Saturday, November 30, 2002

Talking Turkey

It came out of the oven with a skin so beautiful, so lusciously red and crisp that it seemed a shame to carve it. When I did, the skin crackled perfectly. And its beauty was not skin deep. As the knife slid through the meat, the moisture in the breast glistened succulently. This was our Thanksgiving turkey, a Bourbon Red from Oklahoma.

The breast of the Bourbon Red as it emerged from the oven.
"A what?" That was my neighbor's response when I told him that the large box from FedEx held a Bourbon Red turkey. Either that, or an American Bronze, a Jersey Buff, or a Narragansett. I ordered it in February, listing my preferences for the breed of bird I wanted, and did not yet know which I had gotten. Surprised, my neighbor said he didn't know there were so many different kinds of turkey.

A year ago, neither did I.

But that all changed when I read an article by Marian Burros at the New York Times. From the article, I learned that the turkey most Americans eat at Thanksgiving is a Broad Breasted White, a turkey that has been aggressively bred for its abundance of breast meat. But this giant breast, which satisfied white-meat-loving Americans, came at a price. A Broad Breasted White can not fly. It can not mate. It is stupid. And according to most people, it tastes horrible.

But the breeds it sprung from, they are a different thing altogether. They can and do fly. They are smart. They are astonishingly delicious. And they are virtually extinct.

Where do you get such an amazing bird? A year ago, the answer was that you didn't. Listed as either critical (less than 1000 breeding birds) or rare (less than 500 breeding birds), depending on the breed, only friends of turkey farmers even knew they existed.

But Slow Food U.S.A. came up with a brilliant plan. No one raised these breeds because there was no market. So Slow Food would create a market. From scratch. They convinced the farmers to take a risk, to breed more of the birds than they otherwise would. Information was sent to the organization's 10,000 U.S. members, and various newspapers began to pick up the story, starting impressively with the New York Times article I read.

And, remarkably, it worked. All the breeds are now "merely" critical (not all the turkeys raised were slaughtered; the market has proven itself and so some were kept to breed next year's lot), and at the current rate, they may be off the endangered list altogether next year. The breeds and the program have gotten worldwide publicity, and consumers are now aware that something better than the Broad Breasted White exists.

But not surprisingly for such a large effort in its first year, there were some hiccups. I learned this when I got my turkey and discovered that it was not an 18-pounder as I had been told, but weighed in at 13.5. Evidently, there had been a higher attrition rate than anticipated, and while everyone who ordered one got a bird, some of them were definitely smaller. This wouldn't have been a problem, except that I had 18 people sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, all of whom were eagerly anticipating this unusual bird.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Melissa and I quickly concocted a scheme. I bought a turkey breast from a free-range Broad Breasted White, and decided to cut it in half and prepare it two different ways. Half I roasted as is, and half I first brined, a common and to my mind highly effective technique for making the modern turkey palatable. The heritage bird I roasted as is, letting it stand on its own. This ensured enough turkey meat for everyone and gave everyone a way to compare the different breeds.

Even before it got cooked, it was obvious this was not a normal turkey. Its legs, which I removed and braised separately, were a deep vibrant red throughout, the color of healthy muscles, well used by their owner. (Next year, I think I'll try roasting the bird whole, just because it comes out so nicely).

The heritage turkey as it emerged from its box, svelte and healthy. The split breast from a Broad Breasted White, plump with breast meat.
And once it came out, a paragon of turkeydom, how did it taste? Among our dinner guests, opinions were mixed. Some explicitly preferred one, some liked all of them equally. But the closest race was between the brined Broad Breasted White and the heritage bird. I was astonished that any unbrined poultry could compete with a brined version. It is definitely gamier, more evidence of its life before our dinner table, and there is, not surprisingly, a higher ratio of dark meat to white. While we didn't have the dark meat from the Broad Breasted White, the heritage bird's dark meat was universally pronounced delicious.

Will I do it again? Probably. The heritage turkeys are more expensive than their industrialized kin, so if you are merely evaluating the turkey meat, it might not be worth it to you. Just brine your Broad Breasted White. But I'm a firm believer in supporting small producers and maintaining biodiversity, and so I'm willing to pay a little bit more. As for the hassle of getting a smaller bird than anticipated, Patrick Martins, the head of Slow Food U.S.A., says that they learned a lot of lessons this year, and will undoubtedly do some things differently to try and get more consistency. Or at least to give consumers more warning. But the program is still in its infancy, so I might figure a bit more turkey per guest to have some cushion.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Where do you find Marshall's Honey

When sending out a link to my write-up of our tour to Marshall's Honey, I realized I forgot the most important thing: where to buy these honeys. In addition to buying directly from their web site (which they say has shopping capability as of two weeks ago), they can be found at a number of local farmer's markets. They even provide a list. Convenient, eh?

And keep a sharp eye out when you're enjoying a nice restaurant. They sell directly to a number of Bay Area restaurants.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Honey, Honey

Is there anyone who doesn't like honey? Not that I've ever found, but there are people who absolutely love it. After telling some of our friends we were going to Marshall's Honey Farm up in American Canyon near Napa, we suddenly had a good-sized list of people who wanted us to pick up some. Given the comments in our group, members of the B.A.C.C.H.U.S. Slow Food convivium based in Berkeley, we were not the only ones with such a list.

And while picking up some honey is easy to do, picking out the honey is much harder. Marshall's maintains hives all over the Bay Area, and the farm produces a huge variety of honeys from the different hives. Some of their honeys are blends, such as Saints & Sinners, which is a blend from hives at the Dominican College in San Rafael and San Quentin, the famous prison near Larkspur and San Rafael. Some are "pure" samples such as Jailbreak, which is made exclusively from the San Quentin hives. Some are more general blends, such as Contra Costa Wildflower, and some are from specific flowers, such as their Pumpkin Blossom Honey. When they selected some for a tasting, we had about twenty honeys to try, and there were plenty which didn't get pulled out.

The overwhelming number of varieties is a byproduct of the farm's artisanal nature. Virtually everything is done by hand, the only machines I saw being a device for removing the wax caps from the cells of the honeycomb and a centrifuge for efficiently extracting the honey, and so the farmers have more opportunities to experiment with different blends. Or to modify blends based on the characteristics of the component honeys.

Doing everything by hand might seem laborious, but most of the work in honey farming is done by the bees. And boy do they work. We learned that a healthy hive makes approximately 100 pounds of extra honey a year. And that's only 10% of the total amount of honey produced by the hive; the other 900 pounds is consumed by the bees. We further learned that an average worker bee only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon in her 4-6 week lifespan. Getting from 1/12 of a teaspoon to 1000 pounds involves some pretty mindboggling numbers. Once the honey is made, the honey farmer removes the honeycomb from the hive and extracts the honey. No additional processing is required.

Once we left the "honey house" where the honey is extracted and put into jars, it was time to try some of the different honeys. They conducted the tasting in their little store, which sells various honey-related items as well as beeswax candles, made on the farm from the beeswax left in the honeycombs after the honey is extracted. This is part of the farm's overall ethic to waste as little as possible. Even the honey which isn't extracted from the honeycombs is dealt with by leaving it out for the bees actually on the property to reprocess.

One interesting item we learned is that if you suffer from allergies caused by pollen, you can alleviate them by taking a small amount of locally produced honey, since it's made with the same local flowers which are causing your distress. Certainly the theory sounds good, but one could also argue that after a couple of weeks, the flowers might have stopped releasing pollen anyway. Certainly there are less pleasant homeopathic remedies, however!

Here are my tasting notes, which incorporate some of Melissa's comments as well. When you have twenty or so honeys to try, it's astonishing how different each one is, much like wine tastings. I should note that all the honey was delicious, but some stood out more than others.

  • Big Valley Wildflower - good, but not spectacular
  • Star Thistle - this was Melissa's favorite, an opinion shared by some other people in our group as well. It was a close second for me; I preferred the CIA honey (see below). But it's a knockout honey and we left with a big jar for ourselves and small jars for our friends.
  • Orange blossom - obviously floral, but I found it somehow too sweet, though obviously that doesn't make much sense when talking about honey. Hard to pinpoint, but it came across as more cloying than I like.
  • California Wildflower - this was good, but its most notable feature was how thick it was; we really had to work to get any out of the bottle.
  • Honey, I'm Home - this is the honey made by the bees on the Marshall's Farm property. As I mention above, these bees not only service the local wildflowers but the excess honey on the honeycombs, and perhaps because of this I found this honey to have a nice level of complexity. A lot of flavors going on, with none really jumping to the forefront.
  • Honey So Fresh - "the bees don't even know it's gone" is the way they complete the title. This is honey harvested just in the last week. I found nice herbal notes and a little menthol taste as well.
  • Jailbreak - from the hives at San Quentin. The most obvious aspect of this honey was not in its taste but its texture; it was very gritty. Perhaps the honey had merely begun to crystallize (which, we learned, is easy to deal with; just remove the lid and partially submerge the jar in a hot-water bath -- 110 degrees-- until the crystallization goes away). Certainly Saints & Sinners didn't have this problem, and it incorporates this honey.
  • CIA - this is taken from the hives in the Culinary Institute of America's herb garden. It was my favorite, slightly edging out the star thistle, with a nice level of complexity and nice herbal notes. We also left with a jar of this for ourselves.
  • Eucalicious - made from honey produced from eucalyptus flowers, the menthol flavor characteristic of the plant jumped right out at me, though Melissa found it more subtle.
  • Saints & Sinners - made from the hives at San Quentin and at the Dominican College. This was quite good, with a nice combination of flavors
  • Pumpkin Blossom - one of their most expensive honeys, this honey had a very pronounced floral flavor, and was delicious.
  • Buzzerkeley - made from hives around Berkeley, my tasting notes merely say "good"
  • Manzanita - my comments from Melissa on this honey mention a noticeable tang
  • Wild West Wildflower - this was good, with an interesting complexity. It was the darkest of the lot (we proceeded from lightest to darkest, which is just an artifact of the flowers that went into the honey)

Friday, November 22, 2002

Wine Bits

The new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is out. Here's Wine Spectator's coverage. This is a big event every year, though one suspects it has more to do with the marketing abilities rather than the wine. Don't get me wrong, Beaujolais is a very nice wine, very drinkable. It's just not spectacular or complex.

Wine Spectator also has an article about pairing wine with Thanksgiving dinner. It's fairly interesting, but demonstrates that there's no one answer to the question. Bon Appetit had a similar article, which came to the same basic conclusion: provide a bunch of different wines to accomodate a range of tastes. We're having a wide range, champagne, a variety of French reds and whites, and a Riesling, at the very least. So we should be covered.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Jeffrey Steingarten

Last night Melissa and I went to hear Jeffrey Steingarten speak at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. Jeffrey Steingarten is the food columnist for Vogue magazine, and his last compilation of articles The Man Who Ate Everything should be required reading for, well, everyone. Steingarten is obsessed with all things related to food. And he's thorough when researching a topic. Rather than reading the press's interpretation of a medical report, he reads the source material itself.

His newest compilation is titled It Must've Been Something I Ate and he continues his trend. He debunks most of the food issues people are so concerned about. Think you have a food allergy? You probably don't (only 1% of people do, and when they do, it is highly dangerous). Think you're lactose intolerant? You're probably not, and even if you are, you can easily eat cheese and drink up to a quart of milk before having problems, and if you drink a little milk each day, you can in all but the most unusual cases build up the lactase which breaks down the lactose. He is very dismissive of the "fatty food causes heart problems" view of the world, citing significant evidence that this is all hogwash. And he is very hard on the FDA's ban on raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days.

But it's not just about scouring the field of medical research for the truth about food issues. The first article in the book sees him fishing for bluefin tuna so that he can eat toro, o-toro as freshly as possible. He decides to start cooking for his dog, realizing that dry dog food is only about 100 years old, and only in common use for the last 50 years or so.

And he does it all with tremendous wit. Here is my favorite passage so far in the book (just since last night, I've read through a significant amount of it). He is contesting a definition in a medical paper that gourmandism is about lack of impulse control (he is also unabashedly immodest).

We passionate eaters elevate, we ennoble the bestial impulse to feed into a sublime activity, into an art, the art of eating. And some of us create what might even be called literature whle we're at it. We transmute what animals do into what the angels would do if angels ate food, which I don't think they do, at least not in their official capacity. This is what Freud called sublimation, the highest form of impulse control. Yes, Doctor, I plead guilty to an obsession with beauty, edible or otherwise. I am guilty as charged!
And, once we have turned eating into an art, and we see that it is good, then we practice this art as often as possible. And if, on occasion, an observer sees what appears to be nothing nobler than me wrestling with the wrapper on a giant package of miniature Fun Size MIlky Way bars, this too is the art of eating. For isn't art nothing more nor less than whatever an artist does?

I was in tears reading this to Melissa, I was laughing so hard. And there are numerous phrases, passages, or observations that had me chuckling out loud on the BART ride home and reading it in bed later that night. Even having read through somewhere around a fourth, I highly recommend it to anyone who eats.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Upcoming Food Events at Cody's

Here are some upcoming food book events at Cody's Books. Some big names coming, so here's your chance to ask questions of some of America's most influential chefs:

Friday, November 22
ERIC RIPERT describes A RETURN TO COOKING: The Chef, the Cook, and the Artist. Eric Ripert took time off from his managerial duties at New York's Le Bernardin to do what he loves most--cook. He visited four different locales and cooked only with local ingredients, away from the restaurant kitchens where he has thrived. With him, a painter, two photographers, co-author Michael Ruhlman and another chef.  A Return to Cooking touches on art, life, food, and how they all connect,  producing a book that is part cookbook, part art exhibit and part manifesto. Ripert is chef and part owner of Le Bernardin, awarded four stars by The New York Times and rated best restaurant in New York by ZagatSurvey. Michael Ruhlman, Ripert’s co-author, is the author of the IACP award-winning best-seller The Soul of a Chef as well as The Making of a Chef. Their book is a must for the serious cook. 7 PM at Fourth Street

Saturday, November 23
MOLLIE KATZEN opens SUNLIGHT CAFÉ Breakfast is back! Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café offers tasty, protein-rich, meatless breakfasts to boost your energy level and get you going first thing in the morning  or any time of day. Mollie provides simple, mouth-watering, healthful recipes and menus for every day of the week, whether you are preparing a sit-down brunch for ten, breakfast-on-the-go for kids running late, a light bite after a late night, or a luxurious breakfast in bed. Illustrated throughout with Mollie’s luminous paintings, Sunlight Café ranges from the familiar Winter Frittata with Red Onions, Red Potatoes, and Goat Cheese, to the favorite Gingerbread Pancakes, to the surprising Basmati Almond Muffins, and on to irresistible Crispy Southwest Polenta Hash. And then there are Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Protein bars… 11 AM at Fourth Street

Monday, November 18, 2002

Genetically Modified Corn. No, wait. Soybeans. Maybe it was corn?

A company doing some research has accidentally contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans with an experimental corn's genes. Here's the article.

I surprisingly don't have a problem with genetically modified foods in the abstract. It's just that they are often hurried into production with not enough testing or long-term studies, or isolation from native species. This has more to do with campaign financing and Monsanto's business practices than anything inherently wrong with genetic food manipulation.

Sourdough. Not just for dinner anymore.

In addition to all the bread recipes in Breads from the La Brea Bakery, there's a bunch of "extras" which use the starter. My favorite is for the dog biscuit, if only for the description, in which she says that since it's made from all human-grade ingredients, they also serve as teething cookies. Not a use I would have thought of (granted I don't have kids), and one wonders how that discovery came about. A teething baby, a jar of homemade dog biscuits, and history was made.

Anyway, she also lists a recipe for sourdough waffles, and I decided to make them. This was partly because they sounded good, and partly because Melissa expressed surprise recently that I had a waffle iron. Clearly I haven't made them too often in the last five years. The batter sits out overnight to ferment, which is great because all you have to do the next morning is add some eggs and baking soda and you're off. It makes delicious waffles, too. The recipe was designed for a regular waffle iron, and I've got a Belgian waffle iron, so they didn't get quite as crisp as she implies. But with some apple compote on top, and some warm honey drizzled over? Yeah, I'd make those again.

I'm also eager to try her pancake recipe. I figure the more use I get out of the starter, the better. I've since reduce the amount I'm keeping each day by half, just to minimize the waste. Cooking more things with it also helps, since then I at least get food out of it.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Judy Rodgers

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Judy Rodgers at Cody's Books. Ms. Rodgers is the chef and co-owner of Zuni Cafe, one of San Francisco's best and most beloved restaurants. She was doing the local circuit, at least, for her new book, not surprisingly called The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

I hadn't intended to buy this book, though I might have been more inclined if I had a steady income. But Judy Rodgers, it turns out, has a philosophy very close to mine. Indeed, when she said that at one point she had a wooden sign over her office door which said, "Stop. Think. There must be a harder way," I liked it so much that it's now my .sig in my e-mail. Of course she only uses the freshest ingredients; she and every other chef in a halfway reputable restaurant in San Francisco. But they really take the time to go over all the steps, and her book reflects that. It's tremendously unorthodox, essentially a book of essays with recipes mixed in. She goes into great detail on how and why she does various things, including one of the best breakdowns on making duck confit I've ever seen. The book is cross-referenced up the wazoo, but it shows how the various preparations can intermingle in various ways. And most of the recipes/techniques are straightforward, just time-consuming.

And so I did something I probably shouldn't have. I bought the book. Not that I regret it, but having a tight budget is a severely limiting factor in one's life. But I've been reading through it and enjoying it tremendously. Definitely something for the cooking foodie to at least look through.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Nancy Silverton Speaks

Those who have been following my starter saga will know that I was using Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery as my guide. While shopping one day, Melissa noticed that she was going to be speaking at a local bookstore, pushing her new book, Sandwiches from the La Brea Bakery. I guess once you've got all that bread lying around...

I have to say I didn't think I'd be interested in that particular book, though I definitely wanted to hear her speak and ask her questions about my starter. But when we got there and flipped through the book, it turns out she's got a lot of really nice flavor combinations, enough to really make one think a bit differently about things. I didn't buy the book, for obvious budgetary reasons, but I will be putting it on my Christmas list. So check it out next time you're in a bookstore.

I asked her one of my questions about the starter. In particular, if I wanted to use it in some recipe that wasn't in her book, what should I do. Her advice was basically to make the other dough, and see what it's like in terms of hydration and feel. Then use the starter to try and match that, and work from there. It sounds plausible, but I haven't really had a chance to play with it yet.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

News bits

Cod fisheries are on the verge of extinction, and the EU is trying to do something about it. The first suggestion was shutting down fishing altogether, but pressure from a variety of groups has led to some compromises.

Here's the article.

A New York judge has ruled that the state's ban on interstate wine shipping is unconstitutional. This is a big issue around the country, as consumers are prevented from getting many smaller wines unless a local store carries it. Since this benefits the distributors, they are working hard to keep these laws in place. But it hurts both the consumer and the winery, so people are fighting to get the laws changed. The full article

Monday, November 11, 2002

Wine & Chocolate

Wine Spectator posted a web version of an article that appeared a few issues back about pairing wine with chocolate. I found it a pretty interesting feature overall, and the article has links to more in-depth descriptions of the various types of dessert wines which they found worked well.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

The Biography of a Starter: The Proof is in the Pudding

With my starter now alive and well, I've gone ahead and made two loaves of bread with it on two different days.

It is clearly sourdough bread, though the characteristic flavor is more subtle in mine than I'm used to. If memory serves, however, this is partially related to the starter's age, so clearly a 1-day-old starter and a 100-day starter are going to produce different breads.

Beyond that, it is hard to tell how many of the characteristics of the bread come from the technique she describes for making it and how many come from the fact that it's a naturally leavened bread. For instance, I don't get a whole lot of oven rise (the final rise which happens as the dough cooks), which might be because the natural yeast are not as strong as commercial yeast (which are designed for high-rise doughs), or might be because I'm not kneading it enough (which produces nets of gluten that expand as the yeast pump out their CO2).

So the question comes down to: is it worth it? Maintaining the starter is a lot of work, with a lot of waste, but this can be alleviated by keeping less starter active and by keeping the starter in the refrigerator until a couple days before you're ready to use it (at which point it needs to be fed on its regular schedule until baking day). These are both tactics I will probably use soon, but in the interim I'm making different breads from the book to see how they are.

And this brings up another point about this whole process. Once you've got your starter made according to Silverton's instructions, you're sort of stuck with her recipes. Delicious as they are, they don't give you a lot of guidance for adapting recipes with commercial yeast to ones with the starter. For instance, last night I made pizza dough, but I had to use commercial yeast because I couldn't find a recipe for pizza dough in her book, and I don't know what I should do differently. Maybe it's in some sidebar somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Wine and Cheese

So I've been advocating white wine with most cheeses for a little while now, which goes against the normally accepted pairings. Melissa and I tried this after I saw a couple of good sources argue for it, and we've been pretty happy with our experiments. But for years the opinion was "red wine & cheese." So were all these people wrong? No, it's just that the wine has changed.

Wine Spectator's web site has an article about this, which was printed a couple issues ago in the magazine. It's an editorial piece, not reporting, so just keep that in mind.

Mexican Wine

I just noticed this article about wine producers in Mexico. The article suggests that quality wine is being made in Mexico. It might seem odd to be growing grapes that close to the equator, but I'd be interested in trying some. I just find it annoying that one Mexican winemaker (granted just arrived from Bordeaux) calls his label Chateau Camou. Clearly a marketing ploy.

Here's the article

Monday, November 04, 2002

Poilane Dies

A friend of mine sent me this link. Lionel Poilane, the world-famous baker, died in a helicopter crash. You can essentially thank Poilane for resurrecting artisanal bread in Paris, which in turn led to a resurgence in artisanal bread around the world, including here in the Bay Area. Acme, Grace and others can trace their lineage right back to Poilane.

Friday, November 01, 2002

A Day Too Late

I just noticed the following article at Wine Spectator's web site: pairing wine and Halloween candy. It's actually a pretty interesting article, since it reveals a lot about what the wine press looks for in the ever-elusive perfect food and wine pairing.

Biography of a Starter (day 10)

Today began my starter's regular feeding. Nancy Silverton's "recipe" in Breads from the La Brea Bakery really wants you to be feeding the thing thrice daily. While not a problem for me to do at the moment, I've adjusted things and put mine on a twice daily feeding, in anticipation of having a full-time job again.

Her feedings go through a lot of bread flour. I think I'll have to buy some in bulk to properly maintain it. And I guess herein lies my only problem with the book so far. It's not really a problem per se, it's just that Silverton is imagining the home chef as full-time baker. So she tells us what really works well for good bread, and that's incredible. However, cooking is something I do on the side, so I don't have access to lots of free time (well, normally, anyway) or large quantities of bread flour. I buy my flour at the supermarket in 5-lb. bags, not giant sacks from a distributor. Perhaps I will scout out Berkeley Bowl and see how its price compares in bulk. It won't be the same flour (I'm using King Arthur unbleached bread flour), but it'll probably be a lot cheaper.

Anyway, I finally got to remove the grapes from the starter. That's right, those grapes I put in on day 1 were still in there, submerged in a primeval goop of flour and water. Then you pour off all but 1 lb. 2 oz. (which is to say I measured that out first and discarded the rest). It seems like a lot of waste, but Silverton's reasoning is that it's easier to get fermentation going with a larger amount of flour and water. Okay, I'm willing to buy that.

The feeding schedule (my schedule, anyway) looks like this:
8:30am. Pour off all but 1 lb. 2 oz. of the starter. Add 12 oz. flour and 1 cup and some change of water at 78 degrees. Stir well.
8:30pm Add 24 oz. flour, 2 cups of water at 78 degrees, stir well to combine.
Repeat, as Silverton says, for the rest of your baking life.
Wednesday (well, actually Thursday because it's a two-day process) is bread day!