Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Month: January, 2010

On the Insides of Eggs (a poem!? by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

The perfection of four egg halves, which had previously been

two whole eggs, broken open on whole grain toast, hummus,

cilantro, the sting of salt, pepper, hidden red chiles.  The morning,

expansive, deceptive winter sunlight warming inside the windows.

I’ll clean them soon, I think, and return to my book – a cataclysmic look

at the apocalypse and a world of rats.  I eat my eggs.  The three men

with whom I share this space are somewhere behind their closed doors,

and I am alone with the contested floral carpet, the drum set,

the hookah still set up with last night’s coal.  I remember the eggs

before I broke them, mysterious and round, one brown, stolen

from my roommate, the other white, the last of my own eggs.

One egg cracked the second it hit boiling water, a filament of space

furrowing inside the shell.  But broken open, on the whole grain toast

with the hummus, the cilantro, the salt, I can’t tell which egg is which,

and each bright yolk reveals itself the same.

The Man for Me (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

“An ox tongue in brine […] or a bucket of cabbage salting in the corner of your kitchen, what could be more reassuring?” says Fergus Henderson, author of The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.  My new culinary grail is a celebration of all those animal bits that are so often overlooked in the western kitchen like tripe, ears, feet, tongue, and brains.  Seeing as unusual cuts of meat have been on my mind lately and since they are so conveniently sold at my local grocery store (and my new best friend the butcher’s place), this book came along at a time in my life when there were too many trotters and not enough recipes for them.

I never read recipes.  This has gotten me into a lot of trouble on occasion.  For instance, when halfway through making dinner, I get to the part of the recipe that says, “chill overnight.”  Or when I’m canning zucchini and see the words “mix” and “rest for ten hours,” I assume, foolishly, that the recipe means mix all the ingredients and not just the zucchini and salt, at which point I must cancel dinner with my friends to make zucchini relish out of a bowl of sloppy zucchini mess.  Even when I read through my food magazines, I read the headnotes to recipes but leave the recipe to skim only if I end up cooking the dish.  Reading recipes seems so boring.

But not with Fergus.

With Fergus, each recipe is lovingly related, as if we were old friends cooking side by side in a small, stone kitchen somewhere in the English countryside.  For example, in his recipe for Saddle of Rabbit, he writes:  “Serve the rolls with a salad that captures the spirit of the garden, made up from, for example, scallions, baby carrots, radishes, peas, fava beans (if in season), rocket (arugula), and chopped parsley (and a subliminal caper if you feel so inclined—I do!).  dress with Vinaigrette and eat with the succulent rabbit.”

This excerpt also happens to capture the other thing I love about Fergus, namely the lack of prescription in his recipes.  For Fergus, there are no absolutes.  Cooking is about taste and feeling and improvisation.  In a recipe for Salt Cod, Potato, and Tomato, he asks you to cook potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic until they’re “ready.”  Or in this recipe for Stake, Capers, and Bread: “Add the lemon juice, allow it to sizzle and turn brown, and add the capers.  At the last minute add the parsley and straightaway pour over the fish.”  There’s something refreshing about a recipe that doesn’t rely on minutes, but on the senses.  And learning to rely on yourself rather than a “rule” in a book is what turns a competent cook into an intuitive one.

My first foray into The Whole Beast was a recipe for Boiled Belly and Lentils, whose headnote reads: “This dish celebrates the not quite meat, not quite fat, quality of pork belly.  There’s nothing like a pork belly to steady the nerves.”  The recipe calls for brining a slab of pork belly for ten days, then cooking it slowly over low heat in a broth of vegetables and pepper and serving it with garlickly lentils.

Ten days is a long time to prepare for a dish.  It’s a long time to be unsure about whether or not you’ve brined something correctly – whether the piece of pork belly you got from your local butcher (the store is called “Meats” with Bushwick’s usual candor) is even good – and whether it’s going to matter that you couldn’t find juniper berries and caster sugar.  (The story with the caster sugar:  In the ingredients list, Fergus calls for “2 cups superfine (caster) sugar (many suggest brown sugar, but not me),” so I figured that the mere mention of the possibility of using brown sugar was really his backhanded way of saying, “If you must, you can use brown sugar,” which I proceeded to do.)

For ten days, as I prepared other dinners, I had my brining pork belly in my mind.  Every time I opened the fridge, I wondered what magic was happening in that lidded Tupperware.  And on the tenth day, I rinsed the residual salt from my brined belly and put it in a pot to cook.  A beatific moment to be sure.

Nothing was quite so nice as to slice up chunks of pork belly, the salty, rich meat complimented by fat so tender it absolutely melted in my mouth.  Of my own volition, I would never have eaten the fat, but Fergus, dear Fergus said, “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all.”  And I thank him for that, because I would have missed a most amazing thing.  Pork belly fat doesn’t taste like other fat, which can be chewy and leave a behind terrible residue.  Brined pork belly fat, especially with a spoonful of staid lentils, is soft and flavorful and wonderful to eat.

Even after cutting the recipe in half, I still had belly and lentils for a few days afterward, but it’s just one of those things that keeps getting better with time.  I guess, when food sits in brine for ten days, it learns patience.  It learns to not reveal its secrets too soon, to wait until its “ready.”

What’s next for me and Fergus?  Bone marrow?  Blood cakes?  I don’t know what it will be, but I think I’ll know when the time is right.

Boiled Belly and Lentils (adapted from The Whole Beast)
Serves 2 (with lentils left over for days)
Fergus has this to say about pork belly:  “Pork belly is a wonderful thing.  It’s onomatopoeic, belly is like it sounds – reassuring, steadying, and splendid to cook due to its fatty nature.  It’s not a cut of meat to rush; with that, a certain calm is imbued in the belly.”  I’m not sure how verbatim I can copy this recipe, but I’ll try to leave as much Fergus in there as I can.  Quantities are adjusted to the amounts I used and I’ve mentioned some of my techniques.  But I think Fergus would be ok with a little improvisation.

The Brine
1 cup brown sugar
1 ¼ cups coarse sea salt
8 cloves
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 quarts of water (enough to cover the belly)

The Boiled Belly
2 lb piece of pork belly with skin and bones
1 carrot, peeled
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 8 cloves
1 leek, cleaned
1 stalk celery
1 head garlic, skin on
dried thyme and rosemary
black peppercorns

The Lentils
Extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped into thin slices
1 leek, cleaned and chopped into thin slices
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 pound lentils
bundle of thyme and parsley
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of chopped curly parsley

Combine all the brine ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil so the sugar and salt melt.  Decant into your brining pot (made of a non-corrodible material – I used a large Tupperware container with a lid, Fergus recommends a bucket) and cool.  When cold, add meat and leave it in the fridge for “a nice 10 days.”

Remove and rinse your meat.  Place the pork belly and all other ingredients in a pan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil, skim (if any fat rises to the surface), reduce to a gentle simmer with the water barely moving, and cook for three and a half hours, “until the flesh is soft and giving, but not collapsing.”

While your belly is cooking, start on the lentils.  Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil and sweat the chopped vegetables.  When they have just started to soften, but not color, add the lentils and stir for a few minutes to coat.  Cover with water and “nestle in the thyme and parsley bundle.”  Reduce the heat to low and stir infrequently.  “You want the lentils soft but not squidgy, so that they have reserved their lentil integrity, but are not still individual hard nuts.”  The cook time should be about forty minutes – add more water if they start to dry out but are not done.

“Now season, which, particularly with lentils, is a very exciting moment.  It is amazing what simple salt and pepper do to the flavor of lentils – they make lentils of them.”  Stir in chopped parsley and a splash of olive oil just before serving, which will “give a shine to your lentils, as they can veer to the dull side.”

Remove the pork belly from the water, slice, and serve with lentils.  “Encourage your dining companions to eat the fat and all.  With the rich and fatty belly you want quite dour lentils.”

Something From Nothing (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

I wish there was a tiny chorus of approving gourmands that lived over my left shoulder and gave me a round of applause and a miniature pat on the back from each of their sprinkle-sized hands every time I verged on the brink of culinary genius.  Like when, after two months of mediocre results, I finally manage to make perfect foam with my espresso machine for four days in a row (right now!  I’m drinking perfect foam!  Isn’t it exciting?).  Or when, on the spur of the moment, I add a layer of strawberry jam between two layers of ordinary yellow cake with vanilla frosting.  Or when, coming home after a long day of work, I despondently shrug my shoulders at the mismatched food in my pantry, only to throw the mess together into something delicious half an hour later.

But there are no invisible gourmands.  It’s just me and my mouth and occasionally my roommates, who I make eat bites of my food as they walk past on their ways to something probably very interesting.

Can I clap for myself?

Luckily, I have a partner in crime – the other half to my half-full pantry – and together, we are very good at making something out of nothing.  The other day, we were sitting around, kvetching, drinking green tea with ginger and honey, and realized that it was dark (no hard feat in winter Brooklyn) and we were hungry.  This is kind of how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m hungry.”
Her: “Let’s make food.”
Me: “I don’t have anything.”
Her: “Me either.”
Me: “I have potatoes and blue cheese.”
Her: “I have lettuce.”
Me: “Ok, we’ll figure it out.”

The result being that we scrounged up a salad with peppery greens, blue cheese, canned beets, almonds, and a dressing of oil, cherry flavored balsamic vinegar, lemon, Dijon mustard, and honey.  We found a can of tuna and so made a tuna salad which we ate on the last slice of a dense, whole grain bread, split in two.  We didn’t even eat my potatoes.

The moral of that story is: there’s never really nothing, unless of course, there’s really nothing.

I believe I’ve made this point before, but not everything one cooks will be a success.  Not even everything will be good.  I’ve made horrible mistakes.  Ruining stir fry with too much ginger, underestimating the potency of fenugreek (never, ever underestimate the potency of fenugreek), attempting to make blue cheese and bruschetta work (it just sounds like it does).  But for all of those failures, there will be amazing wins.  And the wins are so much better because you figured them out yourself.  It isn’t some recipe Martha Stewart’s food lackeys have tested hundreds of times to find just the right ratio of cumin to salt.  It is one shot at something good, it’s Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star.

So shoulder gourmands or no, I will continue to experiment, to resist having to walk in the cold to the grocery store, to finally use the jar of brined lemons, the fennel bulb, the semolina flour, and the tamarind paste.  But maybe not together.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes

This is one of those come-home-late-hungry-want-food-now dishes that I threw together a few nights ago.  Super easy, super good.

Melt a healthy chunk of butter in a saucepan and when melted, toss in one yellow onion, slivered, and oh, one or two tablespoons of brown sugar.  Stir the onion slivers around until they’re past translucent and at some point add one finely chopped clove of garlic.  In the mean time, put on a pot of water to boil and salt it if you’d like.  After the water has boiled, add a handful of linguine and set the timer for ten minutes.  After five minutes have passed, add a chopped tomato, basil leaves, and a dash of oregano to the onions and stir it around pleasantly.  Season with salt and pepper.  When your linguine is done cooking, drain it and rinse it with cold water, then add it to your onions and tomatoes.  Toss everything thoroughly and maybe add a dash of olive oil to bring it all together.

For Better and Worse (a post by Josh)

by johamlet

My grandparents have been married for fifty-one years and two days. That’s more than twice my age. That’s means that they got married in 1958. They’ve been together since 1949. About a week ago, on their anniversary, they came over to my house to celebrate. When they were over here, they told me stories of how normal weddings took place in the town you grew up in, not some travel vacation. And the reception wasn’t anything too big, sometimes even punch and cookies in the basement of the church (where all weddings took place). Today, it’s kind of funny to think of getting married and asking everyone to just walk down to the basement for some sugar cookies. Maybe it’s just an indication of the times, or one of those competitions things we have here in America (my wedding’s going to be better than yours, see: MTV’s Super Sweet Sixteen).

Read the rest of this entry »

Eat Late, Even Great (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

Carlisle, Pennsylvania, nestled in that sweep of country where the chain gang of American cuisine settled, is not what could be called a diner’s paradise.  Like roadside crosses in the Bible Belt, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Red Robin, Olive Garden, Panera, and every iteration of the Chinese Buffet dot the landscape with neon signs and trademarked logos.  If it sponsors a commercial with glistening stacks of ribs, steaming bread, oozing chocolate, delightful-seeming, hunger-inducing, mouth-watering, wallet-trimming images on late night TV, you can find it in Carlisle.

Every now and then a gem tumbles through town.  A quaint café, an Indian restaurant cum hookah lounge (!), a sushi place.  But these wonders come and go, ephemeral delights squashed under the heavy-handed thumb of reliability and seven dollar margaritas.  Many of my friends have done their time waitressing at Chili’s or Red Robin, and we’ve been known to indulge in a stack of short ribs from Texas Roadhouse without feeling bad at all, but when I think about where I want to eat when I make the journey back to PA, my first thought is always for the diner.

I did a lot of theater in high school (and I was in band – ok you can make fun of me now).  After every performance, the whole cast would go to the Diner for scrambled eggs, buttery toast, French fries, fried mushrooms, bacon, pie piled with whipped cream, omelets, and hash browns.  The Diner was for special occasions like that and conversations which just itched to be held late at night – crises of prom dates and friend fights, gossip mongering, life debriefs.  Of course, after we left high school, we learned to appreciate a beer or two, and after you’ve had a few beers, any occasion is a special occasion.  So now, when we see each other on holidays or opportunely timed visits home, the diner is where we often end up after a round or two at the G-man.  Though the conversation topics seem eerily familiar.

Unless you drive a truck, it’s kind of a rule that you can’t go to the diner before midnight or after six in the morning.  Diner ambiance is designed to soothe your night-addled brain.  A porcelain mug, with rounded edges and a hairline fracture dyed the color of dark coffee.  Heavy, white plates.  Cream colored walls accented by the same wallpaper that’s in your grandmother’s bathroom, Formica tabletops, vinyl booths, unobtrusive yellow light.  If you are still thinking at three in the morning, your brain doesn’t want to think about food in addition to your life’s current calamity.  Your brain needs canola oil for frying, butter and jelly, mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce.

The late-night diner phenomenon is not one strictly limited to Carlisle’s diner.  Diners everywhere beg to be frequented when your body really needs nothing more than to be in bed.  There’s a diner near where I work in New York that serves pancakes with piles of whipped cream and real strawberries, homefries scrambled with peppers and onions, crisp bacon, and eggs sunnyside up.  Sometimes I’ll go if I’ve just gotten off the closing shift or after late night wanderings through SoHo with friends.  I find their yellow, beveled plastic cups, just like the ones my hometown diner uses, comforting.

I appreciate the diner’s inimitable nature.  Its closest cousins can’t compete.  Brunch is too crisp and elite, fried chicken too social, breakfast too personal.  The diner is intimate and casual, comforting, yet slightly squalid with grease and ketchup.  The diner is dining out’s guilty pleasure.  Although I won’t say I don’t often dream about a plate of fried mushrooms – a perfectly crisp fried batter and the buttery, earthy umami of mushroom balanced by tart ranch dressing.  I don’t even feel guilty.

It soothes me that in diners from North Carolina to New York, I will find the same heavy china, the same waitress with tired eyes but good-natured sass, the same brown plastic dish filled with bite-sized packets of jam.  It’s good to know that wherever I am, if I am there at five AM, there will be cheese grits and sausage patties to sustain me until I manage to make it to my bed.  But then again, I could simply lay my head on a fried egg, and that pillow would do just fine.

Better With Butter (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

The first thing I said when I woke up this morning was: “No more butter.  Please don’t make me eat any more butter.”  And then, because there was nothing else to eat for breakfast, I stuck a square of macaroni and cheese topped with a dollop of tomato puddin’ in the microwave.

If you’re unfamiliar with tomato puddin’, let me enlighten you on how it’s made.  Two cans of chopped tomatoes are mashed with five pieces of white bread and one cup – yes, one cup of sugar.  This concoction is then baked until all the natural health benefits of the tomatoes have been removed.  Also good to know is that according to my family, this dish counts as a vegetable.  Just some trivia.

Christmas in my family is predominantly loud.  This year, though the pair of almost-octogenarians presided over only two braches of the family tree – my mother, father, me, my two brothers, my aunt, her husband, her two daughters, one daughter’s husband, his two children, her three children, and a dog – the decibel level was impressive.  Everybody’s stories needed to be told at the same time, their recipes recounted in maniacal tones.  The children seemed unable to have as much fun if someone wasn’t screaming and the camera’s shutter clicked so often the room began to resemble a disco rave.

I love my family very much.  But I am a quiet person, and it takes a little time adjusting to the chaos of the (almost) entire Cohen clan.  Fighting passionately about the rules of Mexican Train dominoes, telling the story (again) about that embarrassing thing you did at your baptism (like poop your baptismal dress) when you were a few months old, or belittle other family members’ sports teams as creatively as possible.  It’s very Norman Rockwell, but a little louder and with less pastel.  I like to think that since the other half of my family is so very German, my American family is so very American just to balance out my genetic chi.

Before we eat Christmas Dinner, the whole gaggle circles around the table to bless the food.  I figure that the food needs all the blessings it can get if it’s going to nourish my body, rather than just the cellulite on my thighs.  I’ve already oogled the food – two roast turkeys and gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes drenched in brown sugar, greens, sweet corn puddin’ (the lack of ‘g’ is not optional), tomato puddin’, biscuits, mountains of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and for dessert two pecan pies, apple crumble, and my aunt’s justly famous banana cream pie.  As if chanted by a Greek Comedy’s chorus, the words “butter” and “sugar” jingle through my mind.

It’s Christmas, so I take some of everything, and it’s not really until the reality of post-holiday leftovers sets in that I regret my family’s liberal use of fat.  But it’s ok.  I’ll take some long walks on the beach, stretch my legs as I watch another season of Dexter from the couch, and keep my mind sharp on card games and dominoes.  And I’ll store up an extra layer of blubber to last for the rest of winter.  I hear it’s cold in New York.

Aunt Lynda’s Corn Puddin’
It took quite a bit of work to track down this recipe.  But I got it.  And you should make it – when it’s cold outside and you’re in need of some comfort food.  Or you’re feeling particularly skinny.

3 cups canned corn, drained
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
1/3 stick butter, melted

Beat together the eggs until they’re light and fluffy, then gradually add the sugar so that it doesn’t form lumps.  Add the salt, flour, and corn, milk, and butter – mix well.  Grease an oblong pan, pour mixture into it.  Bake uncovered for 45 minutes to an hour in a 350 degree oven until firm and golden brown.