Use lard, you wussies

I’m surprised at the common disgust non-vegetarians have for lard pie crusts. They scrunch up their faces and question why you wouldn’t just use butter.

I’m not advocating slathering lard on toast, but it does make a better, flakier crust.

And now The Oregonian poses the question, via Chow, of whether olive oil produces a better crust.

Come on guys, suck it up, and use the pig fat.

Attack of the food bloggers (and anonymous reviewers)

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece that suggests online restaurant reviewers just might not be held to the same ethical standards as, say, Frank Bruni. Gosh, really?

(And let’s not debate if there are standards for professional reviewers. The Association of Food Journalists can even list them for you.)

And while the piece tried to look at bloggers, it didn’t really. The main evidence presented was Chicago’s Dine wooing of Yelp reviewers. And I would hardly call that collection of reviews authoritative. Any nitwit knows that a online single review — whether for a book, highchair or restaurant — is as useful as asking my dog what is opinion on the death penalty is.

So perhaps this is the big, bad main-stream media taking a whack at the little guy. (It is, after all, Rupert’s Wall Street Journal.) But I don’t buy it. Smart business are realizing the power a single person can have on the Internet. And how cheaply they can be bought. (Drop me a line and we’ll talk.)

This has to be scary for restaurateurs, who are already dealing with low odds of success, to think that someone with a computer and a following could have a single bad experience as leave them on Eater’s Deathwatch. And at least one big-time chef has taken a whack at food bloggers these that exact reason.

I can hardly blame him. But it’s an imperfect world. If people are willing to sell their loyalties to the highest bidder (or for at least a free dinner), there ain’t much you can do.

How we eat

This is a 90-second audio piece about how we relate to food and cooking. Imagine a 1930s-style radio announcer reading the lead-in, which reads:

The abundance of food in America means eating and cooking are no longer things done simply for sustenance. And while cooking game shows can be found across the TV dial — and physically eating at home, instead of on the go, is becoming more common — fewer and fewer meals are being cooked at home from scratch. So what is our relationship with food? We sent reporter Nick Bergus to downtown Iowa City over his lunch hour to find out.

Fact or fiction? Public food assistance and obesity

Ironically, people on food stamps and in WIC programs are more likely to be obese than those in the general population. This has been the case for years. And a report, from a study conducted by Middle Tennessee State University and recently released by the USDA, confirms this.

But this is clearly not the official party line. While the first report carries a disclaimer (“The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ERS or USDA.”), another study that carries no such disclaimer and was released the same day admits that this may have been the case in the past but proclaims that it is no longer.

So which is it? One suspects that the problem hasn’t disappeared — America hasn’t slimmed last I checked — but that perhaps the rest of the population has just caught up.

After all, America hasn’t slimmed last I checked.

Offal and crème brulèe

My main course could have been called the Depraved Platter — veal sweetbreads and foie gras. Oh yes, Wild Rice mostly lived up to expectations.

Sweetbreads—which can refer to either the thymus, like the ones I ate, or the pancreas of calves, lambs or pigs—are much meatier than I expected.

These sweetbreads were crusted with almonds and, I assume, baked. They had a much subtler flavor than I expected, too. My mother and I debated the correct pronunciation of the word offal. (She preferred oh-fell while I believed it to be the same as awful.)

Dinner began with an amuse, in this case a cold grilled beef and corn salad with avocado and crème freîche. It had a nice meaty flavor and a mostly chunky texture that contrasted with the fatty smoothness of the avocado and crème freîche.

The first course was a delightful assortment of six different cheeses ranging from a hard sheep-and-goat cheese from to a creamy blue from . Paired with wild rice and nut bread and a cranberry-orange it was divine. But how can you screw up an uncomposed cheese course?

Portions had grown in the four years since we ate at the restaurant and the quality of service declined. Our waitron was a part-timer who admitted she waited tables only part time and seems to think that making a distinction between fungus and mushroom is ludicrous. We also perceived loss of focus on fresh and season ingredients.

Following organs for dinner, I felt I deserved the most clichéd dessert on the menu: crème brulèe.

Scene: near an oak tree, in a pasture, by the highway, in Iowa

Propped up by the bucket of a skid loader, the cow was in obvious distress. Her belly was bloated; a blue tongue stuck out of her mouth as she panted and belched; snot and a trickle blood ran from her nostrils. The three men looked at the downed cow much the way the same group might bend over the hood of an ailing pickup truck.

One of the men, a farmer from down the road, saw her lying on her side in the sun as he’d driven by, noted she didn’t look good, and stopped. The second, the first’s second cousin and contractor who owned the cow, had arrived after a quick phone call. The third, a butcher-turned-laborer, arrived a couple minutes later. Each had his own expertise and suggestions.

The 14-year-old cow had fallen in a slight depression in the pasture. It was possibly from the bull trying to mount her, possibly she just collapsed. But with her head slightly down hill and with the sun beating down on her black hide on a 90-degree day, she started to puff up.

Quickly it was clear that the men were too late. Even after they had helped her onto her side with the skid loader, she refused water and wouldn’t stand. The cow could do nothing to beat the flies off her eyes or back. Then she started to low.

For several seconds she let out intermittent, throaty bellows, and then slumped over, her left eye glassy and unblinking.

“She’s gone,” said the butcher.

“She didn’t have a chance, really,” said the farmer.

“Fuck,” said the contractor.

Two bushels of Maryland blue crabs

On our just-completed vacation, we spent four days in Maryland with my mom’s side of the family in a beautiful house on the Miles River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, apparently own homes near by. We still had a nice time.) Josh, my retired-chef cousin, steamed two bushels of blue crabs for the 30 people. Lots of fun.

The crabs in this video went into the pot much more willingly than many of the others. It often seemed that for every one that went in, two would escape. It was necessary to chase them down and force them back into the pot. Meanwhile another one would escape and the process would repeat.

Well, back to shoveling pig shit tomorrow.

How far can American food fall?

As a piece on Serious Eats points out:

The U.S. is a country whose national cuisine might as well be the hamburger. How pathetic is it then that such a specimen made with fresh beef and grilled onions is considered ‘gourmet’?

Indeed. Let’s not forget the decline of the peanut butter and jelly (and grilled cheese) sandwich either. Americans choose convenience over quality long ago. Sigh.

True or Onion dept.

Today on Onion Radio News is a story with the headline “Entire Meal Pig-based.” Mmmm, a tasting entirely made of pig. (The idea of entire meals featuring a single ingredient has always appealed to me.)

Onion Radio News is no Splendid Table, though. Everyone knows a true pig feast wouldn’t end with a “hamhock crème brûlée” but rather with a pie contained by a lard-filled crust.

Validation

I think it’s important to have some connection to where our meat comes from. This isn’t to say we should completely avoid Taco Bell, Wendy’s or other supporters of factory farming. But we should at least recognize what our meat goes through before it shows up at the grocery store, restaurant table or drive-through window.

So last night when I did a cooking demo and food writing talk at a small public library just north of here as part of its adult summer reading program, I really pushed it. I read, in quick succession, a few pieces about animal death. Pieces I really love. Perhaps against my better judgment, I shared these, in longer forms, before I cooked and we ate.

First E.B. White’s 1948 essay, written prior to Charlotte’s Web, “Death of a Pig”:

The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom-time, feeding through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.

Next came Anthony Bourdain’s chapter “Where Food Comes From” from his book A Cook’s Tour:

They finally managed to wrestle the poor beast back up onto the cart again, the guy with the mustache working the blade back and forth like a toilet plunger. The pig’s movements slowed, but the rasping and wheezing, the loud breathing and gurgling continued… and continued…the animal’s chest rising and falling noisily… continued and continued…for what seemed like a fucking eternity.

And then Michael Ruhlman as the voice of Thomas Keller in “The Importance of Rabbits” from The French Laundry Cookbook:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin and eviscerate a rabbit. (…) He showed up with 12 live rabbits. He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, and skinned it—the whole bit. Then he left.“I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and 11 cute bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into a braising pan. I clutched at the first rabbit. I had a hard time killing it. It screamed. Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly. Then it broke its leg trying to get away. It was terrible.

Then we cooked pork chops from a farm, Pavelka’s Point, that I’ve been visiting this summer. Everyone one ate them and the chops were fatty, juicy and delicious.