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The Food Almanac: Wednesday, September 3, 2013

The Food Almanac: Wednesday, September 3, 2013

Today's Flavor
This is National Baked Oysters Day. Fancy restaurants all over America once had dishes like oysters Rockefeller as a menu mainstay. They went out of fashion in the 1980s, largely because restaurants started getting careless with their preparation. At the same time, cooks developed the habit of piling too much sauce atop the oysters, making it impossible for a diner to eat the standard half-dozen then go on to eat anything else.

The current vogue is to add lighter sauces and garnishes than what had been used in the past. Say a bit of prosciutto, a few leaves of spinach, and enough butter to pull it together. Another interesting innovation has been to leave the oyster out when the sauce is baked on the shell, then frying it before installing it on top of the sauce--perhaps with a spoonful of something like mornay sauce.

Now that oysters are back in season (although perhaps still too flaccid for most uses just now), this is the perfect time of year for a grand platter of baked oysters on a bed of rock salt. By the way, the rock salt is there to keep the shells from rocking. In case you wondered. (They certainly don't need to be kept any hotter than they are.)

Annals Of Food Writing
Craig Claiborne was born today in 1920. A Mississippi native, he was a food writer for the New York Times for decades. In the 1960s, he inaugurated the restaurant review column in the Times, setting the standard for everyone else since who pursued that vocation. Nobody ever questioned Claiborne's reviews, because his depth of knowledge as a cook was very well known. I tested that when he appeared on my radio show in 1988. Very nice man and a first-class writer. If you want to know all about him, read his book A Feast Made For Laughter. He left us in 2000.

Namesakes Of Great Dishes
This is the birthday, in 1768, of François-René de Chateaubriand, French writer and political figure throughout the years before and after the French Revolution. His name is best known as the common term for a double (or larger) filet mignon, roasted or grilled in one piece and then carved at the table. There's some dispute as to which cut of beef should be used for Chateaubriand.Some authorities say that it refers to the butt end of the tenderloin, and others the sirloin. If you order a Chateaubriand in most restaurants, however, you will be served a five- or six-inch piece of tenderloin cut from its center. The standard preparation gives it a different, juicier texture than it would have were it cooked as individual steaks. Bearnaise sauce is the classic accompaniment, but Perigourdine sauce is also favored.

Eating Around America
Today is the anniversary, in 1781 of the founding of Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the Little Portion. It Spanish name was shortened to Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles is one of the best restaurant cities in the country, although that is a relatively recent development. The proximity of the California produce and wine growing areas is a big plus. The wealthy customer base, which places great emphasis on socializing and the trappings of uniqueness, support a broad array of restaurants, with lots of financial lubrication for the most ambitious and expensive restaurants. The trend there now is in the direction of locally-raised ingredients and rustic cooking styles.

Edible Dictionary
clarified butter, n.--Another name for drawn butter. It's the clear liquid fat left over after butter sits in a saucepan over a low heat. After a time, all the water in the butter boils off, and the milk solids that make butter opaque precipitate. The latter both rises to the top and sinks to the bottom of the pan. The floating milk solids are spooned out. Then the clear butter is poured--"drawn"--away from the solids at the bottom. Clarified/drawn butter has many uses, the most familiar of them being the accompaniment for boiled lobster or other big shellfish. The stuff is shelf-stable. In India, it's called "ghee," and is used in a host of dishes. Clarified butter can be made much hotter than unclarified melted butter, and is terrific for cooking.

History Of The Restaurant Biz
Today in 1885 in New York City, the first recorded self-service restaurant anywhere opened. It was the Exchange Buffet, at 928 Broadway. For some reason, it was open only to men.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Boeuf--French for "beef," and therefore a common word in cookbooks and on menus--is in extreme south central Louisiana, out among the swamps, bayous, oil and gas fields, and Cajuns. It's on Bayou Boeuf, an ancient route of the Mississippi River. The bayou is now entangled with the growing Atchafalaya River, which is destined to take over the flow of the Mississippi at some time in the future. Three generations of highways cross the bayou at Boeuf: the Southern Pacific (now BNSF) railroad, the old US 90, and the new US 90, destined to become I-49. Boeuf is much more industrial than residential; most people around there live in Amelia, across the bayou. The place to eat is Sandi's Bar and Grill.

Food Namesakes
William Colby was sworn in as director of the CIA today in 1973, by Richard Nixon. . Smashing Pumpkins won seven MTV Video Music Awards today in 1996. Actor Leonard Frey was born today in 1938. Actress Jennifer Salt was born today in 1944. The now-infamous Anthony Weiner, former Congressman from New York, was born today in 1964. (Yes, I know a hot dog is spelled "wiener.")

Words To Eat By
"Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well one must love and respect food."--Craig Claiborne, born today in 1920.

"I have long believed that good food, good eating is all about risk. Whether we're talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime 'associates,' food, for me, has always been an adventure."--Anthony Bourdain.

‘First catch your rabbit.'

Today, September 13th …

A Melbourne journalist made a serious grammatical error on this day in 1862 in reporting a bill of fare which “included leporine, which is betwixt a hare and a rabbit”. There is no such hybrid animal as a leporine – it is not the mule of the bunny world. The word is not a noun at all, it is an adjective meaning “pertaining to a hare or hares of the nature or form of a hare”. Many similar adjectives pertaining to animals are in common use, or at least easy to guess - such as bovine, porcine, piscine, assinine and feline - but in case you feel inclined to some adjective-dropping, here is a small selection of lesser known ones appropriate for food situations:

Acipenserine (relates to sturgeon)
Bubaline ( . buffalo)
Cervine ( . elk)
Coturnine (. quail)
Homarine ( . lobster)
Macropodine (. kangaroo)
Meleagrine (. turkey)
Ostracine (. oyster)
Pullastrine (. pigeon)

One small issue is that the word “leporine” also pertains to rabbits, perhaps because lexicographers, like most of the rest of us, are not sure of the difference between rabbits and hares. I am reliably informed that hares are generally larger, have longer hind legs and longer ears, and that some of the more subtle lifestyle differences are as follows:

Rabbits: the young (called kittens) are born naked, blind, and helpless the fur does not change colour during the year they are social, live in underground burrows, and escape by hiding.

Hares: the young (called leverets) are born furry, eyes open, and active the colour of the fur becomes lighter in winter they are solitary, stay above ground, and escape by running.

There is also difference in culinary status, hares usually being considered rather more upper class than rabbits, as evidenced by numerous cookbook writers such as Hannah Glasse, who included recipes such as “To roast a Rabbit, Hare fashion” (1747), but never the opposite.

Since we are discussing the subject of rabbits and hares, it seems opportune to clarify one of the most mis-quoted and mis-attributed culinary quotations of all time. Isabella Beeton did not, ever, begin any recipe with the phrase “first catch your rabbit”. Neither did Hannah Glasse, to whom it is also sometimes attributed. Hannah did however start her recipe for roast hare with “take your hare when it is cas’d” – that is, skinned. Naturally this is our recipe for the day.

Today’s Recipe …

To Roast a Hare.
Take your Hare when it is cas’d and make a Pudding take a Quarter of a Pound of Sewet, and as much Crumbs of Bread, a little Parsley shred fine, and about as much Thyme as will lie on a Six-pence, when shred an Anchovy shred small, a very little Pepper and Salt, some Nutmeg, two Eggs, a little Lemon-peel: Mix all this together, and put it into the Hare. Sew up the Belly, spit it, and lay it to the Fire, which must be a good one. Your Dripping-pan must be very clean and nice. Pour two Quarts of Milk and Half a Pound of Butter into the Pan keep basting it all the while it is roasting with the Butter and Milk till the Whole is used, and your Hare will be enough. You may mix the Liver in the Pudding, if you like. You must first parboil it, then chop it fine.
[The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Quotation for the Day …

A pasty costly-made,
Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret lay,
Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
Imbedded and injellied.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Audley Court (1842)

Spiced pears roasted in red wine from the 66 Square Feet cookbook

For most of human civilisation on this planet, such friends were (with rare exceptions) people that you lived near or had other opportunity to meet in person usually somebody that you saw regularly. But these days it is quite possible for a friend to correspond to each of the definitions above and yet be somebody that you have never met in person.

Sure, when I was at school, we had pen pals, but this was often a teenage phase and few of these friendships survived into adulthood. But today with blogs and social media, people are getting and keeping in touch with like minded souls around the world without having to leave the comfort of their computer desk. Sitting in London, I can name the children and pets of people living on other continents I can track their travels and chart their personal highs and lows on social media. I feel as close to these people as anybody I have met in the flesh.

One such person is the lovely Marie Viljoen who I “met” online years ago via her inspiring blog 66 Square Feet. I immediately clicked with Marie – firstly because she is South African like me secondly because she is an expat like me and thirdly because she is a lover of food and plants. When I was a little girl, my favourite party trick was to walk around the garden reciting all the names of the plants that my mom had taught me (to this day I swear I am the only one in my peer group who can correctly identify and name a Tetrapanax Papyrifer!) – so when I saw Marie’s posts full of gorgeous photos of indigenous fynbos flowers in and around Cape Town all labelled with their correct names, I was smitten!

Marie describes herself as having been born in Bloemfontein, come of age in Cape Town, and grown up in New York. She and her French husband and their Dominican cat Estorbo live, cook, photograph, picnic, garden and forage in New York City and her blog name 66 Square Feet comes from the footprint of their tiny apartment terrace in Brooklyn. Over the years I have followed Marie’s and her husband Vincent‘s New York adventures in photography, dealing with immigration officials, black cat ownership, New York City terrace gardening, and of course, food. I shared her celebrations and mourned her failures and losses. We have read each other’s blogs, talked over e-mail and I sometimes struggle to remember whether I have met her or not – it feels as if surely I must have!

When I discovered earlier this year that Marie was bringing out a book I knew that it would be good – with her great eye for images, her beautiful writing style and sharp wit it could never fail. But even these high expectations did not prepare me for the book that arrived in my postbox a few weeks ago. 66 Square Feet – A Delicious Life would, I suppose, be classified as a recipe book but it is so much more. It is also visually gorgeous and a 12-month lovesong to living in New York City.

The book is divided into 12 chapters (one for each month) and charts a year of eating, drinking and living in New York City. Each chapter opens with a glorious double page photo of New York City and an evocative piece on what it is like to live in the city in that particular month followed by a description of what the terrace is like at that time together with a couple of recipes inspired by the markets or the terrace. Following that, each month’s chapter contains five seasonal recipes that you can cook separately or put together as a relaxed dinner party menu. The photos (by Marie and Vincent) are stunning, and recipes achievable and satisfying – no foams, spherification or fancy plating here! Terrace-sourced recipes like squash and Bibb lettuce salad or gazpacho soup rub shoulders with classics Terence Hill’s beans, baby back ribs, and Concord grape granita. I found myself reading the book chapter by chapter, rationing myself to one a day to stretch the pleasure out. It’s that kind of book. Even for those with only a passing interest in cooking, it provides a wonderfully intimate peek into life in one of the world’s most iconic cities and is a beautiful book to treasure.

66 Square Feet is now available from bookstores in the US, the UK (Waterstones and Foyles both stock it) and South Africa (The Book Lounge and Exclusive Books) or online from Amazon, The Book Depository (who offer free worldwide delivery) or Kalahari. If you have a foodie in your life, I can’t think of a better Christmas present. Marie kindly agreed that I could reproduce a recipe from the book here and I chose to keep it seasonal and make a recipe from her December chapter (the only change I made was to add some cloves). It’s simple and satisfying – my mom made a similar recipe for years and I loved its Christmassy flavours It’s easy to make in advance and then re-heat, and if you have gluten-free guests, it makes the perfect dessert.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. I received no remuneration to write this post and all opinions are my own.