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May, 2006 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - May, 2006

Compote: out of despair

Mr. Henry’s favorite fruits are the pulpy, pitted, tree fruits such as plums, apricots, nectarines, and peaches. The Chilean ones in the markets lately, however, although ravishing beautiful, have been rudely tasteless. While the weather this year has been divine, springtime as a rule produces very few fresh fruits or vegetables. California artichokes came and went in a couple of weeks. Like California strawberries, excessive rain ruined their usually intense flavor.

In despair Mr. Henry does what he has done so often in the past: he complains to his friends. A suggestion from Nadia (who is never really wrong) solved the problem in an inspired, old-fashioned way.

Compote: When you have purchased five luscious, black plums and discover they have the internal texture of turnips and a flavor redolent of caterpillars, you feel rather less than hopeful for the future. To save the moment as well as the fruit, pit them and throw them into a casserole with half a cup of fresh orange juice and a tablespoon or two of Demarara cane sugar crystals.

Add a splash of slivovitz or kirsch for a rounded aroma and more smoothly textured liquid. Brandy will intrude a bit on the plum flavor but works nicely if you intend to create a dessert.

Nadia likes to add a stick of cinnamon, but Mr. Henry generally avoids it. Like for cranberries, once the pot has boiled, it is done. After it cools, add a bit of fresh lemon juice to bump up the tartness and preserve the color.

The Czechs eat this as an accompaniment to schnitzel and other fried foods. As both a taste treat and a visual treat, the dark red, aromatic concoction is equally appropriate alongside meat or fish. On top of yogurt it makes a perfect breakfast, too. There is something tantalizingly attractive about that color, something positively medieval.

Spooning it
into his bowl, Mr. Henry is transported and translated to a picnic in Poitiers reclining on the unicorn tapestries.

Mr. Henry Drinks Champagne

As a dinner guest at the Metropolitan Opera’s Grand Tier restaurant on Friday night, Mr. Henry found himself confronted with a common dilemma: should he order a glass of champagne for himself when his hosts André and Susie were drinking still wine?

Opera Hotty
The other question, no less vexing, was what to order from the menu. The opera was to begin at 7:30. The divine Renée Fleming would be singing the title role. What if Mr. Henry were to order the duck breast maroccaine and suffer stomach growls during her too, too soft renditions of Handel’s da capo arias? [As it was, Renée had a hard enough time carrying that huge hall without intestinal interferences from the audience.] What if the duck’s garlic were to invade the space of Mr. Henry’s near neighbor in Susie’s high-priced front row seats?

Sitting in the opera restaurant at 5:45 p.m., Mr. Henry quickly weighed each of these strategic decisions. At both of the 25-minute intermissions yet to come, Mr. Henry would amuse himself by watching women’s fancy shoes pad past and thinking how pleased The Manolo would be if were here. [And is he here?? How can one be sure he is not?] During these intermissions, to help refresh the spirits Mr. Henry normally buys a glass of champagne at the bar.

Too much alcohol early in the evening, however, renders the third act an abyss of gloom, or in the words of the eloquent Joan, “ a cosmic time sink.” Too little leaves the Henry intelligence over-stimulated by thoughts of the week’s mundane annoyances. No, it is best to take some alcoholic libation for its relaxant and slightly anesthetic effects, but how much, and which choice of drink?

At the bar the best pour by far is the champagne. Nothing else offers its combination of aperitif, dessert, and post-prandial digestive. Champagne is at once a beginning and an ending. Moreover, it should be taken alone. Once a cork has popped, the drinker should stick with champagne for the remainder of the evening.

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Having settled on the halibut with morels in cream sauce, a preparation difficult to screw up, he noted with pleasure that the house Brut (Piper-Heidsieck) was no more expensive than a glass of anything else. That settled it! The evening would be one devoted faithfully to champagne.

The very best of pairings for champagne is a salty, strongly-flavored fish dish. Even the strongest Chinese or Indian spices cannot defeat Dom Pérignon’s eternal recipe. But in deference to Mr. Henry’s gastro-intestinal tract, which after all would be accompanying him to the performance, he wisely avoided such courageous culinary voyages and stuck to the mild white halibut.

In lieu of dessert, he opted for a second glass.

A Mr. Henry Dictum: Never drink champagne with sweets.

This may seem counter-intuitive but it is a dietary dictum Mr. Henry has tested empirically in the field, so to speak. The subsequent hangover, and there will always be a champagne hangover, is made far worse by the addition of extra sugars to an already super-sugared evening. If you run short of champagne, and Mr. Henry shudders to imagine such a situation, then a sweet course will bring champagne sugars bubbling back into the bloodstream for a half hour or so, after which you are on your own, beset with cotton-mouth, headache, and nausea. [Please note: this is not a strictly scientific explanation of the phenomenon. Mr. Henry is not a physiologist, after all. Please do not expect his learning to extend into every domain.]

Cote d'Azur
One more piece of advice: Mr. Henry decries the champagne cocktail as yet another example of “fusion” confusion. If you are in the south of France seated on a terrace in the dying light of a summer day and you are offered genuine wild forest raspberries in your champagne, well, what is the harm in that? Still, mixed drinks are a fundamental mistake.

[Here the keen reader may take note of a Henry proclivity towards things in their unadulterated version. Nadia calls him the “ascetic gourmand,” and Nadia is never really wrong.]

The Big Breakfast

Furlagirl writes:
Mr (ha!) Henry, does not, though, quite address my question. His advice, if one wishes to maintain a svelte figure, is to make breakfast the largest meal of the day, but the breakfasts he outlines don’t seem that big to me, not compared with his lunches.

Eating a big breakfast is an ideal, a goal, a mental construct, a “road map” to a better tomorrow. As an evidentiary matter, the size of Mr. Henry’s breakfast does not necessarily conform to his published proscriptions and, consequently, is rarely his largest meal of the day. That is, like the mother crab telling her baby, “Don’t walk sideways, dear!” Mr. Henry does not always follow his own advice. Limiting dinnertime drinking to two glasses of wine, for example, is another noble ideal not always achieved. But without ideals, even failed ones, who are we?

Through this confession has he disappointed his devoted readers? Do they feel their trust misplaced, their loyalties betrayed?

Furlagirl quickly picked up on this contradiction, almost as though she were an investigative reporter who specializes in Middle Eastern and other insurmountable problems. Breakfast issues are not nearly as ticklish as those of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thankfully, yet they vex us nonetheless.

A “big” breakfast, therefore, can justly be described as “big” if it exceeds the breakfast an early-morning Henry might eat if left to his raw, unreflective self. First thing in the morning cooking in any normative sense is not an option, nor are surgical activities such as chopping, slicing, or shaving. The notion of cooking Blackstone Eggs, as delicious as Joan makes them sound, is quite unthinkable in the morning. Even breaking an egg with aplomb, much less poaching one, is beyond Mr. Henry’s capabilities.

Upon rising he stumbles into the kitchen and, following a well-rehearsed rote sequence, places the kettle on the fire, walks downstairs to retrieve the N.Y. Times, and sits in his favorite chair. At this moment Mr. Henry considers himself to have achieved a moral victory merely by maintaining his body in a sitting position. When the kettle begins to whistle, he rouses his leaden frame and proceeds to perform the one essential morning task: he makes the coffee.

A Mr. Henry dictum: Dinner is the vehicle for wine, breakfast the vehicle for coffee.

Coffee is not easy to prepare. Do not leave the preparation of coffee to minors, tea drinkers, aged relatives, or health nuts.

Coffee is among the world’s most potent aromatics. In the 13th century when the Arabs of south Arabia first introduced it to the Muslim world’s holy cities, coffee was declared to be an intoxicant and men were hanged for imbibing it. Its salutary effects on mood, however, make it a holy substance in Mr. Henry’s cupboard, the frankincense of his life. Without it, he descends immediately into despair – one of the seven deadlies – and gets a wicked headache, to boot. Once when he forswore the black potion for five days straight, a misguided attempt to boost fertility [don’t ask], his staff rose up and threatened to resign en masse unless he took a cup immediately. Acceding to the strikers’ demand was an enormous personal relief.

Although breakfast may not be the day’s largest meal, it remains a very important moment, the chance either to begin the day profitably or begin it insalubriously. Its importance, therefore, may loom larger than its physical scale.

We are each creatures of routine, and no routines are as invariable as morning ones. Mr. Henry begins his day slowly and rises to a crescendo sometime in the late evening. He once broke up with a perfectly nice woman after the first overnight date because she was so peppy and cheerful in the morning. Although he feels pangs of guilt about it and wishes her nothing but happiness, in the end he knows it was all for the best.

Since Mr. Henry’s confessional impulses seem to have taken hold, he should by rights declare that lately he has been breakfasting on the little Henry’s leftover birthday cake, a soggy-bottomed Chilean dulce de leche affair covered in whipped cream (lovingly crafted by Tia Mirta), an altogether inspired accompaniment to a thick cup of Sumatra.

Another Mr. Henry Dictum: True Latin countries are defined by a fondness for desserts with soggy bottoms, the zuppa inglese being a prime example.

France only pretends to be Latin so they can steal Italian style and Spanish wit. In truth the French are Romanized Germanic tribes, which explains why their trains run on time. But is there a people who know better how to live? Is it any wonder that so few French emigrated to the New World?

Breakfast Ruminations

Dear Mr Henry

Here in England the hearty breakfast is the traditional English fry up of bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding, baked beans, tomatoes, toast. I can’t help feeling that this isn’t a good way to start the day. My own breakfast is likely to be oatmeal or muesli with milk, fruit, yogurt. But if you count up the calories that’s not such a big breakfast. So what is it you have in mind when you talk about the big breakfast. Could you post some examples?

Linda Grant

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Mr. Henry knows this letter comes from a genuinely British person because here in the States we employ a period after “Mr.”, a dead give-away. (In addition to being foodies, Mr. Henry’s readers are punctuation fussbudgets and style sticklers.) Mention of muesli, as well, what we here call granola is a clear clue of her European origin. Of course both names by origin are trademarks for oatmeal mixed with nuts, raisins, brown sugar, and the like. Once we all began eating our morning porridge cold, however, the old name became inappropriate. ‘Cold gruel’ is an apt coinage, perhaps, but surely one unacceptable to the marketing department.

The traditional English breakfast fry-up where even the toast is fried! The morning cholesterol stun! Yes, that is the way towards empire, my son, the appropriate beginning for a traditional English day out hiking through the Hindu Kush or dog-sledding across the Antarctic, excursions which require sensible breakfasts and sensible shoes. Once in a while the hearty fry-up does hit the spot, Mr. Henry admits, but perhaps so many calories with such a high proportion of fat in one sitting is a jolt best endured at midday, the equivalent of a heart resuscitation by electric shock. [Place metal discs on either side of the chest, shout “CLEAR!” and hit the button.]

I quite agree with your choices of morning repast, Ms. Grant, and you serve as a paragon of English practicality. Mr. Henry himself always takes fruit in the morning, a banana at first, the gentlest of fruit, and then at the end of the meal something pulpy like melon, berries, or the pitted fruits – most delicious of all foods.
plum.jpg

Rolled oats, and in this Mr. Henry parts with tradition rather dramatically, he eats raw, sometimes with plain yogurt and sometimes without. The crunch is very satisfying, the oats provide fodder for intestinal rumination, and the fiber encourages digestion while protecting against shocks delivered by the New York Times.

In the late 18th century, the rise of wage labor meant the English working man took his lunch at the job site, a lunch that normally consisted of a slice of cheese and bread with a cup of tea. The hot sugared drink took the place of a proper home-cooked meal and became one of the great adaptations of the modern world, a necessary element in the rise of industrialization. The traditional English fry-up is, Mr. Henry believes, a hold-over from a gentleman’s breakfast, not a working man’s breakfast, and reflects an abundance of expensive victuals. In our world when the cost of basic foodstuffs has become an expenditure smaller than the entertainment budget, eating bacon and eggs and black pudding, etc., at a single sitting is distinctly unwise.

When Mr. Henry speaks of a “big” breakfast, by the way, he does not mean the traditional morning offering at an NFL training camp. But he does mean something larger than the much vaunted Mediterranean-diet breakfast of an espresso and a croissant or some such white flour pastry masquerading as healthy food, a breakfast best suited to the person who rises at 11:00 a.m.Croissant.gif

Mr. Henry treats his alimentary canal with care. In his youth he had an iron stomach. Raised on TV-dinners, bologna & cheese sandwiches, and hamburgers, he could digest nearly anything. His favorite mid-morning snack from the school canteen (a holdover name from its military school days) was a Coke, Reese’s peanut butter cups, and a bag of Cheetos. He shudders to recall it, but since his adolescent stomach would not accept any breakfast whatsoever, the snack became young Henry’s breakfast long overdue. That triple-cocktail was the highest caloric mix available at the canteen.

But in 1975 a banana milkshake at the Hippie Café in Marrakech sent him crawling to his bed for two weeks, after which he could never again blithely graze the groaning board.

The intestines may have suffered but Mr. Henry’s character only strengthened. He began to establish routines, the signature of adulthood. And in life there are no more firmly rooted routines than those of breakfast.

The Japanese, for example, cannot begin the day without pickled vegetables, a curious habit Mr. Henry quickly picked up during his sojourns in Kyoto. Sashimi first thing in the morning was a habit more difficult to establish, however, but miso soup with rice (and fishy sprinkles), pickles, and a bit of egg went down nicely. Most unfortunately for western travelers, however, fruit in Japan is prohibitively expensive. Mr. Henry does not understand how the Japanese, an admirably practical island people like the British, permit themselves to remain victims of their greedy, protectionist farmers. He ruminates about this.