelled out the money for a full tasting menu, and I made an oath then and there to try the tasting menu at every restaurant Garces opens.    It’s been hard keeping up though.  In spite of a recession closing doors on many local restaurants, Garces has opened five since 2005.  Amada is the Andalusian flagship, a tapas restaurant with its own charcuterie bar. I hope this becomes a trend in other restaurants, and maybe even home kitchens. Who wouldn’t want to come home to a haunch of Jamon Iberica hanging over the kitchen counter?  Tinto is the Basque version of Amada, a dark cellar of wall to wine-rack, decorated in Spanish Inquisition style. Distrito, just a few blocks from my place of work is dedicated to Mexico City.  It looks like a pink 50s diner decorated with wrestling masks and a marquee advertising today’s tacos and tequilas.  All three have wonderful tasting menus. I’ve yet to try Chifa, named after the Chinese population in Peru or Village Whisky named after, well . . . whisky, but I hope to soon. The only real obstacle will be Marcat ala Planxa, a Catalan restaurant in Chicago.  I made the trip to Chicago for Rick Bayless, though, so I’m sure I can make another round for Garces.  Obsessive?  You bet.   My facebook word cloud shows that I’ve posted the name “Garces” more than I’ve posted the name “Ann” in the last year. This is mostly because I rooted for him through every episode of America’s Next Iron Chef while everyone else was bemoaning the Eagles performance in the playoffs.

Then Garces did the unforgiveable.

He won.

Now he’s trendy.  He has a line of ingredients with his face on it, like Bobby Flay.  Now, how can I take friends to his restaurants and pretend that they are a well-kept secret?  I can’t pretend it’s cool to own an autographed copy of Latin Evolution.  I just look like some sort of trend-following lap-dog. Worse yet, Iron Chef really seems to have jumped the shark this season. Jeffrey Steingarten—one of my favorite curmudgeonly food writers—has disappeared, and every episode seems to have some special gimmick, like “battle twins” judged by the actresses from “Sister, Sister”.

But no, I can put aside my pride and say I’m happy for his success.  I think this, like Rick Bayless winning Top Chef Masters, is a good thing so long as it brings more attention to Spanish food, often hidden in the shadows of its neighbors France and Italy. Growing up, I too frequently associated Spanish food with desultory, bland rice dishes.  It was Mexican food without the spice or the wrappers.  My school cafeteria sold glutinous “Spanish Rice” and “Arroz con Pollo,” leaving me thinking that Spanish food came in two flavors, red and yellow.  True, saffron is one of Spain’s big exports, and I’ve never been that fond of saffron. Saffron is made from the female reproductive organ of crocus flowers, which seems like a lot of work—and frustration for the crocuses—just to turn food yellow.  True too, if you try and make Spanish recipes with nothing but the Goya section of your local supermarket to line your larder, you’re not going to be easily impressed.  But you shouldn’t judge Spanish food by these offerings, any more than you’d want Spain judging American food based on what’s available at McDonalds.  Life is elsewhere.

A brief trip to Spain a few years ago convinced me that even the most traditional Spanish dishes could be wonderful if prepared properly.  It’s often fairly simple fare, but when you’re in the Northern mountains of Spain, the food is usually right from the farm and perfectly fresh. (Yes, those are Spanish chickens above). There’s also a highly experimental side of Spanish cooking, which includes Ferran Adria’s El Bulli.  (See here for Anthony Bourdain’s visit).  For Adria, cooking is an experimental art; he closed up shop at El Bulli each year for months at a time in order to turn his kitchen into a laboratory in search of new flavors and techniques. He’s now closing the restaurant all together and replacing it with a school for advanced culinary study.  And why not?  Given how much of the flavor industry is currently governed by chemical corporations, why not have someone out there who is tampering with cooking on a scientific level who is actually one of the world’s best chefs? (Raffi Khatchadourian on the food additive industry).

Garces, who is from Ecuador, lies somewhere in between the traditional and experimental. While his recipes don’t require any of the custom made hardware and expensive additives that put Adria’s recipes forever out of my reach, they are similarly composite recipes—built up on a variety of smaller, but still difficult ones.   They are brutally complicated, modern in their use of ingredients like lecithin to make foams, and exotic in the reach for Spanish imports. While each dish is inspired by a particular region or Latin influence, none of them are really “authentic”.  For Garces, the experimental side is all about permutations that come about when culinary influences collide.

As every child learns in history class, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and portions of what is now Mexico for Spain in 1519.  What those history classes don’t always teach: Cortes conquered a people, but not their cuisine.  Before the conquest, the Aztec diet was rich in corn, beans, chiles, and complex sauces, made from seeds.  In the 1520s, under Spanish Rule, the same crops grew in abundance—and they still do.  The Spaniards struggled to tame the land and the palate, growing wheat wherever possible throughout Mexico and Central America and raising grazing animals once foreign to this part of the world.  They brought the cow and the pig—the beef, the pork, the lard—but they couldn’t impose their tastes or recreate the Spanish diet in this new world.  Instead, the Aztec appetite adapted to this Spanish influence, incorporating these newly available foods into an already rich cuisine. Throughout the 16th century that story repeated itself throughout the New World—in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rica.

The same might be said about the British Empire’s influence on countries along the spice trail, but keep this in mind:  Spain had a relatively well-established and tasty tradition of cookery prior to setting out to conquer the world.  Britain had roast beef and soggy vegetables.  Whatever we may say about the evils of colonization, we should be thankful for the culinary cross-pollination that has taken place.  It has kept things lively, and, like the poetry of Lorca, just a little bit strange.

My hope is that Garces’s recent success will not only help people to see that Spain’s influence is equal to that of French or Italy, but more importantly, that there’s a market for Spanish ingredients in the U.S.  Because let’s face it, it’s effing difficult to find authentic ingredients.  Until fairly recently, Jamon Iberico, a cured ham from Spain was illegal to import to the U.S. because Spanish slaughterhouses hadn’t been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Spanish cheeses like Manchego and Idiazabal weren’t regularly available until the 90s.  But there are still many Spanish imports that are only available on websites like La Tienda, and I can’t find Choricero peppers anywhere. Hirigoyen’s book Pinxtos asks for them regularly, but Barrenechea’s The Basque Table says that they are simply unavailable in the U.S.  Adriana’s Spice Caravan in Ardmore claimed to have every pepper in the world, but when I asked them for Guindillas or Choricero they looked at me like I had grown a second head.  They insisted that I was just mispronouncing Guajillos.  Now that they’ve closed up shop, I’m sorry I spent so many years calling Adriana the “Spice Nazi,” after the affable villain of the Seinfeld series.  They did have piquillos, Piment D’Espellett, and L’Estornell sherry vinegar, which I love. Piquillo peppers look a lot like regular red bell peppers with a “little beak” at the bottom, hence the name.  They taste like most jarred roasted peppers, but have a smokier flavor that goes well not only with Spanish food but just about every sandwich or salad I can think of. I was glad to see that Thomas Keller makes liberal use of them in Ad Hoc at Home as well. Recently, Trader Joe’s has started carrying them.  Their piquillos aren’t as good as Adriana’s or La Tienda’s, but they’re so cheap they’re hard to pass up.

Fortunately, Garces’s most recent Philly offering is the Garces Trading Company, a market at 1111 Locust street. (Click for Madame Fromage’s review). Perhaps this will give me the ingredients I need to make even one recipe in Latin Evolution.  But even with the right ingredients, this book looks to be ruthlessly difficult. Even a tapas style flatbread snack involves four sub-recipes, “Cocas with marinated duck, cabrales béchamel, and cherry-fig marmalade.” In addition to having to make all that, the recipe calls for foie gras mousse, a “basic” ingredient, which turns out to have its own recipe listed in the back of the book. Good luck making this snack during half time.

That said, the people have spoken, and the people say Spain. So I will in the coming month make an effort to make at least one authentic Garces recipe from this slender volume.  It will probably be humiliating.  So stay tuned.  Humiliation is fun.

Anthony Bourdain IV: Your body is not a temple. Your body is an amusement park.

And finally, the recipes . . .

I ended up making quite a few recipes with and without the glistening stock from my last entry:  onion soup les halles, frisée aux lardons, asparagus & haricots verts salad, skate grenobloise, salade d’onglet, onglet gascon, faux-filet au beurre rouge, steak au poivre, daube provencal, mignons de porc à l’ail, côte de porc à la charcutière, rôti de porc au lait, palette de porc à la bière, poulet roti, poulet basquaise, duck à l’orange, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, clafoutis, and blueberries with lime sugar.  Yes, all of the titles of recipes are in French except the blueberries.  And yes, I did just learn how to do all those diacritical marks on my keyboard.  What a pain.

While homemade stock and demi-glace turned out to be the main secret of making home cooking taste like restaurant food, my favorite recipes, the ones I keep going back to, are simple and stockless. Mignons de porc a l’ail.  Light of my life, fired up pork tenderloin. My sin, my soul.  This is the only perfect recipe I have found for pork tenderloin.  Before it, tenderloin was just a serviceable piece of meat for making a quick meal. Sliced thin, it made sweet and sour pork more elegant, and pounded between sheets of wax paper it went well with nam pla and a little Thai red curry paste. But roast tenderloin was a bit trickier. Tenderloins are thin and taper at one end, so they’re easy to overcook or cook unevenly. Pork tenderloin is also fat impaired. Bourdain’s solution is as simple as it is elegant. Just tie two tenderloins together. Slather one tenderloin with roasted garlic and a slice of bacon (maybe two) and place the other tenderloin on top with the “tails” facing in opposite directions.   Tie it all up with twine, and the result looks more like a loin, but is far more tender and tasty. All that bacon and garlic melts into the meat and contributes to a great pan sauce.

I’ve tried varying the recipe. I’ve smoked it and grilled it, but nothing was as good as the original recipe.  I made it for dinner guests from my teaching circle at Drexel, and I’ve made it for just about every family member and friend who has been through my house.  I find myself inviting people over just so that I can make it, because it’s too much meat for two—but perfect for a dinner party of four to eight.   I’m almost reluctant to include the recipe here because it’s one of the most reliable tricks in my magic show.

I am also fond of Rôti de porc au lait though as far as I can tell this is not a traditional French recipe.  I’d seen it previously in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook, and according to Molly Stevens, Hazan was the first to popularize this “ancient and somewhat magical dish”.  It’s related, I assume, to the Italian Arista al Latte dating back to 1430.  It doesn’t seem out of place in the Les Halles cookbook though, because like the mignons, it’s a relatively simple example of pork alchemy.

Sure, people will look at you skeptically when you describe the dish.  Even now, I find it difficult to describe a big lump of pork loin, simmering in warm milk, and not think that there might be some wisdom to kosher dietary laws that prohibit this kind of thing. But the more it cooks, the more it makes sense.  The milk basically simmers down and turns the color of latte.  I assume this is partially from caramelization and partially due to the juices escaping from the meat.  The final result isn’t that much different to making a pan sauce that is finished with cream—it’s just two different methods for reaching a similar conclusion. The milk sauce is just a bit sweeter and can be passed around in the table in a gravy boat.  As a point of reference, though, if you do have Jewish friends and family members, don’t call it “Pork Latte”.  That’s just rude.

Among the deserts, I’d probably focus on the clafoutis.  There’s probably nothing special about this recipe, except that it was the first I tried.  But it’s great. It’s like a desert soufflé, only less eggy. Perhaps that makes it more like a pop-over?  Yes, a pop-over, studded with cherries and flavored with kirsch.  We’ve had a lot of snow lately in west Philadelphia, and we’re expecting ten to twenty inches more tonight, so I recommend this as a sweet + savory way to combat the cold weather blues.

The Return of Mal Carne

That said, I cannot in good conscience say that everyone will like this book. People who don’t like hyperbole will not like this book—but I’m guessing they’ve all stopped reading this blog by now anyway.  “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans” will not like this book.  Nor will the teeming masses that count themselves fans of Rachel Ray.  I have nothing against Rachel Ray personally, but it is hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to be Rachel Ray and wanting to be Anthony Bourdain—the cognitive dissonance would be too great. I say this not just because of the rather one-sided feud that has been going on in the press, but because their agendas are simply too different.  Anthony Bourdain is demanding and admires tradition and terroir, hard work and meat in all its glorious variety. He believes chefs and celebrities should encourage people to aspire to greatness.  Rachel Ray believes in ease, economy.  She aspires to 30 minute meals and 40 dollars a day—even if it means stiffing the waiter. Rachel Ray says she admires Anthony Bourdain and everything he does.  Anthony Bourdain says that Rachel Ray “uses her strange and terrible powers to narcotize her public with her hypnotic mantra of Yummo and Evoo and Sammys. ‘You’re doing just fine.  You don’t even have to chop an onion—you can buy it already chopped.  Aspire to nothing . . . Just sit there. Have another Triscuit.  Sleep . . . Sleep . . .”

It should be clear where I stand, but the health issues may well be a serious concern.  It has been for me as well. In the interest of full disclosure, a year ago I had some unpleasant stomach concerns that had me admitted to hospital three times in one month.  My doctor assures me that while my problems are not caused by the indiscrete consumption of French food, it isn’t really conducive to it either. Cut back on red meat and fat.  No more gascon onglet for you. It’s not the cholesterol—I’m also supposed to avoid raw vegetables.  I just don’t digest food as quickly as I’m supposed to, and particularly when this underlying conditions combines with ulcers or a virus, things turn nasty.

I’ve been stable for more than a year now, but these restrictions were quite a blow, distancing me from some of my favorite cookbooks. It was Bourdain that first helped me to understand the importance of fat. Sure, we should be aware of how many trans fats or saturated fats we consume, but we should also be aware of what fat, used properly, contributes to our diet and our cooking.  Fat isn’t just for greasing your pan. Fat is flavor, essential to steak and hamburgers. This is why we’re disappointed when we shell out extra for 95% lean ground beef:  it ends up being flavorless, dry, and it doesn’t hold together as well on the grill.  Fat has unique binding properties, too. People put cream rather than low-fat milk in coffee because the fat binds with the astringent flavors—which also allows you to make coffee stronger without the tannins becoming unbearable.  Coffee with non-fat milk is not caffe au lait.  It’s just coffee diluted. Fat is about smell too, because it captures and holds the aromas of other ingredients. Fat is frying because it holds high heat better than water.  Without it, frites would just be soggy, boiled potatoes. Fat is even a passable preservative, allowing you to keep that duck confit in your fridge for much longer than duck alone. Fat is a texture, unavoidable in most pan sauces. As Harold McGee points out, butter, all by itself, is a sauce—a combination of milk solids and fats.  Perhaps we could even call it a “master sauce,” since it’s used to make Bourdain’s beurre blanc and beurre rouge.  I didn’t get all of this from Bourdain of course.  But by the time I was diagnosed with a mild case of gastroparesis, he did get me in the habit of storing duck fat in my fridge for potatoes. Ann had just bought me Fat by Jennifer McLagan and I was all ready to take up “larding,” the tradition of using a long needle to insert bacon into meat that nature had not endowed with enough deliciousness of its own.

But all that’s over now. Am I bitter?  Hell yes.  But it’s surprising how quickly a little projectile vomiting serves as behavioral reinforcement.  Fortunately, I’ve found that the biggest issue is really the size of meals rather than the ingredients, and for the most part I’m still okay with butter and cream in moderation.  I was a bit hesitant to mention all this in my blog, but I figure if Grant Achatz can run Alieana while suffering from tongue cancer, or if Carol Blymire can blog her way through Achatz’s cookbook with Celiac disease, I have little to worry about. It’s not like I was stricken with chronic vegetarianism or a curious desire to only eat raw foods. Even these afflicted, my colleagues inform me, can lead rich and happy lives.

In the mean time, I’m on the lookout for culinary traditions that deal more in small dishes, fish and chicken.  Sure, Bourdain will never fit that bill, but this blog entry isn’t about remorse.  It’s about the sense of wonder I had when I first started reading him, back when I still had the constitution of a garbage disposal. So let us sing the praises of the man who says that your body is not a temple but an amusement park.  Let us sing the praises of his cookbook, your ticket to ride.

Anthony Bourdain III: Why You Don’t Want to Make Restaurant Food

Les Halles Cookbook

A cookbook may not seem like a natural successor to a book about the culinary underbelly. I mean if you thought the blood spatter in the last entry was unhygienic, consider the hijinks he and his fellow sous-chef at Works Progress got into.  “One night, with his full cooperation, we stripped Dimitri naked, spattered and filled his ears, nose and mouth with stage blood and wrapped him in Saran Wrap before helping him into a chest freezer in the dark, rear storage area of the restaurant, his limbs arranged in an unnaturally contorted pose—as if he’d been rudely dumped there postmortem.”  They taunted the manager telling them that Dimitri was missing, and asked him if he could pick up a box of shrimp from the freezer—they being short-handed and all.  There he found “the nude, fishbelly-white corpse of our missing comrade staring up at him with dead eyes through a thin layer of plastic wrap”.  Sure, I can admire a practical joke like that, but I’m not saying to myself, “Wow, I really want to eat at Work Progress”.  I mean frozen shrimp?

But it works well, because if you thought you liked being an observer in his kitchens, now you get to feel like a participant without being in one of his kitchens. Sure, he’s going to make you cook your own stock, and if you don’t he’s going to treat you like mal carne. But it’s okay somehow, because he’s over there, and I’m over here, and if a tincture of blood ends up in the crème brûlée, at least I know where it came from. And who are we, really, to think that a cookbook is going to help us to even approximate what can be made in restaurant kitchens? We don’t have Bourdain’s years of experience or the CIA education. We don’t have the Ecuadorian line cooks tourneeing vegetables.  We don’t have the equipment, the suppliers, or even the time to do what restaurants do best. But he also begrudgingly obliges us, knowing that we don’t want to know this.  “What you’d like to know is how t o make your next dinner party look as though you’ve got the Troisgros family chained to the stove in your home kitchen.  Maybe you’re curious about the tricks, the techniques, the few simple tools that can make your plates look as if they’ve been prepared assembled and garnished by cold-blooded professionals”.

The opening of Les Halles contains many of the same suggestions as “How to Cook Like the Pros” in Kitchen Confidential: get a good knife, use heavy-weight pans, score good ingredients, make your own stock.  When I bought the cookbook, I already had a Global chef knife. I bought it because it was shiny and said on the box that it was made by the same forging process as a Samurai sword. But apparently, it is also a good knife, the knife that Anthony Bourdain recommends, so I feel vindicated by that little vanity purchase. Unfortunately, I never followed the next part of Bourdain’s advice that was that you really only needed one good knife.  So now I have five global knives, and I can never keep the heavy magnetic holder properly screwed to the wall.  I won’t lie.  I use them.  But if you really want to get two Global knives, just get another Global chef knife, in case the first one needs to be washed, or your spouse wants one too.

I firmly agree with the heavy pan rule. I once owned Circulon pans because I foolishly trusted a Consumer Report recommendation.  CR apparently, doesn’t test cookware at ridiculously high temperatures, doesn’t test for longevity or for Bourdain’s criterion: “A proper sauté pan should cause serious head injury if brought down hard against someone’s skull.”  If you can’t afford top of the line stuff, a Lodge cast iron skillet will do well by most of Bourdain’s recipes.  If you can afford the good stuff, though, be as selective with pots as you are with knives.  Get a Le Creuset Dutch oven and maybe an All-Clad sauté pan. But stop there. I bought my Dutch oven as part of a sale package with a baking dish, a skillet, and a saucepan with a reversible lid that works as a skillet.  It’s all pretty useless. These things just take up space. (If you’re compulsive, if nothing can stop you from buying more Le Creuset cookware because you’ve decided it’s a decorative motif, get yourself one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Old-Dutch-60-Inch-Cookware-Graphite/dp/B00005Q5GB).

Why heavy? Most of Bourdain’s cooking capitalizes on the flavor that comes from the browned bits of food that ends up on the bottom of a pan.  Browning is important, not just because it’s ‘more cooked’ but because the high heat transforms the juices that comes to the surface of the meat.  Complex molecules unfurl, break down, and recombine to form flavors that don’t exist otherwise. I remember when I was a kid I always put butter on toast before putting it into the toaster-oven, because every so often it popped out tasting like Worcestershire sauce.  Somewhere between melted butter and burnt butter, there’s a magical zone where it tastes completely different.  Same idea here. Heavy pans tend to cook through radiant heat rather than through the direct heat of the stove.  Turn the heat off under a cast-iron skillet—it’s still hot enough to cook an egg. It’s not going to cool down when you throw a slab of meat on it, and at least in my experience, it can get pretty hot before it actually turns the fond to carbon.  They usually all have metal handles too, so once you’re done searing something you can throw it in the oven where the temperature will be more controlled.

Ann bought me an All-Clad sauté pan for Christmas and I’ve enjoyed it so far. But never, under any circumstances, by All-Clad in non-stick. Yes, you need a non-stick pan, but anything heavy will do. There’s no point in buying a really expensive non-stick pan because it won’t last.  All-Clad is meant to last a lifetime and is perfectly designed so you can sear a roast and then pop it in the oven. Non-stick coating isn’t any of these things.  You might as well pay to have your wood floors stripped, sanded and polished just so you can put shag carpet on it.

Taking Stock

Most readers will probably follow Bourdain in the suggestions from Part A and Part B of the General Principles section, but they might struggle with Part C: Make your own Stock.

What’s missing in your home cooking? Why doesn’t that dish you painfully re-created from the chef’s recipe taste like it does in the restaurant?  What’s wrong with your soup, your sauces, your stews?  The answer is almost certainly ‘stock’.

Bourdain’s stock making boot camp isn’t fun, and you may never want to do it twice, but it certainly clarifies why so many sauces in restaurants are richer and more concentrated than the stuff we make at home.  Stock is not “broth,” not “bullion,” nor anything that comes in a can or a box that says “stock” on it; real stock is made from bones and is loaded with collagen, nature’s thickening agent. When stock is reduced, it deepens, turns dark and glossy, and tastes like highly concentrated meat. When store-bought “stock” is reduced, it tastes like concentrated salt.

Here’s the point though where you really need to ask yourself, do you really want to make restaurant food, or are you happy just going to restaurants.  Following Bourdain’s instruction I spent two days, one simply making beef stock, and the next reducing half of that stock into demi-glace.  Demi-glace made me a bit giddy, because I saw that episode of Northern Exposure where Adam, the local chef and Bigfoot makes a recipe for demi-glace that involves reducing forty cows into a few spoonfuls of sauce. (Alas, I can’t find the video–so I’ll just randomly insert one of my favorite NE clips here).  Demi-Glace it turns out, is not quite that wasteful, but stock alone involves using bones that still has a good deal of meat still on them, so it’s going to seem wasteful.  And Demi-Glace is basically just stock reduced and reduced and reduced until it becomes a thick glaze. It’s miraculous stuff, but it’s clear that there’s a reason why you usually only find it in restaurants. It’s only practical to make if you make a lot of it. Again, it comes down to the fact that we don’t have the equipment, the suppliers, or the manpower to really do it well.

Equipment:  Most people if they have a stockpot, get one that’s about eight quarts.  That’s the minimum size that you would want to use to make stock, but the problem is 1) some stock recipes call for almost half that volume to be taken up by meat, bones, and vegetables so you’re really only getting about four quarts of stock, and that in turn may well end up being reduced. 2) You really need another eight quart pot or container (some people use a bucket) because you’re going to have to strain that stock into something when you’re done. Even with this equipment, however, the amount you’re going to end up with is still probably only enough to make soup a couple of times.

Supplies:  In a restaurant, people have all sorts of bones and odds and ends left over from entrees that they can throw into the stockpot. Bourdain and other cooks always suggest that you can go to your local butcher and ask for bones, but I don’t have a butcher, or at least, the guys that I see regularly working down at the local grocery store probably aren’t what they have in mind.  They don’t seem to do that much of the boning themselves, and the ones at Whole Foods or Foodsource seem to know that they can charge good money for bones. I’ve recently discovered however that if nothing else is handy, you can hit up Asian grocers.  Our local H-Mart sells all manner of bones straight from the meat counter so you don’t have to ask if you’re feeling shy.  Rib bones, neck bones, ox-tail, you name it.

Manpower: All that stock + meat + bone + vegetable weighs a lot, and so it’s hard for one person to carry the pot over the sink and strain it.  It’s easily a two-person job, and it might be better if you owned a bigger sink. Better still if you had one of those pot filler faucets at the stove so you don’t need to carry it there in the first place.  Bourdain actually didn’t have much useful information on how to deal with this challenge, so I turned to Alton Brown instead. Alton says siphon.

I tied a bit of cheesecloth to the end of some clear plastic hose.  I put the end with the cheesecloth into the pot and ran the other end to a large bowl on the floor. You can suck on it to get it started, but you don’t want hot stock going into your mouth, so if you prefer you can put the whole length of hose into the pot, cover the end with your thumb, and pull it out.  You did this trick with a straw when you were a kid, right?  As long as your thumb covers the free end, the whole length of hose remains full, and when you let go near to the floor, transpiration will carry the stock the rest of the way.

Theoretically, it’s a great idea.  The cheesecloth should strain the stock, and gravity does all the work. In practice, well, at least in my practice, it was a mess.  The cheesecloth was a moot point, too because the suction was so strong that it still drew in meat and vegetable fibers to block the end. When it wasn’t blocked completely, the stock chugged out with such force that it sloshed over the edges of the bowl.  Note to self:  bowls are the wrong choice here, even if you have a gigantic one.  Get yourself a bucket.

Subsequently, I’ve learned to just put most of the ingredients in by stages. I made a David Chang recipe that called for putting all the bones in, cooking them for several hours then taking them out with a strainer or spider.  Then you put in all the vegetables, and so on and so forth.  It takes longer, but it’s easier, and the ingredients take up less space in the pot so you can end up with more in the end.

Is it all worth it?  Depends on what you mean by worth it.  If you want to know why your food doesn’t taste like restaurant food, and if you want to just get a sense for the difference that a rich meat stock will make, then by all means do it at least once.  If you think you’re going to use it regularly for making soup, though, I’d say think again.  I still make stock occasionally, but I’ve basically decided that it’s too precious for soup.  I save it for pan sauces and recipes that only call for a cup or two at a time.  That way the little store I have in my freezer lasts longer.

Anthony Bourdain II: Kitchen Confidential, Les Halles, and the Care and Feeding of Sourdough

Blogs, I’m told, are all about the moment, all about what people are cooking right now or thinking right now.  I tend to write in long loops, spooling out material based more on memory than the moment.  But I have a short-attention span, so I understand the pleas of those who read like hummingbirds:  make it shorter.  So I’ll offer three shorter entries on Bourdain this week rather than one long one. I’ll also use subheadings, so if you what to flit away to another site and come back, you’ll be able to find your old perch.  Buzz, buzz, buzz.  If you like the old format or have remembered to take your Adderall, you can come back at the end of the week and read all three entries together, as intended.

It may seem odd that I’m willing to unreservedly back Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook.  I recently dismissed Thomas Keller as overly fastidious, and Keller is one of Bourdain’s heroes.  Keller once made Bourdain a twenty-course tasting menu at the French Laundry, which included a “coffee and cigarettes” course with foie gras and a tabacco-infused custard. I see why he likes the man. But I never used Bouchon as much as I have the Les Halles cookbook, so I’ve learned less from it. Same goes for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is more comprehensive, and Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, which is beautiful, authentic, regional, and rigorous. I like Bourdain because he scales it down to classic, homey French dishes and he does them well. It’s perfect for people who have made French Onion soup or Beef Bourguignon a couple of times and still wonder why they don’t taste as good as in the local Brasseries. You may not like the answer, which is invariably “make your own stock or demi-glace,” but at least you’ll know.

Bourdain is also funny. You don’t see many funny cookbooks. Publishers are clearly aware that cookbook sales are driven by personality.  They like family anecdotes, old sepia-toned photographs, sentimental memories, pleas to protect the culinary traditions, rants about factory farming, but humor?  They haven’t found humor yet. The only writer in Bourdain’s class is probably Calvin Trillin, but Bourdain isn’t hampered by Trillin’s sense of social justice or common decency.

Beginnings

I first discovered Bourdain as most do, through Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.  I have Jason to thank for that. I was going through a sourdough phase at the time, cultivating a starter that needed weekly care and feeding.  Making sourdough isn’t that much different from making regular yeast dough, but you don’t start with little packets of instant yeast.  You have to cultivate yeast from the air in your kitchen. This is why distinctive sourdoughs are known by regions, like Paris and San Francisco, and why there will probably never be a truly famous Philadelphia sourdough.  Our unicellular bug excretions don’t taste as good.  But I figured if I was going to cook bread, I wanted to know to make the rustic, old-fashioned stuff, and I wanted to know what Philadelphia tasted like.

Sourdough is a commitment, not just because it takes a few days to bring flour and water to life, but because you want to keep it that way. Each week you pour off the excess starter before it gets overripe, and you feed it more flour and water to keep it going.  It’s like owning a pet, only it’s a pet that sheds most of its body weight each week and you get to eat it.  Like a pet it demands attention. It must be fed, and if you’re not making baguettes, you end up pouring that precious bubbling goo into the garbage can.  That’s sad. If you go two or three weeks without making bread, you still feel some moral imperative to keep the starter alive. You’ll miss the opportunity for a weekend in the Poconos because you can’t find a local kid who will feed both the cats and the sourdough.  That’s also sad.

I was bemoaning this fact to Jason, and I suggested I needed a name for the starter. A warm, bubbly name, might help me to bond with the creature that was taking up all my time.  Jason suggested “The Bitch,” which is not what I had in mind at all. I went from puzzled to disturbed as Jason chanted, “Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”  No, it wasn’t early onset spongiform encephalitis.  I just wasn’t clued in to the Bourdain reference, and the 250 pound “foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar and yeast” that shows up as a character in Kitchen Confidential.  Apparently, not recognizing Anthony Bourdain references if you cook is like not recognizing Star Wars references if you’re a sci-fi junkie, or references from Monty Python if you’re socially awkward.  So Jason took it upon himself to fill the Bourdain sized hole in my culinary consciousness, and Bourdain has been living there ever since.

(In the interest of leaving no plot conflict unresolved, the solution to the sourdough problem was pancakes.  Most weeks for several months we made sourdough pancakes on a cast iron skillet, and they were glorious).

Sex, Drugs & Roquefort

Kitchen Confidential is an unsparing tell all about the restaurant industry. If you’ve seen Bourdain on A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations, then you know he has an eight-year olds fascination with eating repellent things on a dare:  cobra heart , fermented Icelandic Shark, and sand encrusted warthog rectum are among the many highlights.  But television offers a watered down version of the Anthony Bourdain we see in American restaurants through Kitchen Confidential. The book follows his education and his rise in the restaurant industry, from a providence, RI coastal restaurant and the Culinary Institute of America, to mob-owned restaurants, dying restaurants, restaurants he works at mostly to help him make drug connections, and restaurants where he witnesses all kind of deviant behavior and unsanitary food handling. One of the more vile incidents involves a cook who partially amputates a finger while cooking, and then decides to lop off the rest of it because the workman’s comp benefits will be better.

Logic dictates that if you write a tell-all about the restaurant industry, two things should
happen to you:  you should be excommunicated, like a magician who has given up too many secrets, or you should stir up outrage and reform like some modern day Upton Sinclair. Yet somehow, Kitchen Confidential did neither. Kitchen Confidential just made a generation of cooks want to be more like Anthony Bourdain. Sure we’re revolted by what he does and what he sees, but he writes about it with such relish that we’re somehow convinced it’s fun. Like if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean, you know that all that scurvy, sodomy, and seasickness of the 18th century wasn’t a good time, but every eight year old boy still wants to be Captain Sparrow.  Piracy actually turns out to be a significant motif in Kitchen Confidential.  Thewhole book is laden with references to that “subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of ‘rum, buggery, and the lash”.  One of Bourdain’s first jobs is in Providence, RI was at “The Dreadnaught;” a seaside establishment in “Early Driftwood” décor, and when he settles in his own restaurant, he chooses a skull and knife logo that looks suspiciously like the Jolly Roger.  The perspective is also unabashedly and unapologetically male.  The communities are ones which value bravado, one-upmanship, trying to cook something that has never been cooked before, and trying to eat things that have never been eaten before. And above all, they honor their war wounds.

We considered ourselves a tribe.  As such, we had a number of unusual customs, rituals and practices all our own.  If you cut yourself in the Work Progress kitchen, tradition called for maximum spillage and dispersion of blood.  One squeeezed the wound till it ran freely, then hurled great gouts of red spray on the jackets and aprons of comrades.  We loved blood in our kitchen.  If you dinged yourself badly, it was no disgrace; we’d stencil a little cut-out shape of a chef knife under your station to commemorate the event.  After a while, you’d have a little row of these things, like a fighter pilot.  The house cat—a mouse killer—got her own stencil (a tiny mouse shape) sprayed on the wall by her water bowl, signifying confirmed kills.

If I were teaching this book I would no doubt want students to question the representation of men and women in the workplace.  There’s really very few references to women at all, and the one who stands out the most is a co-worker who has to earn her bones by forcing a male co-worker down on a table and threatening to violate him.  As a reader however, I find it all deeply refreshing. Because while the world of cooking and even the world of cookbooks is dominated by men, the target audience of cookbooks is not.  Sure, an occasional cookbook panders—usually in an obvious way—to guys who grill, guys who like to play with fire, guys who make their obesity seem socially acceptable because they want to share their love of pork ribs with the world.  But I’m no more willing to inhabit this avuncular Paul Prodhomme like subjectivity than I am a bubbling Rachel Ray.  But who wouldn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain?

(To Be Continued)

Anthony Bourdain I: Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.

Somewhere down the line, my dad decided coq au vin was going to be one of the few dishes that he cooks.  There are pancakes, and there’s coq au vin.  He has a special braising dish just for it.  He uses his scientific acumen to test and retest his methods and ingredients.  He uses chicken thigh meat, browned lovingly in bacon fat. He uses whole button mushrooms, pearl onions.  Then he drowns the whole thing in a bottle of Charles Shaw Two Buck Chuck.  Okay, so this, and the use of chicken stock is not for the purist, but it’s still tasty.  And while he has perfected his recipe mostly in my absence, I still think of coq au vin as a special meal I ate growing up.  It’s comfort food, food I associate with home.

It’s also something I rarely make myself.

Perhaps it’s because roast chickens seem like perfection to me, because I have a mild allergy to wine, or because when I do make coq au vin, some desire to improve upon it always leads me astray.  Even restaurants seem like bad luck. Ann and I went to the Happy Rooster for its much-praised coq au vin, but it wasn’t even on the menu.  It’s like the perfect coq au vin has always been out there, taunting me, until I make it again and screw it up again.

Most recently, the urge to try struck me in the meat section at the Ardmore farmer’s market.  In honor of the holidays the Amish carried fresh capons.  The “coq” in coq au vin is rooster, and a capon is a rooster, albeit a castrated one, so that seemed like a step toward authenticity. Apparently, farmers don’t believe that gender is a social construct, so castrating roosters is supposed to make the birds less “aggressive,” and so less active, less gamey and more fatty. Just the thing to improve on perfection.  And at only 3$ a pound I told Ann, how could we resist?  But when the Amish guy heaved the bird onto the scale, we realized the smallest bird weighed fourteen pounds.  We only had our two mouths to feed, so we took a pass.

It was probably all for the best.  I couldn’t find any coq au vin recipes that called for capon, or for that matter rooster, or even just a bird larger than four pounds.  Not long after however, Ann consulted with her parents about food for the holidays, and suddenly I’m back on again, now making coq au vin for six on Christmas Eve.  Ann’s mother had even poked around and found a local butcher that carried capons.  Ann’s parents, Newt and Marge, live out in the country so I imagined some impeccable local bird that roamed free, probably in the butcher’s own backyard.  It led a happy life on organic feed until the butcher’s deft axe separated it from its life just as it previously separated it from its testes.

So there we were, driving up to rural Pennsylvania for the holidays, with my red Le Creuset pot and dreams of the perfect coq au vin simmering away in a country kitchen.

When I first met Ann, she told me she lived in “Montrose . . . or really Elk Lake, twenty minutes outside of Montrose”. She seemed to anticipate a blank stare, and I wasn’t about to disappoint her. “Montrose is thirty minutes from Tunkhannock,” and after another theatrical pause: “You’ve heard of Scranton, right? Its about an hour from Scranton”. In my defense this was just after I had moved east, and Scranton was not yet associated with “The Office,” or Joe Biden indelibly linked “Scranton” and “hardscrabble” in the nation’s consciousness.  So the only landmark I recognized was “Pennsylvania”. But now I know.  That’s where Ann’s from.  An hour outside of hardscrabble, on a rural road that has no name.

Ann’s parents live on a no longer functioning dairy farm. Most of the private farms in the area have closed down, so there isn’t much in Elk Lake other than a school.  Its one of those single-level affairs that houses everyone from K-12 under the same roof where kids huff glue and dream of one day making it to the bright-lights, big-city atmosphere of Hazelton or Carbondale. But during the winter, none of that matters.  Snow covers up the town’s imperfections, leaving a landscape of Norman Rockwell’s imagination, dotted with grain silos, little chapels, walls of stacked slate and the timid deer who have narrowly survived hunting season. It looks like Christmas, more like Christmas than any storefront display or suburban nativity scene re-enacted by inflatable snowmen and animatronic reindeer. And it’s just the kind of place I’d want to make a bubbling coq au vin.

And just the kind of place I’d want to bring Anthony Bourdain.  Foul-mouthed, enfant-terrible, Travel Channel shill, Anthony Bourdain, smuggled in through a cookbook with a brown paper-bag cover. Ann encouraged me.  She downloaded Kitchen Confidential from audible.com so we could put ourselves in the mood during the drive.

Bourdain is that unique incarnation of the French paradox, the slim French chef.  How does one run a meat-centric, fat-loving Brasserie, and yet stay fit and fashionable as a television celebrity? If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know the answer: French cooks do lots of smack. Lots of other drugs too.

We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in at every opportunity to ‘conceptualize.’ Hardly a decision was made without drugs.  Pot, Quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we’d send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet city to get.

So the real question is, why wouldn’t you want to bring him along for Christmas at the in-laws?

I turned to Anthony Bourdain’s “Les Halles” Cookbook, because French food sounds fancy enough for an occasion like Christmas Eve, but as Bourdain reminds us, most French food is born out of the country. Its not made by chefs of haute cuisine but by ingenious farmers who made the most of what they butchered, right down to the offal.  Dishes like campagne de pate make us think of the Cordon Bleu, and we’re used to Food Network ingénues making people feel like they deserve a blue ribbon just because they manage to make a little cold meatloaf.  But not Bourdain. “Oooooh . . . pate, I don’t know.’ Please.  Campagne means “country” in French—which means even your country-ass can make it.”

It also seemed to fit.  Anthony Bourdain is all about meat and butter.  Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) is also all about meat and butter.   At the family breakfast, there is no either/or fallacy when it comes to choosing bacon or sausage for breakfast; it’s always bacon and sausage, often ham, and sometimes a pork chop.  It all comes from the same wonderful, magical animal, so really it’s one kind of meat. Cooked in butter.

Best laid plans and all that. Turns out that “Marge’s butcher” was just the meat section of the local chain store.  And while yes, they did carry capon, it was lodged in the back of the freezer where it probably got caught in the great chill of the late Pleistocene era. It was frozen solid and would have to be chiseled out carefully if one were to keep the specimen intact. It was also one of the same commercial capons that I could get from the Superfresh back home, and as I have subsequently learned with research, commercial capons are “castrated” through hormone injections (not by a deft axe). So you wouldn’t want to feed it to a foodie or a farm family. In addition, the “bacon ends” I bought in lieu of slab bacon ended up being tufted with blue mold, and the closest thing to a pearl onion I could find was about the size of a tangerine with a thyroid problem.

NEPA Garde Manger

The bird was only seven pounds, but it was still a problem when it came to thawing and marinating. The fridge in a NEPA kitchen is always full.  The local grocery store, after all, is twenty minutes away, and during the holidays you want to make sure that you’re well stocked in case you’re snowed in.  Even so, Marge tends to go a little overboard.  For example she has fourteen bottles of salad dressing, many of which are well beyond their expiration date. One year, Ann went through and threw them all out.  Marge seemed appropriately thankful, but as soon as we went out, she went through the garbage and put the bottles back in the fridge. Even after they’re all cleaned out, the Marie’s Bleu Cheese dressing bottles will find new life in the cabinets as recycled glassware. Fortunately, the NEPA family home also comes with a traditional NEPA garde manger, also known as the garage. Given the recent snow, it held an almost perfect 36-38 degree temperature for both thawing the bird and letting it marinate in a magnum’s worth of Beaujolais. (The only french wine I could find. Probably not the best choice, but I have seen recipes use almost any kind of wine, including a Riesling white for Alsace coq au vin).

These are the kinds of challenges I’m accustomed to, the kind that I feel good about solving. I was also prepared for Marge’s electric stove, which usually only had one or two elements that really got up to full temperature.  I had visions of taking the pot down to the basement and McGuyvering something on the woodstove, the way Newt has cobbled together his own custom smoker and deep-fat fryer out back for cooking turkeys.  I mean, if nothing has to be jerry-rigged during the process, it wouldn’t be cooking, would it? But when I walked in to the kitchen, I discovered that it had been thoroughly de-rusticated. The orange Formica countertops were still there, but a new glass induction stove had been set in it.  It looked like something used for making airline food on a stealth bomber.

I should be pleased with this development.  No, I am pleased with this development.  But having a modern stove turned out to be the one contingency I couldn’t work around.  I’ve never actually used an induction stove before.  I didn’t even know if you could use cast iron pots on it.  Would it scratch?  Break?  I remembered something in the Le Creuset instructions about not using pots on induction stoves, though it turns out that’s just for the pottery ones. I also didn’t know what the temperature settings were like. The fact that there was a separate dial for “simmering” probably should’ve been an omen of things to come, but I didn’t pay attention. I was confident after browning the bird that I had it all figured out, because at least there, you don’t need points on a dial:  you just turn up the temperature as high as you can without the steam turning to smoke or without the sizzle turning to spatter. And at that point, the bird was glorious. It was a nice purple-bronze with pale crescent moons from where the bird had rested on top of chopped celery.

But I got cocky.  I had a nice conversation going in my head with Anthony Bourdain, who was commiserating about the local grocery store, and admiring the bird, and so I left him to go take up my other favorite holiday past time, couch-surfing.  By the time I came back to the room, my steadily simmering braise turned into a steady boil. I didn’t bring a probe thermometer with me, so I waited through the recommended cooking time hoping that it was “tender, the juice from the thigh running clear when pricked”.  But the juices were not only clear, they were invisible. There were no juices.  And imaginary Bourdain was turning surly, telling me how 95% of chickens in the country are “clearly the result of insensitive and murderous overcooking by food-hating orangutans”.  I quickly pulled the bird out of the pot and set it aside to cool, but it was too late. Imaginary Bourdain rattled on, like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. (link)

If you can’t properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron.  Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself.  You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks.  Turn in those clogs, too.

I hung my head in shame, but I didn’t resort to hanging.  I left the apron back in Havertown with the thermometer.

The “pearl onions,” also fell short of perfection.  The one thing that struck me as an interesting innovation in the Les Halles recipe was the pearl onions. They were cooked separately in a saucepan, covered with water and a disc of parchment paper rather than a lid.  The parchment paper, I gather allows the water to slowly evaporate away while still keeping the little onions in a sauna so they don’t get dried out.  The onions are supposed to be done when the water is all gone and the onions are thoroughly caramelized.  Throw some red wine into the pan, deglaze and dump the contents into the pot.  But as I said, I had no pearl onions, and simply quartering them didn’t do the trick.  They were still too large, so covering them in water meant too much water.  I cooked and I cooked, but the water never drained fully away.  It made a nice onion broth, which I added to the pot, but there was none of the good brown bits on the bottom of the pan to give the sauce a little extra depth.

Beckett says “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better“. I’d like to add to that “Fail Glorious,” because if you’re going to go down in flames, you should be doing something really ridiculous. But this wasn’t glorious.  This was a run-of-the-mill failure. Edible but a little tough, rich in wine flavor but not much else, just damnably ordinary.

Truth be told, the mission was probably doomed from the start.  I’ve done a little more research on capons since then, and I realize that they are decidedly not a “more authentic” choice for coq au vin.  The whole purpose of coq au vin is to mask the gamey flavor of a rooster with red wine and to let the connective tissue of an old bird simmer down to make a sauce that is thick and glossy.  It’s about turning weaknesses into strengths.  Caponization takes away the very qualities that make braising necessary in the first place. So I wasn’t being “more authentic,” I was just being more expensive.  In retrospect my dad’s coq au vin is more appropriate to the spirit of the dish.  Using all chicken legs gives you all the dark meat and connective tissue that you need.  And while the mix of Charles Shaw and chicken stock may seem sacrilegious, it still tastes like home.

Recipe Here