Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Holy smoke! A love affair begins...

I call it the Battle Droid. Roughly four feet tall, cylindrical, all black, and sitting on a tripod of steel legs, it looks like an ominous effect from a science-fiction movie. A pulsing red light would make it perfect.

But I am willing to be content with it as is, a canister designed for the sole purpose of smoking food. I mentioned the BD a while back; it was an amazing wedding present from our friends Tom and Carol, made even more amazing by the amount of stuff inside: smoking accessories, napkins, plates, Belgian beer, and some impressive glasses to hold it. It's a little difficult to use in an apartment, however, so I didn't inaugurate it until last weekend. I decided to hold a wine tasting as research for an article I'm working on, and figured it was the best time to stuff everyone full of yummy carcinogens. The red wine cancels it out, you see.

We held the maiden feast at our friend Tim and Mitch's house, which has a yard, an important consideration when one is generating large billows of aromatic smoke. I decided to do two chickens and a few sausages, violating at least two of the rules on the BBQ FAQ: just do one thing at a time until you get the feel for it, and don't invite people over til you're comfortable.

But all was well despite my flagrant disregard for the rules. Tom came over earlier than everyone else to help out: he's been smoking stuff for a while, though not with an electric smoker, so he was curious to see how it worked. Quite nicely, as it turns out. The chickens were extremely juicy, even without brining (a large pan of water sits in the smoker and generates a fair amount of ambient moisture), though the smokiness I expected was pretty mild. Not so the sausages, which smelled like some sort of amazing campfire cookout.

I made a few other things to go along with the meat, though I was pretty disorganized about it all so the food came out okay but not spectacularly. A roasted vegetable medley and a rice-lentil salad (Tom added small diced carrots which added a nice color and taste, and the rice was perfumed with cinnamon and anise) for the vegetarians. A variety of cheeses, and a fruit salad with the now-famous lime-ginger gastrique dressing, again brought to eye-crossing levels of kick.

As for the wines, you all will have to wait until the article hits the streets.

But of course now I'm thinking of all sorts of things to smoke. Art Culinaire has a recipe for cedar-smoked pork chops in the latest issue. I'm hoping to figure out what I need to do to get smoked sausage (the kind that keeps for a good long while). Tom tempted me with thoughts of home-made bacon, which he says is vastly superior to anything one can buy. And Thanksgiving is coming up; it's a safe bet one of my turkeys will be smoked. Sadly, the BD lives at Tim and Mitch's house until we get a place of our own, or at least a balcony. Not that they're too upset by this; they're more than happy to have us come down and smoke some food they can enjoy.

Friday, August 22, 2003

An Obsession with my Wife

This post isn't about food. Or wine. It is about my wife and the launch of her website for her business, Melissa Nicole Design. Check it out; she's very talented and has done some really neat stuff. Coming soon: Holy Smoke! The Inauguration of our Smoker

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Cooking by Hand

So many cookbooks today cater to our hectic lives and offer meals which can be assembled in short periods of time. Or they offer glittering photos of dishes beyond the reach of most home chefs, food porn which is meant to impress rather than satisfy (I say this despite my love for cookbooks of the latter ilk).

Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand, due out in mid-August, falls into neither camp. The introduction is titled "Cooking is Trouble" and in it he puts forth the theme which carries through the book: to make good food takes time. Period. Of course, many recipes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The French Laundry Cookbook take time as well. But Bertolli, whose restaurant Oliveto's is a destination restaurant in Oakland, isn't necessarily talking about the time it takes to brunoise a carrot. Instead, it's the time it takes to appreciate your ingredient. To really understand what needs to be done with it. Or to wait for your ingredient to be at its prime.

Bertolli's goal, it seems to me, is to give the reader the inclination to take this time him or herself. And he succeeds at this, though I don't think many readers will cure their own prosciutto, despite the detailed instructions. Reading his essay on capturing the perfect moment of a pear's ripeness, or his various sample menus, designed to enhance and contrast particular aspects of the various courses makes one realize that even for those of us with an obsession for food, it is too easy to not think about these things, to instead rush through the preparation, to our own detriment. Even a topic as seemingly trite as pasta is given new light as Bertolli offers up several pages about different kinds of flours one can use, and what characteristics they give to the pasta and what kinds of sauces work best with the final product. The section which will probably get the most attention, however, aside from the chapter on curing various kinds of meats, is the long treatise on tomatoes. "Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes" gave me very pleasant dreams as I read it just before bed. None of the items are particulary surprising (unless you've never had tomato sorbet), but the section is so thorough that you'll be flush with ideas the next time you're at the farmer's market.

The book does falter at points. I was looking forward to the section on food and wine, imagining another deeply considered essay that would offer a new perspective on this always fascinating topic. Instead I got an imagined conversation between an anthropomorphized bottle of wine and plate of food which is almost embarassing in its silliness. And non-sentimentalists will find his letter to his son about the acetaia Bertolli started to make his own traditional balsamic vinegar to be sappy. Sentimental types will find it sappy, too, but we won't mind it as much.

Nonetheless, this is a book which belongs on every serious food appreciater's shelf. I say food appreciater because I don't think of this book as a cookbook, despite its recipes. It is a reminder to all of us to stop and think about what we are eating. To really appreciate how good food happens, even from the very beginning of its life. True enjoyment can only come from true appreciation, and the effort is worth it. No matter how much trouble.