Friday, September 11

Stop Thinking Outside the Box

We refer to cars we don't like the look of as boxy. We tell people to think outside the box when they're being dull and boring. Where's all this box negativity coming from? When it comes to wine, it's time to turn away from box hatred and embrace a greener package: the wine box. Foodbuzz kindly set me up with a box of Black Box Sauvignon Blanc, and I have to say the box makes perfect sense for this drinkable, basic, dry wine made from New Zealand grapes.

The secret to box wine isn't really the box, it's the mylar bladder. The liquid is packaged in an air-impermeable plastic bladder with a nozzle. The bag prevents spoilage because, as you drain it, it's deflating shape conforms to the contents perfectly without allowing air in. Bottles can't do that, unless you fill them up with glass pebbles... and we all know how much of a pain that can be.

That means you never have airspace, so you get much less spoilage, less waste, and pretty much always have something to serve stashed in your fridge. The wine doesn't last indefinitely, but it lasts long enough to make the lack of traditional packaging well worth it. The box holds 3 liters, so you get 4 bottles worth in one package. The packaging ensures that, once opened, the wine will survive under refrigeration for at least the length of time it would take you to get through 4 bottles, and at about $6.25 per bottle, that's hard to beat.

About the Beverage
The Black Box wine is a highly produced commercial affair, and as a result, doesn't have a lot of character. There's no terroir in the box, if you will, but no scary surprises either. It's perfectly drinkable, pleasant and refreshing on a hot afternoon. It has a lot of acid, some floral aromas, and no residual sugar that I could detect, making it an acceptable pairing with casual food or on it's own as the sun drops behind the horizon from a vantage point your local green space.

I'm not going to say that Black Box rivals the finest Sauvignon Blancs produced in Bordeaux, but it's not trying to, and the wine is certainly none the worse for being transported in an earth-friendly box as opposed to a traditionally packaged rival. In short, the quality of the wine is good enough to serve at a picnic lunch in the park or at your sunset backyard BBQ party without a moment's hesitation... it's floating far above Franzia in terms of quality, the other box wine. But would I serve it with sixty dollar per pound Dover sole flown in from the white cliffs? Not likely.

Wednesday, May 13

Mineral Oil's Mysteries

Mineral oil is one of those kitchen oddities: as far back as I can remember my mother has admonished me to "feed" my wooden cutting boards and utensils with the stuff. I'm not sure if it's feeding anything, but it is good at preserving, and just as importantly, sure makes them look good.

So, what is mineral oil anyway? Is it food? Is it natural? I wondered why it was called mineral oil; are there any minerals in it? And why people eat it, rub it on metal to prevent rust as well as all over their babies (baby oil is just scented mineral oil) to prevent diaper rash?

Firstly, It Comes from the Ground, But It's Not Natural
Mineral oil, contrary to it's nutritional-sounding name, is a by-product of petroleum distillation. And there are no minerals in it. The term mineral has been attached to this colorless, flavorless and non-reactive lube because of it's origins. Crude oil is found among subterranean rocks--you know--like minerals.

Mineral oil is definitely not food, but because it's non-reactive and indigestible, but it's also not inedible. Think of mineral oil as a hitchhiker that's just passing through the honky tonk town that is your body. It'll go to the saloon, end up in jail, but only stay there until morning. Or you can think of it as vaseline, but runny. They're actually very close from a chemical perspective, as is paraffin, which may be starring in a candle near you.

Fire Eaters, Sufferers of The Grip, and Sugar-Crazed Children
Mineral oil can't be absorbed by the body, so if your guts are bound up from drinking creek water or taking too much Vicadin, sucking down a tablespoon or two can help get things moving. And I mean that in the most literal of senses...think about an orange inside a nylon sock. Now think about an orange in a nylon sock but covered with mineral oil. See? That's what happens, roughly.

If you don't like the idea of ingesting a petroleum distillate, and I don't either mind you, you should also stop eating that nice shiny candy you just bought. Some soft gummy candies are made with mineral oil as an ingredient, and some are just coated with it to create a nice sheen. Bleh.

Fire eaters use mineral oil on their crazy batons because it burns at a low temperature, but simultaneously has a very high flashpoint, meaning it won't light unexpectedly by simply coming into contact with a flame like gas or kerosene would. And it's not poisonous, of course, so it's perfectly safe for fire eating. Whew!

What About Wood?
Yes, you should use mineral oil on wooden utensils. For one thing, it repels water, so it can help to seal out moisture and the bacteria that would enjoy bathing in it. By making your wooden stuff a bit more water repellent, they may also last a bit longer, too.

Finally, it brings out the natural grain in wood, which in turn makes you feel like you're more at one with nature as you microwave your teriyaki bowl and adjust your hearing aid so you can listen to Fred on YouTube more clearly. So yes, mineral oil deserves a place under the sink, just remember to take it out and apply to your wooden boards and utensils every few months.

Sunday, April 12

Indulge in a Classic Negroni with Special Red Vermouth

Nothing says summer sunset like a chilled, sophisticated and delicious Negroni cocktail. It's got a refreshing bitter bite, a citrus sparkle from fresh orange, and a heady blend of aromatics from the gin and sweet vermouth that never fails to refresh before dinner.

The Negroni is built on a platform of three complex flavor families, one of which is bitterness contributed by Campari. I'm a big fan of bitter liqueurs like Campari, Cinzano, and Cynar. Bitter liqueurs are described more fully in this post, but basically, they're alcohols steeped with enigmatic herbal blends. The recipes are often closely-held secrets (as it is for Campari) and bitters were often originally developed for medicinal purposes or digestive aids.

The Negroni

This classic gin cocktail is bursting with infused herbal flavors. Comprising gin, Campari and red vermouth (all infused alcohols, though sweet–or red–vermouth is infused wine), the Negroni's bursting with resinous juniper berry, caraway, and all of the mysterious herbs secreted into the proprietary gin, Campari and vermouth recipes.

Which Gin?
Gin comes in several styles, but because the Negroni contains so many other herbal notes, I like to keep the gin classic and simple. It's not the starring ingredient the way it would be in a martini, so using a top quality, very distinct gin like Junipero, Lot 209 or Hendricks would be like using extra virgin olive oil for frying. If you're loaded with cash, go ahead and indulge, but I think you can go with a solid standby like Bombay Saphire. If you want to try this but can't stand gin, you can subsitute for vodka.

Which Red Vermouth?
When it comes to red vermouth, everyone thinks about that green bottle with the old school label. Of course, I'm referring to Martini & Rossi. But I think this brand is the weakest link. The secret to a superb Negroni is to switch up the sweet vermouth for Punt E Mes (pictured above). Punt E Mes is chocately and syrupy with a dense mouthfeel and dark, rich flavor and color. Unlike Martini & Rossi, you can't see through Punt E Mes when you hold it up to the light. It's about $20, and you can find it in specialty wine shops or online.

The Negroni Recipe
1.5 oz Gin
1.5 oz Vermouth
1.5 oz Punt E Mes

Shake over cracked ice and serve in a chilled tumbler over more cracked ice with an orange wheel as garnish.

Tuesday, March 3

Kick Ass Smokey Pork Shoulder, Made Inside on a Rainy Day

In these days of wintery wet days (at least in my corner of the world) as well as a rapidly shrinking meat budget, doing pork shoulder inside has become more than wishful thinking: it's become an anti-downturn salve to the soul.

The Why of Pork Shoulder
Pork shoulder is relatively inexpensive, very flavorful, and blissfully simple to make. The only problem with doing inside, in fact, is that I'm in love with that smokey charcoal flavor I get by grilling it outside. But since it's been raining for days on end, I was driven to alternate means, and it turned out pretty well. Here's what I came up:

The How
Buy a 2-pound pork shoulder and season liberally with salt and pepper. Next, find a heavy, oven-safe high-sided pot-with-lid that will provide a pretty tight fit for your pork. Add a little flavorless, heat resistant oil like grapeseed or highly refined canola.

Next, crank your stovetop to medium high and wait until the pot is fully energized. Once up to searing-temp, induce a nice rich brown on all six sides (if the piece you have is cube-shaped enough to be able to do all six). Return it to a rimmed plate or shallow bowl.

Let it cool quietly on some desolated part of your kitchen counter where it will be undisturbed as you prepare for the next phase: the rub!

Here's the Rub
While the shoulder loses energy, make the spice blend. I put all of this into shallow bowl that allows me to mix the spices and also coat the pork.

1 tablespoon of ground, smoked paprika,
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of ground tumeric
1 teaspoon of ground cumin.
Several grinds of black pepper
Ground cayenne to taste (I like about 1/4 tsp)

Optionally, you can add coriander and crushed garlic.

Rubbed the Right Way
The rub is where you can tinker as much or as little as you like, but make sure you've got at minimum the salt and smoked paprika if you want to replicate some of that grilled, smokiness. Granted, it's not really going to taste grilled (though you could experiment with liquid smoke), but it will have a smokey depth that I personally love, and the red color doesn't hurt.

Get the rub together, and once the meat has cooled enough to handle, coat it thoroughly on all sides. If you have trouble with the rub adhering, coat your pork with a tiny bit more flavorless oil.

Re-Pot and Fire It Up
Now comes the tricky part. Return the pork to the tighly fitting pot you used to do the sear and cover the meat with enough tinfoil to create a pretty tight seal over the pork, making sure to fill up the gaps around the meat as much as possible. You're looking for a dome of foil that leaves as little airspace as you can around the pork. These close quarters will allow steam from the pork to remain in close proximity to the pork and assist with the braising process. You may think I'm just making this up, but for real, Madeleine Kamman taught me this trick and it really works!

Next, cover the pot with it's oven-safe lid (on top of the tinfoil, which will be lower down in the pot) and put the entire contraption in a slow oven (about 325 degrees) for 1.5 hours. Once the initial time is up, flip the shoulder, replace the foil, and go again for another hour. The flipping, while a pain, ensures that one side doesn't dry out. Don't fiddle with the meat during the flip...just flip, recover with foil and the lid and return to the oven as fast as possible.

Once the hour is up, check out your pork and see how 'falling apart' it has actually gotten. If the texture isn't right, keep cooking until it is.

The Shredder or Whatever...
Once you pull it out of the oven, let it rest and cool for a while, transfer the meat to a plate and shred it or prep it in whatever way makes sense for what you're doing (I use it to add to bean dishes or for burritos or just on it's own with some sauteed vegetables, so shredding is usually what I do.)

You'll notice that there's a lot of nicely flavored and beautifully colored liquid left in the pot, along with a huge layer of fat. Degrease as best you can and return as much of the remaining liquid to the meat without drowning it...there's a lot of tasty gelatin and spices in there, so don't waste it!

That's it! Since this recipe requires some tending, it's a perfect one for a quiet afternoon at home on a rainy day. Personally, I like to run a couple of old movies in the background, make some rice and beans and do this pork shoulder. But you could also break this recipe up into phases and cut down your stay at home time, though I never recommend leaving an oven untended.

Monday, February 23

More About Sweet Lime, Courtesy a Reader

This illuminating note and great photos from an intrepid reader who went to India, ate the fruit, and happened across the Sweet Lime posting here. Thanks for your note and photos, Dave!

"I was in India in November for about 10 days. I was introduced to sweet lime there and fell in love with it. It is mildly flavored and yet full-flavored at the same time. The best way that I can describe it is if you had an orange with no orange flavor but still robust and sweet. At the hotels I stayed at they served slices of sweet lime as well as sweet lime juice and a mixture of orange and sweet lime juice, which was heavenly. The sweet lime juice that I had was pure juice, no sugar added, according to the hotel staff. They fresh-squeezed it at the hotels. I’ve attached a few pictures that I took when I was there. The plate picture shows some pieces of sweet lime flesh that were cut up and served in a breakfast fruit buffet in Hyderabad, India. The sweet lime is at the top. The other fruits on the plate are papaya and pineapple. The containers show sweet lime juice in a dispenser as served at a hotel in Agra, India. The street picture shows a vendor in Agra selling sweet limes and sweet lime juice. Note the juicer on the left and the glasses. I never had the courage to try anything from a street vendor because I feared getting sick, but it was tempting.


Dave Johnson"

Update on San Marzano's

After writing my marinara posting, the SF Chronicle serendipitously came out with a shoppers guide to San Marzano tomatoes.

They went through the aisles testing domestic and imported varieties and have some terrific recommendations. Here, here SF Chronicle!

Check it out!

Canned tomatoes - step aside, San Marzano

Saturday, February 14

Perfect Simple Marinara Sauce

Marinara is so beguilingly good, you think there's gotta be a mystery to making it. Turns out, great marinara for topping pizza, pasta or breaded eggplant is not only simple, it's quick and cheap.

The Foundation
There's really only one thing you need to actually plan for to make good marinara, and that's the tomatoes. Unless you've got a stash of ripe, fresh ones, next time you're at Whole Foods or your favorite local upscale-ish grocer, buy half a dozen 28oz cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes (so you never run out). Now you're set.

The open secret to great marinara is the tomatoes you use. San Marzano tomatoes are simply a variety of plum tomatoes that have more flesh, fewer seeds, and richer flavor than romas, making them perfect for sauce. I buy them whole in cans like you see pictured above.

You can get the San Marzano variety from many brands, but tomatoes grown in the actual vicinity of the town of San Marzano are said to be especially good because of the volcanic soil and endless bright sunlight in the south of Italy. You can get high quality specimens from US producers, too, and since these red gems have become so popular, getting the super duper genuine article is nearly impossible (unless you want to spend some serious coin).

The Recipe: Make it in 20 Minutes Flat
1 28oz Can of San Marzano tomatoes
2 cloves fresh garlic, very very thinly sliced (like paper)
1 teaspoon of salt
3-5 grinds of black pepper
1 8oz small can of Hunt's Tomato Sauce (yes, you read that right!) Use only the plain unseasoned tomato sauce...avoid the cans that have garlic, basil or other "herbs and spices" added.

Empty both cans of tomatoes into a high-sided pot, crank up the heat to medium and grab your immersion blender. Press down and blend each tomato until coarsely chopped, but not pureed. The high sides of your pot should help control the spatter, but you might want to don your fave apron.

If you don't have an immersion blender, you can chop with a food processor or knife before they go into the pan, but it's just messier and adds clean up. Next add everything else and continue heating on medium-low heat until you achieve the thickness you require from evaporation, about 20 minutes. Seriously, that's it.

A word about Hunt's. Some may be surprised to see the extra can of Hunt's, but trust me, it's the simplest, best product for adding liquid, additional tomato richness, and a bit more acid to the balance the San Marzanos, which when boiled down, can get mighty sweet.

Wednesday, February 11

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Alton Brown

For a long time now, Alton Brown has been persona non grata around my media center. But I've been watching a bunch of Good Eats lately (thanks to Tivo) and I have to admit he's a bit on my hit list. Wait, before you hit the red thumbs down button, hear me out! Here's the case for Alton.

What Was Wrong with Good Eats?
Like many others, things that turned me off about this sometimes overly spirited show included: his badly-matched, embroidered frat boy shirts, his over-worked mini-dramas, and his guy-gadget approach to all things cooking. After a while, you just get sick of the machine-shop approach to food. There's gotta be more to life than that, right?

But amidst all of that clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk that he pulls out show after show, Alton turns out to be, heart-wise, more like Dorothy than the Scarecrow. All he wants is to be at home in his own back yard and for you to be, too. He wants you to be as good as Proctor and Gamble at pancakes and as smart about soda as Coke. Yes, that's right, dear reader... he's a romantic individualist. And I guess after all the kooky measuring is done and quirky DYI devices fall apart, that's his true charm.

The Facts
On screen, he puts himself out on a limb time after time with embarrassing dramatizations, with no embarrassment. But in each one, no matter how annoying, he respects facts, science, and the craft of cooking. In recent shows, he hired an impressive character actor to play his business partner as a foil to push recipes along. It's great to see the passion and creativity, history and humanism all rolled into one. One of my favorites was a show on toast. A whole show.

He changes his mind. When he decides he was wrong about garlic powder, he just changes his mind and states the opposite, sometimes years later. And mostly, he acknowledges his change of heart. In other words, he's intellectually honest. And an honest intellect, even in the kitchen, is the hallmark of a romantic: he wants the world to be better than his own vicissitudes , he believes in something bigger. The truth, in this case, food-science truth.

He's a lover, and by that I mean he gets joy from, science, and it's cousin, technology. He believes he can connect rational thought to the senses by understanding and explaining it. And that's a beautiful thing. He's a rationalist and a sensualist with no contradiction. Food makes him feel good, and thinking makes him be good. And he's a pilot, which means he puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to believing in natural forces like gravity and the bernoulli principle as much as the Maillard reaction.

Finally, Alton wears his heart on his sleeve. Over the last several years, he's fully transformed, on screen, from slightly off-balance food geek to comfortable, elder statesman. And I believe he's got even more better good times ahead, now that the whole "Waves" thing is done. (I get why he wanted to do it, but seriously...)

Alton may be in a bit of serial box on Good Eats, but I think he's got a really good book or new series in him, and I can't wait to find out how it'll turn out.

Sunday, January 18

The Lowly Fork, Latecomer to the Western Table

Your ears may still be ringing with the parental interdiction "don't eat with you hands!" bellowed across the formica clad breakfast nook. You, sporting your Oshkosh jeans or Strawberry Shortcake socks, thought your parents were simply revealing the plain truth, but little did you know that throughout most of western history, most people used their hands and hardly anyone used a fork. Although experts differ on dates, up until the 18th or 19th century, digging in freestyle was the fact and fashion, and people who didn't use their digits were suspect.

As far back as the reign of the Romans, the most common table implements used throughout Europe were knives, spoons, and bits of bread used to push things around and soak up soup or gravy. Forks had been used in the kitchen as a cooking implement for centuries, but only the eccentric and wealthy dabbled with tines on a handle at the dining table.

According to Reay Tannahill's Food in History, special forks are known to have been used in Greece and Byzantium as early as the 10th century, but only for the elite. The first widespread dining-table adoption occurred in Italy, starting in the 13th century by aristocrats and as late as the 16th century by wealthy merchants.

In the 16th century, Italian manners were considered to be the most refined in Europe, and in 1533 Catherine de Medici brought forks (along with her entire kitchen and staff) with her to France when she was was married. But even with that kind of an introduction, ubiquitous fork use across all economic lines didn't catch on in northern Europe until the 18th and 19th century.

As late as 1897, seamen in the British Navy were forbidden forks and knives because they were considered an emasculate affectation that was bad for morale. And although we were slightly ahead of the English curve, the fork only became de riguer at every American dining table a few decades earlier after being embraced by squeamish 19th century doyennes of etiquette.

Failure to use a fork is a deficit in manners, no doubt, but the next time you're tempted to snatch a shrimp or palm some pan-dowdy don't beat yourself up for being an animal. After all, it's only been decades since the fork showed up at our gastronomic rodeo.

Sunday, January 11

Laser Cut, Ginger Bread

If you haven't seen this, check it. out... insanely detailed gingerbread bridge cut using a laser.