20 January 2010

Something Serious for a Change

I came home hungry tonight, and after we had dinner (some leftovers and some too-bitter radicchio) I was still hungry. So we went to our favorite gelato joint and indulged in a pricey but fantastic treat. Never mind that it's just slightly above freezing out. We got home, and, well, I was still hungry.

The truth is, we don't know what hunger is. Despite our (voluntarily) slashed income and much less lavish lifestyles as a result of moving to France, we're still very firmly in the middle class and will more than likely never starve. This site is proof of that.

It was as I was casually perusing Twitter (a pastime, let's be honest, afforded mainly to the bourgeoisie) that I was reminded of this fact. I ran across a re-tweet (as the cool kids say) by food writer Michael Ruhlman pointing to the following movie trailer:

It's difficult not to feel moved by this. Wherever you stand politically, whether you're an American or have simply had the opportunity to experience its bounties at one time or another, it's almost unfathomable that there are – in the richest, most industrious country the world has ever seen – children that aren't being adequately fed.

Nobody's talking about famine, with groups of skeletal kids sporting distended bellies, indifferent to the flies swarming over their emaciated frames, being patronized by a portly Sally Struthers. What we're starting to witness (outside of the typical media filter) is the reality of hunger in the developed, supposedly "civilized" (for lack of a better term) world. This isn't born of drought or lack of resources or even poor planning. It's inequity plain and simple.

I, for one, look forward to this film and more so to seeing how we (speaking as a group of people who eat well enough to post pictures and write about it) can do something about it. Whether it's by simply raising awareness or helping organizations that lend a hand.

Making another Twitter reference (aren't we just so hip now?)... A friend posted something she overheard, which I'll paraphrase here because I can't be bothered to look it up. It went something like, "Why are we sending so much money to Haiti when there are so many poor people here in Florida?"

That sentiment may be shockingly insensitive, but for those who do recognize the truth in the latter part of the statement: Do you know what's going on in your own back yard? Are you doing anything about it?

Alannah and I generally don't talk about the charities we support. Unless we're trying to enlist support or raise funds, we're of the mind that you do what you can to actually help, not to be recognized for it.

As such, I'm not going to tell you to go volunteer at Food Bank X or give to Organization Y or to send a text to Wyclef Jean. I'm just putting up this trailer and being serious for a moment because if you read our site, you probably have more than a passing interest in eating. Let's do our part to make sure others can derive the same type of pleasure from it as we do.

It's not about guilt. It's all about awareness. And raising it.

Thanks, and now someone else take this soapbox from me please...

11 January 2010

Ooey Gooey Hot and Sticky

Chalk this up as a happy accident. (As opposed to the previous night's episode, which was far from happy.)

Click to see the deliciousness up close & personal

We wanted dessert badly late the other night, so I decided to bake some chocolate chip cookies. Not any chocolate chip cookies, but Thomas Keller style, as found in Ad Hoc at Home.

I'm generally not big on cookbooks, particularly for cuisines I'm already very familiar with, but Mr. Keller is an exception in this household. Some friends of ours back in California are serious T-kizzle fans (apparently they have achieved the kind of intimacy where one can throw hip-hop nicknames at the man, or so legend holds it), and we're not strangers to Ad Hoc, its awesome crew, and their seemingly infallible repertoire of food.

So much so, that I shelled out 50 bones and nearly exceeded my airline-mandated luggage capacity to bring this giant tome back with me from New York the day after it came out.

Also, Alannah has gone on the record to say she'd ditch me to eat at Ad Hoc. (I've referred to this story in our first attempt to cook TK-styley.) So again, it's a no-brainer that I want to recreate that magic in our own kitchen ever so often. Hell, sometimes we even outshine it.

But sometimes that "no-brainer" part kicks in... almost literally. Like when I try to make chocolate chip cookies and only put in half the flour called for by the recipe.

(Which is, by the way, 2 1/3c flour, 3/4tsp baking soda, 1tsp kosher salt, 5oz 55% chocolate chopped into chips, 5oz 70% chocolate chopped into chips, 8oz butter, 1c packed molasses sugar, 3/4c granulated sugar, and 2 large eggs.)

The recipe actually isn't all that different from many standard chocolate chip cookie recipes, other than the specificity of the chocolate and molasses sugar. Much of what makes a Keller recipe a Keller recipe is stark simplicity mixed with meticulous technique.

So here I was, making this seriously simple but sublime cookie, and midway through the baking process on the first sheet, I noticed that, well, I was literally cooking a sheet. The cookie dough had spread out into a giant rectangle covering almost all of the baking sheet in the oven.

Perhaps I should have known something was wrong when my balls started melting as soon as I spooned them on to the parchment paper. (And here I thought it was all the butter doing that...)

At any rate, I fixed the second batch by adding more flour, and it was a decent enough save, yielding some soft, delicious, hideously rich cookies.

But what to do with the first "batch?" I wasn't about to let all that good chocolate go to waste. Nor that molasses sugar that was probably the handiwork of some poor South American quasi-slaves (no matter what the Fair Trade label on the bag says). And, of course, all that gorgeous A.O.C. butter.

Something had to be done. So I folded the sheet into four, stacked it all together neatly, wrapped it tightly in parchment paper, and put some weight on top of it. Who knows, maybe I was on the way to making the heretofore unseen Chocolate Chip Terrine!

Fast forward to tonight. We had a lovely couscous dinner at a casual Moroccan nearby, skipped dessert in favor of some hot mint tea, and, of course, regretted skipping dessert after seeing the trays of luscious Maghreb pastries go by later. So we got home and I proposed making something with the layered chocolate chip abortion.

I sliced the stack into squares, heated them up in the oven (and for a flash under the broiler), scooped on a couple of quenelles of speculoos ice cream, and topped it all with dark chocolate shavings.

Et voila! I have no freakin' clue what I just made, but it was good. So good that T-kizzle and D-cizzle and company should put it on the menu at you-know-where.

Ok, maybe not, but it was the tastiest accident we've had in a while.

10 January 2010

That Burning Sensation

I was standing naked under a hot stream of water as I cried for Alannah. She ran upstairs as if on cue, a small tub of organic crème fraiche in her hand. I immediately started slathering it on my privates as the hot water showered over my body. It felt so... gooooood.

No, we haven't taken our love for food to a sick new extreme. This is the result of making what I have deemed the Best. Carnitas. Ever.

While at our local outdoor market today, we happened upon a number of fabulous looking ingredients, one of which was gorgeously lean pork shoulder. This became, as we often do when marketing, our key item for the day, around which we'd focus the night's meal: Carnitas. "We still have tortillas," Alannah said. "We can make burritos."

Perfect. We bought a few other ingredients we'd need, including some peppers, onions and (unfortunately out of season) tomatoes to make a salsa. While I usually like my burritos loaded, carnitas are the star when they're the filling, and thus call for a lighter burrito where some nice, crisp veggies are the perfect foil to the rich meat. (For the history and construction of a standard, full-on carne asada burrito in English and in French, see the entry on the proper Mission Burrito.)

Normally, carnitas can be made of just about any meat, but normally pork shoulder. Chunks of it are slowly simmered in lard, and at the end of the process, the temperature is raised until the meat browns. It's then drained, shredded, and – voila – used in a burrito, on a taco, or any of a gazillion other ways Mexican meats are served.

Being in France and always considering local ingredients, I decided to eschew the lard for... duck fat! That's right, folks, we're having carnitas confit for dinner! Here's how it goes:

  • Put about a cup of duck fat in a Dutch oven or cast iron skillet (if you have a cover for the latter)
  • Slather your meat in salt and ground cumin
  • Once the duck fat is clear and simmering, insert your meat, and reduce the temperature to keep the fat at just a simmer. You don't want too much bubbling.
  • Feel free to add some sliced onions, diced chilis, garlic or whatever to the mix. Not necessary, but nice.
  • DO add some slices or wedges of one orange on top.
  • Cover with the lid and allow to simmer 60-90 minutes
  • You'll know the simmering is done when you can break the meat easily with the tip of a spatula.
  • Remove the lid, take out the orange slices, and turn up the heat 'til the fat is bubbling hot. Allow the meat to brown.
  • Once browned, move the meat (and what's left of your onions/peppers/etc.) into a mixing bowl and shred it using two forks. This is easy and kind of fun.
  • If you're a maniac like me, and your fat is still on the heat and reducing, throw the shredded meat back in the fat for an extra dose of richness. If you're sane and don't necessarily want to put your cardiologist's children through private school, skip this step.
Now, enjoy your carnitas.

Tonight, we had it burrito-style with a little rice, pinto beans, sour cream, and salsa. The salsa was made with finely diced sweet onions, the juice of one lemon, a couple of pinches of salt, and three fresh peppers. One red, one green, and one light green.

Now here's the thing. You should always wear protection when dealing with hot peppers. A pair of rubber gloves are indispensable when chopping up and removing the seeds form chilies, preventing that burning-hot capsaicin from getting on your fingertips and under your fingernails.

Of course, we're in France, where the hottest chilies (with the exception of those bought from Asian or African markets) have the strength of half a Maginot line. I've gone to the market and been warned that the peppers I was buying are "très forts" (very strong) only to go home and find that the peanut M&Ms in our candy drawer are spicier.

Well, not tonight.

I prepared the peppers sans-gloves, as I have become accustomed to with the weak-ass peppers of l'hexagone. After mixing and tasting the salsa, I noticed a bit more bite than usual. Well, what a pleasant surprise! The salsa made for an even better accompaniment to the Best. Carnitas. Ever.

It was only after dinner that I noticed my fingers were burning. I attributed it to cooking, my hands dangerously close to the scalding duck fat as I turned the meat while it browned.

Then I went to the bathroom.

And a few minutes later, I felt the burning spread.

Hence why I was just in the shower, rubbing sour cream into my junk as my wife looked on in horror. And maybe amusement.

You'll be happy to know that my wedding tackle is in the clear now. Unfortunately, my hands are still burning, but this means that I've typed out this entry in record time. Because I'm about to run up and soak them in sour cream again.

In the meantime, try and enjoy your carnitas.