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The confit files

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The holiday season is to the home cook what a howling blizzard is to the captain of a fully loaded 747 approaching O’Hare Airport. It’s showtime; it’s the time you earn your keep. While pilots are dealing with bad weather, home cooks are grappling with turkey — in particular, how to make it appealing, or at least presentable. The key factors here, moistness and flavor, are interrelated, since much of the flavor in a bird is in its juices. Turkeys, despite their monstrous bioengineered breasts, are famously lean, and did I mention it isn’t just a blizzard, it’s 30 below with gusty winds, and the landing gear is stuck?

For the past few years I’ve flirted with the idea that turkey might respond to the confit treatment: slow, gentle cooking while immersed in fat. The usual confit subject is duck, which is actually a self-sustaining fat ecosystem: enough fat can be rendered from a duck to cook its meat in. Turkey, on the other hand, requires a subsidy, either duck fat reserved from earlier confit operations, or reserved duck fat with lard.

Since I don’t keep lard in the house and didn’t feel like buying and butchering a whole turkey for an experiment, I began small, with a single turkey tenderloin, the pound or so of boneless flesh that stands in so nicely for pork in so many roles. I seasoned the tenderloin, let it stand in the fridge overnight, rinsed it off, immersed it in duck fat in a small heavy pan, brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, and then put it into a 200-degree oven for about three hours.

Although I had no particular expectations about the result, the result was nonetheless startling. The meat seemed to have contracted in the fat — Seinfeld–ian shrinkage — and when I cut the tenderloin open, it had become dense, almost like chilled fudge. At the bottom of the pan lay a shallow layer of extruded juice, whose departure no doubt had contributed to the meat’s collapse. I sliced the tenderloin into pâtélike slices and served the heated juice (captured with a gravy separator) over the top as a salvage-operation sauce, but all of this fuss only partly concealed the unusual deadness of the meat.

Next time (if there is a next time): meat on the bone will have to be involved. That’s the brainstorm of the moment.

Paul Reidinger

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We heart the cranberry tart

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People might grumble about holiday turkey, but even the most disenchanted grumbler will usually choke down a bite or two, just for appearances. Seldom is the same courtesy extended to the cranberry, which often reaches the table as a pretty red relish no one really wants. The cranberry is the orphan of holiday cooking and — a true measure of its lowly state — a punch line for sitcom jokes, from The Simpsons to Frasier.

To say all the neglect, abuse, and humor amount to an injustice is a considerable understatement. The cranberry is one of nature’s superfoods, for one thing, richer in antioxidants than just about everything else and, as the Indians understood, endowed with medicinal properties. (Cranberries were used to treat urinary-tract infections.)

But as food marketers have long known, "good for you" isn’t the sexiest pitch. Better to flash a little thigh — but does the cranberry have any thigh to flash? The answer is yes! Forget about the wretched relish and turn your holiday cranberries into a lovely dessert tart. (By doing this you will also rid the holiday world of at least one pumpkin pie, another deathless perennial no one seems to like.)

If you are truly ambitious, you can make a cranberry version of linzer torte using the recipe in Emily Luchetti’s Classic Stars Desserts (Chronicle, 2007). I made a rustic galette but did start with a version of her filling: basically a 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, rinsed, then simmered in a heavy saucepan with a cup of sugar, a few tablespoons of water, and the zest of one orange until jamminess was achieved.

Pastry: a cup of all-purpose flour into the food processor, followed by six tablespoons of sweet butter (in chunks) and a pinch of salt. When it looks like cornmeal, dribble in ice water (machine still running) until a ball forms. Chill briefly, then shape into a 10-inch disk. Lay the disk on parchment paper on a baking tray. In the middle of the disk, spread three tablespoons each of sugar and flour. Spread about half of your jam over this, add five more tablespoons of sugar, and fold up the edges into a rough circle. Brush the pastry with water, sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar, and bake in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes. Cool, and give thanks.

Paul Reidinger

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The smell test

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Old joke: If you want to hear God laugh, make plans. (A tip of the trilby here to the Chronicle’s Jon Carroll, whose recent and perfect phrasing I borrow.) In the alternative, open a nice restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. Fisherman’s Wharf: our very own cross between Vatican City and the Potsdamer Platz of Cold War Berlin, except with seagulls instead of barbed wire and searchlights. It is so different from the rest of the city that it feels as if it should have its own time zone and area code. It is a place where city dwellers do not tread, unless they aren’t paying attention and find they’ve ridden the cable car all the way to the end of the line.

And yet, there is a lovely, improbable restaurant in this precinct of gift shops, rental car lots, and tourist hotels. Its name is Bistro Boudin, and it can be found on the second floor of the Boudin Bakery, a handsome and fresh-from-the-ground-up building that opened about two years ago and is, against all odds, a fairly large-scale working bakery in the midst of the city.

Another tip of the trilby, then, this time to Boudin for investing in the city, and for making pretty good bread while they’re at it. Boudin, like Parisian, is one of the city’s old-guard bakeries, and building your new bakery in the heart of Touristan could certainly be seen as making a statement, or maybe just a pitch. If there are outposts of Tartine and Bay Bread in the area, they keep a low profile. But Boudin knows what it’s doing in the bread-baking department; its sourdoughs are soft, tangy-fragrant, and the loaves out for butter like the Sirens of the Rhine.

Bistro Boudin is on the second floor of the spiffy bakery. The large windows command a view of the bay and Alcatraz. The dining room seems to consist largely of glass, leather, and honey-colored wood: a traditional San Francisco look, subtly freshened. The executive chef, James Chan, was sacked from Harrow for undisclosed offenses, only to turn up in our little corner of the New World with a sophisticated menu that blends elements of New World and Old.

But can he blend locals and tourists? To find out, he will need locals, and what better way to draw them but with the smell of baking bread?

Paul Reidinger

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Land of milk and money

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At Gourmet magazine’s recent Wine Cellar extravaganza in the Galleria, I chatted with a Kerrygold functionary about currency exchanges, having first fortified myself with a few glasses of wine and an empanada. One would not want to drift into discussions of the dollar and the euro on an empty stomach, nor in a condition of total and stony sobriety. How about renaming the dollar the bungee, incidentally? Maybe it would help bring the great plunge to a stop.

Kerrygold is an Irish dairy concern with a huge export business in butter and boutique cheeses, much of it on this side of the Atlantic, so the diverging fortunes of the dollar and the euro are of intense interest to its corporate strategists. But an even more pressing issue, I was told, is the rising global demand for milk, as people in China, a onetime land of tea now rapidly becoming citified, start developing the Western taste for coffee and piling into their local Starbucks for morning lattes. It is one of life’s larger ironies at the moment that even as our drive-through way of life shows signs of collapsing, much of the rest of the world seeks to adopt it. Happiness is getting into your car and driving somewhere for a $4 cup of milky coffee. O blessed marketers!

Irony did not seem to be the evening’s theme, but then, irony is seldom to the taste of swells. Groups of the well-dressed and well-off swirled about the huge hall as if at a waltz, nibbling and sipping and nibbling some more. Quite a few of the city’s grandest restaurants — including Aqua, La Folie, Scott Howard, and Limón — were represented among the food stations, while off in a corner a group from Louisiana was barbecuing large prawns in spicy sauce, and a crew on the stage was dishing out low-calorie Indian food. The queues for these treats were formidable. Even swells, apparently, can stand only so much monkfish liver, or spot-prawn sashimi in apple-fennel broth with coconut marshmallow.

Back in the land of Kerrygold, I grazed musingly across a small prairie of cheeses and used toothpicks. For a moment I was alone, the herd of swells having galloped across the floor in pursuit of some new delight. I felt the crinkly dollars in my pocket and murmured reassuringly to them.

Beer, sweet beer

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In beer’s ongoing search for a place at the table set with a white linen tablecloth, dessert presents itself as an unlikely but promising niche. Reputable brewers seem convinced that their offerings match up at least as well as wine with many savory dishes, in part because beer tastes less strongly of alcohol and is therefore the food’s servant rather than its competitor, but during a recent beer-and-high-cuisine dinner at Rubicon, I found myself yearning for some nicely acidic wine — red, white, champers, I would gladly have taken a glass of any of it, though the menu had been chosen to flatter and be flattered by the accompanying beers.

The dishes certainly sounded beerworthy: crispy buttermilk-marinated quail (a tony relative of fried chicken) on a bed of tart onions and preserved lemon, followed by a slab of beer-braised beef short ribs, with carrot puree and roasted wild mushrooms. The fact that all of this was basically glorified pub food didn’t diminish its tastiness, nor its compatibility with beer — but it was also cripplingly rich. Just one of these dishes would have filled my richness quota for a month. But there was dessert too.

The sweet course was remarkable not so much in itself — an oat crunch cake, spiced like a carrot cake and served with a pat of chocolate ice cream fortified with stout — as for what it managed to do for a pair of libations. Under its penumbra of sugariness, a dark cream stout tasted almost like black coffee, while a beer-derived postprandial liqueur — rather cloying on its own — acquired a steadying deepness on the tongue to accompany its deep, slightly cloudy caramel color.

The beer cordial (Utopias from Samuel Adams, if you’re curious) is being marketed as a cognac and port alternative and is priced accordingly. On its own it was shapelessly sweet; it lacked cognac’s clarifying fire and port’s engulfing grapy richness. But this is America, and in America, apparently, there is no such thing as too sweet. While cognac and port have their grown-up stringencies, Utopias is soft and lovable, even when served in a sophisticated-looking brandy snifter. It is, however, 27 percent alcohol, which means that, like a chocolate martini, it’s stronger than it looks. Be careful or you’ll get tipsy, knock over your snifter, and stain the white linen tablecloth.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Be my burger

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Last week’s rovings included a stop at Bistro Burger, in the basement of the Westfield San Francisco Centre — centre! Please. We’re not at Wimbledon. But the burger transcended its deracinated, strip-mall, airport-prison, why–am–I–in–Las Vegas setting. The meat (Niman Ranch, of course) was tender, juicy, intensely flavorful, and cooked medium rare, as agreed. A slice of pepper jack cheese was present but not overwhelming, and the bun was plump and soft, like a good pillow, but also not overwhelming.

You need not resign yourself to beef here. Any of the burgers are available with a turkey patty or some sort of vegetarian option, though since we showed up rather late in the evening (having completed our other urgent, mall-related business), they’d run out of turkey. Unburgers include a respectable sandwich of grilled mahimahi (a lovely fish but not too exciting: snag a mayo packet or two), while the seasoned curly fries are better than Jack in the Box’s, and that is saying something. Really. They are just decadent. You will have to block out the next day as a fat holiday.

Some days later: a late dinner at Masala (reviewed in these pages aeons ago), on Ninth near Lincoln, near the penny-factory de Young Museum and the recently unswaddled reincarnation of the Academy of Sciences — a splendor of glass. The two structures could hardly be more dissimilar: one incorporates the past and, in its lightness, seems to be at peace with its sylvan surroundings, while the other …

Masala is still pretty good. Less fiery than memory insists. Prices are moderate, and the setting is handsome and proper enough for parents. We found the service to be slightly sluggish, perhaps because it was a weekend night. The restaurant was busy though not full, but a fair number of the people who came to the door weren’t looking for tables but sackfuls of carryout.

D before H, except … It was with a certain tingle of what V.S. Naipaul calls "horror interest" that I recognized I’d misspelled "Stendhal" (10/24/07). It was also too late to fix it — "too late," as Othello says to Desdemona, then strangles her. May I be spared such a fate. As for the unexpected Stendahl: Could he or she be a Scandinavian playwright, of the obscure school?

The king of cheap

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While PBS-hallowed filmmaker Ken Burns ladles treacle over the American past like hot fudge on the world’s biggest sundae, younger and less sepia-tinted filmmakers are beginning to take a more searching view of the national taste for sweet syrupiness. The goo at the heart of King Corn, for instance, is high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap and ubiquitous sweetener that’s not only a principal ingredient of many of our most obesity- and diabetes-inducing processed "foods," such as soda, but is also a substance, like enriched uranium, that could never exist in nature. It’s manufactured, from inedible kernels industrially farmed and then treated with a host of unpleasant chemicals, so when one of the young principals in King Corn brews up a batch at home and lifts the flask to his lips for a swig, you can’t help but flinch.

At the heart of King Corn (which opens Nov. 2 in the Bay Area) are two young Yalies, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, who grow curious about corn when an isotope analysis reveals that almost all the carbon in their bodies is derived from that foodstuff. They arrange to farm an acre of corn in Iowa, then follow the harvest as best they can as it flows into the whitewater river of agrocommerce — to cattle feedlots and fast-food hamburger stands, to corn-syrup factories with reeking smokestacks and convenience stores in Brooklyn that sell soda in huge plastic bottles.

The film’s tone is gently comic, at least in the beginning — the boys drive tractors and body-surf down a golden mountain of corn kernels — but the mood darkens as the camera captures the sufferings of cattle whose digestive tracts are destroyed by corn (a grain they’re not suited to eat) and the wistfulness of people whose guzzling of corn syrup–sweetened soda led to diabetes.

Corn is many things — and perhaps, now, nearly everything — in American food production, but above all it is cheap. Cheap is a holy word in the American lexicon; it cannot be gainsaid. Cheap is good, and cheap food is good food, as agriculture secretary Earl Butz suggested during the Nixon years. A geriatric Butz is interviewed near the end of the movie; I only wish he’d been asked — nicely, of course — whether we can exalt inexpensive corn without coming to see life itself as fundamentally cheap.

The red and the white

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In the pot-hazed precincts of bohemia, anything seems possible — and is that furtive person in the corner actually pouring the remains of a bottle of red wine into a half-empty bottle of white? Could someone please phone the wine police? (Wine-1-1?)

Bohemian life has ebbed in this city, no question, but living splinters of it remain, mostly in rambling flats in the Mission. The furtive person wasn’t actually in the corner but at the refrigerator — bohemians have refrigerators now — and she wasn’t blending red and white wines like matter and antimatter in some apocalyptic Star Trek episode but reaching for a bottle of Peju Province’s Provence blend. It’s the red wine you chill, and that’s because it’s not red wine, properly understood, but a proprietary blend of merlot, cab, and zin, along with chardonnay and colombard. It also costs about $22 a bottle — or, in a barter economy, nearly a case of Two Buck Chuck — but one of the wisdoms of bohemia is that if you’re going to blow some cash, blow it on an experience rather than a possession. A bottle of wine is a possession, in a sense, but only briefly; it’s really more a bottled experience that, like a genie, we summon when we choose.

While the cork master worked her magic, Stendahl was discussed by we sofa surfers. The Red and the Black. I have long been struck by the stark Franco-Italian distinction between the colors of wine: noirnero versus blancbianco, black and white, one or the other, never the twain shall meet. Rosé, a possible exception, is basically neutered, or interrupted, red wine. The European versions and their domestic imitators can be a little austere and can taste rather strongly of alcohol, whereas the "white" wines made from red grapes — zin, cab, merlot — are friendlier but often too sweet and even, sometimes, fizzy, like soft drinks.

Peju’s blend is better than any of them. The wine has enough richness of color to convince, and while it’s light enough in body to benefit from chilling, it tastes more of fruit than of alcohol. It tastes, in fact, like a still version of cold duck, the sparkling party wine of yesteryear — and, as we discovered, it mixes well with talk about Stendahl. Bohemia lives!

Autumn’s flowers

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Most people rate summer more highly than autumn, and the reason is simple: summer means no school, autumn means back to school, and most people don’t like school. Therefore: summer over autumn. This straightforward syllogism manages to invert what is to me an elemental truth: that autumn is the most wonderful time of year, especially around here. Autumn brings warm days, holiday catalogues, apples, peppers, the last of the heirloom tomatoes, and nights cool and crisp enough to make turning on the oven a legitimate possibility.

Yes, the roastery is once again open, and roastables need not be meat. Many members of the vegetable kingdom take quite nicely to a turn in the oven, including some difficult cases. Asparagus, for me, is transformed by roasting into an irresistible treat; so is cauliflower. Cauliflower has long been a problem child in the kitchen, pallid-looking and quite cabbage-stinky if boiled or steamed, the usual methods of readying it for the table. I had nearly given up on it until my brother revealed to me that he’d been roasting cauliflower — cut into florets, seasoned with just some extra-virgin olive oil and — on a baking sheet in a hot oven until tender and lightly caramelized, to acclaim.

There was wisdom here, certainly. But I’d also clipped from the San Francisco Chronicle a recipe for spicy cauliflower from Pizzeria Delfina, which combined the florets with chili flakes, garlic, anchovies, and chopped pickled peppers. The fly in this otherwise tasty ointment was that the cauliflower was supposed to be fried, and I try to steer away from fried these days.

So, instead of frying, how about roasting the florets until golden and tender, then mixing in the ancillary ingredients? It works pretty well. The keys are an oven pre-heated to full blast, florets cut to a uniform size and laid in a single layer on a baking or cookie sheet with a generous splash of olive oil, and a careful turning (with tongs or a spatula) after six or so minutes, to make sure the florets brown evenly. When they’re well colored all the way around, add the other ingredients (mixing them in with your implement) and return to the oven for a last minute or two so the flavors melt together some. If your audience includes people who don’t like cauliflower, prepare to accept some surprised plaudits.

Paul Reidinger

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A pizza bust?

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If the NFL’s powers that be conclude that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, recently busted for unauthorized reconnaissance of other teams’ signals, needs a more stinging punishment than a large fine, might I respectfully suggest that he be sentenced to eat a pizza at Figs, the Todd English restaurant on Boston’s posh Beacon Hill?

I mean no calumny against Boston, a jewel of urban sophistication and civility and a city full of all sorts of interesting restaurants and farmers markets, including a big one in the Back Bay’s Copley Square. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a more miserable restaurant meal than the one we endured on a recent weekend night at Figs — a place with a big-name chef! In a neighborhood full of rich people who, whatever else one might think of them, surely know good food from bad, especially when bad means really bad.

Begin with a native heirloom salad, more or less a Caprese, with various colorful orbs sliced into quarters and served with chunks of soft mozzarella under a basting of basil vinaigrette. While I would be willing to cut New Englanders some slack on the matter of growing seasons, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a reputable restaurant should be able to find late-summer tomatoes that are at least reasonably ripe rather than hard and crisp as autumn apples. I had to cut them up with a steak knife. For the first time in my life, I considered sending back a salad on the ground that it was inedible.

Then the pizza arrived, looking like a small magic carpet. In a moment of inattention, I’d let my companion order a "crispy calamari" pie. How bad could it be? Even bad pizza is usually edible, with some flavor. But not this one. This pie — a square of dough, swabbed with tomato paste and arugula, then topped with a shower of calamari batter-fried separately — defied being eaten. Perhaps we should have taken the hint. The calamari bits rolled around and off the crust like barrels of wine on the deck of a storm-tossed sailing ship, while the Kevlar-like crust itself resisted even the sharp teeth of the steak knife. Our server wisely did not ask what we thought of the pizza. I was thinking of a word, and it was worse than bust.

Paul Reidinger

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Cecilia’s story

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In an age of assembly-line careers and endless credentialing, it’s good to be reminded that life itself is a credential. Cecilia Chiang didn’t go to cooking school or restaurateur school; she didn’t even reach these shores until she was 40 years old and didn’t open her famous restaurant, The Mandarin, until she was 44, in 1964. These facts do not mean she was a slacker or late bloomer. They do hint at drama, and that drama unfolds in the pages of Chiang’s new book, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed, 256 pages, $35), a singular combination of personal and gastronomic history richly laced with recipes from a restaurant that forever changed the tenor of Chinese cooking in San Francisco.

Chiang was born in 1920, and the Japanese invaded China in 1931, which means that, from early girlhood well into adulthood, her life was lived in a world churning with conflict: soldiers of the occupying Japanese rifling roughly through the family house, long overland flights to tenuous safe havens, even a postwar sojourn in the enemy capital, Tokyo, where Chiang politely tried sushi for the first time and found she liked it.

Chiang’s story is a gripping one. War is not, after all, a television show or a sequence of reports in the gray pages of newspapers; it’s a reality quite beyond the imaginings of everyday folk living everyday lives, at least until it engulfs those lives, which never happens here, or at least it hasn’t yet. But did Chiang’s youthful experiences — of fear, loss, flight, renewal — make her a better restaurateur?

The book sheds only indirect light on this question, but we can make some guesses. Like many immigrants, she saw the possibilities this country offered, and she was old enough, and had access to enough resources, to seize her chance when she saw it. And she took little for granted; she worked such long hours, in fact, that for her 50th birthday, her children bought her a bicycle, a red Schwinn, because, as her daughter explained, "you’ve been working so hard lately and we thought you needed a little exercise, a little something fun to do outside the restaurant."

I wish Chiang had not given her recipe for shark fin soup, an unconscionable dish. In this land of plenty, the occasional sacrifice is in order.

Paul Reidinger

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The long day closes

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While, over the years, I privately deplored the food-obsessive practice of giving dogs such names as Mocha, Latte, and Basil — even Matzoh — I was hardly in a position to deplore, for we had named one of our dogs after a pizzeria. The pizzeria, Due, was in Chicago, where we once lived, but the dog Due knew nothing of Chicago, having been born near Petaluma in the summer of 1991, nor of pizza, beyond enjoying leftover crust. She preferred the white corn kernels that sometimes fell to the floor when I cut them from cobs. But due means two in Italian, and as Due was our second chow, and then our only chow, after her longtime mate died five years ago, the name seemed to suit.

A dog is an education, and for an omnivore, not all the lessons are easy ones. For a dog, in commanding your love and returning it to you as eager licks and whimpers, in searching your eyes for clues just as you are searching hers, reminds you countless times every day that other animals’ lives may not be all that different from our own. And why would we think otherwise, since we are animals too, peerers into the eyes around us?

Sharing our lives with dogs did not make us give up meat, quite, but as the years passed, we increasingly found occasion to wonder, and to make or order something meatless for dinner. There is probably no way to live on this earth without getting at least a little blood on your hands, but the less blood, the better. To keep the suffering of sentient creatures to a minimum: is this not the basis of a moral life? Do we not begin with these small creatures for whom we are everything — gods, in fact, shapers of the world?

How bitterly ironic that such loving and conscientious gods should find themselves in the position of having to decide when a beloved’s life must end. Due, who had come to her gods as an eight-week-old puppy on the day of the great Oakland hills fire, lived to see her 16th birthday in August, but by then she was stiff and skeletal, and the long light in her eyes had dimmed. A van came to the house on a September afternoon, and the gods wept when she died.

Paul Reidinger

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My kingdom for a legume!

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Today’s homeland traveler must run a gauntlet of tribulation, beginning with the holy sacraments of shoe doffing and toothpaste Ziplocking and continuing to flight delays and $10 for an airborne box of chicken salad, but at the end of all the woe and insult is the comfort of knowing that there’s more where that came from, generally in the form of superfluous starch.

I noticed, in the course of several days spent recently in the heart of the heart of the country, that a broad no-legume policy seemed to be both unstated and strictly observed. Restaurants high and low didn’t offer so much as a lentil or chickpea, and as for breakfast at Denny’s or Perkins, where I went each morning with my squad of elders, you could have potatoes with your bread, or bread with your potatoes, you could have eggs a thousand different ways — in pastry! with cheese! — and cinnamon buns and oceans of weak coffee, and after all that you knew better than to think about glycemic indexes or your blood sugar level. Oatmeal? Consult the small print at the bottom of the laminated page.

At a nice Italian restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., I clicked my heels together three times and waited for Garrison Keillor to come through the door from his redoubt on nearby Summit Avenue. He did not; was this because he too is distressed at the lack of legumes in Lake Wobegon and its environs? Or was he at Perkins, chomping his way through mountainous platefuls of hash browns and bread?

Minnesota’s Twin Cities are hardly unsophisticated. St. Paul, in fact, has a Jewish deli, Cecil’s, that’s at least the match of any such place I knew in Chicago and far better than any deli here. But Jewish delis, no matter how wondrous their rye breads, aren’t known as hotbeds of legume culture, and if a good Italian restaurant doesn’t even have a white-bean soup or salad on the menu, what hope is there?

Does this matter? Yes. Legumes — whether white or black or cranberry beans, lentils, or chickpeas — are among nature’s near-perfect foods. They’re tasty, healthy, and flexible; they make good main dishes and side dishes, and they work in soup and as beds for other things. If you’re on your way to Lake Wobegon, don’t leave home without them.

Let bison be bison

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Arguments for choosing bison over beef include the likelihood that bison is, on balance, better for you and is a meat from a once nearly extinct North American species whose prospects for survival are, perhaps ironically, enhanced by its homecoming as a food animal. Arguments against include cost (I paid about $29 per pound recently for some bison strip steaks) and, perhaps ironically, leanness, which complicates cooking. Still, when the numbers were crunched for the Labor Day weekend, the ayes had it.

Lean can mean tough and juiceless, especially if you’re using a dry-heat cooking implement, like a charcoal grill. And on Labor Day weekend, would you be using anything else? As a precaution, I asked the butcher to leave a strip of fat on each steak; as an additional precaution, I pounded each piece lightly with a tenderizing mallet. And I used a marinade — for Florentine-style grilled beef, from Bruce Aidells’s invaluable The Complete Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). The marinade consists of a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of kosher salt, some cracked black pepper, and some minced garlic, if you like. (I like.) You mix all that together in a broad dish, turn the pieces of meat in it until they’re nicely slicked, and let the ensemble stand, covered, in the refrigerator for several hours or (better) overnight.

Holiday grillers, overcome by enthusiasm and beer, often lay fires that are much too hot. For boneless steaks — and, for that matter, burgers — a moderately hot fire is plenty. You are cooking food, not competing in an inferno Olympics. You know your fire is too hot if the food burns on the outside while remaining rawish inside. By this time, of course, it’s too late.

My modest fire cooked the steaks in about five or six minutes per side and left nice grill marks too. The meat turned out to be a lovely medium rare, with each strip having a band of pink inside, deepening to rose toward the core. The texture was different from beef’s: not the velvet butteriness of filet mignon but not tough either. More like a tri-tip. As for the flavor: superbeefy, I thought, without a hint of gaminess. Others at the table thought the meat had a flavor distinct from beef’s but just as good. A veritable stampede of approval.

Paul Reidinger

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The magic number

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The magic number

"Forty-three" — as in Bush 43, as distinguished from Bush 41, a.k.a. Poppy — is a number that will live in infamy, for reasons I need hardly mention. And 41, father of disastrous 43, isn’t likely to do much better. On the other hand, 41 can’t claim to be part of the name of a fabulous liqueur, while 43 can. Licor 43 (www.licor43.com) is the name of this Spanish elixir, a small glass of which was poured to me recently as a postprandial treat and immediately won me over.

Of course, I am susceptible to being won over by such treats. A little after-dinner hit of port or cognac or calvados — something slightly sweet or hinting at sweetness, with some substance, and strong enough to require sipping rather than permit swilling — is a graceful way of scratching the dessert itch, and there can never be too many options here if obesity is to be staved off. Licor 43, which has been bottled by Diego Zamora in Cartagena for more than 80 years, bears a certain resemblance to cream sherry, another product from the south of Spain. Both are rich, sweet, and of a yellowish color — all attractive qualities for a libation that must fill dessert’s big shoes.

The differences between the two (apart from the fact that sherry is fortified wine and Licor 43 isn’t) largely have to do with degree. Licor 43 is yellower, thicker, sweeter, and stronger — considerably stronger — than any sherry. At 31 percent alcohol, it isn’t quite as potent as cognac or other brandies (which are typically 40 percent alcohol), but it packs half again as much punch as the fortified wines. These seldom exceed 20 percent alcohol.

Mixologists’ wisdom suggests that Licor 43 is suitable for blending into a wide variety of drinks, most with whimsical names, but it was presented to me straight up, slightly chilled, in a sherry glass, and was distinctive enough to stand on its own. According to lore, the liqueur has been made for centuries from a secret blend of citrus fruits and spices, and the bouquet is indeed citrusy. On the mouth, the first impression is of vanilla, with a not-quite-honeylike weight and sweetness. If somebody distilled a liqueur from orange-blossom honey, it might taste something like this.

Oh 43, are you listening?

Paul Reidinger

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Heaven’s kitchen

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As an unreconstructed autocrat of the kitchen, I was surprised to discover recently that two cooks working in the same space need not sting each other to death, like scorpions in a bottle — even if one of them is me. It helps, of course, if the space is adequate and the cooks have agreed beforehand as to who is making what. This is a matter of what lawyers like to call comity, which basically means trying not to step on other people’s toes, lest one’s own be trampled.

Two cooks were needed for our Mendocino idyll (complete with vegetable garden!) because the constituency of hungry people was larger than either cook was accustomed to providing for and included several small children who enjoy watching Hell’s Kitchen on Fox. If these children expected screaming matches and dismissal scenes mixed equally from scorn and tears, they must have been disappointed; our sounds were mostly agreeable ones, with the occasional foul word discreetly spat into a napkin, like a peach pit.

The feeding of children — even cheerful and well-mannered children who aren’t picky — left me humbled. How spoiled I have been all these years, running my little food fief with scarcely a hint of interference or meddling, stocking and cleaning it as I’ve seen fit, turning out a medley of dishes that have reflected my own evolving concerns about health, environment, and ethical responsibility with the full-throated support of my audience of one. When people agree about food, they are well on their way to agreeing about a great deal more, and agreement is a chief ingredient of that elusive state we often call happiness.

Children, it turns out, are subject to spells of intense, almost disabling hunger, which then have a way of subsiding after three or four bites of a burrito or some petrale sole, or half a Pop-Tart or a swig of organic lemonade or ball of chocolate-chocolate-chip-cookie dough from a ready-to-bake tray. Children, like birds, eat continually but lightly, leaving behind them a trail of half-consumed edibles with tooth marks, and it falls to the people in charge to collect these devalued but not worthless items and try to figure out what can be done with them. If the producers of "Hell’s Kitchen" need a fresh idea, I know a nice place on a hill overlooking the coast.

Paul Reidinger

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The pleasure principle

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Gourmet is a word that almost visibly oozes pretentiousness, but if we are to believe the writer B.R. Myers, it also carries an implication of moral obtuseness. Myers is the contrarian whose 2001 Atlantic piece "A Reader’s Manifesto" pointed out that many of our most lauded writers are in fact bad writers and frauds; he is, in other words, a bold debunker of received wisdom, and his current piece, "Hard to Swallow" (in the September 2007 Atlantic), takes a demolitionist’s view of our epoch’s uncritical celebration of gastronomy. While I dislike and shun the word gourmet, interestingly, Myers reserves his sharpest animus for the related term gourmand. He might have a point.

Nonetheless, however much one might enjoy the spectacle of an erudite Roundhead’s upsetting the Cavaliers’ banquet table and sweeping their ill-gotten foie gras onto the floor, one has no desire to be a Roundhead. According to Myers, "no reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining" — an eloquently phrased truism that might or might not be true but certainly reveals Myers to be puritanical about food, hostile to taking pleasure in eating, and not necessarily someone you hope shows up at your next dinner party or even rides with you on the elevator.

Is there no habitable country between the frozen wasteland of virtue and the sweaty jungle of debauchery? Can Roundheads and Cavaliers never shake hands and make peace and sit down to a banquet — a banquet without lobster boiled alive, perhaps, or other morally problematic foods, but a banquet nonetheless, replete with dishes everyone can enjoy and is capable of enjoying?

The world, after all, abounds in culinary treats that can be had without mistreating animals, or suspending or distorting or denying our empathy for those animals. If human beings have a transcendent quality, it is our ability to feel what another creature feels, to stand in someone else’s shoes: there but for the grace of God go I. We are indeed diminished, morally and emotionally, when we decline to see that other sentient creatures are in some sense our kin, and that their suffering is not so very different from our own. But we are diminished, too, when we dismiss the pleasures of the senses, the arts of living on this sensuous earth. Life is lived best when lived in the round.

Paul Reidinger

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Cousin, cuisine

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Given the state of English food, it should not surprise us that English food writers are either embittered and caustic or looking for a way out of their mildewed isles. In the latter group we find Ian Jackman, who hopped the pond hither 15 years ago and has now published a book, Eat This! 1001 Things to Eat before You Diet (Harper, $14.95 paper). If On the Road had been about eating in America and had been written by an earlier, less woozy edition of Christopher Hitchens, it might have been something like this.

But perhaps the Hitchens comparison doesn’t quite do justice to Jackman. Both writers are Oxbridge-educated, adoptive Americans with posh accents, but the Hitch is a bloated warmonger who mongered the wrong war and whose reputation — apart from an ability to recite poetry from memory when in trouble, like a squid squirting ink — seems undeserved. Jackman, by contrast, is soft-spoken and gracious. Of course, he isn’t a pugilist and raconteur who must snap and snarl for his supper on cable television but belongs, instead, to a long European tradition of discovering the New World and taking delight in it.

Eat This! reminds us that no matter how much America fatigue some of us might be feeling these days — and some of us are feeling quite a lot, thanks to Nancy Pelosi and the impeachment that wasn’t — the cultural possibilities of this country remain staggering. American food, in Jackman’s telling, retains its regional quality; New England is still notable for its lobster rolls, the Bay Area is a land of exquisite breads, Chicago is where you want to go for red-hot hot dogs, and in Memphis they use dry rubs on their barbecued ribs. Jackman has even tracked down what I regard, from profound personal experience, as the best cheeseburger ever; it’s sold at Solly’s Grille, in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs, and is so slathered with butter that it’s known locally (and Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland, after all) as the butter burger. No one can eat just one.

Since pretty much the whole world seems to be put out with us these days, we’re lucky our erudite British cousins are on hand to assure us we haven’t yet totally gone to hell. The food is still good here, and they should know.

Paul Reidinger

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All the President’s polyps

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Last week’s joke was that while Dick Cheney was in the hospital, having the tires on his pacemaker rotated, he temporarily transferred the powers of the presidency to George W. Bush. This is clever, but Mr. Bigdee’s imperial vice presidency is otherwise no laughing matter. Bush himself, meanwhile, having failed as a warlord, seems to be donning the mantle of laughingstock. Recently his intestinal polyps were much in the news. Not since Ronald Reagan was eating TV dinners in the White House has the public been favored with such detailed reports about the president’s bowels.

Bush’s bumper crop of precancerous growths can’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s read former White House chef Walter Scheib’s recent book, White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen. The Bush family, Scheib tells us, is big on things like grilled beef, bologna sandwiches on white bread with Miracle Whip, and other such hearty, tasty, macho stuff that’s perfectly safe to eat — once a year. But when you fill your gut every day with red meat and fat and other industrially processed crud, you can expect trouble down the line at some point, no matter how conscientiously you pedal around on your mountain bike.

Memo to the Bushes: eat a fucking pluot! Or a black plum, if pluots make you squirm or you can’t pronounce the word. Have some cantaloupe — they’re in season, they’re fabulous and cheap, they have orange flesh, and orange flesh is good for you. Blueberries: who doesn’t like these? And they’re all over markets these days. Blueberries are dark, and dark-fleshed fruits and vegetables are good for you. Blackberries are coming into season, and they can be foraged even in the middle of cities. Good for you. Get it?

While I can’t say I’m passionately sympathetic to the physical troubles of our dear leaders — a pair of oafs whose foul-ups will take generations to remedy, and if they both resigned tomorrow for health reasons, who would weep? — but their health woes do help remind us that such woes are largely a matter of personal dietary choice. Heart disease and intestinal polyps tending toward cancer don’t just happen; they aren’t just a matter of bad luck. Eating is destiny, so … choose wisely, eat well, live long, and prosper.

Paul Reidinger

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Basil rides again

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Now is the season of our wondering what to do with all the basil. Basil has been particularly abundant this summer and of notably higher quality than the last few years, so we can’t say the droughty winter was a complete bust. All the summertime crops, in fact — from stone fruit to melons to tomatoes and beyond — have seemed especially sweet and full lately.

If we are facing a surfeit of basil, this almost certainly means we are facing an associated surfeit of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and eggplant. There is a well-established procedure for dealing with that quartet: make ratatouille. Basil in ratatouille wouldn’t be a disaster, but the usual method of being thrifty about summer’s basil riches is to make pesto, which freezes well. Pesto issues include the mess involved in making it (even if in a food processor) and its extroverted personality. Pesto is a funny, loud, charming drunk at a party; you can’t help but feel a certain fondness, yet you long to get away.

I have been chopping up a few basil leaves and throwing them in salads for brightness. Basil, sliced into chiffonade, also makes an appealing addition to dishes with tomato-based sauces, such as my beloved Provençal seafood stew. I feared it would clash with the dash of pastis added at the end, but it turns out those flavors get along famously.

But excess basil finds one of its best homes with some chopped tomatoes in a simple pasta sauce. Start with a flavor base of diced red onion, softened in a splash of olive oil with a fleck of red chili flakes, a bit of minced parsley and garlic, and a pinch of salt. After seven or eight minutes, add some seafood, if you like (scallops, cubed fish, peeled shrimp), or diced chicken meat — or nothing — along with a healthy splash of dry white wine and some stock. (I use shrimp stock, but bottled clam juice will do.) Simmer until the sauce looks slightly thickened; throw in your chopped basil and tomatoes, turn off the heat, cover, and let stand for several minutes while your pasta cooks in a separate pot. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, thin the sauce as needed with pasta cooking water, and toss with the cooked pasta — linguine is good, as is some grated cheese on the side.

Paul Reidinger

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Are you game?

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Nutritional revelation reaches the public consciousness these days as a kind of fireworks, erratic alternations of bomb blasts and star bursts, terror and jubilation (eggs are bad; no, they’re good!) — but amid the flash and smoke, an understanding does grow stronger. The understanding is that a healthy diet for our kind is some version of the hunter-gatherer diet, which we’ve evolved to thrive on. So: lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries, some fish and lean meat, along with a wariness about cereal crops, sugar in its many forms, industrial fat, and processing generally.

The archetypal hunter-gatherer diets in North America were those of the Indians, of course, and while theirs is largely a lost world, it’s not completely so. A glowing shard of the continent’s aboriginal culinary past can be found in Where People Feast: An Indigenous People’s Cookbook, by Dollie and Annie Watts (Arsenal Pulp, $21.95 paper), which not only is that rare bird, an Indian cookbook, but also provides considerable guidance on how to deal with such game meats as venison, elk, and buffalo (though bison are cultivated now). The book may be especially appealing to Californians and other West Coasters since many of its recipes are drawn from the lore of British Columbia’s Gitk’san First Nation and make liberal use of ingredients (besides game) familiar to us, such as Dungeness crab, king salmon, oysters, and clams.

Many of us already know how to handle that stuff. Game meat is — sorry, can’t resist — another kettle of fish. Its leanness is a boon to human health but at the same time makes it harder to handle; it dries out and turns tough more readily than fattier meats like beef. Many of Where People Feast‘s recipes, interestingly, use elk meat and venison in ground form — for meatballs, shepherd’s pie, and pâté. When whole pieces of meat are called for, in grilled elk medallions, say, marination is standard procedure.

Apart from the perils of dryness and toughness, game meat is also … gamy. Its scent and flavor are intensely meaty. Recently I was given some ground moose meat (moose are the largest members of the deer family) and made a Bolognese sauce out of it. The sauce was wonderfully rich, but the smell of it filled the house and flowed into the garden, a kind of fireworks for the nose.

The catch

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How shocking, shocking to learn that frozen seafood being imported from China is so likely to be tainted — with pathogens, antibiotics, and even (according to the fastidious New York Times) "filth" — that our very own Food and Drug Administration felt obliged to issue an alert about it at the end of last month. Globalization, we have long been assured — mainly by shills for transnational corporations — is a great blessing, a means of producing the most goods at the lowest cost per some sterile and one-dimensional rule of economic efficiency. It’s the gospel according to Wal-Mart, and it certainly does seem to be producing a great flood of goods, if not great goods. And it probably is a great blessing — for the shareholders and executives of transnational corporations.

But there is a central fallacy to the case for globalization, and it is this: that we can reap the benefits of a global economy while keeping its problems quarantined overseas. Let the Chinese use child labor and foul their environment! We are safe here, in our low-prices-always bubble. Except, as we learn from the parable of the dirty frozen fish, we’re not. In a shrinking world, benefits and burdens alike tend to be distributed worldwide, and there are reasons — many of them unsavory — that articles produced in poorer countries (for consumption in rich ones) tend to cost less. Lower prices aren’t magic, and the fact that we are encouraged not to notice the connection between low prices and the methods that yield them tells us that the connection is important. If we saw and understood the connection, we might well act differently. We might stop to consider that the true cost of some item isn’t necessarily reflected in its retail price — and that more expensive items are sometimes worth the money.

You don’t get something for nothing, and if that’s the offer, then it’s time to start poking around. There’s almost certainly a catch, and the catch is seldom in our interest.

In my recent piece about Emily Luchetti and Stars (Without Reservations, 6/20/07), I slightly misconstrued the restaurant’s life span. In fact, Stars did survive for a few years into the new millennium — but under new ownership. Founder Jeremiah Tower sold out well before the year 2000.

Porn in pairs

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Although my subscription to Annals of Wine Pornography has lapsed, I still glean the occasional fetishistic detail from other press outlets — in particular, obsessive accounts of how this vintage of that winemaker’s reserve pinot noir pairs brilliantly with a particular kind of sheep’s milk cheese, left at room temperature for an hour, then smeared over some kind of heirloom fig that’s been grilled, cut side up, over a medium applewood fire for six to eight minutes while the grill chef recites poetry.

This sort of elaborately specific pairing reminds me of the day in high school chemistry when our teacher tossed a bit of sodium into a large tank of water and smiled in satisfaction as the metal hissed and sputtered like some kind of mutant fireworks display, then vanished. We are talking about show business, really, the producing of a briefly miraculous effect by some unexpected combination of ingredients. It is fun for a moment — and I’ve enjoyed a few of these moments over the years — but when the show ends, you’re still hungry, you still want to eat, and you still want somebody to eat with and talk to.

The reality — I hope and believe — is that food and wine are not consumed in some kind of one-dimensional universe, with attention focused on the flavors at hand and nowhere else, as in some kind of science experiment. Food and wine are agents of sociability, and the greatest pleasure they bring is the connection to other people. Wine, for me, is mostly an aperitif, and the best glass is almost always the first glass — the one you sip when you first sit down with someone at a table or step into a party and start talking to someone you haven’t seen in a while.

As it happens, I find the so-called food-friendly wines, many of them from Europe, to make lovely aperitifs too. They are solid but discreet; you enjoy them without being distracted by them, and they will go with the food too, when it finally appears.

A friend who sojourns in Italy noted recently that the Italian paisanos of his acquaintance make a red wine and a white wine — both good and both enjoyed with every meal, although "they don’t even know what the varieties of the grapes are." Could it be that they don’t need to?

Panisses, chez toi

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Oh irony: summer — meaning August, fog, cold wind — has arrived weeks ahead of schedule, and the bluster has slammed shut the grilling window. We huddle around the stove instead, warming our hands over bubbling soups and stews. Additional irony: tomatoes are starting to turn up at the farmers market. Luckily, the Provençal seafood-stew recipe I’ve been using for years calls for tomatoes. Irony overload averted.

What to serve the stew with or over has long been an issue. Rice is an obvious choice, while mashed potatoes are nice and wintry. White beans and polenta have seen service. Toasted bread would work. But … how about panisses? These are the french fry–like chickpea sticks of Provence that for some reason have never found much of an audience here despite their many attractions.

Panisses are quite easy to produce. They are, essentially, chilled polenta cut into thin bars that are then fried up until golden crispy. The twists are that you use chickpea flour instead of cornmeal, you must allow an hour or two for the batter to chill and stiffen in the refrigerator, and you need some parchment paper and, ideally, a large nonstick skillet.

Make the faux polenta by putting one cup of chickpea flour in a heavy saucepan with a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil. Slowly whisk in one cup of water until you have a smooth batter. Add two more cups of water, turn on the heat to high, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, stirring, until the mixture is quite thickened. Pour it into a rectangular pan lined with parchment paper (I use a meat loaf pan), let it cool, then chill in the refrigerator. When you are ready to make the panisses, remove the slab from the pan and slice into narrow bars. Heat about an inch of vegetable oil in your skillet and put in the panisses. (They will be geutf8ous but should hold together if handled gently.) Turn after five minutes or so to crisp them all over. Remove from the skillet and drain briefly on paper towels.

As for the stew: you’re on your own, but if you can’t be bothered, the panisses are magnificent on their own.