Sunday, August 29, 2010


I haven't had this much fun reading MEDIUM RAW: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco; $26.99; ISBN: 978-0-06-171894-6), Anthony Bourdain's latest culinary hand grenade tossed at the culinary world since...well Kitchen Confidential. It must be fun to be Anthony Bourdain. He has achieved an untouchable status in his field so that he can say anything he likes--good and bad and get away with it. He aims high in a series of blistering, withering, scornful, angry, hilariously funny and mostly well-deserved shots at Alice Waters (I think it is fair to question her chef credentials--it seems to me the only thing I've ever seen her prepare is salad), Mark Bittman, Guy Fieri ("I don't dislike Guy Fieri. I realized, after many viewings of his cooking shows, much soul-searching at my personal ashram, and many doses of prescription hypnotics. I just dislike--really dislike--the idea that somebody would put Texas-style barbecue inside a f- -king nori roll."), Sandra Lee, blogger Regina Schrambling, Alain Ducasse, Gael Greene, and other icons. The James Beard Foundation gets a Bourdain boot in the ass and deservedly so. It has to be galling for a chef to be invited to cook there, bring his staff, food, and equipment along only to find out there's no media to cover it. What's the point of this scam? He devotes an entire chapter to GQ's restaurant critic in an overly-long rant entitled "Alan Richman is a douchebag." Bourdain had me in stitches, but fifteen pages is excessive and while douchebag is a funny word, Bourdain goes too far. Did he have to cap it off by resorting to the "C" word?

On the other hand, maybe he should just hit the sheets with David Chang, the wildly popular New York chef/owner of Momofuku and others, and get it over with. Such a valentine to a chef gets a little weary. Maybe it's Chang's famous rages at his cooks (along with his talent) that appeals to a potty-mouthed bad boy like Bourdain (afterall Chang's cookbook is riddled with profanity). I left New York before I had a chance to see what all the fuss was about over Chang's meteoric rise. And Chang is too revered and respected for me or anyone who cares about food to ignore. But the avalanche of hype does make you wonder. So I'll have to take his word for it. Chang emerges here as a boring, gloomy Gus, who doesn't seem to be enjoying his success.

But let me get to the really good stuff. His hilarious opening intro about a secret gathering of chef movers and shakers to eat illegal Ortolans (disgusting is all I'll say about this ancient French culinary delicacy) that for chefs, Bourdain describes the experience as "wank-worthy, the Great Unfinished Business the Thing That Must Be Eaten..."). Funny, funny man.

"So You Want to Be a Chef," should be required reading for any toque-lusting culinary student. The work is grueling, the hours are horrible, addiction and alcoholism is common to the business, relationships and family life are challenging, and your chances of becoming the next Bobby Flay or Thomas Keller, or Emeril Legasse, are probably not going to happen. Bourdain is not being cynical. It's a brutal business, and culinary school is expensive and the pay for the first years years is rotten, and it requires a singular mind and talent to succeed. Good for Bourdain for telling the truth.

I won't argue Bourdain's list of heroes (as good as his list of villains)--he's got it right. I was especially happy to see the names of Jamie Oliver, Wylie Dufresne, Jonathan Gold, Fergus Henderson, Terrance Brennan, Ariane Daguin, Mario Batali, Eric Ripert and Jose Andres, on this list. It was also satisfying to see the name of Brooke Johnson on his list of villains. "She's a villain for being right, Bourdain declares. "--not only for the cynical, fake-ass, soul-destroying, lowest-common-denominator shit-shows she's nurtured and supported since taking the helm. She's a villain for being, clearly and demonstrably, right about everything." Since Johnson took over the Food Network, their ratings have exploded as the quality of its programming has plummeted. It's no longer about food. Its audience is increasingly made up of the coveted young male viewers who spend big to watch an endless round of competitive cooking shows, Vegas-style cake-baking contests for biggish prize money, barbecue cook-offs, and programming about how a large number of well-known food products such as Doritos and Tabasco sauce are made. Cooking shows that teach are no longer welcome at the Food Network. The network's howling success reduces us dissenters as "old school" type--whiners. Again, Bourdain is right.

Bourdain's discussion of a disappointing meal at Alinea, a Chicago-based restaurant considered one of the finest in America, is illuminating. He describes an excruciating, multi-tasting meal where with each course the waiter delivers an annoying monologue on what he's about to eat "and exactly how we should eat it. Half the time, I'd already popped the thing in my mouth and swallowed it by the time he'd finished with his act." Bourdain worries about being "the very picture of the jaded, over privileged 'foodie' (in the very worst sense of that word) that I used to despise." He describes a meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry as "the single-best fine-dining, white-tablecloth meal of my life." But wondered why he came home from Keller's New York outpost, Per Se, "heartbroken last night." It says a lot about restaurant criticism, his own celebrity and vast knowledge of food, eating meals for free, and other baggage that must be experienced by others who spend most of their lives in pursuit of good food and writing about it for a living. I no longer care about this kind of restaurant experience--food is not religion. If that's what you're looking for, go to church. But it showed me that Bourdain, who has eaten just about anything edible, who hosts his own successful TV show, writes bestselling books that will piss off some people, breaks bread with some impressive food talent, and seems to genuinely enjoy his life, cares deeply about his profession. He enjoys knowing these creative people, and being a part of the whole circusy, pretentious, democratic, snobbish, scamming, high and low, world that he is a big moving cog in. Which brings me to an endearing quality of Bourdain's--he worries about being honest.

You would think that a guy this talented, good looking, daring, foolish, and successful would have it made. Nothing doing. His opening chapter on selling out is brilliant. By the time he had written Kitchen Confidential, he had more than paid his dues screwing up, getting hooked on drugs, and not living up to his talents as a chef. He admits that while he can dish it out he would sell out just like Sandra Lee or Rachael Ray. "Jesus, I would have given Oprah a back rub and a bikini wax, had she asked me when her people called." He knows Oprah sells books. "Who's the ho now? Me. That's Who," he admits.

MEDIUM RAW is a book to be savored in mutiple seatings. I read a chapter, put the book down and went about my business, only to return to the book ready for Bourdain's next take. It was loads of fun. He likes to project the bad boy, who drinks, smokes and has too much fun. He enjoys being hip, he loves to swear, and tell it like it is. The simple fact of the matter is Anthony Bourdain is a really smart guy with a prodigious knowledge of food, and a talented writer with a flashy prose style that is enormously appealing. He can spot a phony through the darkness of a closed mine shaft. He loves and admires chefs both high and low. A chef who cooks with his heart and technique deservedly ranks high with him. And boy can he describe it all.

Nobody kicks culinary butt like Anthony Bourdain.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

PIG--The Definitive Word from a Southern Cookbook Legend

"I cant' state it any more succinctly: Pork is and has been and always will be my favorite meat. But, after all, I was born and bred in North Carolina and have yet to meet a fellow Southerner who didn't love, respect, and, indeed,understand pig like no other American. I could almost say, in fact, that pork is my birthright, that I was virtually weaned on the inimitable sight, aroma, and taste of hog, and that no childhood memories are more indelible than those connected with the mighty pig."

--James Villas, from the Preface to PIG

I can't tell you how I came across American Taste, James Villas' first book focusing on the state of cooking in the U.S. Villas, was then food editor for Town & Country magazine (1982). He was also part of the country's culinary royalty--right up there with Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene and others. This was pre-Food Network days--long before Top Chef and other culinary showbiz nonsense invaded the culture. Villas was fascinating—a Southern boy, well-educated with a knowledgeable palate, and a generous expense account. While he covered the food scene, his preferences--no prejudices--were evident right from the beginning. This man loved French food, but he was Southern through and through. His highly entertaining style with descriptive "abominations" and "revoltings" recklessly strewn throughout his paragraphs was fun, and he certainly knew what he was writing about. Since then Villas has produced fifteen cookbooks, quite a few of them on Southern food. But in his last three cookbooks, mature masterpieces all, he is writing at the top of his game about food he clearly loves. I loved Bacon and The Glory of Southern Cooking, but they have served as the appetizer and first courses to the book I think he will long be remembered for, PIG: King of the Southern Table (Wiley; May 2010; $34.95; 978-0-470-19401-0).

I'm with Villas whole hog here. No other meat for me comes close to the variety and flavor of pork and how wonderful to have a book that not only celebrates hog but unequivocally demonstrates the range of recipes that use up the whole animal. There's no beating around the Disney bush here. Villas shows how practical, creative and thrifty Southerners are more like their European counterparts in France and Italy, who waste no part of the hog, cooking every part of the animal without being squeamish and making something delicious of it. I would have to go to the South to sample hog's head, pig's ears, fatback, blood pudding, boudin, livermush, mountain oysters, pickled pork, or souse. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are lots of other part of the pig that we eat: spareribs, pork loin, tenderloin, chops, ham, sausage, bacon, baby back, country and regular spareribs, and ham hocks. Villas is ardent about southern hams particularly Smithfield hams (with sources for ordering them), the distinction between barbecuing and grilling, as well as the types of sauces, dips and dry rubs used, which vary from region to region. There are plenty of fascinating social traditions that go with barbecue from how it is served to how it is eaten. Before plunging into the recipes, Villas discusses the merits of southern bulk sausage, which he states is an essential ingredient in southern cookery. He heaps scorn on "the overly lean or fatty, tough, tasteless, frozen, commercial products found elsewhere in the country," and urges readers to make their own where the cook can choose the right cuts of pork, and combine the right ratio of lean meat to fat, and just the right seasoning, which he insists should only be freshly ground pepper, powdered dried sage and red pepper flakes or cayenne.

Villas then produces and vast variety of recipes which covers everything from appetizers and salads, soups, stews, casseroles, chops, cutlets and steaks, to pies, hashes, burgers, roasts, ham, sausage and bacon, barbecue and ribs, variety and specialty meats, vegetables, rice and breads.

I want to cook my way through PIG and serve to my guests many of Villas' savory and descriptive recipes: Roast Pork Tenderloin Stuffed with Honeyed Apples and Pecans, Sausage and Leek Buffet Casserole, Slab Bacon and Mushroom Strata, Maw Maw's Mustard Pork Chops and Dumplings in Cider, Party Country Ham Deviled Eggs, Butter Beans and Bacon Salad, Country Ham, Pork, and Cheddar Loaf, Florida Mango-and Prune-Stuffed Pork Loin, Fresh Ham Braised in Beer with Mustard Glaze, Aunt Bunny's Bacon and Sausage Soufflé, Bacon Waffles, South Carolina Mustard Barbecue, Barbecued Leg of Pork with Tennessee Table Sauce, Cajun Dry-Rub Barbecued Spareribs, Louisiana Red Beans and Rice with Picked Pork and Piggy Spoon Bread. The chapter on Barbecue and Ribs includes recipes for various sauces and dry rubs, and the section on breads, muffins and biscuits--all containing pork--offer fascinating regional baking at its best.

I'm equally intrigued by the chapter on Variety and Specialty Meats, and would love to sample Miss Edna's Pork Liver and Jowl Pudding, Pork Sweetbreads, Bacon and Mushroom Skewers, and Hog's Head Stew.

We're in the midst of a great revival of interest in pork these days with restaurants that specialize in serving whole roasted pigs. There are a few farmer producing the kind of fabled, fully fatted hogs that most Americans enjoyed before the fat police descended on us, and leaned the animal up to a point of toughness where you have to brine it before you can cook it. Star chefs are restoring the "mighty hog," to the kind of culinary glory it richly deserves. In PIG: King of the Southern Table James presides over this revival with a personal, opinionated, deeply felt cookbook--just in time for us to savor the elevation of our favorite "other white meat.

Old Dominion Scalloped Potatoes with Country Ham

Makes 6 servings

Scalloped potatoes with lots of butter and cheese have been a staple in Southern homes for centuries, but only in Virginia have I encountered the dish made with the state’s incomparable country-cured ham—simply called “Virginia ham” in the Old Dominion. Do remember that you need to use dry russet potatoes for any gratin, and if the potatoes seem to be drying out after 35 or 40 minutes, just add a little whole milk, basting them slightly to produce a golden crust.

4 medium russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced ¹⁄8 inch thick

1 cup finely diced cooked country ham

½ cup chopped fresh chives

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

1 cup half-and-half

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Butter a 1½ to 2-quart gratin or baking dish and arrange alternate layers of overlapping potato slices and ham, sprinkling a few chives over each layer and seasoning with salt and pepper. Sprinkle ¼ cup of the cheese over the top, dot with the butter, pour the half-and-half over the top, and bake till the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes, basting from time to time with the liquid. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake till golden brown, about 10 minutes longer.

3. Serve piping hot directly from the dish.

North Carolina Eastern-Style Chopped or Pulled ’Cue

Makes at least 10 servings

This is the relatively dry, spicy style of pork barbecue (with a little skin crackling) for which eastern North Carolina is so renowned and that is featured at hundreds of barbecue joints and social pig pickin’s throughout the region. Traditionally, whole hogs are slowly smoked on huge grates over hickory and/or oak fires; the cooked meat is either chopped or pulled; and, unlike the sweeter, tomatoey sauces (or dips”) used for Lexington-style barbecue in the western part of the state, the vinegar moppin’ sauce here is not unlike the simple hot pepper sauces of Thomas Jefferson’s day. Given the impracticality of digging a large pit in the ground (or acquiring an enormous metal smoker) and roasting a whole pig, a very good approximation of eastern-style Carolina ’cue can be accomplished with pork shoulder and an ordinary kettle grill. Typically, this barbecue is served with coleslaw, Brunswick stew, maybe baked beans, hush puppies, and either beer or iced tea. Since the chopped barbecue freezes well in airtight bags or containers, you really should consider roasting two shoulders.

One small (1½- to 2-pound) bag hickory wood chips

One 10-pound bag charcoal briquets

2 cups white vinegar

1 cup cider vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

One 9- to 10-pound pork shoulder butt (all skin and fat left on)

1. In a pan of water, soak 6 handfuls of the chips for 45 minutes.

2. Open one bottom and one top vent on a kettle grill, place an aluminum drip pan in the bottom of the grill, stack charcoal briquets evenly around the pan (not in the center), and ignite the coals. When the coals are ashen (30 to 45 minutes), sprinkle 2 handfuls of the soaked chips evenly over the hot coals. Place the grate on the grill about 6 inches over the coals.

3. In a nonreactive bowl, combine the vinegars, sugar, red pepper, Tabasco, salt, and pepper and stir till the sugar is dissolved and the sauce well blended. When the coals are ready on the grill, position the butt fat side up on the grate over indirect heat, mop it with the sauce, close the lid, and cook for 3 hours, mopping the meat every hour and replenishing the coals and chips as they burn up. Turn the butt over, close the lid, and cook till the meat is very tender, 2 to 3 hours longer, mopping every hour and replenishing the coals and chips as needed.

4. Transfer the butt to a chopping board, remove and discard excess fat, and either chop the meat and crisp skin coarsely or pull into shreds. Transfer the meat to a roasting pan, drizzle about 1 cup of the sauce over the top, toss well, cover with foil, and keep warm.

5. To serve, mound the barbecue on plates or hamburger buns and serve with the remaining sauce on the side.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


My Gloomy, Streak-Prone Granite Counter Tops

"I hate granite counters," I erupted as it took out one of my favorite mixing bowls. The cream-colored British-made bowl with rounded fluted sides and green piping around it's outer rim slipped off its precarious perch in my dish drain, landing top-side-down. At first it looked fine, until I picked up and saw a large, irregular v-shaped wedge of broken crockery left on that mean hard counter top. I love bowls and this beauty had been given to me by a friend many years ago. I am bereft over the loss of this beautiful vessel.

I loathe granite because its surface, like so many others in modern kitchens these days is unforgivably hard. This is the first home I've lived in with these heavy, implacable counters. I might be more tolerant of the broken wine glasses if the color of this particular granite wasn't so dark and gloomy. But it is and it has gleefully claimed a plate, a breakfast bowl, and a storage glass. I'm well aware of its' lack of kindness, and it's not like I have a heavy hand in the kitchen. Worse, it shows the most appalling streaks. I can clean with a hot sponge, wet paper towel, using Windex, a special product formulated for granite, and dry it immediately, only to watch the light reveal wet marks and cloudy streaks as if to say, "you call this clean?"

I read recently that granite has become THE material of choice in kitchens in America having recently achieved something like 67% of the market in kitchen remodels and new construction. I watch in dismay as young couples buying homes on many HGTV programs whine at the lack of granite and stainless steel in the kitchens of the houses they are considering. The building industry in league with designers has convinced consumers that granite and stainless steel are the very best (and most costly) and therefore, most status conscious of materials for the American kitchen. Along with my third and fourth least-liked kitchen surfaces--porcelain sinks and ceramic or stone floors--I'm feeling decidedly old school.

I've thought about replacing my granite counters, but that seems to be an awfully costly fix and I can't imagine how to recycle the stuff.

In my New York apartment kitchen, I had a stainless steel sink that I could dribble Baccarat crystal on and be reasonably assured it would survive. It shined up beautifully and I could stack all manner of dishes as precariously as I liked and never worry that if something toppled over, it would survive. My counter tops were a beautiful marble patterned Formica, which was as durable as it was handsome. When I sold the apartment thirteen years later, it was without a scratch and as attractive as the day it was installed. It had a matte finish, and cleaned easily with no streaks. You could roll out pastry on it as well as its harder cousins. The marketing folks tell us granite is superior because it handles heat well, but who in their right mind ever put down a hot pot without a trivet or a pot holder to act as a buffer between pot and counter top? Because I treated my Formica well, it rewarded me with long-lasting efficiency.

My New York kitchen floor was covered with linoleum tiles--and I can well imagine the shudders from people reading this. In my previous apartment, I put down gorgeous ceramic tiles in my kitchen. Big mistake. If you are doing a lot of cooking for a dinner party or baking during the holidays, those hard floors will kill your legs. Linoleum (which also comes in lots of handsome colors and pleasing patterns) is much more forgiving and you can stand comfortably on it for hours. Think of what's it's like to go to a museum and wander around on its marble floors for an hour or so, and you'll understand what I mean. Here in Portland, the only agreeable surface in my kitchen are my oak floors, which like linoleum or the recently elevated cork, make long work in the kitchen comfortable underfoot.

I took something of a beating on the sale of my apartment. My real estate agent told me too many times that my lack of an updated kitchen was hurting its sales potential. I could never understand why I should have to renovate a kitchen I was perfectly happy with and one that produced outstanding meals for me and my guests. And why shouldn't the person buying the apartment put in the kitchen of their choice, rather than be stuck, like me, with a kitchen that I like the layout of but not the choice of material (the alder wood cabinets and drawers are beautiful)? And don't get me started on my dishwasher--a poorly designed model that holds little, has a weird door storage for silverware, and has broken more than its fair share of glasses.

And yet the trend for the future is for more granite, more stainless steel appliances and more porcelain sinks (which are also harder to clean than stainless steel) and more tile on the floors. The one good trend that I've noticed is the gradual popularity of the armoire-style refrigerator over the side-by-side models, which are shallow in depth and lack adequate storage (try storing a wide platter in the refrigerator or freezing a half-sheet full of strawberries or homemade gnocchi in the even-narrower freezer side).

Please don't respond with argumentative opinions otherwise. I'm set in my ways, and not likely to change my opinions about these things. You get to be old school after years of experience.

This dishwasher deserves a special place in appliance hell and I often find myself praying for its demise--soon!

Not even the addition of this "old lady" drain from the Oxo Good Grips folks,
make my sink safer for dishes.