This Guy Is Definitely A Chef

This is the blog of Michael Laiskonis, the pastry chef at Le Bernardin, a nice little fish joint on 51st St. in Manhattan. Aside from it being a very interesting blog, it is a wonderful example of what separates me and, probably most of you, from professional cooking. Laiskonis’s perspective is radically different. He approaches food from directions I can’t even fathom.

I was reminded of this gulf yesterday when I had a pleasant chat with a friend who was a successful, professional chef. He mentioned that he used to experiment with pairing red wine with seafood, and that it was a difficult feat. It occurred to me that he looked at food from a perspective not unlike that of a scientist. Continue reading “This Guy Is Definitely A Chef”

Pork Ribs: How to Trim Them Like A Pro

It requires very little effort to find good pork ribs. Unlike prime, aged beef, which requires significant effort and, in many cases, a trust fund. The warehouse stores carry good-quality, untrimmed pork ribs for incredible prices. I am familiar with how efficiently freight moves in this country, but it still impresses me that they can get this stuff all over the country, in good condition, and charge less than $2/lb. I am sure that if you wandered around Pennsylvania or upstate New York or Iowa and found an artisanal hog butcher, he would be happy to sell you gorgeous rib racks — just not for $2. That is what is so impressive about commercial ribs; they are almost always really good. But there is a reason for that, and it is called fat. Ribs are cooked at low temperature for a long time, so most of that fat has a chance to melt away, and as it melts it bastes the meat, keeping it moist. The long cooking times also help tenderize the meat and break down the connective tissue and collagen, all of which contributes to flavor and texture. If you take a look at some of the more expensive cuts of pork you will find that most of it is very, very lean. And that is not a good thing. Prime beef is rare and expensive because it is tough to breed and raise cattle that have consistent marbling in their muscles. Marbling is simply fat, but not thick sheets of the stuff; it is beautiful little flecksĀ  distributed evenly throughout the flesh. They just don’t grow pigs like that anymore, except maybe on those little farms I mentioned. So what’s a pork lover to do? Barbecue ribs, that’s what. And not those silly looking (but admittedly sometimes tasty) baby back ribs. I am talking about those big, meaty St. Louis ribs, or spare ribs, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods.

But they come from Costco or Sam’s Club in vacuum-sealed bags that conceal untrimmed racks. That is, the chine bone or cartilage is still attached, and the flap of meat on the concave side is still there too. You can buy nicely trimmed racks at many supermarkets and butchers, but you will be paying a lot of money for someone to trim away perfectly delicious meat. So the trick is to buy untrimmed racks for very little money, and then trim them so they look like the beautiful racks that you see at barbecue competitions.

So I have finally come to the point of this long, drawn out and hopefully not too boring post. It’s easy to trim the racks to end up with perfect pork rib racks and the bonus of the trimmed meat (I call it knuckle meat because it looks sort of like knuckles) that can be cooked alongside the racks and served to any stray children or extra guests.

The first step is to turn the rack over so that the concave side is up. There is a flap of meat attached to the ribs that can be trimmed.

The silvery tissue attached to this strip of meat can be removed. Just wiggle your finger underneath it and separate it from the meat.

The next step is to remove the silvery tissue that covers the ribs on the concave side. It’s the same stuff that you just removed from that little strip of meat, but don’t think you can remove it the same way. Try to peel a corner of the stuff away from the corner of the rib. You might have to use a knife, but try to do it with your finger or something dull because it is surprisingly fragile. Anyway, once you have a corner of it, grab it with a piece of paper towel and peel it slowly and gently away from the bones. Sometimes it peels perfectly, but sometimes it will tear and you will have to find another corner to peel.

I peel this stuff off so that my dry rub has a chance to penetrate the meat and the fat has a chance to melt away. And it looks better too.

The next step is the most difficult one, but the first two were pretty easy, so the degree of difficulty is still pretty low. The only tough part is finding where the bone ends and the cartilage begins. But there is a trick, so don’t despair. Fold the rack lengthwise, and where it folds easiest is the place to cut.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but try to slice on a straight line so everything is pretty. The rack narrows slightly from the end with the large bones (see above on the right side), so don’t be fooled into cutting at too much of an angle.

This is what it should look like. Notice that it isn’t a perfect rectangle, but it’s pretty close. The last step is to chop up the stuff you just trimmed away from the rack. I like to slice it into 1 inch chunks, but anything will work.

And that is it!

Williams Selyem 1997 Russian River Valley Olivet Lane Pinot Noir

This was my last bottle of Williams Selyem, and I am very pleased that it was not completely over the hill. I waited a few years too long to drink this wine, but it has retained a fair amount of fruit without being overwhelmed by that unpleasant, lean structure that I find in older California Pinot Noirs. This was, obviously, a fully mature wine with nicely integrated tanins. That sounds stupid and pompous, but what it really means is that the tanins blended nicely with the other flavors of the wine. It threw just a bit of sediment, and was a surprisingly dark and thick looking red. The finish was nice, although not particularly long. The fruit was disappearing, but there was enough to make this a very nice wine Continue reading “Williams Selyem 1997 Russian River Valley Olivet Lane Pinot Noir”

Robert Mondavi: R.I.P.

I was never a big fan of his wines, but Robert Mondavi’s relentless enthusiasm for Northern California wines was an important driver in the region’s rise to the ranks of wine-making greats, on par with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barossa Valley, Barolo and a few other places on earth.

I remember going wine tasting at his beautiful facility in the Napa Valley and being whisked off to a private tasting by a friend of a friend who happened to work there. We tasted some very nice wines (and one great one), were treated like royalty, and even went skinny-dipping in a local lake.

He will be missed by the wine-making and drinking world, and by the many charities that he supported. But most of all his drive and boundless energy, all focused on making the Napa Valley the best wine-making region in the world, will be difficult to replace.

The Lardo Pizza At Otto

I won’t bore you with a description of a very pleasant evening spent at Mario Batali’s pizza joint in the village. I will rave, but just a little bit, about his simple but delicious pizza dressed with nothing but thin slices of lardo (pig fat), a bit of olive oil and some chopped rosemary. Simple, elegant and very tasty. And don’t get high and mighty about too much animal fat. The slices were quite thin, and just perfect. Tons of flavor but not too rich. Had we ordered a pizza with any kind of meat there would have been considerably more fat on the food.

Okay, one more thing. The service was excellent — professional, relaxed and informed. If you can cage a table (it was packed at 7:00pm), ask to be seated in Lourdes’ area. She made an already fun evening even better.

Ah, Oysters


The Walrus and The Carpenter

Lewis Carroll

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done–
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead–
There were no birds to fly.

Continue reading “Ah, Oysters”

Stadium Food

The bad news is that The Yankees lost. The badder news is that the drinks, in the only publicly accessible bar in the stadium, are so outrageously expensive, for stunningly minuscule portions — in plastic cups — that it was laughable. But the worst news will have to wait for another game and another stadium. The food was actually edible. Not inexpensive, but not bad. Chicken fingers that were actually tender and juicy, a burger that had some real live charcoal grilled flavor, and a stadium hot dog that had a bit of crunch and a pretty good bun. The pizza looked like a cut above the industrial crap that is delivered across the world. I didn’t get to taste any because I was busy watching the Yankees play baseball like it was just another day at the office. It’s going to be a long summer.

The Silliness Of Plant Rights

I think that it is important to respect the lives of the animals we eat. They should be raised as humanely as possible, and slaughtered with a minimum of pain and fear. That is not to say that I reject the incredible advances in food production. I love the fact that we spend much less on food then at any other time in history. And that is a tremendous advantage. Not as much to us first-world folk, but to the poor across the world, who have access to food at prices that were just dreams even a few years ago. People on the margins are alive because of our incredibly efficient food production. Can we do better? Of course. Water conservation, runoff of fertilizer and waste, loss of topsoil, and many other problems have yet to be solved. But I will happily tolerate less-than-perfect living conditions of our food animals if it means that even one human being will not starve.

And I draw the line at respecting the dignity of plants. I just don’t care that a corn plant has been violated, its genetic essence destroyed in a cold-blooded attempt at growing more of the stuff at lower cost. Slaughter every broccoli plant on the planet (that actually happens every year!) and I will sleep peacefully.