I didn’t realize that people actually paid for watermelon until I went away to college. In the lowcountry of South Carolina where I grew up, there were melon fields all over the place, and while the growers certainly shipped their melons to markets and grocers across the country, some of them even operating roadside stands near their fields, there were also often pyramids of the heavy fruits stacked near the road for people to take what they wanted. Down on Edisto Island, we would often have huge meals in the middle of the day, with two meats – say, fried chicken AND ham, and a plethora of the local produce from the neighboring truck farms – squash and okra and field peas and tomatoes, corn, butterbeans, cucumbers and, for dessert, watermelons. Mrs. McGee always had a cake or a pie or cobbler as well, and we would all gorge ourselves on the bounty, napping and playing cards and board games for an hour after lunch before we could head back into the surf. We would often take long slices of watermelon – they were nearly always the Charleston Gray variety, the long, striped preferred melon of the lowcountry – with us into the water, where we would swim out beyond the breakers, allowing the slices to float amongst the swells, salted by the splashing foam.
Since childhood, I have loved my melons salted. Peppered, too. So I was not surprised when my chef friend Philip Bardin of the Old Post Office onEdisto called me in the early nineties and told me that I must come try his latest concoction – watermelon with Clemson Blue Cheese. A light bulb went off in my head. What a perfect idea!
My scientist parents weren’t fromSouth Carolina. They had both graduated from theUniversity ofTennessee, their home state, and my father had studied at Purdue and worked on the Manhattan Project and for the Ethyl Corporation inBaton Rouge,Louisiana, where I was born, before we moved to the lowcountry. I never understood the Clemson/Carolina rivalry, and had no intention of going to school in the same state where I had attended high school, along with the same people. But bothCarolina, with its superior public health and international studies departments, and Clemson, with its agricultural, engineering, and architecture schools, have excelled in the past twenty years. Clemson’s website proclaims:
Clemson University is a nationally ranked research university that remains a student-centered community. Students are engaged, spirited, highly competitive and — according to The 2009 Princeton Review — the nation’s happiest.
Clemson also maintains the Cooperative Extension in all of the state’s 46 counties, as well as five Research andEducationCenters. Their developments in agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, pest control, food safety, nutrition, forestry, and dairy farming have been exemplary and world-renowned. They have helped restore important heirloom crops to the state, such as the famous Carolina Gold Rice, on whichCharleston’s fortunes were amassed. I can’t tell you how many times I called someone at one of the extension offices when I was researching the culinary history of the lowcountry and when I was a backyard gardener in South Carolina.
Out of curiosity, I searched watermelons on the Clemson site, to see which variety they recommended for the area. Not surprisingly, it was the Charleston Gray.
The melon is a large one, 25 to 40 pounds. Here’s a photo of Mikel with the sole one we were able to harvest before the rats got it in a community garden we were involved with inWashington. The flesh is deep red, crisp, fiberless, and delicious. When I’m shopping for melons, I pick them up to see if they feel full of water. I thump them to see if they have a resounding hollow report. I ask where they were grown. Melons need warm soil; a long, hot growing season; a lot of room; a lot of water; calcium-rich soil; and to be grown on rotation basis. If your melons are fromFlorida, they will probably be good, as long as they are ripe.
I emailed Philip to ask him about the recipe. Now I see it copied everywhere on the internet and on other restaurant menus, but when Philip called me to tell me about his new salad nearly 20 years ago, I had never heard of it. In his 2004 cookbook (with Jane and Michael Stern), he called it a “redneck version of melon and prosciutto. It’s a weird dish…but it works.” In the published recipe, he added country ham.
In his email this morning, he wrote, “I came up with that one in the 90′s – maybe 1992. Cubed and topped with Clemson Blue Cheese (I now use buttermilk blue). Sometimes chopped mint and a grilled piece of country ham. … BTW — it has to be watermelon and real sweet. The textures are strange with other melons and do not work to my taste.”
Clemson Blue Cheese placed 14th in its class at the 2009 United States Championship Cheese Contest, the longest running cheese competition in the nation. Clemson Blue is up from 33rd place in last year’s competition. Cheeses were ranked by 24 judges according to flavor, texture, body and appearance.
Watermelon with Blue Cheese and Mint
There’s really no recipe here. Just cut up some melon and blue cheese however you choose, in whatever proportions you choose, toss them together or arrange them in salad plates or bowls and add a few fresh mint leaves, if desired. It’s a lovely beginning to a meal.
August 26, 2009 A perfect little wine
I don’t do this often. In fact, I almost never do it. And I’m usually irked by those who do. So this seems a bit disingenuous or even hypocritical, because I am normally distrustful of product endorsement of any kind. But I can’t resist, because, honestly, I’ve found a simply perfect little summer wine. What?! you ask. Why now?! Why didn’t you tell us sooner?!
And you’d have a point, because summer’s nearly over and this wine is meant to be drunk young, and you probably won’t be able to find it. But, all that said, I’d like to say a few words about this lovely rosé — and about rosés in general. And you should know that I have never accepted money for endorsing any product and I am not being paid to write these words now.
I highly recommend the 2008 l’Alycastre du Domaine de La Courtade. Go to their website. It’s in English as well as French, and is a fairly hip site. I was able to click on the wine and put in my zip code and find a retail shop that carries it. I knew where I had bought my first case, but they were sold out. I called one of the shops listed and they had more. $15/bottle or $150/case at de-vino’s in DC.
It’s 90 degrees today in Washington. Not humid like back home in South Carolina, but hot nonetheless. This wine is going to be perfect with our dinner of watermelon/blue cheese/mint salad; grilled quail, scallions, and eggplant; and roasted potatoes. I just had a glass with some nutty, oil-cured picholine olives, the traditional table olive of Provence, and was impressed with how the wine, with a mere 12% alcohol, stood up to the intensity of the olives. Though I didn’t discern much bouquet at all after first tasting the oily olives, the first sip of the wine filled my mouth with steely, bright minerals. After I swallowed, lovely hints of fruit flowers appeared on my palate.
A couple of months ago, Eric Asimov and his cohorts at the New York Times tasted some 2 dozen rosés priced between $10 and $20. You can read the article here. I cracked up at his opening sentence: “It began seemingly as a brief flirtation more than five years ago, this American affection, if not passion, for rosé wines.”
Well, having lived most of my life in the American South, as well as in the Caribbean and southern Europe, I just assumed that everyone has been drinking rosés forever. Of course I mean dry rosés. When Eric’s article came out, I went to my notes. Sure ’nuff, back in May I had rhapsodized in my wine journal about this wine, which the Times panel placed at #5 in their rankings, calling it “dry, earthy, and straightforward.” I dug deeper in my files and found a book proposal I had offered up to my agent to sell in 1994, having just finished my second book (and when I already had two more book contracts to fulfill). The working title? “In the Pink: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Rosé.” In it, I have a one-word note on a 1994 Clos Petite Bellane rosé: “celery.” For the Monte Volpe 1993 Rosate di Nebbiolo of Mendocino, I noted that the wine had 13% alcohol. “Isn’t this an awful lot?” I wrote to myself. “Mendocino, Ukiah Valley, more fruit than the 1992. Fresh strawberries. CHILL WELL!” There are notes on the 1994 Bandol Rosé Tempier, which I’m surprised I afforded myself back then (I would occasionally splurge for Domaine Ott). I must have been feeling flush with all those book contracts! All I wrote was “rose petals.” And therein the problem lay with trying to do a book about rosés: The tastes are so ephemeral, like the scent of roses, and the wines are so short-lived, that by the time the book could have been produced and released, it would have been out of date. Who knows what the l’Alycastre will taste like next year?
That said, if you see it during the next few months while it’s still warm in your local shop, or on a menu — especially a luncheon menu of light Mediterranean fare — by all means buy it.
The l’Alycastre grapes — equal parts Grenache, Mourvèdre and Tibouren – are grown and made into wines on Porquerolles, an island off the Provencal coast where the vineyard is situated. The La Courtade website says that the Mourvèdre provides the tastes of “resin, pine, and garrigue” (garrigue is the classic underbrush of the region, a mixture of wild herbes de Provence and scrub). Grenache, the workhorse of so many southern European wines, provides fruit; Tibouren, native to Greece, was found growing wild on the island when the vintners began their operation in the 1980s. It gives the wine its golden color. Most of the rest of the island, which lies off the peninsula between Marseille and St Tropez, is nature preserve.
I’ve been trying to figure out where to go on holiday next summer or fall. I think Provence, with its myriad pink wines, is calling my name!
In August 12′s Washington Post, Jane Black lamented the pallid taste of the heirloom tomatoes she had purchased at a local farmers’ market. In the article, she wrote “The key to a great tomato is how it is grown.” That’s absolutely true, but neither her article, nor any of the twenty readers’ comments published by the paper, gave any indication of what the proper growing circumstances would be.
I have grown innumerable tomatoes, both heirloom and commercially produced hybrids, to varied results, many, many times. I honestly can’t name the best tomatoes I’ve eaten, because every time I eat a perfect – or near perfect – tomato, it has been a culinary epiphany for me. Tomatoes can be magical in their balance of sweet and tart, of meaty and juicy, of flesh to seed. (Yes, the seeds are important: see below at August 10.) Not unlike the perfect oyster, the perfect peach, the perfect apple.
Of my favorite heirlooms is Aunt Ruby’s German Green, a green-when-ripe variety known for its “soft, meaty interior with an excellent, sweet yet spicy flavor,” according to Stephen Facciola’s incomparable Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Caroyln Male, in her photo-laden book on heirloom tomatoes that she wrote for Smith & Hawken, also describes the “scrumptious” flavor as spicy-sweet, writing that the variety is one of “the best examples of this unique flavor.” Male lists the tomato’s origin as Germany, but Facciola traces it to Ruby Arnold of Greeneville, Tennessee. Will Weaver, the indefatigable culinary historian, author, and farmer, finds the variety to be one of the most interesting “from a culinary standpoint,” but because it is a twentieth century variety, he does not grow it in his raised beds of historical heirlooms at his early 19th-century farm in Devon, Pennsylvania. Weaver grows only indeterminate type tomatoes, that is, those that produce right up to a killing frost.
When I gardened inSouth Carolina, I often turned toClemsonUniversity’sCoastalResearchCenter, whose agricultural experiment station was 6 miles from my home, in a virtually identical environment as my back yard. Since I’ve moved to the Mid-Atlantic, I turn to Weaver for gardening information, his Roughwood farm a mere 100 miles from my house, not far from Philly, where the weather and terrain aren’t much different from here.
In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, Weaver states what no one wants to hear:
“Hybridizing over the past few centuries has altered the structure of the tomato flower, particularly the female part of it. Thus, many older types of tomatoes are more likely to cross than newer ones. As a rule, the tomatoes most likely to cross in a given garden are those with potato leaves [such as the wildly popular Brandywines], those with double-flowers (found on beefsteak tomatoes [of which Aunt Ruby’s is a variety]), and the currant tomatoes. All of these should be kept very far from other tomato varieties, at least 50 feet.” [Italics and words in brackets mine.]
If you plan to save seeds for home use, Dr. Male recommends “a distance of 3 to 4 feet within a row, and 5 feet between rows,” though she admits that she still gets 5% cross pollination. Weaver says that “all tomatoes should be kept at least 20 feet apart to insure seed purity,” and cautions growers to never save seed from fruits produced by the most easily pollinated double flowers.
At a local farmers’ market on Saturday here in DC, we saw some tomatoes purported to be Aunt Ruby’s German Greens. They had hints of striping, like the popular Mister Stripey, and plum-colored blushes, like the sugary sweet Cherokee Purples sitting next to them. They were huge, misshapen tomatoes, not at all the hard, round orbs slightly blushed with yellow that I grew to love many years ago. I did not buy them, knowing that they had been grown next to another variety – probably the Cherokees – and that they had been picked too late.
As Dr. Male warns, their “wonderful taste can only be appreciated if the fruit is completely ripe, and that determination takes a bit of practice.” I learned to look for a yellow blush on the blossom end. There might be a slightly pink blush as well, but if there is any hint of red or purple, the tomato is over the hill.
I encourage both backyard and commercial growers to plant heirlooms. They can truly be delicious. But if you don’t separate the open-pollinated varieties, you won’t get true heirlooms. I’m all but certain that’s the problem with most of the tomatoes we’re seeing here inWashington.
With “fresh and local,” my culinary calling card for the past 25 years, now being the be-all and end-all of food writers, I am amazed that more of my colleagues don’t continue the logical next step of preserving summer’s bounty for the dead of winter, when fresh and local can only mean hothouse- and/or hydroponically-grown. As I have written for years, the real hallmark of southern cooking is the vast array of condiments that adds harmonies of color, flavor, and texture to meals. Middle Eastern and Eastern European and Southeast Asian cuisines — among others – also rely on raitas, chutneys, sambals, dips, relishes, pickles, and sauces to complement their foods, so it’s especially disappointing to me to find fine restaurants serving store-bought hot sauces, mustards, and jams, while unused burners on their stovetops could easily be nursing a pot of local peaches at the height of their season, capturing their flavor for a hint of summer when the ground is covered in ice.
I’m at that awkward stage of late summer when the peppers are ripe, tomatoes need canning, my friend Chuck is offering me more figs, and my freezer is already full of peaches, berries, stocks, soups, barbecue, ripe bananas, and doughs. I keep a list of both my pantry and freezer items in my kitchen so that some marvelous frozen wonder doesn’t languish unused, but when I went to add the leftover 8-layer cake slices to the freezer this morning, there was no room. So I took stock and found: 2 pints chicken stock, 3 pints shrimp stock, a pound of bacon, duck fat roux, one duck breast, 3 prime ribeyes, demi-glace de veau, salted casings (large, for sausage), 4 racks of lamb (who knew?!), 4 smoked ham hocks, 4 ripe bananas, herbes de Provence, butterbeans, whole okra, 2 pints blueberries, 1 quart strawberries, 4 pounds peaches, 1 pint blackberries, 4 brioche rolls, toffee, coconut ice cream, more layer cake slices, 1 gallon of callaloo, 6 lbs bbq, puff pastry, 12 oz. grated (unsweetened) coconut, 1 pint mole poblano, egg roll wrappers, spring roll wrappers, ravioli for 2, locally grown and ground whole wheat flour, and my own grits, cornmeal, and corn flour.
Creamy Corn Soup
The barbecue (home-smoked, Eastern North Carolina-style) and the callaloo are going to a pool party in a few weeks. That will free up some room. And the first cool night we have, I’ll try to remember to cook some lamb or beef. I normally have a lot more homemade stock than the 5 pints I found in the freezer, but I’ve been making lots of soups lately, capturing summer’s bounty in a variety of ways. One of my favorites is an elegant, simple, creamy soup made with freshly picked sweet corn. I melt some clarified butter in a heavy pot and sweat leeks and shallots, covered, very slowly until they are totally wilted. I then add a light stock (this weekend I used a chicken stock that had been cooked with ginger, for a slightly spicy touch) and allow it to simmer for 15 minutes or so, then add corn, cut from the cob and the cobs scraped of every drop of the milky kernels, simmering it for about 5 minutes before I puree it, strain it, and season it to taste with salt. The soup is thick and creamy but contains no milk or cream. I served it hot with diced avocado. The next day, I added sour cream and more avocado, pureed it again, and served it cold. Delicious!
I love cold soups, as did my mother. In her personal collection of hand-written recipes the final chapter of miscellaneous favorites includes Cucumber Soup, Chilled Orange Soup (seasoned with cloves and thickened with tapioca), Chilled Apple Soup, Chilled Grape Soup, Chilled Raspberry Soup (made with reduced chicken stock and pineapple juice), and an additional Cold Cucumber Bisque.
Tonight, however, I’ll be making use of our last big batch of tomatoes, as well as the poud of fresh mozzarella I couldn’t resist buying this weekend. The following pasta recipe was Cecilia Holland’s idea (she and her husband George mill my grits and cornmeal for me), but I developed the formula and this recipe for my second book. I haven’t made it in years.
Corn Pasta Lasagne with Fresh Tomato Sauce, or Summer Lasagne
Right up until World War II, most meals and flours in the South were locally milled. Even as late as the 1960s in South Carolina, the cornmeal and grits in the large grocery stores were, for the most part, local. When I returned to South Carolina to open my culinary bookstore in the late 80s, finding a mill to grind to order was virtually impossible, but, after visiting 30 millers, I found George and Cecilia, who stone-grind my own label of heirloom corn grits, cornmeal, and cornflour for me in the mountains of Georgia. The Hollands, who had just purchased the mill in the mid-80s, left full-time jobs in Atlanta to move to the mountains a hundred miles from the city. We are still in business together, 22 years later. The corn flour is the finest grind, traditionally used to dust fish and vegetables for frying.
Sheets of this pasta can be layered in lasagne; it can be filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables for ravioli; or it can be cut into fettucine to be topped with your favorite sauce, especially those made with tomatoes or mushrooms, which complement the corn.
In this recipe, which is perfect in the summer when fresh tomatoes are in, I use a southwestern style salsa rather than a traditional cooked tomato sauce. Since the lasagna is being made as soon as the pasta is rolled, there’s no reason to parboil the pasta. Assemble the salsa first, then make the pasta.
For the salsa:
2-1/2 pounds ripe Roma tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped scallions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, deribbed, and chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
In a large mixing bowl toss all the ingredients together and set aside.
For the pasta:
2/3 cup very fine corn flour
1 cup unbleached bread flour
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt
Put 1/2 cup of the corn flour and the cup of bread flour in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse to blend. Add the other ingredients and blend until a ball of dough is formed. Dust a counter with the remaining cornflour and knead the dough until it is smooth. Work quickly and don’t let the dough dry out, or it will crack when you roll it.
Roll the dough by hand or through a pasta machine until it is very thin, then cut into desired shapes. This recipe yields enough pasta to make about 20 ravioli or four to six servings of flat pasta. For the following lasagna, roll the dough into flat sheets 4 inches wide by the length of the pan you’re using. I use an 8- by 11-1/2-inch pan, so I roll them 11 inches long, but the size of the pan is not critical in this recipe.
Cover a sheet pan with wax paper or parchment and put the pasta on it, not touching. Place another sheet of paper on top of the pasta and add another layer of pasta. Continue until all the pasta is covered.
For the lasagna:
reserved pasta from above
reserved salsa from above
1 pound fresh mozzarella, shredded (I use a food mill)
1 cup Parmesan, grated
Preheat the oven to 400o. Oil the baking pan and fill it with alternating layers of pasta, salsa, mozzarella, and Parmesan, in that order and finishing with the Parmesan.
Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the lasagna is bubbly and beginning to brown. Let it cool down for a few minutes before serving with a salad and crusty bread.
Debbie Recommends: Rioja — red or white.
August 19, 2009 A downright bizarre wine tasting
Today’s food section of the Washington Post purports to show that Virginia wines are on a par with those from California and France. The front page – at least of the online edition – boldly proclaims that their “wine tasting proves that Virginia can compete with Napa Valley and France.” [Italics mine.] Headline writers are known for exaggeration, but I don’t know that the article proves anything. That said, anyone can compete. The tasting was purposely modelled after the celebrated Judgement of Paris of 1976 in which California wines were blind-tasted next to French ones (and famously came out ahead).
In the Post’s tasting, organized by their wine writer, Dave McIntyre, six area wine professionals — three retailers, three sommeliers — were invited to blind-taste a dozen chardonnays and a dozen red Bordeaux-style wines. The tasters were told that that American wines were being pitted against France “in a sort of oenological grudge match.” The Post ”slipped in five Virginia wines and one from Maryland without telling anyone.”
What I find bizarre about the tasting is that the wines are all over the place — apples and oranges, to use the old cliché. The Newton Vineyard 2005 Unfiltered Cabernet from Napa, the panel’s highest-ranking red, is a huge powerhouse of a wine packing around 15% alcohol. There was a time not too long ago when that much alcohol in a wine would have meant that the wine had been fortified. Dessert wines in the United States, for example, all have more than 14% alcohol. As classic wine grapes are being grown in hotter and hotter climates, such as in Virginia and Australia, the grapes ripen more quickly and intensely. Wines with forward fruit flavors and higher alcohol contents are the result. It’s a trend I’ve lamented in these pages before.
I know the Newton wines. I have stayed at Su-Hua Newton’s house in San Francisco and dined at her table, and she, at mine (see photo). The Post described the wine as “a $60 monster that wowed the judges with its unmistakably jammy fruit, velvety texture and spicy complexity.” No mention of the high alcohol content, which you won’t find on Newton’s website, either. There’s good reason: in the United States, table wine must be less than 14% alcohol. There’s a +/- variable of 1.5% allowed, but wine that is over 14% will always taste “hot,” which is winespeak for excessively alcoholic. “Fat” and “big” are the words used to describe robust, full-bodied wines that are high in alcohol. Big reds beg for rich, unctuous foods, such as the slowly braised meats and stews that Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion recommends serving with its 2005 red, which placed second in the Post’s tasting. I’ve got some of the Larrivet in my cellar. I’ve tasted it and it’s a typical Léognan wine, 70% merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, supple and well-rounded, but not yet ready to drink. I’ve got two bottles left of the 2001, but it takes a rack of lamb to bring out the nice fruit/tannin balance of this wine that has, according to my notes, “a bitter edge of coffee and a leathery depth, with plumlike fruit.” To drink this wine next to the Newton, or to drink either of these wines without food defeats the purpose, I would think. I assume the tasters were spitting: they tried 24 wines!
I wish that wine and food writers would note both the cépages (the grape blend) and the alcohol content in their columns. (Not to mention fermentation practices and the types of barrels used.)
The favored Chappellett wine in the Post’s tasting, another 2007 Napa Valley bombshell, has nearly 15% alcohol. There’s no way that I would have rated it so high because I hate that style of chardonnay. And yet all but one of the tasters thought that it was French! One of the tasters described another of the American chardonnays as “a yummy, jammy fruit bomb.” That’s the last thing I want wine to taste like, and yet this California style (now often called the “international” style) has become the norm more so than not. The panel’s second ranked chardonnay was Louis Latour’s 2005 Premier Cru Meursault-Blagny. Meursault is a region famous for its buttery, mineral-laden wines. You can put them down for years and then pull a bottle out on the first cold snap of autumn and serve it at cool room temperature with a creamy soup, rich with mushrooms.
Here’s a recipe. I’ve got to go make my pizza dough for tonight.
Cream of Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms from The New Southern Cook
This recipe comes from Chef Jimmy Sneed.
For the cream base:
1 large onion, diced
4 shallots, sliced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock
3 cups heavy cream
In a large sauté pan, cook the onion and the shallots in the olive oil until they are transparent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add the stock and reduce until almost dry. Add the cream and reduce slowly for 10 minutes. Strain well and set aside.
For the soup:
3 pounds fresh shiitake mushrooms
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
2 shallots, peeled and diced
2-1/4 cups rich chicken stock or bouillon
2-1/4 cups cream base (above)
Stem and slice the mushrooms. Heat a large, heavy (preferably cast iron) skillet or sauté pan to medium hot. Add 1/4″ of olive oil. Add the shiitakes and stir. Season with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and shallots and continue to cook over medium hot heat, stirring so that the mushrooms sizzle as they cook. When the mushrooms are cooked almost soft, after about 2 minutes, add 1/2 cup of the stock to stop the cooking. Puree in a blender or food processor, then mix with the cream base and adjust the consistency with the rest of the stock. Adjust the seasoning before serving.
Debbie Recommends: The wine should have layers of flavor. A good St. Veran would work, but Meursault would be perfect.
I really don’t repeat myself much in the kitchen, but when the peaches and figs and tomatoes are in, I tend to do very little to them in the way of cooking. My rucola selvatica (Diplotaxis tenuifolia), or wild arugula, is thriving now that the sun is a little lower in the sky and it’s not suffering in the heat. I picked two big handfuls of it, cleaned it, and weighed it, out of curiosity. As you can see in the photo, two cups barely weighs an ounce. I put some orrecchiette on to boil and took slow-roasted tomatoes (see August 10, below) from the refrigerator to come to room temp. When the pasta was about 3/4 of the way done, I tossed in the arugula to wilt in the pasta water. I drained the pasta and arugula and added a few roasted tomatoes with their garlicky oil and grated some parmigiano reggiano over the dish for a quick and delicious supper. We had planned to eat at a crab house down on the lower Potomac, near Newburg, Maryland, but we were several hours behind and had to get home to the dog.
We had driven down to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to look at the new prefab iHouse model that Warren Buffet has heavily invested in. I seldom drive on the interstate highways unless I’m headed home to South Carolina, and I would never head south during rush hour. Google maps says that it’s 53 miles and takes about 57 minutes. Every lane in both directions was backed up, even the middle fast lane. It took us 4 hours just to get there. I had just heard on NPR how northern Virginia now has the traffic that is second only to L.A.s. Now I believe it.
Responding to my posting about figs, I heard from Matt Neal, the son of the late, great chef Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Matt and his wife Sheila are making a culinary name for themselves at their own Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, just down the block from Crook’s. Matt and Sheila offer both American and European deli selections, often using local and seasonal ingredients. Sheila was a mover and shaker with the very successful Carrboro farmers’ market, and I can tell you from personal experience that their food is delicious. Matt’s mom has also been a bulwark of culinary excellence in the Triangle Area, so it’s perhaps no wonder that he has blossomed on his own. We are all so proud of him!
Here’s what he wrote me, which I’m posting in the Readers’ Comments section as well:
John, I love fresh figs, maybe more than any other food. A good fig on a slice of good country ham is very good, better than with prosciutto, especially if you don’t add any dressing or do any cooking to it. I love ham and mustard, and I eat ham and fig, but I don’t like figs with vinegar or mustard. A bowl of figs on the kitchen table is the best thing in the world to snack on. I think vanilla ice cream with fresh figs and a slice of buttermilk poundcake is a great dessert, but fig ice cream is a bit of a waste of effort and figs to me. Like you, I have scoured my cookbooks for fig recipes and found little. On Ocracoke Island they do a nice fig cake that is oldfashioned and pudding-y, probably same as you mentioned,they stack them next to the cash registers in the stores there. When I lived in Savannah I got my figs by reaching through old cast iron fences- after a few days of walking by beautiful trees laden with ignored fruit I would go a little mad and resort to poaching! This was downtown in the middle of the day and no one ever said anything to me. I kept thinking that I would be stopped, and when I felt a tap I would turn to see a branch or overripe fruit brushing my shoulder. Nowadays I find that permission doesn’t dull the sweetness for me. The only recipe I’ve come up with that I return to often is a fig on top of a saltine covered with peanut butter but I return most often just to the figs themselves. At the deli when we have figs I just put a bowl on the counter and make everybody try at least one until they’re gone. I’ve gotten too many free figs in my life to charge for them.
Sheila’s got another one due in late Nov. Come down sometime! – Matt
and in a postscript:
I forgot to mention that I eat the tomato seed jelly by the hand full when I’m processing tomatoes, I love that stuff! My sister says it’s very good for you. I often skip the step of deseeding when cooking tomatoes for home. – Matt
For years, especially when I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, I tried unsucessfully to grow Italian flat-leaf parsley. It would always bolt and no amount of constant pruning would keep it alive long enough for me to harvest more than a few leaves at a time. I tried several varieties, and they would do fine until the heat of summer, then before I knew it, it would be gone. Like cilantro. I can’t believe how many years it took me to wise up and grow it in the shade. This year I have gorgeous plants, tucked underneath the roses and passion vines in my front dooryard and underneath the tomatoes and basil on my deck. I also have invasive mint that grows waist-high within a day or two of clipping it to the ground, it seems. But it’s the best-tasting mint I’ve ever grown, so I let it do its thing, and pull it up by the handfuls every other day.
I’ve written about my love of parsley before on the blog (see February 21, 2008) and I’ve written about tabbouleh (see January 10, 2008), but yesterday was the first time I can remember making tabbouleh with my own parsley, my own mint, and my own tomatoes. What a perfect dish for a hot day!
I also used the last of the figs I picked this weekend to make a dense “pudding” as the Engish would call it. I didn’t steam it, but simply baked it in a loaf pan, the way you would banana bread. Thre recipe, in fact, is just like a standard banana bread recipe, which usually calls for 3 ripe, mashed bananas. I laid the ripest figs I had out on my counter next to an average banana, to get the right amount. Three times. Then I weighed them: one pound. Then I simply removed the stems and mashed them with a potato masher and proceeded to make the pudding as in the recipe below. But I got to wondering about figs.
It amazes me how few recipes for fresh southern figs there are. Writers who bother to mention them might give a recipe for a couple of kinds of preserves, a cake made with those preserves, and perhaps a layer cake as well, with preserves between the layers. I don’t get it. Figs were left behind by early Spanish settlers in Florida and on the Carolina coast and were well naturalized into the South by the time the English settlers arrived here decades later. They are hardy from Zones 7a to 10b, which is to say virtually all of the South, Texas, and the West Coast, and yet recipes are few and far between. You find the Italian-inspired, wrapped with prosciutto and/or stuffed with cheese and grilled, which is better suited to the tougher figs of the Mediteranean and California. Some food writers suggest adding them to ice cream, or preserving them, but those recipes havent’changed in 200 years. I thumb through the indices of dozens of cookbooks looking for recipes, to no avail.
The brown turkey and celeste fig varieties that are most common in the South are unlike the big tough-skinned figs of California, South America, and the Mediterranean. There is virtually no difference between the flesh and the skin of the southern fig. They are soft, sweet, more like a peach than other figs, and highly perishable. They are indescribably delicious. When I was growing up, everyone knew someone with a fecund fig tree (often called ”bushes”) from western Tennessee to northern Virginia, and from Florida to Texas. And yet as I pore over my vast southern cookbook library, I find very little. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which won the James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award a couple of years ago, was written by a couple of young whippersnappers who aren’t really southerners, but at least they included a couple of the classics. Martha Hall Foose, whose Screen Doors and Sweet Tea won this year in the American category, includes one recipe in which she bakes onions in buttered apple juice, scoops them out, then adds chopped figs and black walnuts, a classic combination that you find in most of the cakes, including the Lee brothers’, as well as in some of the preserves, including my mother’s.
Bill Smith’s Seasoned in the South, from Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, includes figs added to ice cream and a pairing of figs with country ham and doused with a “Sauce Bellevue” made with mint, vinegar, sour cream, sugar, mustard, and olive oil. I do love Bill’s food, but that’s not something I’m going to order in his restaurant or make at home. I guess the real problem is that figs are so delicious on their own, you really don’t want to do much to them. John Egerton barely mentions them in his seminal Southern Food: “People in the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida … insist that nothing is tastier than a bowl of freshly picked figs with cream.”
Funny, I’ve never really cared for cream with my figs. I didn’t even include fig ice cream in my Lowcountry Cooking simply because I don’t think it shows off figs or ice cream to either’s advantage. There are plenty of fig preserve and ice cream recipes in most lowcountry books, but The Carolina Housewife, from 1847, only includes one, for fig pudding. It’s good: “To one pint of milk add six eggs, well beaten, six spoonsful of flour, half a spoonful of butter, half a nutmeg, and one tea-spoonful of slat; pour it into a well greased pan, and bake for an hour. To be eaten with wine sauce.”
Bill Neal, the original chef at Crook’s Corner, didn’t mention figs in his first book, Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking (1985). His baking book, from 1990, only includes that old warhorse, the ice cream. Ronni Lundy doesn’t mention them in her Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens (1991), which is subltitled Seasoned with Memories and Melodies from Country Music Stars. In all fairness, she’s from Louisville, which is possibly out of fig’s range, and the book is mostly foods from the Mountain South, where they also won’t grow, but Nashville, the home of country music, could very well be called Fig Nation, there are so many trees there. Camille Glenn, Louisville’s grande dame of cooking, did concede in The Heritage of Southen Cooking (1986) that “the season is all too short [for figs and raspberries]…. Serve figs and raspberries plain with a touch of lemon juice, or with cream; or serve them with good crackers and a triple crème cheese or a premium natural cream cheese. An exquisite finale to any meal.” I wonder if she knew folks in Louisville with both raspberries and figs. Hmm… the raspberries are just about shot here in the Mid-Atlantic when the figs begin, so I guess the season for the combination she suggests really is too short!
No mention in The Florida Cookbook by Jeanne Voltz and Caroine Stuart (1993), nor in Edna Lewis’s In Pursuit of Flavor (1988), about the flavors of Virginia. Sarah Belk paired dried figs, classically, with black walnuts in her 1991 collection Around the Southern Table, but dried figs have nothing to do with fresh ones. Her only recipe for fresh figs pairs them, as does Bill Smith, with country ham and a mustard cream. And Ben and Karen Barker, whose Magnolia Grill in Durham is one of my favorite restaurants only offer the aforementioned grilled figs wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with a blue cheese mousse in their cookbook from 2000.
How can this be? Figs are iconic to me as a southerner, as much the essence of summer in the South as swimming, watermelon, and okra. Now that I think about it, I guess they never reached widespread acclaim simply because they are so perishable and don’t ship well. We knew and loved figs in our own home when I growing up because my grandmother in western Tennesse had trees and made preserves, plus my father’s secretary had one whose fruits we enjoyed for its month-long season. If you had figs, you shared with your friends and neighbors, but only on the day they were picked. They don’t keep, and they don’t continue ripening after they’re picked. No wonder most folks eat them fresh, put them in a pudding, add them to ice cream, or preserve them.
Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, published in Atlanta in 1867, acknowledges the ephemeral nature of the fruits. She offers but one “receipt,” To Dry Figs, which is really a recipe for candying them. 25 years later, also in Atlanta, The New Dixie Cook-Book only mentions dried figs: “To freshen figs, wash them thoroughly and dry on a towel and heat them in the oven; take out and roll in powdered sugar.”
Because the Ficus genus is composed of mostly tropical and subtropical plants, I’ve found figs and recipes for them, not surprisingly, in the warmest reaches of the South. The common fig, F. carica, however, originated in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and has been cultivated since ancient times. I think that the figs that were left behind by the Spaniards in the 16th Century on the east coast have reverted to a subtropical subgenus. California claims that its figs are also old Spanish varieties that have been there for centuries, but they aren’t as delicate as ours. Pick up a cookbook, particularly an older one, from Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans or Mobile and you’ll find figs, though you’re not likely to find recipes other than preserves or ice cream. The Gateau de Figues in The Picayune Creole Cook Book, published in New Orleans in 1901, calls for raisins and nutmeg, a pound of fresh figs, and butter, milk, flour, and way too much sugar and butter.
I think this one is better:
Fig Loaf, or Pudding
Black walnuts are the classic combination with figs, but if you can’t find them, use pecans, or walnuts, or any combination. Or simply omit them.
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
the grated zest of one lemon
1 pound fresh, ripe figs, stemmed and mashed (about 2 cups)
1-1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts (see above), optional
Preheat the oven to 350oand grease an 8- or 9-inch loaf pan.
Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and mix until light. Add the orange zest, nutmeg, and banlemon zest and figs and mix thoroughly.
Sift the flour, soda, and salt together and add to the wet ingredients. Mix well, then add the nuts and mix well again. Fold into the greased pan and bake for one hour. Allow to cool before serving.
Serve cold or warm or toasted, with or without a sauce or cream.
Makes one standard loaf pan, about 12 slices.
August 10, 2009 Figs! Tomatoes! Beans! Squash! Eggplant! Peppers!
We spent another glorious weekend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with our friends Chuck and Bruce, whose garden this year is the best they’ve ever had. I’ve never seen so many tomato plants without disease, which is particularly amazing given the preponderance of late blight, a disease that is puportedly killing off tomatoes and potatoes up and down the east coast of America. I was frankly shocked to see Dan Barber’s editorial in the New York Times this weekend, in which he admits that his ideology has been myopic, or at least nostalgic:
“To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia I’m guilty of promoting as a chef when I celebrate only heirloom tomatoes on my menus. These venerable tomato varieties are indeed important to preserve, and they’re often more flavorful than conventional varieties. But in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new.
That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell…. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to [late blight].”
I’m thrilled to see the discussion opening up. As in American politics, we have become so divided on food issues that there has been little common ground between those who advocate fresh, local, organic and heirloom and those who see a bigger picture of feeding the world, not just rich yuppies who can afford to eat in places such as Barber’s Rockefeller-supported Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where dinner begins at over $100 per person. (Don’t get me wrong: I’ve eaten there and the food is delicious, but I also have an open mind when it comes to genetic engineering and other advances in agriculture.)
I’ve written extensively about figs on this blog (see both August 2007 and August 2008), but here we are in August again and Chuck and Bruce’s trees — four of them, 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide — are covered in fruit. In the photo on the right, a large pot of figs cook with 2/3 their weight in sugar. In the background, chopped figs, pineapple, and lemon will cook down into a jam. Last night, I cooked duck breasts in a dry skillet, rendering all the fat out of the skin side until it was crispy and brown. I then turned the breasts over and added shallots and figs to the pan with a hearty splash of the California Cabernet we were to drink with the dish. I’m not much of a California cab fan, but the 2004 Freemark Abbey wine itself tastes of figs, and it married well with the duck, which always welcomes fruit at its side.
We canned a couple of dozen jars of figs, but the weekend was mostly about the bounty of the tomato plants. Brandywines, Cherokee purples, plums, patios, you name it!
The first thing I made on Saturday morning was homemade mayonnaise so that we could have tomato sandwiches on the nice, homestyle, dense white bread we had on hand. (For the mayo recipe, see June 5, 2008.)
It’s no wonder Brandywines are so popular: They are fleshy, sweet, tart, and winey in flavor. Carolyn Male, a microbiologist who has grown more than a thousand varieties of tomatoes, has written, “There’s nothing subtle about Red Brandywine’s taste — it explodes with flavor, literally assaulting your senses with every bite, and has a depth of flavor that truly matches its century-long heritage.”
As I made sandwiches, Chuck hollowed out a variety of tomatoes to slow roast in the oven. I don’t hollow mine out when I slow-roast them (see February 5, 2008 for the recipe/technique), because I know that the “jelly” surrounding the seeds is the most flavorful part of the fruit. That may seem counter-intuitive to the legions of recipes that call for deseeding tomatoes, but, like the ribs of a pepper plant, the placenta is the most flavorful part. As the great Washington chef José Andrés has written, “about tomatoes and their humble seeds: Most people discard them when cooking tomatoes. But trust me, they are a hidden treasure. To harvest the ‘filet’ (as the cluster of seeds is called), take a sharp knife and slice off the ends of a ripe tomato. You’ll see there is an exterior wall of tomato flesh around the circumference of the tomato and interior walls running into the tomato’s center that separate it into segments. Gently cut through the outer wall of the tomato and one of the dividing walls. Carefully peel back the outer wall of the tomato to expose the seeds. Slide your knife underneath the seed mass and remove. Your aim is to keep the pulp of the seeds together to create tomato-seed ‘filets.’
“This seed mass, or what we sometimes call ‘tomato caviar,’ can be a new way of adding tomato flavor to a dish. It offers small, bright bursts of pure tomato flavor encased in an amazing natural gelatin and is super refreshing. I like to use them in salads or as a garnish for gazpacho.”
Chuck saves every morsel of his hollowed-out tomatoes, however, and purees it with some salt and pepper (see photo on right). Later in the afternoon, we had bloody marys with no other seasoning at all!
The tomatoes, with chopped garlic, roasted most of the day. We would add them later to clams and pasta. In the meantime, I had inadverdently left the whole-grain breads out on the counter, and they had become stale.
There are so many things to do with stale bread. It’s a shame most folks toss it. The easiest way to “freshen” it is to put it inside a heavy paper bag (in the photo on the left, I have used a 5-pound sugar bag), thoroughly soak the bag with water, and place the bag in a hot oven. When the bag is dried out, the bread will be magically refreshed. I learned this trick when I lived in Italy and use it several times each week because when I buy bread, it’s always too much for just the two of us. We eat what we want, then I wrap the remaining bread and leave it at room temperature, then reheat the remaining bread in the wet paper bag as described herein.
Of course, the Italians do all sorts of things with stale bread, grating it into pasta dishes, featuring it front and center in soups, and, perhaps most commonly, in a salad that has as many variations as there are villages in Italy. The salad is most common from Tuscany south, but I have eaten versions in both Liguria and the Veneto. The most prevalent version is from Tuscany, which claims “panzanella” as its own. As Carol Field wrote in The Italian Baker (truly one of the best cookbooks of all time), “Panzanella is one of the humblest Tuscan dishes, made merely of stale dark saltless bread moistened with water and turned into a salad with slices of tomato, chopped basil leaves, a few vegetables, and the best fruity olive oil. It is the perfect picnic food on a hot summer day and is a dish that you can make on the spur of the moment. That’s why there really aren’t any recipes, just lists of ingredients.”
In the Tuscan version, saltless bread slices are soaked in water for about 15 minutes, then squeezed dry and torn into chunks and dressed however the cook sees fit. If you search “panzanella” online, you will find dozens of recipes, many of which call for toasting olive-oil soaked bread in the oven before tossing it with the other salad ingredients.
Yet another version is the one I made on Saturday, in which the cubed, stale bread was soaked in water with a chopped red onion. All of the liquid was then squeezed out as thoroughly as possible. In this rendition of the Meditteranean classic, the bread falls completely apart and the tomato salad, its flavor bolstered with herbs, becomes an Italian version of tabbouleh. It was incredibly refreshing in the heat of the day, the perfect dish to tide us over until supper. (For the record, I soaked 5 cups of cubed bread and one chopped red onion (2 cups) in 2 cups of water for about 3 minutes. I squeezed the bread out in a clean dish towel until there was no liquid left, then tossed it with 3 pounds of tomatoes, fresh herbs, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice.)
When we went to buy cherrystone clams for our pasta, there were gorgeous, fresh soft-shell crabs at the market as well, so, to accompany our pasta, I slowly grilled the soft shells with eggplant and green tomatoes from the garden. The crabs and vegetables were simply doused with olive oil, salt, and pepper (as well as a pinch of cayenne on the crabs).
As the pasta cooked, I steamed the clams open in a pan with a little butter, olive oil, white wine, and herbs. I didn’t add garlic because we were adding some of the slow-roasted garlicey tomatoes to the dish.
As the clams popped open, I removed them to a colander held above the pan, so that they wouldn’t overcook.
When the pasta was not quite done, I drained it and stirred it into the clam juices, then added some tomatoes to the mix, and, finally, returned the clams (a dozen per person) to the dish. We gorged ourselves.
August 7, 2009 Blog Problems
I write this blog on Microsoft Office Live Web Design, an awful program full of glitches that has been losing my material and erasing days of work. Of course the ten or so different Indian customer service reps have all told me it’s my computer, even though I’ve used several different computers now to work on this.
I’ve learned to write in a word processing program, but when the information is lost, I have to go back and put in the hot links and photos. And the spontaneity is lost. This is the third time I’ve tried to recreate this post from last week.
Please accept my apologies for the lack of content on my blog the past couple of weeks.
Taste and the power of suggestion
[This is a rewrite of some of the ideas from a lost blog entry from last month. Thanks a lot, Microsoft!]
I was talking with a friend the other day about the ridiculous language of wine snobs, and how powerful suggestion can be. We basically argued, but then I remembered Daniel Zwerdling’s article in Gourmet a few years ago in which he cited scientific studies debunking the claims of Riedel, the Austrian makers of crystal wine glasses said to be designed to bring out the best qualities of each grape and type of wine.
Coincidentally, a few days later I ran into Danny at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, where we now sell my grits and cornmeal at the booth of Wheaton caterer anna saint john. He said that when he wrote the article, “Shattered Myths,” that he and his editors at Gourmet were certain that it would be controversial and revolutionary.
It barely caused a ripple in the consciousness of wine snobs.
People believe what they want to believe. If you, as a Regular Reader of my blog, respect my opinion, and I write that an Oregon Pinot Blanc in a cheap claret glass smells of diesel fuel (like Riesling), but that the same wine exudes classic Alsatian aromas of melons and citrus in the specially designed Riedel crystal, you are likely to at least take me at my word. If we were in the same room tasting the wine in those glasses, it would be hard to ignore any taste or smell that someone else noted.
Never mind that each person’s taste is unique.
I tested the theory on several friends the other night, suggesting diesel fuel as we sipped a billowy, acidicWilliametteValley wine. Everyone smelled the diesel. Truthfully, there was a big, fruity fragrance and a mouthful of a minerals about the wine, but it was nicely balanced with just enough acidity to cut through the intensity of the fried calamari. Not enough to keep up with the accompanying sticky sweet sauce, which we avoided. I craved some lime juice on the calamari; it would have perfectly complemented the melon-like character of the wine. A funny thing happened: even I could smell the diesel fuel once I suggested it, and I kept hankering for a glass of red to get the taste out of my mouth. The glasses at the wine bar/restaurant, by the way, were generic. And hardly crystal. I wonder what my friends would have tasted if I had said “billowy aromas of apples and pears spritzed with lemon.” Just writing that type of winespeak makes me uncomfortable, although I think that I fairly described what I smelled. Before I said “diesel.”
I found this promotional literature from Riedel:
Riedel achieves what the essence of wine and other beverage drinking is all about: enjoyment. Perfect for everyday use, the Viognier / Chardonnay glasses are recommended for: Albariño, Bordeaux (white), Burgundy (white), Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Condrieu, Hermitage Blanc, Marsanne, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauternes, Sauvignon Blanc, or Viognier. Though glasses shaped and sized for different types of wine seem commonplace today, when Riedel introduced this idea in 1961, it was revolutionary. Since then Riedel has continued fine-tuning glasses to bring out the best characteristics in wines and spirits. Varying bowls’ shapes and sizes affects the position of the head when sipping and where wine first contacts the tongue’s various taste zones.
Danny’s article debunked the old tongue taste zone theory.
How on earth, I wondered, could a glass designed to capitalize on the huge bouquet of Condrieu possibly be the same glass designed for the “cat pee on a gooseberry bush” of Sauvignon Blanc? I dug deeper in Riedel’s site and found that they offer nine series of glasses, and within those series, dozens of glasses designed specifically for certain grapes and blends. For pinot blancs, the official Riedel site describes nine glasses for wines with alcohol content under 12.5% and another nine glasses for wines over 12.5% (though why anyone would want to drink a Pinot Blanc with more alcohol than that is beyond me!). The official American Riedel retail site, however, only offers three glasses recommended for Pinot Blanc, ranging in price from $15 to $77 per stem. Both websites are difficult to navigate and in reality what they are selling is a glass designed for Chardonnay or Viognier. I then visited the wine bar’s website to check out the Pinot Blanc we had had with our appetizers. (I was the guest of a friend who had ordered the wine. I hadn’t looked at the label when we were there, as I knew I would never be buying it again.) Then, from the restaurant’s site to the winemaker’s, where I discovered that the wine we drank was indeed 13.7% alcohol! I guess it did smell of diesel fuel after all.
On a side note, I despise the “international” trend in winemaking that has seen indigenous grapes dug up all over Italy, Spain, Hungary, and Portugal, to be replaced with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Even in California, traditional vines are being replaced even as the trend to make fruity, highly alcoholic, in-your-face wines (a California style that somehow became “international”), is hopefully waning. But that’s another blog entry.
One last note about fine crystal wine glasses. Don’t get me wrong. I love a nice crystal glass, and I love to put my nose down in a big, round crystal Burgundy glass when I’ve got a big, old, velvety Volnay to go in it. But I don’t often open the few rare bottles in my cellar, and, on a daily basis, I drink my Côtes du Rhône from my Martha Stewart everyday crystal from her ancestral Poland (and which I buy at Macy’s for about $8/stem).
I have blogged several times about the taste of chicken, nearly always recommending brining small, under-three-pound birds for frying, roasting, and grilling. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was a 2-1/4 pound chicken that I bought at the old, funky and industrial D.C. Farmers Market that is usually shunned by other food writers, but that is only place where I have found some traditional southern (read: African-American) ingredients such as green peanuts for boiling; just-picked Florida okra with no blemishes; and a variety of fresh cowpeas such as black-eyes and crowders. Scroll down in the July blog to read about that chicken.
Right after I wrote that blog, I received an email from Jennifer Kendall of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy about the chicken tasting I had missed out at Ayrshire Farm, where I have tasted heirloom breeds of turkey, lamb, and pork. You can read the press release here. Nine heirloom breeds of chicken were sampled in a blind tasting. The industry standard, the Corn/Rock hybrid, was added to selection for comparison. Corn Rocks comprise 90% of the chickens grown in this country.
At the previous Ayrshire/ALBC tastings I attended, the “winners” were chosen in a totally unscientific way: The 10 different meats were sampled blind, rated numerically according to sight and smell and taste and texture, then each taster added his or her ratings and chose the favorite. The turkey or lamb or hog that got the most #1 votes was declared the winner, when, in fact, the meats that had ranked second and third actually had more votes. In the hog tasting, one of the pork shoulders tasted of a barnyard and scored last on nearly everyone’s list, but the folks at ALBC assured me that the breed is revered for its “exquisite flavor.” After writing about the unpleasant taste of the one breed, I receieved an email from ALBC’s program director: “I do wonder how that particular pig was raised, fed, butchered, shipped, etc, and the conditions in each circumstance. I also wonder what its living conditions had been in the 2-3 weeks prior to butchering. I went to a local pig picking several years ago and had a similar experience – I thought I was eating the barn yard. Yuck!”
When I was researching an article on Whole Hog Cookery, I interviewed several chefs and farmers on the taste of heritage breeds of pork. While most wanted to say that breed was all-important, they all agreed that “grow-out” methods – that is, how and what the animals are fed in their final days — are more so.
At the chicken tasting, all of the birds were raised, fed, and butchered in the same conditions at Ayrshire Farm. That leveled the playing field somewhat. A panel of expert judges tasted the birds first. Here are the results from the ALBC press release:
The celebrity judge panel included Tony Esnault, former Exectuive Chef for Alain Ducasse in New York City. Chef Esnault is thought to be one of the most skilled chefs in America for his chicken preparations. Joining Chef Esnault, was Akiko Katayama, a freelance food writer and regular judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, James Beard Award winning Chef R.J. Cooper of Vidalia restaurant in Washington, DC, Bob Perry a trained chef and Chefs Collaborative board member, and Rob Townsend, Executive Chef at Ayrshire Farm.
Tasters judged the each chicken sample on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. Samples were judged on flavor, texture and appearance.
Once the crowd and expert panel completed tasting and scoring the breeds, they were asked to vote for a first, second and third place winner and the votes were tallied.
The winner of the crowd vote was the Dorking. Second place was a tie between the Rhode Island Red and the industrially bred Corn Rock cross. Third place was a tie between the Dominique and the Buckeye.
After the crowd decided their favorite, the expert judge panel announced its winners, which were determined by consensus. The judges selected the Dorking and Corn Rock cross for first place. Second place was awarded to the Plymouth Rock and third to the Faverolle.
Look how well the industry standard did in this blind tasting, though I’m not sure how the judges chose their favorites. The judges’ individual favorites were as follows: R.J. Cooper of Vidalia restaurant in Washington, DC chose the Rhode Island Red; Tony Ensault chose the Faverolle; Akiko Katayama chose the Corn Rock cross; Bob Perry chose the Dorking; and Rob Townsend chose the Sussex.
The chickens were raised on pasture and fed organic feed. They were all processed at 16 weeks, with the exception of the Corn Rock cross which grows twice as fast and needed to be processed at 7-8 weeks. Hmmm… as I have written and written, young birds taste better, as is evidenced by this young industry standard hybrid scoring as high as the rest of these heirloom breeds. Further, all the birds were brined for 24 hours before being roasted in a convection oven for 30 to 35 minutes. They all must have been pretty small to cook in 45 minutes. And brining, as I have been writing for months, is definitely the way to go with both pork and poultry.
Nevertheless, what do we get in the aftermath of this tasting? The following quote from an attending chef: “Heritage chickens definitely have a richer flavor than the average chicken… It melts in your mouth.”
That’s a powerful suggestion that belies the evidence of the tasting.
Again, I don’t want to have you think that I am against heritage breeds. Indeed, I have long advocated for them, denouncing the cottony flavor of supermarket birds. But if you feed any chicken properly, and treat it well from egg to table, it will probably taste fine, especially if you brine it, cook it right, and tell your diners that it’s the best bird you’ve ever tasted.
For my fried chicken dinner on Sunday, I called over a dozen poultry mongers inWashington, looking for 4 birds under 3 pounds. I finally found one place that had them. They asked if I wanted them cut up and I said, “Yes, the old-fashioned way.” They had no idea what I was talking about. But that’s another story.