Asian Slaw–who’d’a thunk it?

It’s been a good week for food. Especially eating. On Thursday (my memory doesn’t extend back further)(you know how that is), the Food Bank of Western Mass held a fund-raiser at the Blue Heron. The theme this year was street food—American, Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Greek.

It was pretty good—roast lamb from the Greek stand. Chicken skewers from the Indian stand–dark meat chicken, thankfully. So what if they are higher in fat than breast. By the time you finish cooking breast meat, it’s like Styrofoam. Dark meat has some fat in it. It bastes itself. It tastes juicy. Just don’t eat seven pounds of it and you’ll be OK. That’s the advantage of skewers, anyway. Great cilantro chutney, fresh and green tasting.

Wasn’t as fond of the pho, despite the oxtail broth and the plethora of add-ins. But the pork belly was delicious. Sarah, using her mix of poise and humanity, got the server to ladle on some Asian slaw that was somehow hidden in the back. Yet one more thing I’ll have to chalk up to thanking her for.

That slaw. Like a mix of savoy and Napa cabbage, finely shredded, sauced with tastes of sugar, salt, and ginger. It was the best of its genre I’ve ever had and I spent some time getting Lisa Ekus’ team to try it, hoping they had the influence to get the recipe or at least the technique.

No luck so far, so today I’m getting a Napa cabbage and digging through my cookbooks and the net for as many recipes as possible. How long to marinate the cabbage? Salt first? Fish sauce or not? I have to know. Summer is coming and I want that recipe in my pocket.

SALTED: A Manifesto by Mark Bitterman

I first met Mark Bitterman at a food writer’s conference several years back. He gave an impromptu salt tasting that introduced me, and perhaps many of the writers in attendance, to artisan salts. At the time, I remember not being able to taste much difference between the various salts and commenting that the flake and crystal structure seemed to be the dominant characteristic.

After 304 pages of nothing but salt, I see that I was on the right track. Bitterman is a tireless advocate and, if sometimes his metaphors soar into the fantastical, well, chalk it up to exuberance. His case against table salt and Kosher salt is convincing—it is easy to see them as the white bread of salt—and he argues against over-salting largely in favor of salting at the table so the salt becomes a textural as well as seasoning element. There is a section on salt and hypertension which I think focuses too much on providing the numbers instead of distilling them into something more easily digested. But then, to those for whom salt is a poison, nothing in this book is really going to change their minds.

For the rest of us, Bitterman covers pretty much everything you need to know about salt. There are chapters about the history of salt the mineral as well as the seasoning. There is a section on artisan saltmaking that is fascinating. Who knew that all those salt ponds you always see in pictures of the Brittany coast were set in descendingly lower elevations, so that the brine will flow naturally at high tides into the settling ponds where the organic materials settle out first. Much of the differences in salts can be attributed to the amount of trace minerals left in the finished product (as much as 15%) and the rest to the shape of the crystals.

Fleur de sel forms on top of the pond, while sel gris settles to the bottom where it picks up a trace of the grey porcelain clay that lines the French ponds. Fleur de sel (flower of salt) has a flat crystalline structure while sel gris is grainier, more akin to wet sand. Sure, I knew that, but what I didn’t know was that the final ponds were as shallow as ¼ of an inch so that some skill is required to rake the floating crystals. He covers fire-evaporated salts, traditional salts, quarried salts, and hybrid salts that are smoked or have various flavorings, such as charcoal, saffron, or truffle incorporated. There is a section on industrial salt to make his point against the standard table and kosher salts. The Japanese, as you might imagine, have developed their own precise and unique techniques for evaporation of brine.

The middle section is filled with descriptions of various artisan salts, including a quick reference guide with pictures. Here is where you can look up that salt that someone gave you after a trip somewhere. You’ll find good descriptions of the salt and its story as well as suggestions for its use. You’ll also find some flights of fancy in the descriptions of its taste. Who else but Mark could come up with as many different and vivid descriptions of an essentially white product—raindrop, partially melted paraffin, flamingo dander, dry oyster-shell, and gemstone of silvery white and milk—that are immediately clear and precise?

The final section provides recipes that showcase various salts. I haven’t had a chance to try them yet, but they are appealing. Since I happen to have a dozen or so artisan salts I’ve acquired over the years, I have been able to make some good comparisons and see why a Malden flake salt might work better on a salad than a grainy Celtic sel gris. The Hungry Ghost bakery, in Northampton, sells pretzels into which black salt crystals have been incorporated and, aside from the color which is striking, it is clear that that is the right salt for the task as opposed to say, a red Hawaiian alaea. Once you get past the unpleasant memories of crunching pretzel salt, you’ll appreciate the softer crunch of these salts.

For those fortunate enough to have a Himalayan salt block, there is a chapter on its care and use, with recipes. What could be more dramatic than cooking an egg or two over salt, or serving sashimi on chilled salt blocks? For those even more fortunate to have a Himalayan salt bowl, there is a chocolate fondue recipe that you won’t want to miss. The heated bowl will keep the fondue hot for as long as it takes to finish it.

In fact, for anyone who is interested in cooking, this book is a must. Of course, if you do read it, you will immediately run out and get some artisan salts, so if you’re thinking of giving Salt as a present, include a few. Bitterman and his wife sell a large selection in their At The Meadow stores in Portland, OR and NYC as well as by mail order. Locally, Cooks Shop Here has a good selection.

As far as I can see, the biggest downside to knowing this much about salt, is how disappointed you are when your favorite restaurant offers only table salt to complement their fresh ground pepper.

Salt: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes, by Mark Bitterman, Ten Speed Press, $35.

Rose32 Bread – Wow!

Having a meal with my friend Bob Page involves a discussion of the meal at hand as well as all the meals we’ve eaten and all the meals yet to come. From sausages and Lebanese food in Worcester, to Italian and Atlantic seafood in New Jersey, to Mexican food in Colorado, he’s eaten everywhere and remembers it all.

So, over our second to last meeting (coffee at Northampton Coffee), the talk turned to Ware and the surrounds. I’ve been working there on a long project and spending two or three days a week in town. I told him about the Asian restaurant I discovered on 32 (Asian Gardens). We’d covered Lazar’s subs (get the chicken kabob sub with lettuce, tomato and feta and make sure they toast it) and the Salem Cross Inn when the talk turned to Hardwick. He’s already turned me on the Robinson Farm, raw milk, beef and veal, and now cheese (Robinson Family Swiss, a specialty) when he mentioned this bakery in Gilbertville, a part of Hardwick closest to Ware. Five minutes from downtown Ware on 32 North. He said the people had been specialty bakers in California before relocating to Western Mass. We agreed to meet there for lunch.

The bakery is Rose32 Bread. I’d expected it to be housed in a converted building and to be a little funky like such things usually are. First surprise. A new building, on the site of an old garage according to Bob, it was clean and modern and new. The parking lot was paved, there were tables outside, and inside…

Well, all I can say is Bob undersold it. A bakery case filled with various cakes and tarts (peach or mixed berry tarts, coffee cake, and more). Beside it, a set of pastries (cinnamon buns, croissants, cheese or apricot Danishes, cookies, and slices of some of the cakes. Behind the register were woven baskets filled with baguettes, rye breads, levain, cibattas, and more. An espresso machine to one side and a breakfast and lunch menu.

The servers are friendly—two of them asked whether I wanted coffee while I waited for Bob. I got the chicken pot pie and a cheese Danish. Bob got the curried chicken salad sandwich. We each got a Jalisco Mandarin soda (with pure cane sugar, imported from Mexico) and sat outside in the sun. The Danish was a flaky pastry dough wrapped around a mildly sweetened ball of smooth whipped cheese. It was dusted with powdered sugar instead of glazed with an apricot jelly like it would have been in New York and instead of a yeast bread for the pastry, it used a croissant-style dough. It was crisp outside and soft and buttery inside. The cheese was adult sweet, which meant that it was sweet but tasted more of cheese than sugar. It was fantastic. Bob’s standard is the croissant, plain or chocolate, and I understand why.

My chicken pot pie was a soup bowl of white meat chicken cubes, red potatoes, carrots and peas in a gentle and creamy sauce. A disk of flaky pastry topped the dish. It was lightly seasoned, and though hot sauce, salt and pepper were available, I didn’t want to interfere with the cook’s interpretation. I eyed Bob’s sandwich, thinking I ought to at least try the chicken, but he was having none of it. For the first time I can remember, our meal revolved around what we were eating rather than everything else that was available out there.

I would have gotten some of the rye bread, but Sarah has two loaves of bakery bread at home, so I tabled that for a future visit. I took home a cheddar and green onion biscuit, a peach tart, and a slice of coffee cake for Sarah, and got some chocolate cookies to drop off for Oscar, Soren and Phoebe. Bob said the cookies were a specialty—when the owners first came to town, they used to bring the cookies to pot-lucks where they vanished before pretty much everything else. Sarah’s verdict was similar to mine. She liked the tart the best. These people are clearly professionals.

Rose32 Bread would be a hit anywhere, but in say Northampton, it would cost half again as much and you would miss that shiver you get when you find a little gem in some out of the way spot. It’s closed Monday and Tuesday and open til 3 on the weekends and it’s worth a detour. It’s that good.

Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts

Roast vegetable season, at least oven roasted, is nearing an end. Once I clean the grill and check the propane, grilled vegetables will begin with roast asparagus. (Gas, I know, but during the week it is incredibly convenient.) However good they are, I’m getting a little tired of roasted root vegetables, even Brussels sprouts.

We used to steam them but for me they were always overcooked and sulphurous. Sarah and I would have endless “discussions” about the topic. She likes her food generally more well done than I do and, well, it can be a trial. However, once I started roasting Brussels sprouts, that particular argument was over. There is no better way to cook them.

The technique is pretty simple: wash a pound of Brussels sprouts and let them drain well. You want them as dry as possible. I cut off of the root end and slice them lengthwise down the middle. Unlike roast potatoes, you don’t need a heavy pan for them, so I usually put some tinfoil on a baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 425.

Put the sprouts in the baking pan and mix them with a little olive oil—2 or 3 tablespoons. I try to keep them face down to start. Don’t worry about the leaves that fall off. Leave them in the pan. They will crisp up as the sprouts cook and become an incredible delicacy. Put the pan in the oven and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the sprouts after 15 minutes or so. If necessary, let them cook five minutes longer. If the rest of the dinner isn’t ready, you can turn off the oven and leave the pan inside for up to 15 minutes.

Serve sprinkled with a good fleur de sel. The leaves, which will look almost burnt, have a caramelized taste and crisp texture that is irresistible.

Chestnuts? Well, for this New York boy, the smell of roasting chestnuts is always Autumn in New York. Pretty much every Thanksgiving, I buy a pound, use my patented Lamsonsharp chestnut knife to cut a circle around each nut and bake them for 40 minutes or so alongside the turkey. If I am smoking a turkey, as I usually am, I sometimes put them on a tinfoil tray in the Weber and let them go there for a couple of hours.

Then, of course, you have to dragoon everyone who is hanging around the kitchen stealing scraps to help you peel them while they are hot. You have to get the brown membrane off as well and that is usually stuck in the brain-like folds of the chestnut. Pretty much everyone is exhausted by the third nut and I am left to do the rest. They don’t mind eating them, of course, but peeling, that’s another story.

I tried Italian dried chestnuts, but they are not quite the same thing. Ok in stuffing perhaps, but you never get that sweet cooked taste of a roasted chestnut. Marrons glaces? Well yes always, but they are a sweet snack. (However, if your girlfriend sends you for them in the middle of the opera, well, you know it’s over. )

So, when I recently got a box of Roland products for me to test, I made sure that it included a jar of chestnuts. Mostly, I knew Roland for its canned mini-shrimp and other Chinese style cans and jars of sauces. But they seem to be making a big push to expand into other areas and part of that includes giving me some free samples to play with.

So I did. Sarah insisted on keeping the chestnuts separate last Thanksgiving, just in case the jarred products tasted foul. I sautéed them in butter and let people add them to the Brussels sprouts. It wasn’t particularly successful, though I confirmed that the chestnuts themselves tasted fine. No off tastes, good texture, good flavor.

So when I got some more just recently, I had no qualms about adding them directly to the Brussels sprouts. I cut about half the jar, about 4 oz., into quarters and added them to the sprouts when I mixed them with the olive oil. Wow. Great roasted flavor without the peeling. Some of the pieces ended up pretty well done, so the next time, I’ll add them about 10 minutes in.

And I’ve got half a jar to play with. I’m thinking to put them on a tinfoil tray over indirect heat in the grill for about 20 minutes and adding the chopped chestnuts to a grilled asparagus primavera. Autumn and Spring. I’ll let you know.

Jerked Pork and Snow Iris Shoots

I was going to talk about last’s week’s rain and floods but after the disaster in Japan they are quite beside the point.

So, I will simply note that it’s been warm and relatively dry. We have snow irises peeking up, the first sign that, yes, the earth has decided that summer will come again. For the first time in months, there are no basketball games, so I had the morning free enough to hit the local Farmer’s Market.

I picked up some hothouse greens, some maple syrup, and, helpless before the two freezers of meat, some shoulder lamb for some Indian food later in the week. I wanted to make some jerked pork wraps, with some arugula and tzatziki, but I had to settle for the greens. Sarah was taking young Oscar to a basketball game and I was thinking something spicy and easy. It turned out that Sarah, Oscar and his friend Noah all had dinner, but it’s a fluid situation, weekend planning.

Looking for a copper pan the other day, I found a cast iron frying pan in with the pans under the cooktop. I put the pan under the broiler to heat, then added some Pinchos Morenos (boneless pork ribs cut into cubes and marinated with curry, cumin, garlic and some other spices). It came out so well that I’ve been looking for other similar dishes for the other half of the package of ribs. Hence the jerked pork. It’s not grilling, but it’ll do for now.

Jerked Pork

1 lb boneless country ribs
4 scallions
1 knob of ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 serrano pepper (or more, to taste)
Couple of dashes of Worcestershire
A couple of tablespoons of orange or lime juice.
Tzatziki (1/4 cup of yoghurt, half a seeded cucumber, diced small, and a clove of garlic, mashed to a paste)
6 wheat tortillas or other wraps

Roughly chop the scallions, green and white parts, into a small blender container. Grate the ginger into the container. Roughly chop the garlic and serranos and add to the container. Add the allspice, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, and Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper to taste and grind to a rough paste. If you need it, add a TBS or two of orange juice to keep the mixture moving. It’s a Martha Stewart move, but a good one.

Slice the ribs into long thin strips. Mix with the paste in a bowl or ziplock baggie. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or put the ziplock on a plate and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Heat a cast iron frying pan two inches from the broiler. When it is hot, add the marinated pork. Broil the strips, turning every couple of minutes until they are done to your liking. Heat the tortillas in the oven.

Serve as wraps, with arugula or salad mix and drizzled with tzatziki. I had some pineapple chutney, so I smeared that on the wraps for a touch of sweet.

Free Will, the American Hero, and The Adjustment Bureau

OK. So the Chairman has a plan which involves controlling the lives of everyone on earth. There is a lot of rewriting of the Plan, which involves some leftover storylines getting in the way of the current edition, which is where The Adjustment Bureau comes in. They meddle in various lives, discounting any pain they may cause, in the furtherance of the Plan. It’s all very allegorical and, wait, very Phillip K. Dickian. (Dickensian?).

[Spoiler alert—if you haven’t seen it and are still capable of being surprised by a plot like this, be forewarned. Details will be revealed.]

Based on a story by Dick, which bears a passing resemblance to the movie, the movie has the standard layers of Dick’s reality, the “apparent” reality in which we live, the “real” reality which is under the surface, and the reality that our heroes create by penetrating the first two. With john Slattery running around in a Mad Man outfit and the very corporate hierarchy of the drones, uh angels, who make up the Bureau, it is a sad view of the meaning of life. The Chairman keeps revising the Plan. Humans can’t be trusted with the Plan (in 1910, after the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions, humans were given control of their lives and look at the mess they, we, made). David Norris, the hero, played by Matt Damon, is an up and coming politician who is scheduled to become President, if he doesn’t fall in love with dancer Elise Sellas, played by Emily Blunt. If they get together, their love will be enough and Norris will lack the drive to become president and Sellas will end up teaching dance to six-graders instead of becoming the world-class choreographer she is destined to become.

But Norris and Sellas refuse to simply be part of the Plan. They seize control of their own destiny with the help of a friendly angel and ultimately cause the Chairman to revise the Plan yet again. At last view, the iPads on which the Plan is illustrated show their lifelines moving into blank territory, like the maps of 14th Century Europe. Norris proclaims that without Sellas nothing seems worthwhile, which pretty much destroys the Bureau’s view of humanity and pretty much invalidates their actions.

They run for it and, once again, American individualism triumphs, this time over God’s plan. By simply refusing to accede, our heroes demonstrate that free will belongs to the ubermench and uberfrau who can wrest it from the angels. This is, perhaps, even more disturbing. The American story is that the individual who goes off on his (mostly his) own, outside of society and usually the law, is the true hero.  Daniel Boone, Lethal Weapon, George Bush.

I don’t know what is worse—the lack of free will in favor of the plan of a diety who keeps revising the ending or the idea that the individual’s actions are not only above the law but apparently, above God’s law. Dirty Harry meets Ayn Rand with a little Christian fundamentalism thrown in for good measure.

The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry

A review of a book published in 2007 hardly qualifies as a review. It’s just that I was so looking forward to reading the book. I met Kathleen Flinn at a conference last year and I was impressed by what she said and how she thought. I talked to her after her panel and, like I said, I was eager to read her book.

So eager, of course, that it took me a year to pick it up. It is the story of her diploma from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (there are several these days). Around 2003, Flinn was fired from her middle management position in London and, with the encouragement of her then boyfriend, decided to fulfill a dream and attend Le Cordon Bleu. This book is her story.

It was hard for me not to compare it to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, about the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Ruhlman attended the school with the full permission of the CIA, intending to write about what it took to graduate with a two-year degree. In our conversation, Flinn said she decided to write about her experiences shortly after she began the school, but kept it to herself until after she graduated. Ruhlman’s book focuses on the transformation students go through in becoming professional chefs. He is fascinated by veal stock, by the characters of the instructors and by the education itself.

Flinn’s book intertwines her class work with her growing attachment to the man she will ultimately marry. Many chapters end with little life lessons drawn from her class work or her boyfriend that comment on each other. I do not know whether she intended it that way or her editor felt that the book would sell better that way, but it began to feel more about relationships than food. One episode will illustrate my point. Learning to make soufflés, she recalls Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina’s fallen soufflés. A woman happy in love burns the soufflé, says a helpful baron. A woman unhappy in love forgets to turn on the oven. She turns her oven on the minute she gets to the kitchen. A talisman not an authentic act.

On the other hand, Flinn is a “real” student. She is committed to finishing the course and to getting the degree. Le Cordon Bleu is not the CIA. The CIA trains professionals. It is a college. The students at Le Cordon Bleu range from professionals in training to those who simply want to learn to cook for their own purposes. When Rulhman tells his instructor that because of a forecasted snowstorm, he won’t be at class the next day, the chef replies that it’s OK, he’s not a real chef anyway. Ruhlman, of course, makes sure to get there. When Flinn’s impending wedding means that she won’t graduate with her class, she chooses the wedding.

And returns to the school for the third section, Superior. Married, two-thirds through her education, and increasingly comfortable and competent in the kitchen, the third section sings. There is more kitchen, more cooking, more of the details that you want and need in a cooking memoir. The narrator focuses on her work. She has the time to look at her fellow students and see a little more deeply into who they are. Her relationships with her instructors have a quiet and studied bond. In short, it becomes the memoir I wanted.