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What Mr. Henry is eating | Manolo's Food Blog
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Looking to be Happy

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What advice would you give to people who are looking to be happy? “For starters, learn how to cook.” From In-Verse Thinking, Questions for Charles Simic, interview by Deborah Solomon, February 3, 2008, New York Times Sunday Magazine.
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All week long Mr. Henry has been chewing over this pithy admonishment. Unfortunately for his waistline, he has been chewing a lot more. The virus colonizing his sinuses hacked into Mr. Henry’s appetite control center. Its sinister program impels Mr. Henry to rise in the night like a Transylvanian Count and glide towards the kitchen to graze. His current fixation is toast, cottage cheese and umeboshi, Japanese salt plum.
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Cottage cheese is a preparation not seen in this household since Mrs. Henry’s pregnancy when every few hours she too rose like a wraith and shuffled kitchen-ward to ingest anything resembling pabulum.

Did not Nixon, Haldeman, and Erlichman sitting round the Oval Office lunch on cottage cheese with ketchup? Such satanic visions calls to mind the most famous aphorism from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s (1755-1826), The Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
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Mr. Henry is laid low. He can offer no explanation or defense for this craven departure from virtuous habit. Those familiar with Mr. Henry’s Dietary Dicta must be shuddering at this late-night eating, this blatant trespass on established rules.

Perhaps Dickens is to blame. Yes, that must be it. Hardly a chapter of Great Expectations goes past without someone sitting down to enjoy a joint of mutton or a tankard of ale. (As a boy, Dickens was poor and knew what it was to go hungry.) Mr. Henry should go back to reading Samuel Beckett, a writer who genuinely appreciates denial. Though he sucks on a pebble to abate hunger, for the whole of the book Molloy never actually eats anything.
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Simic, poet laureate of the U.S., is right. To achieve happiness in life you must learn how to cook. Why? Because you can never really know how to eat unless you understand how food is prepared. And it follows that if you never really learn how to eat, you never really learn how to be happy.

Choctál

Mr. Henry is brand loyal. For decades he has kept the same barber, tailor, dentist, doctor, mechanic, and partner in marriage. For decades he has used the same personal products – the same soap, the same shampoo (the 2-in-1 kind, nothing fussy), and nearly the same toothpaste (now opting for one with more peroxide). He would still be buying Noxzema shave cream had they not removed most of the menthol and “improved” it into a goopy, flowery mess.

Change for its own sake pains Mr. Henry. (It is impractical, after all, to be an iconoclast unless you find some new, genuinely improved icon as replacement.) Though a religious and political firebrand, in personal habits Mr. Henry more closely resembles a hound curled up by the fireplace.

Notwithstanding these noble instincts, when first he tasted Choctál, in an instant he knew he would stray.

Heading for the ice cream locker at Zabar’s, he literally stumbled over the Choctál lady blocking the aisle. Peeved, he tried to sweep right past her. Doesn’t Mr. Henry KNOW that chocolate ice cream always disappoints? After years of disappointment, he no longer grouses about the lingering aftertaste of Hershey’s syrup lurking in every common brand. Now to satisfy his chocolate ice cream needs he simply shaves Scharffen Berger bitter onto Häagen-Dasz vanilla. Can there be a finer, simpler postscript to a meal than this?

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Yes, there can.

With one reluctant spoonful of chocolate from Ghana, he was a goner. Overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame – guilt at having strayed from his allegiances, shame at what little self-control he foresaw he would marshal – he bought three pints at a serious $7.00 each. Because it is an ice cream made with gelato technique, that is, with less air, the intensity of Choctál satisfies after only a single scoop. The price, therefore, is not outrageous.

The taste is absolute heaven.

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There are four flavors of chocolate, each from a single region. The darkest is Dominican, a spiraling, swooning ascent into chocolate valhalla.

The most enticing to the Henry household was Ghana, which, though still a dark chocolate, concludes with a bright, joyful, almost fruity finish. The Madagascar vanilla is unequalled in delicacy of aroma.

When he recovers from rapture, Mr. Henry will face the inevitable melancholy. First, he will worry about his waistline. Second, he will brood. Will this mid-life dalliance lead to more perilous infidelities? His remorse will surely be dark and bitter.

Mr. Henry pulls pork

It all starts, as things do, with one small misstep, a minor oversight that unwinds balefully into tragic chorus.

Even though he saw that the husk ends were dry, Mr. Henry bought some corn. He knew Mrs. Henry would feel compelled yet again to deliver her lecture, “How many times must I explain to you about fresh ears of corn?,” a well-argued and convincing thesis. But he had been beating the Manhattan streets all day. His feet were growing corns of their own, and back home his noble hound Pepper needed walking.

Oh where is fresh corn to be found? Where are the sweet ears of yesteryear? To buy fresh corn must he always take subways to foreign climes? Must he buy exclusively from farmstands in parking lots?

How many food miles these dry cobs had traveled Mr. Henry shudders to think. What became clear to him, however, was that he needed a quick-witted solution.

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Cornbread! He hadn’t indulged in a good corn bread since winter. This week’s cold snap made cornbread a practical choice. Yes, all would be alright. Then, his nimble imagination galloping ahead of his vaunted sense of practicality, he smelled the cornbread together with its empyreal helpmeet – pulled pork with barbecue sauce. He imagined brioche buns oozing with sloppy joe. He imagined crunchy, vinegary cole slaw. His tongue became heavy with desire to pronounce each menu selection with a southern accent.

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His bona fides as arbiter of fine food notwithstanding, Mr. Henry had never before slow-cooked a great slab of pork. Every recipe he found called for baking 10 hours at a tepid 225º. Could there be a shorter route?

Undeterred by inexperience, Mr. Henry bought five pounds of blade roast, slapped it on the kitchen counter, and massaged it with his own concoction of dry spices: brown sugar (lots and lots), cumin (a good heaping), cayenne (a smidge), paprika, (a smidge more), dry mustard, a big pinch of herbs de provence (why not?), ground black pepper, mixed whole peppercorns, whole cloves, and kosher salt (has nice granulation). No time for marinating or resting.

After searing the meat in canola oil, he covered it in two coarsely chopped onions, two whole cloves of garlic, and two cups of water. With the lid on, the dutch oven went into the stove at 350º for seven hours, all the time there was. The house smelled like Jimmy’s pit Bar-B-Q back home. Poor Pepper was pacing and licking her chops all day.

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Mr. Henry is not ashamed to reveal the trepidation he felt as he lifted the lid, hoping against hope he wouldn’t burn his fingers once again on its handle. The liquid was gone! The browned meat sat nobly proud of a viscose, inky mystery. Four dinner guests were set to arrive. Mr. Henry placed the lid back on top and prayed for juices to settle.

Sensing that hesitation at this crucial moment would be fatal, Mrs. Henry rose from her yoga mat and stepped into the breach. With the assurance of a battlefield colonel she added more mayonnaise (!) to the cole slaw and punched up its brightness with a sprinkling more salt and a dash of sugared white sushi vinegar. To the mysterious dark pot liquor she added apple cider vinegar and ketchup.

We few, we happy few! We pulled and we slathered. We went WAY down South. Because others were too busy eating, holding a glass of cold Vouvray Mr. Henry toasted his signal victory against overwhelming odds.

Borrowing the idea from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Mrs. Henry tossed kale in olive oil and veggie salt, and baked it at 350º for about 12 minutes. All its bitterness disappeared. The result was an intensely green, somewhat shriveled, crunchy leaf. “Hey kids,” Mr. Henry slyly asked, “who wants green potato chips?” They couldn’t get enough of them.

Fresh pineapple, a deliciously stinky aged hard cheese called toma persa, and Lorna’s beautiful pastries ended the feast.

Beaten by a bean

When Mrs. Henry decided on a whim to hop a flight to San Diego, the Henry household was left to its own devices, that is, with Mr. Henry firmly, if temporarily, in command. Trying not to be alarmed by this sudden absence of leadership in battle, Mr. Henry swore a silent oath to provide Little Henry with first quality hot dinners each and every night. ground beef 1.jpg

The first night Mr. Henry bought his ultimate quick fix solution – grass-fed, organic, Australian ground sirloin at Citarella – the world’s best hamburger. Served on a toasted brioche roll alongside baked new potatoes and Ceasar salad, accompanied by a glass of Dolcetto, all was bliss.

His more serious efforts the following evening succeeded remarkably well. A whole roast chicken rubbed with butter and salt, stuffed with apple and fresh sage, and after 30 minutes basted with Madeira emerged succulent and aromatic. Plain baked yams provided a colorful accompaniment as did toasted okra and sauteed French string beans topped with chopped cilantro. A chunky apple sauce made with fresh orange juice in lieu of water won the evening. For wine Mr. Henry chose a cold, tart Vouvray.

The next night Mr. Henry bought fat lamb chops longing for a rub of herbs de provence and gray sea salt. Broiled and allowed to rest for a good 20 minutes, they were divine. A salad of Israeli cucumbers, dill, yogurt and sour cream sat up perkily on the plate. Pears poached in wine from the Languedoc were the perfect finish.

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However, in the thrill of finding such perfect lamb chops, Mr. Henry over-reached and met with tragedy. He is accustomed to using canned flageolets. (Fresh ones have always been hard to find.) At Citarella he stumbled upon some dried ones. Rushing home after lunch he threw them in a pot of water to soak. After an hour they had swelled by at least one third. Mr. Henry made the fateful decision to use them that very evening.

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A survivor of many an undercooked chili from his college days, he knew that dried beans need to soak overnight. Yet here were flageolets already deceptively green and seemingly compliant. Despite hours on the stove that night and the following night as well, however, they never yielded.

Beaten by a bean. Next time he’ll stick to lentils. They don’t need to soak so long.

A note on grass-fed beef: Less fatty than corn-fed, it consequently cooks more quickly. The best way to tell if it’s cooked is to poke it with your finger. When it begins to resist your touch, take it out of the skillet and let it rest. The taste improves dramatically when the juices have stopped running.cucumbers2.jpg

Cucumber salad

8 Israeli cucumbers, cored and coarsely grated
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
½ cup plain non-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon sour cream

Mr. Henry prefers to use the food processor. It grates them coarsely but uniformly. He adds several pinches of salt, covers and refrigerate for several hours.

When ready to serve, squeeze all the water from the cucumbers and mix everything together.

Mr. Henry gets religion

Mr. Henry is not a person of faith. For him, ideology is bunk, and religion is über-bunk. Nevertheless, even cynical hounds have to decide what to eat.

The final sentences of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma read:

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few remarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

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At the instant of this writing Mr. Henry is snarfing down blue corn tortilla chips.

Although organic and without trans fats, these are surely more the product of industry than of nature. Reflecting upon his personal feeding habits, he tries not to despair, for he has not forgotten that despair is one of the seven deadly sins, right up there alongside gluttony.

Should we structure our eating around belief systems? Don’t we do that already even if we pretend we don’t? Isn’t what we call culture or tradition in fact a set of rather arbitrary beliefs, many ungrounded in logic or science?

Cuisine marks culture more distinctly than any other lifestyle choice. It’s the most conservative cultural trait. (Japanese-American families keep umeboshi in the fridge no matter what fashions they wear, music they listen to, or ideologies they favor.)

Organic is good. Local is better. Taste should be your guide. The perfect, most harmonious marriage of these virtues, however, is sustainability.

Eating from a farm like Polyface that achieves a balance of beast and field, of nature and nurture, in which each creature and each plant achieves its full biological potential, is the holy grail of sustainability. The land improves, our health improves, the beasts live happy lives (right up to their moment of demise), and the energy to run the place comes almost completely from the sun.


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started talking about these issues years ago. Although in the Diana legend Charles has been cast down as the frosty fogey, the emotional retard, it may come to pass in the long judgement of history that Princess Diana’s media successes will wane and Charles’ push for sustainable development will rise.PrinceCharles.jpg

Now that he has converted, Mr. Henry feels obligated to pursue the virtuous life. As soon as he finishes this marvelous bag of chips, he will begin casting about for information regarding local farms in the New York City area. (Query to the faithful: Must the convert lead an impeccable existence, or merely a good one? Temptation is everywhere. Sustainable farm products are scarce.)

Codfishing

Like The Manolo, Mr. Henry has been traveling, holed up in a Cape Cod rental bungalo without internet access.cod fish

He tried to eat locavore. He made a real mental effort. But as a citizen of the world he believes no neighborhood is truly so far removed from his acquaintance that he cannot partake of its proudest fare. And where, he asks, is the local food exit off Interstate-95?

In the spirit of a summer share, therefore, he would like to offer a few travel tips:

On the highway, don’t drink the iced coffee at Starbuck’s. It’s a guaranteed stomach cramp. Try Newman’s Own Organic at MacDonald’s instead. It’s delicious, neither watery nor burned, and costs half as much as the Starbuck’s one.

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As for eating roadside fast food, just don’t. Pack a picnic you can enjoy at the rest stop. Pretend the sound of roaring cars to be Niagara Falls. (Mrs. Henry added a dollop of sour cream to her chicken salad which rounded out the mouth feel and slightly disguised the mayonnaise — altogether a nice picnic choice.)

Don’t go to Cape Cod for codfish, which in every case will be an anodyne, frozen, white fish filet caught months ago far, far away — the very same filet you might get in Peoria or Topeka.

Don’t eat oysters on the half shell in Wellfleet. They are OK, but the clams are far sweeter, especially the littlenecks.
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If stuck shopping at the local superette, a quick and easy barbecue sauce can be made from three parts ketchup and one part worcestershire sauce. Slather it on AFTER the ribs come off the grill. (Please don’t even pretend you’re going to do a dry rub marinade. Be reasonable. It’s summer. In the morning, dinner always seems to be a long way away.)

Boil your corn until underdone, a mere seven or eight minutes. Let it cool and slice it off the cob. Mixed with chopped tomato, celery and cilantro (or whatever pungent fresh herb you can find). Splash it with oil and vinegar and you will have a marvelous crunchy salad on hand for snacks or for meals.

For the best possible dinner, take Little Henry and posse out to the marshes. Let them loose in the shallows with buckets to dig fresh cherrystone clams, littleneck clams, razor clams, and mussels. (Rubber gloves are a good idea because clam shell edges can be sharp.)

Sautéed in a big fry pan with onion and white wine, each variety will cook at a different rate. Pluck them out when they open so as not to render them rubbery. Reduce your sauce a touch and add a dab of thickener to help it grab hold of the pasta. (Mr. Henry likes heavy cream but sour cream works fine, too.) Serve over linguine with a chilled bottle of Sancerre close at hand.

Okra

Toddson Says:

Actually, it IS possible to ruin tiramisu following this recipe. An article in The Washington Post several years ago was written by someone who came from someplace (alas, I forget which) where “ladyfingers” refers to okra. As a result, she sliced okra, soaked it in coffee, and proceeded from there. It was not a pretty sight and, seemingly, tasted worse than it looked.

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Ladyfingers in the tiramisu! What a hoot! The South is SO worthwhile. Mr. Henry’s dear friend Trudy, bound in the shallows and miseries of Washington, DC, reported lately that one of her friends there promised to keep her “abreasted” of new developments, and this surely is one.

As it happens, okra is one of Mr. Henry’s secret lunchtime quick-fix foods. He places them in a bowl, rinses them, covers them with a dish, and nukes those fuzzy ladyfingers for two minutes. That’s it. Total preparation time: two minutes and change. Don’t eat the gnarly lil’ stems, by the way. (Mr. Henry is fearful that his reading audience might abandon all common sense in slavish devotion to his recipes.) The rest of the okra is a crunchy and gelatinous treat, a toothsome combination of green vegetable and nutty seeds.

Tiramisu & Stinky Accusations

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Emboldened by freely wandering the antique byways of Rome, Little Henry’s friend Stinky launched an accusation that Mr. Henry will not permit to stand uncontested in this or any other forum:

“Mr. Henry talks a lot about cooking but never does any!”

Ha! Only weeks ago Mr. Henry prepared a tiramisu at home that even the skeptical Stinky admitted was a bona fide, authentic, and glorious tiramisu.

It wasn’t exactly cooking, mind you, because no heat was applied. But it greatly impressed the crowd. Here for his gentle reading public so long ignored because he has been re-arranging his life, his office, and his books, Mr. Henry offers up a recipe of sorts, or rather recipe guidelines, for la vera tiramisu di Signor Henry.

Don’t worry. The thing is failproof. You can fudge any proportion and it turns out just fine.
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Mr. Henry’s Tiramisu

6 eggs
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
splash of scotch
1 large tub mascarpone (500g)
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1 package ladyfinger cookies (200g)

First brew some coffee quadruple strength (In deference to the children Mr. H. chose decaffeinated.) and let it cool to room temperature or colder. Grate some good chocolate like Scharffenberger, mixing half a bar of bittersweet withScharffen.jpg a modicum of unsweetened to intensify the flavor. Have close at hand, as well, a bottle of single malt scotch whiskey. (Mr. Henry believes this to be sound advice for any recipe.) For this recipe, Mr. Henry chose The Macallan.

Separate six eggs. Whip the whites until stiff. Cream the yokes together with a cup (or more) of confectioners’ sugar, beating until the color becomes pale. You raw-egg worry-worts at home, please relax. The sugar preserves the egg. In the fridge the concoction will stay perfectly fresh far longer than it will survive repeated servings to you and yours.

Finally to the creamed yokes whip in a splash of scotch, dark rum, or any other spirit appropriate for a coffee, chocolate, and mascarpone confection. This last touch brings a perfume to the dish that separates it from a quotidian custard.

With big gestures and a big rubber spatula, lightly fold in the mascarpone and then the egg whites. Ecco! Mascarpone custard cream. Now you build.

Slice the ladyfingers in half lengthwise if you like. (This is a decision more of style than of taste.) Spread half of them loosely in a deep dish pan. Using a pastry brush soak them – yes, soak them – with coffee. [A Mr. Henry Dictum: Italian desserts must be either soggy or hard as brick.] Cover with a layer of mascarpone custard cream. Then cover the cream thoroughly with half the grated chocolate. Repeat the procedure to create a second story. Chill until set, at least three hours.

Mr. Henry is reminded of an equally false accusation hurled his way by his diminutive and opinionated life-long consort, Mrs. Henry, namely, that whenever he gets an idea for a new dish he feels compelled to purchase a new kitchen utensil. This is falseness itself! Mr. Henry always makes do with whatever is at hand. (A recent purchase of a Le Creuset oval enameled gratin pan was NOT an indulgence. Someday soon she will thank him for it, and mean it sincerely.)

As an example of his resourcefulness, on the morning after returning late from JFK he prepared a fine breakfast of marmalade and crackers borrowed from several of Italy’s nicer hotel breakfast baskets and conveyed trans-Atlantic in Aunt Bev’s backpack. Although there are grocery stores within walking distance of his apartment, Mr. Henry prefers not to conduct his marketing at 3:30 a.m., an hour when he receives stares from street strays and riff-raffy youth.

He prefers the adoring glances he believes he got in Florence from American college students envious of his casual insouciance and his fluency in Italian. He did not actually witness these glances, mind you, being too polite to stare slack-jawed at breathtakingly beautiful young women. Mr. Henry, you see, has faith in the unseen.

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