May 24, 2011
Anyone familiar with Popeye the Sailor—be it the comic strip or the animated cartoons—is also probably familiar with J. Wellington Wimpy, the cowardly mooch with a penchant for plotting schemes for how to get food without paying for it. Notably, Mr. Wimpy has an insatiable appetite for hamburgers, offering his famous catchphrase, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” when he’s trying to score a patty. But he’s certainly not alone in his burger lust. With Memorial Day kicking off the summer vacation season, people all over the United States are firing up grills and getting their fill of the little beef cake sandwiches that have become a part of our national identity. But how did this country come to “own” the hamburger?
First off, let’s get a few things straight and define what a hamburger really is: a perfect marriage between a beef patty and a bun. Sliced bread is for sandwiches and patty melts. Bona-fide burgers require a carbohydrate complement specially engineered to absorb the meat juices of the patty and any toppings thereon. That said, as with many food origin stories, the hamburger’s beginnings are hazy; however, author Josh Ozersky did some serious detective work into tracing how this food came to be in his simply-title book The Hamburger: A History.
The hamburger had its forerunners—such as the Hamburg steak, a hodgepodge of mixed meats similar to our modern-day Salisbury Steak, that provided the poorest of the poor a cheap meal. Furthermore, it did not come from Hamburg, Germany; the earliest references to hamburger-like dishes come from English cookbooks. A number of people claimed to have had the brilliant idea of flattening a chunk of ground beef and slapping it on a bun. And trying to sort through all the “he says/she says” stories to figure out which one is correct is little more than an exercise in futility. Ozersky does, however, credit fry cook Walter Anderson and insurance salesman Billy Ingram for firmly planting hamburgers into the American consciousness.
Together, the pair founded White Castle, the first restaurant chain that mass-produced and sold burgers to the public. Ozersky credits Anderson, who started his first hamburger stand in 1916, with creating the modern-day hamburger and having the idea of replacing sandwich bread with specially-designed buns. But it was Ingram who knew how to market the product. A relentless promoter, he hawked hamburgers as a perfect foodstuff for tea parties, touted that they were good for one’s health and created a restaurant aesthetic—stately, white and regal—that subliminally told customers that burgers were safe and wholesome to consume. (In the wake of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry, Americans were taking a harder look at their food before they ate it.) Together, the White Castle team elevated burgers from working class junk food to a food for everybody. Other hamburger chains began to spring up and by the 1940s it was a quintessential American meal.
And hamburgers have proven to be a versatile medium—some blogs are entirely devoted to the art and architecture of crafting a burger. The Hamblogger combines burger lust with photojournalism to capture the entire hamburger dining experience, documenting the eateries and their own special spins on the all-beef patty on a bun.
And then there’s the Modernist Cuisine, that lavishly and innovatively illustrated compendium on cooking wherein the authors take a hardcore look at how hamburgers are—and ought to be—prepared. For starters, they dispel the myth that searing meat locks in juices and gives you that desirable crust: all the liquid you want to hold in is escaping into the pan and creating those tantalizing sizzling noises. Their solution is to cook the patty sous vide to cook the meat, and then freeze the burger with liquid nitrogen before deep frying it in oil in order to create a crust. (They say the freeze/fry method prevents the patty from breaking apart during cooking.) Some have tried preparing the high-maintenence burger—it takes roughly 30 hours from start to finish, including making the buns and sauces. And of course the finished product doesn’t look nearly as photogenic as the illustration in the book.
April 22, 2011
It seems Americans suffer from “Easter Bunny syndrome.” We relate to rabbits as cartoon characters, imaginary friends, bedtime story heroes, annual purveyors of sugary treats and, yes, pets. Given their formidable cute factor—those adorable fuzzy ears! that cotton ball tail!—we tend not to think of them as a table offering. And Glenn Close’s kitchen shenanigans in Fatal Attraction only solidified the taboo of eating bunnies. Although a mainstay of European cuisine, restaurant chefs on this side of the pond who dare to place rabbit dishes on the menu get flak from appalled diners. Though perhaps even more appalling is the fact that, unlike other meats, there are no Congressional mandates requiring rabbit meat to be federally inspected before it reaches our plates.
Nevertheless, it’s a meat source that has its advantages. It’s a lean protein that’s low in cholesterol. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer carnivore, rabbits are easy to raise, and since they breed like, well, you know, they provide a steady supply of food. These perks were especially noted during World War II. With rationing in effect, prime meat products such as beef weren’t always readily available whereas rabbit was off-ration and was *ahem* fair game for cooks. In light of the times, one advertisement in Gourmet magazine quipped: “Although it isn’t our usual habit / This year we’re eating the Easter Rabbit.” However, by the 1960s, most home chefs were kicking the rabbit habit.
I grew up with a pet bunny. Beechnut, a light brown Holland lop, gave me 11 years of affection, and I couldn’t have asked for better animal companionship. But after reading about how a German breeder has created giant rabbits that could help alleviate food shortages in Korea and watching an episode of The Perennial Plate on sustainable rabbit farming, I grew curious about how rabbit actually tasted. (Word of warning: the last minute or so of the Perennial Plate’s bunny episode does show a rabbit being slaughtered, so do not click if you are faint of heart.) If I could eat venison after repeated viewings of Bambi, this shouldn’t be much different, right? There are rabbits for pets and there are rabbits for eating. At least that’s what I kept repeating as I planned Sunday dinner.
Seeing two headless, skinless, yet distinctly rabbit-ish carcasses stretched out on my cutting board ranks as the most Buñuelian kitchen experience I’ve had. Being used to buying my edible animals in bits and pieces, it’s easy to dissociate those parts from a clucking, mooing, oinking whole. But here I was, set to carve up a creature I otherwise looked to for social comfort. When it comes to cutting up a chicken, I generally wing it—and having seen it done plenty of times before, I can go in feeling fairly confident and competent. But for this, I went to YouTube and watched—and re-watched and re-re-wtached—a video on how to cut up a rabbit before reaching for a knife. Even though the animals were already dead, a poor butchering job somehow seemed like I would be adding insult to injury. I wanted to do the best I could, paying careful attention as to where to slice and which vertebrae to crack and twist apart. With the dirty work done, the pieces were browned in olive oil and braised in beer with chili sauce, onions, carrots and red potatoes with a tasty gravy made from the remaining cooking liquid.
And the result? I learned that domestic rabbit tastes like chicken. Furthermore, with the only nearby market that carries them asking $3.99 a pound, it’s an elite meat that tastes like the cheap stuff. Perhaps bunnies fed on grass and greens—like what you would find in the wild—would have a different flavor, but I’m in no rush to cook one again. Most of my cookbooks advised to prepare rabbit as you would chicken, though I think it makes more sense to do the opposite. That said, chocolate bunnies will suit me just fine.
And in spite of sounding incredibly tacky given the above: Easter is a rough time of year for rabbits (please, hold your remarks). Pet rabbits are given as gifts, but recipients may not be willing to assume the responsibility of caring for them, and these animals are frequently abandoned. If you want a rabbit for a pet, please do some background research before you commit and consider checking out your local rescue organization. If you are bent on buying a brand new bunny, please go to a reputable breeder.
For the rest of you looking for rabbits to eat: happy hunting and bon appétit!
March 17, 2011
As delicious as the golden arches’ minty nod to St. Patrick’s Day—the Shamrock Shake—may be (or as delicious as I remember thinking it was the last time I had one, circa 1978), it’s not exactly Irish. Surprisingly, something on the McDonald’s menu is authentically Irish, and green to boot: its beef.
Not green as in artificially colored (like the shake); green as in “good for the environment.” As in grass-fed, which is the standard in Ireland, unlike in the United States and many other countries, where cows are often fattened with grain on massive feed lots. If you’ve ever been to the Emerald Isle, or even seen a picture of it, you know why: the country really is just lousy with chlorophyll. The first time I visited my Irish friend Annette, a farm girl from County Kilkenny, it was January. Just as I was thinking to myself that I’d never seen so much grass in my life, Annette said she wished I could see the country in summer, when it would really be green.
As for the other kind of green, vis-à-vis Mickey D’s and its burgers, some qualifications are in order: This grass-fed Irish beef is available only in Europe, and only in about one in five burgers. Also, opinions differ on whether even grass-fed beef production is sustainable. But most people can agree that grass-fed is at least an improvement over grain-fed—it’s leaner and its production emits less greenhouse gas. This week the worldwide chain reported that it had increased its export of Irish beef to its European outlets by 37 percent, to 110 million Euros. (Ironically, in the United States McDonald’s has taken flak for importing some of its beef from New Zealand—where grass-fed is also the norm—to supplement its domestic meat purchases.)
All of this underscores another trend in the Republic of Ireland: a renewed emphasis on farming following the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which had transformed the country from the late 1990s to 2008. During the boom, Irish citizens who had once had to emigrate to find employment (I met Annette in 1992 in Germany, where we both found temporary work as hotel maids) could return or stay home. For the first time in recent history, mass immigration was happening in the other direction. When I last visited, in 2000, this transformation was in its early stages. The dirty old town of Dublin I remembered from my first trip was starting to sprout gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés.
Since the bubble burst, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in the wounded economy. Irish agricultural exports grew almost 10 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to The National, which also cited a government report identifying “the agrifood and fisheries sectors as the country’s most important and largest indigenous industry.” Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, says agriculture and its associated professions account for 10 percent of employment there. Some Irish workers who had abandoned or rejected farming during the 1990s construction boom have returned to the livelihood that sustained their parents and grandparents.
Blessed with abundant pasture land and little need for irrigation, Ireland is well-positioned to help satisfy growing world food demand, the government believes. The strong market in developed nations for artisanal foods is also a natural fit for Irish dairy producers. Teagasc recently reported that Ireland’s milk was rated as having the lowest (tied with Austria) carbon footprint in the European Union, and its meat had one of the lowest.
I remember my first taste of unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Irish cows on Annette’s family’s farm. The cream rose to the top of the pitcher, and even the milk below it was far creamier and more delicious than any dairy I had ever tasted. Maybe McDonald’s should try using it in its Shamrock Shakes. They already contain another ingredient associated with Ireland: carrageenan.
February 8, 2011
Anyone who watched American television in the 1980s probably remembers the Australia tourism commercials with Paul Hogan (aka Crocodile Dundee) saying he’d “slip another shrimp on the barbie” for us. Never mind that Australians don’t use the word “shrimp”—they call them prawns—the catchphrase stuck, along with its concession to American nomenclature.
It is true, though, that Aussies love a barbecue. In the two weeks I was there over the holidays, I attended no fewer than four. Most featured sausages and marinated chicken, usually served with ketchup (or tomato sauce, as they call it) as the only condiment. But one barbecue was different.
The friends I stayed with in Melbourne are a bi-continental married couple—the Australian husband, Konrad, met his American wife, Nikki, while she was studying abroad in Queensland—who had returned to his homeland after about seven years in the States. During his time in America, including a year in Jacksonville, Florida, Konrad had developed a deep appreciation for Southern-style barbecue. Since returning home, with nowhere local to sate his cravings, he had bought a smoker and made it his project to learn how to replicate his favorite foods himself. During my visit he planned a backyard bash to introduce his Aussie friends to a barbecue with all the Dixie fixin’s—pulled pork, brisket and beer-can chicken with four kinds of homemade barbecue sauce on the side, plus potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and cornbread. Sweet tea and mint juleps were on the drink menu.
But first we had to go shopping. It turned out that the main ingredient in cornbread—cornmeal—was not stocked at local supermarkets. We tracked down a Spanish market in the artsy Fitzroy neighborhood (the Melbourne equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg or L.A.’s Los Feliz) where we found a package of P.A.N. brand, which had a drawing of a sassy-looking lady with her hair tied up in a polka-dotted scarf.
Since we were out for the rest of the afternoon and evening, this meant carrying around a sack of cornmeal everywhere we went. “Pan” became a kind of mascot, and we took a series of photos with “her” that became increasingly ridiculous as the night wore on.
Konrad and Nikki spent the better part of the next day preparing for the feast that afternoon. For the most part, the food seemed to be a hit with the Aussies. The biggest surprise was the baked beans—over there, as in England, baked beans are most commonly eaten at breakfast with eggs and toast. Their version comes out of the Heinz can in a relatively bland tomato sauce without the zip of BBQ baked beans, and some of the guests were downright excited about having them in this new context. The macaroni and cheese and the smoked meats and sauces also got raves.
As for the cornbread, I think Pan, which was pre-cooked, was the kind of cornmeal meant for arepas (delicious South American corn fritters) and not quite right for American cornbread. Although I didn’t get to try the resulting corn muffins before they disappeared at the party, they must have tasted alright anyway.
Maybe next time, they’ll introduce the Aussies to one of my favorite Southern dishes, shrimp and grits. But I’m sorry, y’all, “prawns and grits” just sounds wrong.
December 17, 2010
As Christmas draws closer, have you finished your shopping yet? If not, try turning to your local bookstore to find something for nearly everyone on your list:
The Aspiring Home Cook
Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease, by Rozanne Gold. All the recipes in this lovely cookbook are described in 140 words or less, and many have only 5 ingredients, making even sophisticated-sounding dishes like “sauteed chicken with roasted grapes and grape demi-glace” quite approachable.
How To Repair Food, by Tanya Zeryck, John Bear and Marina Bear. The third edition of a perennially helpful classic that offers tips on everything from makeshift ingredient substitutions to stale marshmallows.
Williams-Sonoma: The Art of Preserving, by Rick Field with Rebecca Courchesne. An essential reference guide for anyone interested in making and cooking with their own canned and pickled produce.
The Original King Arthur Flour Cookbook: 200th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, by Brinna B. Sands. A sturdy, ring-bound classic devoted to all things flour-based, from pancakes to pie, and of course, bread.
The Cosmopolitan Foodie
My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South, by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher. The first cookbook to focus on Calabria, the region at the tip of Italy’s “boot,” its recipes celebrate ingredients like olives, anchovies, hot peppers… and pasta made on knitting needles.
Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, With Recipes, by Mark Bitterman. A fascinating tribute to the history and nuances of the many types of “artisan salt” in the world, written by a self-described “selmelier.” Includes a field guide to dozens of specific salts found in the Mongolian steppes, the deserts of Timbuktu and more.
Around my French Table: More than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan. The warm, conversational tone of Greenspan’s writing, combined with gorgeous photographs and tips about serving and storing, welcomes readers into the exciting world of French home cooking.
Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes, by David Lebovitz. From classics like creme brulee to unique concepts like Guinness-gingerbread cupcakes, the Paris-based pastry chef’s heavenly-sounding recipes are anchored in his funny, down-to-earth style. (“If you don’t have a pepper mill, shame on you. Go get one.”)
The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion, by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark. A collection of 80 sure-to-impress recipes from the White House pastry chef, helpfully organized by occasion (birthdays, brunches, bring-to-a-party desserts, etc.).
Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Cooking and Sourcing Sustainable Meat, by Deborah Krasner. A satisfyingly thick tome, broken down into chapters on beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, poultry and eggs. Includes recipes for every part of the animals, and explains the terminology and practices involved in meat production and processing.
Planet Barbecue: An Electrifying Journey Around the World’s Barbecue Trail, by Steven Raichlen. More than 300 grill-centric recipes from 60 countries, ranging from South African braai to Korean pork belly.
The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour, by Kim O’Donnel. As O’Donnel explains, the inspiration for this marvelous book was helping her mother come up with heart-healthy meals that would pass muster with the meat-loving man in her life, “Mister Sausage.” O’Donnel isn’t condemning carnivores, she’s simply asking them to take a day off: “Meatless Mondays.”
The Very Best of Recipes for Health, by Martha Rose Shulman. A collection of simple, healthy, largely vegetarian recipes from Shulman’s popular New York Times column, including nutritional analyses. Mediterranean chickpea salad, creamy cabbage soup, “rainbow tofu” and much more.
The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat and Moral Crisis, by Tara Austen Weaver. This food writer’s memoir is both entertaining and thought-provoking, as she grapples with the relationship between her vegetarian upbringing and some serious health issues, and gets a crash course in the world of meat production and consumption.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, by Amanda Hesser. A hefty treasure chest, bursting with gems of culinary history culled from the newspaper’s archives by one of its best food writers.
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon. Fans of Julia Child will devour this collection of her personal correspondence with her friend and literary mentor Avis in the 1950s. Although the letters discuss much more than food, they offer a window into the process of recipe and testing and development for Child’s famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Memories of a Farm Kitchen, by Bob and Rob Artley. A charming and utterly unique memoir about growing up on a 200-acre farm in Iowa in the 1920s and 1930s, this homespun book recalls bygone days of icebox refrigerators, cellar larders, and ham hanging from the rafters.
The Pop-Culture Geek
Cooking With the Movies: Meals on Reels, by Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr. With recipes based on the foods featured in 14 different films, from 1985′s Tampopo through 2007′s Waitress, this could be the basis for some seriously fun dinner parties.
Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History, by William Woys Weaver. I’ve already told you how much I enjoyed this collection of vintage advertisements, food packaging, menus and tidbits of trivia from culinary history.
Or how about one of these cookbooks by non-culinary celebrities, like Dolly Parton or Coolio?
The Drinks Connoisseur
Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, by Jason Wilson. From the first chapter, titled “The Ombibulous Me,” this alcohol-soaked memoir from The Washington Post‘s Spirits columnist turns the esoteric into the entertaining. Includes dozens of cocktail recipes.
Whiskey: A Global History, by Kevin Kosar. This intriguing, stocking-stuffer-sized volume from the Alcohol Reviews blogger chases the history of whiskey around the world and through the ages, explains the differences between various types and includes several classic whiskey cocktail recipes.
The Great Domaines of Burgundy: A Guide to the Finest Wine Producers of the Cote D’Or, by Remington Norman and Charles Taylor (3rd edition). Serious oenophiles and/or Francophiles will savor this detailed reference book, which elucidates the methods and personalities at the heart of Burgundy’s best wines.
Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, by Laura Catena. As described in a previous post, this is an excellent primer on the Argentine wine industry and its beloved malbecs.