Saturday, April 24, 2010

Culinary Confession

Bless me, James Beard, for I have sinned. This is my first culinary confession.

Beset by curiosity, in a moment of weakness I purchased, then ate, a KFC Double Down. Behind me in line were two hip smartasses who were also there to get Double Downs, no doubt to be consumed in ironic fashion, much like $3 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Ah... the Double Down, what can be said? This is a food item with a minimal amount of plant matter, some wheat in the breading, a trace amount of jalapeƱos in the pepper jack cheese, probably some hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, and maybe a bit of high-fructose corn syrup in the sauce (but I cannot be sure of these). Yeah, there's no bun, no wisp of iceberg lettuce to distract one from the meat and dairy (so called) products. To be fair, however, the end result is much like a dumbed-down chicken cordon bleu, reconfigured for the "eat in the car, guzzle a liter of Mountain Dew" demographic. While the chicken, cheese, pork product combo is not foreign to le gastronomie, the whopping 1380 mgs of sodium per serving is appalling, a really nasty legacy of our modern food-processing industry. It would be interesting to create a "homemade" version of this fast-food monstrosity to determine what the sodium content of such an item could be under "optimal" circumstances.

Even more appalling than the sodium content of the Double Down was the fact that the "medium" sized soft drink accompanying it looked to be about 24 ounces. I shudder to think of the calorie and sodium content of such a soda serving.

I have no doubt the Double Down will sell well in it's initial run, as curious gastronauts and postmodern ironic hipsters will seek it out, as well as the target audience of true fast-food fanatics. The Double Down is most properly eaten in quick, wolfish snaps, as one's wife or significant other looks on, silently weeping.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nettles and Knotweed*

After yesterday's post about space-age cuisine, I will now describe a tradition which dates back millions of years, and come out as a forager. The dean of foragers in the NY Metro Area is "Wildman" Steve Brill, who conducts regular foraging classes.

Last year, I made a resolution to, when possible, forage for a least one comestible item a week. I kicked off the spring foraging season last weekend, by harvesting some stinging nettles (wearing heavy gloves), common plants which are covered in stinging hairs, which inject a cocktail of pain-inducing chemicals such as formic acid and histamines into the skin when brought into contact. Nettles have traditionally had a medicinal use (arthritis sufferers sometimes use nettles for their condition). I have informants in New Zealand who tell me that the viciously toxic native nettles have killed at least one person. When boiled, though, young specimens of the common North American stinging nettles can be quite tasty (they have a pretty intense herbal flavor), and make a decent substitute for, or addition to, spinach. I have used them in omelets, added them to spanakopita, and have cooked them with beans (in the same fashion that I'd use escarole). Harvested with care, and boiled well, nettles make a great, free addition to one's springtime culinary repertoire.

I was also able to gather Japanese knotweed, a pernicious invasive weed in the NY Metro Area, is also edible when harvested young. The plant looks like the offspring of an unholy union between bamboo and asparagus, and is distantly related to buckwheat, rhubarb, and sorrel. Peeled, the stalks of young knotweed have a pleasantly sour flavor... once again, Steve Brill is the go-to guy for knotweed facts and recipes. One caveat, though, is that knotweed, being a pest, is often sprayed with herbicide, so caution must be exercised in finding patches that are not periodically sprayed. Of course, the weed being edible, the promotion of knotweed consumption should be a goal of all local Parks, Reacreation, and Conservation Departments.

*No, this post is not about a Role-Playing Game in which participants play foragers.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Night of Experimental Cuisine

Last night, I attended a lecture in the Secret Science Club series at Brooklyn's Bell House. The talk was conducted by two speakers, Dr Kent Kirshenbaum of NYU's chemistry department, and pastry chef/alchemist Will Goldfarb, a go-to guy for esoteric baking ingredients. These two men are founding members of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

The program began with an effort by our intrepid lecturers to realize the grand dream of creating a combination floor cleaner/dessert topping. Dr Kirshenbaum gave a quick chemistry lesson about soaps, which have molecules with a hydrophilic end, and a hydrophobic end, which tend to aggregate in a water-based solution as micelles. In the quest to form an edible "soap", Dr Kirshenbaum and Mr Goldfarb decided to use an extract from the Curaca Agave, a saponaceous plant from Peru. A bit of Curaca extract was added to water, and whipped into a foam in an electric mixture. The resulting "foam" was described by Dr Kirshenbaum as "smelling like wet newspapers". A batch of the "soap suds" was mixed with a simple syrup, and eight audience volunteers were brought up on stage to sample the "soap/dessert topping", sprayed on a brownie. The team that devoured their soap-browines received a prize. The "foam" was also used dipped into liquid nitrogen and flash-frozen to create vegan "Floating Islands".

The quest for a floor-cleaner/dessert topping a success, the talk shifted to other projects being undertaken by the Experimental Cuisine Collective, including a long digression on Turkish salep- based ice cream called dondurma. Not only is dondurma resistent to melting, the salep contains a polysaccharide called glucomannan, which also acts as a soluble dietary fiber. Dr Kirshenbaum jokingly described a hypothetical dream-dessert which was high-fiber, could counteract type 2 diabetes and tooth decay (mastic has been proposed as a tooth-decay fighter), and even an aphrodesiac (the folk-etymology for salep is a word combination meaning "fox testicles", a reference to the plant's appearance). On a more sober note, he added that the salep-orchid is endangered due to overharvesting. Happily, the good people at the E.C.C. have determined that the common konnyaku or "Devil's tongue" can be used as an acceptible salep substitute (I will add that konnyaku is also used to make shirataki noodles, a great addition to a well-made nabe).

Futher consideration was given to the use of liquid nitrogen as a culinary tool, gum arabic as a thickening agent, and the tension between the traditional and experimental trends in cuisine. Dr Kirshenbaum was of the opinion that the techniques pioneered by the Experimental Cuisine Collective were not necessarily at odds with the precepts of the Slow Food movement. He mentioned a hilarious ban on the use of liquid nitrogen in Italian restaurant kitchens. A shout-out to experimental cuisine titans Ferran AdriĆ  and Wylie Dufresne. Left unmentioned was Abel Gonzalez, Jr. the mad genius who came up with fried Coca-Cola.

After the lecture, the audience was given samples of vegan "meringue" cookies, made using the tried-and-true techniques of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eating Easter

Easter just wouldn't be Easter without certain foods, and I am not talking about chocolate bunnies! It is inconceivable to celebrate Easter without having some traditonal Easter bread, a challah-like braided bread, coiled into a ring, adorned with eggs (often dyed) before baking, and decorated with a sweet glaze and (often) candy sprinkles. Being a pretty imcompetent baker (I've killed more yeast than Monistat over the years), I delegate the responsibility of bread-making to the local bakeries (this year, I went to Artuso's Pastry Shop on McLean Ave for my Easter bread, though any Italian bakery will be able to provide this delicacy).

Pizza rustica is a pie (similar to a quiche Lorraine) that is traditionally served on Easter Saturday. The pie, which is richer than Scrooge McDuck and C. Montgomery Burns having a money-fight in Fort Knox, is an emphatic declaration that Lent, the season of privation and penitence, is over. While the exact ingredients of a pizza rustica are a various as the cooks making it, the pie incorporates eggs, several pork products, and a bewildering array of cheeses. It's the perfect dish to make with the ends of your cold cuts- if your local deli or supermarket sells the ends at a bargain, they make the perfect addition to this dish. To give you an indication of the richness and complexity of ingredients that one can employ when making this pie, I am linking to a recipe from Domenica Marchetti, originally published in The Washington Post- count the number of cheeses used! The lemon juice in the pastry dough for the crust is a nice touch as well, a little acidity to counteract the richness of the filling is inspired! A lazy cook could always use a pre-packaged pie crust, cut down on the variety of cheeses (again, making this dish is a perfect way to use up any leftover bits of cheese in the fridge). Myself, I picked up some fresh basket cheese (Mexican panela cheese might be a good substitute, but you want an unsalted or low-salt cheese to offset the salt of the cured meats), sopressata (Genoa salami would make an acceptable substitute, or addition), and a (this will break some people's hearts) finger-wide slab of prosciutto- since it's going to be cooked, I bought the Canadian product, rather than the expensive stuff. I'll add some tail-ends of Romano, Parmiggiano, and Provolone to round out the "cheese spectrum" in my pie. Again, this dish lends itself to customization- use what you have on hand, clean out the fridge- whatever you use, the end result will be fantastic enjoyed with a green salad (to counter the richness of the dish) and a glass of Chianti or a nice Primitivo.

Another, traditionally Neapolitan Easter dish is the pastiera di grano, the grain pie, a sweet confection made with well-soaked wheat berries and rich with ricotta. I must confess that I have never made a grain pie, but I had an old manager who would typically make them around Eastertime, and I was usually able to persuade him to bring me a slice.

So, as a postscript, I ask, who needs a chocolate rabbit, anyway?

How is this Post Unlike any Other?

This post is unlike any other because it is a mea culpa- I totally forgot to write about Passover, and there is no other holy day which is characterized to such an extent by the foods associated with it. Here I am, trying to pose as a "foodie" blogger, and I spaced out about Passover... may as well turn in my I.D. at the front desk! Yeah, I could have written about the significance of the bitter herbs, of the charoset, of the lamb bone. I could have written about pizzerias that make matzoh pizza (sounds like an ancient Inca city) for patrons observing Passover. I could have... yeah, I blew it. Hopefully, I won't space out on Passover next year- anybody hosting a Seder should drop me a line- I'd be totally up for bringing a "Sephardic inspired" grated-carrot "slaw" dressed with olive oil, a hint of lemon juice and a bouquet of such spices as coriander, cumin, and a hint of red pepper.