I realize that several of my favorite foods, meals I cook over and over, were things I first ate in a restaurant or market. They were so good that I went home and experimented until I made something close enough - or better. All of these have become household favorites, and make repeat appearances on Viand menus. Several that come to mind are:

I realize that I should devote myself to reproducing all of my other most remembered foods prepared by others, so herewith is the to-do list, in chronological order:

• really stupendous sauteed wild mushrooms (I had these as a child at a restaurant in NYC, and I believe it was my first experience of nouvelle cuisine. I ordered a second serving.)

• in Palm Springs: a salad: avocado, grapefruit, red onions.

• filo-encrusted candied apple from a restaurant in Boston which I loved so much that I had my 21st birthday dinner there. I know this restaurant closed, and sadly I don't remember the name. The caramel soaked through the filo dough, making it chewy in places while crisp in others

•sundried tomato, black pepper, parmesan scones from the San Francisco Farmers Market when it was still in a parking lot. I've tried to make these several times and it's not as easy as it sounds. I suppose the first challenge is a really light but buttery scone recipe. Then the right parmesan. Wet or dry sundried tomatoes?

•blackberry turnovers (probably i'll enjoy other fruits as well). these were also sold at the San Francisco Farmers Market before the Ferry Plaza Building. I think the bakery was in Sonoma somewhere, but the important thing was that transition from chewy where the fruit has wet the crust to flaky to a crunchy sugary crust.

fruit breads from Noe Valley Bakery. This is bread, not cake. My favorites are: Apricot & Ginger, Chocolate & Cherry. I used to buy 8 loaves when I'd visit San Francisco, then slice and freeze them back in Santa Barbara. One of my favorite treats. What is really interesting about these breads is that the fruit isn't that sweet. The bread is. How to make the bread sweet like this, with a wet sourdough texture? And the chocolate in the chocolate cherry bread is very dry and crumbly, I don't know what kind of chocolate it is.

•salad of 39 things from La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar in Buenos Aires. Every bite is a different combination of flavors, nuts, berries, roots, shoots, some cooked, some cold, some warm. I think there was a bit of mayonaise in the dressing. I finally attempted it (without the mayonaise) at Viand 29: Berlin 2: High Low.

•cube of spaghetti with curry and small shrimps from Freud & Fahler in Buenos Aires.

•seafood citrus salad from Yellow in Sydney. I'm crushed to find this restaurant is closed. I don't remember anything about the salad beyond what I said. I think there might have been macadamia nuts in it?

•chocolate brownie from John&Peter Canteen, Sydney (closed)

•Grandma I-ya's german chocolate cake. It's always your family's food that is the biggest challenge to replicate. Because your version of grandma's cake will always be missing one ingredient - her love.

Last night we attended a lecture/demonstration regarding meat butchering. We started with 1/2 a pig (the right side) and learned how all the cutting happens from there and about the different cuts and uses.

We learned some new details about the meat processing industry. There are two main functions of meat processing, slaughter (killing and cutting the animal into 1/2 or 1/4) and "fabrication" (creating the actual cuts of meat that the consumer purchases and cooks). Due to assembly-line meat processing and standardization of cuts, there are very people who know how to fabricate from a whole animal and understand all of the options and how best to use every part of the animal.

A great example is that 5 years ago when Jamey started buying 1/2 pigs from independent slaughterhouses, they just cut off and composted the head and feet of the animal (because they were dirty and the slaughterhouse didn't want to wash them because they felt they were low value. Much as Jamey asked, he could not get feet for his customers and he could not get the jowls. The jowls are used to make guanciale, which is used like bacon or pancetta, but has more flavor. Given the growing interest in local and sustainable food, custom cut meat is easier to get now. But the lack of independent slaughterhouses is still a huge problem. There is only one in Massachusetts and one in New Hampshire. And there is no school in the US to train people in meat cutting.

Another example is that in Italy, they use the eye round, not the tenderloin, for carpaccio.

The event was sponsored by Garden of Eden Restaurant and Lionette's Market. The meat they sell and serve is butchered (by Adam) in their kitchen from a 1/2 cow and whole pig each week. He cuts the meat differently based on the season and special events. In the winter generally, the bottom round and other tougher cuts are offered for braising. Jamey sees braising meat as the proper accompaniment to winter vegetables like parsnips and rutabegas. (We actually prefer to roast these vegetables and we braise the meat all on its own.) In the summer (and during football events), the market gets more demand for sausage, so they cut those braising meats for sausage.

Because pork can be preserved so many ways, it is much more versatile than beef and provides a greater range of flavors. Because pork has more flavor, it is sometimes mixed with less flavorful meat. For example, veal sausage often has pork fatback (back fat) included. Pork fatback is what is used to make regular lard. It's also used to make lardons. Lardons are cured slices of fatback. Last night, Jamey's brother deep fried them and tossed them with parsley and garlic. Wow! Lard is really popular again. Jamey said he was so embarrassed that his market, one of the few that proudly makes and sells lard in Boston, actually ran out of lard at Thanksgiving. (See previous post on lard )

Preserved meats can be brined, cured, and/or smoked. Many preserved meats have a combination of these techniques:
Salami: Sausage that is cured (one NY company in the US does air-cured meats and had to spend $750K proving to the federal government the power of salt to protect us from bacteria). All other air-cured meat in the US, including imports, has been irradiated or treated in some other way.
Bacon and guanciale are brined and then smoked.
Pancetta is just brined from 11+ weeks.

The teacher was Adam Tiberio (http://www.TheMeatRoom.com or adam_tiberio [at] hotmail dot com). He was an English literature major (Summa Cum Laude) and found himself working in the meat department at Whole Foods. He took an interest in meat cutting and started studying. Now he works at one of the only USDA certified custom cutting operations in New England (Lemay & Sons, Goffstown NH). He's very young and hopefully one of a new generation of artisanal butchers.

Adam is available for lectures at universities regarding culinary applications of different cuts, sausage and curing, boning and trimming techniques, and fabrication. He also works with chefs who want to cut down animals themselves.

 

photo by Andrea Godshalk of www.azumera.com

The Power of Touch

By Daniel Patterson,
Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.
Food & Wine Magazine, June, 2007
Throw away your tongs and toss your food processor. Chef Daniel Patterson believes that in the kitchen, nothing can replace human hands.

Recently, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen, watching her toss a salad with a pair of restaurant-issue metal tongs. I had picked the wild greens just hours before, lovingly washed and dried them, and now was horrified to see her crushing the delicate leaves between the tongs and bowl. I asked her why she didn’t use her hands to gently toss the lettuces with the vinaigrette. After all, fingers are much more effective at this task than tongs. My friend made a face: "I don’t want to get my hands dirty."

At first I thought she was in the minority, until I called Maria Helm Sinskey, a chef and cookbook author who has plenty of interaction with home cooks. "Oh, yes," she laughed. "It’s true. No one wants to touch their food. You should see people trying to cut up a raw chicken with a knife in one hand and a fork in the other."

It could be that restaurants bear some responsibility for this sad state of affairs. When open kitchens became ubiquitous, cooks seemed to use tongs for just about everything. There was always some guy wielding them like a prosthetic limb, casually flipping a steak here and grabbing a piece of fish there, using the tongs to stir his sauces and then guide the food from sauté pan to plate. This was ostensibly more hygienic than using hands—except for the small fact that the cooks generally wiped off the tongs with a greasy towel, twirled them a few times like a six-shooter and then jammed them into the back pocket of their dirty chef’s pants. But it looked pretty cool. So people watched—and then they went out and bought some tongs of their own.

Of course, other factors are more to blame for the hands-free approach to cooking. Consider the rise of equipment like bread machines. And pasta machines. And food processors. Just pour in the ingredients and poof!—instant gratification. Things that once required hands could now be done by machine. This was compounded by the problem that somewhere along the way, people lost their connection to real food. In the 1950s, processed foods soared in popularity, and supermarkets began to sell meat and fish as disembodied, plastic-shrouded parts. "In the ’60s and ’70s," reminisces cookbook author Paula Wolfert, "the only people close to food were hippies and vegetarians."

But slowly, our food culture has been evolving back toward the primacy of ingredients. As interest in farmers’ markets and natural foods has exploded, the way chefs handle those ingredients has changed as well. Tongs, for example, are nowhere to be found in today’s best kitchens. "A turning point for me," says chef Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenues in Chicago, "was when I was flipping meat on the grill with a pair of tongs while working at Charlie Trotter’s, and the chef de cuisine grabbed the tongs out of my hands and threw them across the room." Many other chefs have similar stories to tell. They now use hands, spoons or a thin, flexible metal spatula, all of which damage the ingredients as little as possible and allow the closest connection to the food.

When you think about it, Americans’ aversion to touching their food is an aberration compared with much of the rest of the world. In countries like Morocco, India and Ethiopia, people eat with their hands, not just with utensils. Southeast Asian cooks pound ingredients by hand with a mortar and pestle to make the chile pastes and purees that form the basis of their cuisine.

erhaps no other food culture is more famously linked to the sense of touch than Japan’s. "Hands are like a cooking tool in our cuisine," says Ryuta Sakamoto, co-chef and co-owner of Medicine restaurant in San Francisco. "With touch we can actually tell not only freshness and condition, but the taste of a fish." I know this sounds absolutely crazy, but it’s a function of repetition and paying attention: Chefs can touch a piece of fish, then taste it and remember the connection between the two. The next day they’ll do it again, and then repeat ad infinitum until they have built up an extremely accurate sensory database that informs them of what a fish will taste like simply by its feel.

I often tell my cooks that the onion on their cutting board is a specific onion, not a generic representation. If the layer underneath the skin feels leathery, they need to peel it off and throw it away—it will never soften no matter how they cook it. The same is true for meat. Before cutting it, cooks will often run a hand lengthwise along the surface. They’re feeling the grain, the tightness of the fibers, and seeing where the natural separations of the muscles are, which is especially important when trimming larger cuts such as leg of lamb. How a piece of meat feels can make a big difference in determining the best way to cook it: A softer, looser texture might mean more tenderness, so perhaps a shorter cooking time is in order, while a tighter, denser feel might suggest slow roasting or a braise. And pulling meats gently apart makes it easier to see where to cut, as with that ever-tricky joint between a chicken’s drumstick and thigh.

When I first started dating my wife, she would test the doneness of a piece of meat by taking a knife and making a jagged cut halfway through its center. If the meat was undercooked, back it went into the pan, leaking juices that spattered everywhere. A few minutes later she would remove the meat and subject it to a second mauling, at which point it began to resemble an outtake from a low-budget horror flick. I never said anything to her, but eventually she began to watch me feel meat with my fingers when I cooked, and then feel it herself, until she learned how to judge doneness by touch. If you don’t happen to live with a chef, a good rule of thumb is to feel your earlobe—that’s rare. The tip of your nose resembles medium, and your chin is well-done.

Alain Passard of L’Arpège restaurant in Paris goes so far as to have his cooks prepare whole chickens entirely on the stovetop, in a large pan with butter. They constantly turn the birds by hand for an hour-and-a-half or so, the movement and modulated temperature keeping the butter golden brown without burning, creating a supremely succulent result. His cooks don’t just prod the surface of the chicken as they move it around—they’re feeling the muscles underneath and the way the proteins are slowly setting, which will tell them when it is fully cooked. I should mention the obvious, however: Cooks have skin like lizards and a high tolerance for pain. It’s probably not the wisest technique for a home cook.

The same can be said for a lot of new cooking methods floating around restaurants these days, used to create things like warm jellies, foams and savory sorbets, often requiring highly specialized equipment. But unlike in home kitchens, the machines that chefs rely on supplement, but don’t supplant, their sense of touch. Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, cooks pork belly sous vide, slowly poaching it inside a vacuum-sealed bag in a warm-water bath, then finishes it on the stovetop, using the back of his hand to press the meat into the pan so that it crisps evenly. (This technique also works well for fish cooked with the skin on: Pressing gently on the top of the fillet prevents the skin from curling up at the edges.) Johnny Iuzzini, the famously innovative pastry chef at Jean Georges in Manhattan, says, "Touch is important on so many levels, beginning with the ingredients. We constantly have our hands in mixes to check the springiness of gels, or to feel the development of egg whites in meringues. When combining fragile ingredients, I’d rather do it by hand than use a machine, which might deflate the delicate mixture."

Ironically, as chefs’ understanding of complex cooking processes has deepened, the care and sensitivity with which they handle their ingredients has brought them closer to traditional home cooking, or at least the way home cooking used to be. I had an extremely fine, elegant version of hand-rolled couscous recently at Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, where the chef, Mourad Lahlou, told me a story about his Moroccan grandmother, from whom he learned his technique: "She was blind, and she rolled the best couscous. She would throw it up in the air when it was formed, and feel it as it landed on her hands. If she felt jagged edges, that meant that it was too dry, and if it stuck, then it was too wet. Other family members started to close their eyes when they made couscous to try and replicate the results."

I remember vividly watching my own grandmother’s hands as she rolled out dough, peeled apples and crimped piecrusts when I was young. I have a feeling that she would be baffled by many of the dishes being served in top restaurants these days, but she would understand the chefs’ primal desire to connect with their food. The resurgence of handmade food is ultimately about a movement toward a more intimate connection with what we eat and where it comes from, what Paula Wolfert calls "the essential taste" of food. As she told me, "Without taste, smell—and feel—nobody can cook well."

Daniel Patterson, an F&W Best New Chef 1997, is the chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco and the co-author of Aroma.

photo from appleblossomcottage.blogspot.com

From The Viand Zine, Issue 2, 12 May 2007

North Americans measure cooking ingredients by volume, rather than weight. For example, most of the world might call for a recipe with "250 g flour" whereas an American recipe might require "1/2 cup flour". I've often wondered about the difference between densely packing that cup of flour for making bread (have you seen our video yet? http://www.viand.net/doughs.html) vs. just filling up the cup and leveling off the top. Now I know that the European's avoid the problem: no matter how densely the flour is compressed, "250 g flour" will be the same amount of flour, no matter what. In practice, though, that US measure of flour seems to work well enough, so maybe the difference doesn't actually matter. As I think back, I recall a friend of mine who was really into the gadgetry of cooking had a scale that could be reset after each item was added. So "3 cups flour" might be added one at a time using the scale to let you know when you had enough and the scaled zeroed out to then be followed by "2 tsp salt" - but now I know, though, that a different recipe would be needed for measuring ingredients. Cups and teaspoons can't be used, only a recipe in grams (or ounces/pounds) would work with that scale!

Wikipedia addresses the "densely packed" flour issue by making mention of Special Instructions commonly found in recipes like "Firmly Packed" or "2 Heaping Cups of Flour" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_weights_and_measures). Or in this case, just watch the bread video mentioned above to see how we do it and in 10 minutes of labor, you'll have the most amazing bread!

Duro's cooking trivia of the day:
1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._customary_units), who knew? (ok maybe you did smarty-pants 🙂