Archive for the ‘Food’ category

Pantry Sniffing

July 4, 2014

With a h/t to a valuable science-Twitterer and all-round good guy/researcher, Jonathan Eisen, here’s something for the curious among us to aspire to when next you contemplate cleaning out your larder:

Kew mycologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Martinez-Suz have discovered three species of mushrooms that are new to science in a commercial packet of dried Chinese porcini purchased from a shop in London.

Joannes_Fijt_-_Mushrooms_-_WGA08352

Who knows what species lurks in the bowels of cupboards?

The mushroom-hunters know!

With that, I’ll announce my very scattered return from my  off-grid mountain fastness. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been looking at to the exclusion of paying attention to anything any right wing asshole has to say:

Shasta from Inspiration Point June 29 2014 edited, small

That’s Mt. Shasta from Inspiration Point in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

You won’t, alas, see much difference from my total absence to my likely near-complete silence going forward:  I’m desperate to get a big project done before the next equinox and I find if I try to organize my thoughts around the midden that is our politics right now, I lose whole days to rage.  But I’ll try to show up, and even more, to offer the occasional chewy post.  For now, though — random bits of the delightful weirdness of the world are all my style.

Happy Fourth, all.

Image: Jan Flyt, Mushrooms, first half of the 17th century.

 

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”

Mary_Cassatt_Woman_Reading_in_a_Garden

The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.

Jan_Steen_-_Feast_of_the_Chamber_of_Rhetoricians_near_a_Town-Gate_-_WGA21727

She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Self Aggrandizement Alert + Some Kitchen Goodness In Aid Of A Friend

December 18, 2012

First — a head’s up to another one of my internet-radio conversations.  Tomorrow at 6 p.m EST I’ll be talking (live!) to David George Haskell.  David is a biologist teaching at the University of the South.  He blogs here, but the proximate reason for the interview is the publication of his book, The Forest Unseen.

The Forest Unseen is simply one of the best natural history cum science books I’ve read in years.  David’s concept — in less adept hands it would have been a conceit — was to take a single meter-in-diameter patch of old growth forest and visit it over the course of a year.

Paul_Cézanne_-_Interior_of_a_forest_-_Google_Art_Project

From those visits to what he called “the mandala” he drew essay after essay, pretty much all of them built on the idea of making a practice out of observation.  Most of the chapters in the book begin with a single point of entry into the life of the mandala, and then Haskell’s writing flows and leaps as he finds his veins of connection.  Along the way, quite gently, he leads his readers into an increasingly sophisticated understanding both of natural history side of things:  what’s there, what’s happening in that patch of forest (and through that one little scrap of land into the beyond, of course); and of the science involved, ideas from biology and ecology.  You learn a lot — I did — and it’s not until much later that you (I) realize just what a rich lode of fact and concept we’ve just taken on.

In all, a really worthwhile book — not a bad choice, if  I dare say it, to stick in somebody’s stocking in a few days.  (BTW — for more on the project, check out Jim Gorman’s article from October, published in the Grey Lady.)

Now to the kitchen goodness.  Fair warning:  what follows is a plug for something a good friend of mine is trying to do.  If you aren’t into knives, kitchens, or cooking, and/or don’t want to read about what is at bottom (and top, actually) an attempt at business, then please, get off the bus now.

OK?

So, back at the dawn of time, my friend Adam — Adam Simha — graduated from MIT rather at loose ends.   He found himself more interested in craft than formal science or engineering.  He bounced around some kitchens in town, and then found himself really looking at the tools chefs use, and then figuring out that he might have some skills and knowledge and sheer desire to see what he could do in that arena.

The result has been a number of years developing himself into an exceptional knife maker.  You can see what he does here — check out the custom knives he’s made for chef-clients, and see also the ready-made line for the rest of us.  After some years of nerving myself up to it, I finally bought one of the latter – the 10″ chefs’ knife with the black rubber (Pedro) handle.  It is, simply, the best knife I’ve ever owned, by far.

How better?  It starts sharper than the decent knives I’ve used for decades; it holds its edge longer; it sharpens more easily, and being made of better steel than any other knife I own (a Wursthof and a Sabatier for chef’s knives), it is thinner, harder, and is easier in my hands to manipulate than any big knife has a right to be.

And yeah, it costs a fair amount.  Not an utterly crazy number for something that, properly cared for, should outlast me  — Adam’s prices for his ready-mades fall in the middle of what a yuppie cooking store charges for its cutlery.  And hell, I’ve been promising myself a really good knife since we first elected Obama, and finally I just decided that this purchase was going to be my victory cigar for the re-election celebration.

An aside:  I’m not a great person with my hands, but I purely love the knowledge and history built into any good tool — plus the fact that better tools make the jobs they’re designed for easier to do.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Still_Life_with_Fish_Scallions_and_Large_Knife_-_Totoya_Hokkei

I learned this first when I started working with good camera-people when I was just getting going as a documentary film-maker.  One of those DPs, an older guy (Bob Elfstrom,* for those of you in the business), took me aside and made sure I understood how and why he used each of the bits and pieces he needed to make his images.  Great training!  Throughout he drummed into me the necessity, the almost religious obligation, to use the best tools to do a job one could possibly acquire.  And he was right, at least in my experience.  It’s because of him that I would hire or buy really good optics when I needed to —  leaving me fewer options on location than I would have liked, sometimes, but better, in ways I could see on screen.  And as I started to cook I found I didn’t like gadgets very much, but I truly valued a good knife.  Those of you who cook (and that’s most of us, I guess) know what it’s like when you get one that fits and balances and that takes and holds an edge without fighting you for it.  That’s the context in which I’ve come to Adam’s knives, and that’s why I am posting this to try and help him realize an ambition.

What Adam’s doing now is to take what he’s developed as he’s built knives for his custom clients to come up with versionss for a larger audience.  There are a fair number of costs that go with that ambition, mostly for a build out of his shop, and he’s launched an Indigogo campaign to try to raise the necessary.  He’s got a video up there that explains what he’s trying to do better than I can.

I’m a little diffident about putting this up.  A buddy of mine is trying to get a new business off the ground, and I’m using this community platform to spread the word.  But I guess the usual answer applies. Don’t bother with all this stuff if you aren’t interested.

But even if you have no time to cook, no money for what is indeed a luxury, or just own every last bit of kitchen gear you, your kids and their kids will ever use, still, if you’d like to get just a sense of what a wonderful obsessive does when unleashed on metal-working shop, check the stuff out; if nothing else it’s fine kitchen porn.

*Among much else, Elfstrom directed and appeared as Jesus in Johnny Cash’s rarely-seen feature film Gospel Road, and he was one of the Maysles brothers’ cameramen at Altamont.  Hell of a guy to take out on the road for one’s very first film.  I’m deeply grateful to him and to John Else (my other first-cameraman) for the generosity with which they made sure I didn’t do anything irrecoverably stupid — all the while teaching me a whole lot of stuff they don’t necessarily cover in film school.  I will say, though that even some jobs later it still came as something of a shock when Al Maysles showed up (unannounced) at the end of a day’s shooting in New York.  It had been a long day, and something of a fraught one, and it was literally the last set up on the final shoot for that particular film.  I was seriously ready for the bar.  But there he was, Mr. Maysles — who, it must be said, understood exactly the state I was in (had been there once or twice himself, I reckon). In the event, he was gentle, encouraging and blessedly brief in his hellos.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, Interior of a Forest, before 1890.

Totoya Hokkei, Still Life with Fish, Scallions and Large Knife, c. 1830

Federalism For Me And Not For Thee…Food Safety Dept.

July 14, 2012

As long as we’re talking about food….

Government by referendum is not a great way to run a railroad, IMHO.  Certainly, California voters have wandered down some deeply damaging alleys with the referendum process in that state.  (The referendum-induced 2/3rds majority required to raise taxes has been a stunning success, for example, if by success you mean rendering the world’s 8th largest economy largely ungovernable.

But there is no doubt that if you are into federalism and the return of power to the most local level possible, then it ought to be hard to find fault with the notion  that citizens of state ought to be able to decide that they want there food supply raised under certain regulatory conditions, and they want to ensure local standards of food safety.  So, who should object to this:

A California voter-approved law…requires that caged veal calves and breeding sows as well as laying hens should be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and freely extend their limbs.

The initiative was approved by 64 percent of California voters after animal rights activists released undercover videos of strangled, deformed and mummified hens in cages.

This isn’t even that controversial among at least some of the affected producers, according to reporting at SFGate.com:

The egg industry, in a landmark agreement with the Humane Society of the United States, has embraced the hen law and enlisted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to enact it nationally so that all egg producers operate under the same rules.

Other states have similar laws, but all that may change (cue the usual suspects music) if the House GOP, fronted by poster child dangerous idiot Steve King (R-salmonella) have their way:

The latest salvo came in a midnight vote in the House Agriculture Committee on an amendment to deny states the ability to regulate any farm product, potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states. [King introduced the amendment]

Read that again:  “potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

For just a taste of the implications, here’s a California egg farmer who supports the law:

Riebli, the Petaluma egg farmer, said that if King’s amendment survives, “California also has pesticide laws for fruits and vegetables. They’re gone. California has its own standards for fluid milk (requiring fortification with vitamin D). They’re gone.”

Who needs a race to the bottom when Congress can just teleport us to the floor of the Marianas Trench?

There’s a lot more to this issue — we’ve got a pigs vs. chickens battle going on; an argument over what states can regulate that has genuine complexity and so on.  But look at what the GOP is trying to do (to be fair, along with Democrats from some ag/agribusiness heavy states): deny the ability of any state to regulate the health and safety of the food it’s citizens consume.

John’s running tagline is basically right: anyone voting Republican now and for the foreseeable future is voting to turn the United States into  Somalia.

Discuss.

Image:  Gustave Klimpt, Garden With Roosters, 1917

The “Have A Beer With Primary”…

July 14, 2012

…is over.

Well, actually, it’s been over since Mitt clinched the increasingly poisoned chalice that is his nomination, given his religion’s prohibition on consuming alcohol.  (See:  Mitt and Osama do/did have something in common…)*  But this piece in Mother Jones by Tim Murphy (via Ed Kilgore) captures yet one more reason to believe that Mr. Romney is not in fact a human being, but rather a strangely ill-designed bot intended to simulate human behavior.  Consider:

Mitt Romney has a complicated relationship with fast food. He likes pizza, but insists on scraping off the cheese before he ever takes a bite. He likes fried chicken, but only when the skin has been removed. He likes Big Macs, but only after removing the middle bun. He likes Coca-Cola because, he explained in his 2004 book Turnaround, it reminds him of polar bears, but he rarely drinks it because he can’t have caffeine. On the trail, Romney has name-dropped Carl’s Jr. and spoken of the wonders of WaWa but subsists mainly on granola he carries around in one-gallon Ziploc bags.

Anne Laurie blogged on this general topic this morning, quoting Taibbi on how most presidents have some capacity for engaging other human beings — a liberal could enjoy watching football with George Bush and so on.

That seems basically right to me, at least in principle.  I’m not sure if I could at this point stand being in the same room with 43, but I can at least see how it might be possible to have a reasonably pleasant interaction watching my team shred whoever it is he supports.

This is more of the same.  I’ve spent plenty of time in red states or settings, surrounded by folks who are as different from me politically as it is possible to be, and had absolute common ground in the matter of getting elbows deep in food that’ is gloriously bad for us all.  I’ve been taught to suck the heads of crawfish in rural Lousiana with folks with whom I dared not mention politics or faith.  I’ve done double duty at one of the true Meccas of American junk food, the Minnesota State Fair, (bacon ice cream? cheeseburger sticks?) where the proposition that there is nothing that can’t be improved by immersion in vats of fat is annually put to the test. I’ve…well, you get the idea, and we have ample evidence from this blog that lots of folks here take enormous pleasure in dining high and low.

But then you read Mitt’s preferences — or rather I do — and what I see there is someone who’s hinky.  A bit weird.  A control freak and someone deeply uncomfortable — unprepared, even — for the daily reality of, well, just being.  And hence, in some deep way, unprepared, unqualified for the job he seeks.

Seriously.   Put youself in the scene:   imagine you’re at parlous sitting at the counter when Mitt Romney of the Perfect Hair And Teeth walks in.   The guy behind the counter hands you a fresh pie, and a few minutes later RMoney gets his.

You grab a slice (the one you have to kind of torque so the cheese doesn’t slide away), and you get that first bite when the cheese hasn’t fully set yet and it’s still hot enough to burn the tongue if you’re not careful, and it has that same satisfaction that one gets from the very first gulp of a very cold beer on a day as hot as it is as I write this — and then you look up and there’s RMoney, delicately picking at the mozzarrella with a fork as he tugs and pulls with precise movements until the surface of what he’s about to eat is pristine, utterly free of dairy products.  He completes his task, and all he’s got left is a drooping triangle of bread slathered in tomato goop.  A perfectly innocent morsel of wood-fired arterial disease transformed into something miserable, mutilated; almost an atrocity worthy of the folks at the Hague.

By this time, if the “you” here is me, I’m (a) done with my first slice and grabbing more and (b) nervously realizing that there’s something really wrong with the guy next to me.  I’d start to edge away from the counter as I watch him consume in perfect, portion controlled bites the entire tomato-crust exercise in pointlessness.  Horrified, fascinated, I’d find it hard to pull my eyes off him as he takes the next piece and does it again.

Finally I’d come to my senses. That’s when I grab the counterman’s eye and ask for a take-out box.

All of which is to say that Mitt Romney has all the money it takes to become president and then some.  He has the advantage of a complaisant and oligarchic media whose owners have a direct interest in a Romney victory.  He has the challenger’s advantage that the economy still sucks while his allies try to make sure that it continues to do so through November.  And yet I’m not at all sure he can overcome his greatest problem:  he can’t cease being Mitt Romney, and that is someone — or something – that is deeply weird, and not at all in a good way.

Oh — and go read the rest of Murphy’s article; it captures a microcosm of who wants Romney to win and why.  The shorter:  Romney is the candidate for those who think the minimum wage is and ever was too high.

*BTW — I don’t think I’ve seen it written, and it hasn’t occurred to me till now, but how do the geniuses of the birther crowed line up Barack Hussein Obama’s not Islamic and very public pleasure at hoisting a brew and his Sekret Moooslim status.  I mean, I can guess — it’s not a lie if it’s intended to deceive the infidel and all that, but still, I’m not sure there’s enough tin foil in the cosmos to channel the mixed messages those folks must process.

Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, Peasant Wedding, c. 1587

Roast Chicken Obsession

May 7, 2012

I haz it.

I haven’t done much food writing here, except when baiting Megan McArdle.   Partly, it’s because even though it’s truly fun scribbling, and I’ve even made some money at it in the past,  life is too short to blog about everything.  But in the end, why not — and I just enjoyed something y’all might, so what’s the harm in using up some of the Intertube’s surplus bytes.

That would have been a (to me) novel twist on that Broadway standard of a supper, roast chicken.

This would be my ur-comfort food.Some of my fondest early memories are of trying to stab my mother with a fork as she maneuvered to steal the crisp chicken skin I saved for last. My sister is still pissed at the times Mum got away with this evil ploy — and this even though our Mum is fifteen years gone beyond the reach of our griefing on this point.  It’s this kind of memory that makes me think I should put away as much cash in my son’s therapy fund as I do his college trove.

I’ve used a lot of recipes to come up with a good bird since I left my mother’s home.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve often turned to one from Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen, in which you stuff the cavity of the bird with a cup or so pitted kalamata or niçoise olives, a few sprigs of parsley and a cut and squeezed half lemon, skewer the cavity shut, squeeze some lemon juice and drizzle some olive oil on the outside (lots of salt too) — and then roast upside down in 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes before flipping it over and cooking it breast-side up ’till done.  Good times.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed roast chicken porn.  I first encountered Gordon Hammersley’s recipe — legendary in Boston — in Julia Child’s In Julia’s Kitchen With The Master Chefs.  Given Hammersley’s cook-twice method, well enough suited to a restaurant kitchen, but not so much to my distracted condition, it’s one I’ve left better read than done.   Then there was the time I picked up at a remainder-price the ultimate food-porn cookbook, Alain Ducasse’s Flavors of France.  This is truly one you buy for the pictures; Ducasse demands your whole paycheck and more skill than I can muster to put together just about any of his dishes. But the recipe — well, if I ever choose to devote at least thirty bucks to a chicken dinner, maybe more, along with the better part of a weekend in prep, this will be the one.  And I may yet try, sometime.

But all of this is prelude to a very quick recommendation.  This week I came across Melissa Clark’s video and recipe in The  New York Times for what is for me a real variation in method on roasting a bird — the assignment which is to food writing what the  10 ways to please your man/woman is to the sex guides in the women’s and men’s books (a  hardy perennial on which there is almost never anything new to say).   Clark proposed splaying the bird — cutting through the skin and thigh joints to get the dark meat to lie flat — and than roasting the chicken in a very hot pre-heated skillet.

My wife and I tried out the recipe last night, with just a bit of deviation — we used scallions and shallots instead of ramps, for example, and kept the temperature down to 425 degrees from her 500.  Next time we plan to add a few elements to the vegetables with which the chicken communes — fennel, perhaps, and maybe a little bit of tomato.  But I’m here to tell you that the basic idea worked great, turning out a wonderful, mellow chicken in very little time, with a trivially easy prep.

All of which is to say — as long as  you are so nice as to ask — then, yes, I happily  endorse this path to a good night’s supper.

Image:  Peter Jakob Horemans, Still life with plucked chicken, apple and carrot,  1768

A Factoid On Which To Chew

May 2, 2012

The US ranks second — to mighty Luxembourg! — in per-capita meat consumption, per a review of 2007 data. (h/t Jag Bhalla)

I actually find the numbers both surreal and plausible.  By these numbers, Americans in 2007 ate about 275 pounds of meat and poultry each — 125.4 kg, to be precise — or about 3/4 of a pound per day.

Update:  this particular chart has some head scratchers in it—see this comment thread at Crooked Timber for some of the details.  Other numbers for the US seem to hover between 200 and 230 pounds per capita per year, depending on which source you trust, or on the order of 2/3 of a pound per day.  The underlying implications remain basically the same.)

Right there, friends, is the nexus of all kinds of interesting issues, from climate change to health care costs.

Masticate among yourselves.

Image:  Alfred Grey, Highland Cattle, 1887


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