July 18, 2013
If any gastronomical treat could give the proverbially American apple pie a run for its money, it might just be barbecue. The culinary tradition of cooking meat low and slow over indirect flame (the true definition of barbecue – imposters who grill, take note) has become so prevalent over the years that BBQ itself represents a sort of pop culture, spawning TV shows, historically-focused road trips, and even fusion dishes like BBQ tacos. Barbecue’s ability to reflect whatever might be hot at the time (from reality TV to the taco craze) isn’t new; in fact, barbecue has a long history of permeation, perhaps best experienced by the ongoing barbecue feud that plagues the South. From the Atlantic to the Gulf, bordered by the western outposts of Texas and Kansas City, the area of the United States known as the “barbecue belt” houses four distinct barbecue traditions – Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. From where did these traditions come, and how, in a relatively small region of the country, have they evolved along such different paths? The history of American barbecue is as diverse as the variations themselves, charting the path of a Caribbean cooking style brought north by Spanish conquistadors, moved westward by settlers, and seasoned with the flavors of European cultures.
The first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus encountered on the island he named Hispaniola had developed a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue. As the Spanish explorers who followed Columbus turned their expeditions north, they brought the cooking technique with them. In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa. Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.
Barbecue belt residents would argue that the beef-based BBQ of Texas, or the mutton-based BBQ found in Kentucky, doesn’t constitute authentic barbecue. To be real barbecue, purists like North Carolina native Jim Villas (author of an article, first published in Esquire, aptly titled “My Pig Beats Your Cow”) argue that the meat must be exclusively porcine, because the original BBQ-ers of the southern colonies depended on the cheap, low-maintenance nature of pig farming. Unlike cows, which required large amounts of feed and enclosed spaces, pigs could be set loose in forests to eat when food supplies were running low. The pigs, left to fend for themselves in the wild, were much leaner upon slaughter, leading Southerns to use the slow-and-low nature of barbecue to tenderize the meat. And use it they did. During the pre-Civil War years, Southerners ate an average of five pounds of pork for every one pound of cattle. Their dependence on this cheap food supply eventually became a point of patriotism, and Southerners took greater care raising their pigs, refusing to export their meat to the northern states. By this time, however, the relationship between the barbecue and pork had been deeply forged.
But the story of the South’s penchant for pork does little to explain the variations between their barbecue styles. For this, one must look beyond the borders of America, to the influence that colonial immigrants had on the flavor and preparation of the meat. The original styles of barbecue are thought to be those that originated in the easternmost colonies, like the vinegar-based “whole hog” barbecue found in Virginia and North Carolina. The technique of adding sauce to the meat as it cooks came from British colonists who incorporated the idea of basting to preserve the juices within the meat with the Caribbean barbecue technique. North Carolina’s vinegar-based sauces are also a remnant of these Briton’s penchant for the tart sauce. In South Carolina, which housed a large population of French and German immigrants, a mustard-based sauce was born, again, a reflection of the immigrant populations’ traditional preferences. Mustard has long been a fixture in both country’s cuisines: think of the famous Dijon in France (used in everything from tarte aux moutarde to the omnipresent bistro salad dressing) or the German’s penchant for including sweet and spicy mustard alongside their favorite wursts.
From Carolina barbecue, the trend moved westward, eventually entering Texas. German immigrants in Texas had the land to cultivate cattle, and it wasn’t long before Texans were applying Carolina techniques to a different sort of animal entirely. In Memphis, the regionally unique sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce was born from the city’s status as a popular port along the Mississippi River. Memphis residents could easily obtain a variety of goods, including molasses, which provided the region’s sweet barbecue taste. Out of Memphis’ barbecue genes, the last of America’s four main barbecue styles – Kansas City barbecue – was born. In the early 1900s, a Memphis-born man by the name of Henry Perry settled in Kansas City and opened a barbecue restaurant. In the restaurant, which Doug Worgul, in his book on the history of Kansas City barbecue, credits as the origin of the city’s particular barbecue style, Perry followed the style of his Memphis roots, using a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. He did not, however, adhere to the stringent requirements that called for a pork-only barbecue style, and allowed beef and other meats to be sold as well. Expert Dotty Griffith refers to Kansas City barbecue as the ultimate amalgamation of East and West (Texas) barbecue.
But history can only go so far to explain the pleasure that occurs when meat hits smoke (and sometimes sauce). Barbecue lovers looking to savor the distinct flavors of America’s four barbecue styles aren’t alone; in fact, the siren call of the barbecue belt has caused many to make a pilgrimage to the region. Travel routes have been suggested for aficionados looking to chow down on meat cooked low-and-slow, but for those really looking to expand their barbecue knowledge, check out the Daily Meal’s recently published 2013 guide to the “Ultimate BBQ Road Trip,” which spans over 5,120 miles and includes 60 of the country’s best examples of barbecue.
July 10, 2013
It’s the season to fire up that grill. But, forget about burgers, hotdogs, and chicken wings and try grilling some pizza. It may not be the first choice for a festive barbeque, but once you try a slice of this smoky, crispy heaven, you will have a whole new appreciation for that grated open flame. Most home kitchen ovens cannot reach the high temperatures needed to give pizza crust that infamous crunch, so grilling is a great way to get that traditional Neapolitan flavor in the home.
There are two basic ways to grill pizza: directly on the grate or a pizza stone. Both have their advantages: charring the dough on the grate gets you an extra smoky flavor, but a pizza stone, the closest thing to the bottom of a brick oven, stabilizes the heat to cook the pizza throughout, making the crust extra crispy.
The first step in making any pizza is the dough. Pizza dough is pretty simple to make, but you can make the whole process easier by buying already made fresh pizza dough at a local grocery or specialty food stores (another option is to ask your local pizzeria for a slab of dough.) Whether you make it yourself or buy it from an outside source, make sure you allow the dough to rise. In general, the dough should be placed in a bowl covered with a damp cloth in a warm room for about an hour before using. Keeping it in the kitchen is fine; just don’t put it in the refrigerator or underneath a cooling system. For the dough to rise properly, it needs to be kept at a warmer temperature, which will allow the dough to stretch and make that bubbly crust.
Once the dough has risen, prepare it for the grill just as you would for the oven. Roll it out and flip it (without dropping, of course), but, make sure you don’t drop it. Also, be careful not to roll or stretch the dough out too thin, especially if you are grilling directly on the grate.
For a tomato base sauce, instead of buying a can of pre-made pizza sauce, get a can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are sweeter, longer, less seedy and less acidic than their parent plum tomatoes. To make the tomatoes easier to spread on the dough, put the can of tomatoes either in a large bowl to blend (for just a few seconds) with a hand blender or in a food processor so the tomatoes are still chunky and get that extra sweetness in each bite. Just add a little, salt, pepper, garlic salt and mix with a spoon, and you are done.
For a gas grill, turn the heat to high, close the lid and wait until the temperature reaches about 500-600 degrees Fahrenheit. For charcoal, you want to make sure you close the lid and open the dampers to let the grill heat and circulate. If using a pizza stone, you want to put the stone in right away and begin heating it with the grill.
If cooking directly on the rims:
Brush olive oil on one side of the dough with a basting or pastry brush. Put the oiled side face down on the grill, and let it cook for a couple minutes. But, keep an eye on it because the dough can overcook and burn if it is too thin. If it looks like the dough is cooked, then go with your gut over a timer. Once the one side is done, either flip and quickly top your pizza directly on the grill or to be safer, take the dough off the grill completely. Oil the uncooked side and then put the sauce and toppings on the cooked side. Return it to the grill, uncooked side facing down. Cover the grill and cook until cheese is melted and crust is crispy and golden brown.
If using a Pizza Stone:
Pizza stones need time to heat up before using, so low power and charcoal grills may not be the best for this option. They can also be expensive, but discount homeware or cooking stores, can carry them at a fraction of the cost (I got mine at HomeGoods for $9.99). There are some creative ideas out there for creating your own stone by using quarry tiles that can be found at most hardware stores. When using a more creative route, be careful that there isn’t lead or any harmful materials or chemicals in the product.
Make sure your dough is well floured and prepare it with your sauce and toppings of choice. Instead of brushing olive oil on the dough, after the pizza is all topped, drizzle some olive oil on top. For easy transport, prepare the pizza on a pizza peel or something that it could easily slide off of. A flat cookie sheet could do,(or the back of a rimmed sheet) just be careful and quick, because the high heat of the grill will heat up that cookie sheet fast. Whatever you do, do not touch the stone with your hands. Have a pair of tongs handy if you do not have a peel. Once the pizza has slid onto the stone, cover and cook for about 10 minutes with a watchful eye.
No matter what method you use, once the pizza is done, slide it onto the peel or whichever plate, platter or tray you are using, cut, and enjoy!
If you have any ideas or techniques on grilling pizza, please share! One idea is putting the cheese first before spreading the sauce like a good old Trenton tomato pie. This will prevent the sauce from soaking into the crust and create a barrier to allow the crust to get extra crispy. This is a great option if you want that extra crunch, especially if you aren’t using a stone.
June 14, 2013
Under the blazing summer sun, they bulge out of fields of parched dirt, dead grass and lifeless dust, almost like a parable for the spontaneous appearance of Earth’s first life: melons. It’s the season, and the hotter and more miserable the weather gets for the rest of us, the better it often is for these juicy sun-lovers. Some farmers don’t even water their melon vines at all—they call it dry-farming, which supposedly intensifies many fruits’ flavors—and still, football-size creatures with names like Rayann, Sharlyn, Charentais and Santa Claus swell toward ripeness.
Scores of melon varieties — beyond just the honeydew and cantaloupe — are available in the United States, especially from smaller farmers. Some of these are favorite heirlooms born centuries ago and maintained by seed saving; others are more modern creations of scientific breeding programs. Nearly all these melons are great when ripe—but some are better than others.
Here are six of the best melons worth watching for this summer, plus great dishes to make with them:
The Hami is a Chinese variety of muskmelon, elongate, with a distinctive spider web pattern radiating over its yellow-gold hide and bearing very sweet peach-colored flesh. We used a jicama-melon salsa recipe from Yum Scrub Organics, replaced the jicama with fresh tomatoes, added red onion and served with homemade tortillas. The salsa resembled a standard pico de gallo with boosted sweetness thanks to the Hami melon. If you have a taste for the spicy, add paprika.
Sharyln Melon Gazpacho
This melon is the shape of a football with the skin texture of a cantaloupe—but so much better than that ubiquitous Budweiser of melons. A ripe Sharlyn—a variety that originated in the 1400s around Algeria and Italy—is fragrant and musky, and a grocer’s stall piled high with them can fill a shop with the fruits’ natural perfume. The flesh is white to pink, juicy and sweet. The fruity, mild taste finishes with a note of cool, spicy mint that may coax one to say, “What is that taste?”—and to have another investigative bite, and another, and another, and another. Be careful or that $10 melon will be devoured before you even get the jalapeños peeled. That was our experience—we couldn’t stop ourselves—though the food blog Carne Diem seems to have done a knockout job on a Sharlyn Melon Gazpacho. Exercise some self-restraint and give it a try.
Spicy Arugula-Avocado Salad with Sweet Corn and Canary Melon
Yellow-skinned with snow-white flesh and named for its islands of origin off the western African coast, the Canary is a melon superstar. Though fragrant, the fruit is less musky than others of the family (called, interestingly, “muskmelons”) and instead emits a mellower, honey-like fragrance. The soft, sweet flesh calls for contrast, so we thought of a salad spiced with arugula, avocado, smoked paprika and a biting vinaigrette. We followed a recipe from Fresh and Foodie for a watermelon-avocado-arugula salad and replaced the watermelon with Canary melon. To further the summer feel, we added toasted corn kernels.
Greek Yogurt and Crenshaw Melon Soup with Cilantro
The Crenshaw seduced us with its powerful aroma, bright yellow skin and soft feel—but inside, we found it surprisingly similar to a cantaloupe. For many, this will be a virtue, but we decided to give the Crenshaw a real makeover. So we puréed it in a food processor as the first step in a Greek-themed yogurt-melon soup inspired by a recipe from the Healthy Foodie. We substituted cilantro for the suggested mint, added cumin to the blend and drizzled over the juice of a lime. Be sure to use a tart yogurt with high fat content to balance the sweetness of the melon.
Honeydew Melon Curry Over Brown Rice
This lime green melon is nothing unusual. But the juicy, fragrant honeydew melon is popular for a reason: it’s one of the best. Good ones smell sweet and flowery, and especially ripe ones may be identified by a rubbery stickiness over the skin. The softer the better, if you like juicy, and as long as the melon bears no bruises or rotten spots, it should be a winner. The food blog A Stack of Dishes provided a recipe for ceviche with honeydew and jicama about a year ago. Inspired, we took a slightly different direction and made a honeydew-jicama coconut curry, served cold over brown rice. We combined in a serving bowl half a large melon with half a medium-sized jicama, skinned and cubed. In went half a can of coconut milk, a tablespoon of curry powder, a half cup of red onion, a cup of diced basil, salt and pepper. Twenty minutes prep time and it’s done—a perfect cooling dinner for a balmy night.
Piel de Sapo: Au Natural
Finally, since melon season is sometimes too hot for cooking, we decided that if there should be one melon to devour whole—and there definitely should be—it must be the best, and that may be the Piel de Sapo, or “Skin of Toad.” Also called the Santa Claus melon, the Piel de Sapo has a mottled skin like a zucchini’s—or a toad’s, if you have a vivid imagination—and this melon, a favorite in Spain, often produces little to no aroma, making it seem like a gamble to buy. However, only occasionally is it a flavorless dud. More often than not, the Piel de Sapo melon is superb—with flesh juicy, white, just crunchy enough and very sweet. Toward the center of the fruit, the flesh is almost velvety and just about melts at the touch of a spoon. Shove aside the recipe book, grab a knife and dive in. You might also want to wear a bib.
April 30, 2013
In April, most seasonal restaurants tend toward green foods. As the weather shifts, and new crops come to life, plates are decorated with tender young peas, asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions. And now, the green strawberry is joining the ranks.
Picked earlier than their red cousins (and abundant this time of year), green strawberries have been popping up on high-end menus for the last several years. And they show no sign of going out of style any time soon. Evan Rich, chef at the new San Francisco hot spot Rich Table, decided to take the plunge this year after noting the presence of green strawberries on a number of menus he admired. Then the underripe berries made an appearance at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Yerena Farms, a small organic berry grower based in California’s Monterey County was promoting the unusual item, and selling them to a number of prominent local chefs.
Rich bought several flats of the berries and pickled them using a simple brine of champagne vinegar, sugar and salt. Now he’s serving them with yogurt atop a scallop chip (the result of a process wherein the inventive chef purees, flattens, dehydrates and fries a local scallop).
So far, Rich been pleased with the results — a tart, perfumy flavor that catches diners just a little off-guard. “They have all the qualities of a strawberry without the sweetness,” he says. “They also provide a little hint of the sweet summer fruit to come.”
In cities like Portland, Oregon, where spring goes on a little longer, chefs have been seen pairing green strawberries with things like duck confit and rhubarb well into May. But green strawberries aren’t just for savory dishes. Brooklyn’s hipster pizzeria Roberta’s makes a green strawberries shortcake and at San Francisco’s Perbacco, pastry chef Laura Cronin regularly incorporates this unusual ingredient into her desserts this time of year.
“They have a more acidic flavor than red strawberries. I candy them or toss them in a sugar syrup seasoned with bay leaf and other spices and herbs,” she said recently. “I love the crispness they bring to the dish as well as the kiwi-like flavor they take on when macerated in sugar.”
Cronin’s latest creation? Candy cap mushroom donuts filled with green strawberry compote.
Unless you grow them yourself, finding a regular supply of green strawberries might be tricky for the average consumer. But it’s worth asking the vendors at your local farmers market if they’d considering picking a few flats of the fruit a week or so earlier than planned. Of course, green strawberries probably won’t ever ripen up to peak sweetness, so if you do pick or buy them at this stage, be sure to have a plan on hand for how to use them, like this simple pickling recipe that Yerena Farms has been handing out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
For the pickling:
1 part rice wine vinegar
1 part sugar
½ part water
¼ part lime juice
For the flavoring:
Dissolve the sugar into the vinegar with water. Cool completely. Combine strawberries, flavorings, and brine in a mason jar. Refrigerate for 2+ days. Get creative with flavorings. Have a pickle party and pair with cheese!
April 15, 2013
When we think about pigs today, most of us likely imagine the Wilbur or Babe-type variety: pink and more or less hairless. Mention pig farming and images of hundreds upon hundreds of animals crammed into indoor cages may come to mind, too. But it wasn’t always like this. Prior to the industrial revolution, pigs came in an astounding variety of shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. And the ham made from their cured meat was just as diverse.
“The tale of ham’s innovation began around 200 years ago, and it paved the way for how ham is produced today,” said Nicola Swift, the creative food director of the Ginger Pig, a company of butchers and farmers that specializes in rare breeds of livestock reared in England’s North York Moors. Swift presented a talk on the history of ham at the BACON conference in London last weekend, which sadly was not devoted to bacon but to “things developers love.”
One family in particular, the Harrises, almost single-handily changed the way England turned pigs into ham, she explained, and in doing so, they inadvertently laid the foundations for large-scale, homogenized pig farming.
Mary and John Harris were pig folk. Their family hailed from Calne, a quiet town in Southwest England. In the early and mid-1800s, they played a small but important role in providing London with pork. At the time, much of London’s pork arrived by way of Ireland. But without refrigeration, transporting large amounts of meat was impossible. Instead, pig handlers would literally walk the animals to the Irish coast, corral them onto boats destined for Bristol, and then continue to trek to London by foot.
But a deliciously fat pig forced to trot more than 100 miles would soon turn into a lean, tough mass of muscle. To make sure the ham, chops and bacon that those animals were destined to become remained fatty, tender and flavorful, pig herders would make pit stops along the way to give the animals a rest and fatten them up. The Harris farm was one such destination. The family also supplied Calne with meat from their small shop on Butcher’s Row, founded in 1770.
The Harrises were by no means well off. If they butchered 6 or 8 pigs in a week they wrote it off as a success. Still, they got by all right. That is, until tragedy struck. In 1837, John Harris, the relatively young head of the household, died suddenly, leaving his wife, Mary, to manage the business and look after the couple’s 12 children. A few years later, just as the family was getting back on its feet, hard times fell upon them once again. It was 1847, and the Irish potato famine arrived.
In Ireland, potatoes fed not only people but their pigs, too. As season after season of potato crops failed, the Irish could not feed themselves, much less their animals. The supply of pork to the Harris’ farm and butcher shop stopped arriving. In desperation, Mary and her son, George, hatched a scheme to send George to America by ship. The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, that meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.
Not surprisingly, George failed in his mission. But while in the States, he did learn of a remarkable new practice the Americans were pursuing called ice houses. In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable. ”This all harks back to the day when people had to preserve something when they had lots of it because there were other times when they didn’t have much,” Swift said. “This type of preserving goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Ice houses, specially constructed sheds with packed ice blocks either collected locally or imported from Norway, offered partial relief from that practice, however. Charcoal acted as an insulator, preventing the ice from melting quickly and trapping the cool air within the small room.
When George returned home, curly tail between legs, he immediately got busy earning back his family’s trust by experimenting with ice house design. By 1856, he had succeeded in constructing what was likely the first ice house in England. The ham that resulted from slaughtering pigs in that cool confine was more tender and tasty since it didn’t have to be aggressively cured with large amounts of salt. Eventually, the Harrises shifted to brining techniques, or curing in liquid, which led to the creation of the massively popular Wiltshire ham.
The family patented George’s creation, and it soon began spreading to other farmers and ham producers who licensed the technology around the country. The Harris’ wealth increased so quickly and so dramatically that they partly financed the construction of a branch of the Great Western Railway to their village in 1863. Several decades after that, they helped bring electricity to Calne.
While the Harris’ tale is one of personal triumph, their mark on England’s ham production did not come without cultural costs. Prior to the ice house, each region in the UK and Ireland enjoyed their own specific breed of pig. In Lincolnshire, for example, Lincolnshire ham originated from the Lincolnshire curly coat, an enormous beast of a pig that was around twice the size of the animals typically bred today. It’s long, thick curly white coat kept the hardy animal warm throughout the damp winters, and its high fat content provided plenty of energy for the farm laborers that relied upon its exceptionally salty ham for sustenance. After a long decline, that breed finally went extinct in the 1970s thanks to industrialized farming.
Other regions once boasted their own breeds and unique ham brews. In Shropshire, people made “black ham,” which they cured along with molasses, beer and spices. This created an exceptional mix of salty sweetness, with a tinge of sourness from the beer. In Yorkshire, a breed called the large white – which is still around today – inspired a method of steaming cured ham in order to more efficiently remove the salt, while in Gloucestershire people preferred to add apples to their ham cures. But after the Harris’ ham empire took off, a massive advertising campaign that followed painted a picture of what ham and bacon should look and taste like, largely removing these traditions from kitchens around the country. “Most of the regional variances are sadly not known any more except to ham geeks,” Swift said.
In addition to stamping out ham variety, the Harris’ factory – which soon employed hundreds of staff and processed thousands of pigs each week – and others like it began favoring homogenized mass-production methods of indoor pig rearing. Older residents in Calne recall the factory’s unmistakable reek in the 1930s. Eventually, public protests caused its closure and demolition in the 1960s, but for local pigs and ham, the damage was already done. Between 1900 to 1973, 26 of the unique regional breeds of pigs and other livestock went extinct, with others surviving only in very small numbers.
To try and preserve pig and other livestock heritage, concerned citizens formed the non-profit Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973, which maintains a sort of endangered species list and conservation group for farm animals on the fringe. In addition, farms such as Swift’s Ginger Pig specialize in breeding and reintroducing some of these lines into restaurants and local butcher shops in London and beyond, and in introducing traditional curing techniques through their upcoming book, the Farmhouse Cook Book. “Innovation is awesome and brilliant, but there’s also a dark side,” Swift said. “That’s the history of ham.”