Archive for the ‘Nom’ Category

The Stall

When I first started barbecuing, I bought a half dozen thermometers. I had a thermometer or two in the meat and I had them in the smoker near the meat. I had wireless thermometers, and analog ones that you could barley see from the smoke. Cooking seemed like an exact science, so I figured that I wanted as much data as possible.

Since then I’ve found that it’s easier to go by feel. I’m down to 1 thermometer now. But there really is science behind it. You’re trying to bring a mass of protein and fat up to a certain temp slowly over the course of many hours. But you notice that the meat will often hit a certain temperature and stay there for a while. Hours even. It gets frustrating. You expected this damned thing to be cooked by this point, but you’re at the same internal temp you where several hours ago.

Why does that happened? I just assumed the BBQ gods were testing your patience, but it must have bothered someone enough that he looked into. He studied it in depth. There’s even graphs. Check it out.

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For The Love Of All That Is Holy, Use The Good Paprika

September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

You don’t have a lot of disposable income. I get it. This is a recession, and even if it weren’t, if you’re reading my blog you probably aren’t rolling in hundred dollar bills.

So you’re probably living with a food budget, trying to save where you can. Maybe it’s the off-brand cheese. Maybe it’s the stack of coupons you clipped. Maybe you’re buying the dried beans instead of the cans. In fact, if your diet mostly consists of beans that’s probably a good sign that trying to keep the grocery bill down.

I understand, but there is one ingredient that I am begging you not to skimp on. Please, please, only buy the good paprika.

I realize that the cheap stuff is, in fact, really really cheap. $2 will get you something like a kilo of cheap paprika. Trust me, it’s not worth it. That stuff tastes like sawdust. It will actively make your dish worse. Do not buy the cheap paprika.

The good stuff costs more and you get less. But really, how much paprika are you using anyway? It’s not like this is a major new expense. You could start a “good paprika” fund, throwing spare change in when you clean out your pockets. By the time you run out, you’ll probably have enough. This stuff will last you months, but every time you make roasted potatoes or paprika chicken, you will thank your lucky stars that you cared enough to use an ingredient not made of pencil shavings.

The difference couldn’t be more striking. The good paprika has a rich earthy flavor and imparts an impressive burnt umber color to your food. The cheap paprika actually sucks the flavor out of your food. You might as well roll your deviled eggs around in sand and red food coloring.

Okay, you’re convinced? But you want to know what brand you should be buying? I’m sorry, I can’t help you there. You don’t need to order through some reputable online spice retailer, though that couldn’t hurt.  I can tell you that when you’re in the spice isle at your local mega mart, it’s pretty easy to tell. For instance, if it comes in a plastic container with a logo that looks like it was done in Microsoft Paint, it’s probably not the good paprika.

I’m not going to tell you how to cook, or what to cook. That’s entirely up to you. You’re the artist, and the dinner plate is your canvas. But really, don’t piss on your artwork and say your adding yellow highlights.

Categories: Nom

Fast Food America

September 25, 2011 1 comment

Is fast food really cheaper than cooking real food at home? If you do the math, it turns out… not so much.

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)

So why do we continue to eat so much of it? Mark Bittman argues “The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch”. I have trouble with that because, well, cooking is work. As someone who enjoys cooking, I can tell you it’s still work. It’s active and it’s time consuming. This is not a knock on cooking, but hey, lets be honest here. Cooking, and the clean up involved, is more of an effort that stopping at the drive through on your way home from work. This is true for all but the simplest of meals.

The important thing is to emphasize the rewards involved. Health is first and foremost. But cooking can also be a creative outlet. If you have a family, then it can be a shared effort to bring people together. And with just a little bit of practice, the food you can make at home can taste light years ahead of what you get from your local take out joint.

Fast food shouldn’t be illegal. Hardee’s don’t need to be picketed. Instead we should be investing in American food culture. We teach kids about art and music, but not about food, which to me is crazy. Cooking is just as much an art as painting and clarinet playing, and arguably more important. People should take pride in what they eat, and for the most part that means cooking yourself. Eating only fast food is like listening to only top 40 radio, but worse. At least radio doesn’t hurt your liver.

Categories: Nom, Politics

Balancing Act

August 14, 2011 1 comment

I spent this last week making some of the best pizza in New York City. I know, I know, that’s a pretty bold statement. We’re talking New York here. The official shape is “the slice”. With the possible exception of pastrami on rye, there’s no food more “New York” than pizza. Yet even with all the history, pizza is still the hottest food in town.

Everyone knows the standard New York style slice. It’s an icon, like the Empire State Building or Woody Allen’s neurosis. But lately Neapolitan pizza has been popping up all over town. These pizzerias use wood burning ovens and menus entirely in Italian. They’re a combination of the traditional and the experimental. The process dates back to the dawn of history. Cook stuff on top of bread. Yet the flavos and presentation are distinctly modern.

Getting back to the story, last week I was lucky enough to be able to train at Forcella, a new Neapolitan pizzeria in Williamsburg. The restaurant has only been around for a couple of months, but the pizzaiolo, Giulio Adriani, has been cooking this style of pizza for decades in Naples, Argentina, and Brazil. Now he is opening his own place in Brooklyn, with one more spot on the way in the Bowery.

I was glad to work with Giulio because I think he represents both sides of the new pizza. He understands tradition, not just how things were always done, but why. From there he’s not afraid to experiment, and to try to fit the local tastes.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the whole operation. From the mixing of the dough to the firing of the pizza. I rolled dough balls, made mozzarella from scratch, crushed the tomatoes and worked the oven. When you see pizza from this end, it’s not a commodity product, sliding off a conveyor belt. Each one is it’s own struggle of balance. You must time the fermentation of the dough just right. The oven must be burning at the proper temperature. The crust must achieve a harmonious mixture of doneness and char.

Essentially you are walking a fine line between perfect and destroyed. We’re talking about a matter of seconds. Not tens of seconds. Seconds. You have waiters screaming, people pushing past, pizzas lined up to be cooked, and you’re trying to make the one, two, three, or even four pies you have in the oven into a transcendent pizza experience.

Cooking a pizza like this is a lot like mixing a song. There is no precise amount of midrange that should be applied at all times, and every time you inch up the fader, you’re not making a perceptible difference. But pretty soon you tweak a couple knobs and you’ve got a cacophonous mess. The same can be said of cooking in general, but really Neapolitan pizza in particular. You can start getting so focused on minute details that you begin to lose sight of the big picture. You shoot for the perfect leopard spotting, only to miss and end up with char.

I’ve actually never worked in a professional kitchen before. I’ve done a bit of under the table catering, but I’ve never worked in an actual restaurant kitchen. To say this was a wake up call would be an understatement. Cooking for a busy dining room full of paying customers is completely different from anything I’ve ever tried before. Most people there are as interested in the social aspect of it as the food. They went with friends to have a good time. Maybe they’re trying to impress a cute hipster chick. It could be a reunion with an old bicycling club. Whatever the reason, they expect you to do your job so they don’t have to think about it. Any nagging thoughts about problems with their food are a distraction and are not what they signed up for.

Transcendence can be found just about anywhere. We live in an amazing world and it’s important to open yourself up to what you see all around you. However, trying to create this from base parts (flour, salt, water, yeast, tomatoes, cheese) is a whole other story. They say practice is the most important thing. It’s clear that what you want is to get it into your muscle memory. Thinking only exacerbates the problem. You want transcendence to feel like just a part of nature.

Update: You want photos? No problem.

Categories: Nom, Pizza

Deep, Dark

IMG 1858

After a week of mid August weather, we seem to have gone back to March, for some reason. Fine by me. It gave me a chance to go all out on tonight’s dinner.

The plan was gumbo. First we needed a roux, so I put Erin to work on that. Cajun roux’s are a different breed from the kind I grew up with. First off, I was always told that a roux should cook for about 10 minutes and have a light brown color. A cajun roux cooks for almost an hour, and turns a dark, burnt umber tone. Secondly, I was always taught that a roux was equal parts fat and flour, but the recipes I looked up had  varying amounts of flour, and the textures were probably all over the place as a result.

So we went to about a 1.5:1 flour to oil ratio and I left Erin to stir. Then I started making the chicken stock cause it’s shitty out and I’m on vacation and what the fuck else am I going to do with myself? So in go all the chicken backs and various other parts I’d been saving, along with some aromatics and herbs.

Those issues being taken care of, we just needed to figure out exactly what kind of gumbo this was going to be. Gumbo is one of those great dishes that has no canonical version. It’s a grab bag. Traditionally there’s a few different types of meat and/or seafood. This being vacation, we decided to splurge, and picked up crawfish, chicken, N’awlins style andouille sausage, and a hand full of shrimp.

I don’t really have a recipe to share, but you can get a good idea here. seemed to be the best resource for gumbo tips and techniques and recipes I could find. If you’re interested in making gumbo, look at a few recipes from this site and you’ll get the idea. Most of them have pretty much the same base, then they just add falvors in on tip of it.

The final product came out great. Tons of layers of flavor, and totally worth spending all Saturday working on it.

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Secret Ingredient Part II

Just a bit of follow up on the big BBQ from last week. After cleaning out the smoker from a winter’s neglect, and scrubbing this thing top to bottom, we were ready to go.

The first thing we did was take the meat out of the fridge early. Let it get close to room temp. If it goes in the smoker too cold, they say that you could get creosote build up. Even if this isn’t true, I still don’t think you want the outside of the meat to be cooking while the inside is iced cold. 2-3 hours at room temperature for these larger cuts should be just about right.

Then it was time to fire up the chimney. You never want to use lighter fluid to start your coals. The marriage of meat and fire is a holy union. Adding petroleum products is unnatural. It’d be like spiking your chili with kerosene. For smoking or even just for burgers, do yourself and your guests a favor and get a charcoal chimney starter like this one.

The trick is to know your smoker. You eventually get a feel for what size fire you need, and how much air to give it. Remember that more air = hotter fire = quicker your fuel is spent. Try to build a fire that will hold your temp, more or less, at medium air flow. And unless you have a major flare up, only adjust the air flow at the fire-box, and never at the chimney. You do not want smoke sitting in the main chamber of the smoker for a long time. The chimney should remain all the way open.

Once you hit a temperature between 200° and 250° F, the meat goes on and, if you’re doing a large cut like a pork shoulder or a brisket, your job for the next 12 hours or so it to try to keep it in that temperature range. Too high, and the meat will dry out. Too low and it won’t cook properly. Hygiene, hygiene.

Here’s where you can cheat. Since staying up for 12 hours before even lunch is a bit impractical, there is a shortcut you can take. Larger cuts of meat will have absorbed about all the smoke that they’re going to after about 6-7 hours. Anything beyond that point you’re basically using your smoker as a charcoal and/or wood burning oven. And if all you really need is an oven, there’s nothing stopping you from using the one in your kitchen.

Wrap your pork shoulder or brisket in tinfoil. Place in a 250° degree oven. Close off the air flow on your smoker. Set your alarm for about 12 hours from when you first put the food on. Take a nap.

When everything’s done, let the meat rest in the tinfoil for a while. At least an hour. By then it should be about cool enough to handle. Start with a couple of forks and pull that mother apart. Or chop it up with a big knife if that’s what floats your boat. Either way, you’re ready to eat.

Graduation BBQ from Chris McIntyre on Vimeo.

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Secret Ingredient

May 12, 2011 1 comment

My sister’s graduating. She’s gone through Rutgers School Of Nursing’s graduate program and, after going through more years than I can count, she is finished.

An event like this deserves a party. So it was decided to throw a BBQ for about 60 people. And her family is doing the catering. Myself included.

With that many people, it’s no sense trying to have what you might think of as a normal, post-war, North Eastern, suburban backyard cookout. You would spend hours at the grill rotating burgers. As soon as you feed one batch of people, the last has finished digesting and is getting back in line. This is not conducive to having a good time at a party.

True barbecue isn’t like that. The key to traditional ‘cue is a mountain of meat cooked with smoke at low temps until its’ falling apart tender. This is something I’ll take over burger slinging any day. When it comes to BBQ, my tastes lean towards pork shoulder with thin, vinegar based sauce. It hits all 4 taste sensations: spicy, smokey, tangy and fatty.

Even finding properly cooked pulled pork in New Jersey can be tough, so about 10 years ago I set out to try to do it myself. I started by buying some cheap contraption shaped like a barrel smoker at Home Depot. It was made of some flimsy metal and could barely fit one rack of ribs, but hey, it had an offset smoke box like the ones in the pictures, so I figured I was assured success. After some trial and error, I was able to get food that was technically edible out of that thing, but never much more.

I decided that I need to upgrade, so I bought ANOTHER ONE from Home Depot. This time it was a different brand, slightly larger, but still made of some unknown alloy, and only about an 1/8″ thickness. If the idea of BBQ is keeping a consistent low temperature, then trying to use this barrel smoker was like driving with your elbows. Your only hit the right angle by luck, and then soon the road conditions change and you’re screwed again.

Eventually I got a good quality barrel smoker. It’s 1/2 ” hand welded thick cast iron. It’s from Oklahoma Smoker Company. I would definitely recommend this company, but if you’re interested there are other companies out there that make something similar.

But lets say that you’re not as crazy as I am, and don’t want to invest in a huge rig. Water smokers are reasonably cheap and fairly useable. Even a regular Weber grill, with the coals on one side and the meat on the other would be better than some of these knock off barrel types you find at some hardware stores.

Don’t be fooled. If you’re looking to get started in BBQ, read Smoke and Spice by Bill and Cheryl Jamison. It’s a good introduction into what is traditional BBQ. It’s a great starting place, with tips on some commonly used set ups. It’ll get you pointed in the right direction. Then you can start experimenting. Come up with a style unique to your own back yard.

Update: Spelling

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