Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Braise Heaven!

In winter there is but one glorious, soulful way to cook that surpasses the rest .  And if you know me, I'm talking even more than roasting.  I sing now- the praise of the braise.

For, it's the hearty effects of that slow, steady process of simmering chunks of meat in a heady stock with tannic red wine and root vegetables that can make the most rugged mountaineer swoon in his boots.  If a spicy bowl of chili nips at the heels of your taste buds as it goes down, a braise of tender short ribs or  veal osso bucco kisses and numbs your palette, convincing you to slow the pace of your bites, savoring every last decadent forkful of flavor.

Braised meats were historically the cuts of meat that came from the part of the animal that got a lot of exercise, or contained a level of fat or tissue that was necessary to render in order to get to the prized meat within.  Cooks were not in a position to waste any part of the animal at a time when there was no refrigeration, and so, necessity brought us the classical techniques of salt-curing, smoking, confit and canning to preserve what could not be used fresh.  And what wasn't cooked right away over an open fire required another method of preparation that made the meat both palatable and flavorful (not to mention, chewable).  

Soups are the distant cousin of the braise, but perhaps what gives braising it's most unique distinction is the combination of methods of "dry" and "moist" heat cooking.  We all know that searing meat creates flavor.  And that given the choice between a grilled ribeye steak and a boiled one, we're going to go for the grill.  But, what if a larger cut, like the shanks of lamb or veal are at hand?  The aforementioned fat and connective tissue within these cuts of meat require the "moist" heat, as well, to bring about the signature fork-tender qualities of a proper braise.  Searing the meat first, and then adding aromatic vegetables (such as root), along with earthy red wine, savory herbs and stock, now take the meat to a new level.  
The whole pot is brought to a simmer and covered.  It's then left on the stove or placed in the oven at a low heat to keep a steady, constant temperature.  This is where the moist heat, or steam, takes over.  As the vapor from the braise rises up, it is returned back into the braising pot, retaining the moisture necessary to cook, but also intensifying the marrying flavors as they meticulously reduce.  Sharp garlic becomes mellow, sweet carrots release their sugars, fresh rosemary and thyme  tame the unctuous, gamy nature of these lesser cuts of meat.  And red wine perfumes the sauce (and the whole house) to leave you anticipating the very first velvety bite.

Coq au Vin, Beef Bourguignon, Osso Bucco, short ribs- these are all dishes that apply the combination cooking method of braising.  But, braising isn't limited to meats.  Oh no, no, no.  What vegetables could you apply this philosophy to that would allow flavors to both mellow and texture to soften?  Artichokes and brussels sprouts come to mind, as does braising greens, like swiss chard and kale.  One of my all time favorites is fennel.  The other night for dinner, my wife and I had wild striped bass over braised leeks, fennel and celery with lentils, a very wintry meal for sure.  Searing slightly the fennel (because of its firm texture) in butter, I then added the softer celery and leeks and reduced the heat.  In place of a full on stock, I added butter and white wine, making sure the lid was in place to retain that all important steam element.  Occasionally stirring and checking the texture, the fish roasted in no time, and the lentils sat covered beneath their own earthy steam, waiting for the dish to come together.

After the requisite few hours needed to complete a righteous braise, you can then decide on what to pair with the tender results.  Osso bucco is very often served with risotto- of any kind.  Mushrooms, cheese, herbs, root veggies are all on the "friend" list of risotto.  Beef braises call for a buttery mashed potato with horseradish, say, or farmhouse cheddar, while appley, sweet pork can go with everything from soft polenta (or cheesy grits!  Hell, YEAH!) to hand-made pasta, with a second tier of braising- cioppolini onions.  And then- there's rabbit.  In my blue heaven, there is a large, white, wide-rimmed bowl of freshly made, hand-cut papardelle pasta with rabbit braised in white wine and dry vermouth, scented with parsnips and fresh porcini mushrooms.  *sigh*   Okay, okay- and truffles. 

DRINK:  Man, oh, man- the choices are many.  As a rule, with richer cuts of meat, go for more tannic, earthy wines such as barbera, chianti and chateauneuf du pape.  The more subtle the seasonings, you can delve into the beauties and mystery of burgundy or pinot noir from the north west US.  A clean, dry porter or milk stout could both season a beef braise as well as accompany it at the table.  And the heavenly rabbit of my dreams would become even more sublime with a mature barolo or barbaresco.  (note to self- must EAT before blogging *gulp*)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Steaming Bowlful of Memory

There are certain foods for me that border on the Proustian.  I refer to the involuntary memory flashes that come with a whiff of grassy leeks, pungent fennel or the briny aroma and freshness of a steaming bowl of mussels.

A common fact about taste is that 80% of it is from what we smell when we eat.  Thus, a lame night out would consist of dinner with a head cold or a wine tasting surrounded by guests doused in perfume and essence de Marlboro.  But, the aggressive, vibrant and fresh aromas of steamed mussels can literally turn heads as a deep, crowded bowl of shiny black shells wafts by, leaving your eyes at half-mast and giving the feeling of standing on the dock in summer or nestled into a hard-backed wooden booth at the Union Oyster House in Boston.

My recurring Belgian reverie usually begins with me anchored at the back bar of Monk's Cafe in Philly.  With their five types of steamed mussels, skinny hand-cut fries and accompanying home-made bourbon mayonnaise, they don't get any better or any fresher in a place where every table can be seen with a stainless steel  potful.  With hundreds of beer choices from around the world, I've never spent less than three hours on a meal there, very often four or more.

There are certain ingredients that absolutely adore mussels.  Leeks and fennel are brothers in arms for a more traditional marriage.  Curry and cilantro for a slightly more exotic.  Never is fresh chopped parsley a more crucial finishing touch than when you lift the lid on a finished pot of steamed mussels.  As the vapor rises up through the freshly opened shells, the heady aroma of garlic and aromatic vegetables co-mingles with the precious release of clean seawater picking up the grassy aroma of the parsley and melds it into a dizzying savory steambath.

My grandparents always took us to an American Restaurant down the street in Lawrence Park, PA that was called the Sawmill Inn.  My grandfather religiously ordered the mussels as an appetizer which arrived to the table in a bowl large enough to toss salad.  As we kids dipped our fried shrimp and French fries in cocktail sauce, he sat quietly and savored each and every tender morsel, dunking his crusty bread and sipping his long-neck Reading.

Over the years, I've flirted with the different types of mussels out there to try.  The dense and meaty, almost always pre-frozen New Zealand green-lip kiwi mussels.  The poorly named Mediterranean mussels of Washington State with their incredible almost 1:1 ratio of meat to shell and extraordinarily plump and creamy flesh.  White water, rope-cultured mussels from around Narrangansett Bay in Rhode Island or the often bottom cultured Maine "blue" mussels are in the top echelon of sweetness and flavor.  And the well-known Prince Edward Island (PEI) variety, which rank in my top three for flavor.  Not always the meatiest, but some of the most flavorful you can cook and eat.
Another bonus feature for me when supping on mussels is their versatility as both a meal and an accompaniment, mainly to various beverages.  Mussels au natural cry for cold, fragrant beer from Belgium or France, while mussels in herbs, white wine, butter and lemon sing with a minerally white wine from the Alto Adige or Muscadet.  Back to our curry recipe, dry rieslings are in good company while smoked mussels with dill, shallot and lemon could pair nicely with a dry white sparkling wine.  Bread is almost always in good order, unless you go the Moules Frites route, those skinny, salty fries we talked about earlier that the European community blessed us with centuries ago.

You see, we should take some time to appreciate something as simple yet so sensual as fresh steamed mussels.  They're not fussy or trendy.  They're not expensive or elitist.  They're accessible, delicious and fun.  Why don't more people serve them, I wonder.

Steamed Brussels Mussels for Two
2-3# Fresh Mussels
1 stalk of chopped leek, white portion
1/2 bulb or 1 full stalk of fresh, diced fennel
1 minced shallot
1 minced garlic clove
2-3 oz. good olive oil
2 diced tomato concasse (without seeds or skin)
1 Tablespoon freshly chopped flat leaf parsley (Italian parsely)
1 1/2 cup of dry white wine (or one 12 oz. bottle Belgian wheat beer)
1 cup clam juice

Cooking:  Clean the "beards", or seaweed, from the mussels.  Tap each one and discard those that don't close.  Warm up your olive oil, leeks, fennel, garlic and shallot in a deep pot over medium heat.  As the vegetables begin to "hiss", add your mussels and turn up the heat to high.  Cover tightly for one minute.   Lift the lid and add the white wine and clam juice, replacing the lid to steam.  In about 5 minutes, check to see that the shells have all steamed open.  Toss in the chopped tomato and parsley just before serving.  Serving in the same pot keep the mussels from falling out of their shells and also keeps them hot.  Be sure to ladle the vegetables and broth into each bowl and serve with toasty, warm bread or skinny french fries.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Bold New Direction

Hello world.  It's me.  I know I've been remiss.  If you follow Fork & Cork, I should warn you: we're about to wade into uncharted waters.

When I first started this blog, I struggled with what specific genre I would go with.  I knew that I could blab endlessly about food and wine and hope that someone would read it and get a kick out of it. I also knew that creatively, it would satisfy a need to share experiences and knowledge that if even on the smallest scale, enriched someone's life.  Yet, I subtitled Fork & Cork "a biased compendium of cultural artifacts" for a reason.  I wanted to keep an open door.  I wanted to make sure that if I decided my content had gone as stale as cookies left out for Santa, I would have a fallback.  But in all honesty, I knew I had more to say than how to bone out a turkey and the proper temperature for serving wine.

When I joined Facebook last Fall, I did so reluctantly.  I had read peoples' posts, seen their groups, watched the "silliness"- and I didn't feel left out.  I was talked into joining to get more traffic for my blog- and I did.  But then, something sinister happened.  Facebook began to steal me away from blogging.  It was more immediate.  It was more direct.  It was more engaging.  Suddenly, writing about root vegetables seemed as enticing as giving a lecture on bee pollen.  Twitter is still a foreign animal to me.  I can't fathom a scenario whereby people would actually be interested in what I might be thinking as I enter a public restroom or while I'm watching Spongebob Squarepants with my daughter.

But as I began to put things into focus, I've realized this week that we are dealing with an extraordinarily powerful medium here.

If fast food and casual dining in all their immediacy have gobbled up fine dining as we know it, then FB, Twitter and Kindle stand dancing atop the soft soil of the graves of newspapers, print and television.

Case in point:  One of the most widely followed Twitter accounts (of which I am a follower) is the irreverent Shit My Dad Says.  A 29 year-old single white home-bound guy Tweets the poignant if crass quips of his 74 year-old dad.  It's like receiving a joke-of-the-day.  Yesterday, in a break from that potty humor, he posted this unexpected and sobering sound bite from his dear old dad: "Might not do a damn bit of good, but tell people to donate to Haiti on your twitter thing." TEXT "Haiti" to 90999 to donate 10$"  Meanwhile, The New York Times and CNN reported that text donations for Haitian Earthquake Relief had exceeded $5 million.  That's in 24 hours, folks.  Comparatively, the last major event to come close to such a response from text donations was Hurricane Katrina, which garnered less than 3/4 of a million dollars.  Granted, we're dealing with evolving technology, new media forms and changing cultural mores.  But, we appear to have reached a tipping point on how we ingest, digest and contemplate our most precious information.

I watched a blank screen yesterday as I contemplated what, if anything, people might want to read about in a F&C post.  Lord knows why we get so contemplative at the beginning of a year and not the end.  But, so it is.  And between a seminal moment like the Haitian catastrophe and such cultural flotsam like General Larry Platt's "Pants on the Ground" from American Idol, it occurred to me, "How do we disseminate between what matters and what doesn't?" And suddenly for the first time, I asked myself, "Is any of this blog relevant?"

Strangely, the first adapters of this technology not only appear able to sort it all out, but do so with impressive aplomb.  I read yesterday heartfelt messages of hope, despair, and prayers for earthquake victims, interspersed with shout-out eulogies to one of the greatest soul singers of our time Teddy Pendergass, while a movement to eclipse a mega-takeover of the internet took strong footing amidst posts about where to have happy hour and how to support Asperger's Syndrome Awareness and breast cancer.

In the 1970's sci-fi film "Logan's Run", there exists a technology called "the circuit" in which lonely and seemingly horny adults can peruse a large walk-in screen with a remote control to find themselves a plaything for the evening.  Logan (actor Michael York) surfs the circuit looking for Ms. Rightnow until he comes across a lonely and scantily clad soul (how convenient) who is feeling existential.  And thus, the plot is set into motion:  we are introduced to the plight of futuristic overpopulation and government controlled life expectancy in a post-nuclear isolated bubble city.  With the internet thrown in as play toy.  Shallow plot, gratuitous nudity and a cameo by Farrah Fawcett, this is our future.

It's too familiar to ignore.  It has all the immediacy and urgency, mixed with perversion and boredom we now face as we sit in front of this screen that demands we interact with it.   And interact we do.

If it were a telephone, it would be easier to comprehend.  Information in, information out.  But isn't it the same?  Twitter feels like to me a vast soap box for people to stand on and pontificate from.  It's like a scene from another film,The Life of Brian in which shady prophets compete for airtime in a crowded square.  You can tune it in, or you can tune it out.  But, it's all entertainment.  Or, is it?

If Twitter and Facebook became the method by which we all received our most precious information, we might evolve into a society that adapts to this new medium.  In fact, not only might we evolve into that, but it is inevitable.  As print and traditional methods of media struggle to adapt, a completely unencumbered online community skips merrily along, wirelessly updating their every move leaving others in the pixle dust.

The young have always been the first adapters of new technology, but now we are in the midst of a new revolution that has it's arms fully entangled around multiple demographics.  It's a survival of the most immediate kind.  Example?  How long did it take to get your parents on a computer?  And now your mom is on Facebook.

And so, what about the vast wasteland of television?  Multiple channels trying desperately in an outdated medium to stay relevant.  It's just a matter of time before YouTube is an actual channel, and all of TV is interactive.  A F&C post wouldn't be complete without a swipe at the massive Food Network; and so, what is to come of them?  They deliver food porn; glistening images of food they claim is so easy to make you can make it at home.  Small percentages of brave souls actually give it a shot.  We buy the huge picture books and think,"I can make and eat that?  Yes!"  Not wanting to be left out, the James Beard Foundation puts up four posts a day of pictures from recent dinners with sexy close-ups highlighting everything extreme from lobster cappuccino to ice wine marshmallows.  Granted, they're staying relevant, but in what fashion?  How does a Facebook post help me to think of the spirit of what the JBF is really about?  Or "becoming a fan of cheese".  Seriously.  Lucky for some people on FB there isn't a "point and snicker" button.

I joined Foodbuzz and FoodieBlogs, the two largest conglomerates of food/wine posters on the internet.  (Chowhound and Zagat are huge, but they're forum only).  They're great places to connect with foodies, if you are of the same ilk, but at times it feels like a Star Trek convention:  too overwhelming and they take themselves too seriously.

Yes, we all have something to say.  And we all would like to be heard.  Some just like to listen.  And some have only snarky comments, you know- the dick at the party you're trapped next to who knows something about everything and nothing about anything.  But, it's nice to know, just like when the television came into our lives, if we don't like what we see, we can just turn it off.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

If making an "End of Decade" list was obligatory last month, so too, must the predictions for the coming year and/or decade, n'est pas?  Well not at F&C; I'm gonna skip all that and do a rewind on ya'.  Here, then, are: 
"Ten Things To Do This Year That You Used to Do 20 Years Ago"

10.  Bake Without Using an Electric Mixer- only through non gadgety and non-electrical devices can you appreciate the labor of love that is baking.  Get a nice sturdy wooden spoon, roll up your sleeves and get to work.  You will have a whole different perspective, not to mention a renewed respect for your mom and grandmother.
9.  Make A Salad Dressing From Scratch- A basic vinaigrette contains but two ingredients.  You need only a bowl and a whisk, or even a fork, to make one.  Pick one you like from the store and try to make it at home.  A little citrus, a little herbs, a little Dijon- you're up to the task.  However, resist the temptation to add double the dressing to your salad, just out of proprietary pride.  It takes only a little, so you needn't make alot.

8.  Make a Recipe from a Cookbook, not the Internet- some of you may know that when you Google or search a recipe, the one with the most hits comes up first.  Yet, that doesn't make it the best recipe or even a decent one. has to be the worst search engine there is for finding a recipe.  I'm not saying there aren't any good ones.  But, you've got to have a favorite cookbook lying around.  Pick it up and find a dish you can make.  Prop it open, get the ingredients, open some wine, turn on some music, and make it.  Now- wouldn't it be nice to share it with friends?  It's called a dinner party.

7.  Use an Old Appliance- Do you have an old gift, like, a waffle iron hiding on the shelves of your basement?  A crepe pan or pizzelle maker?  How about a fondue pot or deep fryer?  Clearly, you must still have these because you have hope you may use them again one day.  Well, now is the time.  Along the same lines, I have four margarita glasses shaped like cacti.  The box is YELLOW from being toted around over the years.  Which brings me to my next one...

6.  Have Cocktails Before Dinner- Whether you're out or at home, make a plan to mix up a couple martinis, gin and tonics or negronis before embarking on your meal.  It's a more civilized way of catching up with your spouse or partner before sitting down to the table.  Nosh on some nuts and olives, and make plans.  Talk about vacation even though it's January.  Reminisce about the last decade.  But, stop and smell the Rose's (in case you're having a gimlet).

5.   Don't Answer the Phone During Your Meal- now, let's see how many of you can actually do this one.  With every year you were born past 1980, you stand less of a chance of being able to do this.  If it's a cell, turn the phone OFF- not down, not vibrate, OFF.  If it's a land line, let voice mail get it.  And if you're out to eat, leave it in the car.  The chance of your house catching on fire, the dog running away, your kid breaking the TV or Taylor getting dissed are pretty minimal in a 1.25 hour meal period.  The point is, meals and company are the important stuff.  The rest you'll catch up on when you're done eating.
4.  Dress for Dinner- the people who know what I'm talking about needn't pay attention.  You already do.  The rest of you, put on something to wear when you sit down for dinner that makes you feel like it's more than just a meal.  Only 10 years ago, there used to be restaurants (and a good bit of them) that had dress codes.  Now they're just for clubs.  We've dumbied it down to "as long as you're dressed, it's fine".  Have a little pride and put on a tie, fellas; or, ladies, as my restaurant friend used to tell his new hostesses, "Dress like a hooker going to church."  (true story)

 3.  Drink a Really Good Wine-  You've learned about the different grapes.  You may even know the styles of different regions.  You know what you like and you can find just about any red, white or bubbly you like for $10 a bottle.  Now, go out and double what you would spend on a single bottle of wine. And share it.  If you always drink what you've always drank, you'll always taste what you've always bought.

2.  Pick-Up a Check- Someone has invited you to lunch or dinner.  They always grab the check when it's time to pay.  They invited you as their guest and expect to pay.  Now, pick up the check and tell them, "I've got this one.  You're always so generous- let me take care of this one."  It's harder to argue with kindness than duplicity.  

1.  Hand-Write Someone a Letter or Thank You.  No abbreviations, FFS-and no "text-speak".  Use proper grammar and punctuation.  Get a quality piece of stationary, and write nice things to someone.  Maybe, tell them how good their cookies were, or how you enjoyed having cocktails and dinner, or the unique gift of home-made cannoli.  Sometimes, it's just nice (if extraordinarily rare) to hear from someone you haven't seen in awhile.  It's so much better than, "Killin time here on FB, b/c the DB pizza guy hasn't shown up yet. Whatchoo got?"  Posted from a mobile device, no less.


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