Sometimes when making dinner I have just a little bit of time and the inclination to use it well. This is the sort of food that would normally get the one-plate treatment, but the simple act of approaching and presenting it as a multi-dish meal made it so much more interesting and satisfying than it would have been. Presentation matters, and that intention works to inform the cooking process with more care and attention.
OK, those Cuban sandwiches. First off, I should say that I used to go to Miami all the time; as an art shipper/handler I was there once or twice a winter, even before Basel got started. I’ve had three solo shows in two galleries (at three locations) in Miami, and generally know and like it well. And I think it’s finding its way as a culinary town; the tropical ingredients, great ethnic diversity and a huge influx of money are producing a real food scene. Last time I was there I ate wonderfully, thanks to my hosts (who read this: Hi B & T). They recently sent me mangoes from the tree next to the gallery.
The Cuban sandwich makes a lot of sense. Two kinds of pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard, pressed until melty: what’s not to like? It’s a toasted ham and Swiss with pickles. I don’t eat too many of them when I’m there, though, because I try hard not to eat meat when I don’t know where it comes from. And Cuban bread is white and spongy and I must say I don’t find it very interesting. Pressing it on the grill helps, but I like bread with a bit more character. Solution? Local pastured pork, homemade rosemary rolls, extra sharp Vermont cheddar, and homemade red cabbage-carrot pickles.
A couple of weeks ago a friend gave me a 1968 copy of the first American edition of the Larousse Gastronomique that she found at a yard sale. It’s a mixture of fascinating information and hilariously dated pictures–the color plates are printed with ghastly separation–of the ponderous, baroque platings that were the norm before nouvelle cuisine broke free. Giant roasts, birds, or hams covered in pastry, surrounded by things stuffed with more things, arranged in concentric obedience–it looks positively medieval now, and reveals how far food culture has come since then. It’s true in music, too: the other day “Crazy Train” was on the radio, and I laughed at how the once-diabolical Ozzy now sounds like teen pop, much in the same way that the Ramones practically sound like doo-wop compared to the hardcore that followed them.
It’s not just the presentation from that time that’s anachronistic; the idea of preparing a huge hunk of animal for anything other than a big party just seems silly and wasteful. I almost never buy roasts, since it’s just so damn much meat. Last night the three of us split a beautiful ribeye. Sure, I could have eaten a bit more, but it was the right amount of meat from a health and general consumption point of view. Plate-obscuring steaks for one are an apt symbol of our national eating disorder. But something about the image of a big roast surrounded by vegetables caught in my mind, and got me thinking about a super-traditional Christmas dinner. That, and the presence of a pork shoulder in the freezer, which I had originally bought to grind into sausage. Read the Post X Marks The Spot
For Christmas eve dinner, we went to a party nearby with dear friends. This was a change from our original plan, but fortunately the original plan called for eight legs of duck confit so we were well prepared to arrive in style. The only hard thing about making confit is remembering that you need to do it at least the day before, preferably two. Weeks ahead is actually better, since the flavor improves over time, but it’s not crucial. Besides timing, the rest is almost as labor-free as cooking gets. Read the Post Nice Legs
It’s always exciting to unload a kiln, especially when there are new shapes or glaze combinations inside. Lately I’ve been working to replace all the various things that have sold (thanks, everyone) so it’s mostly been familiar territory. But to keep myself interested, and above all to keep my time at the studio from ever feeling like a job, I try to mix it up a little and do some new and different things on a regular basis. There were a couple of turkeys in this last batch, but most pieces came out quite nicely. And often new shapes and colors inspire me to make something that will sit just right in there, like the plate was made for the food and the food was made for the plate. Read the Post What A Difference A Plate Makes
For some reason, I had a hankering for some wings today, so on my way back from the ceramics studio I stopped to pick up some decent-quality wings, along with celery (I potted and brought in a garden plant of cutting celery as an herb, but needed fat stalks) and some good local blue cheese. Now it’s worth saying that I’ve never made wings in the classic manner before, but it didn’t seem to be too hard. And since I’d gone all day without sitting in front of this damned appliance, I wasn’t about to break that streak by looking up recipes or anything dumb like that. I just got started. And the result? Pretty fantastic.
A few posts back, I wrote about the flavor of caramelized radicchio and how it made an interesting connection in my mind. It tasted remarkably like the wonderful caramelized bottoms of the Roman-style artichokes that I love to make so much. Radicchio and artichokes are both in the sunflower family, so it makes sense that they would have a few flavor compounds in common, but I had never actually tasted the similarity before–probably because I almost never cook radicchio. So I started to think about using them together in something.
What is it that finally pushes us over the edge, and motivates us to try something new? Even when it’s something we’re pretty sure is easy and know is rewarding, it can be a real effort to begin a new venture. I’m speaking culinarily, but it’s true across all the areas of human endeavor. There’s a resistance–a fear even–that keeps us returning to the things we know. I try to overcome it regularly, and this here forum offers some incentive to mix things up and stretch out beyond the comfort zone, but sometimes there’s a long period of time that elapses before things click and I take on a new project. And there’s still more effort required to incorporate the technique into the rhythms of kitchen routine (I’m looking at you, bread-baking) so that the food in question can enter the regular rotation, truly substituting for store-bought alternatives.
In my erratic but still determined progress to outsource less and less of my food production, lately I’ve been dabbling in making vinegar. I first got serious about it when I visited Brother Victor-Antoine in June to profile him for the magazine (profile at the link). His vinegar is revelatory. Seek it out if you live in the area. He sent me home with a jar of mother (mother = a colony of bacteria and soluble cellulose that forms over time and converts alcohol to acetic acid. Acetic acid = vinegar) and it sat in my cabinet until I bought a bottle of wine that had turned to vinegar. At that same time, the biodynamic fruit CSA I had joined started including apple cider in the weekly deliveries. Faced with two half gallons, I could have frozen one, but opted instead to let it ferment. And thus a bad bottle of wine and a good bottle of cider began my zealous experimentation with homemade vinegar.
The rest of the carrot risotto–and the remaining quart of the silky carrot-phở soup that flavored it–became in turn the jumping-off point for another meal that celebrated the bounty of high-quality leftovers: Sicily’s arancini or, when in Rome, supplì. And the tongue pastrami (see previous post) just sealed the deal.
Recently at a market that carries some good local meat I spied a big old cow tongue. I’ve never cooked it, but I have memories of my Grandfather serving it to me on occasion. It always sort of creeped me out; that boiled beef smell and the gray pallor of the giant tongue just didn’t add up to appetizing. I did eat it, and it did taste pretty good–if kind of bland–but I sort of filed it away in the “things old Jewish people eat because they grew up dirt poor in Poland” category and didn’t give it much thought for a long time. So, seeing in the cooler, I decided that I would give it a shot, and do what I could to minimize those qualities that had turned me off it as a child: I would make it into pastrami.