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Manolo's Food Blog - Part 56

Dinosaur Extinction

Mr. Henry does not harbor a fondness for chicken. When they scratch around the barnyard hunting bugs, he does not find them adorable. When they lie headless, plucked, and baked on his dinner plate, he does not find them palatable.chicken.1.jpg

Chickens are boring, and Mr. Henry wants it known that boredom at the dinner table has consequences far beyond the complaints of middle school children.

Mr. Henry, as his more faithful readers can attest, is fond of careful, analytical thinking. He would never be contentious simply for the sake of contentiousness. When poised to take another contrarian position vis-à-vis a shibboleth such as “white meat,” the ultimate practical good sense dinner, he lets his imagination wander. He yearns to understand how such a creature could have become so important to our diet, a creature bland to the taste and revolting to the eye, a creature that lies on the dinner table awaiting only embalming fluid and make-up.

Is it normal for civilized persons to tear flesh from sinew, to separate cartilage from bone with the naked fingers? Is this acceptable in polite company?

Yes, yes, there have been positive chicken experiences in Mr. Henry’s lengthy past. He recalls a slender rooster, a mere adolescent, running in a Moroccan courtyard one bright morning whose delicious liquor so infused the evening vegetable tagine that the tiniest of meaty morsels satisfied each of the eight diners. Ester’s antique double boiler drew all the flavor from the youngster’s skinny bones. Since he had met the chop only moments before he met the boiler, not a trace of his roosterly odor marred the stew.

On his return to the aisles of American supermarkets, Mr. Henry was revolted by the odor of old chicken skin, an odor that once identified cannot ever be ignored. (Even those highly acclaimed “free range” birds share this problem.) To remove ithe smell requires the cook to rub the chicken in handfuls of salt or lemon, rinse it with cold water, and singe away any remaining little feathers over an open flame. Then you must carve away as much extra fat and skin as you can find. Removing all the skin, however, reduces the bird to a truly anodyne preparation likely to induce depression and dipsomania.

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Eaters Beware: a constant diet of chicken is no harmless habit. To explain the megafauna extinctions that ended the dinosaur age, for example, some very reputable scientists have pointed to an asteroid impact that triggered apocryphal climate change.

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After serious reflection Mr. Henry, however, has come to another,
more original conclusion. Since it is now well established that dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds, all the available meat tasted like…………chicken!

After millennia of the same old thing day after day, those poor
benighted carnivores just gave up and died from sheer boredom.

The fundamental answer to the problem of chicken, of course, is to marinate, a solution unavailable to the dinosaurs. Tandoori and teriyaki each succeed admirably by overpowering chicken with other flavors.

Lest his pouletophile readers rise up in furious anger, Mr. Henry provides a link to a quick and fun coq au vingt minutes. In place of lardons, try normal bacon trimmed of some fat. Be sure to remove most of the bacon fat from the pan before starting with the shallots. When Mr. Henry cooked it for Paul and Haesook, they showed up an hour late thereby permitting the dish to rest and the flavors to blend nicely. So, although the recipe may take only 20 minutes, an hour of repose is recommended.

Once in the hilly countryside near Geneva Mr. Henry ate a chicken that had been baked inside a sarcophagus of salt. With slow ceremony the aged waiter brought a stone mallet to the table and with one great whack stove in the crusted dome. Inside was a hugely flavorful, juicy, and aromatic bird easily separating from the bone. Watery local wines did not displease us. Other diners, however, did not seem to be so much in thrall to the experience. The overall tone of the event seemed smartly Calvinist – the worldly pleasures of poverty and hard work to be enjoyed joylessly.

Mr. Henry goes camping

When days grow long and hot, Mrs. Henry’s small apartment terrace with view of rosemary, basil, and the neighborhood flasher no longer satisfies her cravings for nature. She becomes consumed by urges to strike off into the great outdoors. To Mr. Henry’s recurrent horror, each and every summer she takes the family camping.

She approaches this activity with jaw set in grim determination. Each task becomes an emergency that requires Mr. Henry’s immediate attention. When he spies the camping face, he tries to follow the only prudent course:

He hides. French.press.jpg

But inevitably he is found. Despite absolutely refusing to ever go camping again no matter what, he packs his hiking boots, UV-protectant shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and all the sport socks on the closet shelf. To lure him this year, Mrs. Henry bought an outdoor French press coffee pot. Was this sufficient inducement for the endurance trial that lay ahead?

Preparations are beyond scientific. Weight and space are carefully measured even though during the trip Mr. Henry will be piloting a borrowed SUV. Tea bags are counted out and placed, like everything else, in separate plastic baggies. Moonshots have taken along more serendipitous items than the Henrys take to Yellowstone.

Weeks before the baleful excursion, Mrs. Henry has shipped the tent and sleeping bags to Wyoming via UPS Ground. On the eve of departure, at Albertson’s in Jackson Hole Mr. Henry tries to add spice to their zero-gravity diet by throwing a single package of Cajun bratwurst into the cart, but he is reprimanded. At base camp in Moose, she stews up a vat of Mr. Henry’s least favorite meal – chicken noodle soup – and counts out the ladlefuls into a great wiggly plastic baggie. (Whoever said that chicken soup can’t hurt? The stuff is revolting.)

On the fateful morning of departure, however, he manages to squirrel away two beers under the ice in the mini-cooler. He grabs his pillow, too, masking its presence by cruelly binding it up with twine and hiding it in a trash bag under the driver’s seat.Kitchenaid toaster.jpg

Before pulling out of the driveway, Mr. Henry begins to miss his treasured bed. Is not the bed the greatest invention of man? The pop-up toaster runs a distant second.

Mr. Henry takes a trip

A Mr. Henry Dictum:

When compelled to leave New York, Mr. Henry strongly cautions you to employ the Powell Doctrine now sadly languishing in a Foggy Bottom dustbin:

“Clear goals, an exit strategy, and overwhelming force.”

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Proper planning may help calm feelings of dread that overcome you as you ponder upcoming dietary and leisure options. Don’t be caught short of food or reading material. Mr. Henry took a sackful of homemade goodies and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, an ideal travel book for the 21st century. (Hint: there is a lot of waiting and very little food. There are no paragraph breaks, however.)

In the Denver airport the chef at Wolfgang Puck Express gamely retrieved a cooked pizza that had fallen on the dirty counter and tossed it in our general direction without so much as a perfunctory nod. Although hygienically compromised, it was the only edible item served to the Henrys that fateful afternoon.

Out of concern for the sensibilities of his readers, Mr. Henry resists describing the salad dressing that remained on his stomach for another 10 hours and 1000 air miles. A Wolfgang Puck frittata with an inane faux-Latin name closely resembled in color and texture Mr.Puck.jpg Henry’s new natural, extra-firm, foam rubber mattress. After one bite he cast a wistful eye across the breezeway to McDonalds and other fast food purveyors of death. At least there you know what you are getting – a treacly, salty, highly caloric shock to the liver. Mr. Henry prefers the devil he knows.

The War on Tourism continues.

Amid a national Homeland Security Orange Alert, sunscreen in a stick caught the vigilant eye of a Denver Airport uniformed officer who escorted the offending young suspect aside and thoroughly patted her down with special attention paid to a middle school backpack. Remarkably, ham and avocado sandwiches made it past security check, as did corn chips, olives, grapes, pineapple and brownies. Water, however, did not. Mr. Henry was forced to drink Starbuck’s coffee which gratefully came for free.

Flying is no picnic, though you’ll have to pack your lunch all the same.

United Airlines now sells four distinct pre-packaged meals for six dollars each, one more ghastly than the next. When next preparing for flight, picture in your imagination Tom Joad and family in a flatbed Okie truck crossing the Arizona desert at night. Pack accordingly. Don’t buy the United in-flight meal. Whatever happens, keep the family together and know that a better life awaits.

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Bellini in a bowl

What do you serve on the hottest day of the year? How can you face a hot stove when the outside temperature approaches 100 degrees?

If you are Mary, at dawn you don your sunhat and amble down to the chicken coop for fresh eggs, pull a few egg-sized potatoes from the earth, cut some lettuce (several exotic varieties), cut nasturtiums, shiso, mint (a mild one), and pick tomatoes warming in the morning sun. With a can of tuna, a few boiled eggs, some anchovies and some olives, your lunch will be an unbeatable salade niçoise ready in 10 minutes.

Since Mary swims a mile every morning except on the days when she climbs rocks, dessert, like swimming, is always an option exercised. In July she served a gooseberry pie that was the most delicious fruit pie Mr. Henry ever tasted.

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Mary mixes fresh gooseberries (various colors, stems pinched away) with diced lemon peel and a tablespoon each of sugar and flour. In the refrigerator, dough mixed the night before lies nicely chilled in a ball, ready to roll. She bakes in a convection oven until the fruit bubbles up, and lets stand a few hours so the liquor congeals. Mmmmm.

The only accompaniment to such delectation is the greatest and most reliable American dessert, our one true locus of national culinary pride, the perfect choice, the universal dessert donor. Mr. Henry is speaking of the ultimate frozen custard -– Haagen-Dasz vanilla – not the 1/2 calorie one, mind you, butHaagen.jpg the buttery original. He has sampled ice creams across the globe. Although Italians boast justifiably of their gelatos, their vanilla can’t compare. Ben & Jerry’s is fun for the kids or to share on a date, but again, their vanilla lacks the creamy mouth feel, the umami, of Haagen-Dasz.

But of the several attempts by family and friends to overcome the oppressive heat here in New York, none bested Arielle’s Bellini in a bowl, a sublime and sublimely simple concoction of peaches and sauvignon blanc.

Peel ripe peaches and, leaving them whole, cover generously with sauvignon blanc or, indeed, any white wine at hand, ideally the one you are serving for dinner. Chill them for a few hours, slice into sections and place them in individual bowls. The chilled fruit in its chilled bowl will bring your dinner to a climax of icy cool.

Need Mr. Henry suggest a scoop of vanilla with that?04-Bellini.jpg

Mollycoddling the Idle Fat Rich

For those who simply can no longer appear publicly in a bathing suit, summertime is not a season for simple pleasures. For that subset whose incomes permit a weeklong stay at $1,000 per night and who seek extreme privacy, self-indulgence, a hint of lost aristocracy, and sprightly, trim servants at every corner, however, The Canyon Ranch is their Shangri-La.

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Snugly nestled in the gentle, green Berkshires, The Canyon Ranch at Lenox, Massachusetts, is the modern American sanatorium, the 21st century replacement for Bath, Marienbad, and Baden-Baden.

The Canyon Ranch does not accept casual drop-ins, stays of fewer than three nights, or dinner reservations from those not staying at the spa. How Mr. Henry managed to slip inside the compound’s lofty stone gates may be the subject of a future post, but not this one. Let him merely relate that on a recent afternoon he found himself in the pool-house men’s room furtively wriggling into his Speedo long-legged racers (chosen not for their Olympic provenance but because when he wears the scanty Speedo classic racer, other Henry family members roll their eyes, point, hoot, and in general behave with the scantiest appreciation for Mr. Henry’s delicate dignity).

After a delightful swim all to themselves in a mammoth pool, Mr. and Mrs. Henry repaired back to the bathrooms to throw on long trousers and to await the promised 4-star, low-cal, modern scientific dinner. For those of you currently searching for an exciting way to disinherit your progeny, look elsewhere. Though the swim was delightful, the dinner was a bore.

For starters, alcohol is not served at The Canyon Ranch, red wine’s vaunted salutary effects on the cardio-vascular system notwithstanding. The compound is drier than south Utah. Since guests, glassy-eyed from an afternoon massage or lecture on the large intestine, are shuffling around in their comfortable clothes, i.e. fat pants, and since they are annoyed and hungry from the small portions served by hectoring Ranch menu experts, the mood in the dining rooms is decidedly downbeat.

Joylessness, in fact, seems to pervade the place. Because they are on their feet working all day, the staff are fit and perky. The guests, on the other hand, are uniformly dumpy and glum, each over-indulged face fixed in a sulk from denial of its customary hourly stuffing. In the Holiday-Inn style corridors they do not speak. At each brush past a chaise longue amply filled with another terrycloth-robed New Yorker, they avoid eye contact. Is this the way mental hospitals feel?

As a sanatorium, The Canyon Ranch must be judged a success, and a success as a fat farm for the super-rich, too. But as a health spa it fails.

From a choice of six entrées, two were white pasta. (Clearly, the executive chef has not read Mr. Henry’s Dietary Dicta.) Mr. Henry’s smoked trout served on leaden mashed potatoes was dry and fusty. Mrs. Henry’s curried garbanzo beans served on a thimbleful of soggy rice were over-spiced. Salad dressings were exceptionally uninspired, heavily dependent on a not-very-good oil of unascertainable origin. Vegetables were slathered in the same oil in lieu of a fine Tuscan extra virgin, a glaze of veal stock, or good, old-fashioned, tasty butter. The only choices of vegetable, by the way, were spinach or (are you ready?) edamame -– an utterly inappropriate side dish because they are eaten with the fingers. Dessert presented the thorny dilemma of choosing ice milk or sherbet. Service was rushed and faltering, more New Jersey diner than Old World restaurant.

Sweet was the evening’s single flavor theme, a scandalous absence of food awareness completely consistent with bad middle-American eating habits and completely inconsistent with sustained slimness.

Just before he committed some serious breach of etiquette, Mr. Henry grabbed his faithful consort and sprinted for the car. In half an hour he was embracing a draught Guinness in the basement of The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, MA, listening to a pleasant imitation of James Taylor, and enjoying the scuffed, quirky, Yankee authenticity of it all. Though the hallways creak, the beds do not.

At breakfast in the lovely old Dining Room, The Red Lion serves the finest oatmeal imaginable, accompanied by a maple syrup that actually contained a goodly modicum of boiled tree sap.

They burn the beans

Finding himself at Zabar’s late in the afternoon, his arms already laden with foodstuffs, with no time or energy left to forage further afield, Mr. Henry to his horror realized he was out of coffee. Since Mrs. Henry never touches the stuff and consequently has no appreciation of what a conundrum he was in, a cell-phone call for wifely assistance was not in order.

In his urban peregrinations, Mr. Henry regularly attempts to locate an Oren’s Daily Roast which, he maintains, has the best beans in town for an infusion method (french press) cup of coffee. Failing that, he buys wherever he finds something that looks reasonably roasted.

However, he never ever buys coffee at Zabar’s. You see – and it pains him to criticize a store so conveniently located and offering such good breads, cheeses, and smoked fish – Zabar’s burns the beans. They over-roast them until the coffee, no matter which variety, uniformly lacks the subtler aromas, becoming bitter ash. In this regard, Zabar’s resembles Starbucks and a host of other celebrated purveyors of coffee.

But then Starbucks is essentially a franchise for steamed milk. The coffee is secondary. If proof were needed for this, when coffee prices suddenly doubled some years ago, Starbuck’s did not raise their prices one whit. The cost of the coffee in a single espresso is eleven cents – and that is the cost after the roaster has imposed a quintuple mark-up.

Truth be told, Zabar’s has always been an establishment more concerned with price than with quality. This not meant to be a derogatory statement. They understand their market. As many failed restauranteurs have learned, Upper West Siders won’t pay.

At that very moment beside the coffee bags appeared a willowy blue-eyed Mexican boy straight out of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” who offered me a free sample of Jalima brand coffee from Mexico.coffee.beans.jpg

In a whisper I complained to him that I never buy coffee here because it is over-roasted. He nodded in conspiratorial assent and suggested I try Jalima H & A Gourmet bean grown in Veracruz. Medium ground and vacuum packed, the Gourmet is a marvelously rich brew with hints of citrus and chocolate, delicate and refined, perfect for the french press.

Mr. Henry falls in love

When Mary came in from the country carrying a diapered basket of fresh-laid hens eggs, Mr. Henry stared at their beautiful light blue and speckled brown shells wondering, “How can he do justice to these most perfect of nature’s industrial designs?”

eggs.jpegFor the preparation of perfect scrambled eggs unsullied by even the slightest fatty aroma from his trusty cast iron pan, a pan that did such yeoman service these many years, he decided that the time was finally ripe to spend an astonishing $99 on the ultimate professional stove-top tool – a pan that would not waste even one morsel of Mary’s eggs stuck to its sides, a pan that would not force Mr. Henry to further inflame his mouse-flicking right forearm tendon in a heavy-duty clean-up.

Mr. Henry is in love with his new 8-inch All-Clad copper core fry pan with stainless steel face.

For the ultimate three-minute breakfast or lunch, place your copper core pan on a low flame for a good two minutes until its magical golden center is ready to radiate. (A dollop of crème fraîche in the eggs lends a marvelous creamy tanginess.) You may use a metal spatula here – none of this mamby-pamby plastic – because the stainless steel is not harmed by tiny scratches. Toast two slices of Amy’s organic peasant wheat sourdough bread on which to place your velvety confection. Throw in butter. Almost as soon as your eggs hit the pan they are done.

If you soak your pan while you dine, the clean-up is effortless. The gently flared lip, the long metal oven-ready handle, and most of all the superior browning capabilities of the stainless face with copper core have left Mr. Henry in a swoon not matched since he first drove Mrs. Henry’s BMW. Car owners speak of the interface between man and machine. Mr. Henry is fully satisfied by All-Clad’s high-speed performance.

Summer avocations

In the inimitable manner of The Manolo, Mr. Henry feels obliged, almost compelled to share the following with all his gentle readers:

Mr. Henry is reading

Mr. Henry is listening to

Mr. Henry is watching

Mr. Henry is eating

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