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January, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - January, 2008

Artusi, Science in the Kitchen…

January is the time when Mr. Henry hides from creditors and curls up to read the books he received at Christmas.libro-artusi_001.jpg

From the marvelous Maria came Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, a book so full of wit and style, even cookbook haters will love it. First published in 1891 and never out of print, it is an essential food source book unavailable in English translation until 1997. Here are some sample quotes from the introduction:

Cooking is a troublesome sprite. Often it drives you to despair. Yet it is also very rewarding, for when you do succeed, or overcome a difficulty in doing so, you feel the satisfaction of a great triumph.

If you do not aspire to become a premier cook, you need not have been born with a pan on your head to become a good one. Passion, care, and precision will certainly suffice.

Life has two principal functions: nourishment and the propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity.

But let me tell you, and I say this reluctantly, that with our century tending toward materialism and life’s enjoyments, the day shall soon come when writings of this sort will be more widely sought and read than the works of great scientists, which are of much greater value to humanity.

Blind is the man who cannot see this! The days of seductive, flattering ideals, the days of the hermits, are coming to an end. With greater eagerness that it ought to, the world is rushing to the wellsprings of pleasure, and those who know how to temper this dangerous inclination with healthy morals shall take the palm.

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Some of Artusi’s ingredients are rare in today’s markets – ox marrow, for example. Most recipes, however, seem quite contemporary. He chose representative dishes from every corner of Italy but did not fall victim to local hype. On typical regional specialties he lavished praise or criticism in equal measure. Some dishes will surprise the experienced gourmand. His Bolognese sauce, for example, has no tomato. Pensa!

Nagging questions

Radical changes in routines are afoot in the Henry household.

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Over Christmas at her vacation ranch in the Catskills, Pepper picked up an intestinal bug prevalent in beaver scat (Who knew?) and began losing weight. Saintly Dr. Brown, font of veterinary wisdom and love, promptly and permanently removed raw chicken from the Pepper Food menu because of the possibility of salmonella poisoning. Until the system re-boots, Pepper eats Hills canned “prescription diet W/D.” To his dog-savvy readers Mr. Henry asks: What is the best dog food?

More distressing was Mr. Henry’s breezy abandonment of principles with regard to mixed drinks. He has long maintained that the classic dry martini is the one and only mixed drink that passes muster or, in this lifetime, passes his lips. The flu’s choke hold on his head and chest sent him ransacking the refrigerator for anything to sooth his sore throat, and ransacking the whiskey cupboard for anything alcoholic to suppress his cough. Lurking behind the buttermilk was a lone bottle of tonic, an odd lot leftover from summer.

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Tonic water, it turned out, acted as a tonic to the malaise. Somehow this came as a surprise to Mr. Henry, another example of flu-induced woolly-headedness, perhaps, or his long-standing prejudice against mixed drinks and their drinkers. With the last Meyer lemon added, a cold glass of bitter tonic tickled his numb palate and set his heart a-race.

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Furtively adding a dash of Hendrick’s gin before 5:00 p.m., he settled back to enjoy the successes of British colonialism, to lay down the white man’s burden, and to watch the televised make-believe that passes for frank political debate in this country. To tonic drinkers out on the information highway, Mr. Henry asks: Does tonic make your heart race, too? (And might it color your political views?)

For those interested in an excellent prècis on how to use the Meyer lemon, by the way, take a look at Cooking with Amy.

The real vehicle of betrayal came at Naughty Mary’s house in the guise of an exquisitely delicious orange aperitif of three parts Hendrick’s, one part Lillet, and a dash of orange bitters. Now that he has become a drinker of aperitifs, of flowery-colored aperitifs, no less, Mr. Henry can no longer hold up his head at the club. It comes as a comfort, therefore, that he holds no club membership.

Fun with Foodies

Stuck at home with a winter cold, Mr. Henry has been drinking tea, eating Carr’s whole wheat crackers topped with goat cheese and honey (lots of honey), and sipping unsweetened Meyer lemonade. He drank every drop of Scotch and Cognac and is down to his last finger of gin. Nothing tastes right. Red wine tastes sour and meat tastes minerally. He chooses foods principally for texture. Consequently, in place of eating, he reads.

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Sleeplessness accompanying this particular strain of grippe thankfully permitted Mr. Henry to read David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, a romp through the American food culture revolution of the past 50 years. Here you will find the history of chefs, food, and food writers, as well as the finest gourmet gossip, well-researched and brightly told.

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Salted among the accounts of sexual peccadillos at Chez Panisse is the note that Alice Waters, doyenne of American locally-sourced cuisine, once studied to become a Montessori teacher. For Mr. Henry, the penny dropped.

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The American food revolution, therefore, was all about letting toddlers loose in the kitchen to freely use knives and fire. Alice Waters, the Montessori instructor, might have gently offered some direction, but chefs were encouraged to play on their own and to follow whatever creative outlets they might discover – a cuisine fresh from the kindergarten!

The best (and worst) aspect of America culture is its perpetually hopeful, and profoundly revolutionary, culture of personal re-invention, the cult of think-for-yourself-ism. As cultural expectation, it’s exciting but exhausting. The other, deeper American cultural trait is conformity, the butt-headed mob mentality. For the most part, however, the new American man is not fired with ambition. He’s not headed for the stratosphere, he’s headed for the strato-lounger. Only now, thanks to the food revolution, he’s comfortable sitting and eating arugula.

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Essential reading for the food-obsessed, David Kamp’s other food book, The Food Snob’s Dictionary, sits on Mr. Henry’s most important bookshelf, the one in the bathroom.

Self-minted “experts” such as the new American foodie provide a ripe harvest for Mr. Kamp who seizes on their pioneering jargon and adroitly skewers it. His choices of adjectives include “poncey,” “weird-ass,” and “twee.” Mr. Henry defies you to read it without hooting, one more reason for a closed bathroom door.

Benevolent God of Cooking

Buttercup says:

There is only one thing missing from this, the quintessential guide to home cooking hardware for newlyweds. That would be, of course, a picture of the Mr. Henry, the Benevolent God of Cooking to hang in the kitchen to over see the festivities of meal preparation!

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Mr. Henry fears that his picture may not be benevolent enough for kitchen purposes. Long and thin, with deep-set eyes adorned by dark eyebrows, it suggests superciliousness and disapproval.

It is well known, too, that God has a beard, and Mr. Henry is clean shaven. Although he once sported a beard, it wasn’t God-like. The beard grew in his stripling youth when, for a critical review of brewed beverages, he needed to pass for 21 years of age.spinoza.gif

In Mr. Henry’s opinion, Buttercup is misguided. The Benevolent God of Cooking is a woman, or perhaps women.

Spinoza, Mr. Henry’s favorite philosopher, believed God was the sum of the universe itself, residing in everything animate and inanimate. Spinoza’s courageous apostasy left subsequent generations free to imagine a state uncoupled with God, a notion central to America’s founding fathers yet somehow forgotten today.

Like Spinoza, Mr. Henry here offers logical proof of his theorem:

First, like God, women are unknowable. Although he has spent most of his good thinking hours trying to penetrate the minds of women, Mr. Henry has come to believe the task beyond the feeble abilities of man.

Second, like God, women are everywhere. There is no corner of the world, no private club or association, no bastion of learning or of power where women are not found.

Third, like God, women are the fundamental creative force. From their own bodies women give issue to babies and the milk that nourishes them. Is it any wonder that primitive societies worship images of fecund women?

Fourth, like the B.P.O.E., women are benevolent and protective.

Fifth, no matter what, women can always rustle up some supper.

As a practical matter, women do most of the cooking in this world. Therefore, unless you yearn to see the next world very soon, you had best stay on good terms with the women who feed your body (as well as your soul). Pepper understands this precept profoundly.

Honeymoon pots and pans

Mr. Henry received this query from Oldersis:

Dear Mr. Henry,

Having read your postings on the most wonderful Manolo’s Food Blog, I am appealing to your expertise. My fiancé and I must register soon for all manner of kitchen implements. I already have my eye on the KitchenAid stand mixer (the one constant on every bridal registry I have ever seen) and I am taking your advice regarding the Cuisinart hand mixer to heart.

However, I am unsure about which pots and pans I should select. I am very much looking forward to removing the albatross of my current cheap pots and pans from around my neck and I think having beautiful and useful cookware will encourage me to try my hand at more cooking efforts. Do you have any suggestions?

Mr. Henry is not a man to shirk responsibility. Having received this request weeks ago, a heavy request for expertise in preparing the foundation of a marriage, no less, he has walked the streets of New York carefully mulling over a suitable response, one he hopes may still be timely.

The choice of wedding register cookware begs more fundamental questions. What sort of cook are you? What sort of cook do you hope to become? Do you want to feed your friends and relations on a weekly basis? Do you have plenty of cabinet space?

Because you are already a food blog reader, Oldersis, you likely take a serious approach to eating, a good sign for a healthy marriage. Mother Henry always admonished her son to choose a girl with a hearty appetite, a sign of robustness in all worldly pursuits.

Great food can be made with rudimentary implements. If you want to stock a mountain cabin, all you need is a cast iron skillet and an enamel (or other non-reactive) stock pot, either of which can be used on the stovetop or in the oven.

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In Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, Alice (Audrey Meadows) cooked on a typical city stovetop barely big enough to hold two cheap pots at once. Ralph didn’t seem to miss any meals.

As a rule, the heavier the pot, the better the performance. Cast iron hold heat so well that when you throw in your meat or vegetable, the cooking surface temperature doesn’t reduce very much and everything cooks evenly. Likewise for sauce and soup pots, a heavy pot cooks from the sides as well as from the bottom and thus yields consistently good results.

But unless you have exceptionally strong wrists, handling a cast iron skillet is a difficult task. You risk dropping it, scratching your sink and countertop with it, or burning your hand from its hot handle.

Worse, if you don’t clean it quickly it will rust. Mr. Henry imagines that after a hot dinner on a cold night newlyweds have other priorities than cleaning up pots and pans.12-inallclad.jpg

Therefore, he no longer includes the cast iron skillet on his list of first essentials. He begins, instead, with the single most useful pan of all for two people, the 12-inch anodized aluminum non-stick skillet by All-Clad (either the LTD or the MC-2, your choice of finish). Anodized aluminum is a brilliant invention that replaced teflon a generation ago.

The reasons he keeps coming back to All-Clad are several: First, the rivets holding the handle to the pan fit snugly with no gaps to harbor bits of old food. The handle is well-balanced (an empty pan won’t tip), long enough to grab easily, constructed to resist getting too hot to hold bare-handed, and made of metal so you can begin a dish on the stovetop and finish it inside the oven.

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All-Clad makes five lines. The copper core line, unbeatable for conductivity, is very expensive for everyday use. If you think your in-laws really want to please you, however, get a few of these.

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Next on the list of essential implements is the 5.5 qt. LeCreuset enameled iron round dutch oven, the most versatile single kitchen pot, ideal for tomato sauces, soups, pot roasts, or steaming vegetables. It’s beautiful as a serving dish, too. (The 7.25 qt. model is so large that when full it becomes too heavy to handle.)

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Mr. Henry adores his covered Le Creuset enameled sauciér, too, an all-purpose vegetable and sauce pot ideal for a two-person dinner. (You may use its heavy lid, as well, in a fry pan as a weight to help brown onions or mushrooms.)

To cook well, you need above all the ability to imagine with your nose, as well as an impish, insouciant predilection for flinging things about in the kitchen. The right pan helps, but can’t replace the right enthusiasm.

What you do not need are sets of pots and pans devised not by chefs but by merchandisers aiming squarely at you, the nervous newlywed who wants to get started on the right foot.

Buy yourself a new pan when you feel inspired to try a new dish or to establish a new direction.

[Mr. Henry has a personal, somewhat quirky, slightly misanthropic habit: Whenever he invites guests for dinner, he serves something he has never prepared before. In this way he imposes upon himself a certain obligation to pay attention to what he is doing lest he embarrass himself and his guests, too. Without this challenge his attention is likely to wander away from what’s happening on the fire.]

Years ago without explanation Mrs. Henry started making crepes on Sunday morning. Although she rarely buys anything more than a pair of sensible shoes in September, one day she sallied forth and bought the All-Clad crepe pan, a one-dish wonder that Mr. Henry scoffed at, thinking it would clutter up the pan drawer. Many hot crepes later, he wants to declare here and now how very wrong he was about this.

In response, Mr. Henry bought the LeCreuset oval gratin dish (in flame, of course). She scoffed, but now her roasted potatoes demand it.