Where Oh Where Did The Great Tomatoes Go?

Everyone waxes poetic about the glories of family farms, sustainable agriculture, locally grown produce, blah, blah blah. While I am happy for the residents of Manhattan who can afford the $5 peaches at the Union Square Market, I am curious how the less well off among them will be able to eat a healthy diet purchased from hip farm stands and organic pig growers.  The fact is that most people can’t afford to eat the kind of stuff that Alice Waters pontificates about at every opportunity. Luckily, capitalism has created an incredibly efficient food distribution system that gets us our food very quickly and cheaply. Some of it is very good, and some of it? Not so good. Like tomatoes.

When I was working in Northern California I had a colleague who had just been moved to the Bay Area from Bakersfield, in the heart of the Central Valley of California. He and his dad grew tomatoes in the hot, dry weather that they have for oh, 360 days each year. One weekend he went back home and on Monday presented me with about 2 pounds of home grown grape tomatoes and a few beefsteak* tomatoes. I remember thinking that it was a very nice gesture and stuck the bag in my desk, thinking no more about them. When I got home  I fired up the grill and made a vinaigrette for the tomatoes. I thought I would nibble on a few tomatoes until the coals were ready for the real event of the evening; a big steak. I never got to the steak. I never even cooked the steak. I ate an entire bag of grape tomatoes, certainly the best tomatoes I had ever eaten, and maybe one of the best foods! I used the vinaigrette for the first couple but didn’t bother after I had tasted these incredibly sweet, flavorful little bursts of delight. The beefsteaks were just as good for lunch the next day. I picked up a fresh baguette in the morning and sliced the tomatoes onto the bread for amazing sandwiches.

Why can’t I get tomatoes of similar quality at my local supermarket?  Lots of reasons, but mostly the vagaries of modern transportation and farming practices, and the fact that tomatoes are fragile, and the good ones don’t lend themselves to bouncing around in a refrigerated trailer for 60 hours. I am lucky because I have access to farm stands and locally grown stuff during the summer, but I still can’t get anything like what my friend Jim gave me.

Whatever your feelings about corporate farming and, for that matter, capitalism; some fresh fruits and vegetables just can’t be produced for mass consumption without a huge drop-off in quality. And, unfortunately, tomatoes seem to be to best example of this flaw.

*Jim just e-mailed me to tell me that they were not beefsteak (he says they suck!), but Better Boy. According to him they are the best there is! And a short growing season to boot.

Coffee and Martinis: A Ritual

I have been accused of being a bit compulsive when it comes to a few things, but my coffee-making ritual is “Rainman-like,” or at least that’s what my wife claims. Of course, watching her make martinis is like watching Nomar Garciaparra between pitches (sorry about the baseball reference).

But there is real pleasure in rituals that lead to such wonderful things like a great cup of coffee or a perfectly shaken, ice-cold martini. I am sure that there is a machine that will make a cup of coffee that is indestinguishable from, or maybe even better than, the coffee I make for myself every morning. But it wouldn’t taste as good, nor give me the pleasure, that my coffee gives me (freshly ground Peets Coffee beans, freshly boiled water, in a rinsed filter paper in a heated Mellita cone). Perhaps ritual is too strong a word . . . perhaps it’s the process that becomes an integral part of the enjoyment. And that’s part of the pleasure of cooking — the process that leads to great meals, or just a pleasant dinner with friends. Sometimes, the process becomes unpleasant, because of time constraints or overly complex recipes that turn cooking into a mad scramble for arcane ingredients and an insane juggling of three pans, a pot, something in the oven, and a cutting board full of ingredients.

It is our job as cooks to grab that pleasure and avoid the grind of churning out overly complicated, tediously cooked meals that may taste great but ultimately will turn us away from the simple joys of hanging out in the kitchen with friends, lovers or sometimes alone, having fun making something good to eat.

Marcella Hazan: “The Classic Italian Cookbook”

We are incredibly lucky that modern technology( the internet) has given us access to millions of recipes on tens of thousands of cooking web sites. From The Food Network to The New York Times (sorry, I won’t link to them) to the newest cooking blog, er, iamnotachef, we can get it all. But being able to read 1,500 recipes for Ossobucco Alla Milanese doesn’t help, it hurts. Trying to wade through all of that information; sifting through the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between even the great recipes can be maddening. And at $14/lb. for veal shanks, I would prefer to get it right the first time.

That’s where great cook books come in. And not by great chefs (usually), but by accomplished cooks who can also write. I am being a bit provocative, but there are probably more great chefs than great cook books. Luckily, Marcella Hazan is one of those lucky few who can cook up a storm and then write about it. Her food is simple yet elegant Italian cooking. Nothing jarring or cutting edge. Everything is good. But it is her prose that sets her apart. Here, from her introduction, is a comment about pepper.

“Ready-ground pepper is one of those modern conveniences that  keep giving progress a bad name. Why it exists I do not know. It is certainly no more work to twist a pepper mill than to brandish a shaker, but there is an enormous difference in the result.”

And her recipes are just as good. They aren’t complicated, and when some technique is required, she won’t surprise you halfway through the recipe. She is an unabashed lover of Italian food and conveys that feeling in every one of her 250 dishes. It is a wonderful book for beginners looking for an excellent primer, as well as for more skilled cooks looking for some classic Italian recipes. But it is just as good on the bedstand as a wonderful read.

Brining: A Big Bang For Your Buck

Brining is a very simple and useful way of getting lots of flavor into meat. You know those award-winning pork ribs that you can’t quite duplicate at home, even though it should be straightforward? The secret may very well be that the ribs were brined. And for great roast chicken a quick brining is fantastic. The technique seems to work well with pork and poultry. Aside from corned beef I can’t think of any reason to brine any other meats. It just doesn’t seem…right. Of course tomorrow I will find a simply incredible recipe for brined porterhouse (I doubt it, but anything is possible).

I think that brining may reach its ultimate expression with big thick pork chops. A quick brine and then a sear on a very hot grill, followed by 10-15 minutes on a cooler grill with the lid closed is pretty much the best way to cook them. If they are really thick, and they should be, I will tip them up onto the bone for the slow part of the cooking.

I use an 8:1 ratio of water to salt and brown sugar, and usually toss in some fresh thyme if I have it and several grinds of pepper. But any flavor that can be extracted by water will get into the meat. So go to town! however, I limit the brining to several hours. Any more than that and the meat tends to get too salty, especially ribs.

As for why it works, or what it does? I could guess, but I would rather just enjoy those juicy pork chops that are grilling as I type this.

To Grill, Or Not To Grill (Chicken that is)

Everyone has grilled chicken. And everyone has failed, at least a few times. Who hasn’t opened the lid of the grill to find little chips of carbon where your beautiful free-range chicken used to be? I got tired of tending the grill and having to deal with the constant flares of burning chicken fat, the skin stuck to the grill and, worst of all, a mouth full of dried, charred chicken.

Obviously, I am talking about high-temperature cooking, otherwise known as grilling. But, the trick to great chicken is simple — low-temperature cooking. I don’t mean the traditional low-temperature, long, indirect cooking that is the backbone of great barbecue. What I am talking about is a modification of barbecuing that allows the chicken to cook to perfection without drying or, even worse, toasting.

I start with the chicken cut into serving pieces. I usually cut the ribs out of the breasts and then cut each breast in half if they are large; otherwise, leave them whole. Trimming excess fat seems to be a good idea, if not for the cooking process, than certainly for my waistline. And that last bit of the wing? Clip it off! Who eats that?

The next step is what makes this dish work. I use my basic barbecue dry rub to season the chicken. Any dry rub will work; it doesn’t have to be traditional. As long as the rub has some sugar in it, you will be successful. Just put the chicken in a 1-gallon ZipLoc bag, along with your dry rub, and shake away! Make sure that the chicken is completely coated and then stick it in the refrigerator for a few hours to as long as a day.

Cooking is simple, and it doesn’t require constant tending. Just heat your grill to about 250 degrees. Most grills have 2 or 3 burners, so use just one of them. If you are using charcoal, pile it up on one side of the grill. Then put the chicken pieces anywhere on the grill except directly over the burner that is on. I try to keep the chicken as far away from the flame as possible. It’s okay if the pieces touch. Close the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes. Check how it looks, flip the pieces, and cook for another 15 minutes. Repeat. Total cooking time should be 45-60 minutes.

The sugars will slowly caramelize and create a nice crust. The meat will be amazingly juicy and tender, and most of the fat will have rendered. The nice thing about this technique is that if you cook the chicken for an extra 5 minutes, it won’t burn. If you want the chicken to be even crispier, just turn up the heat for a few minutes and open the lid. But be careful, that is the kind of cooking that ends by ordering a pizza.

I haven’t written a more formal recipe because it is difficult to make a mistake with this technique. I have varied pretty much everything and it has still turned out well. Just don’t cook over direct heat, and don’t cook at too high a temperature and you will be happy with the results.

A disappointment

I dabble in the fine art of aging beef. I have neither the knowledge nor the equipment to do it correctly, but I have, on occasion, come close to those wonderful, minerally, intensely flavored steaks that the best steakhouses will sometimes dish up. And I had high hopes for the thick, bone-in strip steaks that I had aging in the refrigerator. They were about 2.5-inches thick, which is, at least for my palate, the optimum grilled steak thickness. I like my steak rare, and I haven’t been able to get a nice char on thinner steaks without overcooking them. These steaks looked like they had aged well, losing some moisture without becoming too dry.  I served one plain and one with lemon and olive oil. They were cooked correctly, but they just weren’t “beefy” enough, and they were missing that special flavor that I have only tasted in aged beef.

It is possible that the raw material simply wasn’t good enough. But these steaks looked pretty good! Nicely marbled and a rich medium red color. I have had excellent results with meat from Costco and the local supermarkets, and I have been hoping that the aging is the most important part of the process. One of the intractable problems is that the best aging occurs in large cuts, before they are sliced for cooking. I don’t have a band saw for cutting an entire porterhouse into manageable portions, so I have to make do with the pre-cut stuff. And three weeks of aging of a single portion will yield a completely dessicated, inedible waste of time. Am I stuck?