Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Food Network Does The Impossible: I Actually Miss Emeril

There was a time when you could watch the Food Network and watch very accomplished chefs demonstrate some great dishes. I'm not talking about Bobby Flay, or episodes of American Iron Chef, I mean chefs like Sara Moulton, Mario Batali, and, even if you could stay awake long enough, old episodes of Julia Childs' The French Chef. Even Emeril Lagasse, who was on waaay too many times each day BAMMING his way through menus was cooking was cooking things.

Now, the programming seems to be dominated by too many "reality" sorts of shows like The Next Iron Chef and Chopped (both of which seem mostly to be Top Chef knock-offs) or shows about places, like DDD.

Okay, maybe there are some cooking shows, but they mostly seem staffed by people who won the opportunity to host shows, or people with swell cleavage (Giada) or perky people (Rachel Ray) or drunk bimbos (Sandra Lee). I want to see something interesting, as far as real cooking goes. Cleavage is nice and all, but there are other channels for that. I know Food Network must realize there is an issue, because there is now a Cooking Channel.

Anyway. What killed me, literally, was the other night I was watching a show called "Guy, Off The Hook." Ok. It's Guy Fierri, same guy from DDD and Guy's Big Bite. Pretty sure this "Guy" was the first "Next Food Network Star." You would have SWORN you were watching a blonde, spiky Emeril working the crowd. And he really wasn't cooking anything interesting.

When Emeril became a caricature, the Food Network tosses him over the rail. Now they got Guy Fierri becoming equally, if not more, annoying. When will poor Guy sleep with the fishes?

So, like I said, I finally miss Emeril. That means I REALLY miss Mario. Molto.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Turning Japanese? Chuck Williams thinks so.

This is a two-part pre-Christmas rant.

Part I: Williams-Sonoma. And, that's Williams-Sonoma, NOT Williams & Sonoma. (This is a similar lesson to learning not to say Bracco's and Spezia's.) Chuck Williams is a guy who opened a cookware store north of San Francisco in an area famous for wine-- Sonoma County. Hence, Williams-Sonoma. Williams & Sonoma sounds like a law firm.

So, anyway, there was probably a time when Chuck was the MAN when it came to mail-order gourmet cooking equipment. That time was probably from 1956 to some time in the late 80's or early 90's. I remember getting the WIlliams-Sonoma catalog back at the time I was starting to do a lot of cooking. That was right about the same time I got my very own subscription to Gourmet magazine. By the way, Gourmet was a much different publication back then, too, but that's another rant entirely. Anyway, I felt like I had arrived.

If you wanted/needed a cherry pitter, chocolate shaver, and a big old 5 pound bar of Callebaut to shave, Chuck could hook you up. In other words, you could find things at W-S that you probably couldn't find elsewhere. Nowdays, there are many more outlets and W-S has changed.
If you are a student of the W-S catalog, or the retail stores for that matter, it's more about what they think you should want instead of what you need. It's more about life-style than equipment. I think the demise came about around the time Chuck started a housewares outfit called Pottery Barn. Yeah, yeah, yeah, this stuff is real cool and it looks really nice, but if you are a shopping addict, you are going to be remodeling every 6 months to keep up with whatever the latest style might be.

Try this- walk into a W-S store and try to find a decent pair of tongs. Not the big-ass rosewood BBQ ones that are like squeezing one of those spring-loaded grip workout dealies, just a decent pair of stainless steel tongs. End of story- you won't find one, but you will find an espresso machine you'll need financing for, sauces that conveniently make Beef Bourgignonne in a $400 All-Clad crock pot, or whatever the hell color of Provencal place mats they are hocking this year. See, it's not so much about selling you equipment as it is an image.

I suppose this is just good retail and it apparently works. But I seriously just want a pair of tongs or maybe a decent China cap chinois. Need to go elsewhere. My choices? Whenever possible, a local retailer, like Kitchen Window in Uptown of Minneapolis, Someone's in the Kitchen in Rapid City, or Treasures from the Heart on 57th and Louise. Seriously, check that out, they got major stuff in that store disguised as yet another Yankee Candle retailer.

Part II: Despite my ever-growing infrequent purchases from W-S, I do still get the catalog and here comes the turning Japanese part. Remember that song from the 80's, by the way? "Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so." Did you know it's about masturbation? Look it up.

So, the reason I say Chuck thinks we are turning Japanese is because besides outrageously expensive espresso machines, this year's holiday catalog features some crazy spendy Asian-style knives. Specifically, Shun Bob Kramer Meiji knives that you can get ON SPECIAL as a 6-piece set for the low, low price of $1599. Serious bargain considering the regular retail is $2177. Now, I may not know why Owners Equity plus Liabilities = MC squared, or any of that other funny accounting stuff, but I sure as hell know that's $266.67 PER BLADE, on sale. In the same catalog you can get a 12-piece set of Wustof Classic for $500, or for another $200, you can get the same knives with Asian-style handles.

Now, I must admit, the really spendy Shun knives are gorgeous. Damascus steel, cocobolo handles. Really sweet. But who buys these things? My guess, people who have more money than sense or people who want everyone else to be super-impressed because they have really expensive stuff.

Having knives like that is kind of like having a custom-made Holland & Holland shotgun instead of a good old Remington 870 to shoot ducks. They'll both get the job done, but which one are you going to toss in the bottom of the boat while you set decoys? Or, to put it another way, it's perhaps a little like checking a Louis Vuitton hard-sider suitcase for a three-stop trip to vacation. Sure, you can, or could, but why? I mean, who the hell do you think you are the Prince of Whales? You gonna use that $300 santoku to hack through half a chicken, or open a can? Exactly.

The other major beef I got is Asian knives, actually. To give credit where credit is due, they are usually well-made and extremely sharp. But, they are different than the traditional French-styled knives that most of us have seen in kitchens forever. Besides that half-cleaver, half-chef's knife santoku design, these puppies have different edges on them. The bevel on the blade is ground to a different angle. The steel is also a little different than what the Germans crank out in Solingen. It's harder. The point? (Har Har) It's a little harder to maintain the edge on these. The designs of some of these knives are very purpose-oriented. Watch a good Japanese sushi chef use one of those long, skinny blades. If he came up through the traditional Japanese apprenticeship regime, he probably mixed rice for 20 years before he was allowed to wash that knife. Anyway, if you aren't used to these knives and their functions, know they are different, and not necessarily for everyone. Just because they look cool and might appear to give you some out-of-the-box cache, you might not like them.

Good equipment doesn't always come cheap, but it helps to have the right tools for the job. If your budget is somewhat limited, I recommend you take your time finding and buying high-end equipment. Eventually, you will find what you like and be able to afford it, even if it means buying a pan or a knife a year. In the meantime, you are better putting your money into decent ingredients and concentrating on your technique so as not to screw them up. If you can't do that, Damascus steel Shun knives won't save you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You sound like an idiot, just so you know.

I've heard some people say that we midwesterners have no accent, especially us South Dakotans. Tom Brokaw was the anchor for NBC Nightly News. He didn't have an accent. Right?

Well, just because most people don't run around here talking like extras from the movie "Fargo" doesn't mean that we don't seem to have certain proclivities to abuse the beautiful thing that is the English language. For instance, some people have a seeming inability to pronounce a "g" at the end of most, of not all, words that end in "ing." "We went runnin' down to the pool to go swimmin!" Hate that.

So, what does this have to do with food? I'm getting to that. If there is anything as "Sioux Falls" as two-fer burger night on Tuesday, it's the powerful urge to add "'s" to the end of any restaurant name. Sure, there is McDonald's, and Minerva's, and Foley's. Unfortunately, around here we also have Bracco's, Inca's, and Spezia's. Honest to goodness, I've seen other businesses near 57th and Western advertise their location by stating they are behind Bracco's.

Come on, pay attention. Bracco is not a bar and restaurant founded and operated by Bruno and Barb Bracco and their kids Billy, Bruce, and Bobbie. Inca is the name of a native Central American culture. It is not a surname. Same with Spezia- whatever the hell a "spezia" is. La Spezia is a location in Italy.

Anyway, do yourself a favor and quit adding the possessive "'s" to the end of every restaurant name.

Bring out your dead!

It's been kind of a tough year on a few restaurants here in River City. The free market is kind of a bitch. Let's tally a few things up.

Joey's Seafood is now sleeping with the fishes. It wasn't that hot anyway, as mentioned previously.

Buffaloberries closed with its owner reportedly planning on doing more catering and "education." Ummmmm, ok.

Hoageez, a Philly cheesesteak joint over on 57th and Marion closed. Actually, that location is proving to be a bit of a Bermuda Triangle. This was the former Big City Burrito location, then Hoageez, now Inca Express. Maybe the good folks at Inca can break the curse.

Keg Chicken, East Side location. I'm not quite sure what happened with this one. In my opinion, Keg is the definitive fried chicken experience here in Sioux Falls. From the report in the local daily paper, it sounds as if another venture made the Keg folks an offer they couldn't refuse. We'll see what transpires. At least Keg is still open on the West Side, to satisfy the old fried chicken cravings.

Taste of India. This may be the what the fork of the year. I mean seriously. Dammit. The place wasn't long on decor or ambiance, but the food was divine. Being able to get really great Indian food here was a real plus and made me feel like I don't necessarily live in the middle of nowhere.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we aren't done with casualties in the coming year. There are a couple of places that I am unsure how they stay open. We'll see.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkey: Post Game Commentary

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's been a few weeks since Thanksgiving. Things have been busy. But still, I think about that turkey a lot. Every year I scour cookbooks and magazines researching new ideas and techniques to make the most memorable turkey of all time. Every year I try little twists, and talk to many of my foodie friends who tweak their own turkey techniques to see if anyone has struck upon the perfect trick.

Here are a few of the various techniques and ideas I have tried, or that I know others have tried through the years:
  • Wet brine. Find a container large enough to allow the whole turkey to soak in a salt/sugar/herb/spice solution, at a safe temperature of course for a couple of days. The idea here is that the salt in the solution actually activates small electrical charges that relax tissues and allow them to absorb some of the flavorful solution. I've never tried this because it sounds like a major PITA.
  • Dry brine. A/K/A salting. Several days ahead of cooking, mix yourself up a salt/herb mixture and rub it all over that bird inside and out. Seal it up in a big bag and let it sit in the fridge. When I do this I turn the sucker over a few times to let gravity work WITH me for a change. You rinse it all off and let it dry before cooking. Like wet bringing, the general idea is that the salt draws out some moisture which the bird re-absorbs after mingling with the herbs, etc.
  • Roasting bag. Do I really need to explain this?
  • Brown paper bag. Same as plastic roasting bag, but a more eco-friendly approach.
  • Breast up.
  • Breast down. Making gravity work with you, again. Supposedly juices drip down into breast and not out of it.
  • Slow roast. Use a temperature somewhere around 325 degrees.
  • Hot roast. Roast closer to 500. Incidentally, this is rather how Thomas Keller makes chickens and trust me, that's a damned good roast chicken.
  • Different parts. Separate the breast and cook it separately from the thighs and legs and back. Breast meat is done at about 160 degrees, but dark meat should go to 180.
  • Ice the breasts. I am aware of a technique that calls for icing the breast meat with a plastic bag full of ice for 20 minutes or so prior to cooking to give the dark meat a head start on the cooking.
  • Butter under skin. Some people whip up some compound butter and shove that under the skin.
  • Butter on skin. The lotion of choice in flavor town. I might rub some on myself some day.
  • Beer can turkey. Roast vertically with a beer can, probably Foster's in this case, inserted in the poultry's kiester so the liquid in the can (beer, wine, Tab, water) simmers and steams out into the cavity.
  • Deep fry. I bet that's good, but I don't think I want to play with that much oil at that temperature since I really like to drink between basting the bird.
All these choices!! What to do??

After a lot of years of playing with this stuff I have reached the following conclusion: I'll be forked five ways to Fuddrucker's if any of this actually makes a difference. No kidding. Short of marinating a turkey for days in a strong marinade, I am not sure a person can significantly alter the taste of a turkey.

But all is not lost, here is what I think you can control- skin crispiness and bird moisture. If you want a crispy skin, you definitely need to think about cooking a little hotter and might even consider letting the turkey sit open in the fridge a good 24 hours before the cook to let the skin dry. Want moist? You might have to sacrifice the skin crispiness and should probably be working with a covered roaster or a bag. You might even think about breast down. Why not? If you want to hit the holy grail of crisp skin and moist meat, that is all technique, baby. Watch your temperatures and be prepared to tent the bird to keep it from getting too brown. You might also consider your cooking device and consider the benefits of steam in an oven or a ceramic grill. It takes a fine combination of temperature control, a little moisture, and a watchful eye.

No matter how you cook a Thanksgiving turkey, the point is to eat the meal with friends and family and enjoy the bounty of being together. Make a few new side dishes, but keep most of the classics on the table to keep the memories of dinners past alive.

All this talk of turkey has made me hungry and has me thinking of Christmas dinner. And that means prime rib- another ingredient notoriously susceptible to multitudes of cooking technique.