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Manolo's Food Blog - Part 40

Goddesses of the hearth

In the fifth millennium BC, did women rule Old Europe?

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According to David W. Anthony in The Lost World of Old Europe, women developed metallurgy, arguably the greatest technological achievement in the history of man. It wasn’t the village smithee standing under the spreading chestnut. Although they did not rule, it was the ladies changed the history of mankind.

Starting with bread-baking, women extended their mastery of pyrotechnology to the baking of clay for vessels and figurines. They learned how to adorn clay with colors derived from local deposits of malachite and azurite, which happen to be copper ores.

In a very hot kiln, copper ore combines with charcoal to produce copper and slag. By accident, therefore, women tending the hearth discovered the magical process of smelting sometime around 4,500 BC, fully a millennium and a half before similar developments in the Middle East, Egypt, and the Indus Valley.

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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.

Eating Animals

Have you noticed lately that vegetarianism has been on the upswing? Jonathan Safran Foer has been hectoring us about the evils of Eating Animals, cataloguing our collective moral depravity and bloody Morlock slouch towards planetary destruction.

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What accounts for the ascendancy of this idea?

Is it wrong to dine upon the flesh of sentient creatures? Granted, the noble pig is clever. Like Mr. Henry himself, a pig can admire its image in a mirror. But what about the chicken, the sheep or the cow? What pull do they have on our heartstrings?

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Ever since Mr. Henry watched a video in the Monterey aquarium documenting an octopus delicately tasting the arm of its beloved handler and then erupting in pulsating colored stripes of delight, he has foregone pulpo on the menu. What a glorious creature, the octopus, prince of invertebrates, capable of unscrewing a mason jar. Show me a pig that can do that.

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Why can’t people live in harmony with animals without resorting to the barbarism of slaughter?

The answer is time. While a pig has all day to root around for the tastiest tubers, modern persons like ourselves need to cook something dense with food value, get it done, and get going. It is damnably difficult to find satisfaction in vegetables alone if you are cooking in a hurry, unless you happen to be one of those raw-diet enthusiasts, in which case you and the pig share the same diet and possibly the same flavor profile (hence the South Seas nickname for tasty captives, “long pig”).

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And what can we say about the inevitable smugness that clings to vegetarians? It’s maddening when a table guest announces that meat is vile succor. Perhaps South Seas cannibalism started right there. A local chief just had enough of that superior attitude.

The fruit of knowledge

fuji.jpgThe house is awash in apples – Fuji for eating; McIntosh, Macoun, and Granny Smith for cooking, plus a few more odd bins varietals.

Apple dishes that graced the Henry table in the month of October include cranberry apple crisp, cinnamon applesauce, apple pie with splash of lemon (and a splash of rye whiskey on the crust), apple compote made with orange juice, and at nearly every meal sliced fresh apples for dessert.

Johnny Appleseed, that great American (and yes, he was a real man), sowed seed down the Ohio River. Because his apple trees bore gnarly, sour little things, their principal use was for making hooch, a habit long lost in the 21st century. Today’s Calvados is too expensive and apple brandy is too rough.

Most persons of Mr. Henry’s acquaintance no longer prepare alcoholic beverages at home, but Mary and Michael made some up in the Catskills. They threw apples in a big metal bucket, let them rot, and cooked it up. The resulting clear, very alcoholic firewater was delicious but very hot, hot enough to trade with Indians in exchange for pelts.

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After drinking this particular firewater for a good while, Mr. Henry began to see more clearly. The apple’s significance took on new meaning, or else its meaning took on new significance. It’s hard to recall. As the serpent said to Eve, the apple is the fruit of knowledge.

It’s not only the fruit of fall, it’s the fruit of the fall from grace.

But isn’t a good apple worth the trip?

Odd couples

“What do you want to eat for dinner tonight?” Mrs. Henry asked for the umpteenth time.

“Whatever looks good is OK by me,” responded Mr. Henry in the mistaken belief that eagerness to please his immortal beloved would win the day.

“Why must the menu decision always be up to me?” cried Mrs. Henry, straining to remain calm. “Why can’t you come up with an idea? You’re the famous Mr. Henry. Think of something!”

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And thus does Mr. Henry receive his comeuppance for selflessly spreading enlightenment and joie d’esprit to his many faithful readers.

As luck would have it, and luck favors the prepared foodblogger, tucked away at the back of Notes on Cooking is a singular list of classic combinations:

duck & orange
orange & fennel
fennel & arugula
arugula & balsamic vinegar
balsamic vinegar & strawberries
strawberries & cream
cream & garlic

…and so on for two more pages.

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It’s a list ready made for the beleaguered husband and willing helpmeet wandering the grocery store, all the voyage of his shopping trip bound in shallows and in miseries.

artichokes & mozzarella
mozzarella & tomatoes
tomatoes & cucumbers
cucmbers & lingonberries
lingonberries & wild goose

Sometimes a combination works even though it seems to be completely at odds, as unlikely as pumpkin & prawns, for instance.

Mr. & Mrs. Henry seem to have absolutely nothing in common, either, except a fondness for the same foods, the same vacation destinations, and the same movies. Sometimes the odd coupling is the tastiest.

yogurt & meyer lemon
meyer lemon & green olives
green olives & manchego
manchego & quince
quince & vanilla bean

Notes on Cooking for Men

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Lately Mr. Henry has been reading and re-reading Notes on Cooking, a handy, fun, and blissfully succinct new book by Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich replete with wise lore from the kitchen.

Although Notes on Cooking covers most aspects of cooking, it omits any discussion of the social setting, specifically the interpersonal dynamic between a woman in an apron and a man waiting to eat. If you are a man lucky enough to live with a woman who cooks, pay close attention to the following rules of comportment:

1.    Set the table.

2.    Compliment her finesse at the stove and her personal sense of style. Every meal is a celebration. She, doyenne of the household, happens to have cooked the meal for you, unworthy guest. Maintain decorum. Keep your natural boorishness in check.

3.    The time to offer suggestions for improvements to choices of menu, seasoning, degree of doneness, or other components of the meal is not while sitting down to dinner. Her queries on these subjects should be construed in their narrowest dimensions. You should venture an answer only if she demands one.

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4.    When you’ve done the dishes, do not conclude that you’ve finished cleaning up. Wipe the counters, sink, and dining table. If you harbor hopes for clandestine assignations between you and the missus later that evening, sweep the floor.

5.    Take out the garbage, carefully adhering to the following dicta:

a.    Do it before she reminds you.

b.    Do it without calling attention to yourself. Simply because you humped a trash bag it does not follow, therefore, that you should be in line to receive a battlefield commendation.

c.    After taking out the trash, do not plop down on the couch in the belief that you have fulfilled your kitchen obligations. This is a critical juncture. Remain upright, in motion, and engaged.

6.    Never come home empty-handed if your route has taken you past the grocery store.

7.    Always carry the heavy grocery bag.

8.    Make a habit of carrying home heavy items like milk and fruit.

9.    Always buy more bananas than you need. By this clever stratagem you can ensure that two or three will ripen past the optimal “just a few brown sugar spots” state. After your spouse has castigated you for profligacy and a pitiful absence of common sense which she wishes to heaven she had recognized twenty years ago, she will bake her signature banana bread, the ideal breakfast. For the remainder of the week, mornings will be bliss.

Whiskey cocktails

angostura.jpgPlacing at risk the delicate health of his liver, all week long Mr. Henry devoted his attention selflessly to the study of rye whiskey, with especially spirited focus on the celebrated American whiskey cocktails – the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, and the Sazerac.

Results are in. Adding bitters, vermouth, or anything else to good rye whiskey is needless embellishment. It’s gilding the lily. It’s screwing the pooch.

It’s a case of rye gone awry.

The Manhattan cocktail may be the best of the bunch, but finding Angostura bitters on upper Broadway is not easy. Four liquor stores and three grocery stores were sold out. Could the Manhattan cocktail be dying out in Manhattan?

Curiously, sweet red vermouth, shot of bitters, and rye whiskey which constitute the Manhattan are somewhat less than satisfying until pulled together by the unmistakable synthetic flavor of a maraschino cherry. The Manhattan is a tonic that tastes like a stomach-ache remedy mixed by an old time apothecary, appropriate if you’re using firewater rye whiskey from your own still but inappropriate for the mellow rye whiskeys available today.

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The Old-Fashioned is just rye, bitters, sugar, and splash of soda water. Once again, why confuddle a balanced whiskey with bitters? (And by the way, in case your stores don’t stock it, Angostura bitters smells just like Fernet Branca, the classic Italian amaro.)

The Sazerac is the most curious one of all because it requires a teaspoon of Pernod (or any other licorice liqueur) and a splash of Peychaud’s bitters, slightly milder than Angostura but very much the same kind of preparation. Once again the image of a long-whiskered apothecary springs to mind, this one in a Mardi Gras hat.

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Following the recommendation of the reliable Eric Asimov, New York Times spirits correspondent (a fine career, don’t you agree?), for mixing purposes Mr. Henry bought a bottle of Michter’s, which was quite good but fell short of the richness found in more expensive straight ryes like Hudson Valley Manhattan rye.

At the suggestion of Mr. Hess, a correspondent from California, Mr. Henry searched for Old Potrero, a rye distilled by the Anchor Steam Brewing Company, one of America’s great breweries. Alas, Old Potrero is not to be found anywhere on the Upper West Side. Neither is Templeton rye from Iowa. In fact, good rye whiskey is scarce on local shelves. Yet again the Founding Fathers would be scandalized by the habits and customs of modern Americans.

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.

Food for Thought