Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fish fly. Sun rises in the West. Seattle reaches Espresso-Saturation

For years I've been wondering if the Northwest would ever reach its limit for espresso joints. Now it has, at least in Seattle. How do we know? Simple. Coffee shops have all been pretty similar. There are a few different styles, but they follow a pretty similar pattern. And mostly they've gotten by without the cheesier gimmicks.

That's changed. A number of caffeine dealers including Cowgirls, Natte Latte, Bikini Espresso, Best Friend and Moka Girls are offering your favorite morning drug served by scantily clad girls. It was inevitable. Eventually sex will be used to sell everything. It's significant because it offers pretty clear evidence that new shops are surviving by getting consumers to switch for something other than coffee rather than serving unsatisfied demand.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Failed Experiment

Back when I was just a tadpole my parents got me a history of the Civil War with songs. I must have played that LP to death on a kid's record player. Two of the songs were about food, a Confederate one about peanuts and a Union one, to the tune of Hard Times, called "Hardtack". I hadn't thought about it for years until the Portland Pirate Festival last Summer. There was a contingent of British Navy re-enactors complete with ship's biscuit. I'd always heard that the biscuit was full of weevils. They assured me that they had done experiments. As long as the bread stayed dry the weevils dehydrated and died.

A few months later I was messing around in the kitchen and thought "Why not?" Searching online yielded three different recipes. One was the classic ship's biscuit - white flour, water, salt, a little soda. The second was the official Union Army hardtack - whole meal flour, water, salt. The third was a Swedish military version - rye and wheat flour, buttermilk, water, honey, salt.

The marine version was a bit like an overgrown saltine. Hard, pale, crisp, bland. I can see as how it would keep forever as long as it stayed dry. Of course, that's easy to do on land, not so easy at sea in a hull full of wooden kegs. Boring, but it will keep you alive with enough grog.

The Swedish version was dark and very slightly flexible. It made a good cracker and actually had a little flavor. It probably wouldn't keep nearly as well as the other two. The extra moisture and sugars would provide a better medium for mold and insects.

Then there was the Union Army hardtack. If an army travels on its stomach we can only hope that the Yankees had steel-rimmed all-weather, deep-tread studded tires. It's not much of a food, but you could use it to shingle houses. I quite literally had to break it with a hammer and was in serious fear for my teeth. After I went through one four inch square and three expensive ceramic crowns it was transferred to the dogs' biscuit box. They seemed to like it. The stuff has a lot of salt which they don't get very often. It makes a little bit of history more comprehensible. Union troops saved their bacon grease to cook the hardtack in. It was pretty much the only way to make it edible day in, day out.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sauces again...

The last few weeks have been hard on the appliances and the kitchen. First we had to replace the furnace. Then the kitchen floor. And last Wednesday our stove, which was old enough to run for President, gave up the ghost and would have cost as much to replace as to fix. Now we're cooking with gas! With that and the cold weather I've been staying in and cooking more, which means a chance to go through a few more classic sauces courtesy of Raymond Sokolov.

So far so good. The recipes all work. I haven't managed to screw one up yet. Tiel is surprisingly open to them.

Brown Sauces Derived From Demiglace

Every over-priced restaurant serves something-something demiglace. It's not usually worth eating, especially with what they charge for it. The thing is, demiglace is the basis for dozens of sauces. It wasn't meant to be a finished sauce itself. Take a cow. Boil it down until it fits in a jar. That's a wonderful flavor and color, but it doesn't stand on its own. It's like saying serving spaghetti with plain tomato paste or passing off plain ground meat as sausage.

Sauce Bigarade There is no comparison. I've tried Duck a l'Orange in restaurants. It's usually a gelatinous and too-sweet mess. Getting the real Seville Oranges, degreasing the stock and using tapioca flour instead of cornstarch made the difference. The recipe makes about twice as much as you need. Make the recipe a few times, keep the extra and have a big dinner where you use the reserved sauce and precut duck breast instead of cooking the whole bird. This sauce is a little involved, but the citrus and vinegar cut just enough of the duck's oiliness to complement it without overpowering.

Sauce au Madere Unfortunately his recommended recipe is based around ham. Lord, why couldn't You have forbidden okra or eggplant? Goes perfectly well with braised beef. Childishly simple - just add Madeira to the demiglace.

Sauce Robert Sauce Robert may be the pork sauce, but it goes wonderfully with rib roast. He's right. The stuff they sell under the same name in the yuppified food stores isn't the same color, flavor, smell or texture. The FTC and the CIA (the other CIA) should take out a hit on the people who make it.

White Sauces Derived From Velouté

There are all sorts of sauces based on velouté. It's easier and less time-consuming that demiglace. It's also so expensive I screamed like my nadgers were caught in a vice. It uses veal which has gotten unbelievably expensive lately. This Spring I'm going out to the dairy farms near Tillamook and picking up a couple newborn bull calves. They won't have that much meat, but they are cheap, and I can make a freezer full of jus de veau and velouté and maybe a dish or two out of sweetbreads without taking out a second mortgage.

Sauce Andalouse Better than we'd expected. The flavor was just enough to go with the chicken. With a stronger meat it would be lost. The leftover went well with eggs.

Sauce Aurore The sauce was simplicity itself. Heat velouté. Add tomato paste. Swirl in butter. The recipe, Poularde a L'Aurore, was the tough part. In essence you turn the chicken into the casing for a big veal sausage by filling it with a veal forcemeat - make that a chopped beef forcemeat. The price of veal has gone from outrageous to downright unchristly. Make sure you sew the chicken up! Otherwise you will end up with your sausage filling leaking into the stewpot.

Other Sauces

Bechamel There are about a thousand ways of making Bechamel. Every single one is The One True Way™. His is easy and cheap because it doesn't include veal. It goes very well with mixed vegetables.

Hollandaise Hollandaise is supposed to be very difficult and finicky. The directions worked beautifully as advertised. It might have been a little tarter than ideal, but it's the way I like it. The way authors talk about Hollandaise you'd think it was anhydrous sodium. The slightest hint of water and boom! The souffle d'asperges worked well. Everyone says "Hollandaise" in the same breath as "Eggs Benedict". The problem with that is that no matter how careful the preparation, how delicate the sauce or how artful the presentation there's still a poached egg in the middle of it.

Mayonnaise The Hellman's and Best Foods don't make mayonnaise. They make a white goo that will last forever in the fridge. It is not the same thing at all. The real stuff isn't immortal. It tastes much better. It's almost as cheap as the ersatz mayo. It's surprisingly easy to make. Raymond Sokolov's secret is a teaspoon of Dijon mustard for each cup of oil. I can't taste the difference. You can't taste the difference. But I can tell you the difference. You don't have to fiddle over a broken, separated mayonnaise.

The Extension Agent will probably come and take away my Master Food Preserver badge for the raw eggs. And they'll probably run me out of town for trying it the way he suggests - on very thinly sliced raw beef. But man is it good.

Before we go too much further we'll have to come up with a few substitutes. Lots of recipes call for larding something, usually a bird, with bacon or fatback. Cooking parchment soaked with olive oil works well enough, but it's not quite satisfactory. The game sauces look spectacular. Finding partridge and quail and rabbit and venison trimmings will take some work. It's not like there's a deadline.

So far it's all been pretty easy and straightforward. Sauces are an almost-lost part of the art of cooking. It's a darned shame. I hope a few people will be amused enough to try them out.