June 2012


Read a new blog this morning (DocSconz: Musings on Food and Life) about a father and son traipsing through Italy on a quest for food and family. My last trip to Italy was about ten years ago, but it’s still vivid in my mind as something that greatly affected how I view the way food should be.

During the stay, we travelled around the northern part of Italy, using Turin, home of Martini + Rossi and Chocolate, as our homebase. We took side trips to the Slow Food Conference (Salone del Gusto), where we found ourselves among tables of old vine wines, heirloom vegetables, crates of salted bottarga, mustards, cheeses, vinegars, and every kind of chef representative you could imagine, hired to showcase that product. Travelling halfway around the world to visit and soak everything in, we were outsiders, but we made small talk the best a handful of Midwestern boys could do.

“You guys are from Scotland, are you?”

“Aye. That we are.”

“That’s some fine beer you have.”

“Thank you very much. Where are you from?”

“Wisconsin.”

“Oh, we were just there last week, at your Capital Brewer’s.”

“No way. Do you know the brewmaster, Kirby?”

“Ah, that’s a good guy for you right there.”

And the connection was made. From that point out, we just shot the breeze as a few guys getting together who really enjoyed beer and talking shop.

We met some guys who made Danzy Jones Wysgi Mustard. We asked if they knew of our world famous Mustard Museum,  just down the street from Madison in nearby Mount Horeb, Wisconsin at the time.

They did. The bottle of mustard I dipped from in Italy was one of 3,000 different mustards on display not 10 miles from my point of departure. Some of the artisanal products we saw were available right down the street, albeit in small quantities.

Still, there was yet another layer of products that we sampled that simply wouldn’t taste the same any place outside where they were made. There were cheeses, salumi, and vinegars that we tried that were simply out of this world, but would never survive the journey to American shelves. I only have the memory of them to keep me comforted. I’ve tried the Taleggio here, and the Tomini, and the Stracchino, and although they’re good, nothing compares to what you can get from the source.

The most mysterious cheese, the one that I will never taste in its true form outside of Italy, is Castelmagno. Often a combination of sheep and cow’s milk, its texture is a result of milling the curds during the process, and the result is a barely sliceable, often crumbly nutty cheese with added depth from a molded rind. When I was cooking in the Piemonte region, it was most often used with the Northern Italian staple of gnocchi alla fonduta, as it melted so fine in a saucepan. Sometimes, I miss being able to try it again, but I realize that if I ever saw it in a shop here, it simply wouldn’t be the same. It’s like a good loaf of sourdough-it just doesn’t travel.

Castelmagno

***

Aside from our excursion to the Salone del Gusto, we took day trips to Modena, where we visited the Malpighi House of Balsamic production. I’d call it a plantation, as it had the most beautiful painted frescos in the main house set back from the road behind row upon row of grape vines. We went through the entire process, from how they harvest the grapes, to the crush, past the boiling of the maceration to the slow aging and evaporation of the moisture from the liquid. In the attic of the main house sat row upon row of charred black barrels with a single white napkin covering a small hole at the top. Every year, as the traditionally aged balsamic vinegar reduces by 10%, they rotate it into progressively smaller barrels until they are ready to bottle. At twelve years, the finest balsamic is bottled into tiny receptacles, having reduced to a sugary syrup. For those who have the bottle of balsamic at home, the taste of a traditionally aged, rigorously controlled Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is sweeter and more floral than even a reduced bottle of store-bought. Most commonly, it is used as an accent, or with fresh fruit or cheese.

The Attic at Malpighi

 

Since my visit was so long ago, most of the balsamic vinegar bottled that year is long gone. I know for a fact that half a bottle lives on in my mother’s cupboard at home, still sweet and used ever so sparingly, a drop at a time. However, what was left to further reduce to a 25 year vinegar should be ready about now, and I can only imagine how sweet it would taste.

 

Over the winter, I’ve been stuck on things that sustained me. A lot of them were excellent, and I’ve gained inspiration from various media on what I should make to enjoy the food coming out of my kitchen (Il Corvo Pasta, I’m looking at you). Even though I work at a grocery store, I get tired of the heavy things throughout the colden times that I’m forced to make. I love potatoes. I really enjoy pizza, pasta, casseroles, etc. I am from Wisconsin, after all. Still, if I want something that’s fresh and seasonal, that leaves me without the sluggish feeling of a cream sauce or offseason comfort, I’m going to go for fish. Even though I talk about Seasonality, just waiting for the first fruits of spring and summer can be agonizing.

During the colder months, it was pasta with the green leafies like kale and chard, some beans, a bit of parmigiano to make it stick to the ribs. Maybe a lasagna with some squash and a bit of California basil to make it at least feel a little fresh.

 

Now, with the weather getting warmer, I want to eat something that gives me some energy, and doesn’t leave me wanting to curl up in a ball on my couch underneath a blanket. I’m making the transition to the summer menu, and a large part of that is based on seafood.

In the fridge, I have my pickled vegetables- carrots, ramps, scapes. They are a combination of the last remnants of winter and the first shoots of spring. Last week, I got some baby turnips and beets and incorporated them into a dinner with the first fresh Pacific salmon of the year.

I boiled a few beets until tender, chilled them, and sliced them on a mandolin. With the turnips, I did the same thing, and then let them soak in a combination of soy sauce, a shot of maple syrup, and a small spoonful of chestnut honey. Roots and nuts go well together, but the chestnut honey is so strong that a little goes a long way. Fortunately, it doesn’t really go bad, so I can have it around for a while.

The salmon got a rubdown of some Alder smoked sea salt that has become a staple of our indoor kitchen. I let it sit for a few hours, and as I was ready to sear it, I set up a second pan to saute the turnip greens. Since they were still baby turnips, the greens themselves were not terribly bitter; They were almost light enough to dress in their own salad, but still benefitted from a quick go-round in the pan.

Two minutes in the pan with a turn of the pepper mill, and they were out. Next, into the pan went the turnip slices. Since they were almost fully cooked, I just swished them around a few times in the hot pan, enough to caramelize the syrupy glaze a little bit. As the pan with the salmon was going simultaneously, I finally accomplished in this apartment what I’d done so many times in so many kitchens before.

The smoke alarm went off.

Oh, well. Can’t do too much about that. Those not cooking went over to the alarm and began fanning it with pillows and blankets, hoping in some small way to create the smoke signal that dinner was ready, and with a secondary purpose of ceasing that infernal beep. It’s good to know that were a real fire ever to break out, that thing would definitely wake me up. Sometimes I just like to remind myself.

Anyway, back on the stove, everything was in place. I pulled a couple of pickled scapes out of the brine, and stacked alternating slices of golden beet and tomato in the center. A pinch of smoked paprika and a squirt of rosemary infused oil, and we had our salad.

Next on the plate was the salmon. I took my eyes off it for a second while the great smoke alarm debacle took place, but it seemed to me to work itself out. The final product was something that I have been missing for months. Just a nice piece of fish. That’s all. Good salad. Fresh flavors. Simple prep. Minimal components. Little bit of green. Little flashy color. Manageable portions.

A Passable Success

***

Last night, I got home from work with a day off ahead of me, once again, I didn’t feel like cooking. I purchased some items to fill the fridge. We had fresh vegetables, some frozen dessert treats, and some refreshing beverages now at our disposal. I also picked up a small, wild caught whole black bass.

I got home and salted it, took a few sprigs of dill, half an orange cut in small pieces, a bit of garlic and onion, and stuffed those right in the cavity. Even though it’s not corn season yet in the Midwest, I shelled a couple ears and roasted the fish whole on the bed of kernels and onions. A simpler and fresher dinner there never was.

The best thing about whole fish is that when you cook on the bone, it retains so much more moisture than a fillet. Many people I’ve talked to over the years show some trepidation about cooking fish, not wanting it to be raw, but not wanting to overcook it. On the bone, the fish stays  flavorful and tender, flaking right off when you need it to. If you put foil down on your baking sheet, or if you have a nonstick pan, the cleanup is a cinch.

Did you watch Master Chef last night? I’ve written about it before. We got caught up in watching it last season, and since the last season has aired, I’ve had a few choice interactions with one of the contestants on the show, Ben Starr. If you watch, you remember him- he of multicolored baker’s toques and an increasingly positive attitude toward cooking and the ways that it affects how he wants to live his life. The show, in contrast to the other Gordon Ramsay vehicle, showcased the side of cooking that I love. It’s the experimentation, the combination of flavors, the trial and error, and the sense of accomplishment of a dish well done that makes both my personal experience and that of the contestants worthwhile.

If you watched it, among other things, you saw the final segment, and it was memorable. Christine Ha, a writer from Houston, presented a Vietnamese clay pot catfish on the bone to the panel. The segment was noticeably different from any other, in that all of her movements were deliberate. She washed her hands, which none of the other contestants were shown doing, pulled stock items from her impeccably prepared mise en place, and created a simple presentation of a steak in a fish caramel broth with pickled vegetables on the side. She tasted the components to make sure they were right, faced her dishes and plated with patience and care.

I don’t know if the fact that she was blind had that much to do with it.

To her credit, the dish, simply plated as it was, radiated through the television with exactly what she put out there. If you’ve ever had fish sauce, you know what it smells like. Likewise, if you heard the components of the pickles, you knew how they tasted. If you had ever slow simmered a piece of fish in a stock or broth, you know the texture. All the pieces were there, and there she stood. Waiting.

***
I wrote earlier about cooking with the senses, and how we relate to our food through each of them. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the show’s ability to convey different avenues down which we travel to achieve our goal of a dish that will satisfy our palates.

For every one of our senses,  there is a path that we take. If we care, we look for color contrast. We pluck the vegetables that are just firm enough. We listen for the sizzle in the pan, and smell the aromas wafting off the range. If this is a hobby or a profession, these things become instinctual. There is a timer that goes off in my mind when I smell that a piece of meat is ready to be turned. If I’m focused on other things in the kitchen, I can hear when a pot of cream is going to boil over, and from the bubble of a pot of water, I can tell that it’s time to drop the pasta.

It’s not always about what you see in the kitchen, but sometimes what you don’t.

The great chefs I’ve worked with just know. They know when the flame is too high, or when the flavor is too complex, and using one or more of their senses, they adjust. They adapt. An often used motto in the kitchen is this: Taste, adjust. Taste, adjust. It’s all about balance. If you know your recipes, and you’re confident in your skills, you need a palate, you need patience, and you need a plate.

When I was in high school, working at a sloppy Italian joint in town, I worked two nights a week with Terry making pizzas. It was his only job. He stood at the end of the line, and every time he got an order, they’d tap him on the shoulder, show him the ticket, and he’d set about making it. After I rolled out his dough, I’d watch as he spread the sauce in concentric circles, distributed the toppings and cheese evenly over the crust, and set it on the pizza peel, ready for the oven. It wasn’t fancy. It was deliberate.  More than anyone in the kitchen, though, he was in the zone.

Remove one of your senses, and the others become heightened. That’s the simple explanation. Maybe it’s the only one needed.

Wandering the produce aisles at my Whole Foods, they always have the list of fruits that are organic, and the number of things that are local. It’s a big number, but most of the time when I look, they’re grown in California, Mexico, or a far off land.

The other day, I was searching for Asparagus. I know it’s the season, but I haven’t seen any local stuff in the store. I know it’s a huge undertaking for the region, with 30 odd stores, to supply fresh locally sourced asparagus to meet the demand, but it’s not impossible.

I saw peaches. I’m pretty sure that they aren’t in season right now, but it’s also difficult to remember, as when I was in Seattle, everything was always in season. Around this time of year, you could get that fresh asparagus, the tulips that grew in the Skagit Valley just north of us, and the beginnings of some berries.

This past week, we went to a Memorial Day pig roast, and I had pickled garlic spears (scapes) for the first time since we moved back to the Midwest. Where did they come from? How does one get them? If we’re otherwise occupied with work during either the 9 to 5, or for me, on weekends during prime market time, where does one go to get those things?

Here’s a list of things I’m looking forward to:

Radishes

Tomatoes

Fresh Herbs

Berries

Asparagus

Greens of any kind

Beets

Maybe a good dozen eggs from somewhere closeby.

I guess in the end, it’s not so difficult. There are farms around here. You just have to find the time to explore your neighborhood markets, or make the effort to venture out just a little further than your everyday grocery store. For the majority of things, my store gets it done. When I want to be inspired by stacks of produce alone, I’m going to the Farmer’s Market.

This week, the Pilsen Local Community Farmers’ Market starts up. As I don’t get a chance to get to my old standby of the Madison market, or even the Green City, I’m excited to at least go and look at what they’ve got available this Sunday. It might not be the widest selection of produce, but at least I can get a good grasp of what I should be eating. I want it to be fresh, and I want it to taste as good as it looks.