Cheese, Fruit, Random Thoughts, Salad, Science, Vegetables

Brilliant disguise.

There is something inherently fascinating about things that are not what they appear to be. Throughout history, people have engaged in masquerades, discarding their true identities in favor of new ones, even if only temporarily. Insects and reptiles and sea creatures assume other colors and forms to deceive predators; in a sophisticated double ruse, the viceroy and monarch butterflies resemble each other, with each posing as its distasteful counterpart. Objects sometimes even pose as other objects. The National Palace Museum in Taipei maintains on permanent display two pieces of sculpture – one, a slab of jasper, the “Meat-Shaped Stone,” rendered as red-cooked pork belly; the other, a chunk of jadeite carved into a head of Chinese cabbage – that perfectly mimic pieces of food, so perfectly one cannot help but circle the display case, nose to the glass, squinting at the detail, marveling at the success of the deception. The Meat-Shaped Stone in particular is uncanny, having wholly abandoned the hard qualities of rock and in favor of the wobbly, fatty qualities of braised pork, down to the tiny follicle pores on the glazed rind.

Meat-Shaped Stone

Even actual food sometimes masquerades as other food, or even as inedible matter. There’s a certain fetish in modernist cuisine for trompe l’oeil cooking, things that fool the eye. Faux “caviar” tasting nothing like fish eggs is probably the most common deception, but you also will encounter near-perfect facsimiles of garden topsoil made from dried chicory, roots, and tubers at restaurants like Manresa and Noma, or kaolin-shelled potatoes resembling hot stones at Mugaritz. This fascination with culinary mimicry extends to more quotidian foods like cake, which appears in the guise of whole jack o’lanterns, Barbies, and the revolting “kitty litter cake,” in which Tootsie Rolls stand in for cat feces and serving the cake in a genuine cat litter box is considered the pièce de résistance of presentation. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could eat anything designed to look like someone took a shit in a box, but judging from the online popularity of the cake I seem to be in the minority. The height of bacon-sausage gonzo-ness a few years ago yielded grandiose projects like entire football stadiums crafted from summer sausage, blocks of cheese, and crackers. Now, Wisconsin girls love to party with sausage and dairy products, but there’s a point at which fashioning snacks into architectural wonders starts to take on a clown college quality.

A philosophical inquiry into the nature of mimicry deserves its own discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the food. For example, the flesh of a tomato looks like raw ahi. And a mozzarella ball is the same shape as a tomato. Can the tomato become a convincing ahi tartare? Can the mozzarella ball become a tomato?

Caprese salad

The inspiration for this dish is Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit,” one of the most famous trompe l’oeil foods and an homage to the medieval craft of disguising meat-based items as realistic-looking fruit. Blumenthal fashions foie gras mousse into a sphere and dips it in a mandarin gel, yielding an eerily realistic facsimile of a mandarin orange, down to the orange-peel texture. Rather than coating a meat base with the tomato gel, I thought mozzarella would be a better pairing. Taking it one step further, burrata is even more delicious and is soft enough to accommodate an injection of basil pesto. The resulting dish looks like a small tomato, but tastes like a caprese salad.

IMG_8030On the left, the real thing. On the right, the impostor.

A note: store-bought burrata is notoriously expensive and never nearly as fresh as it should be, so make your own if you can or don’t bother spending the extra money on burrata. Just buy fresh mozzarella instead. Due to the presence of rennet, burrata will continue to firm up over time as the enzyme sets the dairy proteins in the cream filling. There is nothing you can do to stop this process short of eating the burrata before it totally sets.

Burrata

I don’t recall where I learned this recipe, but it’s a pretty bog-standard recipe for burrata. Temperature control is pretty important to a good finished product so be sure to use an accurate digital thermometer.

1000 ml whole milk
1/4 tsp calcium chloride
2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tsp liquid rennet
water
1 tsp salt
60 ml heavy cream

Combine the calcium chloride and the milk; whisk thoroughly to dissolve. Then dissolve the citric acid in about 1/4 c cold water and whisk into the milk over low heat. Bring to 88F-90F, stirring constantly.

Mix the rennet with a couple tablespoons of water (precise quantities are not terribly important) and add to the warmed milk. Stir several turns around the pot with a wooden spoon, and then let stand for about 10-15 minutes until the milk has set and pulls away slightly from the edge of the pot. Do not agitate or disturb at all during the setting process or your mozzarella will not form.

Once set, slice into 1″ cubes with a sharp knife. Bring the pot back up to 105F-108F, stirring gently with a silicone spatula to even out the temperature as the liquid heats. The curds should mostly lump together and fall to the bottom of the pot; some bits, ricotta curd-like, will float on top. Once the pot reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes, continuing to stir gently from time to time.

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Strain out the curd, as much as you can, with a skimmer, into a fine mesh strainer. Strain out the remaining bits through another mesh strainer and add to the rest of the curd. Remove about 25% of the curd to a small bowl and combine with 1/4 tsp salt and the heavy cream. Set aside.

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Divide the curd into eight equal portions. Perform the following steps on each portion, start to finish, before moving on to the next one. Place in a microwave-safe bowl, microwave on high for about 45 seconds, and, using a wooden spoon, press against the side of the bowl to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt on the curd and knead on a ceramic plate, folding over itself and kneading as you would bread, until it is smooth.

Press into a circle with slightly thinner edges; add 1/8 of the creamed curd and gather up like a purse. Place in a square of clingfilm and twist to tie. Set in a muffin/cupcake tin to maintain the shape. Repeat until all the curd and filling are used.

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Pesto alla Farina

I can’t take credit for this pesto method; it’s my guess at the delicious pesto alla genovese I enjoyed at Farina in San Francisco a few years ago. Whereas a traditional basil pesto is made by pounding basil leaves to a paste with oil before incorporating cheese and pine nuts, in this case the pine nuts and olive oil are emulsified first with blanched garlic to form a thick, creamy base; the basil is then spun into the mix until it yields a bright green, smooth paste.

2 garlic cloves
100g pine nuts
125 ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian (grassy but not peppery)
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano
3 c basil
Sea salt

Blanch the garlic in simmering water for one minute. Drain.

Combine the pine nuts and olive oil in a blender and process until smooth. Add the blanched garlic and cheese and process again. Then add the basil; process until smooth. Season with salt as necessary.

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Tomato gel

This is a simple gel based on gelatin, which melts in the mouth. If using the tomato leaves freaks you out, you don’t need them. They just add a little bit of fresh tomato taste to the gel (and are not poisonous in the amounts you would typically use). The beetroot powder helps deepen the color intensity of the tomato gel but, again, is not essential.

1 kg ripe red tomatoes
salt
2 tbsp tomato paste (double concentrated)
4 tomato leaves
1/4 tsp beetroot powder
20g gelatin leaves

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh. Place the pulp and any accumulated juice in a strainer and allow the juice to drip out. Blend the juice with the flesh in a vitaprep and set aside for an hour to allow the solids to float up. Skim them off. This will not be a totally clear liquid as one would obtain through agar or gelatin clarification, but rather a more turbid juice; too clear, and it will not be opaque enough for the finished dish.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cold water and squeeze out. Measure out 250g of the juice and combine with the beetroot powder, tomato paste, and hydrated gelatin. Heat until well blended and then cool to about 50F. The gel should be somewhat thick but not set.

To assemble:

Unwrap a burrata sphere and inject the center, through the top, with the pesto. Fill the grooves with pesto as well and place in the freezer on a wax-paper lined plate or sheet pan for 15 minutes, with a skewer vertically through the center.

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Dip the spheres in the tomato gel, holding by the skewer. Return to the wax paper and re-freeze. Repeat twice (you probably will need three or four dips in the gel to achieve the right appearance). If the dipped cheese sticks to the wax paper, use a spoon to lift it off the paper so the tomato gel doesn’t come loose.

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Serve with bread and olive oil; refrigerate “tomatoes” if not using immediately.

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Tomato tartare

Tuna tartare, usually made with ahi, has become somewhat cliché. It’s always formed in a ring mold with mimosa eggs or raw quail egg yolk, “Asian-ized” with sesame oil, soy, and some kind of citrus, or tossed with avocado and served on pita chips. Guy Fieri serves it in tacos at the same Times Square restaurant Pete Wells reviewed, in a blistering takedown, two years ago. Guy Fieri. I rest my case.

It’s more interesting to make a tomato salad that looks like a tuna tartare. A spherified yellow tomato purée stands in for a raw egg yolk; the compressed tomato is a dead ringer for diced tuna, punctuated with onion, mustard, and herbs. When you pierce the sphere, it will run, just like the yolk. If you don’t want to make the spherified tomato, just skip it. Capers or diced pickled vegetables are also perfectly cromulent additions to this salad.

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500g large yellow tomatoes
500g large red tomatoes
1 tbsp shiro shoyu (white soy)
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
sodium alginate .8%
calcium chloride .5%
small white onion
small bunch chives
smal bunch tarragon
2 tsp dijon mustard (I used an espelette mustard)
2 tbsp olive oil
black pepper
edible flowers and additional herbs if desired
salt
piment d’espelette

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh, leaving only the exterior flesh. Reserve the pulp, interior flesh, and any accumulated juice.

Combine the vinegar and shoyu. Pack the trimmed red tomato flesh in a vacuum bag, in a single layer, and add the vinegar mixture. Vacuum. Set aside. Note: if you do not have the means to vacuum pack your tomato dice, the tomato will not firm up, as it would under vacuum, and the dice will not remain very distinct. If you do have access to calcium chloride, you can set the tomato halves in a .1% solution for 30 minutes and then dice as specified below.

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Place the trimmed yellow tomato, plus any juice drained from the pulp and interior flesh, in a container and weigh out 250g into a blender. Add 2g alginate, 1/2 tsp salt, and blitz until fully dispersed. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

Blend together the calcium chloride and water (5g per 1000g water; scale down if you like). Drop the alginate/tomato blend by a small scoop or dosing spoon into the calcium bath and set for about 30-45 seconds, until the exterior skin has formed but the spheres are still wobbly. Drain with a perforated spoon and place in a plain water bath.

Finely dice the vacuum packed red tomato. Finely dice the white onion. Whisk together the mustard, oil, and 1 tbsp each minced tarragon and chive. Stir in the tomato and onion dice. Note: again, if you do not have access to the means to vacuum your tomatoes, you can try leaving the dice in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for about an hour. The liquid will drip out. This will not substantially improve the firmness of the tomatoes but it will make them less liquid.

Plate the tomato mixture and add the yellow tomato “yolk.” Garnish with herbs, flowers, and espelette.

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Duck, East Asian, Latin, Random Thoughts

Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

If you’re looking to start an argument, forget about politics and religion. Assemble several self-identifying foodies and throw out a sentence like “spaghetti and meatballs are not authentic.” Then walk away, whistling, with your hands behind your back. I guarantee you the group will come to blows before the hour is out. We can plow the rich ground of culinary authenticity battles another time, but the fundamentalist line tends to sound something like this:

* Ricotta cheese is made from whey, not whole milk. Ergo, every tub of “ricotta” sold in American supermarkets is a dirty lie.
* Thai food is cooked by Thai people, period. I don’t know what Andy Ricker thinks he’s playing at out in PDX.
* California rolls aren’t “sushi.”

The post-structuralist view can be just as galling, disavowing the existence of objective standards altogether. A middle-aged woman once threatened to punch my lights out in the Real Food Company on Russian Hill when I told her the things she thought were called scallions were actually shallots, because, as it turns out, that is what her mother called them, and her grandmother before her. Far be it from me to screw with someone’s fond childhood memories.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously once said, when asked to define pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” That pretty well covers the problem with most attempts to establish the “authenticity” of various foods. Everyone means something different when they use the word “authentic,” but there comes a point at which nearly everyone can agree the boundaries have been pushed beyond a reasonable point.

Take, for example, Peking duck. This is a dish you only obtain at Chinese restaurants, not the scary takeout with the plexiglas window where you can get enough sesame chicken to feed yourself over the next two days for $5. Peking duck is the province of the kind of Chinese restaurant Chinese émigrés frequent on the Lunar New Year. It requires at least 24 hours advance ordering. When the waiter brings it out to the table, everyone turns to watch in envy (or anticipation) before he takes it back to carve into shards of crisp skin and tender meat, to be eaten inside soft wheat pancakes as a prelude to duck soup and maybe duck fried rice. Unlike the aforementioned sesame chicken, Peking duck not only originated in Beijing but has a centuries’ long history of preparation and consumption according to more or less the same set of rules, in basically unreconstructed form, whether in Beijing, the United States, or Britain. It is an undeniably Chinese food and is easy to categorize because it’s always been prepared according to a fairly narrow set of specifications. And we all know what a Peking duck isn’t. A pig in blanket isn’t a Peking duck. Roast chicken and lefse isn’t Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

This is not a Peking duck.

But some foods are harder to categorize, like tacos. Pretty much everyone agrees on the little corn tortillas, sometimes overlapped or doubled up and sometimes not, spread with a little bit of meat filling, maybe a little onion or cilantro, and then rolled or folded for eating. Beyond that, the question of taco authenticity is far more complicated than that of Peking duck. Rigid types will tell you tacos have to be served on corn tortillas made from masa harina and beyond a certain level of garniture, they are no longer tacos but rather some fancy perversion. Others will note the influx of wheat flour into the Northern Mexican states – Sonora and Chihuahua in particular – eventually led to the preparation and acceptance of wheat flour tortillas into the Northern Mexican diets, so a taco on a wheat tortilla is still a taco. Still others will argue the taco doesn’t stop being a taco just because it crosses the border from Mexico into Texas or Arizona or even points further north, and that there’s a difference between quality and authenticity. Take any tortilla and fill it with some kind of seasoned meat and a few other items, or basically any edible item for that matter, and you have a taco. By this reckoning, Taco Bell might not make a good taco, but it isn’t wholly inauthentic, either, because the basic parts are there. Can you push it a little further? What if you fry the shell first – the Ortega crunchy-shell business I’m always droning on and on about how much I love? What if you add pineapple and sriracha and Thai chiles? Does either of those things stop the resulting dish from being a taco, or is it still a taco if you call it a taco?

Braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla.  Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

Cabernet-braised beef cheek, farmer cheese, braised cipollini, in a crunchy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft corn tortilla. Is it a taco, or is it a crime against humanity?

So can Peking duck be a taco? Fundie authenticity types would string me up for even suggesting it, I’m sure, but let’s look at the facts. Roasted meat, thin griddled wheat flatbread, some type of fresh onion, and maybe some vegetables. Based on a strictly side by side comparison of basic ingredients and assembly, how is Peking duck not essentially the same thing as tacos al asador? And yet, I wager a survey of most people will establish that few believe Peking duck to be a type of taco, and that hoping to turn it into a taco by simply calling it a “duck taco” is the equivalent of Jan Brady strapping on a curly black wig and expecting to gain a whole new identity – ridiculous and not likely to fool anyone. At the same time, at least some of those same people would find it clever to make or be served a “duck taco with hoisin,” like this number from a Los Angeles restaurant. It seems ridiculous to claim one is a taco and the other is not. What would Potter Stewart say? Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?

Peking duck

It doesn’t really matter whether Peking duck is a taco or not. It’s one of the best things to eat, and that’s good enough. Peking duck is an event. It’s special-occasion food. You don’t just decide you’re going to make Peking duck tonight and whip it up when you come home from work, at least not unless you’ve done a whole bunch of advance prep. It involves multiple steps, none of which is remotely difficult but each being necessary to a successful duck. The most important of these are separating the all skin from the meat before you do anything else to the duck, and letting it dry well in the refrigerator or in front of a fan in a cold room. These ensure the surface will be dry when it goes in the oven, minimizing steaming and any tendency to rubberiness, and the fatty layer under the skin will heat quickly and melt off, leaving shatteringly crisp skin that’s both savory and a little sweet.

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Peking duck is not about the meat, although obviously the dish does yield some. Use a Pekin duck (or Long Island duck), the traditional duck used in Beijing for this dish. They are bred for their skin and fat, not their meat and by happy coincidence are the least expensive ducks you can buy; for this dish, don’t waste your money on ducks better suited to breaking down and searing, like Muscovy or Moulard. The high heat needed to crisp the skin will ruin the meat of those breasts, which should be served medium rare. Instead, accept that the meat of the Pekin duck will be fully well done. You should serve both the skin and the meat with the pancakes, hoisin sauce, scallions, and if you like, some fresh cucumber.

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Maltose is a type of sugar that is not nearly as sweet as sucrose, only about a third as sweet. It comes from barley malt and is the stickiest shit you’ll ever encounter in a kitchen. If you can’t find the super-thick version available in Chinese stores, but have access to Whole Foods or some other natural foods store, try barley malt syrup, which is pretty similar and far easier to work with (although it has a slightly more toasty taste).

For the duck:

1/4 tsp five spice powder
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 Pekin duck
1/4 c maltose syrup
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c water

Combine the salt and five spice powder. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set up a colander in a well-draining sink.

Trim the excess fat from around the neck and cavity of the duck. You should remove your rings for the next step, if you wear rings. Starting at the cavity, separate the skin from the fatty skin with your hands, working slowly to avoid tearing. Once you get to the point your hands are too big to go any further without damaging the skin, insert a small/medium wooden spoon, convex side against the skin, into the space between skin and meat and work slowly to separate all the skin. Do the same for the thighs and legs, as well as you can (the skin from the drumstick portion of the legs you do not need to detach if you find this difficult). Classically, air is pumped between the two, but this is difficult to accomplish at home and the spoon method will work just as well.

When the water comes to a boil, stand the duck cavity side down in the colander in a sink and slowly pour the boiling water evenly over all. Do not pour faster than the sink can drain immediately. Pat the duck dry. Season the cavity with the salt/five spice mixture.

Clear enough space in your refrigerator to accommodate both the pan you will be using and enough vertical height for the duck. If you have one of those obnoxious beer can chicken roasters, stand the duck on the roasting apparatus, cavity side down. If not, use a clean, tallish (empty) beer can. I recommend the 16 ounce Heineken or Bitburger cans. Place in a small roasting or cake pan large enough to accommodate the bird standing up. Refrigerate at least 6-12 hours before the next step.

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Bring the maltose, vinegar, soy, and water to a boil and remove from heat once the maltose has dissolved. After the duck has dried out for about 6-12 hours, paint the surface evenly with a thin coat of the maltose. Return to the refrigerator and repeat every 6-8 hours if possible until you have added three coats. It should be shiny and quite dry/barely sticky to the touch.

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Heat your oven to 450F. If you have a rotisserie arrangement, now is the time to use it! Be sure to place a large pan under the duck to catch the fat and drippings. If not, carefully place the duck, still standing vertically in its pan, in the oven. Blast it at 450F for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350F. Do not open the oven door to check on it, at least not for the first hour. Use this time to make the pancakes.

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After about 75=90 minutes, your duck should be ready to come out. Remove the pan or rotisserie. Allow it to cool about 10-15 minutes to allow the glaze to re-harden. It will be rather glossy and a deep mahogany.

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Separate the skin in the largest pieces possible and slice them up. Remove what meat exists from the bony frame and slice or shred it. Serve it with the pancakes and other condiments listed below.

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For the pancakes:

2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 c boiling water
toasted sesame oil

Whisk together the flour and salt in a stand mixer bowl. With the mixer running, add the boiling water slowly. Knead until you obtain a smooth, elastic dough. You do not need to let this dough rest as it is a boiling-water dough; the gluten becomes very relaxed from the high heat. Roll into a ball and divide in two; roll each half into a smooth ball, then into a cylinder, and divide into 10 uniform pieces each. Cover what you aren’t using. Gently flatten two pieces at a time; brush each on both sides with sesame oil. Place one oiled disc atop another. (Alternatively, roll each half into approximately 1/8″ thick disc. Stamp out rounds using a biscuit cutter.)

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Roll out the double disc and then flip over; roll some more. These should be as thin as you can make them without tearing. Don’t press too hard or they will stick together and become difficult to separate.

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Place a dry skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the rolled out pancakes (if your skillet is large enough, you can do two at once). Wait for them to just barely puff slightly and flip. They should be browned in spots but not burnt or uniformly brown. Place in a steamer basket lined with a clean kitchen towel and cover with the towel. Cover with the steamer lid. Don’t let them sit out uncovered or they will dry out as the steam escapes.

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To assemble and serve:

12 scallions
1 long Japanese cucumber, peeled and sliced into 2″ batons
1/4 c hoisin sauce

Slice the scallions thinly on the diagonal or, for a fancier presentation, cut them into 2″ lengths, slice those vertically into 1/8″ batons, and place in ice water for up to an hour.

I don’t like raw cucumber so I rarely eat it plain, but instead dress the cucumbers with a little rice vinegar and sugar to take off that raw edge. If you choose to do this, combine 2 tbsp of rice vinegar, 2 tbsp of filtered water, 1/2 tsp sugar and a pinch of salt and dress the cucumbers lightly about 30 minutes before service.

Serve the duck with the pancakes, the hoisin sauce, the cucumber, and the scallions. Diners may build their own or you may build them before service (which tends to look nicer).

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Note: Acolytes of postmodernism who think I have butchered and/or misrepresented your viewpoint, it’s possible, sure. Feel free to let me have it in the comments.

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Beans, Beef, Cheese, Grains, Midwest-y, Pork Products, Random Thoughts, Southern

American Beauty.

I recently took some grief on Facebook for posting a photo of a sausage, potato, and cabbage supper – specifically, the bratwurst from a couple weeks ago. To quote my critic: “Funny … if I made medisterpølse with rødkål and brasekartofler, I probably wouldn’t post it,” followed by the smiley face icon that is universal internet shorthand for “I’m just sayin.” In other words, barely a step up from unwrapping and snapping a photo of Lunchables. I guess some Danes are all uppity about Noma and Geranium and Formel B these days, what with being the epicenter of modern microcuisine and all. That’s fine. It doesn’t change the basic fact that great house made sausage is one of the most delicious things you can eat.

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary,” preened Angela Hayes in American Beauty, without a clue what ordinariness means. There’s an idea among some food people that familiar foods are categorically ordinary – declassé, and “unhealthy.” It’s a little like people who move to Manhattan or Los Angeles and try to erase all vestiges of their midwestern upbringing in favor of a more sophisticated mien. A recent discussion of the merits/demerits of the KFC Double Down was a virtual clinic on the taxonomy of food snobs. In the “Fancier than Thou” category (and overlapping with “My Body Is a Temple”), were dramatic statements like “Buying food from chain restaurants is cultural destruction” and “We’re eating the values that go with the food.” From “Ill Informed Know-It-All” (overlapping with “Fancier Than Thou”), came declarations like “The Guardian [news] is in the vanguard of pimping ‘American Casual Dining’ to its sheep-like, trend-obsessed readers. … The middle classses are now gorging on the same food marketed as ‘hipster’ and ‘gourmet.'” Everyone has encountered “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” in at least one of its many guises, including “I don’t eat it if it’s not organic” and “I don’t have celiac disease but gluten is as evil as vaccination,” especially if said gluten takes the form of supermarket white bread or mass-produced pasta, not grains hand-threshed by seed-saving heirloom farmers with Master’s degrees in pre-revolutionary French history. I’m not defending the Double Down, you understand, but if I pound out two organic chicken breasts, bread them using fresh crumbs from homebaked bread, fry them in the rendered fat from ibérico bacon strips and bind the sandwich together with Fontina Val d’Aosta, is the result any less caloric? Comparatively speaking, is this sandwich or the Double Down more or less the supposed culinary equivalent of knocking over the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the name of religious fanaticism?

food snob taxonomy

Interestingly, you can get a pass from the food snobs if the foods of your childhood happen to be “ethnic” – and accordingly out of the ordinary – by American standards. Packaged ramen, for example, was basically the lowest form of college poverty shame food in the US until David Chang declared in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach that, as a kid, he totally would eat the uncooked brick of ramen for a snack, whereupon it became a cheeky sort of treat. (Full disclosure: Yours truly did this as well as a kid, and the desk drawers in my bedroom were always littered with broken ramen crumbs.) This kind of fetishism is its own kind of food snobbery, and one with a hideously ethnocentric and sometimes even racist component, but that’s a subject for another day. For now, let’s deal with the idea that “traditional American” food, if that’s even a meaningful concept, can be extraordinary and is not something to run from in embarrassment.

Knackwurst and Cheddarwurst

Cheddarwurst is a Wisconsin thing. If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve had it, and if you haven’t had it, you probably aren’t from Wisconsin. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a smoked sausage with Cheddar cheese. Cheddarwurst horrifies food snobs because, despite combining two delicious foods in one compact, tubular package, its most readily available representation is from the likes of Hillshire Farms, a dreaded manufacturer of processed foods. And you won’t find cheddarwurst anywhere in Germany, so get out your Food Snob Taxonomy and shade in the intersection of “Fancier Than Thou” and “I’m a High Maintenance Special Snowflake” the bright annatto hue of melted American cheese. Crayola Yellow-Orange will do nicely. You can hand it over to the authenticity police when they come to haul you away.

As a Wisconsin girl, I found cheddarwurst a matter of great interest in my youth. I always assumed some sort of high-pressure cheese squirting device was involved in its manufacture. Now, as an experienced sausagemaker, I know the truth is probably far simpler – a stabilized cheese is mixed into the sausage meat before stuffing. Because cheddarwurst is an emulsified sausage – typically based on knackwurst – the melted cheese will not leach into the sausage and disappear, as it might with looser-structured sausages like the bratwurst. Instead, it merely resides, melted, in little pockets until someone bites or cuts through those pockets (or until the sausage cools and the cheese regains its integrity). The sausage meat should be deep pink from curing and smoking, and should virtually explode with juice as you bite through the skin. A little sausage erudition: the reason knackwurst, cheddarwurst, and similar emulsified sausages are snappy and juicy is the water within. When the sausages are heated, the water expands within the casing. The contents of the casing are literally under pressure. You’re welcome.

If you want knackwurst instead of cheddarwurst, just leave out the cheese. I recommend going half and half, making about 3 lbs each knackwurst and cheddarwurst. You must use some form of stabilized cheese to make this or risk greasy pools of orange cheese fat when you heat the sausages. I have provided a recipe for the stabilized cheese I used in this sausage.

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1150g beef chuck (with interior fat)
780g pork shoulder (with fat cap)
220g pork belly
40g salt
5g TCM
7g paprika
4g mace
2g ground coriander
13g black pepper
2g smoked garlic powder
large pinch cloves
120g nonfat dry milk
220g ice water
250g processed cheese (see Extra: Processed Cheese elsewhere on this site)
hog casings

Cube all the meats and fat and freeze until firm but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients. Set aside. Soak the hog casings in ice water for 30 minutes; rinse three times under running water. Hold in ice water until ready to use.

Toss the frozen meats with about half the dry seasonings. Grind through a medium die into a large metal mixer bowl. Immediately toss well with the remaining dry ingredients and incorporate thoroughly by hand. Then add the ice water and mix well to emulsify, increasing mixer speed from low to medium-high. Do not overmix to avoid breakage. The mixture must be ice cold when you add the water. It will become somewhat loose when you first pour in the water but will firm up somewhat as the water is incorporated. Cook a test quenelle and add more salt or other seasonings as necessary.

Before emulsifying.

Before emulsifying.

Once emulsified.

Once emulsified.

Dice the cheese about 1/4″. By hand, stir it into the emulsified sausage, distributing as evenly as possible.

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Fill a sausage stuffer and load on the soaked and rinsed hog casings. Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Place in a single layer on a sheet pan and dry in the refrigerator 12-24 hours. Turn over and dry the other side another 12-24 hours.

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Drape the links over a rotisserie skewer or similar and smoke over hardwood for about 2 hours at 88C/190F to an internal temperature of about 71C/160F. Try to avoid letting the individual links touch or you will have to reposition them to ensure even smoking.

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Depending on the size of your links, this may take somewhat longer. Do not allow the smoker to heat over 120C/250F and watch it carefully if it reaches temperatures over 100C/212F or your sausages may burst or leak during smoking.

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Brown in an oiled pan over low heat, or grill indirectly over coals, before serving.

Red beans and rice, auf Deutsch

Why auf Deutsch? Well, red beans and rice are traditionally made with tasso, andouille, or other Louisiana cured, pickled, or smoked pork products, and I’m using the knackwurst made above. I don’t want the authenticity police on my back, so let’s call it German-influenced Creole, or Creole-influenced German.

In keeping with the Creole aspect of the dish, I used a Louisiana popcorn rice, bred for its nutty, buttery flavor. After learning of Sean Brock’s method of preparing Carolina Gold, which he has served to great effect at Husk in a dish called Charleston Ice Cream, I tried it out with the Louisiana rice, aging the rice in sealed containers for a year with bay leaves from our garden, and parboiling the finished product before finishing in a low oven, with butter. The results are spectacular, even if you don’t age the rice first with bay. Try it on its own before adding the red beans and sausage.

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For the beans:

2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 whole head garlic
1/2 lb dried red kidney beans

For the broth:

3 stalks celery
1 medium yellow onion
2 serrano chiles or one very hot jalepeño, seeded and stemmed
1 cubanelle pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp rendered bacon fat
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 1/2 c smoked chicken stock or pork stock

For the rice:

1 1/2 c Louisiana popcorn rice
6 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 branches parsley
3 tbsp butter

To finish:

2 knackwurst, from above
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
Tabasco
pickled ramps
3 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
chives, sliced thinly
assorted herbs and flowers: chive blossom, dianthus, oxalis, thyme, woodruff, sorrel, pea tendrils, anything growing at the moment that is edible and sounds good to you

Cover the kidney beans in water to cover plus three inches, with 1 tsp salt. Cover and stand 12 hours.

Combine the kidney beans with about 6 c water, bay leaves, halved garlic head, thyme, and 1 tsp salt, and cook for about 8 minutes at 15 psi in a pressure cooker (25 minutes if you do not soak). After releasing pressure, drain well and set aside in a colander.

Finely dice (1/4″) each of the celery, onion, and serrano chile. Thinly slice the garlic. Roast the cubanelle over an open flame and place in a sealed bag to steam off the skin. Dice finely, removing the seeds. Sweat the vegetables in bacon fat over low heat, seasoning with a little salt. Add the spices and dried thyme, and saute a minute to bring out the aromas. Add the bay leaves and thyme, and the stock. Simmer, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the drained beans. Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Add white pepper, salt, and Tabasco to taste.

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Meanwhile, cook the rice. 200F oven. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and 1 tbsp salt. When it comes to a boil, add the rice and stir to prevent sticking. Maintain heat at a low boil for 15 minutes and drain, discarding the herbs. Spread on a sheet pan in a thin, even layer. [At this point, if you are preparing for later service, chill it down immediately in the freezer, cover with clingfilm once completely cold, and refrigerate until 30 minutes before service.] Stud with the butter and the remaining bay leaves. Bake another 18 minutes and stir.

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Cook the knackwurst over low heat until the sausage is taut and plump. Slice each into four pieces. Ladle the beans and broth in the bottom of a bowl, add a mound of rice, garnish with the sausage and the various herbs and flowers.

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Ein prosit der gemütlichkeit.

Those who did not have the good fortune to grow up in Wisconsin tend to play down its gastronomic charms as minimal, limited to cheap beer and government surplus cheese. That’s because they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re probably envious as well. You see, dining in Wisconsin isn’t just about the food; it’s also about a certain sense of comfort and happiness based in relaxing with, and feeling close to, your people – what we would call gemütlichkeit. You don’t have to be ethnically German to understand gemütlichkeit; just being from, or in, southeastern Wisconsin will get you there. Gemütlichkeit is the reason Summerfest happens in Milwaukee and not, say, Seattle, and why the University of Wisconsin has the greatest student union in America. It’s why no one minds waiting in line for sausages at Usinger’s, and random strangers will invite you to crash a party – and really mean it. It’s not really a Midwestern thing, either. Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is so much more gemütlich than other Midwestern locales that I found Minnesotans closed-off and positively chilly when I moved there.

Possibly the archetypical, most gemütlich, Wisconsin food is bratwurst, which translates in German either to “pan fried sausage” or “finely chopped meat sausage.” This description obviously doesn’t distinguish bratwurst from most other sausages, but if you’ve ever had a good brat, you know exactly what to expect – the snap of the casing, the cascade of juice, the aroma of mace and marjoram spicing up the pork and veal. It’s usually fairly coarse in texture, sometimes finer, but you always should be able to discern the texture of the meat; if it’s emulsified like a hot dog, it’s not a brat. And while we’re on the subject, it’s pronounced “braht,” like “father,” not “brat” like “apple,” or like “beat on the brat with a baseball bat.

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Brats are social food, the sort of thing you eat in the company of others, not like a sad box of Fruit Loops you eat by the handful in the car, alone. They can be pan-fried, of course, but the other standard Milwaukee preparation is to poach the sausages in beer enriched with onions and maybe butter until cooked through, and then grill over charcoal just long enough for the skins to brown, just shy of blistered. This ritual typically takes place in backyard Weber kettles, on the never-cleaned picnic area grills in the Milwaukee County Parks, or in the parking lot of County Stadium* both before and after the game. The centrality of bratwurst, and basically all sausages, to Milwaukee culture is reflected in the Sausage Race at the top of the sixth in every Brewers home game. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the Sausage Race pits people dressed as the culturally significant sausages of Milwaukee – a brat, a Polish sausage, an Italian sausage, a hot dog, and a chorizo (the last two having joined the race in the last decade) – in a footrace around the stadium. The Sausage Race is highly gemütlich, providing Brewers fans a rallying point during games and uniting them around a common love of multiethnic tube meats, even while providing a source of friendly competition.**

Sausages on their marks.
***

I recently recounted to my husband a 2013 incident involving the heist of Guido, the Italian racing sausage. If you don’t recall Weenie Gate, you never heard the story in the first place, because it’s not the sort of thing one forgets. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, “The 7-foot-long weenie was lying unused in a backroom at the Milwaukee Curling Club. …[A] witness saw the sausage walk out of the south door about 7:45 p.m.” In the subsequent week, the giant foam sausage made its unauthorized rounds about Cedarburg, drinking PBRs, jamming at the Roadhouse Bar and Grill, and signing autographs, before being returned by an unidentified hood-wearing man who entered TJ Ryan’s, deposited Guido on a barstool, said “You did not see anything” to the bartender, and strolled out. My husband, who has as keen an insight into Milwaukee’s essence as any non-native, immediately identified the parallels with another famous episode of gemütlichkeit gone bad: the ill-conceived “Martinifest” at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In characteristic Milwaukee fashion, revelers drank so excessively that they soon engaged in such completely debauched group behavior as mounting and riding the Gaston Lachaise bronze of a standing woman. One might question why, especially in a city as soaked in alcohol and fun-loving criminality as Milwaukee, anyone thought unlimited martinis for $30 was a good idea. Perhaps the Texas-based corporate sponsor lacked the necessary cultural awareness.****

Bratwurst

The most famed bratwurst in Wisconsin come not from Milwaukee but from Sheboygan, about an hour north on Lake Michigan. The other thing that happens in Sheboygan is chartered fishing expeditions for brown trout and Chinook salmon, but that’s another story. It’s a cute town. One time, my parents went up on an impromptu day trip without telling me and, when I came home from university for the weekend, I had to break into my own house. It’s pretty uncool when the neighbors call the cops because they see someone’s legs hanging out your kitchen window and those legs happen to belong to you.

Sheboyganites get kind of tense if you talk of poaching their brats in beer before grilling, they way we do in Milwaukee. They consider it an amateur move. I don’t know about that, but beer-poaching tends to make for plumper sausages, and soften the skins a little so they burst less readily during grilling. Anyway, don’t overcomplicate your sausage-making – no need for special modernist twists, just straightforward grinding and stuffing. There is a time and place for esoteric ingredients and complex technique in cooking, but making bratwurst is not that time. Let it be about good quality meat with a decent amount of fat, and a liberal quantity of both sweet and hot spices. Making sausage with at least one other person – who can turn the crank on the stuffer or even just hang out and work the bottle opener – is more fun than doing it alone.

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950g veal shoulder
1350g pork shoulder (including a generous fat cap comprising about 1/4 the total weight of the meat)
30g salt
7g each black pepper and white pepper
5g crushed red pepper flakes
3 tbsp chopped marjoram
1 1/2 tsp smoked granulated garlic
1 1/4 tsp ground mace
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
natural casings

Dice the meats and spread on a sheet pan. Incidentally, meat proportions here are not really crucial (I set out a 3:2 ratio of fatty pork to veal, but if veal is too expensive or unavailable, you could decrease the amount of veal, or go with all pork, for example). If your pork shoulder is mostly lean, substitute some fresh belly or fatback. Freeze until firm, but not hard. Meanwhile, combine all the dry ingredients.

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Toss with the frozen cubed meat and grind through a medium die. Add about 175g (2/3 c) ice water and mix lightly by hand just to distribute evenly. This is not an emulsified sausage so don’t beat in the water.

Stuff the casings. Pinch off at about 15 cm (6″) intervals and twist every other link in an opposite direction (for example, twist link 2 toward you, link 4 away, and so on). Cook within the next 3 days. If you don’t intend to use all your brats within that time, freeze on a silpat-lined sheet pan until solid and then vacuum pack in bags.

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Note: If you have access to really small-diameter natural casings (18-20 mm), such as one uses to make breakfast links, you can make something very similar to the famous Nuremberger Bratwurst (Nürnberger Bratwürste). Change the ratio of veal and pork to 1:2 (about 33% veal to 67% pork), and omit the black pepper, garlic, and red chile flake. Pinch off at 8 mm intervals and, after grilling, serve three to a roll.

For beer bratwurst:

Per 6 bratwurst:

2 bottles German-style pilsner or some similar beer
1 large onion, sliced thinly pole-to-pole
2 bay leaves
about a dozen black peppercorns and a few whole allspice
2-3 tbsp butter

Combine all the ingredients in a pan with a lid and add the bratwurst. Bring to just short of a simmer (about 82C/180F) and cover. Don’t let the liquid boil or even simmer visibly or the casings will burst. Turn over, using tongs or even just a spoon, after about 8 minutes. Cook another 8 minutes or so until completely cooked through. Handle carefully to avoid piercing or otherwise damaging the sausage casings.

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Remove to a plate and rest for about 5 minutes to dry out the casings. Finish over medium heat in an oiled pan, or on a well-oiled grill over indirect heat. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat or your brats will burst. They may take longer to cook than you like, but just have another beer and don’t worry about it.

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Serve in a split crusty roll brushed with melted butter, thinly sliced onion (rinsed in cold water and drained), and dill pickle slices, and lots of mustard, or with German fried potatoes (bratkartoffeln) and some kind of cabbage product. If you go the sandwich route, know that eating brats two aside in a roll is considered normal Wisconsin behavior and not degenerate or unduly gluttonous.

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Extra: Hard rolls

Wisconsinites are an easygoing people and not doctrinaire in most matters. Except when it comes to bratwurst. Opinions vary whether yellow mustard and ketchup are ever appropriate (certain hardass types say no, but reasonable people can disagree), and as noted above, there exists a beer/no beer parcooking divide. The one universal point of agreement is a categorical ban on the use of hot dog buns. You need a sturdy roll, crusty on the outside and airy within, to soak up the brat juices and still retain its integrity. If you do it wrong, you will be shunned.

Unless you live in Wisconsin, your supermarket bakery is unlikely to carry the right kind of roll. These hard rolls are a basic bread you can make at home in under three hours, most of which is rising time.

350g bread flour
6g barley malt powder
4g yeast
175g warm water
40g olive oil
4g salt

Combine all ingredients but the salt and knead (by hand or in stand mixer with dough hook) until smooth and not sticky to touch. Knead in the salt and place in a deep bowl or lidded container. Cover the bowl tightly and rise an hour or until doubled. Heat oven to 400F.

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Divide into 6 balls and form into ovals. Press to flatten slightly and mark vertically through the center with the handle of a wooden spoon. Place on a lined sheet pan sprinkled with cornmeal. Cover and rise until puffy.

Spray with a fine water mist, place in the oven, and spray the walls of the oven with water. Bake for about 20-22 minutes until deep golden. About five minutes after putting in the rolls, mist the walls of the oven again.

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* I’m aware it’s supposedly called Miller Park now. I’m not used to that name, much like the city airport in Washington DC is and always will be National Airport.

** As the fame of the racing sausages spread, other major league ballparks adopted the use of comically oversized foam racing icons. The Pirates were first to emulate Milwaukee, with the racing pierogies, and the Nationals of course have the Presidents’ Race. This is not the first time Milwaukee set a trend rooted in gemütlichkeit. In the late Seventies, a local songwriter penned a promotional tune for Milwaukee’s ABC affiliate (WISN) extolling the virtues of the city, especially its “thousand yesterdays,” “magic ways,” and how “we’re all good neighbors passing by.” I remember all the words as every third grader in the WISN viewing area ultimately was forced to sing it at spring concerts for the next three years. In any case, the song, “Hello Milwaukee,” was co-opted by 167 cities around the United States and Canada in the ensuing years. I’m sure the residents of each of these cities thought the song was their own, but it isn’t. It’s ours. You’re welcome.

*** Published pursuant to Wikimedia Commons License.

**** In any case, Scientific American used Martinifest as a case study for how not to conduct a fundraiser in any proximity to valuable works of art. Milwaukee is pleased to contribute to these advances in scientific research.

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Your medium western states.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee in the Seventies, my city was the epicenter of American prime time television culture, what with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and all. The interesting thing is it came by this fame not for displaying its contemporary charms, but by portraying a sort of idealized vision of a Fifties-era Milwaukee, evoking a sagging nation’s fondness for its own better days. If you doubt the prominence of Wisconsin in Seventies pop culture and its use as a nostalgic prop, I submit to you that, twenty years later, Fox set That Seventies Show not in New York or San Francisco or Southern California, but in my home state. As viewed through the lens of television, the whole idea of Wisconsin is like standing in one of those bathrooms with a mirrored shower door opposite a mirrored wall. You can stand there and watch yourself traveling backwards through time into infinity.

Fairly or not, in any case, the Midwest as a whole has come to represent the situs of not only American nostalgia but a sort of anti-progress, looking backward at our past as though into the endless regression of those reflected mirror images. Is it true – that we stand still while time eddies around us? Does it matter? Which brings me to South Dakota, where I recently spent a week driving around with a colleague, another transplanted Midwesterner now living on the east coast.

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Here’s the thing about living in the city: it can turn you into a glutton for novelty and status. You get to the point where you always order the one unfamiliar item on the menu, which you have scanned for words like tripe, foraged, and hay-smoked to ensure the chef, like you, has been doing his homework. Securing a cronut comes with bragging rights, until that sudden moment when they’re so over, as over as cupcakes and salted caramel, fodder for copycatting on mommy blogs and the Starbucks bakery case. You watch that Portlandia episode with an expanding sense of unease, like, are you this ridiculous? Maybe you are this ridiculous.

None of this is an issue in rural South Dakota. Your dining options are basically limited to truck stops and taverns, and you had better like beef, or you’re shit out of luck. One night during our visit, we ordered grilled ribeyes, which came with a trip to the salad bar. “You first,” I gestured to my colleague. He returned a few minutes later with a frosted glass plate of iceberg lettuce and what looked like macaroni salad. “Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned me in his low-key Michigander way, as I stood for my turn. Nestled beside the bowl of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce in the salad buffet was something I thought could be creamed mushrooms. For one demented moment, I even thought it might be edible soil folded into mayonnaise. I took a big spoonful. It turned out to be crushed Oreos folded into vanilla pudding, which, I learned the next day, is called “cookie salad” locally and may be varied by substituting other cookies or candy bars for the Oreos, and Cool Whip for the pudding. “That sounds great,” my husband said later that night, when I gave him the post-game over the phone. “Not as salad, though.”

This is the kind of food that makes sophisticates on the coasts cast knowing glances of pity and scorn on their Midwestern associates. And plant foods are not the strong point of rural South Dakota at end-of-winter, based on our visit. But the ribeyes were deeply marked from the grill, rimmed in charred fat, and mine was the perfect medium rare I’d requested. The macaroni salad turned out to be a very good potato salad, the potato grated into long shreds and bound lightly in mayonnaise. Beers were icy, served in frosted mugs. Cookie salad notwithstanding, our dinner was the kind of thing – like grilled cheese or meat lasagne – most of us love when we’re not trying to keep up appearances. Sometimes moving forward is less important than standing perfectly still.

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Breakfast Egg

A good breakfast is a lot like a good dinner in the rural Midwest. It’s inherently retrograde – probably taking you back a couple of decades at least – and delivers total familiarity, not intellectual demands first thing in the morning. Maybe you deploy a few tricks here and there – your eggs are cooked in a water bath, your sausage is house-made – but always in the service of improvement, not novelty. Like Steve Austin. We can rebuild it. We have the technology. We can make it better than it was. But also like Steve Austin, the perfect modern breakfast still basically looks like the breakfast you remember.

When I was a kid, I figured out pretty early that I could do almost anything I wanted during weekend mornings if I was quiet enough not to wake my parents. This awareness inevitably led me down one of two paths: slice upon slice of white sandwich bread, toasted one at a time and immediately spread with thin curls of cold salted butter; or eggs, either scrambled with slices of American cheese (one per egg), or beaten and poured into a swirling vortex of chicken bouillon until just set, like a fluffy, poached, chicken-flavored omelet. Both were eaten watching Super Friends while sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter; both were always followed, once my parents came down a couple hours later, by what I liked to call “second breakfast.”

What follows is a modern breakfast interpretation of one of my favorite second breakfasts, over easy eggs with maple-y sausage links and bacon, toast on the side. The yolk should run somewhat; you accomplish this by cooking the egg until only the white is set, chilling, and wrapping the chilled egg in sausage. If you let the egg come to room temperature before frying, you probably will end up with a set (if soft-ish) yolk.

Transglutaminase is not strictly necessary. It binds the protein in the pork to that in the egg white, but you can achieve a pretty ok effect by rolling the eggs in flour. The downside to flour is it can form an unappetizing pastelike substance when it combines with the moisture in the pork, so use only the merest coating. And if you don’t keep quarts of bacon fat around the house, pretty much any vegetable oil will do, though your eggs won’t taste all that bacon-y.

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For the eggs:

6 large eggs, at room temperature
Egg carton

Prepare an ice bath.

Bring 3000 ml (3 liters, about 3 qts) salted water to a boil. Carefully add the eggs. Cook just at the boil (not a rolling boil) for 4 1/2 minutes. Remove with a skimmer and deposit in the ice bath. Once the eggs are just cool enough to handle, tap lightly all over to form shallow cracks, including at both ends. Allow the eggs to rest in the ice bath under refrigeration at least 3 hours. This allows the eggs to cool but also permits water to penetrate the cracks and loosen the shell.

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When ready to coat in sausage, remove the shell. Store the eggs upright in an empty egg carton lined with clingfilm.

For the sausage:

700g/1.5 lbs pork shoulder, quite fatty (2:1 ratio shoulder to belly if a fatty cut of shoulder is not available)
2 1/4 tsp smoked salt
2 tbsp maple sugar
1/8 tsp pimentón
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
leaves from 3 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic, peeled

Cube the pork shoulder and season with the salt, sugar, pepper, and pimentón. Freeze briefly and then add the thyme leaves and thinly sliced garlic. Grind through a small die. Cook a test quenelle and add seasoning if necessary.

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To fry:

2-4 slices bacon, depending on thickness
4 g transglutaminase (Activa RM)
4 c bacon fat
1 c flour
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp water
2 c panko

Set the bacon slices on a rack over a quarter sheet pan and bake at 150C/300F for 8-15 minutes (depending on thickness) until the bacon, including its fat, is just cooked but not browned. Reduce heat to 82C/180F and continue to dry the bacon until crisp, about 3 hours. Not browning the bacon is important, as browned bacon will burn once fried later. Drain well on paper towels, cool, and grind to a powder. Combine with the panko. Up to this point, you may store the panko blend tightly covered for several days in the refrigerator.

On a large square of clingfilm, spread about 75g (around 3 ounces) sausage in a thin (about 3 mm) layer large enough to cover the egg evenly once completely rolled. Note: You should do a test run to get a sense of the size of the sausage layer before proceeding to the next step as mistakes cannot be undone without an adverse impact on texture.

Sprinkle transglutaminase over the sausage surface in a thin layer (about 1% by weight, so just over .5g per egg). Place an egg in the center and gather the clingfilm upwards, covering the surface of the egg with sausage. Twist to enclose completely and form into an ovaline ball; repeat until all the sausage and eggs are gone. It is best to place these in a muffin/popover tin as you work so they remain round while they chill. Chill for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.

Set up a standard three part breading station and heat the bacon fat to 163C/325F. Unwrap the sausage-covered eggs as you are ready to fry. Ensure the sausage is well attached to the egg; dip in the flour, the egg wash, then the panko-bacon mixture. Fry on each side for about 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm with rye toast for dipping in the runny yolk.

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Bonus: Michelada

On the way home from South Dakota, I stopped at O’Hare. I never complain about laying over in O’Hare because I can stock up on Garrett’s cheese corn and have molletes at Tortas Frontera. This time, I added a cocktail to my routine. The bartender was kind enough to put it in a to go cup so I could use it to take the edge off my flight. Midwesterners are so thoughtful.

I’ve consumed many a michelada, but this was by far the best. I attribute it to the extra lime I requested. If you like drinking with breakfast at weekends, this is better than bloodies – more refreshing and far less drunk-making. I have no idea if this is how Frontera makes micheladas, but it tastes right.

Tajin* or Valentina fruit seasoning (Note: these are both dry seasonings of chile, lime, and salt and are pretty much the same. Excellent on melons, mango, and papaya. Substitute a chile salt)
One 12-ounce Negro Modelo or similar; Corona or PBR will do in a pinch
1 tsp or so Valentina hot sauce (specifically)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 shakes Maggi
Juice of two limes or one really juicy, large lime
Optional: between 1/2 and 1 shot tequila (NOT silver or blanco, and nothing really expensive)
Several ice cubes

Moisten the rim of a pint glass and dip in a plate with a shallow layer of Tajin.

In the glass, stir together the hot sauce, Worcestershire, Maggi, lime juice, and tequila if using. Add the ice cubes. Slowly pour in about 1/3 of the beer and stir gently just to combine. Add the rest of the beer. Drink with more lime.

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*Note: The Tajin bottle bears an interesting warning:

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Just right.

Not long ago, a chef I know posted on Facebook about his horror of composed plates. He explained that, for his entire life, he has not been able to stand for the different components of a dish to touch each other. Meat is not to touch side dishes, and sides are not to touch each other. His revulsion evidently is not uncommon*: the internet is replete with obsessives who cannot abide the thought of carrots nudging beef. This fear, which amazingly has a name (brumotactillophobia), seems almost universal among children, perhaps accounting for the necessity of those partitioned lunch trays in grade school.

That said, pointing out to a fully self-actualized adult that his eating habits stand him in good stead with the second graders of the world wins you no friends. Sometimes it’s better just to set an unavoidably good example. For instance, one might make a dish in which every bite was perfect and complete, and so well integrated the committed brumotactillophobe would have no power to resist.

Farro porridge, smoked pork, pickled cabbage

Many laughs have been had at Brooklyn’s expense over the past few years, and justifiably so. I’m as fond as anyone of mocking the borough’s Warby Parkerization, a process so thorough I no longer associate Brooklyn in any way with the opening credits to Welcome Back Kotter, with its tenements and pushcarts and working-class juvenile delinquency. And so I rolled my eyes last December at the news that an “artisanal porridge shop” had opened in Park Slope.

But as with so many things that initially appear ridiculous, there was a tug, an irresistible impulse to turn back for a second look even as you feel sheepish for doing so. I laughed at the Three Little Bears-ness of the artisanal porridge vendor, but the fact is, I looked at the menu and totally would have eaten the hell out of any of the savory porridges. Back in the early 90s, I had a barley “risotto” at Joachim Splichal’s Los Angeles restaurant Patina, and, on replicating it at home, found it far more delicious and easier to prepare well than its namesake. For one thing, whereas risotto leans heavily on the quality of the stock for its flavor, whole grains like barley, farro, and rye are hearty and earthy even prepared with water. For another, risotto’s perfection is fleeting; once attained, it vanishes almost immediately, leaving the dish gummy and soft. Porridges made from whole grains absorb liquid more slowly, and retain their bite even after being held for some time. I’ve used hulled barley, unpolished carnaroli rice, farro, rye grains, winter wheat, malted wheat … pretty much anything the beer supply store carries – to make savory porridges over the years. I’ve even made it from malted grains left over after my husband drains off the wort during beermaking. On my last trip to Copenhagen, I enjoyed a tremendous rendition featuring wheat berries, red cabbage, traditional Danish pickled cucumbers, and ham from Mikkel Marschall of Kadeau Bornholm.

Porridge is best made from things you already have lying around. For example, I don’t recommend actually going to the trouble to cure and smoke a pork shoulder specifically for this dish. It just happened that I did smoke about fifteen pounds of shoulder in the early fall, vacuum sealing slabs of the pork with its own fat and freezing it for the winter. We always have some form of cabbage in the house during the cold months. And we have a huge bin of various grains for making beer. You don’t need to buy or prepare anything special for a delicious pot of porridge. If you have brown rice or barley lying around, use that. Stir in bits of leftover mushrooms, or diced roast beef. Any foods that taste good together will be delicious combined in porridge. Make sure to include a tart element, like pickled onions or similar, so every bite is complete and perfect.

For the smoked pork shoulder:

Note: This yields far more than needed for this recipe. If you’re the kind of person who would go to the effort to cure and smoke a pork shoulder, having a surplus of smoked pork shoulder will not bother you in the least.

4 lb/1800g bone-in pork shoulder (picnic)
75g salt
50g brown sugar
5g smoked granulated garlic
5g pimentón dulce
5g onion powder
5g ground black pepper

Combine the dry ingredients. Rub the pork shoulder well on all surfaces, and in any cavities. Wrap tightly in clingfilm and cure, refrigerated, for three days, turning every 12 hours.

Set up a smoker with wood of choice (I prefer fruit woods for pork and smoked this shoulder over applewood). Smoke the unwrapped shoulder fat side up for 4 hours at 200F, rotating 180 degrees once about three hours into smoking.

Wrap the shoulder in foil and return to a 225F oven. Cook to an internal temperature of 190F. Remove from oven and rest about 45 minutes or so. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat in as large a piece as possible from the bone, being sure to extract the big nuggets within the bone hollows.

For the smoked pork stock:

This yields about 4 liters of stock.

4000g chicken stock (use water if stock unavailable and add 1000g chicken wings, necks, and backs)
smoked pork bone from shoulder, above
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 allspice berries
2 cloves
12 black peppercorns
250g each diced onion, carrot, and celery

Bring the stock (or water and chicken wings/backs/necks) the smoked pork bone, and the herbs and spices to barely a simmer (around 190F). Keep covered and hold at that temperature, skimming if needed, for about four hours. Add the mirepoix and simmer another 45 minutes. Strain.

For the compressed cabbage pickle:

about 10 leaves savoy cabbage (medium sized head)
75 ml white wine vinegar
75 ml filtered water
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp granulated sugar

Combine the vinegar, water, spices, salt, and sugar and bring to a simmer. Once the salt and sugar are dissolved, cool.

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Shred the cabbage about 1/8″. Bag (in 2 separate bags) with equal quantities brine. Seal and drop in a large pot of vigorously boiling water. Boil 6 minutes and chill in ice bath.

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For the farro:

250g farro
45g unsalted butter
one small onion, small dice
125g dry white wine
500g smoked pork stock from above
80g unsalted butter
175g cabbage pickle from above
275g smoked pork from above, diced
Dehydrated spinach**
Chives
Garlic chive blossoms
salt and pepper

Soak the farro for about 6-12 hours in cold water. Drain well. Set immersion circulator to 194F.

Place a large saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. Reduce heat. Add the onion, season with salt, and sweat; add the drained farro and toss well in the butter to coat. Sauté for about 3 minutes until well toasted. Add the wine and stir, allowing the grain to absorb the wine. Season with additional salt.

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Transfer to a plastic bag. Add smoked pork stock and vacuum seal. Drop into circulator and cook for 25 minutes. If necessary, chill in ice bath until ready to serve. [The bag will contain a substantial amount of unabsorbed liquid; absorption will continue to some degree during cooling. This is normal.] If you have neither the means nor inclination to cook the grains sous vide, continue ladling in hot stock as you would for risotto, stirring constantly over low heat. Expect the cooking process to take about 45-50 minutes.

Transfer bag contents to saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until farro is soupy but liquid is thick and creamy.

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Beat in remaining 80g butter; season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in diced cabbage pickle and smoked pork. Spoon into serving bowls and garnish with dehydrated spinach, herbs, and flowers. Serve immediately.

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*YumSugar polling is obviously unscientific.
** You can dehydrate spinach leaves in the microwave or dry at 150F on silpat-lined sheet pans in a convection oven.

Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:
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Fish, preserving, Salad, Vegetables

To Russia, with love.

There’s an expression that goes something like this: “He (or she) knows just enough to be dangerous.” When it comes to culinary expression, a little bit of information plus a lot of ignorance can turn cultural homage into caricature. Who among us has not cringed at some hamfisted effort to honor a particular cuisine? I place in this category basically anything The Olive Garden has ever produced in the name of abbondanza, myriad attempts by clueless schools to celebrate Black History Month with fried chicken and watermelon, and the time when, in law school, I cooked a perfect salmon florentine out of the Pierre Franey 60 Minute Gourmet book for a date who promptly requested soy sauce, because “that’s what goes on Chinese food.” Cue sad trombone.

Recently, our Supper Club assembled around a pre-Soviet Russian theme, inspired by Chekhov’s praise in The Siren for the classic Russian dish, kulebyaka, a giant brioche enclosing sturgeon, kasha, and mushrooms. In a turnabout of the czarist predilection for all things French, Escoffier brought the kulebyaka back to France, where its complexity and richness thrilled gastronomes. The selection of this theme made me mildly anxious. I primarily associate Russian food with the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, about a kind of creepy talking doll whose eyes would light up like fireflies whenever it was about to dispense profundities like “the morning is wiser than the evening” to the little girl who fed it bits of cabbage soup, black bread, and kvass. You get what you pay for, I suppose. To expose the depths of my ignorance even further, I can’t think about this story without hearing Yakov Smirnoff in my head, saying something like “…In Soviet Russia, creepy little girl doll eat YOU!” Like I said, just enough to be dangerous.

Under the circumstances, it seemed best to steer clear of anything that might resemble a mockery of Russian cuisine. Pickled vegetables are popular throughout Russia, as are hearty breads and smoked fish. Why not combine cured and lightly smoked mackerel with black bread, not as a sandwich, but as a first course? To reinforce the cold freshness of the dish, a salad of pickled apple and celery is compressed for crispness, and scattered on the mackerel with herbs, peppery radish slices, and toasted bread crumbs.

Cured mackerel, compressed celery and apple salad, black bread

This dish combines smoky, briny mackerel, with a compressed, vinegared salad, and slightly bitter toasted black bread. It’s not Russian in any traditional sense, but surely could be served at the modern Russian zakuski table.

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Cured mackerel

1 whole mackerel, about 4-5 lbs after gutting
100g sugar
50g brown sugar
120g sea salt
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp coarsely ground coriander seed
120g Bakon vodka or another smoke-flavored vodka

Combine all dry ingredients well.

Fillet the mackerel. (For a treat, roast the rack and the head at 400F until the meat is just opaque. Pull it off the bone and eat with a squeeze of lemon and some salt, or some chimichurri.) Remove any pin bones with tweezers and trim off any portions discolored with bile (depicted in photo) as they will be bitter.

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Place the fillets in a container just large enough to hold both. Coat the mackerel well with the seasoning on both meat and skin side (about twice as much on the meat side as underneath), and set in the container skin side down. Drizzle the Bakon vodka over the top. Cover the container tightly with clingfilm and refrigerate 12 hours.

By this time, some liquid should have leached from the mackerel and mixed with some of the curing spice to form a light amber liquid. Flip the fillets over so the meat side is down in the liquid. Cover tightly and cure for another 3 days.

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After a total of about 3-4 days, depending on thickness of your fillets, the mackerel should be ready. Test by slicing off a thin bit. If the mackerel is satisfactorily cured, rinse lightly, pat dry, and cold-smoke using alder or oak chips and a smoking gun for about 30 minutes, over ice. Wrap tightly to store. You can hold this cold cured mackerel for about 4 days under refrigeration, but otherwise should freeze it. As the curing process removes a substantial amount of water, cured fish freezes nicely. In fact, the mackerel photo above came straight from the freezer – we ate the other one before I remembered to take a picture. Bonus: frozen mackerel slices more easily.

Compressed celery and apple salad

The purpose of the Vitamin C is to prevent the apples browning. If you intend to serve immediately after compressing, you probably don’t need it, but if you intend to hold for more than a few hours, be sure to use Vitamin C or lemon juice.

10 mg ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
30 ml filtered water
30 ml white wine vinegar
1 sprig tarragon
2-3 ribs celery
1 large Granny Smith apple

Dissolve the ascorbic acid in water. Stand 15 minutes and then combine with the wine vinegar and tarragon in a plastic bag. Vacuum on high for 90 seconds.

Peel and slice the celery, and slice the apple, into paper-thin slices using a mandoline or by hand. Bag separately and add about 1.5 tbsp vinegar solution to each bag. Seal and compress in vacuum chamber. Hold under refrigeration until ready to serve.

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Pumpernickel bread prepared according to recipe in The Bread Bible, Rose Levy Berenbaum

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Slice the bread very thinly. Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the bread slices and turn to coat with butter on both sides; continue to toast until browned. Cool and break into bits or crumbs; hold for service, tightly covered.

To assemble:

Thinly slice the mackerel and pound it out as carpaccio, between sheets of clingfilm. Thinly slice a red or watermelon radish (black radish is appropriate as well).

Plate the mackerel, with the herbs, salad, radish, and toasted black bread crumbs evenly distributed, or in any other configuration you like.

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Bonus: Beetroot sorbet

This is a bonus dish. Initially, I planned to pair the mackerel and rye with a beetroot sorbet, thinking it would seem especially Russian. When I tasted it, though, it really just tasted really beet-y and sweet; even a meaty, strong fish like mackerel was tasteless beside it. Incidentally, this is why it’s a good idea to taste a dish before serving it the first time (I say this as someone who rarely follows my own advice, except when I have some doubts at the inception). The beet sorbet is far too strong for most pairings but makes a great intermezzo.

Beetroot sorbet (1 pint)

12 medium beets, about 700g
200g sugar
300 g water
100 g liquid glucose
2 leaves gelatin
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

Scrub clean and roast the beets at 400F until tender to the center, about 75 minutes. Cool and peel. You should have about 550g beets. Slice into chunks.

Heat the water, sugar, and glucose in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add the beets and simmer about 20 minutes until the beets are extremely tender. Hydrate the gelatin leaves and add to the beet mixture with the vinegar.

Puree until completely smooth in a vitaprep or blender (if you cannot achieve a velvety consistency in your blender, strain the mixture through a chinois). Chill and process in an ice cream machine. Freeze at least 4 hours to set.

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