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Manolo's Food Blog - Part 50

The Problem of 35

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At age 35 the male metabolism changes. Between 35 and 40 Mr. Henry gained two pounds per year. At his annual check-up he asked his physician what to do. Dr. K’s immortal reply was “Quit eating!”

Clearly this is sound medical advice, but as in financial, political, and sexual matters, sound advice is difficult to follow.

Today Mr. Henry faces another problem of 35. Blue jeans are manufactured in graduated sizes of 30, 31, 32, 33, and 34-inch waist. After 34 comes 36.

The problem of 35 is that it isn’t there.

Faced with a sinister plot, Mr. Henry’s mind, unlike the darker minds of political reporters, federal prosecutors, and religious fanatics, does not immediately leap to conspiracy for a solution.

Regarding the problem of 35, however, hearsay evidence points to a world-wide conspiracy of skinny fashionistas – black-clad eaters of take-out salads with creamy dressing, spicy tuna rolls, Thai peanut noodles, and cheese-flavored corn chips, all of which are secretly laced with MSG.

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Their collective goal is to prevent gracefully aging men from wearing the one worldwide signature garment of youth – blue jeans that fit.

When walking to the dog run Mr. Henry dons a ancient pair of 34’s unwashed since late 2007. Rips at knees and cuffs are not a deliberate style statement. The fabric is spontaneously shredding and simply will not withstand the rigors of a washing machine.

His replacement 34’s will not yet yield to the fundamental argument, and Mr. Henry refuses on principle to buy a pair of 36’s.

Thus diet dominates life. Like a train wreck, the expanded waistline collides with the blue jeans which in turn degrade personal hygiene and shatter self-respect. Not just the jeans lie in tatters.

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The solution? Mr. Henry’s Dietary Dicta prescribe no carbohydrates at dinner. It seems he must cease playing by winter rules and face 35 days of fasting in the desert, or at least 35 days of fasting without dessert.

Deconstruction

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Last Saturday at Princeton University’s Prospect House, Mr. Henry was fêted to a dinner in honor of the Art Museum’s 125th anniversary exhibition. The entrée was a “deconstructed beef Wellington” – a slice of filet astride a square of puff pastry accompanied by a bordelaise sauce and several toothsome slices of black truffle. The Duke of Wellington was “but a man.” This was more than a beef Wellington, and less.wellington.jpg

It went down easily, not least because right when the Wellington arrived the table chat finally abandoned academic niceties (“Oh, you did your doctorate at Harvard with Cornelius?”) and got down to a heated Hillary vs. Barack slugfest.

To Mr. Henry’s surprise, the graduate students took a dim view of Obama’s popularity among the “young,” a distinction that relegates Mr. Henry to Cro-Magnon status. They insisted on deconstructing Obama’s rhetoric of inclusion until it lay open on the table like flayed game.

Whatever happened to stew, to soup, to edible assemblages honored by tradition and favored by time? Where are the constructions of yesteryear? Why do we feel compelled to deconstruct them today? Can’t we yield to the sure pleasure of a simple enough preparation like beef Wellington, the filet’s aromas and juices neatly captured by its pastry shell?

Or is the real reason for this presumptuousness the practical fact that beef Wellington is difficult to prepare for a room of 120 without drying out the filet?

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Is this “concept entrée” all a caterer’s ruse to make things less likely to screw up in the kitchen?duchampnude-descendng-a-staircase.jpg

Do you take more pleasure seeing things in parts? Do you see foods on the plate as images in motion like Nude Descending a Staircase?

Although foods may be cultural constructs, bearers of identity, markers of clan, and applied art, they are also appetizers, entrées, and desserts. Are foods more fetching, more alluring, more seductive, or more artistic when chopped up into elemental components?

Mr. Henry might appreciate a woman’s garments piece by piece, and he would certainly enjoy deconstructing the ensemble, but he appreciates the whole outfit as the higher achievement, the synthesis of beauty concealed and revealed.

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A woman robed is more seductive than a woman disrobed because it is the rare woman who feels totally at ease in her skin. Her confidence slumps, and so does her posture. Her defenses take over. She needs that little bit of armor to take her into battle.joan_of_arc_miniature_c1450_1500.jpg

And so it is with the deconstructed beef Wellington. The chemistry just isn’t there. The poetry gets lost in the translation.

Where food is concerned, Mr. Henry maintains that deconstruction is something best done with the teeth.

Peter Hoffman

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Once in a great while circumstances oblige Mr. Henry freely and without jealousy to admit that certain people simply have cool, that is to say they exude social intelligence without seeming to have studied for the test. Barack Obama has cool. Clint Eastwood has cool. Peter Hoffman of Savoy and Back Forty has it, too.
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Almost 17 years ago, Mr. Henry and his faithful consort held their wedding rehearsal dinner at Savoy, filling the downstairs of the old one-story place (and lingering too long over the heavenly desserts, leaving a line of people with later reservations waiting outside in the rain). The salt-crust duck was served, as it will always be served at Savoy, because it is the celestial food of the gods.

From the cramped kitchen, a sweaty, smoky. apron-stained Peter emerged to greet his adoring diners. His tiny, beatific wife, Susan Rosenfeld, made the desserts, something with quince, if memory serves, and an inspired ice cream.

Now Peter and Susan have opened Back Forty, where you can eat a hamburger to rival Mr. Henry’s home-cooked favorite made from Australian organic grass-fed beef. Peter’s rosemary and coarse-salt french fries with homemade ketchup, however, are beyond fabulous, well beyond the capabilities of the Henry household. All this Mr. Henry admits freely and without a hint of jealousy.savoy.JPG

What sets Peter apart from the pack are two principal virtues: 1) unlike the Mario Battalis and the Bobby Flays, he does not seek limelight but instead lets the food come first, and 2) he was an early adaptor of the local food movement, a pioneer of eating seasonally.

Permitting menu selections to change depending on what is freshest in the morning market, a new style when Peter and Susan founded Savoy, is now a style considered basic to any serious restaurant. It’s not enough to be ready on day one, you’ve got to be right, as well.

Meat and chocolate

Twice in one week Mr. Henry has eaten chocolate on meat. Is this a new national trend, a millennial generation mania? If so, why hasn’t anyone informed Mr. Henry about this before? He is supposed to be in the forefront of food fashion, not outside waiting behind the ropes.

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At Columbus Circle, the AOL Time Warner Center is a bizarre amalgam of the authentic and the ersatz. The towers are handsome enough, if twin towers are what captivate your urban fantasies. Personally, Mr. Henry finds them deeply, doubly uninspiring. The interior is an essay in wasted space. Vast hollow chambers wind slowly round a half circle. Upstairs the celebrated Allen Room with its view down Central Park South is flanked by an awkward trapezoidal foyer larger than the performance hall itself.

Per Se (menu pris fixe, $275) and Masa, arguably the two best restaurants in the country, share a common hallway entrance from what looks like an upscale shopping mall, a decor suggesting Dallas or Short Hills. However, on a rainy Wednesday evening last week a veteran New York bum borrowed this entrance as a staging area to clean his soaked and blackened feet. Ah! New York City! Where wretchedness and superabundance reside side by side.

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Down one flight at Cafe Gray, Mr. Henry could not resist ordering the loin of pork with braised shoulder and braised belly because they were finished with “chocolate stout” – a very light, subtly aromatic, slightly bitter chocolate ale. It was a remarkably appropriate complement to pork’s mild flavors.

giada.jpgLast night at Mary and Michael’s house, the worldly and curvaceous Donna, fresh from a day of rock-climbing, cooked an imaginative short ribs with tagliatelle topped NOT by Parmesan cheese but by finely grated bitter chocolate, a recipe borrowed from Giada Di Laurentiis.

Lighter and less insistent than Parmesan, the bitter chocolate awakened taste buds not otherwise aroused by the sweet round flavors of slowly braised short ribs. It was a success made more exciting by being so unexpected.

Will chocolate hamburgers be the next new thing? Let’s see….ketchup and bitter chocolate together, isn’t that almost a salsa molé?

Taking Tea

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Not only has Mr. Henry been drinking tea in copious quantities, he has been thinking about it, too. A healing broth, tea is the drink of contemplation (and idleness?). If coffee is amplified music, tea is acoustic. Mr. Henry’s morningissawis-laws.jpg quart of English breakfast (with whole milk, no sugar) washes away yesterday’s misdeeds, physical and spiritual. A calm, hopeful, cerebral, and gentle infusion, tea hosts renewal.

“I often wonder who left mankind the greatest legacy, the Arabs for coffee or the Chinese for tea. I think, on balance, it was the Chinese, because one must be feeling healthy to take coffee, whereas one may take tea whether feeling sick or well.” — Charles Issawi (1916-2000).

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Mohandas Ghandi drank tea, and surely he greeted his daily obligations with equanimity. Perhaps the quiet, strengthening properties of tea gave him a foundation for his remarkable stoicism, his capacity for hope in such a benighted country, his ability to fast for weeks without dying.barack-obama-bw.png

Running the race, in the past few months Barack Obama has suffered a loss of five pounds. Is he fasting until we accede to his demands for bi-partisanship? Please, Barack, if it didn’t work for the Mahatma, will it work for you?

For Mr. Henry, unburdened by such weighty matters, tea simply re-hydrates the body after its wrestling match with the nightly incubus. Tea reanimates his petrified vitals and permits the introduction of solid food. After a warming mug of tea, the world as reported in the New York Times looks remarkably less bleak.

At night, draining the last drops of wine from the glass, Mr. Henry sulks a bit at his self-imposed alcoholic limits and then brews a cup of mint tea (Tazo). In the night a cold glass of water with another bag of Tazo mint tossed in slakes his parched, 3:00 a.m. throat.

tazomint.jpgThe Founding Fathers drank it. They even launched a revolution over it. To arms, patriots! To arms! (Perhaps one more cup before taking the streets.)

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.

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.

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