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American Food | Manolo's Food Blog - Part 10
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The once and future (shrimp and petroleum) queen

First, hello there, Manolophiles. I’m Katie. I love the food. I love the drink. I like to write about it.

And so we’re off.

A recent New York Times article reminded me of a reporting trip I took to New Orleans several years ago. While I was ostensibly in the Big Easy to investigate issues in education, all trips to N’awlins are really at their heart about food. So I ate, and ate, and when I had the weekend off, I rented a car, traveled further into Cajun country and ate some more.

Then, I stumbled across this…

Why, it was the 72nd Annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival!

As a lover of shrimp and a user of petrol, there was no question that I had to stop and partake.

And so, I watched the crowning of the Shrimp and Petroleum Queen.

I ate some shrimp.

I ate some more shrimp. Fried and skewered, this dish featured a more traditional pairing of oil and crustacean.

At the time, the combined celebration of two key Louisiana industries amused and perplexed. Now the troubled feeling in my belly that emerges as I think about the festival is not merely from too much deep fried fun.

But the people of Morgan City, LA, home of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary this September, are not letting the recent spill stop them. And who am I to judge? Unless, of course, said judging is of the festival’s beauty pageant, in which case, I’m partial to Miss Louisiana Crawfish Queen, who I believe has the experience necessary to wear the Miss Shrimp and Petroleum crown with style.

Push cart peddlers

Push cart peddlers clog New York streets! Mayor LaGuardia up in arms!

 

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In 1936 the mayor rose up in anger against immigrants clogging the streets hawking wares from push carts. Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore? Phooey. LaGuardia thought them positively unsanitary.

 

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Today, in spite of all the specialty food online, push cart peddling has returned. With only an occasional foray to Citarella or Zabar’s, Leyla manages to shop principally from farmers markets. Wednesdays and Sundays are Union Square. Saturday is Columbus Avenue beside the Museum of Natural History. Shlepping milk 80 blocks takes a lot of time and trouble, but her table is set with the freshest, tastiest foods.

 

It’s all local – Ronnybrook Dairy milk and yogurt, artisanal sheep and goat cheeses, dark wintered-over greens, bosc pears, and apples of every description. Recently Mr. Henry has fallen in love with Quaker Hill Farm honey and eggs (goose eggs, no less).

 

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When La Guardia insisted that push cart peddlers take up residence in covered market stalls, the grocery business began to consolidate into mom and pop stores run chiefly by Italians. These in turn consolidated into a few large chains. Then in the 1980’s came the Korean-owned fruit and vegetable markets featuring salad bars, the go-to solution for harried office workers.

 

Now Fresh Direct trucks clog city cross streets, hardly an improvement over the push cart of yore. The very best fruits, vegetables and dairy can be found once again on sidewalk peddler carts. Weathered panel trucks with New Jersey and Pennsylvania plates sidle up and disgorge large ice chests of the most remarkable goodies imaginable. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Michael Pollan is your Bubbeh

After explaining how certain plants have co-evolved through human cultivation (The Botany of Desire), after explaining why fakockteh factory frankenfoods are ruining our bodies and our planet (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and after laying out an eater’s manifesto for the age (In Defense of Food), now Michael Pollan is laying down the law about exactly what to eat (Food Rules).

This we need?

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Taken as a whole, the book’s 64 prescriptions confirm something more: Michael Pollan is your grandmother. In pithy Talmudic aphorisms he’s trying to nudge the world into keeping a new kosher.

Rule #8 – Avoid food products that make health claims.

Rule #11 – Avoid foods you see advertised on television.

Rule #13 – Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

Rule #21 – It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or   Pringles.)

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Oy, gevalt! Listen up. Americans are potchkeying around with their natural bounty, making a mishmash of their lives and everyone else’s, too. What’s happening to them shouldn’t happen to a dog. Enough already. Keep eating this meshuggener Western diet and you’re going to plotz!

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Better you should eat what grandma ate, says Michael. It can’t hurt.

The Top Chef Effect

Vegetarianism doesn’t seem to have penetrated snow country. Here in the mountain aerie of The Canyons at Park City, shining ersatz village on a hill, meat is what’s for dinner, in particular exotic meats like elk and bison. Salads are topped with bacon bits, duck confit, and other meaty delicacies. Although they won’t become local in Utah until global warming advances a bit farther, sea scallops, perhaps the richest food of the sea, routinely pop up on menus of fine restaurants.

If you want to live on vegetables in Utah ski country, you’re stuck with chili or bean burritos.

Since this town is younger than Mr. Henry’s Timberland boots, it might seem churlish to expect it to be steeped in authentic tradition. But why must every entrée arrive with a glaze, reduction, or coulis invariably too sweet?

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Mr. Henry blames Top Chef. The world has fallen under the svengali sway of Padma Lakshmi, television’s dark-eyed temptress and siren of oral pleasure. Today across the nation young men sharpen knives, grow a soul patch, and dream of seducing Padma with something on a plate. Young women, too, have joined the kitchen crusade.

The upshot of this competitive hedonism is that new chefs are using too many ingredients at once. Last night at The Westgate Grill, Mr. Henry ordered elk tenderloin (raised in New Zealand… no wasting disease there). In itself the elk was delicious, but it could not win a valiant fight with a syrupy blueberry sauce. Passed out beside the elk lay “drunken mushrooms” over-marinated in red wine. Steamed and broiled Brussels sprouts, the evening’s highlight, however, were perfectly prepared.

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The question remains: why must chefs insist on overpowering the palate with contrasting and, too often, conflicting flavors? Why can’t they let ingredients speak for themselves? Elk filet is sumptuously elegant and requires little in the way of adornment.

Typical of the Top Chef generation, the Westgate Grill’s salad chef got the look but not the taste. Spinach salad piled in a stack with blue cheese and walnuts looked beautiful and had the right combination of flavors, but it was drowning in dressing.

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Padma, hear us! The nation cries to you for balance, for restraint… for bridle, halter, crop and lump of sugar…yes, yes, yes.

Grandmother’s turkey

While shopping at the Union Square farmer’s market, Mr. Henry passed a stand selling fresh, farm-raised turkeys. Small, firm, not fat, they looked almost like a different species from the big-breasted turkey grandmother used to make. He tucked a 7 ½ pound bird into his backpack and boarded the subway for home.

After sitting for two days in dry salt and black pepper, the turkey was ready to be smeared with butter, sprinkled with paprika, and stuffed with fresh sage, savory, and onion. (He covered the breast in cheesecloth infused with more butter.) The plan was to shock the skin at 425º for half an hour and then turn the temperature down to 350º for the remaining hour and a half.

But this was not your grandmother’s turkey.

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Organic, farm-raised birds of today don’t have much fat. After half an hour the pan was nearly devoid of drippings and the bird looked dry. Mr. Henry quickly poured some white vermouth into the pan. After another half an hour the pan was dry once again and the bird looked like leather. More vermouth!

The final result was a bird with crispy skin and great flavor, but a dry exterior. Next time he buys a bird as lean as this one, he will wrap the whole bird in parchment. A small, free-range turkey simply does not contain enough internal moisture to survive two hours in the oven without some protection. (Mr. Henry’s English friend Louise pours an entire bottle of white wine into the drippings pan. Her gravy is amazing.)

The heart, gizzard and neck roasted in the pan, as did assorted vegetables – celery, carrot, onion – which came out nearly black but delicious, nonetheless. Chopped neck and heart combined with the deglazed pan drippings (more vermouth!) made giblet gravy. The roasted gizzard went straight to the stock pot followed by those delicious roasted bones.

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Chopped dried apricots soaked in Madeira, which unexpectedly were a hit with the kids, were this year’s surprise ingredient in the sage and bread stuffing. Red and white Swiss chard drizzled with balsamic made a delightful vegetable.

Shot of rye

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Like a hero of the old west or an executive on Madison Avenue, these days Mr. Henry reaches for a shot of rye. He drinks rye on the rocks before dinner, rye on the rocks with a little water for Chinese food, and rye in a snifter after dinner. Having explored its qualities in the glass, he is moving on to explore its qualities as a flavor additive.

This morning he flavored french toast with rye. That is, he put a tablespoon of Hudson Valley Manhattan rye whiskey in the egg and milk batter. The flavor was subtly aromatic and perfectly delightful, better than his usual zest of lemon, far better than a splash of vanilla.

Caramel in color and flavor, a carefully distilled rye whiskey resonates with elegant overtones of vanilla and berries. A liberal pour over vanilla ice cream is terrific. The recipe for tiramisu calls for a shot of spirits. There, too, rye is an excellent choice.george_washington_1772.jpg

Anywhere you might use vanilla or molasses, think instead of rye. Brush it over the top of your pie crust before baking. (This was Mr. Henry’s French step-grandmother’s secret to flaky crust.) Add a splash to cornbread or Boston baked beans.

Rye is the quintessential American whiskey. George Washington not only drank it, he distilled it, too.

American cheese

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Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin is the finest American cheese Mr. Henry has ever tasted, a gruyere-style cheese that tastes better than Beaufort, the celebrated French Alpine tomme.
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Mildly tangy, mildly fruity, and mildly nutty, Pleasant Ridge has firm texture, a slightly grainy mouthfeel, and a creamy finish, the ideal pairing for a fresh summer salad followed by fruit.

Fellow cheese snobs take note. There are other terrific cheeses made here in the States. The peerless cheesemongers at Artisanale recommend twenty-nine on their site.

Fish fry

For the past two weeks Mr. Henry has been on the road and in the swamp. He has eaten blueberries in Maine, black raspberries in Massachusetts, corn in upstate New York, and fried soft shell crab in Florida.

Soft shell crab in Florida? Who knew?

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Step aside, Maryland. In the Stygian waters of the vast St. John’s River estuary the blue crab is molting.

Although shrimp is caught locally in Jacksonville, in summer it can be soft and lacking flavor. Catfish filet is local as well, and surprisingly good if you don’t mind a few inevitable bones. Soft shell crab, however, is clearly the best local catch.

At Clark’s Fish Camp on Julington Creek, a fry house in the swamp, New York Robert went for the full, bona fide Southern experience by ordering the Swamp Fest Platter, a mixed fry of conch, mako shark, frog legs, catfish, squid, and gator tail.

It’s all good, it’s all fried, and every platter comes with hush puppies.

The insistent flavor of breading browned in corn oil nearly overwhelmed the light scallopy taste of conch, but gator tail survived the fryer with flavor intact. Yes, it does taste rather like chicken, but with chewier texture and, to Mr. Henry’s palate, a brighter and more interesting flavor. (With more than one million in Florida, the alligator is no longer endangered.)

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Mr. Henry stopped Robert from ordering the frightful Swamp Cocktail, a boozy brew of vodka, rum, blue Curacao, triple sec, orange juice, sour, and “a splash of Pepsi.” Hooooooo doggies!

There  was no need to prove manhood here, however. Local tap water is daring enough.

A stroll along the boat dock revealed several large red-eared slider turtles on the surface of the black water as well as a small alligator toying with a floating wedge of cocktail lemon.

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More daunting than the swamp critters or the hundred or more stuffed animals on the walls, however, at the bar a group of ladies in Gator regalia jiggling iced after-dinner drinks snagged Robert in a flirty conversation that, but for the prudent intervention of Mr. Henry, might have culminated in more bona fides than he reckoned for.

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