Sunday, May 24, 2009

Checking Out "Our" Farm

My friend Piglet and I share a share in Roxbury Farm, an organic community-supported farm in Kinderhook, New York. A share entitles the holder to 26 food drops per year, from early June through November, of whatever the farm produces. Like other farms, Roxbury has several dropoff points in New York City. It is a fun challenge to try to find things to do with the surprise package (often including things you've never seen before) before the following week's drop.
A share also entitles the holder to visit the farm and make a pest of oneself, since the folks on the farm are generally working hard. But part of the local food movement is to know who is growing your food, so we drove the 120 or so miles to the farm on a lovely spring day last week, where we walked around and talked to Jody Bolluyt, who, together with Jean-Paul Courtens, runs the place.

It is still early in the season, but we enjoyed looking around and looking at the next six months' bounty in its earliest state. It's pretty amazing that the trays of 1/2-inch seedlings we looked at will turn into an array of beautiful lettuces and greens! Even if you can't join a community supported farm, you can have fantastic produce and support the local food movement (and, not incidentally, save the earth) by buying as much as possible at your nearest greenmarket. Not only for organic vegetables, but also for fantastic artisanal cheeses and pastured, ethically raised meats and poultry.

Bobby Jay

Cooking by Hand -- Paul Bertolli's Excellent Book

I first heard of Paul Bertolli's marvelous Cooking by Hand from an article in Edward Behr's The Art of Eating, in which Behr lists it as one of the nine cookbooks that he would keep on his shelf if he had to give up all his hundreds of others. Bertolli's book has many recipes, true, but really it is more a series of essays on Italian food than it is a cookbook. This is evident from the chapter headings -- "Ripeness," "Twelve Ways at Looking at a Tomato" and "Aceto Balsamico," for example, rather than meat, fish, pasta, etc. It is a splendid read, although you might want to skim through the very long chapter on charcuterie if, like me, there is no chance that you will put it to practical use. But even this chapter is full of interesting lore and information that will make you a more thoughtful cook and shopper.
Cooking by Hand can at times be quite moving. I actually cried when I read this passage from a letter Bertolli wrote to his newborn son Antonio, which serves as the introduction to the chapter on Aceto Balsamico:

It is two months now that you have been alive and I have decided not to wait to tell you about a special gift we have received in honor of your birth. Your gift came in six separate boxes from our friends in Italy, Francesco, an artisan barrel maker, and his wife, Maura, whom you will soon meet and visit. Francesco has built for you six beautiful casks, Antonio's batteria he calls it, for making aceto balsamico, no ordinary vinegar, as you will see. When Francesco's sons were born he built barrels for them as well and if you were to climb to the very top floor of his house, there under the roof you would see them lined up in rows, one slightly bigger than the next, his sons' names . . . burned into the head of each. Next to these are casks that Francesco's father filled for him nearly 50 years ago! You would also smell something extraordinary as you approach the low door that leads into this room, called the acetaia, the place where vinegar ages -- an aroma that is dense and pungent and like no other that has passed under your nose. . . . Francesco has given to you, but also to our family, a rare gift and the wish of continuity.

By the time you are old enough to read this, the vinegar that I will soon start for you will have aged enough to draw. In it you will taste the years it has marked since you were born. It will grow sappy as you move into your teens, then deepen and thicken as you become a man. In your twenties its dark obscurity will mirror the complexities of life that dawn on you; in middle age balsamico may help you remember who you are and with whom you have belonged. When you grow old, it will be the nectar that you have waited all your life to sip, by then a kind of magic elixir. Like you, it will have become everything it has ever been for better or worse, an embrace of the "sweet and sour" that is life, a family keepsake to pass along to loved ones of your own. . . .
Wow! I still get misty-eyed just typing this, and I am not really a huge fan of balsamic vinegar.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wonderful Vietnamese Sandwiches -- Bánh Mì

Baoguette's bánh mì

There have been a number of articles recently, including a major spread in the New York Times, extolling the virtues of, bánh mì, Vietnamese pork sandwiches served on a baguette. While it has been reported that they were invented by Vietnamese immigrants to the US for local consumption, one of my readers (see comments below) informs me that this is false; in fact they existed in Vietnam and were brought to the US by immigrants after the war.

In response to the publicity, my friend Piglet and I went to one of the best bánh mì places, Baoguette, at 61 Lexington Avenue (between 25th and 26th Streets), which has received awards from New York Magazine and Time Out New York. Our conclusion: the fuss is justified. Five dollars will buy you a sandwich consisting of pork, pork pate, pork terrine and pickled vegetables (including daikon and carrots) and cilantro with hot (or less hot) sauce. The flavors are just sensational! On a subsequent visit I tried a similar sandwich, but made with chicken; excellent, but doesn't match the layered complexity of the pork version. There is also a beef version (Sloppy Bao) which I have't tried. Baoguette also has branches at 37 St. Mark's Place and 120 Christopher Street.

There are other places to find bánh mì, and I hope to try as many of them as possible. Click more for the list compiled by the New York Times.

Bobby Jay

AN CHOI 85 Orchard Street (Broome Street); (212) 226-3700.
BANH MI SAIGON BAKERY 138 Mott Street (Grand Street); (212) 941-1541.
BAOGUETTE 61 Lexington Avenue (25th Street); (212) 518-4089.
BAOGUETTE CAFE 37 St. Marks Place (Second Avenue); (347) 892-2614.
BA XUYEN 4222 Eighth Avenue (42nd Street), Sunset Park, Brooklyn; (718) 633-6601.
NHA TOI 160 Havemeyer Street (South Second Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; (718) 599-1820.
NUM PANG 21 East 12th Street (University Place); (212) 255-3271.
PARIS SANDWICH BAKERY CAFE 113 Mott Street (Hester Street); (212) 226-7221.
SAU VOI CORP. 101 Lafayette Street (Walker Street); (212) 226-8184.
SILENT H 79 Berry Street (North Ninth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; (718) 218-7063.
THANH DA I 6008 Seventh Avenue (60th Street), Sunset Park, Brooklyn; (718) 492-3253.
THANH DA II 5624B Eighth Avenue (56th Street), Sunset Park, Brooklyn; (718) 492-3760.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio"

I have just finished reading Michael Ruhlman's fine new book, Ratio, which was inspired by what he learned during his studies at the Culinary Institute of America, chronicled in his excellent The Making of a Chef. Ruhlman became fascinated by the basic ratios that good chefs know by heart, which enable them to improvise with confidence rather than follow recipes. The book contains basic ratios for doughs and batters; stocks (and roux and beurre manié used to thicken them); farces, mousselines and other meat-related items; fat-based sauces; and custards.

The point of the book is not so much to provide recipes (although there are many) but to show how recipes are created and to give the reader the means and courage to make up his or her own in the same way that chefs do. For example, after giving the basic ratio for pie dough and then a recipe for tart dough using that ratio, he tosses off dozens of variations that can be made without significantly deviating from the basic ratio -- caramelized onion and compté tart, leek and walnut tart, potato and leek tart, tomato tart, peach and prosciutto tart, various sweet tarts and a number of fruit tarts, among others. This is really a new kind of cookbook!

Another thing I love about this book is how Ruhlman's love affair with food and cooking comes through in his simple unadorned prose. Here is my favorite excerpt from the book, in which he is discussing batters:
. . . people who are gifted pastry chefs have simply seen the crepe-cake continuum more clearly for longer, rather than seeing crepe equaling one set of instructions, cake another, and so hav been able to improvise; they understand how small adjustments in fat, flour, egg and sugar can result in satisfying nuances of lightness and delicacy or richness in flavor and texture. It's all one thing.

Which is why I love cooking. It's all one thing.
I do have some gripes about this book, primarily the way in which Ruhlman switches back and forth between volume measures, counts and weights, which makes it difficult to follow the ratios and, more important, has led to a number of errors and inconsistencies. In the section of crème anglaise, for example, one recipe converts 4 ounces of egg yolks to 7 large yolks while two other convert the same 4 ounces into 8 yolks, and another converts 6 ounces into 9 yolks. I usually cook by weight, but often will use eggs by count; what am I supposed to do here?

This is more than a quibble, but there is so much great stuff in the book that I can forgive it.

If you love food, Ratio is worth reading.

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Foolproof Baby Back Ribs

My friend Mark has a simple and foolproof method of making great baby back ribs, and he has graciously authorized me to share it.

Cap'n Mark's Baby Back Ribs

1. Preheat oven to 250º-270º F.
2. Rub each rack of ribs with about 1 TBS of your favorite rub. There are a million rub recipes available on the Internet, but it's hard to beat Cap'n Mark's Rib Rub. See below.
3. Heat rack on a pan in the middle of the oven. If using an outdoor grill, keep the ribs away from direct heat.
4. Cook for 3-4 hours.
5. Cut the rack(s) in half, wrap in tin foil, two or three racks together. Then place the foil-wrapped ribs in a paper bag, roll the top down tightly, then place the bag in another paper bag, roll the top down tightly.
6. Rest at least an hour.
7. Heat up some BBQ sauce. Cap'n Mark likes bone-sucking sauce, but whatever brand you like (or, better yet, whatever you make).
8. Open packages, cut ribs into one- or two-rib pieces, and drizzle with hot BBQ sauce.
9. Optional side: sprinkle cut vegetables with the rib rub, drizzle with olive oil and roast at 400º until done.

Bobby Jay

For Cap'n Mark's Rib Rub recipe, click on More.
Cap'n Mark's Rib Rub

Mix together

1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon white pepper
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoon mild chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
4 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons celery salt
1 tablespoon ground oregano

Monday, May 11, 2009

Food Movie -- La Grande Bouffe

La Grande Bouffe, one of the best-known movies about food, has recently become available in the US on DVD, so I watched it again for the first time in many years.

Directed in 1973 by Marco Ferreri, La Grande Bouffe is a French black comedy about four men -- a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a television host (Michel Piccoli), and a judge (Philippe Noiret, one of my all-time favorites) -- who go to a villa in France with the goal of eating themselves to death. What follows is an orgy of lavish food and sex (added to the festivities almost as an after-thought).

I found the movie to be black, indeed, but not comic. Indeed, it is profoundly sad and a reminder that food is not the be-all and end-all of life. Worth seeing, as any film with these four great actors would be, but not if you're expecting to laugh.

Bobby Jay