Sunday, June 20, 2010

Further Adventures Sous Vide

After the brisket I cooked sous vide for corned beef and pastrami, I cooked a whole batch of pickled pork tongue the same way – 48 hours at 135º F. Again the flavor was great, but the meat was not as tender as you get from traditional methods of cooking. I diced the tongue and simmered it gently in an adobo sauce, at which point it was really tender as well as flavorful. For both these meats, I think I'm going to bump the temperature up in the hopes of getting a more tender result.

I tried salmon sous vide, holding it briefly at 105º, the temperature at which the fish proteins just begin to coagulate. Imagine eggs just barely set. Not a winner for my family in the texture department, and I didn't taste any improvement in the flavor, so I'm not planning to repeat this one.

Then yesterday I was facing the task of cooking a whole pork loin for a party last night. This was a loin from the first of the super-sows I got from Stan, so I knew it would have a great flavor, but might be a little chewy. With sous vide cooking promising to make it tender, leave it juicy, allow me to serve it medium-rare – as well as leaving my afternoon free for a swim in my friend's pool – I had to try it. So after a couple hours in my smoker to add some flavor and bring the meat up to body temperature, I rubbed on a little mustard and sugar, salt and pepper, and some fresh, minced rosemary and sage. Then it was vacuum-sealed and went into a 140º water bath for the next 8 hours. To accompany it, I picked these red currants from my yard and cooked up this year's stash of jelly.

I really didn't know what to expect when I started carving, but the result of this trial was mind-blowing. Incredibly juicy, tender, flavorful pork, safely served medium rare. Not one person trimmed off the fat around the outside. One guest, who came back for 4 or 5 helpings, said, "I have to tell you, this is the BEST meat I have EVER eaten in my ENTIRE life!" By the time I left, the platter had been licked – and I do mean licked! – clean.

Now remember: this life-changingly delicious hunk of meat came from a mature hog, which is conventionally considered undesirable or barely edible. The animals we send to slaughter are typically juveniles (around 10 months old for hogs), because that yields the most tender meat, and consumers prize tenderness above all else. Until I told Stan I'd take his cull sows, the best he could do is grind the meat up and donate it to a local school. At the slaughterhouse, they all laugh into their Amish beards about such "old" animals and the idea that anyone would be crazy enough to try and do something with them. By making such meat fork-tender, while preserving its deep, mature flavor, sous vide would seem to be the magic technique for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

This was so successful, I now plan to make all my bacon this way: cure it in a vacuum-sealed bag (which should reduce the curing time in half), then "cook" it in the water bath at 140º for about 6 hours, then cut the bags open and finish the bacon in a hot-smoker while liberally basting it. If it turns out anything like the loin (and why wouldn't it, since the belly comes from just below the loin?), this should be the best bacon ever: full of flavor, meltingly tender, and still juicy.

I can't wait to see!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Last month, I wrote about dipping my toes into the waters of sous-vide cooking, which involves sealing food in vacuum bags and then “cooking” by holding them at precise temperature in a water bath. The technique was developed decades ago, but only recently became an established technique in the highest of high-end restaurant kitchens such as The French Laundry and The Fat Duck, and, with the development of small-scale, self-contained machines, is just beginning to enter home kitchens. In addition to the stand mixer, the food processor, the breadmaker, and the rice cooker, you better start figuring out where you’ll find countertop space for a sous-vide “water oven.”

At a cost of $500 for the water oven and $100 on up to $1000 for the vacuum sealer, it’s not gonna happen soon. And frankly, I had a tough time seeing what this technique could do for me that would begin to justify the cost. When it comes to cooking, I’m something of a traditionalist – aka a stick-in-the-mud – and I’m much more interested in keeping things simple and in paring things down to essentials than in collecting shiny, new toys for the kitchen.

Just a few days ago, a bud and I had an entire, foot-and-a-half-long loin of lamb on the bone to eat for dinner. He had run out of charcoal, so we looked around the backyard and started breaking and sawing up branches he had trimmed off his ash trees months earlier. Once the fire burned down, we put a grate on top, set the loin off to the side, covered it, and went back to the serious business of deciding what wine to have with dinner. When we pulled the loin off 15 minutes later, it was a glorious, smokey-honey color, and the taste was out of this world. One of the best pieces of meat I’ve enjoyed in years.

How is all the techno-wizardry of sous-vide cooking going to make my life any better than that?

Two things convinced me to test the waters. One was the claim that even traditionally tough cuts of meat, such as brisket, could be cooked until tender simply by holding them at the desired temperature for longer. After 48 hours at 135º F, the story went, you got meltingly tender brisket that was still juicy – and medium-rare from edge to edge! Sounded too good to be true.

The second thing that convinced me to give it a try were temperature-controllers from Auber Instruments that cost a fraction of a dedicated sous-vide cooker and that allow you to maintain the temperature of a water bath in a Crock-Pot within one degree. Add to this that the temperature controller can also be used to achieve the same degree of accuracy with the Bradley Smoker (whose own temperature control mechanism is both crude and prone to breaking – more to come on this), and I was ready to take the plunge.

So I bought some briskets from Triple S, cured them for several days, and then cooked them for another 2 in my water bath. The briskets lost more juice than I was lead to expect, but that may be because my Foodsaver sealer is just too wimpy to draw enough vacuum. But, as you can see, the meat is still much juicier than you get from steam-cooking and beautifully marbled with fat. It’s definitely not as fork-tender as traditional, steam-cooked corned beef or pastrami, but, by the time I sliced it 1mm thick, across the grain, the difference was negligible. And the flavor is indeed great, so I’m definitely inspired to try further experiments.

Next up, pork tongues, salmon, pork belly, and barbecued brisket – but, don’t worry, not all together!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last Yap

Although this appears as a new post, it's actually my last comment on the previous post. Stupid eblogger has a character limit on comments, so I had to make it a new post instead of sticking it where it belongs. Please feel free to comment, one and all, but I do have to move on. I have 3 briskets from Triple S Farms in the cure, and I can't wait to cook them sous-vide and see if that brings me one step closer to the ultimate pastrami. Stay tuned!

Jason, thanks to Stewart I'd already seen that post about a chef in Oregon head-butting the organizer of a pig cook-off because some of the pigs used in the event hadn’t come from local farms. Wow, talk about giving local foods a black eye!

Seth, while I don’t think opinions posted on a blog are required to meet the same rigorous standards as a news outlet, with editorial oversight, etc., I do try to be accurate and thorough, so I regret the suggestion in my original post that Black Dog had never bought meat from Triple S Farms, and I have owned up to it here and directly to Mike.

But to demand that I take responsibility for errors that you have simply made up or misread into what I’ve written is a little crazy. You say I “call[ed] Mike a slacker and a LIAR.” Care to cite one shred of evidence for this irresponsible claim?

As I’ve already said, giving the barbecue at Black Dog a score of 6 out of 10 is not an attack on anyone’s “work ethic,” and it certainly doesn’t translate into a letter grade of a “D-“ as you claim. A 60% on a test might equal a D-, but that’s only because 0% to 59% are all lumped together as one grade, an F. That’s actually a five-point scale, whereas I’m clearly using a ten-point scale.

So a 6 would translate instead into a letter grade of C+/B-, which, as I said, is not at all bad for $5, not at all bad considering that the restaurant is still new, and not at all bad considering, as I said, that my scale is based on all the barbecue I’ve sought out between Chicago and Clarksdale. If having points of reference outside of Chambanoy is enough to “come off as snobby,” I think that’s more of a reflection on the provinciality and insecurity of my critics. My ambition has never been just to blend in with the pack and to Yelp in unison. As Mike indicates in his comments, high standards are what keep you from settling for anything less than the best you can do.

Nor do I ever call Mike “a LIAR.” Instead, I report honestly that my server told me that Black Dog was buying pork from Triple S Farms, and I reported, honestly, that a number of people I know were under the impression that a significant portion of the meat on the menu came from local farms. As Jason spells out, since early coverage of Black Dog emphasized the local meat story, it’s not surprising that this impression could persist after Stan’s meat was no longer on the menu.

So is it “dogging it” for an employee to say that the restaurant is still buying meat from a local farm, when, in fact, it hasn’t bought any in six months or more or is it simply an honest mistake? I dunno; I admit I hadn’t done the research to give a definitive answer – and that’s why I posed it as a question instead of making it an accusation.

Seth, it’s not “misinformation” to report accurately what you were told and to point out the limits of your information. My information was limited, I admit, but it was not “misinformation.” The only point on which I was misinformed was in thinking that Black Dog had never bought meat from Stan, when it turns out they hadn’t bought very much and none recently. Readers can decide how big a difference this difference makes. In any case, I regret the error.

If you want to know what misinformation looks like, look no further than your accusation that I “call[ed] Mike a slacker and a LIAR.” Now that’s a perfect example of irresponsible extrapolation and “dangerous misinformation . . . intended to do damage.”

Instead of calling Mike a liar, I appreciate his honesty in setting the record straight and saying, “The percentage of locally-raised meat we use is low,” even while he wishes it were higher.

You claim I “botched the whole Mike-fucked-over-Stan-with-an-order part of the post.” First of all, I never said anything so boorish. Second, what I reported is that Stan had some meat custom processed for Black Dog, and by the time it was ready to deliver they no longer wanted it and Stan was stuck with it. I know, because I finally took the meat off his hands. Anyone can ask him, and he will tell them the same; Stan’s that kind of forthright guy.

If Mike doesn’t remember this incident, I’m confident that he’ll follow up, ask Stan about it, and try to make it up to him if he was at fault. He sounds like that kind of guy. Seth, if you’re so confident it never happened, can we assume that you’ve done some basic legwork and at least talked to Stan? Doesn’t sound to me like you have. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I immediately followed up with Stan about his initial collaboration with Black Dog, and he supplied further details about why he feels “burned” by the whole experience.

In short, Seth, the things that you accuse me of – being “boorish” and irresponsible, being so overconfident of my own interpretation of things that I don’t bother to do “an ounce of research,” and putting out “dangerous misinformation . . . intended to do damage” – all seem to be more true of your comments here than anything I have written.

If you feel like you understand me, declaring that you “suffer the same problems,” maybe it’s because you treat me like a screen on which you simply project your own problems. Illuminating, perhaps, but not in the sense you intend. It’s like a clip out of America’s Funniest Home Videos: watching a dog go a little crazy, barking at its reflection in a mirror of its own making.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Black Dog Doggin' It?

Dogging it
: "Working slowly or just pretending to work, when supposed to be working; particularly if others are working their fair share." (Urban Dictionary)

In all the years I've been writing about local foods, I have consistently declined to do restaurant reviews. It's just too small a town, and people are too thin-skinned. Find any fault with how someone operates, and, instead of appreciating a little constructive criticism, they are setting your inbox aflame, telling you never to darken the doors of their establishment again. Criticize someone's favorite eatery, and it's like you've dissed them personally.

In addition, after 35 years cooking and a brief stint working under a chef who was recently up for a James Beard award, my standards for both food and service are pretty high. Which means that I'm almost always disappointed at what you get for your money when you eat out. Order a steak medium-rare and have it delivered to your table way past well done. Politely send it back and have a replacement sent out 40 minutes later, after everyone else in your party has finished dessert and is fidgeting to leave. Wait staff who are rude, incompetent, or simply ignore you. Who needs the tsuris?

The last restaurant meal I thoroughly enjoyed was at St. John's, in London, more than a year ago. So I spare myself – and everyone else – the aggravation and eat at home, and eat pretty well too, even when I eat very simply.

But since the old Todd & John's re-opened as a barbecue joint, more than a year ago, people have been telling me that I HAVE to try it. Some friends even raved about it, saying they would eat there ALL THE TIME if they could. But there have been detractors as well, telling me they thought the food was nothing special. But it was suggested, darkly, that people would say that to me just to curry favor and that, if I hadn't tried it myself, I must be scared of the competition or at least of the comparison.

So, today, when my bud Perrigi and I had a ton of mulch to unload and 5 tons of compost to pick up, we did what real men do – when they're dogging it: we went out for lunch first. Perrigi hadn't been to Black Dog either, so we gave it a try. I tried the Burnt Ends from their brisket, which most people had mentioned as the best thing on the menu. The sandwich I got was not disappointing, exactly, but it was remarkable just how little flavor the meat had. I'm willing to believe that it was beef, but it had less real meaty flavor than Stan Schutte's pork. And despite the dramatic claim of being "burnt," they had almost no smoke flavor at all. Just a whiff of spice and smoke. The only real flavor came from the sauce, which was fine. But sauce does not make the barbecue. At best, the flavors complement the meat while acid in the vinegar cleanses the palate and leaves you hungry for more; at worst, it covers a multitude of sins in the meat or in the kitchen.

Since the menu claims that their briskets spend 12 hours in a wood-fired smoker, I'm at a loss to understand how the final result could be so bland. Pleasant, but bland. Last week, I sampled the best barbecue I could find between here and Memphis, and this was definitely a couple notches below that. And the best barbecue that Murphysboro and Memphis had to serve up was a notch below what I enjoy at home. And I don't claim to be anything more than a barbecue beginner. I think it's simply the case that if you start with great meat and do your best not to screw it up, the result will be better than just about anything you will find at a restaurant.

So, again, I'm not necessarily disappointed with the food. For $4.99, my meal was perfectly acceptable. You can certainly pay more and eat worse in town. Still, if I had my druthers, I'd pay twice as much for one of Farren's wagyu burgers any day.

What is both disappointing and a serious concern is the claim I keep hearing that Black Dog buys its meat from local farmers. This is simply not true. So today, at lunch, I asked our server if they bought their meat from local farmers, and she replied, "Oh, yes, we do buy some!" This she quickly qualified by saying, "We try to buy what we can." And, when pressed, "I know we get some meat from Triple S Farms." When I last talked to Stan Schutte and asked how much meat he had sold to Black Dog, his terse response was "ZERO." The closest he came was having them order some meat from him and then back out and leave him hanging when it was time to take delivery. I don't have any problems with places buying conventional meat and doing the best they can with it. But it is a problem if they are buying cheap, conventional meat and then misrepresenting it as coming from local producers. One bite will tell you different.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Fat Duck Cookbook, by Heston Blumenthal

Originally released as the Big Fat Duck Cookbook (and selling for the enormous price of $250), I recently got ahold of the plebian version of his cookbook when it turned up on the shelves of my local library. As much as Heston Blumenthal’s 3-star cooking is firmly grounded in the latest scientific understanding of the elements of food, the end results are more of a synaesthetic fantasy. In other words, it’s an enormously fun read, but the food is not something anyone in their right mind would be tempted to recreate at home. Here’s a taste:

“The first opportunity to try out what we talked about came in October 2006. Moët & Chandon were honouring Nick Knight with a masked ball at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival villa, and he invited me to provide canapés. Nick had created a dream-like set-up, with fencers in one room and what appeared to be a leopard pacing through another. We turfed one of the rooms, ‘planted’ lime trees, set up a tape loop of English summer sounds – the buzz of wasps, pastoral violins, Richie Benaud’s cricket commentary on a distant radio – created by my friend the DJ and producer Matthew Herbert, and wheeled in an ice-cream van and a couple of handcarts to serve up black-and-white slush puppies (renamed Dalmatian puppies) and a sundae with vanilla and strawberry ice cream garnished with black olive and leather purée. There were sorbet-pink balloons filled with helium and cut-grass oil; each was stamped with the words ‘SUCK ME,’ and when people did, the room was filled not only with squeaky voices, but with another classic summer aroma.

“There was also a camping stove serving up Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, but the real magic featured in the presentation of chewy sweets with edible wrappers… Occasionally, too, the guests crowded round the camping stove would be amazed to see a tail-coated magician pluck a petal from a rose, drop it into a frying pan and toss it until it turned into an egg, whereupon he cracked it into the pan, which he then handed to a chef who used it to make ice cream …” (121)

For all of you hoping that I might try to emulate some of these feats of legerdemain for this this year’s Lar-B-Q, I’m sorry to disappoint. Food is fun, and the Lar-B-Q is always leavened with a fair amount of silliness (I am working on a bacon bourbon caramel popcorn for this year’s event), but turning food into a circus act, sideshow, or freak show (honestly: leather purée?) is so not my thing. Blumenthal is fascinated by the science of cookery and, for a little, light, bedtime reading picks up a hefty catalog of laboratory equipment to stimulate his dreams of new culinary creations.

While I share his fascination, my bent in the kitchen is all in the other direction. He is driven to create dishes that are ever more refined, more elaborate in their production, and more reliant on the latest scientific technology. In my cooking, I’m increasingly interested in returning to basics and seeing what can be done without electrical gadgets – with a mortar and pestle, with fire, with my own senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste.

This contrast in cooking styles was brought home to me, as I brought Heston’s book along with me on a trip this past weekend to Memphis. Mention Memphis to other people and they might think of Elvis, Graceland, and Sun Records, but Memphis makes me think of barbecue. Although we were lucky enough to score tickets to hear Nora Jones at the grand, old Orpheum theater, we preceded that with a pilgrimage to the shrine of Memphis barbecue: Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous restaurant. (The dry-rubbed ribs were nicely spiced and almost as good as mine; the pulled pork from the shoulder was dry and disappointing.) The day before, making a mere 60-mile deviation from our route, we sought out the 17th Street Bar and Grill, in Murphysboro, Illinois, whose barbecue team had won more top awards in the Memphis in May competition than any other team in history. The ribs here were also very fine, with just the right touch of fruitwood smoke, but still not as good as mine.

(I don’t mean to brag, since the superiority of the ribs I cook at home is not necessarily a reflection on any skill of mine; there’s only so much magic a restaurant can work with the sad material that commercially-produced pork has become.)

Barbecue is about as basic, as elemental, as cooking can get. Dig a pit, make some charcoal, cook the meat in the smoke of the charcoal, slow and low, until done. In many ways, the simpler, the cruder the setup, the better the barbecue. It’s the antithesis of Heston Blumenthal’s “laboratory,” where he cooks up his food. And yet. And yet. As I chewed on the tougher, connective tissue in the pork shoulder and ribs, I couldn’t help thinking that even a tradition as venerable as barbecue might still be improved, that some cross between Heston’s high-tech and barbecue’s low-tech might yield the tastiest ribs, pulled pork, or brisket ever.

Specifically, the technique of cooking meat sous-vide or in vacuum-sealed bags has enormous potential for breaking down the tougher, connective tissues while never taking the temperature of the meat beyond medium-rare and drying it out. Can one have juicy, meltingly tender ribs that still have the crunchy exterior and deep, layered flavor of traditional barbecue? That would be the holy grail!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

This Little Piggy Went Running Instead of Going to Market

I was bummed when I realized that the first farmers' market of the season was going to be on the same Saturday as the Illinois Marathon – but probably not half as bummed as my friend Lisa who manages the market and had to deal with 15,000 people running rings around it, effectively land-locking it or car-blocking it.

Since the race started at the same time as the market, I had to choose between getting my hands on Prairie Fruits Farm's goat cheeses and Blue Moon Farm's spring greens or running 13.1 miles in the brutal, warm, muggy conditions of central Illinois. That was a no-brainer, and if I wasn't crazed enough by the start of the race, I was pretty well brain-dead by the end of it.

Still I achieved all of the lofty goals I set for myself: 1) don't die, 2) finish the race, and 3) break the 2-hour barrier. I cut this last one pretty close. My running buddy and I kept up a good pace until about mile 11, when the sun came out, my brains were baking in my head, and my heart announced that it was just about outta here. So I turned my running buddy loose and walked for a couple blocks, while I persuaded my heart to stay inside my chest. Then I started jogging again, and at mile 12 I was able to start running again, and when I got to the football stadium and saw that my time was 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 30 seconds, I gave it everything I had and sprinted across the field to the finish line. Beat my goal by all of 3 seconds. That's a .04% margin. Cutting it so close, I guess you could say I ran a cabinetmaker's race.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Blogging Blues III

Someone once told my father-in-law how to decide if he was ready to take up sailing. "Put on your best blazer," the guy said, "and then go down to the bank and take out your life savings in $20 bills. Go home and stuff the bills in every pocket of your clothes. Then get in in the shower and turn on the cold water. When you're completely soaked and chilled to the bone, start pulling the bills out of your pockets as fast as you can, shred them into little pieces, and stuff them down the drain. Do this for at least five minutes, and then ask yourself, 'Is this fun? Am I having the time of my life?' If you answer 'Yes!' then you're crazy enough to take up sailing."

My experience of blogging has been a lot like that. You put in countless hours and dollars to create a blog that is something more than an artificial vanilla, blog-in-a-box, like this eblogger site – you put your heart and your soul into it – and then some hacker comes along and f's it all up. So you invest more time and money you don't have, you rebuild the site with updated and supposedly more secure software, and within weeks a "rogue script" starts running on your site, bringing everything to a screeching halt. Now we're facing the task of moving the site to a new hosting service and rebuilding it – one – more – time.

Maybe it's more like the absurd comedy in Monty Python's
Holy Grail, where the King of Swamp Castle explains to his son how he built "the strongest castle in all of England": "When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. –But the fourth one stayed up!"

So are we crazy to try and build something on a "swamp"? When forces in the world are always at work, blindly tearing down whatever we create as fast as we can build, are we crazy to keep trying to produce something of some small bit of beauty or utility? Probably. But what other choice do we have? I had it drummed into me long ago (back in grad school) that the world may not be worthy of our best work, but what other choice do we have than to continue to offer it, to give our best? Because the alternative is to resign ourselves to a world without beauty, without craftsmanship, without even small bits of work – a garden in spring, a neatly painted wall, a well-stitched seam, a nourishing meal set before us – that are well done. And who wants to live in such a world? As ee cummings wrote, "if and when roses complain their beauties are in vain," then "l
ife is not worth dying."

These reflections remind me of another quotation, by Albert Camus, that I pondered while living in a garret apartment in Paris. Meditating on the question of how we go on living in the face of the ultimate injustice that is death, he concludes that we need to live our lives precisely so that
death comes as an injustice rather than, say, our just desserts. Ultimately, I think that's why we go on creating, making, blogging: to protest against the waste of our better gifts, to try and leave things a little better than we found them.