What’s Good, And What Isn’t?

I got slapped around a bit, in a good-natured way, by another, funnier, blogger. I was trying to walk the fine line between telling him that his taste in coffee sucks and making the point that at a certain quality level, everything is about personal preference. I was wishy-washy, and he called me on it. But it got me thinking about personal taste versus objective quality. Tommy (the blogger) used the fine example of steak. Peter Luger makes good steak. Arthur’s Tavern? Not so much. Although it is a fun place, at least the one in Hoboken. And his point was that if you are going to recommend a steak house to a bunch of friends who like food, you aren’t going to send them to Arthur’s, you are going to send them to Brooklyn, to one of the temples of steak.

But what about obviously well-made foodstuffs that just aren’t good…to me? My father loves French wines that, while well made, taste like pencil shavings and dirt. But that is the style, so who am I to criticize? Actually, one of my favorite hobbies is poking fun at all things French, so maybe that isn’t a good example. How about pizza? I love pizza — every style, every oven, every dough. But if I want thin-crust, bar pizza, I’m going to Kinchley’s Tavern. Are there other places that make a good bar pizza? Of course. And I am sure that someone will argue that my taste in bar pizza is infantile and un-American and that I probably wet the bed.

So what is my point? I am not sure. I think that quality and personal taste intersect somewhere, but that there is obviously a place where stuff is just crappy, and no amount of personal taste can overcome lousy quality. Does anyone remember Set Theory? That would help.

Oh, and as long as we are talking about objective quality; MP3s are awful, when compared to CDs. Their only advantage is the compression that allows you to put lots of music in a small space. But the sound quality is really pathetic. I just listened to the same song twice — once recorded as an MP3, and then the original on CD. Try it, you’ll be amazed.

The Salt Of The Earth (And The Sea, And The Volcanoes?)

Salt is salt. I have never bought into the pompous crap that is spewed by some famous food writers and even many chefs that special ingredients are, well, special. If Chef Arrogant’s chicken recipe doesn’t taste damned good with supermarket chicken, there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to try it with artisanally raised, organic, new-age, beer-fed, massaged, free-range chicken (at $5.95/pound!). So when my local upscale supermarket realized that it had to compete with Whole Foods or risk failing, it brought in lots of silly ingredients like 17 different cuts of ostrich meat and stupid-sounding special salts . . . like Hiwa kai Black Hawaiian Sea Salt. I bought some (and its relative, Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt) because it was on sale and I thought that it might look interesting on scrambled eggs. I then promptly forgot that this stuff was in the kitchen.

A few nights ago, at a loss for anything remotely interesting to cook, I punted and grabbed a couple of nice-looking steaks. Because it was snowing, and I am becoming weak and cowardly when it comes to the weather and grilling, I decided to drag out my trusty 8-pound cast iron pan. I had a goofy thought that the black salt might look good on the steak, so I tossed a pinch onto the meat. Actually, I tried to grind it up in the palm of my hand, because the grains are quite large and I thought that it might not spread evenly enough to salt the steak correctly. All that did was stain my hand black. Hot cast iron pan, nice steak, three minutes on each side. What could be better? Well, add Hiwa kai Black Hawaiian Sea Salt and it becomes much, much better! And, at the risk of irritating my wife, who has silly notions that profanity does not belong in any writing, it pissed me off! How dare a silly, pompous, pretentious — I am running out of deprecating adjectives — ingredient actually make a difference! And the wost part is that the Alaea Hawaiian Sea Salt, which is sort of a weird, dark-pink color, made Hanukkah’s roast chicken extra special. I am embarrassed. I can no longer feel superior to the worshippers at the altar of “fresh, seasonal and expensive.” What’s next? Free-range broccoli?

Fat, Fat And More Fat

One of the drawbacks of duck is the immense amount of fat that commercial ducks have under their skins. Wild duck is a different story, and if any of you have the opportunity to try wild duck, you will see what I mean and you will be in for a treat. Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, I am roasting ducks for Thanksgiving and am in the process of aging them. But I trimmed much of the extra skin (and fat) away from the carcasses and was left with more than one pound of duck fat and skin. What to do? My grandmothers knew what to do with this stuff, and I am nothing if not derivative. So I cut the skin into little pieces and rendered the whole mess. Rendering is simply gently heating the fat and skin until the water evaporates, at which point, you are left with duck fat and duck skin. I poured off about a pint of fat, and now I am browning the skin in the remaining fat. In Yiddish, the crispy bits are called “gribenes,” and in English, I guess “cracklins” is the best word. Whatever you want to call them, just make them and, when they are nice and crispy, drain them, sprinkle a bit of salt over them and enjoy!

For the health nuts among my many readers, duck fat is highly unsaturated (at least for an animal fat) and certainly more healthy than butter. And if you want to pan-fry potatoes, there is nothing better.

Oil/Fat Mono-
Saturated Cholesterol Smoke point
  % % % mg/Tbsp °F
Hazelnut 78 10 7.4 0 430
Olive 74 9 14 0 375
Canola (refined) 58 36 6 0 400
Goose 57 11 28 11 375
Duck 49 13 33 11 375
Peanut 46 32 17 0 440
Lard 46 12 40 12 375
Chicken fat 45 31 20 11 375
Palm 37 10 50 0 428
Clarified butter 29 4 62 33 300
Corn 25 59 13 0 450
Soybean 24 58 15 0 495
Sunflower 20 66 11 0 440
Cottonseed 18 52 26 0 420
Safflower 12 75 9 0 510
Coconut 6 2 87 0 350

What Foods Go With A Chill In The Air?

I have never understood what makes some foods worthy to be eaten during the summer but shunned during the colder months. I am a big fan of grilled steak, and I have, on occasion, grilled during snow storms. And one of my favorite dishes is braised chicken with root vegetables, a recipe that I invented (invented?) and of which I am quite proud. But my lovely wife will have the vapors if I so much as whisper “root vegetables” between June and August. What’s the big deal? In reality, since most people are more active during the warm months, we should eat more substantial fare, otherwise we will waste away from lack of fuel. And to respect our more sedentary lives during the dark, cold winter, we should all eat bean sprouts and lean turkey until Memorial Day.

Turkey? Not So Much.

Turkey is boring. It is the Soylent Green of the food world. Right up there with bologna and that mystery meat they served you at school. So, the arrival of Thanksgiving, with its attendant turkey-gorging imperative, doesn’t thrill me. But I have found a remedy for this obsession with large, boring, flightless fowl roasting. I cook duck. But not just any duck. I have happily co-opted my friend Jim’s recipe for roast duck. Actually, it is more like a guideline, because he really is a chef and assumes that I know what I am doing in the kitchen. It begins with rinsing the duck and scrubbing it with kosher salt, inside and out. Then, and this is the weird part, he insists that the duck be aged in the refrigerator for several days. Now, I am quite familiar with aging beef and have attempted it several times with varying degrees of success, but aging a duck? Of course, it works wonderfully, and when I figure out the best way to roast it after this bizarre aging process, I will faithfully report back. I am torn between low temperature for a while and then a quick high-temperature blast to crisp it up, or a high-temperature roast that requires constant attention because of all of the quite flammable duck fat oozing from every pore of the duck! They both work, but which is better? I’ll give you my impressions on Sunday, after I eat the duck that sits peacefully in my refrigerator.

Garlic: Good And Bad

I would cheerfully eat garlic at every meal. Raw, sautéed, in sauces, roasted with oil and spread on good bread, and my favorite, cooked gently in olive oil and tossed with pasta. Yes, I know, this will sometimes make me smell like a large walking clove, but I’ll put up with the social rejection because it tastes so good. I remember making a dish of penne with garlic and cauliflower (odoriferous in its own right!) and realizing after I finished the entire batch for lunch that I would be sitting next to another human being at work for the next several hours, in a small office, training him on a new system. Ouch.

I usually buy only one bulb at a time. I haven’t found a source for really good garlic, and I dislike the typical green-cored cloves that I routinely get. The garlic isn’t particularly fresh, and it is beginning to sprout, so I will cut the clove in half and remove the green sprout. But it still leaves me with a clove that is a bit stronger, and sharper, in flavor than I would prefer. I was spoiled when I lived in California, less than 100 miles from Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. The bulbs that I bought were dense and firm and were not dried out, and they did not have any of the browning that I find typical of garlic grown on the East Coast. The garlic itself seemed sweeter, with less of the pungency that most of us are used to. I am sure that top-quality garlic can be found, and if anyone has a source in the New York area, I will be in your debt if you would share your secret with me.

Pop Pop Pop

My wife has been nagging me to do a taste-test of microwave popcorn versus conventionally popped popcorn. I have a sneaking suspicion that her true motivation is to participate in the test. She likes popcorn so much that I think she goes to movies just to eat the popcorn. I find movie-house popcorn to be disgusting. Of course, I eat it, too — there isn’t anything else to eat, and I can’t sit for two hours without eating something.

I need more than one subject, so I am going to enlist our thirteen-year-old and a few of her friends. A lousy movie and several bowls of popcorn? What could be better? The problem is the brand of corn and the oil I will
use for the conventional popping. I have an old friend who claims that bacon grease is the Rolls Royce of popping fat. And I have a small quantity of rendered duck fat that is very tempting. But I think I will stick to corn oil or canola oil. Something neutral, so the test is fair. Any suggestions for the brand of popcorn? Orville Redenbacher makes both, and I am sure that a few of the big players do, too. But what about quality? Does anyone have an opinion?

The Best Burger Doesn’t Have Be Expensive…But Sometimes It Is

One of the best hamburgers I have ever had was the Original DB Burger at DB Bistro Moderne. I went to this restaurant knowing that I was going to order this monstrosity of a hamburger. $29 for a burger? Shocking. I also knew that it would be obscenely overrated — probably some weird Gallic interpretation of a glorious American dish. And that I would be able to smugly criticize Daniel Boulud, the New York Food Scene, everyone who has ever ordered this burger and said it was good, my wife for suggesting the restaurant, and even the passersby on the street while we ate.

My plan worked perfectly until I actually started to eat. To my horror, the burger was spectacular. Not just good, but in the pantheon of burgers. It is actually a combination of short ribs, ground prime rib, fois gras, with a hint of truffles. The bun has parmesan cheese in it. That’s just not fair! And the fries were pretty good, too. So what could I do? I had to cleanse my palate of this trickery. I sought out the other end of the hamburger spectrum. I went to Hackensack’s claim to fame,  White Manna. Less than two bucks for a double cheeseburger with sautéed onions. I ordered three of the little buggers. And guess what? They were great! And small. And completely different. I would call them sliders. But they were the equal of Daniel Boulud’s creation.

So, I have examined each end of the hamburger price curve. What about the middle? That would be the excellent burger at Porter House, in Park Ridge, New Jersey. Completely unlike the White Manna slider and the DB…thing. This is a simple, grilled burger, but it is made with good quality beef and served on a bun that isn’t six sizes too big for the burger. Cooked correctly (rare or medium-rare is the only civilized doneness) and served with some good fries. A classic dish, prepared very well.

The moral of the story is simple. There is no logic when it comes to hamburgers.

Fried Shoes Are Probably Good To Eat

I have never encountered a food that doesn’t benefit from a quick dunk in hot oil. The usual suspects are fantastic. Potatoes, clams, every vegetable (onions are tough to do well) I can think of, even Snickers are great. I have been told that fried Twinkies are a culinary joy. What about fried fish? One of my favorite foods. And if you haven’t had a deep-fried hot dog, you have not lived life to the fullest (try Hiram’s in Fort Lee, New Jersey). The list goes on. Beef is fantastic on the grill, but Fondue Bourguignonne, which is really just fried beef  with a nice dipping sauce, is pretty spectacular. I remember reading an article about a famous restaurant in France — I think it was Lesperance — whose signature dish was fried fois gras. In the article, the author quoted a woman diner who giggled to the chef that the little morsels of fois gras reminded her of an orgasm, at which point, the chef said, “Madame, where do you think I got the idea?”

Making simple fried foods, like french-fried potatoes, or potato chips, or deep-fried chicken, is easy. For that matter, most fried foods require very simple technique. I can think of a few that are tough, like the potato puffs into which you stuff caviar. They are fried twice, and the slices of potato have to be the perfect thickness to puff up. I have made them, but only by mistake. Most are straightforward and require only the correct oil, a big enough pot and a thermometer.

So what’s the problem? There are two, actually. Frying has the potential to make a huge mess. Ignoring the small possibility of a fire that will quickly race out of control and burn your house down . . . your stove, anything on your stove and the floor around the stove will become liberally coated in a layer of frying oil. The other problem? That fun and exciting aroma of crisp french fries just out of the oil will become extremely overpowering and unpleasant after several minutes of standing over a hot pot of oil. And walking away (don’t slip!) won’t do much. Unless you have a restaurant quality vent hood, your whole house will smell of frying.

And yet I keep doing it. Because a perfectly fried potato, or a crunchy-on-the-outside but tender-and-flaky-on-the-inside piece of cod, or a crispy, juicy chicken leg is great food. Plus, for all of its mess and smell, it is easy cooking that is tremendously rewarding. If you want to impress your kids, make them french fries and cheeseburgers. Or if you want them to move back in after college, make chicken nuggets, but with real chicken.

Frying technique really is easy, and if you want to minimize the mess, you could spring for one of the covered rotating fryers that Delonghi makes. The only trick is finding good recipes for batter. Most of them require some ingredient that adds volume to the batter so it is light and fluffy and crunchy. I have used beer, baking powder, yeast, and seltzer, and I am sure that there are a few others. Another trick for potatoes and other starchy foods is to fry them twice. The first time at low temperature (250°F), and then, after the food has drained and cooled, fried again, but this time at a high temperature (360°F). I also soak the freshly cut potatoes in cold water, changing the water a few times to get rid of some of the starch. It seems to make them crispier. If you try this, don’t forget to dry them carefully before you plunge them into the oil.

The Joy of Cooking is a good source for basic frying recipes and technique. And, once you become confident that you aren’t going to torch the house, try something that hasn’t been done before . . . but I am kidding about the shoes.

Forget Oysters; Who First Ate A Steamer?

Everyone jokes about who ate the first oyster; and that is a good question. Oysters are a bit…odd looking, certainly compared with a piece of steak or a carrot. But steamers are even stranger looking. At least an oyster looks like a plain old rock until you open it. Steamers look like aliens in their natural state! But whoever that brave soul was: thank you, thank you, thank you. A clean, perfectly cooked bowl of steamers, or long-neck clams, or piss-clams, or Ipswich-clams, or whatever they are called in your neighborhood, is easily the top of the clam pecking order. Yes, I know, clams don’t have beaks, but steamers have that nose (snout?), so it isn’t a completely tortured metaphor.

I cooked a dozen or so steamers a few nights ago and they were glorious. I don’t know if it is because they were particularly fresh, or I purged them in salt water (this has my vote) for a few hours before cooking, or I cooked them perfectly. What I do know is that they were wonderfully sweet, with just a bit of saltiness. They were firm but tender, certainly not mushy or chewy. They were simply great. And preparing them couldn’t be easier.

I started with a big bowl of salted water. I tried to replicate the salinity of the ocean, so I made it with 10 cups of fresh, cold water and 3 ounces of salt (that makes a 3.5% solution). I dumped the clams into the water and stuck the bowl in the refrigerator for a few hours. The clams purged themselves of most of the mud and sand, so when I cooked them, they were wonderfully clean. And cooking them is simply steaming them in a pot with about a cup of fresh water. I let them steam for a few minutes after the water began to boil. Then, I took the clams out of the pot, poured the liquid into two cups, added a bit of butter in each, cut up a baguette, and feasted. Dipping the bread into the broth is about as decadent as eating can be. This was the first time that I bothered to purge the clams, and I think that it made a big difference. Some recipes call for corn meal, as well as salt water for purging, but I am not sure that would add anything other than a mess.

This is an American dish, specifically from New England, although they are popular as far south as Maryland. Supposedly, the British eat steamers, but I have never seen them there, or for that matter, anywhere in the world but here in America. So, my many international readers, you are out of luck. But the exchange rate is great for you, so zip over here for a bowl of some fantastic American steamers — you won’t be sorry.