Thursday, June 29, 2006

The ice cream project: strawberry ice cream


As a rule I avoid strawberry ice cream. My most frequent encounter with it over the years has been in cheap Neapolitan scooped out of paper boxes at birthday parties, cold culinary proof that 0x3=0. But the other day I went shopping twice, first at the supermarket and then at the farmer's market. I bought a pound of California strawberries at the former--on sale, the kid likes them--and then another pound of Wisconsin strawberries, smaller, redder, softer, brighter, sweeter, cuter, and a thousand times juicer, at the latter. They're the ones you see above. After noshing on a few of these while I canvassed the market for fresh peas, the little man's arms had bright red rivulets running almost to the elbows and his fingernails were stained.

Because I hadn't planned ahead with this ice cream I had to go with the ingredients on hand. Thus I used reduced fat milk instead of half and half. I added sour cream because I like to balance the sweetness of the fruit with some acidity. I always add sour cream to my whipped cream when I'm going to be dipping fresh strawberries in it and I thought it would work well here.

I would not make this recipe with anything other than the freshest local crop on the far side of ripe. If it means having strawberry ice cream only once a year, that's what it means.

Strawberry ice cream
10.25 oz. fresh strawberries (measured after being rinsed and hulled)
4 egg yolks
5 oz. vanilla sugar
3/4 C 2% milk
3/4 C heavy cream
1/4 C sour cream

Puree the strawberries in a food processor. Whisk the yolks in a bowl, slowly adding the sugar until pale and quite thick. Warm the milk and cream in a saucepan just to a simmer, then temper in the egg-sugar mixture. Heat to 170, stir in sour cream, whisk to blend, and pour into a bowl. Strain the fruit puree into the custard (I know what you're thinking but I would never skip this step) and mix well. Chill, churn, freeze, eat, smile.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mishmash is my favorite dish

-Woody Allen's Nietzsche Diet:
In a scene cut from the "Ring" cycle, Siegfried decides to dine out with the Rhine maidens and in heroic fashion consumes an ox, two dozen fowl, several wheels of cheese, and fifteen kegs of beer. Then the check comes and he's short. The point here is that in life one is entitled to a side dish of either coleslaw or potato salad, and the choice must be made in terror, with the knowledge that not only is our time on earth limited but most kitchens close at ten.
Woody writes now exactly as he did more than thirty years ago. Is that good or bad?

Also, Woody claims that Scarlett Johansson is wittier than he is (and that she is "sexually overwhelming" and how's that for a one-two punch).

-TNR: The Stultifying Blandness of Conservative Cuisine. Among the various tidbits we find that, apparently, Republicans don't like fish. Or rather, they make a show of not liking fish because it might make them seem all effete and liberal. Warning: includes a description of the Veep's Chicken Florentine.

-Russ Parsons on cooking with smoke:
Smoke tastes like smoke and that is the dominant flavoring. If you're expecting dramatic differences from one variety [of wood] to the next, you may be disappointed. It's not a mustard and ketchup thing, but more like the differences between different types of mustard.

But there are differences, even if they are nuanced, and they do affect the way the smoke flavors the meat.
If the different woods are only nuances, I take this as license not to care. But I did keep reading because I will read anything Parsons writes.

-An appreciation of Aaron Spelling z"l, America's Trashmaster Flash.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Leon's Frozen Custard

Leon's Frozen Custard
Leon's Frozen Custard
Leon's is a midcentury custard stand on the south side where you eat standing around the parking lot, leaning against a railing, or in your car. I have heard for years that it was the inspiration for Arnold's, the diner in Happy Days where Fonzie kept his office in the men's room. The girl who dishes your vanilla seems happy to spread this story, as do Wikipedia, The Village Voice, and AOL Cityguide. But an article in OnMilwaukee purports to debunk this:
If you're from Milwaukee -- or Wisconsin, for that matter -- you're probably aware that the sitcom "Happy Days" was set in Brew Town (although it wasn't actually filmed here). But what you may not be aware of is that viewers everywhere were actually getting a fairly accurate peek into 1950s Milwaukee.

To make the show authentic, series creator Garry Marshall modeled Arnold's Drive-In -- the official hangout of the Fonz and crew -- after two Milwaukee restaurants, The Milky Way and the Pig 'n' Whistle. Both establishments have since closed, with the Pig 'n' Whistle (1111 E. Capitol Dr.) becoming the Riverbrook Family Restaurant, and The Milky Way (5373 N. Port Washington Rd.) being remodeled and opening as Kopp's Custard in 1978.

The current manager of Kopp's in Glendale, Scott Borkin, tells the story: "The creator of 'Happy Days' used our original building as the idea behind the exterior of Arnold's because, at the time, it was a real drive-in with carhops. But the interior was inspired by the Pig 'n' Whistle because it looked more like a diner inside."
(Why the current manager of Kopp's gets the last word I cannot say, but I don't care enough about getting to bottom of this to put a call in to Garry Marshall.)

Everything about Leon's is a throwback, including the portion sizes. If you order a single scoop in a cup, which costs $1.03 including tax, you can finish your custard in about the length of time the live studio audience would spend applauding Henry Winkler when he burst through the Cunninghams' front door. The servers wear white paper hats and the flavors are strictly traditional, vanilla, chocolate, and a special that changes daily. Today's was butter pecan.

Butter Pecan

The nuts are roasted and mixed in at the last minute so that they're not ice cold, and the custard is a subtle butterscotch. Life is good when you have one of these in your hands.

I don't really care which diner or custard stand was the model for Arnold's--although Milwaukee was supposed to be the setting for Happy Days, there wasn't much regional specificity in its representation of 1950s America. I don't even know if Leon's was typical of its time, assuming it has been preserved in its original state (minus the carhops, of course). What appeals to me and others now is that it fits our stereotype of a vintage custard stand, and this pleases us. I like to believe that Arnold's's inspiration exists just south of Oklahoma on S. 27th St. in the year 2006. Like the man in the John Ford movie said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Leon's Frozen Custard
3131 S 27th St
Milwaukee, WI 53215


More Milwaukee custard: Kopp's in Greenfield, Kopp's in Glendale, and a Kopp's photoset.

I used to think Kopp's is better, but because it's closer to home I go there more often. After today, I'm on the fence.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Whole Foods, Milwaukee update

As previously reported, Whole Foods is coming to town in the fall, and this week's Milwaukee Mag Dish on Dining* fixed a date on it: September 13. If you're local and have "Thorough knowledge of Whole Foods Market products, quality standards, food philosophy, and company mission," they're looking for an in-store educator. One does wonder how someone living in a WFless town would possess such knowledge, but anyhow...

Unlike, say, Pittsburgh (hey, zp!), Milwaukee has not wanted badly for upscale foodie consumer culture. We have thriving co-ops and a whole bunch of gourmet grocery stores called Sendik's which are (incredibly confusingly) not all part of the same chain. We have a Public Market with good fish and seafood, organic produce, grass-fed beef, and locally made corn tortillas. We have not only Penzey's (two locations!) but also The Spice House. I can't think of a single foodie foodstuff that we used to get at WF that we can't find here. Among the small cadre of grocery shoppers I've talked to about it, what excites them most about WF is that competition from the chain might bring prices down at these other places. This seems like the perennial issue: when WF comes to town, everybody starts to notice that food at the co-op costs a ton. But rich people who wish their organic bananas would be 20% cheaper don't get my shoulder to cry on.

What I like most about WF is what I like about the Apple store. I walk around in a state of wide-eyed wonder. But this wears off after a short time and the notion that good health, eating, and virtue can be bundled up in an appealing corporate brand and sold to status-seeking yuppies and hipsters starts to stink.

The Milwaukee store will offer something that the other branches lack. Here they are taking the notion of Whole Foods as healthy foods and synergizing the brand with a hospital. The new WF is going to be on the first story of a medical office building, the Columbia St. Mary's Prospect Market Commons/Whole Foods Market Here is the hospital's hype:
Columbia St. Mary's is pleased to partner with them to introduce the natural food market to the hospital setting - the first of its kind in the nation.

"This is another perfect opportunity to reinforce the importance of healthy lifestyles through great food," said Karol Marciano, Executive Vice President of Business Development at Columbia St. Mary's. "We look forward to sharing this special experience with our patients and the rest of the community."

In September, Whole Foods Market will occupy 50,000 square feet on the first floor of Prospect Medical Commons, a medical office building that will be occupied primarily by Columbia St. Mary's Community Physicians. The collaboration between the natural grocer and Columbia St. Mary's complements the hospital's emphasis on creating a healing environment and advocating healthy lifestyles. Once the market opens, Columbia St. Mary's and Whole Foods Market will work to provide community classes to further educate residents and patients about food, cooking and overall healthy living.

"Whole Foods Market is pleased to become part of the Milwaukee community and to have the opportunity to partner with Columbia St. mary's," said Patrick Bradley, Whole Foods Market Midwest Regional President. "Just like Columbia St. Mary's, Whole Foods Market has a passion for people, and we're eager to demonstrate this passion through our natural, organic and gourmet products, free in-store tasting, events and cooking demonstrations. Our partnership with Columbia St. Mary is really a unique and innovative relationship."
Is this not appalling? Doesn't the hospital-supermarket connection seem too close to an Onion spoof?

There are lots of reasons to be happy that WF is coming to town. If they raise awareness about where food comes from and what it does for you, that can't be all bad. But there are also lots of reasons to be suspicious of WF. The company is anti-union (follow the Pbg link). Many believe it is favoring a big-business model of organic agriculture over one that promotes local and sustainable food production. (There has been some back-and-forth on this between WF CEO John Mackey and Michael Pollan.) And as the Cod has been following closely (more, more, more) the chain's recent decision to stop selling live lobsters seems to confuse issues of ethics and economics, making the company seem less than straight in its public demonstrations of good citizenship. One must be ever wary of the self-sanctifying corporation.

I hope to have more to say about this come September, if not sooner.

*The Dish, written by the magazine's food critic Ann Christenson, would be great as a blog with an RSS feed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006



To get from the kitchen to the grill chez Haverchuk takes a few dozen paces, through a small hallway past the linen closet and the bathroom, across the length of the dining room, past the couch and the telly and the toys in the living room and down the front steps to the porch. This shlep is one reason that I often avoid cooking out of doors but there are others. I think steaks and burgers are just as good cooked in cast iron and grilled fish can be a real disaster. But for some special things, I heed the call of the smoke and fire.

Smoking on a charcoal kettle grill is easier than it might sound. For barbecue, which means smoking at very low temperatures, you need only about a dozen briquettes or the equivalent in volume of hardwood charcoal to get enough heat. I have tried both briquettes and the real stuff over the past couple of weeks and for this job I prefer the briquettes. They don't burn as hot and they last longer. It is essential to have a hinged grate with flaps that lift up on the ends so that you can add fuel without taking everything off the grill. Other than this no special equipment is needed. When the charcoal is grayish, no longer glowing red, you add a handful of soaked woodchips (I have been sticking with hickory but I'm open to new things) and cover the grill with the vents (open of course) on the side opposite from the heat. This way the smoke has to pass the food on its way out of the grill. I drop the probe of my thermometer through a vent hole to monitor the temperature in the kettle, which I want to be between about 200 and 240. I do wish I had one of those wireless remote thermometers so that I wouldn't have to scamper down to the porch to check in on my cooking, but the scampering keeps me moving and physical activity can't hurt when dinner is going to be barbecue. When the temp goes too low, you add charcoal and chips.

Cooking times for low and slow cuts like brisket and ribs depend on temperature and on the dimensions of the food, but rough guides can be helpful. Ribs take half a day. Briskets or pork shoulders take all day. I started a brisket too late in the day a couple of weeks ago and it was cooked through but tough at dinnertime. So I wrapped it in foil and put it in a 190 degree oven overnight. The next day it was perfect. It had picked up plenty of smoke in an afternoon of outdoor cooking, so it didn't taste like I had cheated. The problem with judging cooking times with these things is that you're not cooking them to temperature, you're cooking them until they're tender and falling apart. If it's time to eat and they're not there yet, it's best to find something else for dinner and keep on cooking into the night.

The worst excesses of grilling and barbecuing are the seasonings, the rubs and sauces. I have been finding that when it comes to smoking, "less is more" doesn't quite capture it. Less is simply appropriate, more can be a travesty. You are cooking very flavorful foods with hardwood smoke, but it is possible to obscure these assertive flavors with heavy doses of sweet gloop or with macho hot sauces that numb your tastebuds. In cooking baby back ribs the other day I rubbed on only salt and brown sugar in equal quantities and a moderate amount of black pepper. After four hours in the smoke we were not wanting for flavor. I did dip the ribs in some Sweet Baby Ray's original doctored with a few dashes of Tabasco, but this was strictly condiment and sparingly applied. No slathering. E didn't go for the sauce at all. When I made the brisket I used Texas seasonings in a rub--ancho and cayenne chile and cumin in addition to the salt, pepper, and sugar--but it would have been just as good without them. Regardless of the cut, it helps to rub on the salt and sugar at least a couple of hours ahead of time.

My other revelation has been that white meat chicken, a lean cut suited to grilling over high heat, is also great smoked at low barbecuey temperatures. If it's been salted or brined ahead of time (my brine is 1/3 cup table salt to 1 quart water, and my brining time is about three hours) and cooked with its skin and bones, it's not likely to dry out, and if you keep track of the chicken's internal temperature you can keep it from overcooking. If I'm going to spend the afternoon cooking I might as well make enough for several meals. So if there's just a brisket or a rack of ribs in there, there's also room for some chicken pieces or even a whole bird, standing up impaled on a half-full beer can. Like ribs and brisket, smoked chicken is good enough to eat all by itself, without any sauces or condiments. But it is nice to serve it cold with some spicy mayonnaise mixed with lemon juice, shallots, cornichons, capers, and anchovies.

Don't think I buy any of that malarkey about men cooking outside being the expression of some fundamental connection to our Pleistocene ancestors. That's the patriarchy speaking. But smoked foods are good to eat, and that's the God's honest truth.

More: Cooking With Fire in Slate.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I love you so bad

In his spanking fresh music blog, my brother has been talking about bad music. He is more interested in how particular kinds of music come to be deemed bad than in identifying badness as an intrinsic aesthetic value. He actually likes bad music, or at least some kinds of it.

In the comments to his post there is some discussion of the inadequacy of "bad" to describe the various products to which it is attached:
it includes "guilty pleasure" type music (like rock musicals), well-made but trite music like Kenny G, underdog commercial music, and just plain weird stuff of different stripes. I do, however, like the use of "bad" in journal titles like "bad subjects," which suggests uncooperative, mischievous, or subversively anomalous. Do you think there is a way to retain the term "bad" if these connotations are stressed?
I am especially intrigued by the first two categories in this taxonomy, the guilty pleasure and the good-but-bad. These seem like the mirror image of each other and both suggest to me parallels to bad food. Bad food, much of which I do love, can be bad in various ways, some of which don't really have a musical equivalent. Bad food can taste bad because it's badly prepared; it can be made of bad ingredients like margarine or saccharine; it can have bad cultural connotations, e.g., "white trash" food like pork rinds; and it can be bad for your health according to the prevailing wisdom of the day. I'm most interested in those subcategories of bad that are partial or ambivalent, like the guilty pleasure, because these seem especially revealing of contradictions in contemporary thinking about food and culture.

1. The guilty pleasure is something that we admit to liking despite a collective negative judgment of it. For the guilty pleasure to "work" as bad, the person who likes it has to buy into the cultural consensus of its badness. Thus the guilty pleasure is always a product of hierarchies of taste. Guilty pleasures are things you both like and dislike. This reminds me, the other day I was shopping for greeting cards and you know how they come in the various categories like "birthday" and "father's day from dog"? There were some cards there in the category of "almost funny." Guilty pleasures are almost pleasures. But they may also be intense pleasures because of the subversive element, the charge one gets from defying the taste consensus.

Guilty food pleasures are problematic because as taste democratizes, more and more foods shift from the bad to the good column. In the 1970s, Calvin Trillin's stories about eating squirrel in rural Ohio while trying his best to avoid the official good food of the day, the revolving restaurants that he dubs "Maison de la Casa House," was part of a large-scale inversion of the traditional hierarchy. It becomes hard to find pleasures to feel guilty about when barbecue and hamburgers and chili are recognized as national treasures, but I suppose today's reigning ideology of fresh-local-organic-sustainable-slow food makes eating at fast food restaurants and more upscale corporate chains like P.F. Chang's into a guilty pleasure for some. You know you should eat someplace local, someplace with real rather than focus-group food, someplace with a chef rather than a "kitchen manager," someplace with a soul. But like Hollywood movies, corporate American food can be so...good. Foodie culture seems to make membership contingent on the denial of this, which is why the Bruni fast-food-a-thon was such fresh air.

(I haven't seen it but I'm sure that some of the appeal of Super Size Me is that most people, even indie documentary audience type people, really do like McDonald's. They judge it, condemn it, despise it even, and still they want it.)

Related perhaps: the so bad it's good notion familiar to all hipsters. I have a strong negative opinion of this cynical posture. If it's that bad it's can't be good, and if it's really good it can't be that bad.

2. The good but trite is an interesting one that I hadn't thought about quite in that way. My brother is saying that Kenny G is good in the sense of technically skilled, but bad in the sense of having low aesthetic value within a community of connoisseurs. Important distinction from #1: if you think something is bad because trite then it's hard to like it, whereas with the guilty pleasure you recognize that by liking something you are defying the taste consensus that you are supposed to buy into, and this is intrinsic to the pleasure.

Good but trite food might be what you find in expensive restaurants that are more interested in wooing an affluent clientele than producing fantastic food. Every decent-sized town probably has too many of these places. They serve dishes like filet mignon encrusted with gorgonzola, grilled salmon, and créme brûlée. The more ambitious ones might include some trendy items like raw seafood and short ribs. While the chefs are well-trained, the ingredients are of good quality, and the food comes out the way you order it, the cooking is overly fussy and depressingly unoriginal. Typically the prices are 30% too high, but sometimes it's more like 100%. These restaurants are the Maison de la Casa Houses of our time.

I would almost always prefer to eat at P.F. Chang's than at one of these places and not just because P.F. Chang's is cheaper. It's because I don't like the context of affluence, the aspiration to tastefulness, the eagerness to impress, the parade of "quality" that this kind of fancy restaurant represents. Sure the upscale casual places have some of all that too, but it's offered up in a context of populist, democratic American culture. (I don't know, maybe I'm giving PFC too much credit as an alibi for my hankering for some kung pao shrimp.)

As for the just plain weird stuff of different stripes, who doesn't love that?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Swiss cheeseheads

What do Green Bay Packers fans and Swiss World Cup soccer fans have in common? Both wear "triangular [hats] in the shape of holey cheese." (Still seeking for a photo of this.) link

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Savory New York is an NYC restaurant wiki with videos, potentially an incredible timesuck. Every town needs one of these. (Via Off the Broiler).

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The ice cream project: mint chocolate chip ice cream

Mint Chocolate Chip

Two things in this one that I want to tell you about:

1. Santander Colombian chocolate, 53% cocoa, one 70g bar chopped into chips with a big knife and folded in just at the end of the churning. These chips draw you back to the freezer for just another bite, and another, and another, until you have eaten twice as much as you otherwise might have.

2. Green food coloring, seven or eight drops added when the mixture was cool. Unless you are blind, mint tastes better green.

The recipe is the same as green chile mint but with just the things left out and added in that you would figure.

I'll spell it out for you:
fresh mint, a big bunch
half and half, 3 cups
heavy cream, 1 cup
egg yolks, 8
sugar, 9 oz.
chocolate, 70g/2.47oz.

Happy summer.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Drink your vitamins?

Marion Nestle interviewed in Salon:
What about vitamin water? If you drink vitamin water, are you actually getting vitamins?

Oh, sure, if it has vitamins in it. You won't absorb all of them, but you'll absorb some. But why not take a vitamin pill, or eat something? I don't get it, except that they come in a classy bottle. They look gorgeous.

You're buying status. You're buying status and the aura of health. The ones with vitamins have to be sweetened; otherwise they'd taste terrible.
There's lots more good stuff in here, though Nestle's solutions to our food problems (including outlawing cartoon characters on food packaging) don't all seem practical. (Btw, she was interviewed on npr the other day; l learned then that her surname is pronounced like the verb nestle, not like the corporation Nestlé.)

I've been trying these various cola alternatives that present themselves as virtue in a bottle. Over the past few weeks I have drunk Honest Tea, Soy20, and Vitamin Water (fantastic website). The tea is ok but I could just make tea myself and much more cheaply. The other two taste like what they are, sugar and artificial flavor, but the packaging is pretty and the clever, chatty Vitamin Water label copy is just my kind of thing. I love how high concept this brand is, how effectively it appeals to its target market. The drink itself is unremarkable, even insipid. Perhaps I would like these things more if I were a girl; I cannot fathom trying the boy versions, the rockstar drinks in the thin aluminum cans with ingredients I don't recognize and twice the carbs.

It really all comes down to this: if you are thirsty, drink water.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

From all over

I can get as excited about eating local as the next guy. Much more, probably, though I don't like to make of it an advertisement for virtue. Regardless of the political, social, economic, environmental, moral, or culinary benefit of eating the meat, dairy, and produce of nearby farms, I'm also a bit chauvinistic about Wisconsin. I feel warm and fuzzy about my adoptive state and am pleased when it makes good things.

My duck breast salad was the beneficiary this weekend of some locally-grown greens, red leaf lettuce from the organic produce vendor at the Public Market. The rest of it came from farther afield. The duck was from Indiana (another Market purchase); the Montmorency cherries, Yukon Gold potatoes, cream cheese (more on that in a moment), and salt were from elsewhere in the U.S.; and the port in which the cherries macerated was from Portugal. As for the vinaigrette, we had mustard from France, vinegar from Spain, oil from Italy, and black pepper from India. I cannot state the provenance of our shallots. If I were competing in the eat local challenge I would probably lose badly; all that was local was the lettuce. But what a lettuce, let me tell you. Crisp, a bit sweet, a hint of bitter, bursting with moisture. And I'm not one to get off on lettuce.

The cream cheese was a late replacement for the chèvre that had gone off. I needed something cool, dairy, tart, and rich. So I made little pebbles of Philly and froze them for about twenty minutes. They held their shape, didn't melt into the dressing or get smeared all over the greens or anything. On a similar topic: the other day I wanted to make beurre blanc to go with some fish and had to choose between room temperature and frozen butter. So here's my kitchen eureka of the year: you can make a perfect beurre blanc using small cubes of frozen butter. Indeed, I believe using frozen better increases your margin of error, but I haven't tested this with any kind of rigor. Maybe every chef knows this secret, but I am not a chef.

Cooking duck breasts is ridiculously easy. I score the skin in a diagonal cross-hatch pattern, careful not to cut into the meat, salt liberally, and cook in cast iron over very high heat (skin-side first) about four minutes a side for med rare. The pan needs no fat because so much renders from the skin. I used to think of duck breast as one of those foods you eat only in restaurants but after making this dish a couple of times I have scratched it from that list. Now it will be a food I never order in restaurants because I can make it just as well myself and for a whole lot cheaper. (The Market price here is $10.99/lb., which would be enough to feed three or four in this kind of preparation.)

It's good to dress the salad with all of the ingredients in it except the duck, then to lay thin slices of it over the top, and then to drizzle on some more vinaigrette.


Can anyone explain what this list of food blogs is and why mine appears in it twice?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Stravecchio etc.

This cheese from Antigo, WI, is more crumbly and moist than the king of cheeses and not quite as salty; the local product is better, I daresay, for eating just as is. The brick I bought the other day fell apart as I was beginning to take its picture and boy was I happy. All those pebbles of cheese crumbling off the side found their way in short order onto my eager tongue. I also liked the way the wounded cheese resembled a rockface alongside a TNT-blasted road. Wisconsin produces enormous quantities of cheese and almost none of it is as good to eat as this. More pix at my Flickr.


Because I am a sucker, I would see any Pixar film and any culinary romp set in Paris and any film named for a Provençal vegetable preparation, so it's just my luck that next summer's Pixar release is comedy about a Parisian foodie mouse in search of good eats and is called Ratatouille. It took me about an hour to get the pun. Here's the trailer (via BB.)


Staying in southern France: I missed Bittman's travel piece in last weekend's NYT, but I caught up on it reading Language Log. The nut: niçcois gnocchi are also known as merda de can, which is Provençal for dog shit, and served with gorgonzola, pistou, or tomato sauce. (LL calls Bittman out for claiming that merda is unprintable.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Cashew Chicken

I make no apology for trying to duplicate Chinese take-out food at home. The sad fact is that Milwaukee offers almost no edible Chinese food of any sort, northern, southern, fancy, homestyle, whatever. So if you want it done right or even just passably, you do it yourself.

I have been using my new pan, a 12-inch cast iron skillet, quite obsessively. It's like when you get a new pair of Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars and you wear only them for weeks on end to give them that lived-in sneaker look. Seasoning a pan is a continual effort and the more you use it the better it gets. There's still a spot off to one side that hasn't gotten black yet, and I will not rest until it's slick and inky.

I might as well state for the record that I don't believe in woks. I certainly haven't tried every kind, still it seems quite unlikely to me that in the absence of the searing heat of a commercial kitchen, a home cook can get the same effect. Stovetops are flat and flat pans pick up their heat; they're designed just for that. I refuse to believe that, absent the BTUs the pros have, the shape of the pan makes any difference. Having said that, I meekly await your crucifixion. If I recall, Barbara, whose picture is in the current issue of Time magazine (yes, that Time magazine) accompanying an article on the virtues of eating local, insists on woks even at home and she knows worlds more than I do about Chinese cookery. (Yes I have seen today's Times article about pans and I don't have much to say about it. I have enough pans.)

Now a word about recipes. M.F.K. Fisher writes in With Bold Knife & Fork, pp. 20-21:
A recipe is supposed to be a formula, a means prescribed for producing a desired result, whether that be an atomic weapon, a well-trained Pekingese, or an omelet. There can be no frills about it, no ambiguities...and above all no "little secrets." A cook who indulges in such covert and destructive vanity as to leave out one ingredient of a recipe which someone has admired and asked to copy is not honest, and therefore is not a good cook. He is betraying his profession and his art. He may well be a thief or a drunkard, or even a fool, away from his kitchens, but he is not a good cook if he cheats himself to this puny and sadistic trickery of his admirers, and no deep-fat kettle is too hot to brown him in.
I don't think I like to write recipes of the sort Ms. Fisher prefers. I like to write descriptions of how I cook but I don't believe that recipes really function as formulas or that cooks tend to follow recipes faithfully. If I were making an atomic weapon, I would use exactly what the cookbook said. But when I make salad or stew or cashew chicken, I prefer to make things up as I go along, to "feel" my way through it. And I tend not to measure ingredients even when following other people's recipes. But she's right, as ever; any cook who omits an ingredient does deserve to fry.

Cashew Chicken

For the chicken/marinade:
The breast meat of a 4 lb fryer, cut into bite-size pieces
a few drips of soy sauce
a few drips of mirin
a pinch of salt
a pinch of white pepper
about a tbs of corn starch

(Some people think Chinese cooks use soy in place of salt. It ain't necessarily so. Soy can be a strong flavor, so I often use a little bit of soy and also a little bit of salt.)

The rest of it:
3 stalks of celery, cut into diamond shapes
1 medium yellow onion, sliced in broad strips
two cloves of garlic, minced
an olive-size piece of ginger, minced
half a cup of cashews (authenticity be damned, I used Planter's roasted and salted nuts)

A sauce:
half a cup chicken stock
2 tbs or so Shaoxing wine
a big pinch of sugar
2 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs oyster sauce
half a tsp white pepper
1 tsp corn starch

peanut oil for frying

Marinate the chicken an hour ahead of time (you can add the corn starch at the last second since it's not a flavor ingredient).

Heat a pan or wok until very hot. Drizzle in a small amount of oil, let it get hot. Dump the chicken in, spread it out so every piece is touching the pan, and don't touch it for at least 45 seconds. Then turn the pieces that have browned nicely. This whole step shouldn't take more than two minutes. When the chicken is almost fully cooked (it's ok if there are still pink spots here and there) remove to a plate.

Let the pan get hot again and add another drizzle of oil. When it's shimmering, add the garlic and ginger and as soon as you can smell them, perhaps ten seconds, add the celery and onion and cook over high heat, stirring continuously to avoid burning the garlic. If it seems like it's too hot in the pan, add a splash of water. After a couple of minutes, when the veggies have softened a bit, return the chicken to the pan, add the cashews, mix to combine, then pour in the sauce. Mix well, turn down the heat, and cook just until the sauce is thick and coating all of the pieces of meat and veggies and nuts.

Serve with plain white rice.



Interview with Anthony Bourdain at Bookslut: "It's the death of pleasure when your waiter takes ten minutes to tell you the bloodline of your tomato."

Sara Dickerman reviews Buford. Very positive. I'm not going to read it, though, as I've already seen much of it in the NYer and didn't love it.

Mayonnaise, a video, probably NSFW and definitely in bad taste.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Picture time

On those weekends we are fortunate to spend at home doing not much, the little man's nap (usually about two hours sometime between noon and 3) is our spare time for catching up on television, reading, going shopping, talking on the phone, making ice cream, and of course blogging and Flickring and being online. But it is also potentially work time. In the academic life, all time is potentially work time, and when I am caught up in a project or facing a deadline I will devote every available moment to scholarly pursuits. Right now I am trying to get into full-on scholarly mode and today's naptime might have been spent on my writing project. But it wasn't. What I really wanted to do was go to the bookstore to buy a guide to using Photoshop, which I haven't done a good enough job of teaching myself. That is exactly the wrong way to spend time: seeking an aide to squandering even more time in the future. Instead I stayed home while E went shopping, and I pleased myself more than just a bit by figuring out enough to produce this Photoshopped documentation of our lunch, a Caesar salad (the idea for which I got from reading about a meal at Zuni in San Francisco), for my Flickr:

Caesar Salad

It isn't such a fancy bit of work, I know, but I'm not so quick to pick up these high-tech skills (thus the ordinariness of this blog's design).

I think I might be happy to spend the rest of my life taking pictures of eggs but I really do have other things to accomplish.

Saturday, June 03, 2006



Opening day today at East Town Market and not much on offer. The fat white turnips were the prettiest things for sale. A few stalks of rhubarb, scattered lettuces, nothing nearly as tempting as a sugarsnap. One farmer told me her peas are at least two weeks off.

Many of the produce vendors didn't come this morning. I passed the empty spaces where I expected to see their tables, their trucks, their faces, hoping to recognize them from last summer and the summers before it.

Plenty of shoppers turned up, though, with their kids and dogs. Vendors too with various things I'm not looking for in a farmer's market. Aside from the flowers and plants, the bakery items and coffee, there were ceramic fish, magnets made of buttons, and revolving copper lawn sprinklers. One woman set up a glass table under a tent to sell her self-published novel, a romance-mystery called Mixin' It Up! Too bad you can't eat literature.

August should be livelier.