26 July 2010

Just the Tip

Over the weekend, a friend of ours invited us and another couple to his place in northern France. We don't get out of Paris nearly enough, so we jumped at the opportunity to be somewhere with wide open space, tons of greenery, and – hell to the yes – a barbecue grill. I'd promised the Gallic crew some real California barbecue, and we were poised to stuff their mouths with a huge portion of West Coast meat.

Extra-amateur food porn. We only had the iPhone camera
for the pix this time around. d'OH!
NOTE: That sound you just heard was half the population of Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, and the Carolinas collapsing at the thought of left coast "BBQ." And, yes, if you have a Dick Cheney-sized stick up your Texan ass, what we do in California isn't barbecue but "grilling," but to-may-to, to-mah-to, it's still freakin' barbecue as far as we're concerned. What y'all do is "smoking."

Backyard barbecue in France – from what we understand, living in a city that's got tight restriction on grills and very few back yards – is usually limited to grilling merguez and chipolata sausages that are then thrown into a baguette sliced like a Subway sandwich. On the other side of the token, if you get anything "barbecue" in a restaurant, it's usually just whatever meat slathered in something masquerading as "barbecue sauce." The only exception we've found was when we were treated to a massive post-wedding-day grilling of lamb over wood coals near Toulouse. That said, doing "grillades au feu de bois" is not uncommon (though it's almost certainly never marinated or rubbed), but it doesn't seem to ingrain the same ritual or mythical status that a barbecue does in the US. Standing around the fire, swigging beers, poking at the coals... You know, man stuff.

So back to importing California to France... No one knows what the hell a tri-tip is in France. In fact, very few people know what a tri-tip is beyond the West Coast of the US. This triangular cut of bottom sirloin was once dirt cheap (I used to buy entire 3-4 lb. tri-tips for $3-4 when I was in college) but due to increasing popularity has risen stratospherically in price. Especially because there are only two pieces per beast. Some French know this, and thus it's called the "aiguillette baronne" (the baron's tip) whose noble name screams "expensive and rarely ordered." Luckily we have a very good butcher who knew exactly what we were talking about when we placed an advance order for the cut... at €30/kilo.

An entire tri-tip (which, unless you insist upon cutting it into steaks, is the only way to go) typically weights 1.5 to 2 kilos. Our butcher's Salers cow, a breed of longhorn from the Cantal region of France, yielded a 1.5'er that, unfortunately, went down to 1.39 kilos after he kindly trimmed off the fat. I was a bit alarmed by this, as I normally prefer to leave the layer of fat on top as I grill a tri-tip to seal in moisture, but as it often goes with Salers beef, it's one moist, juicy piece of cattle. In fact, Salers is the only European breed that even when grass-fed produces beautifully marbleized flesh.)

As for the preparation of the meat, a proper Santa Maria tri-tip (where this form of BBQ originated), requires nothing more than a healthy rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. The magic of Santa Maria tri-tip comes from the wood smoke penetrating the meat to give it a distinct flavor.  The trouble is I knew we'd only have access to "regular" charcoal. So we opted to go the other way, the marinated tri-tip.

There's no rule for marinating a tri-tip other than your own. Mine is to marinate overnight, lest the marinade contain a very softening agent like papaya, in which case I wouldn't marinate for more than a couple of hours unless you like your meat turn to mush in your mouth. Otherwise, you can do what you want with it. We went with a "standard" marinade of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, lemon juice and booze and let it rest in the fridge overnight.

Stupid iPhone 3GS camera... at least
it picked up on the lovely pink flesh.
But you know us, we can't leave well-enough alone. I got up early before we had to catch our morning train from Gare du Nord and drained every drop out of my meat. Then I took the tri-tip out of the marinade. After patting it dry, I rubbed it in ground Penja black pepper and dried elephant garlic I'd grated in a pestle and mortar. No need for salt - the bad boy had already soaked up the soy. "What are you doing?" Alannah asked. "Doubling up," I told her.  The objective was to have the marinade for flavor, but to have a nice Santa Maria-style crust.

Come grilling time – 15 minutes on either side for medium, followed by 10 minutes to "rest" before slicing – the marinated-then-dry-rubbed bastard tri-tip looked perfect. And the gustatory result? Well, let's just say we've got some converts who'll be begging for more California meat in their mouths in the near future. In fact, one of the guys is ready to talk to his butcher about aiguillette baronne tri-tip for the rest of his cookouts this summer.

One thing we've still got to work on, though, is ritual. The sun hid behind the clouds so we immediately took refuge inside, sipping cocktails and then eating the tri-tip off of proper serving plates with cutlery and vegetables on the side. As veteran San Francisco barbecuers, we can say as charming as this all is, the whole attraction of barbecue is gathering around to the pit/kettle/flame, drinking cold ones, poking at the coals... rain/fog/windchill or shine.

We've got our work cut out for us.

23 July 2010

It's It! Sweetly Sandwiched San Francicso Style

Alannah and I recently set out on a mission: To represent San Francisco in Paris. The reason is two-fold.

First, as San Franciscan transplants with an inferiority complex, we're sick and tired of anything remotely American here being described as "New Yorkais." Local writers have recently described a chef from Chicago, a coffeehouse owner from Washington and freakin' burritos as New Yorkais. Dubya. Tee. Eff.

Secondly, we don't really know of many people reppin' the Bay. There's Andy at our local favorite sushi joint Rice and Fish who's doing it right, and there's... uh... wasn't Alice Waters supposed to open a restaurant next to the Louvre some time back? Then you've got your French folk like Loic Le Meur (Seesmic, Sarkozy spokes-ass) and Benjamin Tremoulet (H.A.N.D.) who spent - judging by their products - about four hours in California and decided to build their businesses around their (in)experience and trust funds.

So we've got some projects in the hopper, hoping to bring real streetfighter SF culture to the old-school dining mecca. We talk a lot of shit, but we also put our money where our mouths are. And right now we're finding a lot more shit than places we want to put our mouths.

In the meantime, if we wanna make a wave, we've gotta work on desserts! And we're starting by perfecting a premium, locally-sourced-as-possible version of It's-It ice cream sandwiches, also known as "A San Francisco Experience since 1928." Basically, it's one scoop of ice cream, two oatmeal cookies, and dark chocolate.

Alannah's quite good with dessert. Especially baking. She's gone sans oven for the last torturous month (which is about how long it takes a landlord to replace a faulty appliance 'round here...) and she's finally back in action. The "cowboy cookies" she's been making since childhood will serve as the bread in this dessert sammy.

I, on the other hand, blow fucking donkey dicks when it comes to baked goods and confectionery.

It's-It style ice cream sandwiches, take two: Not an epic fail,
but not great. You don't even want to see Round 1.
This wasn't the case nearly two decades ago. As a young punk, I used to sling out cakes and ice creams to Bay Area yuppies like it was going out of style. I'd spend a good chunk of my summer days inside a walk-in freezer, sculpting melty sugary materials that'd otherwise disintegrate in the ambient temperature. It was a good time, and I loved my customers, from local Ladies Who Lunch to firefighters to Apple and HP execs who'd sneak in between meetings for a sweet treat. One of the more distinguished among them had a particular favorite that I was proud to make: The clown cone.

That's right, I was ice cream slinger and faux-pastry chef at a fucking Baskin-Robbins. Despite being the confectionery equivalent of the guy manning the fryolator – see, any asshat blogger can puff up his irrelevant culinary past – I could write the preamble to the Constitution on the face of a half-sheet cake in buttercream, make waffle cones that could stand up to four gigantic scoops of ice cream plus hot fudge, and most relevant to our mission here, I could turn out a perfect ice cream sandwich in 20 seconds flat.

That was then. This is now. I no longer have the ability to properly hold an offset spatula let alone put a tip on a piping bag. Which is exactly what our first attempt at homemade It's-It called for. We tried the recipe and technique we Googled on Gastroanthropology. And it was a big bag of fail.

This is not to knock Gastroanthropology's technique. In fact, it's not only well-researched and professional, but if we had a proper setup it would probably work. But in a sweatbox of an apartment with merely an icebox for a freezer, it just wasn't meant to be. Ice cream soft enough to be piped out of a pastry bag would actually continue to melt faster than it could re-freeze in our piddly little freezer. And it did. We disappointingly opened up the freezer to find cowboy cookies frozen into a flat puddle of ice cream. At least the oatmeal discs were perfectly round, using the biscuit cutter technique from the above recipe.

Round 2 was much better (see photo above), but it still wasn't quite right. Instead of softening ice cream and piping it out of a bag, we smoothed a bunch of it out into a tray and froze it overnight into a sheet; much as I did back in the day to create full-sheet ice cream cakes. I then punched out discs of ice cream using the same biscuit ring so they'd be the same diameter as the cookies. So far, so good. we then dipped them in melted dark chocolate and put them back in the freezer to set. Only they wouldn't fully set. Cutting or biting into the sandwiches would result in the ice cream smooshing and the chocolate breaking off in chunks.

We put the results up on Facebook, awaiting possible troubleshooting from our foodie friends. Most of them being San Franciscans, they also know what an It's-It is supposed to be like. Our own analysis blamed not only our technique but our ingredients. In trying to make a high-quality, wholesome version of – let's face it – junk food, we just couldn't get certain things right. Using unprocessed organic oats, the cookies were too tough. Single-origin organic Peruvian chocolate? Not as easy to use for coating as the confectioners' stuff cut down with soy lecithin.

And worst of all, we had doubts about using our favorite local ice cream. I first wrote about Mary Quarta's gelato for VINGT Paris and just nabbed today's ROTD for it on Yelp (my first in over two years!) and we've been going to taste her wares at least twice a week since she opened up shop in the Haut Marais. It was the first "complex ingredient" we've decided against making ourselves (I'm even making our cheeses for an upcoming shindig) because it's so good and non-industrial, there's no point.

But gelato is a far cry in texture and structure than standard American ice cream, and it looked as though Mary's sweetness was just too soft and yielding for the type of brutality we'd put it through. We couldn't think of a non-industrial alternative, so we started thinking about how we'll make our own ice cream, solely to fulfill our desire for It's-It.

Then tonight, Round 3 happened.

Yup. Pretty much nailed it.
And we didn't have to throw Mary under the bus, either.
The difference for Round 3? A much longer freeze after sandwich assembly and chocolate coating, which itself was different. Instead of dunking and rolling the sandwiches in melted chocolate, I brushed it on thinly with a rubber spatula. Working with a nearly rock-hard sandwich to start with and making sure it went fully back to rock hard before serving made all the difference in the world. The thinner coating of chocolate didn't break off in chunks when cut or bitten, the ice cream stayed solid through most of the eating.  Alannah's excelllent cowboy cookie remained a constant. It's a bit tougher than a standard oatmeal cookie, but the taste is perfect.

Now that we've got the formula down, we're going to make a few more tweaks: The cookies will have to be slightly crisper (and possibly thinner) for easy biting. We'll have to spend even more on a high-quality nappe (coating) dark chocolate that's thinner but lecithin-free – we will NOT compromise on quality. And now having figured out how to work with Mary's super-soft gelato, we'll stick with it, but surprisingly we're going to have to find flavors even more subtle than her already subdued crème à l'ancienne. Compared to typical American "vanilla" filler ice cream, Mary's is actually too flavorful and overpowers the cookies and chocolate by just a touch.

So here's the rundown of the technique we've got down so far:

  • Spread Mary's gelato into a tray and freeze overnight
  • In the meantime, make a batch of Alannah's cowboy cookies (possibly increase butter, decrease brown sugar? She's the expert and will figure it out...) flatten using biscuit cutter as a guide, and chill/freeze 'em
  • Remove frozen gelato from tray and quickly punch out discs using biscuit cutter.
  • Very quickly assemble sandwiches, put into fridge for at least two hours
  • Double boil dark coating chocolate
  • Brush chocolate on to very frozen sandwiches (also considering dunking via wire basket if we work with a huge quantity)
  • Freeze yet again - probably overnight - in tray, sitting on parchment paper
  • Eat
It's pretty long and involved, but after blissing out on the fruits of Round 3 tonight, it'll be worth it. And the more we do it, the better we'll get at it. The material cost and the learning curve will be high, but this is going to happen. Cuz that's what it's all about, reppin' the 415: Taking the seemingly casual and humble but obsessing over quality and source, and never compromising.

16 July 2010

Tabloid tacitly ADMITS GUILT, then gives credit to WRONG photo

It's summer, which calls for sipping chilled rosé outdoors (something we never did before going native) and taking advantage of the numerous terrasses Paris has to offer... That means it's time for slowing things down, taking the better part of a week off, watching fireworks, and eating a lot of salad.

From the simple...

Wedge of iceberg with heirloom tomatoes and homemade Thousand
Island dressing and breast of rotisserie chicken
To overly complex attempts at fusion...

An Italian take on classic Vietnamese – post forthcoming
It's time for chill attitudes and chilled veggies. In the meantime, the Huffington Post has quietly rectified their little uncredited content situation by giving me some credit for my work, but not all is rosy in amateur food blogger land.

I had complained rather loudly about not being credited for my awesome cheeseburger photo – more out of cheekiness than anything – and they very quietly went back and gave me credit for the photo. Furthermore, they even gave a link back to my Flickr page!

Our kick-ass burger, with an appropriate photo credit. Yay!
Unfortunately, they were a little overzealous in their corrections, and further gave me credit for the article's lead photo. One of Popeye's fried chicken.

It may say "Tavallai" under the photo, but I assure you,
we did NOT go to Popeye's!
Not that I mind having our noble family name on the front of Huffington Post's food section. But a) there's some other foodie photog out there who's not getting credit for his/her work in the field of 2-dimensional food facsimile, and b) it implies that I have the lousy taste to eat at Popeye's!

Mind you, Popeye's is the "Guilty Pleasure" selection of one of the chefs we madly respect. After reading his Momofuku Cookbook with much delight, David Chang cemented himself as one of our idols quite simply for doing things his way and turning a capricious middle finger at the food establishment. However, I ungraciously disagree with his love of Popeye's. I do admit to having eaten there. But I will not sacrifice the integrity of my endeavors by putting up a photo of carefully arranged "chicken" parts and styrofoam for the world to see.

So please, HuffPo editors, take more than 30 seconds when doing the – you know – editorial part of your job. So I won't look like some dweeb who loves Popeye's.

In the meantime, here's a look back at our rendition of fast food fried chicken: KFC vs. Local & Organic: An Epic Tale.

13 July 2010

Huffington Post STEALS content from Paris couple

Working my day job in a suburban office, there's not much that I actually want to eat at lunchtime around here. So I often bring in my lunch, or pick up a quick snack at a nearby supermarket and eat at my desk. Much of that time, I sit here eating my leftovers or neatly packaged salad and surf the Web, drooling over what I'd rather be eating. (Alannah, lucky her, has the kitchen to herself during the day, as well as the wealth of lunch spots central Paris offers.)

And while I deleted my Huffington Post account several months ago (too many knucklehead commenters, misleading sensationalist headlines, pointless slideshows to increase clicks/views), I admittedly do still peruse it once in a while. Talk about guilty pleasures!

So it was as I was flipping through the 20 Celebrity Chefs' Guilty Pleasures slideshow (ARGH!) that I paused on chef Michael White's selection of the humble hamburger. I took a look at the accompanying photo and thought to myself, "Damn, that's exactly how we'd construct a burger!"

I looked at it longer than I normally would in one of these infernal slideshows, admiring the thick but evenly melting cheese, the perfect diameter of the meat matching both the bun and the rondelle of tomato, and the perfectly caramelized grilled onions. You can't get burgers like that in Paris... Then it dawned on me: THAT'S OUR BURGER.

From our post Rant: Eat American, Même en France
I was pretty proud for a moment, even if it was on a glorified content aggregation site. "There's our burger, and my photo of it got picked up... nice!" I was ready to shoot off an SMS to Alannah to tell her to look at it when she got the chance. Then my ego kicked in... Where's the photo credit? Where's the link to my Flickr page? Or a mention of our blog? Everyone else in the fucking slideshow got a credit! WTF, man!?

Listen - we don't do this for money. We started Hungry Amateurs as a way of keeping up-to-date with our foodie friends back at home, sharing a little bit of food porn on the regular. It's just food geekery and fun, and far from what you'd call a for-profit venture. (The ads bring in about enough money per year to buy a few beers.) We're doing it for love. I put up almost all of my photos - food, travel or otherwise - under a Creative Commons attribution/no derivatives license so that anyone who likes them can use them. All I ever ask is that I be credited/linked back for the photo.

So it's all about principle. I create a shit-ton of content. All I ever ask for is a little credit. Capisce?

To be honest, I'm not at all outraged. If anything, I'm flattered, especially since my little snapshot here is currently #1 in the slideshow's user ratings. Hooray for all that. But I'll be damned if for once, I don't jump on the chance to turn the tables and make up a click-whoring headline about the Huffington Post.

08 July 2010

Auf Wiedersehen, Paul

For anyone following along with us on Twitter or Facebook or – gasp – real life over the last couple of weeks (though obviously not here, as we've not been cooking much thanks to jungle heat and a busted-ass kitchen), we've been rooting for Japan and Germany in the World Cup. This has nothing to do with any love for the old Axis – we laughed heartily when Italy's theatre troupe got booted. No, we just felt an affinity with a couple of young teams considered too inexperienced to do much of anything yet who somehow were putting on clinics against the established order.

That and the nicknames "Mannschaft" and "Blue Samurai" sound like fun toys.

At any rate, once Japan was out, we put all our emotional chips on Germany. We rallied with the handful of Germans in Paris at one of the very few German bars in town for every match, drinking litres of Paulaner, eating Currywurst and Bratwurst like it was going out of style, and cheering roaringly (yet in an ever so orderly and polite manner) for every goal. And there were a lot of them.

Then that slimy Paul the Psychic Octopus came along and picked Spain to beat Germany in the semi-finals. It turned out that that mother bitch of a mollusk was right, and we ended up leaving our local Bier und Bratwurst bar all heartbroken. Vowing to eat Paul, of course. We weren't the only ones with the idea, but none of our friends on the other side of the border have gloated about eating octopus today.

So in honor of our fallen second-favorite team, we have stepped up to the plate. We hereby present fellow fans of the Mannschaft a couple of octopus dishes we worked out tonight.

Parsley salad with octopus tentacles
Almost every western preparation of octopus sounds like the one proposed in the second article linked above: Grill it and garnish with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. It's good, but dammit, it reminds me too much of time spent rolling around naked, chugging wine and eating seafood on the beaches of... you guessed it... Spain. Hmph! What to do?

Before leaving the office this evening I called Alannah to let her know I'd be stopping by the Asian market to pick up some octopus. "I need flat-leaf parsley. And a lemon. Must. Have."

I didn't tell her what I was up to, but I was inspired by Fergus Henderson's parsley salad (which he serves with his signature roasted marrow bones). We tossed some flat-leaf parsley and finely sliced onion with salt, lemon juice and olive oil, and topped the salad with bite-sized pieces of octopus tentacle pan-grilled with the tried and true olive oil, lemon juice, and finely chopped garlic. A little Spanish. A little English. Simple. Delicious. Vindictive.

And delightfully refreshing with a pint of lager on a ridiculously hot, muggy summer night, if you're looking for the right beverage.

Octopus Schnitzel over squid ink Spätzle.
Tell your German friends it's "Kaviar"
The second dish isn't quite as fit for a mosquito-ridden Parisian summer, but we simply had to do right by Deutschland. I basically pounded a "filet" of octopus tentacle with the rough side of a meat tenderizer, dredged it through an egg, floured it and fried it. There: Octopus Schnitzel. Throw a squeeze of lemon on it and you're good to go.

Alannah seriously stepped things up. She's good with Späetzle, a German egg pasta made with an equal amount of flour and egg, and enough milk to make it viscous and goopy (but not liquidy). The easiest recipe calls for two eggs, 1 cup of flour and a 1/4 cup of milk. This makes more than enough for two people. We added a pinch of salt but skipped the usual nutmeg for a different magic ingredient: Squid ink – about a tablespoon of it. (Octopus ink would've been more appropriate, but where the hell do you get that? And does it taste the same? Let us know.)

To cook Spätzle (blackened by squid-ink or not), you squeeze your viscous goo through the holes of a strainer into a pot of salted hot water. Let the Spätzle cook for a few minutes (if they're floating, they're done) and pull out with a slotted spoon into an oiled or buttered bowl. This keeps them from sticking. Before serving, toss with butter or olive oil. (I broke the rules and used both, without telling Alannah.)

The end result was even better than anticipated. While an octopus Schnitzel may sound 10 shades of wrong, it came out remarkably light and paired really well with the slightly squid-y Späezle.

Germany may be known more for beer, precision engineering, and Scheiße videos than for seafood, but by applying German technique to cephalopods, the results are pretty damn good.

So there you have it. It may not be Paul the Psychic Octopus himself, but we nailed one of his cousins good n' hard.