December 15, 2015

Blog the Thirty-third: What to do with Green Peppers.

And what not to do.

Let’s begin with what not to do.  Do not slice up raw green pepper and mix it into so called salads.  Sure, that’s easy.  Sure, they look pretty.  Sure, they’re nutritious.  But we all know they’re not delicious, Mom.  Since you’re not going to convince others, lying to yourself about this will be particularly pathetic.  You might well be able to get your kids used to eating them raw anyway, the way you can get them used to flossing, but you could also get them used to beatings, and that wouldn’t make them good, would it?

Of course, if you’re a Gentile whose default way of cooking a vegetable is steaming it and melting a wad of butter over it, I can see how raw would seem a preferable alternative for a green pepper.  I can also see how the case seems desperate when melted butter doesn’t help something taste better.  Of course, let not your desperation drive you to baking it stuffed, since thus steaming just vaporizes its off flavor, infecting the stuffing with it besides, which won’t do either it or the stuffing any good.  Besides, green peppers are pallid baked.  Knowing that you are what you eat, do you really want to smell off and be pallid besides?

People don’t like green peppers precisely because of the something off about their aroma and flavor.  They smell and taste like they should be bad for you, and the fact that they’re actually good for you is more perplexing than persuasive.  They’re vaguely sour, not in the wholesome if offensive way that your kid’s B.O. is, but in a vaguely medicinal and vegetal way.  Or else they remind one of grass, and grass is not appetizing—your dog eats it when he’s queasy in order to throw up.  Asparagus is a more concentrated case of this, and celery a well-watered down version of it.  Sage is like this.  When wine tastes of it, critics poeticize it as “brambles”.  Well, I wouldn’t eat brambles, so why it that a good thing?

October 22, 2015

Blog the Thirty-second: Chicken braised with Sausage & Mushrooms

A chicken braise worthy a gentile.

Okay, okay, so maybe there was some Italic hyperbole in my saying that my Gentile friends are not worthy of my most delicious chicken braises.  As a matter of fact, I often make them the most delicious one of all, chicken braised with sausage and mushrooms.  I make it for select Gentiles as often as I get Italian sausage from Brooklyn—Bensonhurst being the only place I know to get fatty Italian sausage without fennel—and  when I make a big fuss over the honor I do them by sharing my Brooklyn sausage with them, they get that.  Then when they taste how delicious those mushrooms are soused with all the savors of the braise, they get that too.  And they even know without instruction to sop up that pan sauce with crusty bread.  Yes, they get all that, on their own, and are enjoying themselves too well to think up any condescending compliments.  Their joy is pure and so my joy complete.

I don’t have a charming name or story for this dish because my mother sort of made it up.  She ate something like it at a wedding once, liked it, improvised her own version at home, tweaked it over time, taught it to me, who tweaked it some more, and the story of all this offers insight into the spirit of our cooking.  We like our food tasty rather than fancy; friendly rather than sophisticated; light rather than complex; effusive rather than concentrated; pure rather than distilled.  This braise  is a paradigmatic example, in that it goes against many rules of the gourmet for enhancing and concentrating flavor, in favor of lightness, cleanness, and harmony.

For one thing, it uses white rather than dark mushrooms.  I’d go so far as to say its genius is in its use of plain white mushrooms.  You might well figure that a braise would be all the more delicious with dark Baby Bella, or fancier yet, Crimini mushrooms—no doubt the choice of a Tuscan or Frenchman, who will wryly remark with a confidential tone and bemused frown on the ingenuousness of our using white button mushrooms.  Ah, proud mushrooms for proud men, overweening, overbearing, prepossessing, bent on infiltrating and dominating.  Might as well just call it a mushroom braise, because that’s all it will taste like with those dark ones.

But we know that it is the meek that shall inherit the earth.  It is precisely the self-abnegation of the white mushroom that gives it another sort of power, an unprepossessing power of assimilation.  It gets its glory from another, as does the moon from the sun, reflecting and refracting the other’s light with a beauty all its own.  All that its spongy flesh absorbs this mushroom mingles in its womb—the savoriness of chicken and sausage gilded in olive oil and butter, the redolence of much garlic, tangy sprites of tomato, the fresh perfumes of green parsley and white wine—each savor shining more glorious in spectral array than ever in proud isolation.  It is its very translucency that gives the white mushroom this its power of transfiguration, and it arises arrayed glorious by its service.

September 26, 2015

Blog the Thirty-first: Two Ways to Braise Chicken on‑the‑bone

plus a bonus Pork Chop Braise!

I don’t cook my most delicious food for my Gentile friends, because I don’t think they deserve it.  I spend half the afternoon over a skillet, gently sautéing layer upon layer of a chicken braise, and they say, “Delicious!  See, there’s nothing wrong with serving chicken at a dinner party.”  Such is their indulgent homage to my chicken‑on‑the‑bone.  It’s as if they’re telling me not to feel embarrassed, which being a praeteritio itself embarrasses.  Or else there’s the wistfully condescending, “It tastes like something my grandmother would have made from her French provincial cook book.”  That’s a sweet compliment (I think), but you know what, it’s a hell of a lot easier for me just to make you a steak, so how about you spare me your reassurance and my afternoon, and we go with the steak, eh?

And there’s yet another problem with braising chicken parts for you Gentiles:  when it comes to eating, you’re big babies.  Many of you don’t like the “dark” meat, and you don’t know how to use a fork and knife to get it off the bone.  Next best thing of course would be for you to pick it up with your hands and gnaw it off with your teeth, but you’d sooner leave mouthfuls of flesh still clinging to the bone to be tossed in the trash rather than sully your fingers or your napkin at a dinner-party.

No, no, braising is not labor to be thus wasted on the polite; this is food for the hungry soul.  The dark meat at the bone is the tastiest of the animal, a gift of its viscera to yours.  Cutlets of breast have no such power to stir your viscera.  They offend little because they offer little; are receptive to the flavorings of your choice because they have so little of their own.  Bland food for bland souls.  Carnivorous souls want that whiff of blood, that tearing of sinew, that slick on the tongue of cartilaginous jelly rendered from bone—recollections of a time when men gave thanks to God as they reverently laid on altar fires the beasts sacrificed to feed their bowels.  Polite Gentiles can’t handle such truth, let alone mention of bowels. 

September 4, 2015

Blog the Thirtieth: Fish Steaks, Plus

Marinades for Swordfish and Tuna,
plus a bonus recipe for Filet Mignon

In the eyes of the foolish, fish steaks are good food.  Well, they’re not.  Sure, they cost a lot.  Sure, they’re fancy.  Sure, they make a good impression.  But so what?  That’s food for the vain, not the hungry soul.  When you cook fish steaks, what you mostly need to worry about is their drying out. They want to be tough, and you have to stop them. Now, tell me, does that sound like good food?

I live in an old colonial town on a great Bay, once the livelihood of watermen, but now the playtown of perpetual recreants.  Would you believe the place has more good sushi bars than Italian restaurants?  Talk about a transvaluation of values (transpacific, to be precise).  Anyways, the price of good tuna has been driven up beyond the tolerable by this Asian invasion [are only Asians allowed to say that, or do those crazy-high SATS preempt protected class status?].  No way I'm paying twice as much for tuna as for a rib-eye—vanity of vanities!  It’s cheaper in the end just to get the sashimi lunch special at Joss, with a miso soup and salad thrown in for good measure.  Anyway,  even though my parents never bought but fresh fish steaks back in Brooklyn, I make do with frozen tuna, wild from Vietnam, when it goes on sale for $10 a pound, but averring the palpable difference in taste and texture.  (I bet you can still get it fresh for under $15 a pound in Bensonhurst.)

Now, there are two ways to deal with fish steak’s determination to dry out, the Way of the East or the Way of the West.  The Eastern Way is to get the very best and very freshest fish steak and not cook it at all, making quite a fuss about how you slice it up and lay it out.  That’s the Way of the East at its extreme, namely Japan.  I advise you not to try this at home; go out instead for sashimi.  You might think it uncharacteristically ecumenical of me to recommend Asian food to you, but allow me to explain to you how my culinary respect for the East only corroborates my Western chauvinism.

August 28, 2015

Blog the Twenty-ninth: On How to Broil and Eat your Fish Whole

The problem may not be the Gentiles after all.  The problem may well be modernity itself.  Commodious living has infantilized us. We eat like babies, whose food is cut up for them.

This thought dawned upon me while serving whole fish to a couple of Turkish brothers.  I’m talking native born Turks, mind you, from the seashore, no less, the one a naturalized immigrant, and the other a visitor to my table from the Black Sea.  They assured me that fish is cooked and served whole in their town, as in South Italy and South Brooklyn, but when I broiled us each a perch and presented each whole on a dinner plate, they required instruction on how best to eat it.  They were unintimidated by the fish and unembarrassed by their ignorance—which is perhaps more than I could hope for from Gentiles—but their ignorance was all the more appalling for coming from a people presumed to know food.   

It was the same shock I felt when I learned that my new computer doesn’t come with instructions in words, either on paper or on screen, just little moving-frame pictorial instructions, like stain glass windows set in motion.  Has illiteracy benighted the West overnight anew?  Similarly, I feel that if Turks no longer know how to fillet their own fish at table, Judgment  must have come and gone, and I missed it.  I feel as if I can remember a verse form a minor prophet, “When the Turk of the sea must be fed his fish, that he not choke on a bone like a babe, then the end is come.”  Apocryphal prophecies never make sense, you know, until they come true.

It’s one thing for a New World Gentile not to know how to eat a fish, but a Turk, worse yet, a Greek, the ur-Westener?  Yes, I have a Greek friend too, a Greek national, mind you, abiding among us as a resident alien, and he too grew up among a people who cook and eat their fish whole, as is right and just, he avers, but he too did not know how to fillet his own at table for himself.  As you know, my use of the word Gentile has a meaning as flexible as it is broad.  I might well use it to refer to anyone outside my family; but most often I use the word as an ancient Roman would have, to refer to the peoples north of the Alps, the peoples of the milk‑pail.  But the peoples of the olive and the fig, across the sea, can’t be called Gentiles!  They are kindred, even if at one or two removes, like cousins, if not from as near as Queens or the Bronx, then Long Island. 

April 29, 2015

Blog the Twenty-eighth: Two Cauliflower Sides

Cauliflower fried crispy
or Spicy cauliflower salad.

I thought I'd follow up on my two recipes for cauliflower pasta with two for cauliflower sides, if only for the opportunity to talk food shopping. I've told you before that I go shopping without a list, watching rather for the grace of the present moment, which generally comes in the form of a sale. Somewhere in the world something is in season in such abundance that the superfluity has made its way across the globe to my local grocery, where it is piled high on the cheap. If a trifectal probe of eye, nose, and poke turns up a fine specimen of the species, into the shopping cart it goes, and we'll figure out what to do with it when we get home.

Now this kairotic approach to food shopping makes as much financial as culinary sense, and is far more sensible than the new foody fatuity of cooking "local", unless of course you live where sive Deus sive Natura manifestly intended Man to live, on the Mediterranean. But once you migrate north to places where for a third of the year only such subsistence fare as root vegetables is available, then you've already flouted nature, and high tech techniques for growing vegetables in the snow are no more natural than turning to commerce to bring you things in season from those post‑lapsarian Edens to the south that are warm enough to perennially bring forth things not only nutritious but delicious, by the sweat of Man's brow, as God prescribes, without thermals.

February 16, 2015

Blog the Twenty-seventh: On Cauliflower 'n Pasta Two Ways.

Sweet Pasta Soup
or Savoury Pasta Sauté

Cauliflower is understandably unpopular.  It makes a bad first impression with its raw, vaguely acned, perhaps fungal visage [and that new green spiked hybrid looks all Martian, doesn’t it?]; its whiteness is more off-white than creamy; its neutral aroma, off-putting for its very neutrality. 

And yet, drawn out, it’s like that phlegmatic friend of yours, whose features are content to remain immobile most of the time, and who is slow to speak and speaks few words, but with a mildness that grows pleasant as it becomes familiar, and which in time is belied by a sharpness of wit and acuteness of perception that is all the more winning, once recognized, for the dullness of its delivery.  One comes to savor such dullness.

I have a subset of Gentile friends who like to say, “I don’t like vegetables, but I like your vegetables.”  One is tempted magnanimously to accept such praise as one’s due, but truth is that the praise, if due, is not due me but rather my people.  In fact, it may be that it’s not due so much to our working magic with vegetables as Gentiles wreaking havoc with them.  The traditional Gentile boils cauliflower down just short of pablum, and then smothers it with butter, cream, or cheese, or else some eclectic concoction of overbearing spices and/or arbitrary toss-ins.  The reformed Gentile is worse yet, erring by defect rather than excess, intent on convincing the rest of us that cauliflower tastes great raw—which is not true, unless you’re a bug, a rodent, or a vegan—with the ulterior motive of getting us to eat healthy rather than happy, on the strength of some rat’s having lived longer or run his wheel faster when fed proportionately ridiculous portions of it for six months.  All this does cauliflower wrong.